What happens when our favorite artists don’t fully live up to the grandiose expectations we — and they — set for them? Are they deserving of our blame for not consistently “raising the bar?” Are we to be expected to listen harder, to work a bit more to understand each of their evolutionary steps forward? Is there someone to blame? And what does it even mean,“to raise the bar”?

In 1970 Bob Dylan released his tenth studio album entitled Self Portrait. Openly mocked, and critically assaulted, the record was famously chastised by Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus, who began his review assertively with: “What is this shit?!” A collection of folk and pop covers, assorted instrumentals, and a few new originals for good measure this was NOT the record people were hoping Dylan would release in 1970.

Just four years removed from his heyday as the “leader of the counterculture movement,” fans and critics alike were left wondering, what happened to Bob Dylan? How had the brazen intellectual who wrote such defining anthems as “Masters Of War,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Like A Rolling Stone” become so sullen, so hermitic, and so simplistic?

Was he just fucking with everyone? Or did he truly believe this was the music he had to be making at age 29?

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By all accounts of everyone in attendance, and those truly listening at home, the 2013 Dick’s Run was yet another high-water mark for Phish in a year increasingly full of them.

And yet, there’s this tension that’s been growing within the Phish community since Saturday morning over whether or not Dick’s was an overwhelming success, a noticeable step-back from 2012, or a clear sign of regression from a band now 30 years deep into their career.

The debate is in many ways a microcosm of the one currently being held over the merits of Phish’s performance level in 2013.

The debate also raises the essential question of whether or not a band needs to “raise the veritable musical bar” in accordance to how a portion of their fanbase wants — and expects — them to.

Is it on the artist to fulfill some idealized evolutionary track established by their fans, or is it on their fans to put in a bit more effort? After all, Phish’s evolutionary history has never been completely linear from year to year. To expect them to perform in this manner would be to misunderstand their entire existence. By the logic of the frustrated elements of Phish’s fanbase, were they to treat Hampton 2013 with the same regards they did Dick’s 2012, then Dick’s 2013 would become a mere footnote between the Tahoe “Tweezer” and whatever Hampton’s biggest jam was. A forgotten link within their evolutionary history…

Dick’s / Dave Vann

To the musicologists Phish is playing with a refined sense of purpose, direction, and unity. They are now capable of infusing chordal and harmonic structures into their jams with stunning ease. Think of them segueing songs such as “David Bowie” (07/06, 07/22, 09/01) and “Stash” (07/14, 08/30) which are based in the dimly lit minor key, into the melodic and sensually euphoric jams that have garnered so much discussion throughout the summer. At the same time, they’ve been playing with such a command over their composed material that even when they’re not “jamming” they’re still communicating with such precision and insight that few shows can even be overlooked.

The flow is back.

One only needs to view Mike Hamad’s (@MikeHamad) map of the Alpharetta Chalk Dust, or read this essay from Wax Banks (@waxbanks) to understand what I mean.

For the historians, 2013 has represented something of a full-circle moment for Phish. The evolutionary steps back from death and destruction in 2004 concluded at the 2012 Dick’s Run, the band has compiled their most complete, innovative, and nostalgically aware tour in years. Every single show is packed with segments of uninterrupted flow and pulsating moments of musical improvisation. By focusing on rhythm, Trey has allowed Page to fully take the lead in jams, resulting in a unified sound, as heard in the 07/10 “Crosseyed,” 07/13 “Simple,” 07/22 “DWD,” 07/27 “Undermind,” 08/03 “Rock & Roll,” and the 08/31 “Chalk Dust,” among many, many more jams. Structurally their shows have called back to their heady days of pure, youthful creation. By condensing their rotation throughout the first three weeks of the tour, they focused overtly on their classics, thus reinvigorating, and celebrating songs such as “David Bowie,” “Slave,” “Harry Hood,” and “Run Like An Antelope.”

What’s clear to many is that we’ve reached a place with Phish in 2013 where they’re just as good as they once were in their hallowed days of the ‘90's. The goals of 3.0 seemingly complete, we as fans now enjoy the luxury of settling in and watching as Phish reinvents themselves all over again. The question of whether or not they’ll regain their former selves again is irrelevant now. All that’s left to ponder are the new directions they’ll be pushing their music in over the course of the next few years.

And yet, as has been apparent throughout this summer — and most recently, the Dick’s Run from last weekend — there are still those who claim Phish has taken something of a step back here in 2013. Instead of peaking, they’re once again regressing.

Comparing tours, years, and runs has always been tricky. Yes, anyone who has listened to Phish for a substantial period in time can tell you that in 1992 the band was tight ship that began to incorporate a secret language and outside-the-box musical abstraction into their performances, which led to summer 1993's initial renaissance, which led to the full-on experiment with noise-based avant garde opuses in 1994 and summer 1995, which led to the unified peak of everything they’d been building towards as a band in December, which was then deconstructed in 1996, which resulted in the minimalist funk period of 1997, the ambient era of 1998, and the millennial electronica jams of 1999 and 2000, etc. etc…There is a clear evolution.

We hear this within 3.0 as well. 2009 laid the foundation as the band focused on the framework that had given them so much success in the 90's, except here as men in their mid-40's, with kids, off drugs, new responsibilities, experiences, and such. In August 2010, and later in the fall tour, they began to distance themselves from this (necessarily) rigid approach as they began to experiment within (and without) their songs. 2011 further built from this as Phish locked themselves in a storage unit and emerged a changed unit, focused on exploring more abstract sounds to much fanfare from their audience. This built to 2012 — a groundbreaking year for Phish, regardless the era — where they not only incorporated a tour-long gag that revived a number of their biggest bust-outs, but fully broke through all the barriers they’d set for themselves with a run at Dick’s that immediately elevated everyone’s expectations — band included — as to what was possible in this new era of Phish.

Dick’s 2012 was really important. No one will ever argue that.

Dick’s / Dave Vann

But, rather than accepting Dick’s 2012 as a result of a time honored dedication to rediscovery and renewal, many fans have positioned themselves in the camp that the only way Phish can succeed is by playing the way they played over the course of one weekend in 2012. The problem with this theory however, is that it sets one’s expectations to a point of unreachable nostalgia and pleads with the band (four living and breathing artists) to stop evolving. It’s reflective of how/why so many older fans can’t accept the idea that Phish could ever be better — not to mention simply as good as — they were when they were seeing and experiencing them in their own youthful glory days. It’s a viewpoint that’s uncompromising to the natural progression of time. It’s pigheaded. It goes against everything that Phish has ever stood for.

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Self Portrait is far from Dylan’s “best” album. New Morning (my own personal favorite Dylan record) is far from his “best” album. Both are essential however in the overall arc of Dylan’s career, as they provide a natural bridge between the overtly politicized righteousness of his early-60's work, and the brutal inwardness of Blood On The Tracks.

Both also display a Dylan who’s simply enamored with the idea of the “song.” Giving a nod to his simplistic influences, the two records, and the period immediately surrounding them show Dylan at perhaps the purest he’s ever been as a recording artist. There’s nothing “mind-blowing” in these songs. There’s simply Bob Dylan, a list of songs, a handful of his friends, a studio, and time. Sure, it doesn’t “expand” on the music he’d built towards from 1962-1966, but it doesn’t have to. That’s not where Dylan was at the time. That’s not who Dylan was.

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The idea that Dick’s 2013 had to equal or surpass Dick’s 2012 was an obstinate one that should have never even surfaced in discussion.

Dick’s 2013 holds about as much musical similarity with Dick’s 2012 as The Story Of The Ghost does with Billy Breathes. Two completely different bodies of work, two completely different artistic goals, two completely different bands at two completely different points in their evolutionary history.

The thing about Dick’s 2012 was that it had to happen when it happened.

Phish had reached a point in August 2012 where they were once again totally comfortable being back on stage as Phish. The opportunity was suddenly at hand to breakthrough whatever musical and personal barriers continued to stand in their way. They had to, and they did, seize the moment. The result of this leap forward can be heard throughout their 2012 NYE Run, and the entirety of their 2013 Summer Tour. The uncertainty of if they’re going to fully connect each night is gone. Now, it’s only a matter of when.

A result of this musical peak they find themselves in, Dick’s 2013 felt more like a celebratory revival than a communal seance.

The Gorge / Dave Vann

Beginning with the MOST SHOWS SPELL SOMETHING (backwards) gag on Friday, the band systematically eliminated any possibility that they would even attempt to recreate the magic of their 2012 shows. Instead, they were focused here on keying fans into a deeper level of understanding Phish, while celebrating the songs that have defined them for 30 years.

Zac and Andy over at Please Me Have No Regrets (@TheBabysMouth) have spent a large amount of time explaining how Phish teaches us how to listen to Phish, (you can read more about this here) and nowhere is this clearer than in the underlying message of the 08/30 show. Stating that each show spells something through setlist structure, flow, jamming, gimmicks, bust-outs, etc, the band placed the task of figuring out what each show indeed does spell, squarely in the hearts and minds of their fans. It’s up to us after-all to understand the musical and thematic languages the band is throwing at us on a nightly basis, whatever they may be. In direct conjunction with “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself,” and “Harpua” the right way, the show displayed how comfortable Phish is with themselves right now, and how little the care if anyone else is getting it.

On night two, they crafted an absolute gem. One of their most complete shows of the year. Boasting a classic first set that featured a “Buried Alive” opener, a bulbous and energy-driven “Wolfman’s,” a “Fee -> Halfway To The Moon” segment that not only bridged one of their oldest and newest songs, but also shone a heavy spotlight on one of the best songs Page has ever offered Phish, along with a raging “Gin,” and a punctual “Antelope,” the set is up there with 07/10, 07/21, 07/26, and 08/02 as the finest of the year.

Set two was (and is) all about the momentous “Chalk Dust Torture” that opened things up. A point I’ve driven home ad nauseam throughout 2013, there’s an effortlessness to hearing Phish jam these days. Yet, for however effortless the band has sounded throughout the summer, this “Chalk Dust” somehow sounds even more fluid, even more effortless, even more second nature. This is the band communicating on dime, responding to ideas as they’re developed in real time, and crafting wholly accessible music that can be received with the same exact level of effortlessness by all their fans. Seriously, just listen to 9:46 — 12:35 to hear what I mean. The route towards the fall has been charted.

While the third night was neither as complete, nor as fluid as the first two nights, it still featured a decidedly old school Set I, and a “Caspian> Piper” that is more than worthy of your time and ears. It — and the entire summer tour — was capped off by a Trey Anastasio baring his heart to his fans, thanking them in the most genuine way possible for always being there for Phish. While he didn’t have to directly say it, we all know how much it means to him that after all the darkness, all the uncertainty, all the frustrations of the last ten years, we’re all still showing up each night to listen to these four best friends try to communicate in the moment through music.

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Just as Dylan’s Self Portrait was a misunderstood gem in the spectrum of his elongated career, Dick’s 2013 represents something deeper than it’s initially being given credit for. Perhaps it’s going to take time for us to fully understand its impact and its place. However, what is immediately clear is that it proves — once again — that Phish isn’t a static wellspring of packaged pleasure. They’re a constantly evolving, occasionally confounding, layered and complicated source of artistic creation, and communal connection. It’s their job to reflect their own perspective(s) through their unending musical conversation. It’s on us however, to both have faith in the unknown of this journey, and to refrain from allowing our own wants and expectations to cloud the purity it.

The great artists teach us to be constantly aware, and never relent our open mind. It’s in our best interest as devotees of their craft to heed their advice.