Even in its heyday, you never knew which Phish you were going to get; the potential for greatness has always been tempered by the risk. Deer Creek was my first show since 2004, and although I already knew the band had been steadily gaining momentum and confidence on this tour, it was impossible to completely erase the memories of sloppiness and predictability from ostensibly the last tour ever, when the band was about as faithful as a slot machine. At the same time, the mere prospect of seeing Phish playing Phish songs again, finally, had me giddy as hell. When the four icons walked onstage, the smile on Trey’s face was identical to my own.
One of the biggest thrills of the inaugural Rothbury festival was Trey on acoustic guitar, playing a brand new song called “Backwards Down The Number Line” with Mike, knowing damn well it was going to be a Phish song. It was an inauspicious opener here, with a circa ’99 “Heavy Things”-style solo from Trey, but with every note, it got easier to believe that I was actually at a Phish show. The crowd was less than ecstatic, but all I could think was how Trey had no such sense of improvisational melody in all of ’04. It will take time for the new tunes to work their way into the lexicon, but it’ll never happen if they don’t keep playing ‘em. You always want that meaningful opener that signifies something crazy about to happen, but in the end it’s rarely the opener that makes the show.
Sometimes it’s “AC/DC Bag”, though, but not tonight. This was garden variety, and the jam was pretty scripted and short, but certainly crisp. Page was pretty hard to hear, though, which continued to be a problem for much of the night. It only fuels the fire for people who bitch about Trey’s dominance when he’s so overpowering in the mix, but it’s hard to take your ears off a guy who’s so obviously in love with his guitar and his songs again. He wasn’t on fire, but he was picking all the right notes. Still, after fairly rote versions of “Limb By Limb,” “The Moma Dance” and “Water In The Sky” (back to the non-country version again), it was clear that we were in for a just-play-lots-of-songs first set. I couldn’t complain; I was just happy to be here.
Then I got what was coming to me for daring to think that I could predict what we were in for. Post-hiatus versions of “Split Open And Melt” have been largely exercises in drudgery; horribly sloppy at worst, directionless at best, yet the band sort of painted itself into that corner with the slow, grinding “Melt”s of the mid-90’s that blew everyone’s minds. And tonight, for the first time in ages, the band approached the dense, angular evil of those classic “Melt”s. This was not just Trey soloing; it was Trey laying down crushing grooves for everybody to play with, and while Page and Mike were still too buried in the mix, they all lurched along together. The ending could have used a bit more kick, but after a heartbreaking jam like that, I couldn’t complain; I’d been waiting well over a decade to hear another “Melt” the way it was meant to be.
It was during “The Wedge” that the first incongruous cheers erupted from the crowd as lightning crackled in the distance, and there wasn’t honestly a lot to get excited about musically for a good stretch; competent and safe, a solid run through “Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan” that felt pretty much like a Trey solo song (or, as he was introduced tonight, “Sweetie Pie”), and the debut of “The Connection”, which I suddenly realized sounds an awful lot like “Number Line”. The thing that stood out the most was that after a relatively timid tour so far, it seemed that Fish was really stretching out tonight, confident to just do whatever came into his head instead of just playing it straight. But then, after a perfunctory “Ocelot”, came “Fluffhead” in all its glory. Page would be denied no more; he pounded the keys furiously, and we were all the beneficiaries of the rehearsal time that obviously went into the official breakup-is-over clarion call. This was a set closer that screamed GOOD OMEN.
Ten minutes into set break, Page came out to warn us of the coming storm. Fans on the lawn were asked to return to our vehicles, but that wasn’t really an option for the multitudes camping a mile or more away; we huddled near the reserved section and rode out what ended up being a windy, sporadic downpour, waiting for the band’s promised return at 11:00. The excitement in the air was palpable; this group has been known to deliver the goods to its faithful, rain-soaked followers. You might suspect plenty of people to call it a night at any other show, but right on time, the clouds dried up, the lawn filled back up completely, and the band emerged with “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing".
I had felt a lot of potential from the Knoxville performance of this tune, and it was formidable tonight, dark and stormy, definitely one of the most promising survivors from the 2.0 era. It never reached any shocking peaks, but it was meant more as a whetting of the appetite. When its roar died down and surrendered to “Drowned", the energy level of 24,000-odd humans exploded, and we were all transported to a scorching rock and roll show, and continuing the watery theme to our delight. It was breakneck from the first piano chord, but the monster that developed out of the song proper was everything, everything I’d been hoping for; the organic development of distinct themes, wave after wave of intensity, Trey and Page in a frenzy, a downright adventure. I can confidently say it was the best jam I’d been witness to in at least nine years. I went to post-hiatus shows hoping for just one peak of this magnitude; maybe I’m just forgetful, but I can’t recall one.
“Drowned” finally bled into “Twist", which turned out to be the best jam I’d heard in at least ten minutes. Trey and Page got into this incredible high-pitched staccato duel, and nobody lost the beat; it went around the world without ever quite not being “Twist”. It swirled, crested and broke, delving into the murk but never getting lost, returning slyly in the end, absolutely brilliant.
After a succinct and beautiful “Let Me Lie”, “Tweezer” burst to life. I thought to myself, the way they’re playing tonight, I’m sure this will totally suck. They took their time, they listened to each other, and Trey’s guitar howled mournfully into the humid Indiana evening. No idea was abandoned, and even the shitty ones morphed quickly into something amazing. I’ve rarely seen Phish as creative as this, period.
What are you looking for when you see Phish? I’m looking for funky and eerie. “Tweezer”, in every aspect, is both of these things, and it evokes such excitement with one perfect guitar riff, the essence and the anticipation. This version delivered in its entirety, and finally gasped its last as Fish drilled the opening to “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. This was no filler version; they actually jammed out the beginning, à la not since the days before every jamband on earth was taking hiatuses. None of that cringe-inducing inability by Trey to nail and hold his notes. Absolute mathematical auditory bliss, climaxing and then dissolving into a short blast of amorphous Phish-being-Phish dissonant madness. And then “Suzy”! Page has been balls-out this whole set, but he made everyone else look stock-still for this rocker; he could’ve been alone on that stage and and the crowd would’ve been pogoing.
Naturally, I ought to listen to the tapes at this point, listen for some nuance to elucidate, but the truth is that I was beyond the capacity for taking notes by the time the boys played “Possum”. They actually took this one aaaaallll the way down (okay, not quite a silent jam), and Trey just led a slow and deliberate charge down the road, making good on the promise of the Asheville performance but not needing to hit us over the head with it, just bathing in this newly-rediscovered confidence and imagination. The tradition of ending the set, then ending it again, persists in coaxing out the happiness in audiences: you hear “Suzy”, you just figure it’s over; you hear “Possum” next, and you hope it might go on forever…
Alas no, the set ended; it only remained to wait on tenterhooks for the “Reprise”. What we got first was what I assumed at my very first Phish show was some goofy improv with a left-field Beatles tease: “Sleeping Monkey”. Fish was in fine voice, and suddenly, nothing in the world could have felt more natural; did we really just go through four years (at least eight, really) without this band? No…why on Earth would this band stop playing? The monkey may have met an unhappy end, but the Phish is REVIVED.
They tore into “Tweeprise”, Trey grinning gleefully and jumping up and down like he’d just discovered his lost puppy. This thing achieved liftoff. It is no longer just a tacked-on afterthought; as witnessed in Camden two weeks prior, this song is now a full-fledged anthem in its own right, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard a performance of it that equaled this one. Trey didn’t want to leave the stage; on the final beat, the classic AC/DC ending, a giant web of lightning exploded over the pavilion, and Trey began bludgeoning the theramin (um, but without touching it); I could’ve stood there for an hour of undiluted noise, but all too soon it was over. Within seconds of the four men walking offstage, a torrential downpour began, drenching us as we walked back to the Timber Ho campground (note: don’t bother making reservations at Dead Creek. They know how to TAKE ‘em, but apparently, not how to HOLD ‘em.).
Phish lore is full of legendary shows involving storms; as the rain began to pelt us during setbreak, we all felt that history enveloping us, catching us up in its spray, inviting us to become a part of it. You can’t fabricate momentum like that, you can’t hear it on a tape, you can’t really even describe it in words, but there is no denying that at Deer Creek, Phish burst out of the timid musical confines that enclosed it and showed us what 3.0 has in store. Once again, anything can happen.