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.)



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