Winds Blowing Differently Than Ever Before

Trey clearly had something in mind when he started “Drowned” Tuesday night. After a smoking “After Midnight” with a nice, long, fast minor blues jam that moved through ambient space before ending in a blistering “Possum,” Page started playing the beginning of the Who’s classic Quadrophenia tune. Trey was having an OK night so far, it seemed. After a strong opening to the first set, he totally lost it on “Divided Sky” – calling it a “flub” would be a disservice to the word flub. That led into a “Charater Zero” set I closer, which was, well, it was “Character Zero.” Redemption came in the form of the opening 1-2 punch to set II, but maybe Trey wanted to repent just a little more.

And so when they started the jam to “Drowned,” Trey didn’t take off with frantic soloing in the highest register of his guitar as per usual on the jam. While the rest of the band raged into the jam with the standard early-jam frenzy, Trey hung back, strumming a fast but sparse chord. I thought it was a mistake, since the whole band was playing full bore except for Trey. The rest of the band caught on, and gradually wound the jam down to a more gentle, but dark, groove. The jam pushed along like this for a little bit, before starting to explore the spacey ambient soundworld that we’ve been hearing a lot in the last few shows: the Boogie On>Waves>Caspian from Friday’s Bethel show, the Disease and Halley’s from Saturday night, the 46 Days from Sunday. The remarkable thing about this “Drowned” jam was that it seemed to explore five or six distinct different space jams. Just as it seemed the jam would end with a big wash of electronic sound, Fishman would pick up a beat and that wall of noise would start to take on a fluid and dynamic shape, moving along with the beat. Page spent a good amount of time on his most electronic-sounding keyboards (the same ones used in “Meatstick”), but to a very different effect, flooding the pavilion with sinewy, swelling chords.

Each of these mini space jams would form, take on its own personality, grow and generate some light melodic ideas from Trey and Mike, and then fizzle into another space jam. It was truly something to behold, and then finally, out of one of those space jams, Fishman emerged with the distinct hi-hat ticking of “Maze.” Nothing could have been better in this spot (well, maybe “Ghost”…). After getting lost in a variety of small ambient/noise jams, Phish’s signpost moment, the one that brings you back to familiarity and comfort after a long improvisational journey, was one of their most demented and darkest songs. Page’s solo was drawn out even longer than usual, with the chairman of the boards focusing on lots of dissonance against Trey’s equally dissonant chords. It kept building the tension, for longer than usual, until the usual outburst of consonance from the organ. When Trey finally started “Dirt,” it was the breather that we all needed. We had just been mindfucked for the better part of 30 minutes with the opening “After Midnight” through “Maze,” and required something that was actually a breath of relief.

This was, without a doubt, one of the most creative pieces of improv from this band since the comeback, up there with the Utica “Have Mercy” and the Gorge “Sneakin Sally.” And it seems to be heralding the direction the band wants to go in 2011: to the moon. Phish is interested in space again, much like the summer of 1998 which focused on the ambient, Brian Eno-esque style where layers of held notes and chords exist alongside droning bass lines and light, cymbal-heavy drumming. There seem to be a few kinds of space that Phish is exploring, and both were part of last night’s “Drowned.” There’s the noisy, dissonant space where Fishman is much more active, providing little in the way of beat and instead cascading his many toms and cymbals into a percussive wash – this was the “Boogie On” space from Friday in Bethel. And then there’s the more typical space: diatonic, often major or at least leaning that direction, with a floating light beat from Fishman and gentle, slow noodling from Trey – the “Waves” space from Friday night.

In a way, I wasn’t completely wrong with my outro jams theory. Those outro jams were all very spacey and/or noisy. It’s a matter of placement: regardless of where the jam is, whether its taking the place of the normal jam on the song (as was the case with “Drowned”) or being spun out of the ending, space is clearly the new place.

The show’s first set was exciting too, in part from some creative setlist placement of songs that aren’t typically part of a mid first set. After a scintillating “Chalkdust” opener, the band immediately played “Roggae,” which I thought was a little quick to switch over to a slow song. No matter, they brought it right back with “PYITE,” my call for the opener last night. Then they got into the meat of the set: “Moma,” “Rock and Roll,” “Sand,” “Tube.” Huh? “Rock and Roll” and “Sand” in the middle of the first set?? R&R was typical of the other versions we’ve heard recently that haven’t been set II openers, the song’s normal position. Like the 8/17/10 Jones Beach and the 12/31/10 set closing version, this “Rock and Roll” never ventured into that type II psychedelic extension that we often hear when the song opens a second set. This was balls to the walls, full on rock soloing for a good five minutes, no build, just turned up to 11 the whole time. Following that with “Sand” was just silly. While not quite as good at the NYE version, this “Sand” showed the band’s desire to build any jam patiently. Also, Trey seemed to be avoiding the muted staccato soloing that laced this song on New Year’s, what the interwebz have been calling “Plinko Funk.”

Trey mentioned something about Page’s house (yes! I love it when they bring back a recurring joke) and then hit into the opening to “Tube.” Please, please, let this be the one they actually jam out? It seemed to be heading in that direction, with a Page’s house standing clavinet jam that seemed to be taking its time to craft something. But after about five minutes, before the jam could really take off, Fishman forced the blues ending, not Trey! Much has already been said about the “worst ever” “Divided Sky.” OK, yeah, Trey completely omitted the guitar solo before the quiet section. At least he tried to make fun of himself, turning the mic to the crowd to implore us to sing the solo! It was bad, but hey, at least he missed it because he’s getting older, and not because he’s on OC! There’s some silver lining to that botched “Divided.”

The other notable jam of the show was the “After Midnight,” which sounded a lot like the 8/8/09 Gorge “Rock and Roll” at times, once it really got out there. When they started the J.J. Cale tune, I was initially put off. Like anyone who was at Big Cypress, this song has special significance for me. When it came back to open a unique show in Manchester last fall, that was fine, and then playing it right after midnight on NYE is a gimme. But I don’t want to see this song become part of the regular rotation of covers. It’s too place-specific, it carries too much meaning, and I don’t want it to lose that meaning. There was nothing like hearing it close the first set of 12/31/99, knowing that we really were going to let it all hang down after midnight, and then when it came back at 5:00am for a 20 minute excursion, it was really the icing on the cake. One of the most memorable musical parts of that night.

But Phish did it justice last night. As the song ended, they stretched out the song’s signature rhythm pattern and were clearly intending to move onward into uncharted waters. First bringing it down with a Mike-led segment, the jam eventually fell into that comfortable soft but fastly moving funk/blues jam, with Fishman pushing a quick steady beat, warm Rhodes sounds from Page, a grinding bass line, and soft soloing from Trey. If you know the 7/13/03 Seven Below (and you should), then it’s that jam sound from after the spacey segment in that tune. Same feel as last night. Before devolving into its own spaciness, Trey started to play a little bluesy chord at weird rhythmic intervals, eventually turning into the “Possum” riff. The “YEM” set closer everyone knew was coming was great, too.

So, space. I’m predicting that we’ll get a bunch more of that tonight. Wilson opener seems guaranteed, as do “Ghost,” “Piper,” and “Twist,” and I suspect some repeats from the weekend, one of the Bowie/Hood/Antelope tunes. “Split Open and Melt” would be a logical first set closer, and I’m dying to hear some lesser played Gamehendge tunes: “Lizards,” “Tela,” “Sloth,” or “McGrupp.” My guess is that, like each of the past 4 shows, tonight’s improvisational highlight will involve something totally unexpected or unpredictable.

[P.S.: and as it’s been pointed out to me, I totally “Mr Minor’d” this review: I started with the improv highlight of set II and then recapped set I as an afterthought. but that’s OK – the “Drowned” was just that good].

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~ by Jake on June 1, 2011.

One Response to “Winds Blowing Differently Than Ever Before”

  1. […] in depth reviews of Night 1 at PNC and Night 2 at PNC click on those […]

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