It wasn’t as though Friday was a bad show, but Phish rocketed out of the gates with something to prove on this Saturday night with “Chalk Dust Torture” surrogate “Kill Devil Falls”, a little something extra bolstering the sucker. A gooey “Guelah” followed, and then Trey nonchalantly walked over to Page, then Mike, and they went into “The Curtain With” like it was just another song; forget that they hadn’t played it all year, that it’s one of the most important pieces in the canon. And I’m hard pressed to come up with a better rendition of the piece, ever. Just hearing the opening chords will bring most Phish fans’ hearts into their throats, and the jam that ended this one was Phish perfection, simply put.
In contrast, Trey proceeded to bungle “Mango Song” mercilessly. Then, to make up for it, “Sand”. Ahhhh, drrrrty, toes stuck in the mud, wasted on the beach at night, sunk in deep and rescued on a vine of chewy wah-wah, a highlight of the show coming in the first set??? When they latch onto this kind of power, stand back; even “Limb By Limb” went ballistic, Trey versus Page in a dramatic dogfight, Trey winning out with some over-the-top high-tone fluttering like we hadn’t seen in this era’s “Limb”s, if at all. Busting out “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley” after this just drove the crowd bonkers; it’s one of these nights, eh?
“Uncle Pen” was another instance of Trey not being very crisp on some of the scarcer intricate compositions, but when his improv is this hot, it’s hard to take pot shots. When they unveiled “Pebbles And Marbles”, nobody quite knew how to feel; the rare performances of the tune over the past couple of years had been brief and uninspired. Tonight, it finally got the treatment it deserves; Page was determined to take this one all the way, and then Trey began to drench the crowd in magnificent leads, mingling with the piano in that crazy, ecstatic mode that makes Phish what it is.
Following an ebullient “Cavern”, we were ready to collapse joyously into setbreak, but it wasn’t to be; the hi-hat intro to “David Bowie” rose up to our incredulous delight. Page carried his hot streak directly into this jam, channeling John Paul Jones deep in a ’77 “No Quarter”, but Fishman was the real hero, igniting peak after peak with an inexhaustible supply of creative fills and crashes. Whatever might come next, we’d just witnessed the best first set of the past two years.
It’s customary for second sets to be better than firsts, so Phish came out blazing with a guaranteed fan-fave, Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed And Painless”. Page played like they hadn’t even taken a break, egging Trey on into some relentless Tony Iommi-style chugging to a summit of rock and roll bravado, then into a heavy ambient interlude, until Trey broke back into “still waiting” and a gratifying reprise ensued. “Dirt” might’ve been a momentum killer at this point, except Mike just crushed us, his solo dripping with emotion.
The band has been bludgeoning us with “Fluffhead” way too often since they returned with it 18 months ago, so this likewise could’ve been a bad sign. For the third (and not last!) tune tonight, Trey and Mike got to dance, and with cameramen constantly creeping around the stage, it seemed we were in danger of a tight but scripted set from here on. But when Trey tore into his “Arrival” solo like a mythical beast, every note leading up to it was justified.
Continuing the trend of resurrecting previously-thought-dead songs like “Pebbles”, Phish chose to take “Also Sprach Zarathustra” to lengths not seen since the breakup. And then it was “Tweezer” time. The band hadn’t kicked out a monster in quite a while, so we were due. Trey kept it low and dirty and sticky like a Carolina swamp for ages, just tearing it apart like his own personal wet tissue. It cemented possibly the single best performance by the guitarist I’ve ever witnessed. He conjured up shades of Brian May in the “Show Of Life” that followed. And he was reminiscent of nothing short of his old self for the “You Enjoy Myself” that ended the set, spiking the instrumental jam with a passion that the song had been lacking for most of this young era.As a treat for the dying race of philosopher-geek-Phishtorians, the boys pulled out an unprecedented reference in the a capella improv that ends the song: a scat based around the lyrics to “Guy Forget”, a song that isn’t really even a song, a nebulous fragment relegated to soundchecks in 1993 and one long-lost “Piper” jam from October of 2000. Amidst a show bursting with Phish’s most beloved compositions and dazzling instrumental spontaneity, the boys found time to sneak in a goofy reference that only a diehard would even notice. This is what has brought Phish back to prominence: the ability to give every stripe of fan what he or she wants, drawing out the tiniest detail from the past to share an inside joke with a smattering of old fans while entrancing the oblivious n00bs at the same time. Nobody does it better, or ever has.