Ready Player Playoff Mode Phish For the Win
“[Flying saucer emoji]” - @funkyCfunkydo
“Non-stop thrills” - @n00b100
Before I get going with the task at hand, explain the title(s) of tonight’s recap, and get to the music, I would first like to express a little gratitude, and—if I may—a little camaraderie amidst the fever of playoff season. When I first decided to come out to LA for these shows at the Bowl, it was an impulsive jest while I was deep in relistening to the February 2003 quartet I caught in preparation for the long retrospective we published on the blog just before Mexico. For a minute or two since I’ve wondered if I was a little hasty and indulgent, but as I mentioned yesterday, this was my first trip to see Phish on the West Coast since I started seeing the band in Montreal in '94, and while any doubts about my decision were pretty much lifted early on Friday, tonight’s performance absolutely obliterated them.
All that said, I volunteered to recap a show while here, but they had all apparently all been spoken for. All good, I’d likely keep up with the scholarship anyway; it’s part of the fun for me. Fast forward to the day before the shows and @Icculus reached out to see if I could stand in for someone that was going to the King’s game, in the end. Did they win? [No, lost in OT sadly. -Ed.] I haven’t even checked the score, which is surprising, but then again my fantasy pool ended in the regular season (I had McDavid, but my old friend with Kings season tickets who moved here 20 years ago won our pool this year). Anyway, of course I obliged. This morning I also got word that our Saturday night recapper was also out with what they’re saying is an upper body injury, but who really knows for sure. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a proper Montreal kid, and besides Phish, hockey is my game. And the playoffs are a slog; sometimes folks go down and when the coach calls you gotta step up. So apologies in advance to anyone who was hoping for a different linemate going into today’s recap (especially that one guy who was mad that I didn’t acknowledge Saturday’s "2001" as the “best one ever by a wide margin;” but hopefully you’ll be more pleased with my performance tonight. The band certainly made it easy for me.
Where was I? Right, the camaraderie. Well for all my travels and shows over the years I’ve still felt apart from the scene and spectacle at times (which I’m sure we all have, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing). But I have to acknowledge some earnest gratitude for finally meeting dot.netters @zzyzx (who though he doesn’t post that often, does Tweet, and mentioned he was updating tonight’s setlist, and with whom I shared good feelings about the Friday "Disease" and the Kraken), as well as @n00b100 and @funkycfunkydo, both of whom I consider brothers-in-arms here in the weird ethereal space we otherwise occupy and share, and it was a genuine pleasure to meet IRL. (On that digital-millennial note I also spotted Tye Sheridan, the lead from Ready Player One, as tonight’s entry in #celebrityphish.). But these are real flesh and blood brains and bodies with ears, and not AI-generated aliens with opinions, and it was special to be reminded of such, and to experience such an earnest sense of camaraderie, so late in this long game the band is still playing. To say nothing of the other new friends I made hanging in the same section all three nights; shout out to the peeps from Florida and from Denver—where we talked of the Panthers’ chances at upset, agreed on dislike of the Bruins and Leafs alike (sorry guys), as well as the current Cup champ Avalanche, her jersey the previous night oracling the Saturday "Melt," and his, synchronistically our raging first set closer tonight with a shirt that unapologetically declared (below a drawing of Trey), “About to C*m,” which—hey, may seem a bit much, but also, have you seen that scene in Bittersweet Motel? and also, man, tonight was just as tantric as it was load-blowing. It was Complete. And honestly, I could almost leave it here and in Hollywood fashion declare—the way Maya Rudolph’s hormone monster Connie announces to Jessie in an early season of Big Mouth: “No Notes!”
So it’s been a tough couple seasons for the Habs, but tonight I want to send love out to all the teams everywhere fighting for their lives on the road, no matter where they’re from, hoping to not get squashed in one of its four quarters. But tonight there really were no quarters. Unless of course you count the “No Quarter,” but that just reinforces my point. Tonight was connected, and broad. It earned its triumphs, and its glorious, straight-up hauntings. It told the whole story, because it knew it didn’t really, in the end, have anything to tell. So it took no urgency in getting there, and communicated the Fast and the Furious as well as the Digitally Danceable Truth without even seeming to try. So no, they didn’t play a big "Ghost" tonight (they opened with it the previous night), but they did open all three shows this run with songs from the beloved '98 studio album, and play yet more of it in "Meat" (Saturday), and with tonight’s "Roggae" (which my Florida friends will confirm I anticipated moments before any signs of it with an “I feel a Roggae coming”). The invisible signals were firing tonight..
Accordingly, they continued with the trend of mostly old classic pre-2009 material, and had a ‘98 feel through much of the first set and beyond, and a 2.0 feel early in the second, with only one notable 3.0 exception in each set with Ghosts of the Forest material haunting the horizon, equally earned.
There was a moment at some point in the show where I reflected on how much of a working band Phish still is in many ways, to their credit. And how you gotta respect continuing to write so many new songs—and play them—sometimes a lot, before weaving them back into what is really unrivaled now in rock and roll and jazz and improvisation, in terms of a playbook—at least among active teams. I was reminded of solid sports teams that have been working on different plays throughout the year, vets who know you need a balance of that youthful risk-taking, energy and talent on the one hand, with patience, grit and persistence on the other. Gotta play a balanced long game, if you want to take home the big prize. You put all the pieces together for the big game(s), and see if it’s enough to advance to the next round.
It didn’t all start as a foregone conclusion, though. Big wins aren’t given away cheap. The "Birds" and "Roggae" were solid, well placed choices to start converting the deliberate mood. Mike’s new bass really stepped into a new light tonight, but there have also been moments of adjustment (in some cases visible ones with a tech coming on tonight to help Trey with those dang in-ear monitors). They could have taken "Birds" out but they had longer game plans and patience and so only flirted with the edges of jamming. "Roggae" captured the mood perfectly and was an ideal vehicle for getting the band relaxed and given space to breathe and have stamina for a big, consistent game.
"Divided Sky" is where momentum switched, the song itself perfectly placed, and the opening clean and strong. The middle section reminded me of the almost equally lovely one I saw in Bethel last summer, with Trey very quiet and and a little tentative on the return after the powerful pause. But his volume and tone really claimed their place by the end of this weekend starting at the end of this "Divided Sky," and they were put to such mindful use. I heard an interview with Trey on Phish Radio recently talking about his guitar tone and style changes over the years, and how he was at the arc of mastering this new tone he’d been working with for awhile—an old vet working the new plays, only I think he was talking golf, not hockey, but close enough Happy Gilmore—you love to see it. Well whatever he’s been working on it gelled big time at a Sunday show in LA, and Mike wasn’t far behind him with his new gear. By the time "Divided Sky" wrapped, the apprentice’s machine gun fingers were awake and searching like they’ve been all weekend, but the master’s mind manifested tonight, too, and brought a little more balance to the force. And Mike, and Page, and Fish—arguably the tour MVP to-date whom tonight had to deal with a Big Game from Big Red. There were no quarters tonight. There was just GAME.
"Whenever I saw the sun, I reminded myself that I was looking at a star."
And in the shadow of all the ghosts there was the spectre of the city of LA—with, let’s face it, good points and a whole lotta bad points—and the band offered a mighty metropolitan trio with at least this "Cities," "Tube," and "Slave." And what a "Cities!" If the previous night I had been critical at times of Trey’s habits, tonight he undressed me by making every possible choice to escape getting pinned down, employing everything in his arsenal, from funk riffs, more rhythm guitar, the electronic wails he’s mastered, and a few perfectly place '99 loops, the latter of which was downright cheeky in its self-awareness, and still hit clean top shelf, like calling a shot before landing it. The jam in "Cities" listening back now feels pretty unparalleled in terms of a convincing dance party with everything wound into a tight-as-tits bounce, that should propel this version straight into the all-time "Cities" list. At thirteen minutes it could have already made its case, but that they added a whole other section coming out of the space in the wake of the first phase, forging a millennial take-off sound that’s been brewing all weekend and sounds impossibly cool, like it was stolen from lost years in Japan in "2001"—or maybe 2021? (Or was it a sci-fi soldier from 1848, the timing curiously shared by both the "Cities" and "Mr Completely" on the LP release..) I can’t possibly describe the rest of "Cities" but I can definitely tell you you’d be a fool to not listen for yourself.
It’s not like it let up from here. The "Tube" (with a freeway!—in Los Angeles!) doubled down on the digital dance party, throwing in deconstruction for good measure still loaded from whatever ghost possessed the Bowl during the pause in "Divided Sky" and that really began to make itself known in the "Cities." Yup, must hear, too.
“Make no mistake,” to paraphrase my friend and psychedelic drug reform advocate, Izzy Ali, “spirit runs through everything here.” Well he wasn’t talking about Phish, but damned if the rest of the night wasn’t straight up possessed. The "Taste" and maybe even more impressively the "About the Run" went above and beyond. "Taste" was not only a fine opportunity for Fishman to show off, but it also put in one of its tightest, punchiest performances in recent memory.
Step into space
Alter my place
That someone else made
Why I have stayed
Into things I could be
Or if I could see
Into fog that surrounds
And "About to Run" may have been the strongest set closer of The Run, whether it was signaling the intention to skip town after tonight, the hope of getting another chance, or faith in conversation with lost friends and more ghosts. (Or hockey; for those keeping score, "About to Run" was debuted on 6/12/19 in St. Louis, the same night the Blues won the Stanley Cup.)
Sometimes the ghost is quiet
But the ghost is always there
And it seems no matter how far I go
He goes with me
Who was that masked man? Was he "Mr. Completely," which like the "Cities" has a few seamless sections, one which revisits what @funkCyfunkydo must have meant by responding with just a flying saucer emoji when prompted for comment about the show, only to indulge me hours later with “SPYNET robo funk,” albeit in reference to the "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing" that followed. (Which, no surprise by now, also delivered in spades and featured a return to complete the "Completely," so-to-speak.) There’s some familiar bluesy finishing in the "Completely" but Trey has so much room and spread that he can kill these moments without effort and land them before shifting briskly into something new and interesting, or another great song choice. The Velvet Underground didn’t show up tonight, but the spirit of the band’s '98-dance with Loaded (the closer and opener of which it now occurs to me I heard in other non-Phish settings this weekend in LA, first “‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin” from a car and then “Who Loves the Sun” in a store.) The initial finish to "Mr Completely" draws from the best Loaded peaks you can imagine, and lands ‘em.
The ASIHTOS jam starts at about 2 minutes, by the way, and means its galactic strut from the get go. Maybe this is a good time to check in with a brief post-game report from @n00b100 who offered: “Ocean and Wolfman’s felt like 2015 jams, where they were brimming with ideas and they just came one after the other like trains arriving on schedule,” to which I responded “On schedule but also hovering above the tracks!” His truncated Hollywood headline? “Nonstop thrills.” And it’s hard to argue with that. I’d be concerned this Ocean will get lost under the shadow of the Cities and Completely overhead, but it’s so good in its 10 minutes, before the "Completely" reprise, I don’t think there’s any risk of this jam getting swallowed by a bigger fish. Everyone was swimming in formation tonight.
Yes even the "Wolfman’s Brother" meant some seriously scary business there in the middle of the second set, not unlike Mike himself who by now was really holding things down with gusto to lend more balance somehow to a sound already in abundance of it. But both Mike and this Wolfman alike were impeccably dressed (“I’d like to meet his tailor..”) ready to Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough Staccato Strut. It could have gone bluesy rock easily at five and half minutes, but instead this funky spynet breakdown beat continues, Page and Mike just bombing the signal like modems from the last two decades past run-a-glorious-mok, with Trey having left room for them. Ridiculous dance party bounce. I barely stopped shaking my rump all set. They sound almost like they’re going to go into "Psycho Killer," the jam arguably echoing flavour from even that magical first set in Dayton '97. Instead Trey has other plans and weaves up a finish to the "Wolfman’s" at around 11 minutes that nails and earns some glorious and patient highs before they unwind it yet again with millennial Radiohead-esque pops and pusles. The last minute of this "Wolfman’s" is some special shit, too.
You better believe the Ruby Waves crashed to enormous reception at this point. There was no problem earning the earnest soul-love lyrics here. The mood and sound of the set so far just perfectly complementary to the song selection continuing to emerge.
All the lights on the machine are flashing
Until they explode and the particles join up with
The sea of love
Ruby waves pouring down on my head
This jam goes delicate and jazzy quick without losing any of its power. Trey is inspired, and they have a big lead now. Spin it up, wring it out, the particles, like the poisson, are on our side tonight. It’s honestly getting hard to keep up with them now as I write this, but in the best of ways, because the disco space train just does keep coming. The "Ruby Waves" peak yields to a spacey long and engaging denouement that plumbs some ecstatic final depths that would hint at the Floydian soundscapes to come, before sending up the signal that first, you "Gotta Jibboo."
At 3 minutes the "Jibboo" is already jammy, and Trey trots out his aforementioned 99 loops, but weaving them confidently, not jokingly, over each other before throwing a final curve ball loop that sets up a slip and slide solo bounce-play with Mike. The nimbleness here would also sound millenial if it wasn’t also so damn mature. It eventually finds its way back to a familiar swing and finish—the one dance party this set that wasn’t fully infected with the skynet bug. If you’re looking for something close to resembling a weak spot in the set and show by this point, I guess you could poke around here, but honestly, you’re not going to find much.
If with all the talk of the dance party disco you have any doubts about this show’s simultaneous gravitas, you need no look no further than this absolutely balls-out "No Quarter," that immediately haunted the shit out the Bowl, the ghost come home to roost without mercy.
“You’re not serious people,” Logan Roy says to his kids early this season in Succession—another big Sunday ticket that I still haven’t checked the score on. Phish has made a good part of their career tricking people with only superficial attention that they’re silly and unserious, when really this business is anything but, and has been for some time. But the cost for that at times has been the occasional difficulty slipping into those more earnest emotional moments, the ones the Dead could assume so easily, with experience and authority. Between this "No Quarter" and the "About to Run" in the first set, I was equally floored on this night by their ability to sing about death and mean it, letting the emotional power swell up from the direction of all four winds. You can’t fake that stuff.
I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.
Of course, not too serious, mind you. The choice here to follow the heavy grave of "No Quarter" with "Possum" and his particular dead ass by the side of the road was just the right amount of cheeky, and absolutely wailed bringing her home. The perfect choice, like pretty much every other selection on this night.
I couldn’t really have picked a better encore either, even if you saw that "Slave" with its city and zoo coming a mile away up the freeway. Yesterday I remarked that I was curious to see whether we’d spot any rare Gamehendge celebrities on the hill, but it was only too fitting—and punchy as hell, that on a night when they blap-boomed in LA at a new level I can still scarcely believe, it ended up being the King’s show (get it?), and the question he begged of us all. The answer? Yes, we can still have fun. And how.
I shouldn’t have to tell you by now that the "Slave" delivered. The "Oh Sweet Nuthin"-esque send up was classic, cathartic, and the perfect bookend on a perfect night, and a suddenly very special tour. It may be early yet, but I think they’ll be talking about this game for a long time to come. Phish wins again—and so are we.
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