Thinking back to the first couple years of 3.0, and then those brutal 2013-14 Northerly Island runs, there were some worse shows in there. The first night at Wrigley in 2016 and the deflating Deer Creek Sunday that followed, too, might’ve been worse. Saturday night at Merriweather was simply the worst I’ve seen lately.
It does indeed speak to how good Phish has been lately that the show underwhelmed so hard, but the truth is, Trey was playing some fine guitar throughout the night, and that alone warrants a walking-back of my initial assessment. Despite the still-dormant Bowie and a complete lack of jams, the first set was at least competent and unpredictable, something that couldn’t be said for any first sets during certain 3.0 tours. The second set was where things got painful, with cookie-cutter bliss out of Ghost and Set Your Soul Free and no other improv to even speak of. What’s The Use? was clunky and carried none of the emotional resonance it usually does, placed like an afterthought. Hood was rushed and choppy. The highlights for me were Billy Breathes and Death Don’t Hurt Very Long simply due to novelty. That says it all, really.
However, this show came on the heels of two bona fide heaters at Blossom and PNC, following a pretty lackluster start to the tour. Silly to get my hopes up for a Saturday show anyway; the letdown was virtually inevitable. It was my first trip to the hallowed grounds of MPP; sue me. Then I found out that they’d soundchecked Petrichor. I almost started wishing they’d gotten it out of the way; if they were to pull that out on Sunday…well it didn’t ruin Sunday at Rosemont last fall but come on, don’t play that damn song any more. Just let me suffer the unavoidable Mercurys and Fuegos; at least they might jam.
Sunday’s triumph was almost as predictable as Saturday’s disappointment, but like many of my favorite shows, the musical greatness was buoyed by the psychological/philosophical hijinks in my head. I may have mentioned at some point that Trey writes a lot of terrible songs these days? Phish played a few of those Sunday night, and a funny thing happened in terms of my appreciation of the terrible songs. In some of them, I’ve been desperately searching for a trace of irony, some excuse for the vapidity of Everything’s Right, for instance, to not be so artlessly earnest. And I think I finally found something to grab hold of. It may be only in my mind. That’s fine.
My wife is not a diehard Phishhead by any stretch, even though she got into them well before I did and graciously puts up with my dogged devotion. She hadn’t been to a show since 2014, hadn’t caught a true barnburner in a much longer span, and has a much narrower view of what constitutes fire Phish in the first place. Long, meandering bliss jams are not exactly her bag. If she had her way, they’d play Carini at every show, if that tips you off. It was a minor miracle that she’d agreed to spend precious vacation time on a Phish trip at all, and I don’t think Saturday night had done much for her, other than Silent In The Morning—Rift is her favorite album. Sunday needed to be redemption, something fierce.
Opening with Carini certainly helped! On one hand, really? Waste that jam opportunity on a brief first-set foray? But the truth is that Carini rarely launches any epic madness these days; it was more of an intention-setter, and heck, the jam that emerged was about as good as your typical second-set outing. Gumbo is always welcome, and wouldn’t you know it, three Rift tracks in the first set, practically unheard of. I know people bemoaned the mellow interlude of Winterqueen, Yarmouth, and Shade; I get that but I’m kinda over my hatred for all three of these songs for various reasons; chiefly, perhaps, that there are so many worse options nowadays, but even though Shade is a patently terrible lyrical effort, I can’t help being taken in by the emotion of it when I’m there in person. That happened in October, one more strip of cynicism peeled off by these sentimental old bastards.
In my head I never get excited for Antelopes any more, but my body begs to differ. The song has been such a dud in 3.0 but my body remembers headier days, and as it turned out, tonight’s set-closer broke free from normalcy for a blissful couple of minutes and then charged past what seemed like the obvious climax for another full noise cycle before the knockout punch. I’ve heard most of the Antelopes they’ve played since 2009 and I can recall maybe three that were anywhere near as interesting as this one. It’s a far cry from the song’s heyday but all I ask is for a modicum of effort!
My wife had definitely never experienced an Antelope this intense; they had her in the palms of their hands tonight. The thing about Phishheads is we accept that catching truly great shows that cater to our special desires won’t happen often; it’s hard to convey just how powerful those nights are and how they make the whole chase worthwhile. At the same time, I want to share this with the people I care about. My wife was experiencing one of those nights; Phish was telepathically tuned into her needs, and when it was all over she had a new favorite Phish show and song (Sanity). After all these years, the highs are still oh so high, and in some ways, easier to connect to than ever. I wasn’t sure if they’d come out for the second set and get weird or drop a bunch of jamless cheese on us, but they could’ve belched into mics for an hour and it still would’ve topped Saturday.
I’m perhaps one of the few fans who don’t get super pumped for Crosseyed. Sure, it often leads to good jams, but it also almost invariably leads to gimmicky resprises of “stiiiiiiill waiting” that tend to supplant further exploration. Nothing to do, though, except dance hard and hope for the best. And similarly to Blossom on Wednesday, they decided to jam practically everything in the second set.
What emerged from the end of the Crosseyed jam, though, was that dang Everything’s Right, which they just played at Blossom. It doesn’t drag me down any more; I just grit my teeth and wait for the jam, which always occurs. As the entire crowd sang the blithely oblivious words, it occurred to me that this is actually Phish’s Touch Of Grey, occupying the corresponding place in the history and canon while embodying the very essence of what’s conceptually different about Phish and The Dead. Both songs are simplistic and cloying, life-affirming singalongs on the surface, but Touch Of Grey is clearly not an optimistic song, while ER is blindly so, and at a very inappropriate time in our history at that. Maybe it’s not drawing huge numbers of new fans like Grey did, but you can feel it when they play it, people are lapping it up, and they’ll be back for more of this.
Then as the jam quickly twisted into darkness, I had a thought: Maybe this whole self-help songwriting bent is just another phase of experimentation with the idea of crowd control. It’s not like very much of the Phish catalog can be taken literally; why am I so hung up on it in this case? It’s not worth overthinking, I realize, but this is all a grand experiment of fucking with the fans and the relationship between band and fan. So here’s this idiotic song that barely has any structure, musically, that must’ve taken all of four minutes to write in its entirety, and you trot it out and it becomes this massive communal surge in short order, plus you decide you’re going to jam it every time you play it. Who loses, here? Maybe this is, on one hand, the closest to a hit song that Trey’s ever gonna get, and on the other hand, an opportunity to see just how far you can drag your aging fanbase into escapist nonsense in the face of ever-increasing global catastrophe.
Or, maybe it’s just Trey letting us stroke his ego as he in turn coaxes fans down from whatever sort of bad trips they might be stuck up in and tries to recruit more vacuous white people into his Eckhart Tolle book club. Either way, I’m working on finding new reasons not to hate it. I’m doing my part, dammit.
But the notion kept cropping up again and again. The “still waiting” reprisals did occur, but tonight, rather than allow them to sabotage jams, they were just brief flourishes, right in step with an improv theme that the band had settled into, unobtrusive, and again, although this sort of thing is very lowest-common-denominator, it’s another method of controlling the crowd, getting everyone in the moment, and reveling in your power. Same with the WOO bullshit, which arrived in Ruby Waves—and I thought the ER lyrics were bad, lord have mercy. It was as if Trey and Fish dumbed the jam down mockingly in order to draw out this daft crowd participation moment, only letting it go on for like three rounds before winding down into Twist, and at that point, who cares? They’ve been hosing us down for 45 minutes and this is only the fourth song of the set.
All I know is I’m really getting the feeling on this tour that the band is increasingly bemused by these new crowd-pleasing methods they’ve stumbled onto. Maybe yelling WOO is better than staring up at your phone or otherwise running your mouth. It’s like the flip side of the secret language; instead of incomprehensible cues for insiders, obvious cues that any idiot can catch onto in two seconds. After all, secrets can’t really be kept any more, can they. And communal experience by nature is only as encompassing as the most oblivious person it can reach.
So, I give up. WOO away, simpletons. This world, this world, this crazy world I know, it turns, it turns. Fucking genius. The time has come for changes, do something or I will.