When Phish sets a high-water mark (2009 Cincy and 2010 Alpine Valley), it's nearly impossible for them to replicate that feat, so much so that it seems like everyone begins chasing that same high (fans and the band alike) for the ensuing days, weeks, and months.
I've been fortunate to have seen every show this run and the last four shows of the previous run. Looking back on this leg of summer tour, it's clear to me that something happened during the first night at Deer Creek while everyone recovered from a post-Telluride hangover. Phish was way off that evening, especially Trey, but since that hiccup, the band has been on fire. I guess taking a few weeks off before the second half of summer tour affected the band in a bad way because The Greek shows were inconsistent and sloppy (compared to the Alpharetta shows), but included many high points including the second night. Telluride was a destination show and can't really be grouped in with the rest of these shows because let's face it...Telluride was on a different planet. Which leaves us to the Deer Creek and Alpine Valley run and four nights of fun in the Midwest. After a blah opening set at Deer Creek, the wheels came off the bus. The band patched everything back together during setbreak and embarked on a heater. The last three sets at Deer Creek were amazing and the Phish that we all expected to hear. As the tour progressed, the band kept getting better and better until they touchdowned at Alpine Valley and then they really let it rip. Yes indeed, Saturday night in Alpine Valley was the latest high-water mark of the 3.0 era. For the next few months, that show will the measuring stick to which we judge the rest of the shows -- that is until another scorcher comes along and kicks us in the ass.
After witnessing the second night at Deer Creek and the opening night at Alpine Valley, I knew it would be impossible for them to replicate and continue the heat. I sensed the band felt the same way, which is why they eased off the pedal a bit for the second night at Alpine Valley. They really had nothing to prove and instead settled down into an evening of soulful playing. The word "soulful" appeared numerous times in my notes because that's the best word to describe the band's playing during the last night at Alpine Valley.
I woke up early on Sunday morning (still in the clothes from the previous night) and still reeling from the Saturday show. At 7am, the crew in our lakeside cabin were still asleep. I wandered over to Daddy's cabin and sure enough, he and Jason were up. I walked into a stimulating story by Daddy about an old friend from college who once ate two live mice for $60. Some nights I wonder if Phish would break up the monotony of the show and inside of a HYHU > Fishman Vac solo, he horrifies the crowd by biting the head off of a live chicken. I know it's been done before by other acts, but in 200+ shows I've never seen an animal sacrifice onstage at a Phish show. The lot is a whole different story completely, but snuffing out animals is in Phish's bag of tricks.
I had two extra lawns and gave one to Daddy's sister and the other to Phil's buddy. Iggy and I upgraded to the pav courtesy of Kari, who happened to have two extras. Good seats too -- a few rows in front of the soundboard right in the middle of the pavilion. Awesome to hang out with Kari and her husband. She's been to 40+ shows and a well-seasoned vet from the late 90s era.
So how could Phish outdo themselves? They couldn't. Which is why they were relaxed and just went out to have fun and play. Tweezer opener was an unusual selection and set the tone for the evening with a warning -- you have no idea what's coming next. Instead of the standard AC/DC Bag opener, we were treated with a mellow Tweezer followed by the formulaic Bag. I wasn't the only one who would have preferred a Bag then Tweezer judging from the Twitterverse. As I wrote yesterday, heavy hitters as show openers are often wasteful opportunities. Tweezer wasn't exactly a throw away song and they definitely rocked it up, but could have been better placed after they warmed up a bit.
Digging deep into their repertoire, On Your Way Down, was the latest cover song offered up by Phish. Originally an Allen Toussaint tune popularized by Little Feat, On Your Way Down featured soulful vocals from Page with straight-forward dirty blues riffs from Trey. It's tough to match the Divided Sky from Telluride with the sun dipping behind the mountains with pink and orange hues reflecting off puffy clouds.
I was moderately interested in Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan and still feel it's either hit or miss with me. This time, I was indifferent. The bluegrass-ish Water in the Sky was up next and well received, but lacked the firepower of some of the songs we got to hear in the previous opening sets which included 13 (Deer Creek #2) and 14 (Alpine Valley #1) songs respectively.
Things got funky with Moma Dance and the pav trembled for the first time since Tweezer. Phishy funk is my favorite aspect of Phish and Moma came just at the right time, but any ass-shaking momentum was lost when the boys unleashed Farmhouse. The title track from the album with the same name received mixed reviews from my section. I had not heard it in a while, and like most of those rare songs that they have been tossing out their every night, the version was a little shaky. I dunno if they have been practicing those bustouts or having to relearn some of the songs that are no longer in heavy rotation. It seems as though they practiced Farmhouse enough to perform a playable version, but still need a few live run-thrus before they really nail one of their older songs.
Any air that got deflated from Farmhouse was pumped back up with a smoking Bowie. The build up and layered jam was superb. And as per usual, just when Phish got cooking...they pulled the plug on set 1 and walked off stage with a scorching Bowie closer.
I hung out with Quinn at setbreak and like everyone who experienced the first night at Alpine, he was gushing about the show. It was hard not to talk about it, but at the same time, I didn't want to get my hopes up too high for the second set. It's not fair to put that pressure on Phish and nothing good could come with expectations of any sort. But, from experience, the set 2s all tour have been smoking. Like a powerful football team that makes much needed adjustments at half-time, Phish has been absolutely killing it when night officially falls. Maybe they are vampires and have an aversion to daylight?
The boys were not fucking around with a Ghost opener. Lots of UFOish teases which delved off into a spooky-type foggy jam and eventually peaked to a stimulating crescendo before coasting into a soothing Theme from the Bottom. Page shined, as expected, and they blew me away with another perfectly layered jam. At that point, they nailed build ups in the pulsating monster jams in Bowie, Ghost, and Theme.
Big Black Furry Creatures from Mars was another curveball. Loud. Thrashing. Menacing.
"This is my new favorite song," said Iggy.
BBFCFM was another warning sign that the aliens would be returning later that night to pick up stray spacekids who got left behind. The last time the mothership touched down was Telluride, but it was coming. Shit, everyone knew it was coming.
A mid-set YEM was a screwball. I got so used to it anchoring a set 2 that I forgot what could happen if they broke it out in the middle of the set. From the moment Trey jumped off his trampoline, he embarked on a furious journey. The jedi officially returned during the ripping YEM jam. The vocal jam always inspires me to look around the crowd and people watch. It's easy to determine who's spun and who is not judging by their reaction to the eerie voices from beyond.
Piper was dark and deviant with a few pinnacle moments, but it fell short of the mark compared to some of the other jamming vehicles that we heard earlier in the night. It's not that it was bad -- it just wasn't as delicious as say Ghost or Bowie.
The jam out of Piper was full of 2001 teases.
"Everyone knew it was coming," said Sweet Willy. "It just took a long time to get there."
While Kuroda's UFO-inspired lights were reminiscent of the contact scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the post-Piper and pre-2001 jam felt like it was stuck in purgatory. Trey even teased the Close Encounters theme in the Piper jam. It would simmer up for a bit, then begin to bubble to the surface, but the band would pull back a bit and let it simmer some more before turning up the heat.
And then the release... 2001 dance party exploded and the pav went berserk. Definitely one of the highlights of the night and of the tour for me. 2001 seg'd unexpectedly into a cover of the Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps. George Harrison wrote the song and Trey stepped up to the plate and crushed a thunderous home run. I used the word "slaying" on Twitter to describe his stimulating guitar work.
Character Zero rocked. Smoking version to end the set. Aside from a few moments at the end of Piper, I did not stop dancing one bit during the second set. Yeah, the boys earned their paycheck for sure.
So, everyone knew Tweezer Reprise was coming, but what was going to be the other tune? Phish selected three songs before ending the show with their epic anthem. I was itching to hear Loving Cup, but we got another cover song for Page to sing -- Velvet Underground's Oh Sweet Nuthin'. They brought it back into the mix last summer at Shoreline and I've been lucky to hear a few versions since then. Cavern was full of high energy and the pav ground violently shook. Trey did not flub the tough lyrics. I thought Cavern was going to set up a Tweprise, but Trey dragged us into Joy. I had never taken a piss during an encore before -- and was about to but I knew I wouldn't get back in time for Tweeprise. Once Joy ended, everyone rose to their feet and began the pogo-stick dance, hopping up and down and joining along with Trey. He was hoping up and down himself and even unleashed a karate kick (just like Van Morrison when he played Caravan with The Band for The Last Waltz). When Trey has fun, we all have fun.
If you went into the second night at Alpine Valley expecting Phish to top the previous two nights, then I guarantee you were left disappointed. However, if you went in with no expectations, then you got a killer show. It was nearly impossible to repeat what had happened on Saturday night.
I had such a good time on Saturday night that after the show, I told my girlfriend that there was a 5% chance I would go to Jones Beach. When I woke up on Sunday that had climbed to 10%. Once I discovered that my buddy Matt Law had extras to both nights at Jones Beach, the percentage rocketed to 75%. As I walked out of the Sunday show, I was 90% sure I was going to Jones Beach. All I had to do was change my flight, call my brother and tell him I was coming to NYC for a few days, and move back a few meetings.
I have caught nine shows this tour out of 11. At the time I set my schedule, I figured nine was more than enough, but after that Saturday show and second set on Sunday, how could I avoid the final two shows of tour?
I pulled the trigger on Jones Beach. In fact, right now, as I write this recap, I'm sitting in Milwookie airport awaiting my new flight to LaGuardia airport in NYC. See ya at Jones Beach on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Nine down. Two to go.