Phish: Riverbend Music Center, 6-5-11

Wed Jun 08 2011
Let it first be said that if Sunday night in Cincinnati was sub-greatness Phish, we are truly in for a wild effing summer.  After two unimpeachable nights in Clarkston and Cuyahoga Falls, the Riverbend Amphitheater show fell just a bit short.  Despite some awkward moments, it did kick all kinds of ass.  So, I feel like taking a moment to deconstruct what's happening in the Phish world right now, my misgivings from Sunday and what makes Phish unstoppable right now regardless.

Some Phish geeks like to argue about which member is the weakest link.  Since Hampton '09 we've been trying to pin the blame on everybody except Mike for why the band is still playing catch-up.  For pretty much all of 2009, it was Trey, with his painful whale tones, generic Deadish songwriting and butterfingers.  As he began to slowly regain control of the band over the course of summer 2010, the blame fell on Fishman, blowing transitions and being generally uncreative.  But he seemed to go through a rebirth prior to fall tour, and suddenly Page was the scapegoat, never taking the lead on jams, seemingly blundering around in the dark oftentimes as Trey and Mike developed themes in tandem that cried out for some piano or organ integration.  Make no mistake: they each had incredible nights on every leg of every tour, but there’s no denying some slumps.

After the first couple of songs of Summer Tour 2011, it was clear that no blame could be laid on Page; the guy was killing it, turning normally boring tracks like "Poor Heart" and "Funky Bitch" into blazing piano and organ showcases, and an increasing obsession with his electric piano has led to, among other things, an outstanding cover of Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" Wednesday night.  Not only that, he has been instrumental in every one of the tour's many standout jams, communicating wordlessly with Mike and Trey and crafting the old three-part melodic soundscapes that made us all Phishheads to begin with.  Perhaps finally, there is nobody holding anybody back any more?

Nope, it's Fish.  And let me qualify that by assuring you that he is playing his butt off, far and away one of the greatest rock drummers on Earth.  But even in the sublime moments of DTE and Blossom, the other three fellas had to TEAR Fishman away from the natural beat of the song.  His consistency is amazing, and he is a creative fill animal.  It's just that if he'd let loose a little and allow himself to depart sooner from the structure of the song, there would be even more crazy shit going down.  There's no easier way to change the shape of a jam than for Fish to throw in just a quick counter-rhythmic stutter; he used to do it all the time, and in doing so, sparked some of the most awe-inspiring improvisational journeys of Phish's career.  Nowadays he often seems to have blinders on.

The miracle is what they've accomplished as a band even considering Fish's stubbornness.  Once he catches on that yes, we're taking this thing for a ride, he is incredibly smooth on the uptake, and imaginative to boot, but it's taking him too long, and when the other guys aren't quite up to par on the creative front, they could really use that old spark.

For instance, the first-set “Bathtub Gin” at Riverbend is one of the better versions of the modern era, but imagine if Fish had jumped onto the burbling groove Mike and Page were riding in the middle of the jam; maybe Trey wouldn’t have felt the need to rock-star his way out of it so quickly.  Perhaps Bob Weaver could’ve subtly shifted the sublime outro jam of “Fee” into something even more sustainable.  Perhaps in Trey’s uninspired moments during the “Crosseyed & Painless” jam, Mr. Greasy Fizeek could have altered the rhythmic texture and led the band on an extended abstract journey.

Sadly, after Jon did surrender to the mesmerizing angular pulse that the band crafted out of an otherwise typical “Crosseyed, Trey wasted little time wedging a square “Light” into a round hole.  I wouldn’t call it awful, but it sure seemed like that “Crosseyed” jam was about to get punishingly weird, and that’s what I crave.  In even less kosher fashion, Trey crammed “Boogie On Reggae Woman” into a really promising “Light” jam, but at least he let that one get awesome first.  Shame on me for dwelling on what didn’t happen, but this was basically the end of any crazy improvisational potential for the set.

Thankfully, there’s way more good about this show than bad.  All I really needed was the deep, slippery “Gin”, the virtually-perfect “Mound”, the heavenly “Reba”, the first not-awful “Taste” since like 1998, the killer ambient jam out of “Fee” leading smoothly into “Backwards Down The Number Line”, and that’s just the first set.  Could there ever really be a bad show whose second set starts “Carini”>”Tweezer”?  Not only is it a brilliant rhythmic match for a segue, the “Tweezer” is of the increasingly-rare, real-live variety.  Brilliant moments in all four second-set excursions, including a legit instrumental jam in “You Enjoy Myself”; not sure there had previously been one performed by Phish 3.0.

All in all, a brilliant show, coming on the heels of two other brilliant shows, inside a tour that has only had one stinker up to this point.  Sure, maybe the band will get even better than this, more consistent, more together, more creative (drummer or otherwise), but who knows?  It could flame out at any time, and it is as good now as it.has.ever.been.  Hint, hint.
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