On Tuesday night, Phish took the stage for the first of two sold-out shows at the Ascend Amphitheater in downtown Nashville, TN.
The show kicked off with the 79th song of the tour—which remains in “no repeats” territory, not counting an unexpected “Weekapaug” interlude in Arkansas—as guitarist Trey Anastasio began the staccato strumming of the fan favorite opener, “Punch You In The Eye”. This version was a welcome, energetic start, although Trey struggled to find his footing during the “Landlady” segment.
Throwing it back to “Strawberry Donut” night at the Baker’s Dozen, the band moved from there into the Shuggie Otis tune “Strawberry Letter 23” for just the fifth time ever. The straight-ahead rocker “Sample In A Jar” landed in the third spot.
“Thank you, thank you” Trey giggled after they wrapped up the song. “Everybody good, everybody’s OK out there? You look beautiful. Stunning. Gorgeous, absolutely. A sea of beauty, an ocean of beauty.”
After Trey finished addressing the crowd, a slow and deliberate “Halley’s Comet” followed. Though in the past this song has served as a launchpad for exploration, this “Halley’s” kept it short as Trey quickly jumping into “Backwards Down The Number Line”. The band seemed to relax here for the first time of the night the band, despite not taking this “Number Line” anywhere out of the ordinary.
While some fans are quick to write off “Backwards Down The Number Line” as a bathroom break, it’s important to note its significance to Trey, Tom Marshall, and the rest of the band, as this was the song that reignited the spark for Phish ahead of the band’s reunion in 2009. Without “Number Line”, we don’t have Phish in 2021, simple as that—and hearing them play it together for the first time in a long time was a celebration in itself. Hear Trey explain the song’s origins and significance on a recent episode of Osiris Media‘s Alive Again podcast here.
“Undermind” landed in the sixth slot. There have been a lot new sounds coming from Trey’s rig so far this tour, and that expanded palette was on full display here with some evil, octave pedal mastery.
Next came a song that for the last decade typically shows up only once a tour—and one that this writer is forever chasing. I’ve always said that if the members of Phish arrived at the Pearly Gates and St. Peter told them they had to play one song to earn their way into heaven, “Divided Sky” should be the one they choose. This one wasn’t among the longest or most inspired, but it was solid and moving as all “Divided Skys” are—the definitive highlight of the set.
By this point, I had anticipated more debuts from band, but so far the tour had contained just one “new” song, the solo Trey tune that kicked off the Arkansas tour opener but was already quite familiar to fans from Trey’s various versions over the past year. Here, we finally got our first true “debut” of the tour in the form of the Mike Gordon-sung “Mull”. Though the band took a measured approach to the new piece, the funky, laid-back song contained one of the more relatable Phish lyrics I’ve ever heard: “Could you pass me a taco?”
On a night when the band was having trouble its more technical compositions, one of the most ambitious and difficult Phish compositions followed. Despite taking it at a somewhat slower clip than usual, the famously tricky “It’s Ice” posed some more issues for Trey and the rest of the band on its first outing since 12/8/19 in Charleston.
The haunting Ghosts of the Forest tune “About To Run” was the tenth of the set. Even with the band’s tendency to modulate major on the nastier tunes, this one started dark and stayed dark.
Phish – “About To Run” – 8/3/21
[Video: Matt Thomas]
Closing out the set was another beloved early-days composition. As it always does, “The Squirming Coil” put the spotlight on keyboardist Page McConnell. As his bandmates left the stage, he delivered some of his most emotional and poignant playing of the evening under a lone spotlight.
Aside from a few bright moments, Nashville night one offered a fairly disjointed first frame. This set also heard hardly anything from Fishman’s sampler, a silver lining for those who have not been amused by the gag this past week.
Completely changing the vibe from the first half—and giving the audience its first real opportunity to dig in and dance— Phish opened the second set with a bouncy “Party Time” that contained some tasty, fluid B3 work from Page.
The “Dancing In the Streets”-inspired “No Men In No Man’s Land” followed, sustaining the boogie and bumping the energy up another notch. This one took off and saw the band really soar for the first time of the night. While it didn’t have multiple distinct sections like some of the big jams we’ve seen the past few shows, the band moved seamlessly through a 15-minute wave of sound and never lost the thread.
Phish – “No Men In No Man’s Land” – Jam, partial – 8/3/21
The band eventually segued from “No Man’s Land” into “Ruby Waves”. Performed for only the eighth time, this version felt like it could’ve been the B-section of the “NMINML” jam as Trey immediately signaled to keep the energy high and bust out of the composed form. Though this one seemed destined for more, after almost 11 minutes Trey pulled the plug for “Possum” Immediately comfortable with this one, the band—along with lighting director Chris Kuroda—moved confidently through a loud and rocking rendition. Speaking of Kuroda, his beefed-up lighting rig was truly a sight to behold with metropolitan downtown Nashville as its backdrop, the glistening LEDs mixing and blending with the lights of the city behind them.
Phish – “Ruby Waves” – Jam, partial – 8/3/21
As far as breathers go, the Los Lobos tune “When The Circus Comes” is among the most welcome. Trey, Mike, Page, and Fish didn’t need long to catch their breath, however, as barely a moment passed before Trey started “Light”. This “Light” jam felt like it was woven into the same tapestry that contained “NMINML” and was then stitched into “Ruby Waves”. The jam eventually cooled off and the band made its way back into the tune to finish it off.
Before the last notes of “Light” finished ringing out, Trey counted off that familiar “1-2-3-4” and the band started signature Phish composition “You Enjoy Myself”. Showing almost no rust from the challenging compositions of the first set, this was strongly executed. What is there to say about “YEM” that hasn’t already been said? Although it’s the most-played song in Phistory, it still feels like a treat whenever we get to hear it.
This second set felt much more confident and congruent than its precursor. The song selections all made sense, all four players were relaxed and connected, and “YEM” was the cherry on top. But we weren’t finished yet, and with the volume cranked up another notch, Phish treated us to a raging “Loving Cup” encore. What a beautiful buzz, indeed.
Phish returns to Ascend Amphitheatre in Nashville tonight for night two. For a full list of upcoming dates, head here.
Setlist: Phish | Ascend Amphitheatre | Nashville, TN | 8/3/21
Set One: Punch You in the Eye, Strawberry Letter 23 > Sample in a Jar, Halley’s Comet > Backwards Down the Number Line, Undermind > Divided Sky, Mull, It’s Ice, About to Run, The Squirming Coil
Set Two: Party Time, No Men In No Man’s Land > Ruby Waves > Possum, When the Circus Comes, Light > You Enjoy Myself
Encore: Loving Cup
This show featured the debut of Mull. This was the rescheduled date from the show that had been postponed due to coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.