After a short night’s sleep, we got up like troopers at the crack of dawn and got on the road to Ohio, destination: First Annual BTB Fest. Our host (BTB, natch) invited a bunch of strangers onto his property solely based on our affiliation with the internet community that has arisen at Mr. Miner’s Phishthoughts website. With so much driving time between shows, the nature of tour doesn’t allow for nearly as much relaxation and commiseration as one would like--but of course, that’s not a complaint. Got to put quite a few names to handles to faces, but could’ve stood for a lot more conversation with all these nice folks. I suppose we’ll have plenty of time for that over the course of all remaining Phishtory. But the hugest heartfelt thanks to BTB for not only hosting us but shuttling us to and from the venue; couldn’t have hoped for any better hospitality.
The hassle of getting in and out of Blossom, at least on this night, only added to the bountiful karmic blessings surely headed BTB’s way, but what a gorgeous setting it is. It feels like a sister shed to Deer Creek, but more rustic, less oppressively corporate. Three kids making five-dollar gyros under a tarp pavilion provided the best lot food score ever, and in we went.
Our seats, front row of the rear pavilion, extreme Fish side, seemed great until Phish started playing; we had to defect to the lawn halfway through opener “Look Out Cleveland” (a left-field Band cover debut), and the more central vantage proved perfect, even though the slope is so gradual we couldn’t exactly see the band very well. After the improvisational showcase of Toyota’s first set, we were geared up for the first monster “Ocelot”, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be, although this was a more inspired version than most. We’re not allowed to get accustomed to huge jammy first sets; they won’t be as special if they happen every night.
“Water In The Sky” has been following me around like a lost puppy lately, and this one was the same as all the rest. Then, as “Stash” bubbled up I felt a glimmer of butterflies, but it turned out to be a surprisingly uninspiring jam, barely any tension at all and no real peak. “Ballad of Curtis Loew“ was a mellow treat, and “Sample In A Jar” turned out to be a particularly electrifying version--and as sick as I am of this one, that’s saying something. Still, the legend of Toyota was only being enhanced by this oddly-arranged, unimaginative set.
Then it happened: the opening strains of “Time Turns Elastic”, and a third of the crowd scurried to the bathrooms and beer tents. It’s kind of pathetic, as if people would prefer standing in a line, stubbornly NOT paying attention, than actually trying to get into the song, see what Phish sees in it. Their loss, because Trey is even more stubborn in his commitment to this song, and tonight it sprang to new life. I’ve been a fan the whole time, but tonight I got it in a way I never had before; the complexities of the arrangement were finally lodged in my psyche and my body remembered the rhythms and moved accordingly. But it was the jam that probably turned more people over to the dark side than anything else; not only did the band nail the song itself more naturally than ever before, they pulled off a triumphant succession of crescendos to cap the coda, giving the beast the rodgering it deserves at last. I don’t know that anything made me happier all night than hearing people talking about this mind-changer after the show, and not a single complaint.
The set-closing suite put us all over the edge, though. In 2009, “Mike’s Song” never made it past the point of we-have-to-play-it, and even though it got tighter over the course of the year, there were no brilliant versions. Tonight, they played it like a ferocious mid-90s second-setter, like it meant something to them again. It didn’t touch on the kind of wild abandon of its heyday, but it was thick and evil, heavy as hell, perfectly built and crisply nailed. Even “I Am Hydrogen” was near-flawless, and then “Weekapaug Groove” was on course to outer space until it nearly came unhinged when Trey seemed to be having some issues with his pedals; you could feel the collective consciousness take a nervous breath, but Red made a heroic recovery and it wound up being a stupendous jam, Trey and Page getting into numerous low-key suspensions and boiling over in sprightly fashion. But of course, it was actually all Mike all the time, presiding over the whole Groove with dominant authority, dragging the set kicking and screaming into greatness.
Nobody really ought to care what song starts the second set any more; with Phish 3.0, you’re damn near guaranteed a top jam of the night whatever it is. So, “Rock And Roll” was predictable, but the jam was anything but. Following the ecstatic vocal cacophony, the boys peaked it at least three glorious times before settling into some subdued but propulsive funkishness reminiscent of the middle section of a late-90s “Piper” jam. This soon sank into a still-moving atmospheric groove, and when Trey seized on a haunting little riff melody, it was heavenly; even though it petered out before its time, it was, y’know, what we live for and stuff.
To everyone’s surprise/delight, “Harry Hood” appeared next, and at this point, Mike was ordained puppet master for most of the set. Nothing in this “Hood” happened without his say-so. He’s leading the rest of the band on a string and they don’t even know it. It was a supreme example of one thing Mike can do that nobody else can do. For at least ten minutes. Egging Trey on, baiting Fishman to get in on the action, and then suddenly Page and Trey mind-melded for a dizzying upsurge, but anchored by the unstoppable patience of Mike. Trey climaxed this one a bit lazily, but it is so gorgeous it gives you chills anyway. Immersive tension-in-joy, it was a near-classic version, putting all 2009s to shame.
At this point, I realized the set was only two songs old and probably drooled a little when they started “Backwards Down The Number Line”, even though the collective energy seemed to get vacuumed from the crowd when they started playing it. Has everyone forgotten last year’s Toyota and SPAC already?? As if to remind us, Phish proceeded with the single most exploratory jam of the young tour. A heady swirl of dizzying tangents resolving fluidly into each other with bursts of synched sizzle, and a single-minded purpose even at its mellowest moments, once again made whole only through the brilliance of The Cactus. At one point, whether on purpose or not, I swear Trey teased “Southbound Pachyderm” during an intoxicating, sludgy stretch, and before it could trail off, Fish to the rescue! Trey slides in hot on Jon’s heels with some truly enthralling licks, and they finally guide it gracefully to a close.
”Twenty Years Later” rose from the ashes. They never really figured out how to approach the thing last year, but tonight’s version was at least a step forward in its evolution. Fishman is the key; his crashing fills spiked the ponderous jam and jolted it out of its structure just enough for Trey to weave in and out of the rhythm for a while (à la “Split Open And Melt”, sorta), crafting the tension and mystery that the song deserves. But until Fish decides to COMPLETELY take over the song, it won’t reach its potential. It was a thrill just to watch them start to figure it out before our eyes, though.
Then Page struck a piano key, let it linger in the air, and then another key four beats later, but even though there’s no mistaking this two-note intro, my suspension of disbelief didn’t kick in until he sang “Instant karma’s gonna get you!” And he belted the song out with abandon, and I was in the throes of Phishytale land, where you can almost die to a song one night and be reborn in it the next. I mean, it’s one of the greatest songs ever written as it is. And they even iced it with a terrific little ebullient jam that felt unique to the song, not tacked on, perhaps never to be explored again but a priceless moment in time.
As it was clearly Page’s moment to shine on, a “Suzy Greenberg” was imminent; what a treat to get that “Oh Kee Pa Ceremony” first, though! And although Page is in the spotlight, it is Mike who floats and dives and surfs this "Suzy" jam to utmost perfection, a direct conduit from his soul to his fingers.
I couldn’t quite keep it together for “Waste”. I’ll probably be okay next time I hear it, but those sentiments can really bum rush you when you haven’t recalled them in a while. Deep breaths, and then, my pick for awesomest surprise gradual 3.0 evolution of an old song: “Character Zero”. Believe it or not, the jam of this radio-friendly mainstay has begun taking on a new identity in the past year, and it’s just the nastiest, dirtiest Trey imaginable, conjuring the frustrating paradox of the lyrics with his fingers. Oh, and also, lightning.
Cruelly, the moment Trey burst into flame, the show was seconds from ending; only Page’s very brief “Squirming Coil” showcase encore to send us off as the storm that was supposed to be drenching us all weekend finally drew near. As the sky crackled, it occurred to me that maybe people used to say “Clapton is God” for very simple reasons…here were all these fans, screaming with delight at every flash of light in the sky, as surely as if a Phish jam were roaring to its peak. Nice of God to hold off on his light show tonight, but the cheers were for the beauty and majesty and power, and a celebration of just being alive right now. And music is the only way humans can come close to the beauty and power of what came before us...ahem, WOO-HOOOOOOOOO!!!