Sunday, March 8, 2009

Phish Reunion: Night Two Review

As the first set alone is an hour and 45 minutes, I'm going to do my best not to attempt a song-by-song walkthrough. Still, aside from its length the first set of the second night is notable for a few things. The first and most apparent is that Phish has gotten better than ever at playing ballads. Take a listen to 'Brian and Robert', which has a slightly different arrangement now, losing the vocal 'ooh' bit. Listen for how studied and strong Trey's voice sounds and the way Page's blends so well with it. While I'm on the subject of Page, god damn has he been bringing it for the shows so far. You can really see why the band played his solo song 'Beauty Of A Broken Heart' as well as his 'showcase' piece 'Lawn Boy' in the same set. I feel like Trey is still warming up a bit as far as improvisation and fill/backing playing goes but Page has been on the ball from the get-go. This could just be a result of the way the soundboard copy is mixed, but who knows...

The third notable thing about this set is the tasteful mixture of oldies-but-goodies and rarities. Can you really be angry at a set that contains 'Gumbo', 'It's Ice', and 'Guelah Papyrus'?? Can you really be mad at a set that contains almost-perfect-especially-compared-to-post-hiatus versions of 'Reba' and 'Split Open and Melt'?? I think not.

Lastly, let us pause and note how much more plugged in and excited Trey sounds to be playing in Phish again. I've always been a big defender of post-hiatus Phish but even I will admit that many times during his solos from that era he seemed to lack any motivation or inventiveness. The Trey of 2009 is a different man, though. I'm already getting ahead of myself and talking about the show as a whole, but while his playing in general may not be up to the standards of your personal favorite year or tour, it's far more energetic, focused, and experimental (in the literal sense of the word) then it has been for some time. And for that matter, pay attention to how he's singing and delivering the words, too. You may think his pauses and seemingly off-time delivery are a sign of rustiness or forgetfulness, but give 'Heavy Things' another spin. That is the sound of a man who's learned how to vary an approach to singing as much as he has to playing. I generally have bad things to say about his solo career since '04 but at least it's given him the confidence or motivation to put more care into his vocal performance.

Much like last night, the first set is long and extremely well played. I would probably rank the 'It's Ice' and 'Back On The Train' among the best played; the former for the mind-blowing space section in the middle (which reminds me of nothing so much as the illustrious jam between 'Waves' and 'David Bowie' from the IT Festival) and the latter for both opening the show and demonstrating Trey's renewed solo vigor.

The second set is damn near an hour and a half, so if you're wondering why they only managed a single song encore, now you know why. The set starts off with a searching, patient 'Rock and Roll' that makes me eat my words about Trey needing more time to warm up his improv and fill/backing playing. This particular version may never congeal into a true classic but the band's collective interplay is continually interesting and worth chewing on a few times to wring all the juices out before you swallow. The semi-segue into 'Limb By Limb' is the first sign you'll get that this set will be better as a whole package then it is for any one or two particular songs or magic moments. Rather, my continual impression throughout this set, and my feeling toward the whole show in general, is that I'm just fucking elated to hear new Phish music again. See, I didn't get really into Phish until '04 when they were about to break up. So this is the first time I've got share in the anticipation and reaction to the music being made as it's being made. It's like getting to return to a particularly happy part of my childhood, or perhaps returning to a relationship that went bad. Only now, that woman is back and things are as good as they ever were, perhaps better.

The 'Ghost' (played in the '97 and post-hiatus style, without the delay loop opening) in this set doesn't stack up to my personal favorite versions but make no mistake: it's still damn good. I suspect that the more I listen to it, the more I'll enjoy it, but even on this, my second spin, I'm already according the whole band gold stars. I'm slightly torn on the way it goes to that seemingly standard 'Ghost' trope where the music speeds up and eventually Trey goes into his arpeggio, twirling/swirling "we just hit the peak!!" stuff, but I never get tired of hearing that, so...Anyway, the stuff he does around the 7:30 mark with his sparse playing and loop pedal is brilliant and something I've never heard him do before. Again, this is a great sign that he's making plenty of room for Mike, Fishman, and Page to take a more active role in the jams while he's still contributing, too. Maybe I'm making too much of this, but I predict that this 'Ghost' will go down as the first notable improvisation of 2009. I liked Friday night's show as much as anyone, and it had some excellent playing, soloing, and jamming throughout, but you've got to admit that so far the second set of Saturday night is the high water mark for the weekend, improvisation and segue-wise. Though I'm not sure there's any kind of segue into 'Piper' from 'Ghost' because Page's lovely piano outro dies away before the first notes start. Whatever. We'll have to wait a bit longer for a true epic 'Piper' but I can hardly be mad when the unexpected segue into 'Birds Of A Feather' becomes clear. This is one of those moments where you have to wonder if they had it planned or Trey just decided on the spot to do it. As early as 4:30 into 'Piper' you can hear it coming but your first thought will probably be "man, if Trey keeps this up this is going to be one of the most wild 'Piper's ever...."

Let's all have a hearty laugh at Trey flubbing the second verse of 'Birds.' Perhaps we will receive whippets that dance in a curlie cue dance, Trey. Perhaps.

Now, here's where the set seals the deal for me. I was already feeling above-average-happy with the proceedings thus far, but this 'Wolfman's Brother' totally has me embarrassing my pale, gangly white self by causing me to now type: awww sheeeit, son. I will confess right now that I'm the sort of fan who glances through setlists and scoffs at short versions of what I consider 'big jam' songs. A 12 minute 'Tweezer'?? I'll pass. A sub-9:00 'Wolfman's Brother'?? What is this, 1995??

But, listen up friends, because this is the tightest god damn 'Wolfman's' you'll ever hear. It's short but the band doesn't waste a second. While Trey does the kind of galloping, choppy playing he did on the legendary Slip, Stitch & Pass version, Page and Mike tear it up, funk style. Once Mike hits his synth pedal, he and Fishman lock into this ass kicking groove that is only surpassed by one of the best, most concise Trey-led jams you'll ever hear. I'm dead serious. By the 6:30 mark, any doubts you had about whether Trey "still had it" will be obliterated.

So, yes, this 'Wolfman's Brother' is a "mere eight minutes long." Well, if every version of 'Wolfman's' ended up being this short, as long as they were this great I wouldn't mind.

I know what you're thinking now, and no, the 'Prince Caspian' isn't boring. It's better than normal, even. This is thanks, once again, to Page, who I daresay turns in a command performance. His solo before the band comes crashing back in with the closing section is ample proof that, as the saying goes, Page Side Is Rage Side.

And then they played a 'Mike's Groove', which is the first one since 2000 I've given any kind of shit about. No, the 'I Am Hydrogen' wasn't note perfect; and while I feel like broken record for saying this again, I'm going to: it wasn't note perfect but it was still far better than post-hiatus. The 'Weekapaug Groove' has a particularly excellent moment around the 4:30 mark where the band locks into one of those old fashioned, face melting grooves before launching into the 'Weekapaug' ending and yeah, once again you'll think to yourself, Phish is back. Hell, even the standard issue 'Character Zero' set closer is played with a zeal and focus that I haven't heard from Trey since, dare I say, 1997.

Oh, and then they encored with 'A Day In The Life.' I forgot how much I liked this song, and how much I liked hearing Phish play it. But I guess I could say the same thing for everything they played tonight.

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