Opener “Punch You In The Eye” is just more of a summer song; it needs the open air to stretch out fully, but Chris Kuroda‘s giant glowing dream catchers beamed a glorious welcome to us all the same. “Possum”, once a potential show-stopper, has taken a relatively diminished role in Phish 3.0. But something has gotten into Trey on this tour; he’s harnessing a ragged metallic chug more and more frequently, possibly alluding to something heavy for the band’s as yet unannounced Halloween costume, and it was briefly in effect during this roughshod “Possum”.
As “Bathtub Gin” began drenching the crowd in par-tay, it felt like anything could happen. The jam was not long, but it got deep and dark, and Page killed it throughout, clamoring into a quick but inspired climax. Just as Trey suddenly seemed to wake up on the second leg of summer, Page has finally returned to prominence this fall. What better way to honor him than for his father, Dr. Jack McConnell, to make his first guest appearance with the band since 2004 for the century-old nugget “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” In a way, this made the show; you can’t put a value on moments like this.
Another cover followed, the overplayed Stevie Wonder track “Boogie On Reggae Woman”, and then the song that restarted Phish, “Backwards Down The Number Line”, the concise, rockin’ variety. The nearly-lost Phish classic “Destiny Unbound” has triumphantly returned to semi-regular rotation this year, and it was a joy to hear. The only hint of improvisational danger came with “Stash”, which again featured Trey with some powerful, chaotic leads, but it was still fairly contained and they botched the ending pretty badly. This left the door open for set closer “Run Like An Antelope” to get out of control, and it did; the jam almost completely fell apart just prior to the shift into high gear, but they recovered quickly and nailed an excruciating climax. Trey added some more angry riffage to beef up the coda, and just like that, the crowd was invigorated and expectant for a monster second set.
That monster never quite materialized. “Down With Disease” was the perfect vehicle to get us rolling, but after an initial burst of energy, nobody came up with any coherent musical ideas, so they downshifted quickly into an intriguing but fairly typical ambience. “Prince Caspian” resolved out of this, and while this tune has come to signify a preceding epic jam, it wasn’t quite deserved tonight. However, it was a glittering miasma in its own right, the oft-maligned nugget infused with new life ever since Trey got his new guitar (“the Ocedoc”). “Twist” had been a highlight from the Broomfield run, but tonight’s version was barely there, the boys seemingly bereft of any group imagination.
Highlights came in unusual places. “My Friend, My Friend” is always a treat, but 2010 has seen it reemerge as a centerpiece, and this version was almost textbook in a murderous sort of way. Phish nation is still waiting for an extended “Tube” à la the funk workouts of the late 90s, but while tonight’s was another in a long line of punchy four-minute stabs, it was incredibly forceful and tight. Trey’s new goof “My Problem Right There” fit right into the laid-back motif of the set, one of the better new songs the band has trotted out this year.
Missed opportunities were a bit too glaring to overcome, though. The Ween cover “Roses Are Free” could have reignited the fire of the set, but just when it seemed about to explode, Trey chose to begin strumming “My Friend”. And while Mike’s Groove has only gone on two or three magnificent runs since Phish’s return to the stage, tonight’s was truly uninspired, featuring almost no impov and an unwelcome slab of “Mexican Cousin” in the middle, possibly Phish’s worst song ever.
As the band closed with the most predictable possible trio of “Suzy Greenberg”, “Slave To The Traffic Light” and a “Character Zero” encore, I realized that it’s a testament to how far Phish has come in less than two years, after being apart for five, that I rated this show as subpar. Had this show happened during the band’s brief second incarnation (2003-04), I would have been blown away by the precision, passion and focus the four musicians exhibited tonight--gems and rarities galore, and each musician at the top of his game, just not a lot of exploration. The band is at another career peak this year, and it may not even have hit its pinnacle yet.