The Sound of Silence: Phish in 2015
It was after Night 1 in Atlanta that the firework — bright vermillion burst of heat and light — skipped right by me, missing my ankle by inches. Fireworks were quickly becoming a theme for the year. Remember the fireworks over Soldier Field? And Magna? And Mexico, so I heard…or saw on Periscope.
The Lakewood lot was one of the rowdier scenes of the Summer, at least of the shows I caught. Fireworks, bourbon, shirtless Southern boys, and girls. It was my second show of tour and the previous 48 hours had been a predictable adventure. Walking through the TSA Scanner the morning after Grand Prairie, I was vibrating so hard from the night before that I was absolutely sure the machine would explode while a cadre of Texas jackboots locked me up and threw away the key.
Luckily, that didn’t happen, I successfully boarded and awoke hours later in a Buckhead hotel room that wasn’t even mine, with only a foggy sense of how I had arrived there. Apparently I saw some friends on the train into town. Apparently I ordered a club sandwich and didn’t pay for it.
In the end, I got in and out of Dallas in less than 24 hours which is more than enough time to spend in Texas. Still, between helping to crack in a slick new venue, a first-set “Steam” with some extended jamming and a ranging “Chalkdust,” plus good company, there were worse places to hop on than Dallas.
Just a couple of weeks prior Phish had kicked off their Summer Tour with two highly anticipated shows in Bend, OR. Pre-tour energy had naturally been running high; Phish’s return to the stage after their usual Winter hibernation coupled with Trey’s participation in the Fare Thee Well shows. The fires were well stoked by then, the fans ready to rage right out of the gate. We’d hear glimmers of Trey’s experience with The Dead throughout the Summer, some favored effects and an occasional referential lick or two would keep the memory fresh alive on tour.
What’s the best way to cleanse the palate after all that Dead music and media hububb? New material of course. The biggest news out of Bend was the debuts, seven songs in total: “Blaze On, Shade, No Men, How Many People Are You? Heavy Rotation, Scabbard,” and “Mercury.” The exciting new material papered over what would otherwise be a mundane complaint, the band’s initial stabs at improv failed to connect. Save for that gripping “Simple” on the second night of tour which was a good omen. Listen back if you haven’t.
Then down the coast, in California, Phish just sort of clicked, pounding out a righteous, coherent show at Mountain View. Shoreline’s stellar second set is one of those long interwoven pieces. Featuring a monster “Twist,” and a terrific first jam for “Blaze On,” not the last we would hear from these vehicles. Shoreline set an early high bar for tour and gave the faithful back East something to look forward to.
All Signs Point to Yes.
Next night at the Forum was an energy explosion, the frenetic Saturday Night counterpoint to Friday’s delicacy in the Bay Area.
Martian Monster opened The Forum gig as it would several other quality shows this year. Phish put on a thrilling show for the often overlooked SoCal fans and any music industry bigwigs and heavyweights in attendance got a good strong dose of the band and an answer to why Phish continues kicking ass. One could almost hear Bob Lefsetz asking his readers if Phish was relevant again.
Austin and Dallas followed, two rather humdrum shows in terms of re-listening, what is often missed, and this case proves no different, there’s plenty to appreciate when Phish gets on a roll. And the band was snowballing early. There’s not an “off” Phish show to be found. Listen to it all. There were signs of increased care and creativity all Summer long.
Digging into some new material seems to have reinvigorated the band, as it tends to do, forcing them to quickly focus on themselves. Plus a bit of practice never hurts, what better reason to make the time than some new material. Early last year I often wondered how Mike, Page and Fish felt about the Fare Thee Well spectacle. Would they feel overshadowed by it? Would it strain any relationships? At this point, doubtful. There is no drama. just gratitude. We’re all in Bonus Time with Phish aren’t we? Aren’t we always winning no matter what, as long as these four guys get on stage every once in a while?
Fishman was noticeably absent in Chicago, I hardly think that means anything. Page and Mike were getting down all weekend long and that was great to see. Chicago man. Maybe we’ll be back for Wrigley? I’d go see that.
Which brings us back to Atlanta, which is where I personally feel the tour took a serious turn. Phish showed up to play in Georgia, with two incredibly high energy shows containing some deep and complex jamming. Friday night’s “Kill Devil Falls,” easily one of the best jams of the year, turned some heads and, as would be the case several times this Summer, forced a reconsideration of a certain song’s potential. No longer would “KDF” be relegated to pseudo-status. Caspian née Fuckerpants would be another.
But the first set on Friday Night was also a burner with an undulant, delicate “Ghost” foregrounded a band in control of their interplay and eager to create wherever they could. This was something I noticed throughout the year, a band appreciative and fully committed to their enterprise, scratching old itches like more free-form jamming in opening frames, including second jams in “Mike’s Song’s” once again. The Summer would see a Forbin’s narration too, in Alpine and the serious return of “Scents and Subtle Sounds,” a fan favorite.
Atlanta’s “Kill Devil Falls,” was the first coherent extended jam of the Summer. Fully in command throughout, the piece exudes a sort of effects laden cool at all times. At the time it reminded me of the “Drowned” from Worcester in the Fall of ’13. Moving effortlessly from sections and feels, the jam was an instant hit and the first real proof of something special cooking inside 2015 Phish. Everything was falling into place. Trey was noticeably spry on stage throughout the weekend.
The next night contained a personal dream set of “Tweezer, Sand” and a truly haunting, unique version of “Carini.” Vegas Halloween is still with the band, clearly.
These jams anchored the show, and a Velvet Underground encore put a proper punctuation mark on a hot weekend in the South. Phish would go on to Tuscaloosa while I hopped back to Denver for a few weeks of work before MPP and Magna.
Leaving the show Saturday felt just as special, not often you get two back to back nights of a new feeling. I think that’s what makes me remember a Phish show. How new did it seem at the time? No matter what, that familiar Phish thing is attainable every night. Happiness, friendship, community, dance. It’s hard to have a bad time at Phish. But on the special nights, it’s in a different, higher register. Those shows that leave a mark on us that can’t be erased. Like an emotional brand.
I went home thoroughly satiated, feeling protected against the horror of hopping off tour, only excited by what still lay ahead for me, and the rest of the community.
The following thought ricocheted around my mind several times this Summer: When Phish is great, it somehow felt OK to miss shows, because I knew that the joy they would be bringing to others was true and real and pure and if it existed for them, it existed for me. There was a bond. This was my exact feeling on the second night of the Philly stop. Mann 2 is just a special concert. Texting a friend who was there during the first set “Cities,” he remarked that “tonight was the night.” Something about where they were in the progress of their tour, what I had heard earlier in Atlanta and Dallas and how I had felt connected to a cogent musical build as the band swept cross the Midwest. Alpine Valley seemed to cement that. Blossom too.
To be continued…please share any comments or feedback you have as I recap the rest of the year including MPP, Magna, Dicks, New Years and recount experiencing Mexico from afar.