Won’t You Step Into the Meatstick?

Phish, Mullins Center, Amherst, MA
Saturday October 23, 2010

Set I: Meatstick, Party Time, Golgi Apparatus, Kill Devil Falls, Tweezer, Lawn Boy, Sparkle, Big Black Furry Creature From Mars, HYHU->Love You->HYHU, Possum, Tweezer Reprise

Set II: Down With Disease->My Friend My Friend->Prince Caspian->Halfway to the Moon->Boogie On Reggae Woman, Maze, Wading in the Velvet Sea, Piper->Harry Hood, You Enjoy Myself

E: Shine A Light

Driving up the Merritt Parkway with the foliage ablaze on both sides, heading to a mid-semester Phish show on a New England university campus, I felt like I was in college again. This is how I first knew Phish: cool, crisp autumn nights where it’s not quite cold enough for your winter jacket and you can still bareably hang out in the lots without freezing to death pre-show. My first shows were at small venues in New England during the fall tour (Worcester ’97 and ’98). This feels like home.

The Mullins Center, UMASS-Amherst

All day Saturday, I was really feeling the nostalgic vibe. But the reason it was so special is that it’s not pure nostalgia. Namely, Phish is not just a nostalgia act these days, plodding through the old motions and jams to remind us of how fun it once was. Last night’s show proved that Phish is still capable of creating monumental new musical moments out of focused group improvisation, and that the band is willing to take the songs and structures that have been road tested for so many years and lead them to new places. If anything, last night’s Kill Devil Falls, first set Tweezer, and the incredible stringing together of songs in the first half of the second frame – Disease->My Friend->Caspian->Halfway to the Moon->Boogie On – are all proof that Phish remembers what it was like playing energetic, exciting show in the 90s on college campuses as well.

Not that I had any doubt that Phish is back. But the last two shows I saw, the Jones Beach finale to summer tour, was sort of middle-of-the-road. There was the incredible Possum from night 1, as well as the excellent Simple within a well-played Mike’s Groove. But the second night felt scripted and cookie-cutter. Practically everyone knew the set closers would be Antelope and YEM respectively, and both felt as though they were played well, but without really desiring to create something special. Last night felt like a step up (and of course, my recording of Utica proved this too), in the right direction, towards jams that go to exciting and vibrant melodic and harmonic places, with affects that stray from the typical, and concise, intelligent jamming.

But last night was also a party! Both sets featured large chunks of dance-a-thon moments, and you could tell this was going to be the case with the one-two punch of Meatstick, Party Time to open the show. Meatstick was thick, funky, and the funk didn’t lighten up with the more gliding New Orleans shuffle of Party Time. An oddly placed Golgi followed – I can’t remember the last time I heard a mid-first set Golgi, I usually get it as a closer. The night’s first gem lay, unexpectedly, in Kill Devil Falls. I enjoy this song, but find that the jams usually stay within the blues-rock idiom of the song. Last night Trey went somewhere else. Mixing in the minor mode, heavily favoring not only the pentatonic but also the mixolydian scales, the jam took on a darker hue. I always find that Trey’s use of mixolydian soloing in a blues-rock context reminds me of the Grateful Dead, since that was Jerry’s signature sound on tunes like Eyes, Wharf Rat, and other tunes. Not that KDF sounded particularly Dead-esque in any direct way. But it had that same soaring, melancholy quality that Jerry gets. This was not just a typical, “Chalkdust”-jam on Kill Devil Falls. This took it out there, and the peak intensity felt that much more exciting.

The first set Tweezer that followed really blew me over. First set Tweezers usually have something quirky or unique to them, a certain departure from the typical second set dancefest that the song brings – see the version from 8/8/09 at the Gorge – and this version proved that. The jam started out really low – with the band gradually paring down their texture to just a straight beat from Fish, a really grooving line from Mike, some funky strumming from Trey and little piano riffs from Page, with Trey throwing in a few harmonics to get the jam feeling a little bit “out there.” But this funk soon gave way to a very familiar ambient funk, and it felt like we were back in 1998 again. I kept hearing bits of my favorite Island Tour jams during this Tweezer, textures, patterns, and tonalities that characterize some of those really quiet funk jams (like the monumental 4/3/98 Roses). The polyphonic communication wasn’t as locked in last night as it was for those older jams, but the feel was there. This Tweezer built on this quiet funky soundscape and brought it to a soaring peak, with Trey tastefully employing “the whale.”

The rest of the set got downright silly. We were four rows up from Page, about 1/4 way around the back of the stage (looking directly at the stage, we were at about ten-o’-clock), and so Lawn Boy was just a treat for us.

Our seats night 1 Amherst, so close to Page

And Fishman was really close as he ran laps during his victorious Hold Your Head Up. BBFCFM was a nice treat, such a ridiculous song. But the Sparkle sent us over the edge. My wife had found a sequined jacket in her mother’s house, from the early 90s. You simply cannot understand the magnitude of this jacket without having seen it (by the way, if you heard someone singing early 90s dance hits like “Be My Lover” or “100% Pure Love” while in line to get into the venue, that was my wife. That’s how we roll). Naturally we wanted to hear Sparkle, which ain’t an everyday song anymore. We were sure that Page and Trey stared right at my wife’s sparkle jacket during Lawn Boy, and we are equally sure that they played Sparkle for us. We just know.

Possum was nice, another smokin version. Trey seems to really care to make each version of this song as huge as he can, without presenting a generic version that sounds like every other Possum. Clear set closer, I thought. Until TWEEZER REPRISE IN THE FIRST SET! If there was any doubt, now we knew. It was ON last night. And continuing with the playful antics that have thankfully come back into the Phish experience, Meatstick lyrics instead of the Tweeprise lyrics rounded out the set. I don’t know if I’ve danced so hard during a first set in a while.

Possum! The ticket called it

The second set felt like it had two distinct parts: a more exploratory, atypical song selection in the first half with creative segues that actually connected songs seamlessly, and then a blowout of barnburners that didn’t sound tired or as though they were pandering. Yes, it was Saturday night and they played YEM, but it didn’t feel like they were pandering to us (as it did on night 2 of Jones Beach: “well it’s the tour closer, so let’s play YEM…”).

Disease was nice, solid type II jamming, very typical of many second set opening jams since 2009. But it was still really quite good. The jam never really felt as though it went to that dark, slow, sparse place that a lot of second set Disease jams go to (like the phenomenal Alpine version that bleeds into What’s The Use?). But it does fizzle into ambience for a couple minutes at the end, before some repetitive strumming from Trey gives way to the triple meter hi-hat glide of My Friend My Friend. For the second time this year, My Friend My Friend has shown up in second set at the close of a fierce improv. A great version, perfectly played intro part. Instead of the usual “Mife” and maniacal laugh ending, the loud, dissonant strumming led into the comfortable consonance of Prince Caspian. This song can kill momentum, or it can provide a nice, midtempo break before more exciting ventures ahead. Last night’s version didn’t kill the momentum, and the short jam quickly went to a very light, happy major key place, with little trills and turns from Trey, melodic playing high on the neck from Mike and tinkling arpeggios and high notes from Page. Eventually, Trey’s soloing gives it a stronger rhythmic push, and as a groove slowly creeps into the jam, Trey starts to play the long sustained notes of Halfway to the Moon. It was a perfect segue, because at first it just sounded like long sustained notes over the jam’s texture, but soon, when Page got that funky downtempo piano bass line going, Fish picked up the beat and effortlessly pushed the song into existence.

This is definitely one of the best Phish songs Page has written. Way better than Army of One or Beauty of a Broken Heart. And they’ve really nailed it – it sounds polished and practiced. I’m firmly in the Halfway to the Moon camp, I loved the song at SPAC. I think it’s a really nice darker song from Page, and I’m glad to hear it. The ending saw Trey introduce a reggae feel with his strumming, and Mike soon clicked on the envelope filter. It wasn’t long before that combo led its way perfectly, as though it was pre-composed, into Boogie On Reggae Woman. A friend who is into the Disco Biscuits once asked me to give him an example of a really good Phish segue, where the songs connect naturally and seamlessly. This was one of those segues. Fishman managed to make the transition without having to stop his beat and then start the next one, which he sometimes has to do when the rest of the band has switched but he can’t get there as easily. Mike and Page’s clavinet were the featured soloists on Boogie On, with Trey happy to sit back and just vamp the chords.

Why do I try to kill you?

That was the first half of set II. Segues, interesting song choice, some funk, some pretty, minimal moments. Now it was time to dig in and bring it home. A mid-set Maze was a fantastic choice, typical dark blowout. I’m really impressed at the way Phish is managing to say a lot musically in a shorter amount of time. Mr. Minor wrote about this, and I think he’s spot-on accurate. Phish is now able to cover just as much improvisational ground in 7-8 minutes as they used to in 15-20 minutes. They’ve taken the long, long groove jams of 1997-2003 and compressed them, taking less time to get away from the song’s basic structures, and less time to bring them to a peak. All without sounding rushed. As such, these jams feel long, and whole and complete, even in 10 minutes. Shorter jams without sacrificing quality – that means you can make a lot more songs. Last night’s second set featured 10 songs. I never once felt like a jam got cut off before its natural end.

Velvet Sea provided a nice breather after Maze – again, it’s all about placement. And then the knockout punch: Piper->Hood->YEM. I wish they would play a real Piper intro again. I’m sick of these versions where Trey starts strumming the chords immediately, and then gets right into the lyrics and jam. I miss those early versions from 1997-1999 when the intro would be drawn out for 3 or 4 minutes, all arpeggios and tension building up to the strumming riff. But the jam was classic rapid-fire Piper, fast percussive strumming from Trey and a real flying beat from Fish. Hood surprised me, since I was sure we were getting YEM, and many were reminded of the possibly “best-ever” version of Hood from 12/5/95 in this very room. This version wasn’t as good as that one :). But it is always nice to hear Harry and Mr. Minor come out. The YEM was typical, but fun, with an extended bass and drums segment that sounded like Mike was just going off without ever really planning to wrap it up, eventually, he found the dominant and hit it strongly signaling the vocal jam.

I had a feeling we would get a classic rock cover for the encore. Shine A Light is really a great way to wrap up a smokin’ show. This show felt like an old throwdown, even though many of the songs were newer. This show had a little of everything you could want from a New England Phish show. Great jams in the first set Tweezer, Kill Devil Falls, the Disease. Strong segues. Stupid fun (Meatstick, BBFCFM, Love You), and heavy-hitter Saturday night tunes like Possum, Maze, Piper, Hood and YEM. I felt sore after dancing so hard, so joyfully, and so much. All in all, it feels like old Phish, but it’s definitely new Phish. And new Phish is good.

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~ by Jake on October 24, 2010.

2 Responses to “Won’t You Step Into the Meatstick?”

  1. Hey, man, My name is Josh, Me and my buddy sat behind you at Sundays show- you showed me your setlist notebook….I was right, I’ve been to this site before. It was my friends 1st show- he loved it I liked it, Glad to hear Roggae though, my favorite tune. Nice to have met ya, you called alot of songs. I also have 2 Eskimos, love my doggs! See you out there somewhere

    • Hi Josh! very cool, glad you found me here. as you can see from my review of Sunday, I also “liked” it rather than loved it, but I think it’s very interesting that your friend “loved” it. For those of us who have seen many many shows across 2 decades, Sunday night obviously had a glaring lack of improvisation (other than that meaty first set Stash, Antelope, and the Bowie). But for those who are approaching it from a different perspective, it was great. I could imagine being a younger fan, in college, who got really into Phish during the breakup and never got a chance to see them until now. I’d know a lot of songs and love them, and then Sunday night might’ve been my first time hearing lesser-played tunes like Fee, Brother, Lizards, Camel Walk, Quinn. Could you imagine if that was the first time you heard all those songs? You would have walked out of Sunday speechless: “I can’t believe they played all those songs!!” You wouldn’t care that they didn’t really jam.

      That’s where I’m at. I was just happy to hear those aforementioned songs, because (since my first show was 1997) I haven’t heard a ton of versions of Lizards or Fee.

      I also love Roggae, one of my favorite slower songs. it’s so gorgeous, and some of Tom’s best lyrics.

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