Are Tour Openers Trending as Must-See Phish?

As most of you know, and have been counting down to, Phish’s Leg Two kicks off in Southern California on Wednesday night. Not long ago amongst most Phish fans, tour openers were rarely spoken of as significant in the overall spectrum of the music. A show that began the ride but never had a ‘can’t afford to miss’ moment attached. Historically speaking some are significant for stat geeks, maybe a cover would debut (“Mellow Mood” 9/8/00), (“Cover of a Rolling Stone” 2/14/03), or new arrangements (“Water in the Sky” 6/30/98), or new original debuts, (“Bug” & “My Left Toe”, 6/30/99, “ASIHTOS” & “Nothing” 6/17/04).

Tour openers rarely carried any real weight unless of course you were actually attending the show. Lately however, especially the past two years, Phish has turned the tables. The recordings don’t lie. It’s most likely because the band is fresh off practice sessions. And if sound checks and rehearsals are any indication, it’s probably where the best improv takes place. One of the better examples happened last year — a version of “Waves” at their rehearsal in Bethel that was later released by @Shapsio on a “From the Archives” segment.

There were a few hiccups early in 3.0 (5/31/09 Fenway Park, 7/30/09 Red Rocks, 11/18/09 Detroit, 6/11/10 Toyota Park) but lately, the band has made the opening show of each leg worth paying attention to and certainly worth hearing. No longer do fans have to wait for the band to ‘catch fire’.

Lets take a look back at some recent tour openers and then a look ahead to this week in Long Beach.

The first obvious example is Bethel Woods, NY on 5/27/11. Opening up the Summer with “Tweezer” put fans on serious alert that Phish was ready to go. Later in the 1st, they played a scorching “Wolfman’s Brother”, with Trey already getting started with his tease happy, “Streets of Cairo”. The band then delivered a 2nd set “Waves” that held up all summer long and had fans proclaiming the night as “one of the better tour openers they could remember”. It’d be hard to disagree.

Next up, The Gorge, 8/5/11, which opened up the 2nd leg of Summer. Continuing where they left off a month earlier at SuperBall, Phish delivered an impressive opener with 1st set highlights (The “Roggae” during Sunset was sublime), and in the 2nd, a theremin infused mega-jam in “Rock and Roll” -> “Meatstick” -> “Boogie On” that is unquestionably in the upper-echelon of Phish moments and will stay there.

Here’s the official video of that ‘best-ever’ “Roggae” from the 1st set.

The trend continued into 2012 with Worcester, 6/7/12. Opening up with “Buried Alive”, it served as nice primer before the highlight in the 2nd set. “Carini” -> “Taste” > “Ghost” > “Boogie On” > “If I Could” still stands up as one of the best pieces of music in 2012. All happening in the first show since the oh-so-uneventful NYE run. The ‘Buried Alive sandwich’ was a precursor of 2012 in the perfect way. Tease-centric.

On the way out of the Centrum (I refuse to call it the DCU Center), I turned to a few friends and mentioned that this already re-invigorated band (which is certainly playing on a much higher cohesive level than in 2009-2010), with the shorter touring schedule, two separate legs and a more focused style of jamming is not to be missed. The band storms out of the gate. The practice sessions, however many there are, seem to bleed naturally into the first show these days…

It’s a welcome occurrence and something I hope keeps trending with Long Beach on Wednesday.

It’ll be the first time Phish plays the indoor arena in their 28-year career, which according to the Guinness Book of World Records boasted the World’s Largest Mural in 1996. Appropriately enough, aquatic themed, with whales and other marine animals.

Photo by Flickr User, raphaelmazor

Another historical note on the venue — it was apparently used to record part of several concert albums and videos including Led Zeppelin’s How the West Was Won on June 27, 1972. (Source: Wiki). Does that guarantee a GTBT encore? Nothing’s a guarantee in Phish. Not even officially webcasted shows suffering from Jaded Vet Syndrome.

Something we know for sure. We are just days away from the lights going down inside the Long Beach Arena signifying the start of the 2nd leg. A tour that has Phish playing a slew of new venues and even a whole state for the very first time (Oklahoma). Anticipation is running higher than normal — the band coming off some of the best set list selection, bust out choices and tease themed shows in the modern era. Interestingly enough there isn’t one jam that stands above the rest (and nothing that tops 20 minutes) — instead choices are nestled in Top 5 and Top 10 lists. There’s a lot of cream at the top of the Phish sundae these days. Here’s the rundown on the tour schedule in case you forgot:

Wook Travel Itinerary

8/15 – Long Beach Auditorium, Long Beach, CA (Never Played)
8/17-19 Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco, CA (Never Played) Official Webcast
8/22 – Starlight Theatre, Kansas City, MO (Never Played)
8/24 – Oak Mountain Amphitheatre, Birmingham, AL
8/25 – Aaron’s Amphitheathre at Lakewood, Atlanta, GA
8/26 – Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Charlotte, NC
8/28 – Chaifetz Arena, St Louis, MO (Never Played)
8/29 – Zoo Amphitheatre, Oklahoma City, OK (Never Played State)
8/31 – 9/2 – Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Denver, CO (Guaranteed C- show based on looming Webcast. Please sell me your tickets.)

We’ll leave you with the offical video of Buried Alive -> Runaway Jim from the Worcester Tour Opener. Just enough to wet your appetite before another kick start on August 15th! As a friendly reminder, don’t forget to fill out your Phantasy Tour Picks. My money’s on a tour opening Llama! See you in LB and then San Francisco this weekend!