Somebody asked me when I got back Wednesday night how many Phish shows I’d been to in the last two days. I said two, but three in the last three. She seemed shocked, but I explained to her that it wasn’t like I was doing the whole tour or anything – I’m not that diehard. There are people who set aside everything to go see every Phish show they can. This isn’t mania, it isn’t escapism – it is pure love of music. Every night is so entirely different, full of surprises, full of jams, full of peaks and grooves. I like to check the set lists and listen back to the shows I can’t make, but nothing beats being there, witnessing music that has never been played before and will never be played again.
Take the three shows at Bill Graham that I just went to. Each night had a very different musical tone, and each contained some quirks and some incredible improvisation. When they came the first night, they were at each other’s instruments. I’d never seen them all switch like that before. They played a song I’d never heard, which I found out later is written for a now deceased friend of theirs. That first set contained a lot of high-energy rockers. When they tore into a gut-wrenching “Maze,” I was happy my friend Jay, a metal-head, had chosen this one as his first show. The second set, as usual, contained the real improvisational meat, and kept up the energy of the first frame. “Sand,” “Ghost” and “Seven Below” all turned into jams that explored and found grooves and peaks. They played the funkiest rendition of the 2001 theme I’ve ever heard live. The drummer played his vacuum cleaner at some point, and the encore contained covers of both “Take me out to the Ball Game” and “A Day in the Life.” It was certainly a Phish show, and I left with the feeling that it was the best I’ve ever seen (I get that feeling after about half the shows I go to).
The next night they came out with a first set “Mike’s Groove” (actually three songs, usually played together, though sometimes with something extra in the middle) that set the tone for the show. It was groovy from there on out. “Plasma,” a tune from Trey Anastasio Band, got me moving hard. When “Gumbo” transitioned seamlessly into “Sanity,” I just about lost it. At set break, we hypothesized about what they might come out with. I was hoping for a “Tweezer.” My friend guessed “Kill Devil Falls,” and I shrugged my shoulders — I’ve never been a big fan. Well, he was right. But the ensuing jam surely made a fan out of me. They wove brilliance into that song, moving over all sorts of melodic textures. “Twist” was the real highlight of the show, though. It’s slow groove got even slower as the four musicians really locked into the jam. A transcendent “Harry Hood”, a classic, capped off the set. Oh, what a show!!!
The last night of the run is when they really shook it up. The first set got hijacked by the Giants winning the World Series. A roar went over the crowd in the middle of a song, and the boys transitioned into playing “We are the Champions,” before dropping right back into the funk that is “The Moma Dance.” The second set was when things got really weird. They hadn’t really stepped into the depths yet this run, and this was the time. After a racing “First Tube,” in the middle of the “Down with Disease” jam, the music got dark. Mike Gordon leaned on a Moog pedal and bass washed over the crowd. The next few songs all returned to this dark, murky territory, playing with minor tension and twisting the listener’s mind. After a short breather in “Heavy Things,” “Light” returned to this madness, and after an extended minor jam, was knocking at the door of insanity when the rock tune “Possum” emerged from the depths. The song, with a country vibe, was somehow both out of place and perfect. It didn’t fit the darkness, but it was a great way to rock out and celebrate a truly weird set of Phish.
People try to ask me which was my favorite, but how am I supposed to know? That’s why I went to all of them.
Contact Matt Simon at mwsimon ‘at’ stanford.edu