, attached to 2011-09-03

Review by waxbanks

waxbanks ## Second try.

I've been listening to this show a lot lately and thinking about how Phish have changed during the '3.0' era. For a while now I've thought that this era's major turning point, the start of the Golden Age, was summer 2011 -- specifically Super Ball IX.

A lot of that is down to Fishman, I think.

I'd bet $5 that Fish did some pre-tour woodshedding. His playing in early summer had a welcome strut to it, with a new wall-of-drums style that boosted jams like the Bethel Gin and the overlooked R'n'R and Pebbles jams at Great Woods, but first fully revealed itself in the mythic Bethel tech rehearsal Waves from 5/26 (which Shapiro shared on the From the Archives show at Super Ball). Fish's apparent lack of conditioning was surely a factor in the band's slow post-Coventry start, along with Trey's hesitancy when faced with wide-open improvisatory opportunities. They've always been the most tightly bonded pair in the band, and they lifted each other up in the summer 2011 shows, not by pushing for More Notes and Longer Jams, but by taking equal part in the ongoing musical tiki-taka which characterizes improvisation at its best.

Paradoxically, as Fishman attained peak velocity, the band was more than ever able to relax and sink into jams. They've talked about this phenomenon, too (in the Phish Book, maybe?): jams going so fast that they run together into a kind of sonic sludge, seeming to flow slowly by. Phish's early jams don't give me that feeling; when they played fast in 1994, 'fast' (not 'smooth' or 'groovy') was generally the point of the exercise. December 1997 jams can have that quality, though -- dig on a high-speed Piper or Weekapaug -- and it carried over into the sedimentary buildup of December 1999 and the tumbling quality of summer 2004's extended workouts (cf a strong Seven Below jam). Summer 2011's jams often had that awesome railway momentum too, with Fishman's drums providing a kind of bubbling foam for the others to float on.

But the point with Phish's ensemble jams is almost never to showcase one player. Even when Trey's 'conducting' from within the ensemble, the overall group dynamic is the point. Remember: birds in a flock move like a single organism, *without a single leader*. Not many bands have learned to improvise that way convincingly, but Phish have.

Super Ball IX was, I think, a private breakthrough for the band. That isn't just about jam length, either. They'd played a 22-minute Disease at their comeback shows in Hampton (3/8/09 II is a pretty good set!), had made a 45-minute Seven Below > Ghost suite in Albany that November, and by August 2010 were capable of feats of patience like the Greek Light, still one of Phish's most beautiful improvisations of this era. Their fluency and fluidity steadily improved through 2009 and 2010, too. And they started looking toward the machinic-rhythmic assemblages which became centerpieces in 2011. (For a foretaste of what was to come in 2011, try the Hood and Tweezer from the 2010 NYE run, not to mention the 'Holy Ghost,' ancestral relative of this very Tweezer.)

But the 'secret' Bethel Waves shows that in six months they'd gone from comfortable, more or less familiar Phish to a new sound and sense: more harmonically ambivalent and casually fluid than at any point since Hampton, with leadership responsibilities passing freely around the circle and Fish's drums pushing the band further and further out. Whatever they'd gotten up to in the months since MSG, the payoff was immediate: check out the set-one Bethel KDF, which *immediately* jumps into a brief friendly metrical-mathematical exercise before floating on a rhythmic-ambient cloud for a few moments before opening up for Trey to lead the jam to climax. That night's 'other Bethel Waves' drifted beyond its closing vocals into a gorgeous conversation between Mike and Trey; Fish and Mike pushed the next night's Gin into a killer Golden Manteca Boogie jam, and of course the June 3rd Disease is a magnificent descendant of the 'Holy Ghost,' anchoring an all-timer DWD > Fluff > Bowie sequence.

All well and good, but Ball Square is the fulcrum. Before that hourlong burst of Tower Jam-esque audiovisual insanity, they had at their disposal every tool necessary to take their music to a new level -- and the Ball Square Jam, which honestly I don't listen to anymore, took the damn brakes off. It's like Oh Kee Pah 3.0: unseen and anonymous, almost overheard in their private messing-about, the band could try on new sounds, surrender to decidedly 'un-Phishy' vibes. This is the moment the 'Storage' style of jam becomes, as they say, A Thing. The next night's show was the best of the festival, complete with extended ASIHTOS, powerful Reba, effortless multipart Light, and IT-esque Waves > WTU. But *afterward*...

The new sound steeped for a month, and the 8/5/11 Gorge show happened. Listen to that Roggae -- Dopamine Clouds over Phish Cottage! And of course the R'n'R > Meatstick, with Fish holding the gas pedal down and the band getting deeply weird. Again, *strong* echoes of the Tower Jam as Mike chants 'It's alllllriiiiight...' over the rhythm machine, until Page engages Nightmare Mode and we dip-then-build to the nastiest beat drop the band's maybe ever managed onstage, the crowd losing every single atom of their minds and who can blame them.

Then Tweez > Caspian > Tweez > Birds the next night, a demented lab experiment during the Tahoe Light, the perfect 'Elements Set' at UIC (one of the best sets they've ever played, and *then* a five-song encore culminating in an unbearably intense Hood), with Fish pushing himself to new heights night after night and the whole band not just keeping up but answering with magic of their own... Late summer 2011 is an all-killer-no-filler stretch of shows with the band at a seemingly effortless peak. That they've continued to play at that high level is an actual (tiny) miracle.


So now the 9/3/11 Dick's show, and if you don't know it already then you're better off just listening at this point, because all I'm gonna tell you is how great it is:

The Wolfman's Brother is filth. The second set, our reason for being, is perfectly formed, with a sneaky DWD > Tweez segue teeing up one of the year's signature jams. I treated this Tweezer rather too lightly in my first review of this show, and it's not exactly 'close reading' Phish like the 7/6/13 Split or the 8/4/13 Light, but it's more than just a pretty major-chord jam with a slowed-down Golden Age drumbeat: they lock into one another, take their time constructing a jam made of pure sunlight, and then descend with extraordinary gentleness and patience through a five-minute decrescendo which is, I think, a strong piece of evidence for any 'best improvising band ever' claim you wish to make on Phish's behalf. Any decent improvising band can get high, but tracing the complex curve of this Tweezer takes skill, and effecting a gorgeous transition like this without losing any of the crescendo's dramatic intensity takes something more than skill.

Golden Age doesn't lift off, but since we've just come down off the roof of the sky, that's no strike against it.

Yet LxL is a perfect specimen, with Trey and Fish pushing each other through a dramatic jam that references Taste and acts as a catalogue of improvisatory techniques on its way to a screeeeaming!! climax. Do I prefer the Went version? Yes -- but then what kind of person looks at a lover's hands and says 'Nice, but my ex had a more elegant ring finger'? C'mon now.

KDF, a/k/a 'not quite Chalkdust,' never bothers getting quiet, and the band hits the final vocals with tons of energy to spare and then keeps going to a massive finish. At this point, do we cool down? No, we *get* down. 2001 is just a brief dance interlude nowadays, but it's the closest we get to normal operating energy levels in this intensely elevated set. Trey's almost too wound up and happy to sing Light, and they fly through the song to the broad vista of its outro jam...at which point, after a brief tense passage, they collectively step back a little and *glide*.

The DWD reprise in the Light jam isn't quite quiet, it's not clever, it's not 'climactic' or cathartic. The texture of the jam recalls both the Greek Light from the previous summer and the golden Tweezer from earlier in the night. Having pushed and ran as hard as they could, the band members seem simultaneously to experience a kind of awestruck high, as if the Disease riff were being *revealed* rather than performed.

This is silly, isn't it? This way of talking about professional musicians performing songs they've played hundreds of times.

Look, there's plenty more show after this, but that Light > DWD reprise is (for me) everything I love about post-Coventry Phish in 3ish minutes. Everyone in the band is in top form -- Mike and Page had been playing for keeps since Hampton, and Fish and Trey had built up to roughly pre-hiatus proficiency with the insight of middle-aged masters -- and instead of a final blowout, they have the wit and maturity and empathy, the grace, to play this short celebratory passage. The whole year seems, in retrospect, to've been building to these shows, this emotion: we'd wondered for some time whether they'd ever get back to that place which they alone had seemed to find, and now here we were, and *all bets were off*.



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