And that is why you go to Phish shows. Last evening at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, CA Phish stepped into a Bay Area venue that was literally built for the Grateful Dead, and offered some of their strongest playing in recent memory. Whether they were channeling the energy left at Levi Stadium a few short weeks ago, paying homage to the original band beyond description, or simply tapping into a force that was on the verge, but never fully attained in Bend, Friday nights show brought the heat.
While so many fans continue to write off the potential for modern Phish shows to explode in a first set, something of a more regular occurrence years ago, the fact remains that it’s the bands way of greeting a new crowd, new space, and to set a tone for a show. Set one from Shoreline started slow, but incrementally ramped up until a short, but fiery “46 Days” capped it off. The energy cultivated in set one carried over into set two last night, which was the real highlight of the show, but in reflecting back on the first frame, that build up was an essential ingredient to the nights celebrated recipe.
After a slow start, “Moma Dance” got the crowd moving early, “Kill Devil Falls” kicked it up a notch, and on through “Free” there was a much more lively feel to the band and crowd last night as opposed to the Bend shows. Hearing the initial notes to “Reba” was a treat to the ears of many. While the hallowed jam that follows the vocal sections of the song failed to reach that intergalactic place so many fans know and love, the jam was bright, bubbly and poignant. It was one of those quiet “Reba” jams where guitarist Trey Anastasio takes you on a ride that requires attentive listening to truly appreciate the intricacies of what’s going on.
One more time, this is why you go to Phish shows. Three standout, fluid jams to start the set, channeling the spirit of the Grateful Dead in unique ways known only to Phish. These 46+ minutes will stand the test of time, as will the “Hood”. As a whole, the set showcased the three fluid, improv heavy songs to start, inserted “Joy” in the middle to take a breath, brought the vibe back with “Hood”, and then “Cavern” acted as the victory lap. “Character Zero” for the encore was like victory lap two. The band knew they threw down something special, as did all of those in attendance. That collective, shared feeling is special. It’s why anyone on the fence about making the drive to L.A. this morning has already been on the road for hours.
Only five sets into tour and we get a repeat to open set six? The energy built from set one had to go somewhere, and at first this choice felt iffy. But after fifteen minutes of play, when Trey started moving the band into “Twist”, there wasn’t a fan in the venue not locked into the impressive improvisation that had just taken place. Dripping in abstract tones, the vulnerability between band members here was a strong leap of faith. The song selection had the potential to not work out so well, as did the jam. But when Phish takes chances, even if they fail, it’s a major part of why so many show attendees become fans. “Blaze On” made a few new fans last night, and the effort to explore this new tune was rewarded ten-fold in what was achieved, as well as in how it paved a path for the following thirty minutes of the set.
The drop in from “Blaze On” was a smooth atonal sound. It was as fluid as one could ask for given the compelling places that the band had just been exploring. In the modern era of Phish “Twist” can go several ways. We’ve heard standard, short takes that packed a punch, stagnant offerings that left much to be desired, but all the while the knowledge of where this song can go is ever present. Last night at Shoreline, it went somewhere. That somewhere was caked in inspiration of the Jerry Garcia penned “The Wheel”. I know, I know, it’s the last thing I want to do, bringing these two bands together like this. As much as they share so many similarities (improvisational music, traveling fan base, etc.) to be fair their music is incredibly different. That said, go listen to “Twist” again from last night. There are several minutes where it feels like they could go into “Wheel” at any moment, but instead the band sticks to the periphery finding new places to explore. It’s a beautiful jam, light and bouncy, and as the meat to the primary jam sandwich of the night, it set up another fluid drop into the next song selection.
It wouldn’t be the last big jam of the night, but “Light” punctuated the 46+ minutes of true bliss felt last night by the thousands of fans in attendance at Shoreline Amphitheater. Don’t think there was a Dead influence last night? You can’t quite sign onto the “Wheel” influence in “Twist”? Well, then you probably missed the “I Know You Rider” licks in “Light”. I don’t know what to say. Was it GD 50? Playing at Shoreline? Sheer chance? Or am I completely lost? It wasn’t just Trey either. Page was driving the “Wheel” licks for a while in “Twist” and the whole band seemed to be dancing around the “Rider” spirit in “Light”. With the first real high-level improvisation of summer tour last night, there’s no denying that there are some pretty excited fans on the road to the L.A. Forum right now.
Always a fan favorite, last nights “Hood” was top shelf material. Leaving its normal structure, past “Hood” jams that breach such territory have been among the more adventurous offerings from Phish. One only needs to reference a few from the modern era, for example the last versions from Great Woods and the Hollywood Bowl, to properly acknowledge the band is far from afraid to take “Hood” for a walk these days. Last night at Shoreline things got weirder and weirder the more the jam moved away from the confines of the typical structure of the song. The notes bent from moment to moment, and in picking up the momentum lost from “Joy”, “Hood” delivered the goods bringing back the feel created from the first three songs of set two. By the songs final notes, set two could’ve ended and felt complete.
We’re looking pretty good here folks. One could point to another slowish first set, one that didn’t gain heavy traction until “Reba”. “Undermind” and “Free” lacked anything special. “Joy” crushed the momentum of set two and the last two songs of the night were unnecessary. All of that could be argue to some degree.
However, that’s not what it felt like to be at the show last night. In 2015, Phish continues to explore, offers new material, and surprises its fans as well as they ever have. Yes, it’s different, but if you look at “Cavern” and “Character Zero” as a chance to simply rock out after digging so deep, and “Joy” as that come down, take a breathe moment, there you have as quality of a set two as can be hoped for. More than an hour of premium improvisation, covering incredibly diverse ground on all fronts, done with unique style. Sure, maybe a different slow tune other than “Joy” if that doesn’t do it for you, and yes, shaking up first sets to jam more will always be welcome. But in taking a step back and reflecting on last night, not only is it the clear leader of shows played so far this summer, there’s music here that will carry through regardless of era or year. After all the time on the road, passing that test is a true crux in identifying where a show sits in Phishtory, and as the dust settled in the Bay Area this morning, it became even more apparent that last night was one for the books.