Some fans showed up for the rescheduled YEMSG run with visions of a one-stop Island Tour Redux swimming in their heads. Others perhaps saw it as a late-pandemic milestone, a sign that the clouds are clearing and the time has returned when we can safely gather indoors with 20,000 of our closest friends without worrying about spread of the coronavirus. (Though science tells us that is not the case.)
Whatever expectations or mythology fans built into their perspectives, it’s clear a profound sense of gratitude informed the experience for so many people in the room and on the couch. Actual performances notwithstanding, the return of the ritual itself was deeply meaningful.
And yet, Phish did happen to deliver a musically terrific run. With a series “win” already secured in many fans’ eyes, the band still turned up Saturday as if it had something left to prove.
The show boasted an impeccably constructed, Phish-holiday card of a first set; a second set with lots of action; and a doorslammer of an encore. It felt like old times and new times all mixed together. It was another example of why we do this.
(Don’t) call it a comeback
When I raised my hand to write this recap, it was for a show to be held on January 1, 2022. I nabbed the available slot planning to celebrate the whole year of Phish, 2021 — a year that saw a revitalized band seemingly vibrating with inspiration, following a few kinda water-treading tours studded with the occasional major highlight.
A clutch of new onstage gear for everybody (band and lighting director included), perhaps coupled with the emotional release of returning from the pandemic-prompted 17-month break, sparked the emergence of a recharged and more-ambitious band.
Long an afterthought in post-Breakup Phish, first sets made a dramatic comeback in 2021 — with a sense of band intention toward that half of the show that had been lacking, manifested in part by the coveted AF return of legitimate Type II jams before the setbreak. And with all the deep second-set excursions in summer and fall, there was more raw quantity of Type II improvisation since … well, a long time. (Summer 2003, if not even fall 1997 or summer 1995.)
Yet it’s never a given that the aesthetic or overall character (ok: vibes) of a particular year, or tour, or run, will carry over to the next one.
And here I am, to observe: It’s still on.
Saturday’s show was an emphatic exclamation point, not only to a week with three very good shows (and a fourth with at least one great jam, the “Carini”), but on the last nine months of Phish performance, which also included a strong Mexico run in February.
The details are important, but in the foreground for me is the broader context. This band, after more than 38 years, is hitting stage each night to take creative chances and discover something new. Investing the artistic and financial resources to realize innovative rock spectacles, like the Earth Day Aquarium on Friday night. Throwing armfuls of new, notable performances onto the Phish.net Jam Charts.
In short, the band could be just rolling up for the paycheck — and it’s no doubt a big paycheck for folks with fingers in the pie, in these days of artificially restricted inventory of “face value” seats and the predatory price-gouging of Ticketmaster/LiveNation’s “Platinum” tickets. But the Vermont foursome are not merely taking canvas bags marked with dollar signs and heading for the door. They are out here adding vital new chapters to a body of work that’s peerless for its time, and (in important ways) perhaps any other. They’re still doing the thing.
Fluff came to New York
Phish launched fireworks from the outset, offering a “Fluffhead” opener—only the 10th-ever version so placed, for a song that debuted in 1984. It no doubt caused many in attendance, already fluttering with The Feels all week, to reflect on the Hampton performance that ended the Breakup of 2004-09. A forceful but elegant, traditionally composed “Mike’s Groove” led to the band’s fight song, “Simple” … which evolved into a wild, delightfully dark jam that reminded of the 8/6/21 Deer Creek version before dripping like yolk into and out of a quick recitation of “Egg in a Hole.” (The latter was one of only two songs this week culled from Halloween’s “Get More Down” set.) A relatively crisp “The Divided Sky” signaled the band’s intent to keep it pretty for the whole set, which it John Hancock’d with a suitably emphatic “First Tube.”
After setbreak came the point in the run where we all would have been completely understanding if Phish lobbed us a weary, affectionate but perfunctory final set. We’d have said it was “definitely fun but not something I’m going to listen to again very much” and that would have been fine. Dayenu.
But something else happened.
Phish charged back from setbreak with a deeply engaging “No Man In No Man’s Land” that, at about 27 minutes, was the longest-ever performance of a song that’s been a regular jam vehicle since 2015. In this jam Trey Anastasio offered an overflowing well of eloquent guitar leads, paced by fistfuls of detailed fills. Page McConnell was in piano-pounding form; Mike Gordon authored busy, burbling basslines; and Jon Fishman powered the mechanism in the octopus-armed mode from which he’s added crucial depth to so many jams in the past year.
And the set still had an atypical “Piper” to come, with a jam on “Dave’s Energy Guide” that desk-flipper extraordinaire Scott Bernstein hears as the longest since the one in the Jones Beach (6/28/95) “Tweezer,” the last performance to date with a full setlist notation on Phish.net. “Gotta Jibboo” had some legs, “Lonely Trip” was an embrace filled with mid-pandemic reassurance, and “Walls of the Cave” sounded its prog fanfare as a worthy set closer (even if many folks were pulling for a “You Enjoy Myself” at this juncture).
A three-song encore included a “David Bowie” that @BlueEmu402 noticed was the first one in that slot since the Hampton Coliseum show that opened the second leg of the 2004 summer tour. And did you think you were getting out of New York without the cheery double-time of “More”? Not this era.
I had a notion there was somethin’ more to do
So a much-anticipated Phish run concluded, having demonstrated that the creative revival sparked in 2021 is still in force. Now we turn our attention to the spring/summer tour, which we’re told by Phish, Inc. will comprise most of the remaining shows in 2022.
If by chance our vessels pass, we’ll reconvene then — be it in person, via electronic communique, or from the couch. Maybe we’ll be celebrating the continuation of this creative hot streak. Maybe we’ll largely just savor the experience. Maybe something else entirely.
The essence of this whole wacky enterprise is that we just don’t know. But we’ll discover it together.
Jeremy (@J_D_G) is a longtime Phish.net volunteer, major contributor to (and chapter editor of) The Phish Companion, and served on The Mockingbird Foundation’s Board of Directors for a decade. He has written one of this site’s most-hated and one of its most-beloved show recaps; he recommends the latter. Jeremy has written about Phish for other publications including The Boston Globe and American Theatre. When he covered the St. Louis Blues’ championship parade in 2019 for NPR, he slipped in a clip from Phish’s performance of “Gloria.”
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Acknowledging recency bias and the importance of the pandemic-influenced "now", I look around and see the shape of a new golden age (pun intended) that we're living in. Unmatched source material in the band's history and the lessons of millions of notes played together are coming together for something special. The lack of covers (outside of 2001, etc.) really underline how internal and original their inspiration is right now.
I cannot wait for spring and summer tours.