“Soul Shakedown Party” doesn’t pop up randomly at just any show. Its prior three appearances came in the superb Denver three-nighter last Labor Day weekend, Super Ball IX and the ’09 New Year’s run. Whether or not that signifies anything to Phish, it felt to some like a ringing acknowledgement of the excellence of the 2012 Corn Run. Some folks even caught a way-out-there tease preceding the Bob Marley classic—was that “Chalk Dust Torture Reprise”??? Still, it was Sunday; it also might’ve been a typically laid-back start to what would ultimately be a mellow, family-friendly show, except it wasn’t. In every respect, Phish played at least as well Sunday night as Phish 3.0 has ever played.
You didn’t have to be a bust-out freak to get a major kick out of this first set, but it certainly would’ve helped; “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” trotted out for only the third time since the 1998 Loaded show, completing the string of four straight shows with a song from that album. The oddity known as “Vultures” still sounded as odd and sort of unPhishy as it did in 1997. Then there were two of the best tracks from Undermind, “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” and “Access Me”, which debuted here back in 2004 and we thought we’d caught the only performance ever. The much-sought-after “ASIHTOS” always makes jam-chasers hope for a real blastoff version, but it is potent in its compact rock-song existence and it sounded perfect. We even got a treat with “Meat”, obviously well-rehearsed in terms of vocals and jaunty as ever.
But many of the highlights of this first set were actually improv-based. Starting right with Trey’s searing work in “Cowboy Bill”, the band was off to a fiery start, and when the boys brought “Gotta Jibboo” to a furious boiling point, it felt like we were in a second set for a tick. But that was nothing compared to what unfolded after “Fee”; the elusive weasel generally ends in a quick fade-out, but not tonight. As the breezy, happy little ditty unfolded it seemed to be going a bit longer than usual, but then when Fishman followed protocol and let the beat drop, the other three weren’t willing to let the thing escape and they began crafting a gorgeous spontaneous piece that quickly drew Fish back in. To cut to the chase, the jam that unfolded is why I go to Phish shows in a nutshell, and this very rarely happens in a first set. After a weekend that had already given me more than I could ever have asked for, my night was already made.
Then there was further evidence of how drastically Page has stepped up his game this year. His “Maze” solos have generally been pretty predictable over the past few years, but his fingers were channeling aliens and angels in this rousing version, even as Trey battled for supremacy and did not succeed in usurping The Chairman. As such, we were treated to his gentler side for a beautiful “Squirming Coil” to end the set, a song I’m not generally a fan of but even the pre-piano-solo jam was more interesting than usual and then Page wowed us all by himself, thanked us and left the stage.
I have to confess that “Crosseyed And Painless” has been following me around lately. I’ve seen it live five times now in four different states over the past three years, and I feel like Phish is overdoing it with this damn Talking Heads song, particularly when there are a bunch of other perfectly excellent songs on Remain In Light that the band never plays. Plus, it never seems to do much besides funk along amiably and draw out questionable vocal reprises of “Still waiting” throughout the set; that was fun the first time but it’s getting annoying now. This version was actually a bit more interesting than most, and it got into some spooky noodle territory toward its end as Fish eventually stopped drumming; this might’ve gone on for longer if they didn’t insist on dragging those vocals on and on, but as such it resulted in a pretty fantastic segue into the tour’s first “No Quarter” in a much more well-executed segment than the same pairing at UIC last August. It will never be as good as, say, Tool’s version until Phish finally takes it off the tracks into type-II territory, but in its relatively contained form it’s still a majestic tribute to the mighty Zeppelin.
The show had all the makings of a family affair at this point; not much actual experimentation had occurred, but then the boys played “Light” and this show elevated to best-of-tour contender. Rather than take off on the usual superrock surge its jam usually begins with, they took it down into indescribable Phish-only territory, that stuff where Trey, Mike and Page might as well be composing on the spot. Through a few rhythmic variations and theme adjustments, this was one of the most organically flowing, luscious jams I’ve ever witnessed. At one point Trey and Mike began playing “Frankie Says” but for whatever reason nobody sang, so they just kept jamming; no complaints here. Eventually Fishman dropped out and again let our three melodic heroes work their magic, crafting a lilting lullaby that eventually got kinda creepy thanks to Page’s “Meatstick” organ before finally ending.
Then something weird happened. Normally a modern Phish crowd is apt to cheer like crazy when anything unusual or intense happens--all it takes is a high note. But in the wake of this jam, rapt silence. Everyone was either too stunned to respond or too intent on willing this jam to continue all damn night. I suddenly felt an odd pang of sorrow at the possibility that anyone in the band might feel as though we didn’t love what just went down. But surely they understood? Maybe all the curious onlookers and scene-makers and hung-over fratboys and chatty chicks skipped Sunday night, and all that remained were Phishheads obliterated by a jam. It was kind of astounding. But we didn’t have much time to contemplate; “Ghost” was starting. The past couple of renditions I’d caught had been underwhelming; one was even shorter than the studio version. This one wasn’t ordinary by any stretch; after an initial funk-rock burst, Trey discovered a speedy, loopy riff and Fishman caught on and cracked open a hyper-disco beat, turning Phish into something verging on electrojam for a brief stretch! Never heard anything quite like this coming from Phish before. Eventually things slowed back down into disembodied rock, over which Trey OF COURSE had to sing “Still waiting” a few times, and then he and Fish eased into “Back On The Train”, the only tune repeated over the four nights of the Corn Run.“BOTT” didn’t touch the superior funk-out of the Deer Creek version but there were some superb moments of Mike/Trey interplay, and a truly beautiful “Farmhouse” interlude followed. Then it was time for an ear-splittingly bombastic rendition of “46 Days”; for the rock and rollers in the crowd, this was the peak of the show, and Phish these days is really into throwing a bone to every faction of its fanbase. The sentimental folks got theirs next, as the band wrapped up the show with a happy bounce through “Heavy Things”, the lighters-aloft ballad “Joy” and straightforward rocker “Julius” before encoring with yet another invitation for fans to jump onstage and do the “Meatstick” with the band. For some, this was all an excuse to leave early, but personally, I’ve always felt that “Meatstick” is one of the quintessential Phish tunes: goofy, impossible to quite understand, apt to jam (though not really tonight) and always an opportunity for fan/band communion. But in a way, this is all in stark contrast to past eras of Phish; for most of its three-decade history, Phish was about inside jokes and being purposefully obscure, outlandish improv with little regard for song, making outsiders feel like they have no idea what’s going on. You couldn’t be a fringe fan; you either were drawn in by the mystery or you were left out. Nowadays you can appreciate the band on lots of different levels; even a first-timer can be bowled over on his or her first try. Phish 3.0 is for everybody, but this weekend at least, especially for the hardcore fans.