Phish posted up today for a pair of shows that conclude tomorrow, in the shadow of the construction of a $4 trillion NFL stadium, for a team that three people in L.A. will ever really care about. Surprisingly, it’s the first multiple show run ever for Los Angeles, a city that has exchanged a lot of love with the band over the years, and tonight’s crowd greets the band with waves of encouragement as it slices into a nifty little “Chalk Dust Torture,” the second of the tour.
I’ll confess to being a little confused as to why Trey seems so intent to make “I plug the distress tube up tight!” a big applause line of late. Is that just me? Like “fetch” in Mean Girls, I just don’t think it’s ever happening. Nevertheless, this lil’ fireplug of a “CDT” is sharply delivered and primes the pump for an extended dance workout on “Everything’s Right.” The band seems committed to establishing the jamming bona fides of much of its newer material this tour, and resistance is likely futile. Remember when you said “Blaze On” was too cheesy? Thought so. You may never sing along unironically with “Everything’s Right,” but if they keep using it to stage emphatic improvisations like this, it won’t be long before even the most curmudgeonly curmudgeons are lining up at the trough for seconds. No twists and turns in this jam; just pointed rock ferocity. We are two songs and twenty minutes into this show and all systems are GO.
Having established this much momentum, it’s now time to squander some of it with “Rift.” To be fair, Page plays this version pretty well, but Trey does not, and the difficult truth is that it’s been many moons since the band has been willing to invest the kind of work in this song that it would take to play it properly. That’s too bad, because it’s really good. It’s among a handful of tunes that should be shelved until the band misses them enough to give them proper care and feeding.
But fret not, because here comes “Wolfman’s Brother,” dressed up all slinky. Phish settles into this version, getting nice and comfortable, batting some ideas around but in no rush to linger inside one for too long. Page is especially active tonight and the first few minutes of the “Wolfman’s” jam go down in his house, for those keeping score at home. Trey eventually takes over, building to a well-earned peak with long, languid single-note phrases as Fishman flirts and feints with double-time at the climax. Fish keeps on swinging through a lively “How Many People Are You,” at one point succumbing to an impulsive “Woo!” of his own. I love the odd figure he plays on the ride at the beginning of this jam; it’s delicate and yet at the same time it holds the entire band on its back.
It’s awkward to listen to Trey wrestle with “Horn,” making its simple opening riff sound nearly impossible to play and holding the song seemingly at a distance from himself as he tries to remember it on the fly. It sort of comes together by the end, but not quite, and the end of Trey’s solo is marred by the strange phasing problem that’s been plaguing him all tour. To be specific, there are moments when he strikes a string with the obvious intent of producing a sustained note, but right after the attack, the note just dies. There must be something more than this!
A rollicking “Water In The Sky” follows, setting up a sloppy intro to an otherwise perfectly placed “Twenty Years Later.” Guys, that’s not how this song goes. Before too long, they find their way back, and begin to gingerly unwrap this jam, holding it at a distance like they’re afraid it’s going to burst forth and latch onto their faces. This song has such limitless potential, but tonight ain’t its night, and this version fizzles to its finish.
For a set that began so confidently, things have slid rather sideways by this point. In a situation like this, it’s nice to be able to whip out the “Sand” riff. Always keep one handy. Trey reaches quickly for his new Phwarus pedal (I know that’s not what it’s called but it sounds like a phaser, a wah, and a chorus box had a baby--someone please share knowledge in the comments), and things get interesting quick. This is is a strictly type-I, tension-and-release affair here, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its share of melodic and rhythmic wizardry, and Trey’s tone cuts through cleanly as he summits this “Sand” jam.
What feels like a really long set break is interrupted by a “Blaze On” that goes a little dodgy in its first few minutes but snaps right back into form as the jam train leaves the station. The rhythm section finds its way to a seductive Latin groove where they linger for a minute or so, and then the whole band huddles musically to consider its options. Mike insists on “Down With Disease” and his bandmates yield the floor.
The “Disease” jam is pretty standard fare until just after the 7-minute mark when the band finds another gear. Trey unspools a long, sustained note while Mike thunders away beneath him, and page slides from the piano to the organ to thicken the atmosphere a bit. At the 10-minute mark, Trey has retreated and is now nearly inaudible as he listens for ideas--saying less now, hearing more. The playing throughout this jam is very interactive and attentive and conversational, if still free of any epic peak. While age may be claiming their youthful chops, Phish will never stop being a special band for as long as they commit to listening to each other so actively.
The second “Simple” of the tour follows. If you haven’t heard the Gorge version from last weekend, you should. It clocks in at almost 15 minutes and features some of the most compelling improv of the tour thus far. This version doesn’t quite scale those heights, burdened as it is by cringingly shaggy vocals at the onset, and a flagrant clam from Mike during the “skyballs and saxscrapers” section. But seven or eight minutes in the band finds a home in the minor, exploring a delicious and dark motif that sounds more “Twenty Years Later” than “Simple.” This theme gives way to about a minute of ominous, nebulous space from which a “Ghost” appears.
Page takes the wheel for the first five simmering minutes of this “Ghost” jam, and the feel of Trey’s playing is correspondingly textural and patient when he takes over. As he coaxes his fingers up the neck and the song toward its pinnacle, it feels like the whole room becomes an instrument resonating with connection, each of us little saturated power tubes in its sleek chassis. I know that’s a pretty syrupy and arguably half-assed simile but let me have a moment. Nothing peaks like a good solid “Ghost.”
After a perfunctory run through “Bouncing Around The Room,” we catch a bit of a curveball with this late second set “Mike’s Song.” The F#m jam sets up nicely with a greasy groove and lively tempo behind it. Trey appears to be playing through an effect here that makes his guitar sound like an organ, which his organist already has six of, so I’m a little confused by that and I wonder if Page is as well. But soon Trey sounds like a guitarist again, and he leads the charge up a well-worn hill to a familiar destination. It’s not a remarkable “Mike’s” in any sense, but there were many potentially worse calls in this slot and we’ll take it.
A somewhat truncated but always lovely “Slave to the Traffic Light” tows this very successful second set back into port. A tentative take on “Sleeping Monkey” doesn’t bother the crowd, who belts out the final chorus so loudly that Trey is taken aback, setting up an energetic outro. I’m an unabashed “Monkey” fluffer and always glad to hear it. The expected capstone “Weekapaug Groove” begins at Fare Thee Well tempo, the tiger-by-the-tail versions of the ‘90s waving mockingly at us in the rearview mirror. Slowly, patiently, the pace builds, and Trey finishes the evening’s final statement with a dextrous flurry of biting notes low on the neck.
There was an elephant in the room tonight named 7/22/16 and I am glad to report that whatever sour taste was left in the mouths of Los Angeles fans a few years ago has been replaced by deliciousness and promise. The second night at the Forum could revert to Saturday Night Special form, or it could be a statement show, especially if the crowd is in the game as hard as they were tonight. “Tweezer” also wouldn’t hurt. See you there.
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