Thoughts on Phish’s 2014 Summer Tour

The end of summer tour often brings about a sort of mild depression — one mingled gently with nostalgia and that bittersweet sense of victory over… something. “But there are no more summer shows!”* Of course, the overriding emotion here should really be one of ecstasy and wonder. Beneath the tremors of post-tour blues, it is.

Phish, likely and by all serious accounts the greatest band in the world, delivered a towering 22-show run across the East Coast and that sliver of the Midwest we call Chicago. This was a fierce bastard of a tour, building definitively off the successes of last fall. Gems are strewn about each show, and it’s almost impossible to fully calculate the magic that took place this summer.

I’m borrowing slightly from a .net thread in this review. Note that the three shows I actually experienced live were DTE and the two Porstmouth shows. I’ll attempt to avoid “I was there” bias, but I will say that, goddam, Portsmouth N2 now stands as my favorite show I’ve seen live.

Live in Portsmouth, Va.
Live in Portsmouth, Va.

Best Opener: Gumbo, Northerly Island, July 20: Of course, this jam merely set the stage for the Alpharetta Gumbo, which ranks mightily among the best jams of the tour. The song, thick with funk and imaginative lyrics, is a terrific opener – regardless of improv quality. There’s a great bit where the band fades away (Trey drifts into outer space), leaving Page to dismantle his clav with all due intensity. The outro jam during the last minute is icing and leads to a fine Runaway Jim and, in sum, one of the best shows of the summer. Note that openers were unusually strong this tour.

Best New Tune: Fuego. As potent the message within Wingsuit now is to me, I’ve got to hand this one to Fuego. It was the Summer of Fuego, for crissakes! “Fueg.0!” Phish nailed it when they penned this anthemic rocker and they happened to pin the young’un up on a few jam charts in just 14 performances (see SPAC, Mann, Portsmouth). The band toyed around with a number of different placements this summer, but I feel that the second set opening slot may be the choicest grounds for a fiery Fuego.

First Set Jam MVP: Bathtub Gin, Randall’s, July 11: This is one of those rare 18-minute, type-II beasts that comes ripping through a show’s first frame. And Gin, among the band’s historically Great jam vehicles, has offered up some top-notch playing this summer. The Randall’s outing was the peak.

Second Set Jam MVP: This category of course boasts the broadest playing field, so I’ll run a top 5 here. It’s hard to call this exhaustive, of course, so I’m picking jams that represent various forms of the band’s improvisatory mastery.

  • Light, Randall’s Island N3, July 13: The peak in this jam is just astounding. And it follows a brilliant jazz excursion led by Fish that ropes in a brain-buzzing Mind Left Body jam. So much to love in this one. That it’s packed in between the tour’s best Chalk Dust AND Tweezer? Well, that’s just peachy.
  • Fuego, SPAC, July 4: The first giant Fuego of summer was a real doozy. Mann was longer and more complex and Portsmouth was just downright funkier, but the SPAC Fuego stands tall with its majestic Trey-led peak. I don’t think it represents the band’s best *playing* of the year, but the structural integrity of this jam is a wonder.
  • Limb by Limb, SPAC, July 3: The circus explodes toward the end of the jam, as Fish lays down some cowbell mania and Trey bends his strings to the point of suffocation. It’s a truly mesmerizing jam and, more than anything, just straight-up unique. Nice > into the tour’s first Winterqueen, too.
  • Ghost, Northerly Island, July 20: The wah-ska vamp around which Trey centers this jam is aural crack. Consume at your own risk. Not the most mind-blowing jam of the year, but, good lord almighty, this one feels good. I heard the Weekapaug that follows ain’t too bad, either.
  • Harry Hood, Mansfield, July 1: I sorta hesitated to toss this one on the list, but its stature among the tour’s opening show grants it something of an iconic placement in 2014. Hoods have been getting weird ever since last year’s Hollywood Bowl outing, and this one takes that idea into deep space. Very psychedelic throughout, this jam set the tone for a summer tour that would go well beyond whatever limits were thought were in place since the band’s return five years ago. Thank ye heavens for this summer! And this Hood!

Second Set Jam Suite MVP: This is another excitingly big category. Let’s do a top 3.

  • Fuego -> Twist -> When the Circus Comes, Charlotte, July 25: Beautiful playing. The way Trey and, most importantly, Fish usher in the Twist is just divine. Not much else to say, really. This one leaves you without words.
  • Free -> Tweezer -> Simple -> Tweezer -> Free, MPP, July 27: Aside from the Tweezer jam, the NICU jam, and the initial realization that – oh, shit! – the band was casting another Tweezerfest into history, this little segment defines the joy of the second night at MPP. Simple is divine (Trey!) and the thunderous re-entry of Free is a triumph. Above all, MPP N2 shows the band at top segue form.
  • Mike’s Song -> The Wedge, Ghost -> Weekapaug Groove, Northerly Island, July 20: I already mentioned this Ghost in the jam MVP slot above, but this Mike’s Groove as a whole is really some kickass playing. In a summer that boasted all sorts of unconventional Grooves, this one reels in a genuine type-II Wedge jam and funked-out Ghostapaug frenzy taboot. Awesome.

Show of Tour: Randall’s N3, July 13. It’s really hard to make a solid case against this one. It’s the conventional wisdom as the tour concludes, but there’s no denying this show was unrepentant Phish destruction. From the opening Sand to the towering second set (28-minute Chalk Dust jazz madness -> “peak of the year” Light -> swamp monster Tweezer!), this one stands very tall among the rest of its field.

Sleeper Show: Portsmouth N2, July 30. I think you could make a nice case for MPP N1 here, as well, but the second night of Portsmouth (again, one I saw live) presented top-notch jamming via a real left-of-center setlist. The venue forced low attendee numbers (it holds only 6,500 or so) and it was a midweek show in a tour that boasted otherwise vanilla midweek shows. But Phish brought some ancient form of magical heat to the second set on July 30. The opening segment of the second frame – Fuego > Gotta Jibboo > Meatstick > Piper is just out of this world. And to follow that up with Billy Breathes? Wow.

Best Encore: Fluffhead, Alpharetta, Aug. 3. It was a divine end to the tour. When the opening notes to Fluffhead began at the conclusion of Alpharetta’s emotional, though fast-paced show, it was almost unbelievable. And four weeks after the SPAC debacle, Trey nailed this tune quite deftly. (I think Portsmouth also picked up the encore goods via N1’s Wingsuit > The Squirming Coil and N2’s Lizards.)

Diamonds in the Rough: Let’s conclude with just a brief list of the summer’s unsung heroes. These jams aren’t as noteworthy as the MVPs or the third-quarter anchors that everyone tends to discuss the morning after. But these cuts should be listened to at all costs.

  • Ghost, Mann, July 9: A sloppy script in the first five minutes is followed by utterly gorgeous jamming, particularly at the seven-minute mark and beyond. Trey’s coils trills around the other guys, and Page helps lift the band into the stratosphere.
  • Carini -> Ghost, MPP, July 26: This little segment featured some of the summer’s most majestic playing. A truly beautiful Carini leads into pure rock in Ghost, which I’d say was the summer’s MVP jam vehicle.
  • Waste > Backwards Down the Number Line, Portsmouth, July 30: This is such a nice pairing after the scorching improv from earlier in the set. It was a very emotional moment along the Elizabeth River that night.
  • Down With Disease, CMAC, July 15: There’s been plenty of talk about the mercurial Chalk Dust Tortures this tour, but the CMAC Disease travels through many forms with a much more interesting approach. There’s esoteric funk, major-key bliss, softness, aggression. This jam kinda has it all — a very psychedelic experience.
  • Boogie on Reggae Woman -> Run Like an Antelope, Orange Beach, Aug. 1: God, I’m loving this segue. It’s funky and it pairs two songs that you might not have thought would flow well together. A smooth transition into ‘lope is a fine, fine thing.

* Four weeks until Dick’s!

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