[Thank you to Nick Williams (user @TwiceBitten) for recapping last night's show. -Ed.]
Phish, the band, what can you say? An American original: full of the awe, spectacle and big top excitement of P.T. Barnum’s circus; as majestic as the Rocky Mountains and as thick as New England’s forests; as powerful as the magic that existed in this land before the white man came, and sometimes as dark and sinister as the evil that those settlers brought with them (well maybe only on a headful). So what does such a band do after playing a show up in Bangor that seems to be unanimously regarded as IT? They had options: Phish could have tried for a repeat, stretching another jam past 30 minutes; they could have relied on a bunch of bust outs to keep the fans satisfied; they could have phoned it in even.
As the years have gone on, Phish has largely moved out of the shadow of the Grateful Dead and into their rightful place as the elder statesmen and torchbearers for a spark that was ignited almost 60 years ago in a series of rented halls around the Bay Area. While the Dead largely settled into a standardized show format less than halfway through their career, Phish has always been keen on freshening-up the flow of shows from night-to-night, tour-to-tour, era-to-era. Still, much as there are only 12 notes in western music, there are only so many types of Phish shows (not counting more subtle variations within each format).
The Banner Jam Show ("B.J.S."): Such as Bangor the other night. Sure, the "Antelope" was pretty fiery for recent standards, they played "Reba," the "Sigma Oasis" jam and reprise out of "Twist" were fun, "WTU" was well placed, "Fluffhead," etc… BUT without that "Disease," it would have been a skippable and entirely unmemorable show. The B.J.S. can often be highly regarded, but sometimes even a long jam is not enough to catapult the gig into the hall of fame. Not a lot of chatter on the 7/8/14 "Fuego" or the 12/9/97 "Simple," but everyone knows what you’re talking about when you say The Tahoe Tweezer.
The Saturday Night Special ("S.N.S."): This is Phish the rock band. While often played between Friday and Sunday, the S.N.S. can happen any night of tour. "Possum" will likely be played. There might be a jam or two worth noting. Noobs and people who are chemically enhanced will think it was the best night of the run, while jaded vets will think it’s the worst show ever. The term “average-great” was coined to describe these kinds of shows.
The Bust Out Show ("B.O.S."): Frequently played on a Sunday, often mainly contained to the first set, this kind of show is the song-chaser’s dream. These shows have a tendency to be a little front-loaded, with the mental work required to remember all these rarely dusted chestnuts overpowering the desire to go deep in the second set. On rare occasions a B.O.S. and a B.J.S. are combined (see Alpine 7/14/19). Bust outs can be a double-edged sword, often eliciting great excitement from the crowd but just as often veering towards sloppy playing from the band.
The Gimmick Show ("G.S."): Since the beginning, Phish has been a band that incorporated humor and practical jokes into their concerts. For a time it seemed that every show had some aspect of this type of band/audience interplay. Some jokes lasted for the course of a song, set or night while other jokes kept appearing for an entire tour or more. In fact there are some Phish jokes where the gap between setup and punchline has taken years (think Kasvot Vax to Sci-Fi Soldier). Another type of G.S. is the Seguefest, a format that saw its first hey-day in '93 and '94 and returned in 3.0 with the 7/27/14 MPP Tweezerfest. Since then it has become more popular and, without doing the numbers, I might venture to guess that there have been more of these types of shows of late than there were back in the day. These shows can often be popular with the fans but sometimes backfire (did we have perhaps a few too many “still waiting” moments?).
So what type of show was Tuesday, July 19th 2022 at the Mann Center in Philadelphia, PA? If you take a look at the setlist, it’s pretty clear we are in Gimmick/Seguefest territory. However, unlike a number of recent shows that sacrificed quality jamming for nimble setlist antics (think 8/8/21 Deer Creek), this show’s second set featured a near-perfect balance of the sublime and the ridiculous. This is a band 39 years into their career with nothing left to prove who is still able to offer fresh takes on tried and true formats…and all that on a weeknight!
Let’s start with the first set, which was for the most part actually pretty unexceptional, save the lengthy jam out of "Halley’s Comet." The early signs that this was gonna be a gimmick night were already visible in the space theme of the first three songs, but unlike the somewhat forced animals show in Las Vegas last year, thankfully they abandoned this path early on. That "Comet" though, so good to have this one back as a jam vehicle (see 10/31/18, 12/4/19, 12/31/19, 8/11/21, 10/26/21 and 2/25/22). "Halley’s" hasn’t perhaps reached it’s full potential but this was as good a take on it as they’ve done recently. Trey flubbed what could have been a perfect drop into "Stash" and had to restart. There were a handful of other noticeable flubs in this set and truth be told you would be forgiven for only listening to the one aforementioned jam. All is forgiven Big Red, we know we are ultimately in good hands.
The band has gotten into the habit of starting off set two with a shorter song, could this have anything to do with the first song of each set streaming free on the internet? Doubtful, but never trust a prankster. Well there certainly was "More" to come. The first "Tweezer" of the evening got things going and back into space we went. If you’ve ever read any of my recaps, you’ll know that I’m not big on describing the jams, so why start now? I am a fan of the oft misattributed quote that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It was during the smooth segue into "Cities" that the structure of this set began to take shape. With a smooth return back into "Tweezer" the blueprint was revealed and with the morph into "Passing Through," the engineer put his stamp of approval on the plans; speaking of which, will they ever bust out "Architect" again? The "Passing Through" transition more than made up for the 12/31/18 "Hood > Passing > Hood" which could have been sublime but was executed poorly. This was more akin to the "Simple -> Waiting All Night" from the Forum last fall. Chef’s kiss!
From here the band slammed into Izabella which has been oh so welcome in its four recent appearances. We are then treated to our third Tweezer of the night, this time with a big Cissy Strut jam from Trey on his new effects. After playing around with the classic Meters riff, the band elegantly begins "Mercury," returning to the space theme from set one. “Tonight’s the night, the wheels are turning,” indeed! Right where the jam would normally have started, the boys from VT worked the kind of magic that almost seems preplanned and instantly they were playing the quiet intro to "Piper." This was the third lengthy jam of the night and they brought it to a fine peak and tossed in a "Dave’s Energy Guide" tease for the second night in a row. A fourth helping of "Tweezer" is served hot and ready and the customary late set "2001" was just the ideal landing pad for the spaceship the band had carefully constructed throughout the night. The melding of Mike and Trey’s effects with Page’s synth took us far off this planet as we fans danced in awe around the monolith. "Martian Monster" and "Space Oddity" vocals were layered over the jam at one point. "Character Zero" has been less overplayed and even without any antics, this would have been a welcome set closer, but Trey couldn’t resist one last joke and worked in the Velvet Underground. “I’m waiting for my Mann” indeed. It’s been seven years since Phish played this venue and I think we're all feeling so incredibly happy to be back after such a long break.
As they encored with their newish progessive gospel anthem, I took some time to reflect on what we had all witnessed. The second set of this show worked for me in a way most of the other recent gimmick shows have not. The blend between actual deep jamming, brilliant segues, song selection and goofing off seems to have been finally perfected, or at least gotten as close to perfection as you would want from a band who is still rewriting the rulebook four decades into their career. I’ve laughed harder at the jokes, marveled more intently at the jams, but rarely has it all been so synergistically connected for me in one set. I’d say that this was the high water mark so far for the tour and the fact that I know they will top it numerous times as the shows progress just shows how lucky we all are to be on this crazy ride.
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