As soon as we saw the megaphone in Trey’s hand, we knew we were in for something special. Actually, let me back up. As soon as I walked into Jason’s Deli for lunch, hours before the show, and heard “Farmhouse” on the in-house stereo, I knew that we were in for something special. Sitting on the Merriweather lawn, in beautiful summer warmth, I could never have guessed the surprises to come. “I’ll walk away happy if I hear YEM,” I told my friend next to me. I had no idea what was in store.
The first “Fee” opener since 2011, followed by the first “Curtain (With)” of tour, set the tone of surprise right off the bat. Kuroda lit up the crowd during the singalong “whoa-oh-oh” chorus, and in the bright light, there we all were: 20,000 fools on the hill, trying to live a life that’s completely free. In my ears, “The Curtain” is always better “With,” showing that the band isn’t messing around. The beautiful composed section that so many of us know as the Rift melody, slowed to about half time, was perfect as the sun shined its last of the day. A particularly rocking “46 Days” got the crowd finding its dancing feet, rising to a damn fine crescendo, and kept it rolling with “555,” which seems to be a widely-held favorite of the new record (or perhaps simply the most danceable). “My Sweet One” was what it always is: a delightful romp that had some heads square-dancing in glee. They held off the last note as usual, to everyone’s enjoyment. Pure sugar rush fun.
After that break, we dove right back into deep grooves with “Sand” – a dance powerhouse usually reserved for Second Set explorations. “Sand” stayed Type I, but it was a highly moxious version, Trey all but dropping out and letting Mike and Fishman rule the song. The rhythm section felt especially on point throughout the entire first set, but for those purposes, Sand was the highlight. The counterpoint of groove-and-fun continued with “Bouncing Around The Room,” which is a song that really never goes wrong. They could play Bouncing at any point in the set and it would still make everyone go giddy and dance with abandon.
Then came our second cue that it would be a show to remember with “Saw It Again,” a horror-flick-worthy rocker that had the crowd headbanging and screaming the chorus in evil spirit. The lights accentuated a mood that was not unlike a monster “Carini,” as Fishman screamed in the background. Saw It Again collapsed into dissonant explosions, with Page’s piano slowly emerging from the rubble, into… Fuego in the first set? This fiery epic has been generally acknowledged as the new jam vehicle of summer tour ’14, commonly holding surprises and heady peaks in second set explorations. This version held up, strong and consistent throughout its mostly-faithful to the album rendition, with speedy sweeps from Trey and a closing section dominated by fascinating Fishman-and-Page interplay. Mike brought out the power drill in the last moments, throwing back to his mechanically-minded ways of last year’s Fall tour. It’s a great song. Great song was great. The energy was high.
Then – “You Enjoy Myself.” The band nailed the composed sections, and made some glowing ambient space in the midst of the first part. Fishman stared with intense focus at the consistent riffing hi-hat, as Page laid down a blanket of dulcet tones, finally building up to the instrumental melodies that we all know and love. The piano was especially sweet, and when Trey hit the note, we all felt it radiate out. It was incredible cohesive and tight, and led right into everyone’s favorite dance party. “BOY!” Fishman screamed, and then there was Phish. Enough has been written about YEM already that I can simply say that it lived up the way it always does. In the middle of the jam, Fishman and Page were doing their interplay again, and it got so good that Trey took off his guitar and just started dancing. He was really into it, too, inspiring the thousands of fans watching him to get down just as hard. Seeing this band have this much fun onstage is one of the best parts of a show, and tonight the fun was in full form. Before picking his guitar back up, Trey used the megaphone from Fee to generate alien sounds by waving it around the microphone. The vocal jam got suitably weird, and looking around the crowd, watching the grins of all the heads on the lawn, it couldn’t have been better received. Then they were waving goodbye, and we were left to collect ourselves off the floor.
As the house lights came up for set break, there was one question on everyone’s minds. Between last night and this first set, they’ve already covered most of the songs they usually reserve for second set this tour. What have they got planned? Would it be a monster Tweezer a-la-Tahoe? A hitherto-unjammed song as new liftoff material? Whispers of Gamehendge were everywhere. Everyone made sure to be back in place for the punctual 9:15pm second set, and as they came back onstage, there was a moment of silent anticipation, held breaths, waiting to see what we’d get.
Then there it was: the ominous two-beat blast of “Wilson.” This was pure adrenaline-Phish, navigating the tight turns of the song with dexterity and power. We shouted the words, and then shouted the ‘blat-boom’ repetition, and then shouted again as the ending of “Wilson” went straight into “Tweezer.” Like the earlier YEM, Tweezer felt tight and immaculately groovy. Then, at barely the 5-minute mark, they dropped right into “Back On The Train.” Segues like this have become a relative rarity in recent years, and to see their ability to switch so effortlessly from one song to the next was thrilling and unexpected. The first verse went by, and then, like being hit in the head, we were back in Tweezer like nothing had happened – and a Tweezer with a generous dollop of funk power, at that. Before we could even adjust to the change, they slipped “Back On The Train” in the blink of an eye. We were looking around at each other in disbelief. The second verse went by, and then back into Tweezer. What the hell.
This monster “Tweezer” drew immediate comparisons to the version played at the Bomb Factory in 1994, replete with other songs, weaving in and out with unpredictable joy. From deep-funk territory, Tweezer found its way to a free, jazzy feel, and then into space, with only minimal abstract noises penetrating the mucky ether, and ultimately emerging as Waiting All Night, the only second set song written after 1998. It’s a gorgeous song, with perfectly restrained soloing from Trey and a chord progression that I can’t get enough of.
From there, all bets were off. “Free” came next, including the sometimes-left out vocals that allowed for a crowd singalong. It was as patient and controlled as it was strong, eventually rising to a rollicking peak that got darker and deeper, until we heard the “Tweezer” riff once again, and then we were right back as if we’d never left. They went right into a fiery jam that could’ve come from the depths of a 20-minute version, and barely settled in before leaping into “Simple.” The band loves this song. We love this song. “We play bebop in the band,” they sang, with some gratuitously explicit shredding from Trey to prove the point.
“Simple” faded into a quiet, cozy jam, before Fishman reintroduced the “Tweezer” beat, and like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, we were back in funkland. This Page-led “Tweezer” bite was maximum staccato and lasted all of a minute before morphing into the rock section of Free, complete with Fuego teases on the keys. We were witnessing an ever-shifting force of energy emerge from this band, and could do nothing but soak it in as they continued to keep us guessing. As Free faded out into ambient noise, we thought it might have been over, but then Trey started talking.
The first “Catapult” since 2009 showed the band at the height of having fun, as Trey and Fishman alternated overlapping verses of the bizarre poem-song. They loved every minute of this show, and if it wasn’t clear already, they went into a spirited “Slave To The Traffic Light.” Intimate and robust at once, it was a glorious rendition that faded into warmth, before Gordon started building a wall of noise with the one bass pedal that fans instantly recognizing. “Down With Disease” was the perfect placement after Slave, delivering pummeling drums and intense soloing, before building into a groupthink sort of rhythm that caught on to the whole band. Instead of ending, it morphed again, this time into “NICU,” another relatively underplayed song that balanced out the standard second set songs excellently. Besides BOTT, NICU was really the only song that night that could have been called anything close to pop, and it was refreshing and lively. Fierce soloing from Page (at Trey’s behest of “Leo! Leo!”) gave way to a fast, trebley jam, which eventually became “Hold Your Head Up,” a song that always bodes well for interesting things from Fishman. Trey moved over to the drum set, displacing Fishman, who got up to the front of the stage.
“Well,” Fishman started, “here we are. I practice nothing, I know no words to any of the songs…. And here we are.” Crowd cheers. “I do have a little singalong…” Trey and Fishman exchange a few words, enormous grins on their faces. “We have a request from the drumset…”
And then they were playing “Jennifer Dances” for the first time in nearly 15 years. The lore surrounding this ancient Phish song and its questionable acceptance make it a legend, and hearing Fishman deliver it, not knowing the words, and filling in the solos with a vacuum the way only he can, made for a moment that will go down in Phish history.
Not one to be upstaged, Page got off the keys next, and led the band in a group-line dance across the stage with his song “I Been Around,” a ballad that straddles the line between serious musicianship and ridiculous theatrics. Embracing the full cheesiness potential, they all got up and sang a cappella, with only Mike’s bluesy blats providing the beat. Page thanked us all for coming out, and bowed out.
Watch Pro-Shot Video Of The Second Set:
We already knew the encore Tweeprise was coming, but Boogie On Reggae Woman was the icing on the unpredictable cake. A fiercely groovy version with fantastic soloing by Mike had everyone bringing out their last dance reserves, before diving right into the explosion that always is and always will be Tweezer Reprise.
We asked Wilson, “Can you still have any fun?” Tonight at MPP, Phish reminded us that fun is what they have always been about. This was a show of legend. The Dude of Life, Steve Pollak, called it the best Phish show ever. There isn’t much else to say other than what those who already know, already know: never, ever sleep on a Sunday.
Set 2: Wilson > Tweezer -> Back on the Train -> Tweezer > Back on the Train ->Tweezer > Waiting All Night > Free -> Tweezer -> Simple -> Tweezer -> Free ->Catapult -> Slave to the Traffic Light > Down with Disease -> NICU -> Hold Your Head Up > Jennifer Dances > Hold Your Head Up, I Been Around
 With Trey waving his megaphone and using its siren.
[Set list info via Phish.net]
[Photos via Phish Facebook page]
–Asher Meerovich (@Bummertime)