Saturday, March 7, 2009

Phish Reunion: Night One Review

Given that it's been around four and a half years since they last played together--and in that time Trey Anastasio went through some very humiliating and humbling jail time--you knew you could count on one of two things happening for the three reunion shows. Either they come back much tighter and better practiced than they were during the last go-round ('03 to '04 for those keeping score at home) or it's the same sloppy-but-fascinating Phish from that '03/'04 era. Since there is so much pressure and expectation for these shows, it would be enough for them to just get through a show playing really well. The elements that I consider magical and "fan for life" inducing--the improvisation and the segues between songs--probably won't come until after the band dusts off the cob webs. If they 'played it safe', so to speak, for the three night run at Hampton, you could hardly hold it against them. Safe Phish is better than no Phish, anyway.

Well, as I write this initial post it's Saturday afternoon. I am about to brew up a pot of tea and finish listening to the rest of Friday night's show. I'm almost to the end of the first set I can already tell you this: they played it safe by not playing it safe.

See, the worst aspect of Phish in the so-called 'post-hiatus' era of '03/'04 wasn't the unevenness of the shows. Rather, it was that the band--particularly Trey--often played the heavily composed, downright prog rock songs really sloppily. Or, in the case of the fan favorite epic 'Fluffhead', they didn't play them at all. The band admitted that they weren't practicing much, if at all. This may have given the shows from this time period a devil may care immediacy and sometimes surprisingly potent improvisational prowess, but it was often rough to make it through the composed portion of songs to get to the good stuff, so to speak.

As they never played 'Fluffhead' in the post-hiatus era, we all felt like we were 'owed' one during this three night stand. Many called for or predicted a 'Fluffhead' opener. It seemed the most obvious and also the most correct choice to let fans know that: A) they still liked the old stuff, too B) they could still play the old stuff C) unlike the post-hiatus era, they were practicing the old stuff and eager to play it. Busting out these kind of songs was playing it safe on one hand because they knew it would appease the fans. On the other hand, it was not playing it safe because, beyond all the pressure and expectation already on them, fans would surely be combing every second of tape for flubs and mistakes.

Let me just jump right into it then: holy shit, they played 'Fluffhead' to open the show! You had to see it coming but it didn't decrease the surprise and elation one bit. I don't know that I would say this was the tightest 'Fluffhead' ever played, but it is easily the most historically important and moving 'Fluffhead' ever played. And you know what? None of the playing in the heavily composed songs was as tight as it was back in '93 or '94, but that time has passed and we can never go back. If the first show back doesn't contain much of the things I most value in Phish (the aforementioned improv and segues), that's OK. I've never been the biggest fan of these compositional songs but even I can't deny how powerful and ultimately meaningful it is to hear the band playing them better than they have in probably ten years.

There is nothing drastically different about any of the songs in the first set, except for a fun, sloppy 'Farmhouse' (huh, playing the simpler, less composed songs sloppily is somehow much more forgivable) and the older, slower version of 'Water In The Sky.' Phish didn't rearrange the songs or add in new sections or anything else you might dream up. I feel like I'm being too hard on the band by writing all of this and I don't mean to. The first set is very satisfying; almost two hours in length, it sticks to songs from pre-97 and will scratch every old school itch you have. There may not be any sterling improvisation (though there are moments in 'Stash' that suggest great things ahead) but everything is played well and with an energy that reminds me of how drinking tea makes me feel, simultaneously hyper yet patient and studied.

On a side note, was it just me or did Page's new keyboard on his 'Suzy' solo kick ass? I look forward to hearing more of it and what's more, it brings the band that much closer to an inevitable cover of 'Chameleon' from Head Hunters.


Fans will notice that Trey's guitar tone is somewhere between his 'classic' sound and the raunchy, distorted tone of post-hiatus. As his 'classic' tone suits the complicated, precise, sometimes delicate sound of the composed songs and the dirtier tone sounded bad ass in the dark, stormy post-hiatus jams, it's promising to see he's splitting the difference between the two. And on this nod to the past with an eye toward the future, let's pause and acknowledge that the band begins set two with a new song, 'Backwards Down The Number Line.' Set one opens with a much requested classic; Trey's sound is closer to his old sound...but it's actually a new guitar tone altogether and they began the second set with a totally new song. Yes, they're serious about loving the old stuff but wanting to move forward too.

Since, in my opinion, Trey's solo music went from 'meh' to 'bleck' after Phish "broke up" in '04, I'm not really sold on this song. It sounds like they borrowed the melody line/chord progression from 'Candle In The Wind' and the lyrics just seem clumsy and wordy to me. There are some good vocal harmonies in the song but the most important thing to take away from this is that 'Backwards' is a song song like 'Heavy Things' or 'Sample In A Jar' are song songs. They're not heavily composed and they never will be a jam vehicle warhorse like 'Tweezer.' Speaking of...

When I was driving around today listening to the first set, it finally hit me that we would get to hear new versions of all the old jam vehicle warhorses. Each year or set of years of Phish seemed to have its own character and style of jamming, so that a '95 'Tweezer' and a '98 'Tweezer' had little in common except the composed part. I am really geeking out on the prospect of new versions of 'Ghost', 'Piper', 'Seven Below', etc. You have to figure at least a few of these are coming in the next two shows especially since they've already blown their wad with 'Stash', 'Tweezer', and 'You Enjoy Myself' for this one. But I digress.

The composed part of this 'Tweezer' is good and funky as it has been since '97. It's very comforting to hear Trey play the main riff right instead of the weird way he approached it during post-hiatus. Seriously, dig out 2/28/03 and listen to the opening of that monster; it's like he's playing an inverted version of the riff. Anyway, the jam starts out very tentative. I'm sure the band has been jamming together along with their heavily composed songs practice regimen but after four years apart some of the connections have probably weakened in the ol' improvisational nervous system. I do get the distinct impression that they're listening and responding to each other, though. The way Page takes over the jam around the 7:00 mark and Trey drops out almost entirely, playing funky rhythmic sure brings a smile to my face. Honestly, other than the new song, if someone handed you this show and didn't tell you what date it was from, you might have a hard time telling what era it's from. It doesn't sound like post-hiatus but it doesn't sound like the 'classic' 1983 to 2000 era either.

In the end, this 'Tweezer' is the first public stretching of muscles before the jogs and marathons to come. Page has definitely gotten much more assertive over the past four years and you can really tell he and Trey are hooking up, melodically speaking, all over the place. It's too bad that the most interesting and improvisationally fresh part of this jam comes in the last minute or two. I have to admit I was surprised by the segue into 'Taste' though in retrospect you can sort of see it coming when Trey and Page start dancing around each other's notes and Fishman has all but dropped out. Despite the relatively few glimpses this show gives us of the improvisational beast that Phish was and can be, it's more than enough for me to hear these songs again, new versions of them, and to dream of the future. Really, this is one of those shows that gets an automatic free pass for the extraordinary circumstances and the tightness of the playing. Even if they had played sloppy I would give them a free pass, but they didn't, so nyah. Anyone who can say a bad word about this show other than "there weren't many jams" is either a liar or an impossible to please asshole. I've tried to learn to be patient and show restraint with Phish this time out. I don't need 'best ever' versions of songs or face melting improvisation yet. I just want more Phish.

Though for what it's worth, I think the 'Chalk Dust Torture' from set I is one of the better non-improv versions I've heard.

And really, that's the general vibe of the whole night: it's Phish playing again after years off, but it's also Phish playing better than they have in years. I defy you to listen to the 'Possum' from set II and say it was sloppy or that Trey was lost in his own world. The spirit and mood of this show is reconciliatory, celebratory, and some other word that ends in -tory. Sorry, words are starting to fail me.

I feel like I'm not allowed to criticize this show, if that makes any sense. The stick-up-his-ass, "I want improv and segues" fan inside me may not be 100% satisfied with this show, but even he is willing to give this one a nod of approval. After all, it had me--I mean, had him laughing during the orgasmic release of the "oh hell yes, it wasn't a lie or a joke, we're back, bitches" tight and energetic ending to an unbelievable 'Fluffhead.'

Why laughing?? If he didn't laugh, I might cry.

Uhm, I mean, if I didn't laugh, he might cry. know what, nevermind.

Hey, they had to restart the beginning of 'You Enjoy Myself' and Trey jokes about it, saying it won't be like the last time they had to. Referring, of course, to the early '03 show at this same venue where they had to restart it. If I had any doubts that Trey and the rest of the band were making a conscious effort to practice and do these songs justice, it has now been erased. Personally, though, I never felt the post-hiatus 'YEM' playing was ever terrible. Statistically speaking they play this song more than any other so it's hard to lose it, y'know??

Hey, Trey just hilariously flubbed the 'Boy, Man, God, Shit' part, prompting him to say 'God Shit' and laugh through the rest. Indeed, Phish is back. And yes, I mean 'Phish is back' not 'Phish are back.' For I think of Phish as one entity. It is made up of the four members plus their crew plus the fans, but it still adds up to one thing: Phish.

I think most of us can agree that this decade had been, in general, a pretty bad one. At a time when things seem to be going from worse to worst, it's nice to have Phish back to make it a little easier. It's nicer still to have Phish back at the strongest they've been in years and years. I predict within another show or two, or at the very least on the summer tour, they'll have the incredible improv and segues that I crave. They've already proven that they've fixed almost all of the problems from post-hiatus in one historic show. It would be greedy to ask for something more so soon, wouldn't it??

Friday's show was exactly what we and the band needed, a bit of everything that makes Phish, well, Phish: the heavily composed stuff, the songy stuff, the jokey/fun stuff (vacuum solo, barbershop quartet), the improv, the segues, and the all around good feelings and excellent musicianship. Yes, I keep saying it, but Phish is back. Between that and Obama winning the presidency, it's as if this whole awful, confused decade never happened. No, man, Phish didn't go on hiatus and they sure as hell didn't break up. 2009 is starting to look like what 2001 should've been.

And so that's why I'm calling for a '2001' at some point tomorrow or Sunday. It's just gotta happen.

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