Step Into Space

Phish, PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, NJ

Set I: 1st Tube, Stealing Time, Camel Walk, Heavy Things, Gotta Jibboo, Wilson, Seven Below>Kill Devil Falls, Axilla, Split Open and Melt, Suzy Greenberg
Set II: Tweezer->No Quarter, Carini->Piper->Twist->Ghost->Number Line
E: Show of Life, Tweeprise

Not every Phish tour has a distinct sound. Five shows into summer 2011, I can say with a pretty good amount of confidence that this current tour’s sound is all about space. Tuesday night’s two “Holmdel Jams” certainly support the idea that space is the sound of 2011, and Wednesday that trend continued with some excellent spacey jams in “Seven Below,” “Tweezer,” “Carini,” and “Twist.” On the whole, I think I preferred the first night of PNC to the second, but that doesn’t take away from the terrific jamming throughout much of the show, as well as the unusual, skewing towards newer Phish song selection.

The first set was all about songs written after Story of the Ghost. With the originals catalog now so very extensive, and with time passing as it always does, a lot of those Farmhouse tunes that for a long time felt like “new” material are now making way for the real new stuff – those songs written since the comeback. Still, it seems like I almost forget when I hear a song like “Jibboo” or “First Tube” that these songs are actually old at this point! “First Tube” is always a nice way to start the show – everybody gets moving, things get a little dark and scary for a few minutes, and then blissfully happy for five minutes. “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” followed, with a standard but excellent jam.

“Camel Walk” gave us the first funk of the night, a fun song as always despite a couple Trey flubs. “Heavy Things” lacked its signature beeping note, something that I was actually quite thankful for. The jam stayed mellow, never going full bore. “Gotta Jibboo” offered the first real opportunity for improv in the night, and the band took full advantage of it. Trey started his “Ghost” delay loops immediately once the jam started, and he soloed quietly while Page and Mike actually took on a good deal of the jam’s opening segment. Eventually Page and Trey started working their melodic lines in and out of each other, building the jam while playing off each other’s ideas. The jam grew gradually, and eventually peaked with high distortion, an extremely active bass line and those great ringing grand piano chords, before Trey slammed into the ending chords with a big power rock sound.

The “Jibboo” also highlighted something that has been obvious since the first night of Bethel, and that needs to be commented on: Phish, and especially Trey, are playing with patience again. It was something that was noticeably absent for most of 2009 and 2010, and often took the form of Trey forcing a segue, or ending something that is just starting to get good. In many cases, sometimes all that was needed was an extra minute or two of transitional material before moving on to the next thing. What seems to be happening now is that the band is playing with more patience, allowing jams to develop before cutting them off, and adding in transitions between songs. These days, the transitions seem to involve space or ambient music, but it grows out naturally from the jam. It also makes it so that when they do seem impatient and force a segue (as happened in set II), it sticks out even more and seems all the more egregious.

“Wilson” is fun, as always. Then “Seven Below” started. Mmmmmm. Seemed like the energy dropped in the venue at this moment, which is unfortunate because the song is great and it usually means a real chunky jam is on its way. The band didn’t dissapoint, and like the 12/27/10 version, they wasted no time playing the typical “Seven Below” jam and instead opted to leave the structure of the song almost right away. At first, the quiet, mellow jam went to some darker territories, with Mike turning on the envelope filter for some dirtiness, big washes of keyboard sound that swells and distorts as it moves, and just a touch of the signature “7 Below” patter on the snare drum’s fourth beat. Soon, the jam turned sweet and major key, with Page switching to the Fender Rhodes for an even warmer tone. Fishman has been most impressive in these space jams, and is likely what’s preventing the space from immediately self-destructing. Once he finds a chilled out beat, often involving triplets on a lightly played ride cymbal, the jam almost has to keep going, to meet the drum beat.

“Kill Devil Falls” emerged out of the ashes of “Seven Below,” and provided another great version, although not as mindnumbing as the Bethel version. “Axilla” got the crowd going apeshit, and then they dropped the “Melt.” I was cooking sandwiches on lot yesterday and today and my stand is called Split Open and Melt (I cook melty sandwiches), so naturally I was beyond excited to hear this. The song itself was note perfect, although Trey still seems to play those correct notes with a little hesitancy. I’d love to see him absolute crush a composed section with drive and intensity, ’94 style. “Melt” immediately devolved into a noise-space realm, with Fishman eliminating the rhythmic trick beat right away, and focusing on this slower noise jam. Trey and Page actually built up the entire jam on a huge amount of dissonance. Normally, Phish uses dissonance as tension building tool which is then released on the consonant downbeat. Dissonance seems to stand in for a dominant chord; you can especially hear this in the standard rock/blues jams like “Chalkdust” or “Kill Devil Falls.” In this “Melt,” dissonance was the main course. The band built this jam just as they would any consonant jam, starting from small kernels of musical ideas and allowing them to foment and grow into something mindboggling. It peaked with dissonance, Trey wailing away discordantly, and then fell back into the closing vamp. A truly twisted, slackjawed mindfuck of a “Melt” jam. Little “Suzy Greenberg” decided to show up despite my certainty that “Melt” would close the set. She was fine, normal, nothing special.

[vimeo 24582671]

The beginning of the second set was really where it was at, shining brightly and beating out anything from the first set (that “Melt” is a close second). “Tweezer” started just as the downpour began, and thousands of wet hippies stormed the pavilion where stubs weren’t being checked, creating an uncomfortable crowding for much of set II, at least in our section. Since I didn’t really think too highly of the Bethel “Tweezer,” I was very excited to hear what might unfold from this set opening version. The band didn’t disappoint, playing a more or less “standard” rock “Tweezer” jam that began soft and sparse and patiently built to a cascade of sound from Trey and Page. Page’s playing all tour has really been stellar, maybe those new glasses are helping him play better, too! He’s been more assertive in his chordal play, and more aggressive in carving out melodic interplay between Trey and Mike. Often, I feel like Trey and Mike do most of the serious contrapuntal jamming, intertwining their melodies, while Page ends up sitting back and building the jam with chords. But Page has really been inserting himself into that texture, making for some great Trey/Page and even Mike/Page combinations. “Tweezer” wasn’t overly funky, bluesy, or anything else, it was just great ol’ fashioned rock and roll “Tweezer.”

After the jam peaked, as I expected, the band descended into space, bringing the beat down to a crawl and featuring those warm Fender Rhodes sounds from Page. Soon, the band began to explore this minor key space, and I kept hearing little chromatic notes and runs that suggested an Eastern or exotic sound. Which was appropriate, because that’s when Page switched his chords over to the introductory chords of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.” OK, so they didn’t play a Zeppelin Halloween last year, but they joked around with us by playing impromptu versions of 4 or 5 tunes during “Tweezer” on 10/30/10. This was different. They had clearly been planning and practicing for this, and Page handled the vocals tremendously well, singing through a watery vocal filter that really took on that eerie Robert Plant sound. “No Quarter” was fantastic, Trey nailing the riff, and then a nice jam that stayed true to the spacey, ambient feel of the song. Really, there’s no better cover for them to do in this summer of space than a song that has that type of space built in. At first, I didn’t recognize the tune (not until the lyrics started) and I kept thinking “is this a Pink Floyd cover?,” simply because it was built around that droning, static wall of sound.

The rest of the set was, from an improvisational standpoint, frankly disappointing. “Carini” was great, got the energy flying again in the venue, and even featured a dark noise denouement, similar to the version from SPAC last year. This spaciness found its way into the opening chords of “Piper,” but something felt off. Maybe it was Fishman playing only cymbals, maybe it was Mike staying too high up in his bass range, but the entire song felt substance-less and light, like there were parts missing that usually give the tune its oomph. “Piper” was entirely forgettable, the jam didn’t rock right out of the gates and indeed never got there, nor did it really go anywhere. I was reminded of the equally sad Hampton “Piper.” Thankfully, Trey pulled the plug on this pretty quickly by inserting the strumming of “Twist” in there.

“Twist” was the highlight of this second half of the second set. It stayed in its more subdued, funky mode rather than ascending to full on rock absurdity, and featured some nice Page work on the clav along with Trey’s light staccato picking. “Twist” never really peaked the way it can, it grew into something substantial but without really increasing the volume too much. Eventually dying down, the jam turned into a good three or four minutes of really interesting space, with Page layering synth sounds on top of Fish’s light cymbal work and drones from Trey and Mike. Trey began to noodle/strum a bit, and then out came the “Ghost.”

Finally! I had been expecting this at PNC, and I was very happy to hear it come out late second set, maybe even as a closer? Trey flubbed a lyric, but no big deal. The jam started off doing really well, not particularly funky but more in the rock vein, similar to a number of versions from 2010. As the jam began to build, the real bummer of the night emerged: Trey unceremoniously cut off the “Ghost” jam and began strumming fast, what sounded like “Scent of a Mule,” but what ended up being “Number Line.” Look, I like “Number Line” a lot because despite the pop sensibility of the song, it usually leads to a phenomenal jam (case in point: Bethel night 2). But placement, folks, placement! Following a monster “Disease->Free” with “Number Line” is great; cutting off a budding “Ghost” jam with “Number Line” is sacrilege. Moreover, this version couldn’t touch the Bethel version, sticking to a mainly “Chalkdust”-esque jam that led to a nice Phishpop peak before ending the show.

I was driving back to the city and wanted to get out ASAP, so my wife and I decided to see what the pre-Tweeprise encore song would be. We left as soon as the opening notes to “Show of Life” started. Yeah, if we didn’t have to drive and beat traffic we would’ve stayed, but when you’re questioning leaving early and the band starts “Show of Life,” they basically make the decision for you.

Overall, Wednesday’s show was all good and fun, with some great moments like the dissonant “Melt,” the “Seven Below”>”Kill Devil Falls,” the “Twist,” and the clear winner of the night, “Tweezer->No Quarter.” But the meat of the second set, while looking incredible on paper (Carini->Piper->Twist->Ghost) left a lot to be desired, with jams never finding much of a foothold, and the criminal interjecting of “Number Line” into the not-at-all finished “Ghost” jam. But that’s OK. An average Phish show is still about 300x better than most things in the world that you can do for fun. And don’t let my review fool you – I love hearing all those songs, they’re not just footnotes for me. But when recapping the show, there’s not much to say about “Camel Walk” other than I was really happy they played it and enjoyed it a lot.

No more scheduled shows for me until Superball, which I’ll be covering for Consequence of Sound, so you can check there for regular updates from me. Five shows in six nights…yeah, it feels like I’m getting older. But man, what a beautiful buzz.

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~ by Jake on June 2, 2011.

8 Responses to “Step Into Space”

  1. How many Tweereprises do you estimate that you have walked out before at this point? 5? 8?

    Its gotta be decently high cause you’ve missed 3 in the last 2 years alone.

    • I’ve seen 19 Tweeprises in my life, according to ZZYZX, and I’m not sure if that counts the double versions at both Hartford and SPAC last year. Tweezer Reprise is some of the most high energy, awesome 3 minutes that exist in rock music. it’s pure, unbridled fun. and it’s the exact same thing every time. was it worth it to miss Tweeprise last night so that I could get home before midnight? absolutely.

      when I sold sandwiches on lot all summer in 2003, a Tweeprise encore was the best thing you could ask for. 1) you know they’re not going to play anything afterwards, 2) you can hear the thing as you’re leaving the venue, 3) by the time it ends and people are leaving, you’re already set up in the lot ready to sling food. it’s Phish’s gift to lot vendors. so yeah, I probably left during every Tweeprise encore that summer, which totals 4. plus the 2 last year, and last night, I guess I’ve missed 7.

    • Nate – you’re out of your element here 😛 It could be good to compare how many you’ve seen to how many you’ve walked out on. It also depends on what comes before. Sometimes a show of life is not worth sitting through to get to Tweeprise. Tweezer Reprise is the perfect song to jam out to while walking out of the venue, IMO.

      • yeah, i’ll obviously agree here. if they had played Fee, Contact, Rocky Top, or really any of the other couple hundred songs that could’ve gone before Tweeprise, I would’ve stuck around. but I knew we’d get a great jump on traffic. rose is right: sometimes a “Show of Life” isn’t worth sitting through just to hear another Tweeprise. especially since I hear Reprise Sunday night.

        i’ll admit, you can get burned on the leaving before the encore sometimes. it’s the same reason I usually try to stay until the last out in the 9th of a ballgame.

  2. Trey played with a complete LACK of patience on Wednesday, and if he would have shown a tinge a patience from Carini out, that set could have/should have been magic. Instead, he continued to throw down the gauntlet, not allow jams to patiently develop, and cut off jams. Trey would benefit from thinking less, and letting go more, as well as listening more intently to the other members of the band.

    • I agree mostly, except that I think he played quite patiently in the first set and right through the No Quarter. It was in that 2nd half of set 2 where he totally had no patience. But if you listen to the Jibboo or Melt jams, I think he was in fact very patient and let those jams take on their own identities.

  3. Leaving Phish shows early is for losers. This is not open for debate.

    • sorry to disappoint, Derek. turning 30 + midweek show with wife + she had to wake up @ 6:00am the next day = me deciding that Show of Life>Tweeprise could be heard walking to the lot.

      if getting married and having a real life makes me a loser, then I’m a loser. I’d much rather catch all of a midweek Phish show and leave during a subpar encore than miss the entire show because of work/life commitments. it’s called COMPROMISE.

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