Phish: Blossom Music Center, 6-4-11

Tue Jun 07 2011

Phish didn’t make it easy on the Midwest this year (okay, maybe a little easier than on the Southwest, though).  For the first time since 1995 (in years when Phish is actually touring), the band isn’t doing its classic Deer Creek/Alpine Valley run, snubbing Wisconsin altogether and scheduling its only Chicago-area shows on weeknights.  On Friday night, the boys made the seven-plus-hour drive to Pine Knob worthwhile with possibly their best single set of music since the turn of the century.  They could’ve sat onstage in beanbags eating Cheetos on Saturday and this still would’ve been a successful trip.  Instead, they put together another stellar show bursting with creativity, permanently erasing my nostalgic pining for Phishes past. The first set had everything we can reasonably hope for in a first set.  Already in the opening “Kill Devil Falls” there was a hint of the addictive full-band interplay that the band had binged on the night before; nothing crazy, but nothing rote about it.  There were fully-nailed complex prog selections (“Guyute”, “Foam”, and the first perfect “Guelah Papyrus” of 3.0—the crowd went nuts during the unusually long pause after the “Asse Festival” section), a welcome bust-out cover (the second-ever performance of Little Feat’s “Rocket In My Pocket”), a couple of tight capsule-jams (“Back On The Train” and “Tube”) and, unfortunately, “Ocelot”; so be it, Jedi.  But following an unimaginative “Run Like An Antelope” closer, I feared the helium might have been slowly draining out of the improv balloon.

“Birds Of A Feather” used to be a frequent home to badass jams, so when it just screeched and floated without ever exploring or attacking, I got a little anxious.  It’s ridiculous to keep worrying and craving such specific things from a band that gives us all so much of what we want already, but I felt like Arnie Cunningham, flush with the knowledge of Christine’s evil miracles: show me.

And so they did.  When I search my soul for what moves me most at a Phish show, it’s not anything objectively measurable, not virtuosic perfection nor even spontaneous creativity, really.  It’s the mindfuck quotient.  It’s drugs without drugs, it’s tricking the mind into forgetting about reality, forgetting where the body is and not knowing what exactly is happening.  I’ll admit, when Trey started strumming “Possum”, I felt kind of crushed.  We can’t expect much from the song these days; it’s basically a guaranteed ten prescripted minutes of noodly twang rock.  So when Phish began to deconstruct the tempo and melody of its usual jam like a dying turntable only to jump wildly back in at top speed, I got a little excited.  As it slowly dawned on me that they were going to extend this motif for the rest of the song, right down to the iconic three-part harmonies in the final chorus, the smile on my face just got wider and wider.  It’s probably not that tough an effect for these four finely-tuned-in masters, but the mindfuck factor is off the charts.  It’s just the kind of thing Phish used to do all the time but seemed to have all but forgotten until this tour.

Another thing missing since the 2009 release of Phish’s latest album, Joy: really good new songs.  From “Summer Of ‘89” to “Dr. Gabel” to “My Problem Right There” and even “Show Of Life”, it’s been slim pickings until Saturday night, when Phish unveiled “Steam”.  It sounded like “Seven Below” as Trey toyed with the beginning, and the main riff is like a slowed-down, creepy variation on “Theme From The Bottom” set to a different rhythmic pattern, but the feel of the song itself is unique in the canon.  The band’s gimmick of sonically evoking the title could get cheesy if they’re not careful, but the song has mad potential; its fairly contained jam on its maiden voyage was a bit of “Twist”-style cosmic ooze with strong elements of noisy shoegaze, the sort of My Bloody Valentine flourish that Trey has always professed his love for but hasn’t exactly brought to the Phish table much.

From this point on, it was tough to keep up; Phish ran us ragged.  Two shows prior, the boys played a sadly-abbreviated “Piper” that just left everybody wanting more; sorry ‘bout that, said Trey’s fingers as they shredded into the usual “Piper” fury and then quickly took a multicolored detour into ambient sci-fi weirdness unlike any journey “Piper” had undertaken before.  Nearing the end, as Trey began toying with the “Lizards” theme, I had my first what-song-is-this-again? moment in many, many years.  At Phish’s best moments, the songs don’t even exist; it’s the stepping off into the abyss that counts.  Following a lovely “Lizards”, the band tore into “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley”.  It’s always a crowd favorite, but it’s not one of those songs you expect to depart from the relative plain.  Yet following a high-energy scat-off, this piece of improv went into mind-numbing exotic funk in another example of pure, disembodied musical genius.  This is fearless Phish, the best kind.

That was about it for the highest order of Phishplay.  Who knows what prompted Mike to obstinately shove “Have Mercy” into what was seeming like a sublime “Harry Hood” up to that point, but sometimes you have to have those awkward moments if you’re going to arrive at the tremendous successes that only come about through high risk.  Nothing left but a Trey rawkfest ending, somewhat foreshadowing the following night: “Character Zero” got infused with a tease of “Smoke On The Water”, whether an allusion to the fire that once ravaged nearby Lake Erie or the fire lancing out of Trey’s guitar stacks; who can be sure?  The man was possessed, leading his troops through miraculous full-band journeys and putting them all in the corner when he needed to live out some more Jimmy Page fantasy moments.  With the tour barely a week old and already obliterating the past two years, Trey grinned menacingly through the “Slave To The Traffic Light” encore, projecting one thought in his mind’s best Al Pacino: Ah’m just gettin’ warmed up.

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