Level Headed Boy, Ya Better Bend
Tour openers have a ton of ambiguity surrounding them. With nearly 6 full months off, and with its lead guitarist practicing 5+ hours a day to play in a different band, who knew what Phish Summer Tour 2015 would have in store? Traditionally tour openers have a bit of rust around the edges, understandably, but in recent years they have also slayed: the boring first set of Worcester 2012 led to one of the best second sets of tour, and last year in Mansfield featured a legendary Hood and righteous Ghostapaug segue.
Yet this year was different. With Trey showing such prowess and mid-tour polish at the Fare Thee Well shows, and especially after he took charge in Chicago, the narrative for 2015 changed. We didn’t really know what to expect from Trey in Chicago other than we knew he’d do well by us; he did that and more. The story changed from “would GD50 impact Phish at all?” to “how much will GD50 impact Phish?” Some people (not me) were convinced Dead tunes would show up in Phish’s setlists, others felt that Trey’s style and tone would reflect the months he spent studying not only Jerry’s playing but also Jerry’s vast influences, especially 50s rock, Bakersfield country music, bluegrass, and electric blues (remember Trey’s quip in Bittersweet Motel about not growing up listening to Del McCoury? I’m guessing he did a lot of that in the last 6 months). If GD50 was a warmup for Phish 2015, then what shape would Phish’s music take?
What seems most clear to me after the first two shows of the summer is that the GD50 influence is perhaps most apparent in Trey’s songwriting, not in his playing (and certainly not in any incorporation of Dead tunes into the setlist). Not knowing necessarily what to expect, fans lucky enough to gain entry to the toughest tickets of summer were treated to seven Phish debuts, including four original compositions and three tunes from side projects. In a way it felt a bit like 2/26/03, with the band introducing a bevy of new material in the first set, but the difference here was that it’s a band showing how vibrant they still are: even on top of the brand new album from last year AND the ten new instrumentals debuted on Halloween, they’ve still got more new material to share with us.
So what it came down to, for a phan in Bend, was this: if you liked the new songs, you liked Bend. If new tunes aren’t your thing and you just wanted to kick out to your favorite familiar jams, you might have been a touch let down. Not to say that there weren’t plenty of moments on established songs. The first night first set “Sand” was the most perfect early set energizer, getting everyone into a dancey mood after an “eh” “Sample” opener. Standard versions of “555″ and “Rift” followed, the latter with some minor Trey botches, leading to some major botches during “Horn.” Rust around the edges, but that’s OK.
When “Devotion to a Dream” started, I wasn’t really feeling the setlist so far, other than the oddly placed “Sand.” I like all those songs, but it felt like they were shaking the dust off of Phish so far, rather than getting into the meat of things. Perhaps it’s just that now with an additional few years of new material in the repertoire, there is going to be less room for more of those classic first set tunes I was hoping for: “Sloth” or “PYITE” or “Reba” or “Mango Song” or even something later like “Vultures” or “Saw It Again.” But “Devotion” is where I first heard the GD50 influence on Trey’s playing.
The “Devotion” jam starts pretty basic, as per usual. But immediately, Trey is already starting to string longer runs of notes together in melody. What I’m hearing in his playing is a greater emphasis on longer, meandering melodic lines, exploring out along scales in a more continuous, less rhythmically broken up style of soloing. This is in contrast to the more deliberate style of phrasing that Trey has become very accustomed to using in the last few years, where he is creating interesting rhythmic melodic phrases and structuring them using somewhat formalistic organizational patterns. Things like AABA melodies where everything is invented on the spot (like one of the sections of the Randall’s “Chalkdust”), or creating periodicity where a line is played, repeated, and then expanded on in nice, even 2- and 4-bar patterns.
In this “Devotion” jam, which seems as rare a place as any to encounter new improvisational styles, Trey avoids those nice even periods and just keeps playing. His fingers know the scales and patterns, and here’s where we hear the other element of practicing Grateful Dead songs for so long: Trey has been practicing fingering patterns that fit into Jerry’s style, and especially the music Jerry was mostly influenced by. Bluegrass, country, the wild style of Scotty Stoneman, the rock twang of Bakersfield. “Devotion” already has that quality to it, it sounds like an outtake from Trey’s country rock musical Hands on a Hardbody. So Trey is playing these longer melodic segments, inserting an occasional pitch from related modes for color to spice up those blues/rock scales. Yet he also seems to have a good sense of overall direction. While his short phrases aren’t necessarily the same, his long-term sense of direction led to a few really fantastic, classic “release” moments over the course of his soloing this weekend (especially on “Stash” and “Maze” from night 2). Try to listen to this “Devotion” and tell me it’s not the best version of that song you’ve heard.
And of course the new material: “Blaze On.” Oh man. When it started, my Deadhead friend joked to me “Iko Iko or Women R Smarter?!” It really did sound like that classic NOLA groove, it’s practically a Little Feat song! The lyrics are super fun too, another of Tom’s “take me as I am, I’m kinda a fuck up” lyrics. Yet the chorus has a great singalong, feel-good quality: “You’ve got your nice shades on / and the worst days are gone / so now the band plays on / you’ve got one life, blaze on!” For the record, I will be singing “night shades” instead of “nice shades” because that’s how I sung it the night of the show.
Set 1 finished with an expectedly short “Tube” and an expectedly funky, fun, but nothing out of the ordinary “Wolfman’s.” Set 2 brought more of the dance party feel – it was a very Saturday Night Special kind of show. “Ghost” hinted at a tiny bit of an extension beyond its normal bounds before dropping into “Birds of a Feather,” another tune that showcased Trey’s slightly modified soloing style. More long strings of melodic material, less of the choppy, highly rhythmic phrasing. Some “They Attack!!”s from Page. “Mike’s>Wedge” was fun but again, nothing out of the ordinary. More good soloing, and a slightly longer than usual build on the “Mike’s” jam that also saw a really interesting, chunky start to the jam, with Trey just adding a few little exclamatory chords and Page initially taking the lead on piano. “Wedge” featured an absolute shredder of a solo to finish it. Trey ended many of his GD50 solos with really fast strumming high on the neck, a signature Jerry move, which he did to put an exclamation point on “Wedge.”
The “Fuego” that followed hinted at going to the next level, but instead fell into the first slowdown of the set, the new Trey/Tom ballad “Shade“. This is a pretty song, although it’s quite slow so it has the potential to be misplaced and hurt the flow of a set. But it is pretty, one of Trey’s prettiest vocal melodies. The new song that followed, “No Men in No Man’s Land,” was an altogether different kind of affair. Using the auto-wah feature that we know so well from Dead songs like “Estimated Prophet” and “Shakedown Street” gave “No Man’s Land” a very “Dancin in the Streets” circa 1977 groove. This song is all about Page on percussive clav and Trey laying down these funky, wah-wah grooves on top of a very steady dance beat from Fishman. This is the booty-shaker tune, this is the one that, post-show, I said “well everyone’s gonna like THAT song!” And we should, it’s sort of like a “Tube”/”Your Pet Cat” groove, the sort of thing we love. And of course big potential for a huge, peak-y jam, with Trey using the auto-wah effect during his solo.
Continuing the dance party Saturday night vibe, the band executed an almost-perfect segue into “Weekapaug,” although Fish had to stop the beat and start up the new one instead of moving seamlessly between the two. Either way, it was a perfect slow-down segue into “Boogie On” that kept the party going. “Chalkdust” reclaimed its old usual spot as set closer, unfortunately, as I was hoping for some set 2 opener monstrosities this summer. Maybe we’ll still get those. An odd but lovely “Theme” served as the sole encore, and Phish left the stage around 9:40pm, 20 minutes before the hard curfew.
The effects of sun and sand are hard to understand: one of the things that’s tough to convey about this run was the early show time, late sunset, and of course the amazing river viewing for those shut out of the show. Literally I took this picture from the back of the lawn during the first set, night 2. What a way to get shut out of a show! Back to my original point: there was very little darkness for these shows. The second set opened with the sun setting, and only during the meat of the second set was there enough dark for CK5 to really get to work on his smaller, venue-resized rig. This was really apparent on the second night, as the second set opened with three quite mellow but unbelievably beautiful tunes: “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing”->”Waves”>”Wingsuit.”
“A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” was a majestic journey, with Trey again exploring more melodically exciting areas of pitch space, rather than the usual long tones and whale-call jamming that characterizes this song. The end saw a brief turn to a major key space before settling into a mellow groove to take the song into “Waves.” With the sun still turning the sky a variety of shades of pink and orange, “Waves” seemed the perfect followup, and a great place for Trey to showcase his mellifluous jamming style. The peak was truly magnificent on this, and following the return to the lyrics, the band ventured into a very spacey ambient space, with Fishman maintaining a steady fast (but really quiet) beat, Page adding some electronic noises, and Mike dropping one of those huge bass pedal bombs.
“Wingsuit” continued the theme of majestic, modal jams, and seemed to really fit the set to the surroundings. Although not quite as powerful as some versions from 2014, this was outstanding after the opening two tunes. What we probably didn’t need right after this was another mellow ballad, but I guess the band was feeling that vibe, and went with “Farmhouse.” I was not a fan of this placement — following the opening mellow beauty of this show, this is where a mean, big improv monster would have done really nicely. I wanted “Bowie” so bad in that spot. But then we got a “Simple” and all that dark, dirty, nasty jamming came out.
“Simple” did what it usually does, but during the jam, Mike stepped on the fightbell, Page played one of those ascending electronic glissandos, and Trey took over. Starting by playing a series of punctuating, loudly dissonant chords (that sort of reminded me of the 10/20/13 “Tweezer” “screech chords”), Trey gradually started introducing a sinister electronic tone to his guitar playing, getting a deep, low groove going with a looping sounds repeating. This was scary, evil Phish at its best, dissonant dark and dirty. And then to cap it off with a blistering “First Tube” that saw Trey playing more direct melodies than his usual big loops of sound that he builds was a great closer.
Another odd encore choice came with the “Bathtub Gin,” a great version that soared to a peak and then fizzled out. With 20 minutes to spare until the curfew, I was really hoping for the Hood that seemed to be looming all weekend (we all drove by Mt. Hood on the way into Bend for pete’s sake!) but alas…
I wanted to address the new songs in set 1, plus the great versions of “Stash” and “Maze,” but now we gotta run to get to Shoreline! So I will save those thoughts for a later post. But all you really need to know about the first set new songs is MERCURY. Be ready.