After a solid two-week stretch to start their summer tour, last Friday Phish headed down to the familiar Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, NJ, the site of many a great Phish show — including two favorites from my personal show history (7/10/99 and 7/4/00). But Friday night’s show was a bit more like my experience over the last two summers at Camden: the show was a ton of fun to attend, but overall it felt very inconsistent. The band managed to hit on some stellar moments here and there, but generally their flow and song-selection was just a tad bit off-kilter, leading to a number of points where the letters “WTF” seemed to be the most appropriate response. Having been a bit critical about the band’s predictable setlist patterns over the last few years, I wasn’t totally against the oddball approach. I generally like the idea of them trying out new song placements. Unfortunately, it just didn’t make for a consistent and overall stellar show.
Then again, your average/uneven Phish show tends to blow other concerts out of the water, so I still managed to have a blast. Also, a huge plus for me was finally getting a chance to shoot the boys from the photo pit, thanks to a an official press pass from Phish management (thanks dudes!).
Check out my photos, some videos, and some of my highlights & lowlights from Camden below…
You can also check out the full photo set over on flickr.
Set I – Highlights & Lowlights:
Rocky Top opener – this was a pretty odd placement, as it has typically been saved for encore material. But it was definitely a fun way to kick things off.
Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove – a great way for the band to come out strong in the first set, but again, the placement felt strange. Later on, I realized I wasn’t the only one who noticed, as Jefferson Waful observed: “Can’t remember the last time I saw Weekapaug while it was still light out.”
Weekapaug never completely veered away from its familiar song structure, but it featured some great rhythmic interplay between Mike and Trey, providing an upbeat and tightly-played highlight of the 1st set. Check it out:
Tube – shortest “Tube” evar!?! – usually a tried-and-true fav of mine, but this might just have been the shortest version I’ve ever heard, and a not-so-scientific review of the many of versions of Tube in my music collection definitely supports this analysis. This is a great example of one of those “WTF” moments that characterized the show overall.
Scent of a Mule – Scent of a Mule was also a really nice treat to hear in the first set (as I don’t think I’d caught one of these since 2000). I had almost forgotten about the entire gypso-piano instrumental interlude. This was one of those tunes that reminded me of the nearly endless songbook these guys pull from on any given night.
The Sloth – This one was bittersweet for me. On the one hand, this was a bust-out I called earlier in the night (you can ask Justin for proof). I’ve always loved this old-school classic, so I was pumped when they hit the first few notes (I might have been the only one yelling in Section M for the first couple seconds). On the other hand, they (or at least Trey) proceeded to botch the ever-loving s*** out of this tune. I’m okay with a few errant notes or rough starts, but yikes, this one was just off. Good try fellas, but damn.
The Curtain With – After the rough attempt at the Sloth, the band completely redeemed themselves with a stellar version of “The Curtain With.” They tightly wound their way through the key passages of the Curtain song structure and then dug into the slowed-down “Rift-style” riffs for the “With” portion of the song. But it was the “With” improvisational section that really brought the extra mustard (nod to YEMblog tweeters). The extended instrumental “With” jam exhibited some of the most inspiring and emotive playing I’ve heard from Mr. Anastastio in quite a while. It was just a beautiful way to end the first set, and you could tell they knew that they’d hit on something special. As they put down their instruments to receive the crowd’s reaction, you could see them hang out on stage for little extra time just to take it all in…it was a nice moment, and one the band wisely chose capture on video and release officially to the masses. So, if you haven’t already, definitely dig into this one:
Set II Highlights & lowlights:
Down With Disease – Although this was a predictable second set opener, I was pumped to get a big jam vehicle so the band could dig into some more expansive improvisation, and that they did. Once they moved beyond the rockin’ DWD song structure, they proceeded through some dark funk territory, featuring some nice rhythmic interplay and stellar fretwork by Mike. At about eight minutes in they switched to a major key tapping into a really nice light and airy vibe before delving back into dark, psychedelic territory, and eventually fading out into the beginning of Free. I really liked where they were going with this, but all in all, it felt like it was cut a bit short before they had the time to fully tap into new & interesting themes.
Free — Free was very tight, and, as always, the insutrmental mid-section provided a launching pad for Mike to lay things down with some serious bass bombs…something I can never get enough of. But, like a few other songs, I felt like they (or Trey) rushed this one a bit….patience, patience.
Possum – this was a really fun and unique version. Much less of a bluesy rager, and more loose & playful than I’ve heard in some time. It was nice to hear them open this up and give it some space to breathe:
Big Black Fury Creatues from Mar – as it usually is, BBFCFM was pure silliness. This one included an odd interlude with Trey adjusting his mic stand way above his head and then Mike adjusting his mic way low so that he sat down to sing the ending of the song. Patented, random Phish weirdness:
Swept Away > Steep – The jam out of Steep provided the other main highlight of the night for me. After all these years, I’m fairly certain I’ve never heard a jam out of “Steep.” Most versions of this song are not much more than two minutes long. This was different. It was almost as if they’d re-worked the song — or perhaps forgotten how it ended? — by turning the main chord progression & melody into a nice outro jam. What progressed was a patient and beautiful bit of improv that was kind of reminiscent of the middle instrumental section of “Waste,” but with an expanded chord progression (and, in that sense, similar to the instrumental portion of “Billy Breathes”). If that doesn’t make sense, you’ll just have to check it out for yourself. Bottom line….you’ve never heard a “Steep” like this one:
Fluffhead – I was surprised at how much I dug this version of Fluff. It’s always a fun song, but I’ve grown so used to hearing botched versions — jaded vet syndrome? — that I usually prefer to hear something else. But other than a few errant notes from Trey, this version showed some luster and reminded me how much I enjoy all the various compositions and change-ups throughout the tune. I especially dug the little call and response riff-trading between Page and Trey in the “Clod” section towards the end of the song. As always, the ending provided the perfect rock ragefest that we all needed towards this late point in the second set.
Joy – But then came Joy. Why? Why do this? – The end of Fluffhead provided the perfect end-of-set catharsis to close out the show, so adding this slower ballad onto the end of the set just seemed so wrong, and it provided yet another illustration of the peculiar song selection and strange flow of the entire night.
Overall, Phish’s Friday night performance in Camden was an uneven affair, with a few interesting highlights and lots of good energy, but lacking the flow and thematic improv we’ve all grown to love. It seems like the show mainly suffered from odd song selection and a general impatience when it came to jamming. And those two factors seem to me to be two of the most important in terms of deciding an average Phish show vs. an amazing one.
But despite the unevenness Friday of night’s show, the boys are sounding damn good right now. Of particular note are a more aggressive Page McConnell and the continually-impressive Mike Gordon, who is an absolute rock on bass. Fishman seems a bit restrained these days, but he continues to provide a solid backbone. And except for a few rough spots, Trey’s guitar-playing is sounding precise and sharp. When he’s on, he’s absolutely on fire. Hopefully, we’ll see them develop a bit more patience as the tour progresses, because when they take it easy, good things tend to happen.
Phish @ Susquehanna Bank Center, Camden, NJ, 6/10/11
Soundcheck: Halfway to the Moon
Set 1: Rocky Top, Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Stash, Tube > Guyute, Guelah Papyrus > Scent of a Mule, Cavern, The Sloth, The Curtain With
Set 2: Down with Disease, Free, Possum, Big Black Furry Creature from Mars, Swept Away > Steep, David Bowie, Julius, Golgi Apparatus > Fluffhead > Joy
Encore: Bold As Love
Notes: Trey teased the “Theme from Rocky” before Rocky Top and “Pop Goes the Weasel” before Down With Disease.