Photo by Rene Huemer

The Phish & Bern Report: Northerly Island Keepers

Travis Weedon

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Some of what Phish crafted in Chicago over the weekend.

After their tour opening run at Northerly Island, Phish continues to prove themselves not only a band in full control of their abilities, but a band still capable of evolving creatively. This isn’t your grandma’s Grateful Dead cover band, rehashing new solos over old tunes. This is a band that continues to develop, determined to grow, with wiser, more sagacious and more adventurous playing.

This weekend showed that Phish is still willing to take risks, knowing that the greatest rewards are earned when security is left behind. From the outset, Phish was ready to swim out to the deep end and test the improvisational waters. Bodes well for MSG!!

Below are links to the standout jams of the weekend with a brief summary of each. Phish was generous enough to share a pro-shot video of “Simple,” as well, so make sure to check that out, both for the jam and for a peek at Chris Kuroda’s new lighting rig.

“No Men in No Man’s Land,” 7/14 2nd Set

Audio link here.

Honestly, at first, this “NMINML” portends to be a let down. Trey’s voice has trouble projecting and the rhythm sounds blunted, lacking its typical metronomic crispiness. Trey’s initial solo exacerbates these issues with languid, uninspired noodling, out of step with the funk landscape he’s traveling through.

Once the true improvisation begins though, these incongruities quickly fade. The funk gives way to a more hospitable rolling groove. Above that, Page begins to overlay ethereal textures, and Trey’s minimalist tears on the guitar find a proper terrain to romp around in and express themselves.

“Simple,” 7/15 2nd Set

When you hear Phish played a 27 minute “Simple,” it’s safe to assume that something special happened. For Phish, length means something because their improvisation is purposeful; it has direction and development. They’re not going to noodle over a repetitive theme for ten minutes. (That’s boring. You must be thinking of nearly every other jam band in existence.) Phish has the self-awareness to cut off a jam if it isn’t going places, and, typically, they put that self-awareness into action. So, what happened to warrant 27 minutes of unchecked improvisation late Saturday night?

The “Simple” jam begins in usual form as a gorgeous full-band serenade of delicacy and brilliance. Around 7 minutes in, slowly, the music quiets. Things melt to a whisper before Trey signals a new climb. There’s an ongoing build over the next few minutes, maintaining a semblance of the customary “Simple” jam, but the guys never quite get where they’re going, and the jam abruptly ends around 11:45, dissolving into space.

Song finished, right? A new song could‘ve naturally introduced itself at this point with no need for a ripchord.

But, Mike has a different idea. He begins a ferocious charge, which Trey quickly picks up, and suddenly everyone is in lockstep with places to go. The next 15 minutes are why Phish exists: spontaneous, once in a lifetime art being constructed before your eyes and ears.

With hints of “Timber (Jerry),” it’s a dark and viscous passageway for the next 5 minutes, until a blissful major key jam emerges and Trey brings it all to a soaring and climactic conclusion.

“Scents & Subtle Sounds,” 7/15 2nd Set

Audio link here.

The most immaculate bit of improvisation from the weekend can be found here at the back end of “Scents and Subtle Sounds.” What the guys begin to assemble around the 8:30 mark is every prog rock group’s wet dream. What any band would give to compose something so clean and gripping, let alone just stumble upon it fully formed and coherent. This is IT.

And a seamless segue into “Cities,” taboot.

“Carini,” 7/16 2nd Set

Audio link here.

From the mire of a “Carini” escapes the most exuberant, celebratory playing of the weekend. This blissed-out jaunt sounds like it was lifted directly from The Allman Brothers’ catalogue.

The joyful frolic eventually comes to rest in a tranquil ambient space, where Trey and Page pick out quiet, graceful passages, and Mike puts his power-drill to its most creative use in years.

“Piper,” 7/16 2nd Set

Audio link here.

All “Pipers” should be listened to. ‘Nuff said.

Phish continues their Summer tour Tuesday night in Dayton, OH, and Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, PA. From there, it’s off to Madison Square Garden for the Baker’s Dozen!

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