[This recap is courtesy of Tom Volk, phishnet user tvolkl, blanksnpostage on Twitter. -Ed.]
So here we are at long last: off to arguably their best start to a tour in a good long while, Phish arrive at Jones Beach for the first time since 2013. It’s a venue fraught with a so-so reputation amongst fans that also has a sneakily long history with the band, dating back to the summer of 1992 as the fourth stop on the original H.O.R.D.E tour.
To understand where I am coming from with Jones Beach, you have to understand first that this place is essentially a vortex for me and my family. Legend has it my grandfather drove down the newly paved Wantagh parkway in August of 1929 to swim at and explore the newly created state park days before its official opening. In the early 70s, my parents met there while working summer jobs in college. My dad worked at the Zach’s Bay concession stand, a scant 100 yards from the entrance to the theatre, where he served ice cream everyday at lunch to a pleasantly drunken Guy Lombardo.
It’s where I saw my first Phish show in 1994, where beforehand I met Mike Gordon in the parking lot where he politely chatted with a small group of us in the southeast corner of the parking lot and chastised my friend for smoking a cigarette at too young an age. “Young smoker, huh?” peering down from his bike before he sped off. So for me, this venue is inescapable and my attachment to it is irrational. You’d only understand if you grew up on the south shore, amongst the mosquitos, strip malls, salt breezes and suburban congestion and then piled my family history on top of that. So, if you’re looking for complaints about the traffic, that fact the main concourse has all the ambiance of a third rate state fair food court, the looming NY State Troopers, or that the incessant ocean breeze destroys the sound you’ve come to the wrong place. Simply, I am a homer.
An interesting thing to reflect on given the distance between this show and the last one at Jones Beach is how far they’ve come since that monsoonal day in 2013. That night featured an underrated second set that flows well on re-listen, but contrast it with the jamming of Summer ’22 and understand that this is a changed band that is regularly finding extended space and big jamming moments in very unexpected places in a way that seems totally effortless and unimaginable at that point in 2013.
Indeed, they have reeled off a stretch of shows since Mansfield that have seen some of the most improvisational, deep and dense playing of any era. To wit, my first thought when I was lucky enough to catch night two at Bethel this past weekend was that the jam out of “Set Your Soul Free” was the most “out” music I had heard Phish play since the summer of 1995, when I caught “Tweezer” > ”Dave’s Energy Guide” > ”Tweezer” and then a terrifying version of “David Bowie” on back to back nights at Jones Beach.
All the momentum, the space for improvisation, the newfound inspiration coming from different angles certainly carried over to a pretty flawless first set at present day Jones Beach. “The Curtain” slammed into “Say It To Me Santos” with big opener energy from crowd and band alike. On paper, you might look at a first set, third slot “Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan” and have little to no expectation and in this case, you be wrong and shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss. It dropped immediately into a languid and conversational space, with room for all four band members to weave around each other in a way that was very different from the rote “STFTFP”.
A highly recommended version to check out that segued smoothly into the second “NICU” of the young tour. “Roggae” followed, picking up on the themes developed earlier in “STFTFP”, patiently hitting a high peak, bolstered by a long sustained note from Trey to the spontaneous cheers of the crowd. The first “Pebbles and Marbles” of 2022 was delightfully on point and served as a perfect bridge from early to late set. The “Bathtub Gin” that followed was yet another example of the band approaching an old song with fresh perspective, the outro jam quickly settling into a percussive groove that patiently developed and was tagged with a really demented re-entry, Trey filling in the “Gin” melody with watery effects accompanied by horror house noise from the band. A properly fast ripper of a “Maze” followed by “Squirming Coil” closed out a breathless and near perfect first set.
Set break thought: I forgot to mention that the last time I did a recap of a Phish show for an online publication someone took a swan dive off the upper deck at Jones Beach into the crowd below? Blessedly broke that streak last night!
Deeper set break thought: Does a rising jam lift all songs? Wondering what the cumulative effect of the uptick in extended improvisation and tinkering with a few of the older songs structure has on the mindset of the band would be just that: speculation and nothing else. We’ll very likely never know what’s in their collective head. But I do think it has translated into a confidence to let the newer material stand on its own and carry the show. Witness the Bethel “Set Yor Soul Free” or the Hartford “A Wave Of Hope” for the two most recent examples.
At least the first half of the 2nd set was exemplary of just that: two sixteen minute versions of newer songs that were well able to carry the set in a way that the band would’ve had to rely on old warhorses to accomplish that in years past. The “I Never Needed You Like This Before" > "Leaves" duo that comprised the first half hour of the set is hardly any old head’s idea of a heavy hitting second set combination, and yet in the course of both songs they hit on dense textures, subtle modulations and snarling peaks. It’s a half hour plus that is well worth seeking out.
On song selection, one argument would be that when the band is playing as well as they have across the first few weeks of Summer Tour, it doesn’t matter what they’re choosing to play and that’s an absolutely valid take. I’d argue the flip side to that coin though is also true and even more important. It says a lot about where Phish is at in 2022 that they’re making the conscious decision to showcase newer material as the centerpiece to so many of these shows. It in fact does matter what they’re playing because somehow, after all this time, they are continuing to evolve right in front of us at a point in their career where 99.9% of the bands that have come before them have been very content to reel off the hits and collect the check. At this scale, for a rock and roll band, it’s without precedent. And for me, the focus on featuring the deeper and more recent part of the catalog goes hand in hand with the opening up of the improvisation seen in recent weeks and is just another step in the mind boggling evolution of the band.
Despite all that talk of flawlessness and depth of improv and evolution and what not, playing a high wire act is still not without its risks. “Everything’s Right” was the first and only ripcord moment of the night, and gentle nudging from Mike and Fish to pull in a wayward Trey as the song was settling into its jam wasn’t enough to further the cause leading to an abrupt segue into “The Mango Song” proved to be the only real clunker moment of the night. It hung over the run out to the end of the set and while there’s nothing at all wrong with well played versions of “Most Events Aren’t Planned,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” and “Julius,” they didn’t reflect the energy and intent of the first 2/3rds of the show. The “Harry Hood” encore pulled it all back, and akin to the “Gin” earlier in the show, broke free of its normal structure to see them back themselves into a pretty raw (for “Hood”) rock groove before gathering into your normally ecstatic peak. All things considered, it was great to be drawn back into the vortex again.
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