Sunday, July 10, 2011

Phish: Superball IX - Saturday, July 2nd, 2011 @ Watkins Glen, NY

After a fabulous show on Friday, everyone was eager and ready for three sets of music on Saturday.  The day began with a scorching 5.5k run around the NASCAR racetrack.  Among the participants were a few Uncle Sams, a naked guy, a Reno 911 officer, a small marching band, and a dude smoking a cigar.
The official title of the race is the The 101st Running of the First Annual Runaway Jim Memorial 5k Road Race.  I dig. 

After a well-deserved shower, everyone headed over to the concert field to stake out a spot for the afternoon set.  At 3:45pm, the band came out and started with Tube

Phish - 7/2/2011 "Tube" from Phish on Vimeo.
The moment the band began playing, hundreds of beach balls were launched into the air.  After Kill Devil Falls and Ocelot (sigh), Page stood up fromt the piano and went into club-singer mode, kicking balls offstage while crooning Lawnboy.  
I had high hopes for the Divided Sky that came next.  It was brutally hot in the crowd, and I needed something incredible to make an otherwise lackluster set worth my sunburn and fatigue.  While well-played, it didn't energize me as I'd hoped.  Listening back, the 'Sky was nothing to complain about.  The guitar tones stayed pure and the jam was fine - I would name Page as the MVP as Trey scrambled up and down note patterns and riffs.  He just kept banging on those keys in a way that was energizing and beautiful. 

Trey took his sweet time ending the solo section - looking back, it turns out he let the crowd yell for over two minutes.  I find the prolonged pause indulgent because they do it every time they play Divided Sky.  I understand and respect that it's the artist's choice, but to me, it gets old. 
The funktastic numbers Boogie on Reggae Woman and Camel Walk spiced things up and re-energized the crowd.  These were the kinds of songs that should have been more prominent during the afternoon set.  They are short, powerful, and always crowd-pleasing.  These were the songs that made me forget how much my feet hurt or how much I wanted a dude with a mister to come by.

I love the effect that Mike uses with Boogie On - the song itself is a total bassfest, and I love it.  The slow funk of Camel Walk jam was slowly grooved over to classic rock as Trey got his solo chops back.  Quick renditions of CitiesPoor Heart, and 46 Days kept the set going.
When Suskind Hotel began, more than a few phans glanced around at one other, hoping to see if anyone recognized the Mike Gordon Band original.  I really like Mike's solo work, and wish I had caught the show in Portsmouth, VA last summer when Phish covered Idea off the Green Sparrow.  I guess Suskind is the next best thing.  I like the way the song seems to have a dynamic meter yet drives like a traditonal rock n roll.  Mike's Haus. 

The band closed the set with a song that Page did at solo shows during the second hiatus - the Rolling Stones' Monkey Man.  It was funny to hear Page belt about how he was a monkey man, and it only gets funnier as I listen for the third or fourth time.  Heh.
As promised, the band announced the winners of the morning's 5k race in front of everyone, a la Runaway Jim.  Everyone cheered as the runners accepted their trophies onstage - I can only imagine the glory.  Trey read off the winners and their times in between verses as the rest of the band looped the transition over and over.  When the overall winner was announced, the band revved up and finished the song.  Weird - it was like a switch had been flipped.  All of a sudden, the magic from Friday's show was there in the music again.
McGrupp and the Watchful Horsemasters came next.  It was the first time they had played the tune this tour.  Its slick jazz undertones had everyone bopping around and singing along.  I liked the way two players were able to sync beats at times for extra oomph with a solo over it.  My favorite moment is about six minutes in, when Page takes control.  Trey and Mike sync up under him while he provides color and syncopation with the piano.
A rockin' Birds of a Feather was welcomed after the crowd was riled up with Axilla I.  Trey plucked out the Simpson's Theme while the band was messing around before Stash.  Everyone in the audience (even 3.0-ers such as myself) knew what to yell: D'OH!  Then we laughed while a steamy version of Stash began.  Trey cinched most of the notes in the compositional part and the jam hit its stride around the seven-minute mark.  Fishman provided a tribal-like beat while the others swam around in the sound, exploring new places while maintaining the integrity of the meter and key. 

I always love a good Mango Song (and, according to the enthusiasm of the crowd when Trey stumbled through the first few bars, so do 30,000+ others).  This version was especially fun - there was a nice piano breakdown that provided extra energy when the band revved up to go into the chorus.  Mango is a happy, bouncy, feel-good song - sort of like Backwards Down the Number Line, but less noobish.  Yes? 
Things slowed down for the traditional-sounding intro of Scents and Subtle Sounds.  A soaring jam combined with gentle lyrics made for an instant show favorite. 

Run Like an Antelope finished the first set with a bang (and a glowstick war).  This one never fails to excite the crowd, and Saturday's version was filled with lots of shredding and cool quirks.  There was a cool segue into the Marco Esquandolas section - Page was doing some damage with the organ while Trey found a pattern of a few squeaks that he used to pace the lyrics and create a quick new groove.  

My brother and I managed to worm our way up to about twenty feet away from the stage during the set break - it was the closest I had ever been at a Phish show.  The set began with Golden Age - something I hadn't heard live since the Albany shows of 2009.  (In fact, I became thoroughly obsessed with the song after those shows that I downloaded the original version and showed all my friends the funky music video.)

I love the array of songs that Phish covers.  They choose wisely, but eclectically.  This particular version of the TV on the Radio cover was spot-on and slid it way into a nice long jam.  
The always-sunny Piper was another similarity from the Albany show.  The unity of the instrumental music contrasted with the plurality of the vocals always hooks me.  The fast-paced jam attached to this one served as a stellar way to pump up the energy diatonically and then twist it around with a key change.

Things slowed down a bit with the jamtastic Tweezer.  Trey tried out a Hendrix-esque effect for the guitar in the beginning of the jam and totally stumbled through anything he played.  I don't know if it was a new thing that hadn't been prepared enough, a fluke, or a concious choice of style, but I didn't like it.  After he switched back into his usual tone, his playing returned to its nimble self.  Mike kept the bassline slow and steady while Trey and Page played off it.  Trey got stuck in the upper neck of his guitar for a while, but snapped out of it by returning to a classic rock-style solo after a minute or two of weirdness.
After a glowing Backwards Down the Number Line, the jazzy intro of Twist brought us to another dimension.  The song itself is full of metric delights, and the jam attatched to it this time played on that characteristic.  Trey held a somewhat steady tempo with his solo while the rest of the band played on the syncopated meter of the song.  About eight minutes in, the music crept back into the song structure for an ending chorus.  Either by mistake or just for fun, Trey began the line too early - the result was an oddly-placed woo!.  All of a sudden, Fishman was joining in with shouts of what?!.  Instead of an ending chorus, the band played off Trey's mistake and ended the song in a chorus-like jam.  
Those type of moments are the reason I dig improvisational music more than anything else. 

A quick 2001 dove into Harry Hood, which let out in a bouncy, gentle jam.  It glistened.  I would definitely choose it as one of my favorite jams of the night. 

The second set closed with three short numbers: Cavern, Golgi Apparatus, and the Beatles' A Day in the Life.

Tweezer Reprise popped up after a rousing Loving Cup (to which everyone in the audience sang along) as the encore.  Sometimes I dig the reprise more than the full version of the song.  It's a truncated version of all the energy that's in Tweezer, and brings back fond memories of the double Tweezer that happened in Hartford, CT last summer. 
Leaving the concert field, I felt like I was in a daze.  Once again, I was excited and curious as to how they could top that night's show - they had another entire day ahead of them.  I crashed within twenty minutes of making it back to the campsite.  Turns out, that was a bad idea.  I woke up a few minutes later to my brother tapping me on the shoulder.  He pointed in the direction of the concert field and whispered: Cactus.  

I focused and heard strange, nonsensical noises in the distance.  Heavy thuds studded swooping synths.  Occasional clinks, clangs, and whistles.  I put on a sweatshirt and we headed over to the concert field.  I arrived sleepy-eyed and a little disoriented - not only because of my recent wakeup call, but because of the scene itself.  Spotlights streamed into the dark violet sky.  There were speaker towers set up in every direction.  People were standing in Ball Square, the area of the field devoted to art exhibits.  Some were standing, some where sitting, and all were facing the fake storage unit that was a part of the art exhibition. 
The band began the Ball Square Jam with unscripted jamming - at times it was soft and ambiental, other times it was loud and insistent.  Either way, it was always a little eerie.  Sometimes they would work their way into a neat groove, only to morph it into something else entirely a minute or two later.  

Eventually Trey picked his way through a pattern that led into the ballad-like Sleeping Monkey.  This version was totally laid-back and stripped-down.  There were giggles, interjections from other members of the band (weasel!).  Eventually their playfulness manifested into a Merriweather What?! fest.  The song ended, but the jamming didn't - for another few minutes, at least.  Mike explored chromatisicms and Page occasionally chimed in with loopy synth noises.  It sounded like the music was literally winding up and down.  The hour-long jam faded into silence, as if it had never happened.

The next morning, I couldn't help but wonder - was it all just a dream?


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Phish: Superball IX - Friday, July 1st, 2011 @ Watkins Glen, NY

My weekend was more fun than your weekend. 
I took a 5-hour road trip to upstate New York.

I ate more quinoa than I'd care to mention.  I wore a sequined fanny pack.  Oh, and I heard some pretty good music. 
The sun was still peeking over the treetops when Phish walked onstage Friday night.  Not a minute had passed before the group launched into Possum over smirks - they knew that phans had had enough of the song.  It, along with Backwards Down the Number Line, ranked as the most-played song of Leg 1.  Possum was inevitable, funny, and after nine minutes, over for the entire weekend (no Possum Reprises, please). 
The Frank Zappa tune Peaches en Regalia followed Possum.  Although it had already been played on the tour, the crowd went wild.  Wooks were grooving, dudes were 'fiving, and everybody was excited.  It was euphoric.  The music soared, swooped, and glistened in the fading sunset.
The group hit their improvisational stride of the first set during The Moma Dance.  Trey led the way through peaks and valleys with an unfaltering hand.  Interesting background dialogue between Page and Mike made its way onto my radar during the show as well - sometimes I have more fun picking out the background than tuning into whoever is taking center stage.  Regardless, everything fit together seamlessly, much to our delight. 
Perhaps with the intent of continuing a theme from Festival 8, Trey gently strummed into Torn and Frayed, a Rolling Stones song (which first debuted in Indio, CA in 2009).  Page provided down-home honky tonk vocal harmonies.  Even though the Stones are British, some of their stuff reads as quintessential 'America' to me.
While pouring over my newly-downloaded LivePhish of the show, I was surprised to note that the Bathtub Gin was less than fifteen minutes long.  When I was at the show, it seemed much longer - they were able to complete a musical thought that used to take twenty or thirty minutes to get into.  They went where they needed to go and didn't take long to do it.    

Life on Mars? was one of my favorite songs of the set.  When Page cuts into the chorus, the pure and clear quality of his voice takes the song to a different level.  It is sentimental without being sappy - it is ernest without apologizing.  I thought that the Bowie cover might segue into David Bowie itself, but the boys saved that trick up their sleeve for Sunday night. 
My Friend My Friend provided a quick blast of quirkiness back into the set before Page banged out the first two chords of Wolfman's Brother.  Trey played along with the funk for a while during the jam, but turned on the shred button about halfway through.  The way the straight up rock of the guitar and the funkiness of the organ and bassline interplayed was really cool, and definitely kept us entertained (and happy!).
Funky Bitch was an appropriate way to continue the set after Roses Are Free (which, by the way, felt like a giant sing-a-long).  It was a little bluesy but still retaining the funkiness that had gone down during Wolfman's. 
 The second set opened with an ambient, loose jam that included maniacal chuckles from members of the band and an increasingly urgent bassline.  After a few minutes, Fishman brought the band into Crosseyed and Painless, a well-loved Talking Heads tune that has been on my Phish radar since the Coral Sky release in the past year (as well as the excellent version I saw at MSG in January).
This one was especially good.  The band was in total sync with each other, which produced intense jams, tight dynamics, and spot-on .  The last chorus faded into a gentle, ambient breakdown (no crazy laughing this time) until Trey softly strummed the chords to Chalkdust Torture, as if to test them out.  Do these still do the trick?  They did.

Afterwards, the band did a sweet Sand which left us wanting more - fortunately, The Wedge delivered.  It climaxed in a triumphant, energetic jam before daintily stepping down to the tonic and returning us to reality. 
When Trey tapped into Mike's Song, we knew something good was going to go down.  I really like the way the tenderness of the vocal line in the verses juxtaposes with the powerful guitar progressions.  It's a cool and unusual combination.

The jam from Mike's stayed in the box that it had been set up in - that is not to say that it wasn't interesting.  The structure of the song requires its jam to stay within reaching distance of the ending coda.  Because there were no takeoffs to distant keys or time signatures, it was cool to see what the band could do with the material they had.
In fact, one of the central focuses of Phish 3.0 is expanding music within confinement.  It's all about keeping baseline vitals going, like a steady rhythm or chord progression, and finding ways to make the music new and fresh.  There is no cheap thrill of landing on a distant key or faraway tempo - in that sense, the entire musical pursuit seems sort of noble and intellectual.

Simple, on the other hand, is a better platform for exploratory jams - this one drifted into sublimity before  finding itself floating into nothingness.

Phish - 7/1/11 "Simple" > "Bug" from Phish on Vimeo.

Bug served as more of a powerhouse than a cool-down-catch-your-breath sort of ballad, as it once had been.

Weekapaug Groove is one of my favorite Phish songs - and it was a special treat to be able to see it happen while standing close to the stage.  The energy in the air was of total spectatorship - I felt like I was at a track meet watching a race, and everyone wanted Cactus and his insane bass lines to win. 

I was surprised at how short Weekapaug turned out to be - at the show, it seemed long and satisfying, yet I have many versions of the song stashed on my computer that are over double its length.  I think it's another case for the succinctness of Phish's jams that weekend.  They were able to get straight to the point: the funky, funky point.
After Weekapaug melted my face a little, Trey gazed into the open sky and began to sing the opening lyrics to Joy.  I turned to my brother and groaned.  I will admit it - I have already picked the bone on this point.  To recap: I think Joy is sappy, overplayed, and uninteresting.  Trey was a little pitchy and, at times, almost threw the lyrics.  Let's just say I would have been very, very happy to end the show on a wonderful note with Weekapaug.

Character Zero came next.  The song dragged, but it was a quick fix for the energy that had been lost during Joy.  Trey lost steam during the second half - his jamming sounds messy and muddled.  He used an effect that gave his guitar a psychadelic effect, and it sounded like he was more focused on learning how to use his new toy than jamming.  Once he switched back to his guitar's normal tone, his soloing improved.
For the encore, the band did Show of Life.  I will admit, the song is slowly, slowly is growing on me.  Maybe it was because it was an otherwise fabulous show, I found that I could put up with it.  I just don't really like the sentimental Trey-reflects-on-his-life type of songs.  Sorry I'm not sorry.
In all, I was very impressed with the show.  The quality of the jams were great and the setlist held some stellar surprises in store.  It left me wondering how they would be able to top it during the upcoming days.  (Here's a spoiler: they did.)