Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Phish Reunion: Night Three Review

First, let me start this review by saying that, having revisited the shows from the first two nights, there were a bit more flubs and sloppy playing than I initially detected. However, I feel like these were honest mistakes and not the product of drugs, apathy, or being drunk. After four and a half years off, Phish is bound to forget. Having the pressure of knowing their entire fan base will be combing these shows for any sign of trouble, they're also bound to get nervous. Anyone who's taken a class where you have to give speeches knows that you can practice until you have the entire thing memorized but it's quite another thing to do it in front of a group.

So, with that out of the way, I'm going to tentatively declare the third night of the Hampton reunion shows my favorite. Which is strange because most of the 'big' songs I was looking forward to hearing--Ghost, You Enjoy Myself, Piper, Fluffhead--were already played on the first two nights. What night three has over those, though, is Phish really loosening up and feeding off the energy of the first two nights. Sunday's show was packed with unexpectedly excellent improvisation, mostly delivered in focused, succinct courses. That 22 minute Down With Disease main course can't be ignored, of course, but oddly I found myself more surprised and enchanted by the shorter jams. I would go so far as to say that, with all due respect to the first two nights, the two sets on Sunday were exactly what I was hoping for.

After Sanity, Wilson, Foam, and Bathtub Gin, I would have gone home happy (assuming I was at the show) but then they pulled out a completely unexpected Undermind. Now, this is a song I've been dying to hear Phish play after they named their final album after it. Hell, they even included a soundcheck version of it with a bonus disc for one of their DVDs. Well, the one they played this night was different from the album version but it's much more fully formed and tight than the sloppy mess that was the soundcheck one. I'm with everyone else in being floored by the Fluffhead that opened this three night stand, but I think Undermind was my own personal payoff and vindication. I look forward to this one going into regular rotation, it's a good alternate for, say, Twist.

The rest of the first set absolutely smokes--that ten minute Bathtub Gin' is the shortest one they've played in ages but it's still incredible, and the Maze is just as good as an average one from '94 or '95. And hey, bring on more Keytar enhanced Frankenstein's. It must've been hilarious to see Page up there playing it...

Then we come to set two, which is the grand slam of the weekend in my book. The second night had some damn good improvisation, in retrospect, but I think Sunday's second set kills it. Much like the 2/28/03 Tweezer was held up as the first major jam of the post-hiatus era that stood up to the greats from years past, I think at the very least this Disease will live beyond the fame (infamy??) of the three night Hampton reunion run. Like the Rock and Roll and Ghost from night two, you can just feel Trey trying out new things and completely hooking in to what the rest of the band is up to. Fans of Fishman will adore the way he single handedly tries to shove this one out of deep space mode. Just when it seems that the song is about to end and all momentum is gone, Trey starts up Seven Below. I find myself paradoxically pleased by this version even though it doesn't really go nearly as far out as most of the spacey post-hiatus versions. It's....novel to hear Trey hang back in a jam for a minute or two, playing along rhythmically until he has hatched a plan of attack and winds the jam into high gear. I would hardly call this Seven Below an epic--at less than eight minutes it would be hard to--but it's still one you shouldn't miss. And something about the combination of funkin', rockin', and spacin' from this set reminds me of '97.

Speaking of awesome funkin', rockin', and spacin', holy lawd does this Twist deserve more love. Like the Wolfman's Brother from night two, its length initially had me saying "meh" but once I heard it, I was entranced. I know I'm not the only one who hears Mike and Fishman playing a few bars of Seven Below around the 7:09 mark, but the main thing I love is the way this Twist slowly but purposefully moves into the deep space we visited earlier with Disease. Toward the end Page even uses the new keyboard from his Suzy Greenberg solo from night one. Then as the space continues, Trey hitting the upper reaches of the Milky Way with his angelic loops, Fishman drops the beat on 2001.

Of course, Moma Dance comes next.

Of course.

After an unexpected but well placed While My Guitar Gently Weeps, we get one of the more poignant moments of the run with Wading In The Velvet Sea. We all remember that the last time this was played, it felt like a depressing wake for the band. Page could scarcely make it through without crying. They had to play it just to underscore, once again, that they were back. And they also managed to play the most lovely and perfect version of it you'll ever hear. I'm dead serious. Remember how I said they've gotten better at ballads, and how Trey is putting more effort and feeling into his vocal performances?? This is the sort of thing I mean. The ballads and set close-y songs like Slave To The Traffic Light are one of the last things on my mind when I think about great Phish moments, but the tail end of this show was a wake-up call to me for how the ending of a show can be just as memorable as the beginning and the middle.

I was holding out for some sort of crazy encore--like a 'Fluffhead Reprise' or another Destiny Unbound break-out--but what we got was just as satisfying. Plus I think a huge arena full of people singing someone's Dad 'Happy Birthday' is the kind of nice, touching moment that melts even my black, cynical heart.