You know why I don’t blog very much? It’s not because I’m not creative. It’s not because I don’t have a lot to say. Anyone who knows me in real life would immediately tell you that’s not the case.

But real life is different. I become a perfectionist when it try to put words to screen. I start something that, deep down, I know I’ll probably never finish. In my opinion, it’s what makes my best pieces great, but it’s also what leads to certain works never seeing the light of day. Also, Twitter is seriously distracting.

Anyhow, I’ve been looking for a way to force myself into getting my thoughts down and then out to the world in the blog format in a more immediate fashion. So when a conversation on Twitter touched upon a topic I’d been turning over in my head since at least MPP2, I decided to run to my long dormant blog and hash out the details in my best approximation of real time. What follows is the result.

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The topic at hand was Trey’s playing during the summer of 2014, specifically a noticeable lack of powerful, full band peaks punctuating even the top jams of the summer. Most of of 3.0’s top excursions have built to  blissful, euphoric peaks. They’ve showcased the boys’ newfound positivity, comfort, and maturity – often at the expense of dark, brooding improvisation (songs about lumpy-headed former drum techs  not withstanding). But Phish seemed to trend away from this during the summer of 2014, and while most of the phans in my circle lauded the tour as another high point in the veritable Alpine Climb of 3.0, I couldn’t help but notice a select few positioning the tour as “transitionary,” or “not as good as fall 2013.”

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The Price IS Right

But why? There must be a reason for this shift, I thought. I trust this band enough to assume that any major deviation in style is due not to random chance, but to a calculated move towards something I don’t understand, something not yet revealed. It was in fact, one member of that Twitter conversation that grabbed me by the shoulders at the end of summer tour 2013, spun me around, wiped the mud from the glasses I don’t wear, and said “this will all make sense come fall.” Note that he did this via one of a hundred tweets he sent throughout that late-summer day, none of which were actually directed at me. Mere details, those.

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So, back to the question at hand: Why had Trey chosen to move farther away from the traditional role of the frontman, the lead guitarist? To eschew the blissful peaks that had brought us the best moments of 3.0 thus far? Why was he playing so much (too much?) rhythm?

I think the answer can be found by taking the long view of this summer’s tour.

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Its clear to me that Summer Tour 2014 can be divided into distinct parts.

From Mansfield through Randall’s 3, the band was shaking off the rust, getting their legs under them, and continuing to develop the deep, full band, guitar-led improv they’d been honing since 2009. Surely we can all agree that this movement peaked in the opening 60 minutes of (near?) perfect music that comprised Sunday’s CDT>Light>Tweezer. Not to gloss over that crowning achievment, but…where to go from there?

It is my contention that the band (and by that, I mean Trey) made a conscious decision to shift their focus away from deep, singular jams anchoring sets. As one listens to CMAC through MPP, one hears a band that no longer hits the 11th minute of a jam and frantically darts their collective eyes around the stage, looking for the next theme and finding nothing but the string-based emergency exit we’ve come to know as the ripcord. Missing too is the band consciously drilling down to find themes that will sustain them for the next 4-7 minutes of what would become a 20 minute piece.

Instead, upon playback with careful attention, one notices a band that seems comfortable between those two poles, determined to forgo deep jams for natural segues out of one song and into the next. Notice the number of “–>” segues this summer. I’m too lazy to crunch the numbers, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that summer ’14 contains more of them than any other tour in the modern era.

You can see evidence of this idea in the way Carini either “>” or “–>” into Waves or Ghost every time it was played this summer. You can hear the format hit an early peak in the Twist –> Circus of Charlotte. You can feel the simmer transition to a boil during MPP1’s Carini –> Ghost > Steam –> The Mango Song and Light –> 2001.

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Waves

And you can, without a shadow of a doubt, stand as witness to the magic of MPP2’s 20-years-in-the-making Tweezerfest. I don’t know if I’ve attended a show that felt more special, but I do know I’ve never given out as many teary eyed hugs to random strangers as I did that night – and I’m a hugger of the highest regard. In retrospect, everything that had happened since Randall’s 3 had been building towards MPP2. We just hadn’t been able to see the Eastern Deciduous Forest for the trees.

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So, what was Phish driving towards from MPP2 to the end of tour? And what will that mean for fall 2014? God, I haven’t a clue. And that’s why I keep coming back. Like WhatsHisMouth said last year, “This will all make sense come fall.”

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I have this thing I do in first sets, where I look for the “little something extra,”  or “LSE,” as my chain restaurant manager used to call it. When I was 22 and dependant on tips to pay my bills, I was encouraged to make sure the patrons had an unforgettable experience. Because that would make them more likely to tip well and become repeat customers, as the theory goes.

But I digress. Back to first sets – specifically the first set of 12/29/13. As hard as I try to go into a show devoid of expectations, the fact remains that I’ve been to more than 50, and I tend to know roughly how things will end up. So while I enjoy first sets, I also look for the cracks in the facade, the clues that foreshadow the events to come.

Moma Dance is usually a strong statement in the opening slot, a sign that the boys are feeling feisty and looking to have some fun. Tonight’s version doesn’t stretch out as far as others have, but that’s ok. I can still hear Fishman attacking the groove, playing with the dynamics, showing a sense of willingness during the steady slap. I can hear Trey summoning a watery vibe as he “ups the rigging,” and I enjoy getting down to it.

As far as my ability to get down on this night: EBP and I managed to find a triangular slice of of the new Garden with a solid six feet of high grade, seatless, dancin’ concrete adjacent to the last seat in the row. It took some finagling (these may or may not have been our actual seats), but we were happy as clams with plenty of room on the sea floor, about half way up the bowl, just over Page’s left shoulder. 

The crowd is hot tonight, and you can hear it in the LSE they give the band at the 4:45 mark of Rift. Roggae comes up next, and its perfectly (though somewhat surprisingly) placed in the first set. The song culminates in a beautiful jam (as always), but I think the tune reached the height of it’s powers in years past, when Mike’s triplets cracked holes in the warm summer sky. Sparkle follows, and keeps the tempo up while exposing the crowd to the seemingly uplifting but uncomfortably maniacal tale of marital confusion. The Line is our first Wingsuit song of the night, and it’s met with a mix of confusion and excitement. Some wonder what they’re listening to, while others recognize the melody immediately, analyzing it’s placement in the first set.

Yet it matters not. Everything we’ve heard thus far has been a mere warm up. All bets are off once the boys drop into Stash, and we’d all be dust in their rearview when the set was done.

The first thing that strikes me about any Stash jam is how little snare drum Fishman uses. As you well know, the DNA of every great rock song is encoded on the bass and snare drum, the former stomping down upon the 1 and 3 while the latter cracks and snaps on the 2 and 4. But Fishman cares for none of this during Stash, eschewing the traditional backbeat and lending a wide open, jazzy vibe to what is ostensibly a rock song. Add in Trey, Mike and Page’s minor key exploration and you have the recipe for a dark, heavy groove.

Speaking of dark, heavy grooves, 555 follows as the second Wingsuit song of the night, and it makes an indelible impression. This doesn’t sound like a solo tune that Mike is lending to Phish, this sounds like a shot in the arm from the guy who is clearly the most vibrant and invigorating songwriter in this band. 555 has it all – great harmonies, a heavy, funky lean, and the versatility to represent itself late in the first set (as a contained idea), or snugly in the second (as a groove with open-ended jam potential).

It’s Ice for sure, even as the tune belies the misty precipitation outside on an unseasonably warm NYC night. This is the first spot in the set where we truly get to experience that “Will they? Yeah…they will!” moment. You can hear Page waste no time in offering us an LSE, jumping at the first opportunity to attack the bridge, with Mike and his effects not far behind. Fish’s sticks dance across the hi hat while Trey rocks his Echoplex. The crowd couldn’t be more into it, clearly feeling the Little Something Extra the band is offering. This is exactly what I’m looking for in a first set. Those little signs that tip the band’s hand. Big things are to come. BIG things. We think we know, but we have no idea.

There’s no letting up on this night, as Gumbo follows Ice. Clearly we’re off the deep end here in MSG, as the band continues to dig into songs infrequently played and piddle them with glee. We’re lucky enough to get another LSE, this time in the form of the ever elusive Gumbo jam. You can hear, can feel the band’s desire to push the boundaries in every possible space. This is the night the boys tug at the edges in all the ways you’ve always wished they would, and it is glorious. Neither Its Ice nor Gumbo goes significantly more than 8 minutes, but if you’re listening carefully, you can hear the spunk, the feistiness in their playing. You just know something unforgettable is happening tonight.

The opening piano chords of WoTC allow a brief moment of respite, but we all know what’s coming. Once we’re among the silent trees, all four members light the Garden on fire, putting a final stamp on the set and reminding us that there’s plenty more where that came from.

Set break descends, almost mercifully, and I take a moment to look back over what we’ve just experienced. I realize we’ve been treated to 10 songs that make up a singular statement. Say what you want about first sets in 3.0 – tonight’s can stand proudly next to any legend from any era. Cohesive, funky, rocking, dark, and energetic; the opening frame delivers everything one could ask for and more. And all of this happens before we get anywhere near the second set, which may well be the set of the year, and surely contains the undisputed jam of the year in DWD>Carini.

That’s how good this show is. Even the LSEs are an afterthought.

Madison Square Garden has always occupied a special place in my heart, and it will continue to do so until the day I die or they tear the whole damn venue down. MSG wasn’t just the site of my first Phish show (10/21/96), it was a place I revisited time and again throughout my youth for all sorts of sports and entertainment.

I was raised in Rockland County, NY, which is roughly 30 minutes outside of Manhattan. My dad often got tickets to the old school, 400 level Skybox seats through his job, though we’d go and sit in any old seats often. The City was part of the experience of going to the Garden. Still is. We’d get a slice from Sabarro’s or a pretzel from a street vendor. We’d count how many green lights we could hit in a row driving down the West Side Highway. The City felt like an adventure to me. Still does.

I saw concerts – my first date was in this building, when I invited my first grade crush up to the box to see New Kids On The Block in their heyday. I saw the circus, the old Ringling Brothers production, and I can still hear my mom raving over how cute and daring Gunther Gebel-Williams was. I saw wrestling, another form of exhibition that the Garden is inextricably linked to, though less so these days. I saw sports, like basketball and hockey. I saw those two sports collide when my older cousin took me down to the floor show me how the Knick’s basketball court was simply laid over the ice on which the Rangers would play just a day later later. I can still see the “Mario LePew” sign some fan held up at a Rangers/Penguins game over 20 years ago. As far as I’m concerned, this building is enchanted, even without Phish working their magic on stage.

Now that I’m older and no one is paying for my tickets, I see fewer events at the Garden, but I appreciate them much more. My dad has passed on, and I’m the one now bringing people to this special place and giving them the opportunity to make their own enduring memories. Last year, on 12/30/12, I lucked into two GA West tickets, and “miracled” my fiancee’s cousin. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but I was completing the circle, bringing a member of my family to these hallowed grounds, leading him down to the Garden floor, and showing him the magic it contained.

After that show ended, I walked to the rear rail of the section, leaned back against it, and stared straight up. I was standing at center court. Of the Garden. I was truly in awe. I stayed there for a good 10 minutes, soaking in a rare view I’d never before experienced in a building I’d been to countless times before. Somehow the old seemed new, and the new seemed old. I felt a direct line between what I was feeling in the moment and feelings I’d had nearly 30 years ago.

Sound familiar?

A mind lacking expectations but full of anticipation is a hard thing to maintain. I’d booked a trip on the Acela Express down to Hampton for the fall tour’s opening run – my first visit to the famed “mothership.” I’d be traveling to a new town, with a new friend, for the first run of Phish’s first fall tour in 3 years. The entire trip begged to be entered into with an open mind.

I met JSP through Twitter on the basis of shared interests, one of which was Phish. We eventually discussed taking a trip down to Hampton together. It can be weird to take a virtual friendship into the real world, so I made sure to confirm that he was neither a heroin addict nor a serial killer. He wasn’t. We first met for a few beers and got to know each other to the point where spending a weekend together didn’t feel like a huge risk. The last time I took a flier on a Phish weekend with people I’d only ever met online was Worcester 2010. One guy spent the trip from NYC to Massachusetts getting wasted and watching NFL highlights on his cell phone, which would have been fine had he not been driving us through a blizzard at the time. The other guy received a special delivery when we arrived at the hotel, locked himself in the bathroom overnight, and spent the next afternoon nodding off into his clam chowder. You can see why I was wary.

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Take me home, Hampton Roads.

We took a 3 am departure out of Penn Station, which gave the beginning of the trip an eerie, off-kilter feel, like I was stealing away before the dawn. We stayed up too late talking Phish, sneakers, life. We drank too many beers and sped toward Virginia. I inflated a portable neck pillow and passed out around 5:30 am.

It’s an odd feeling to wake up on a train, hungover, with a sore neck (thanks, pillow!), and the realization that you’re now at the point in your life where drinking until 5:30 in the morning on a train isn’t “no big deal.” But the weather is nice and the people are friendly, and we cab it to the hotel. A nap and a couple of cheeseburgers from Cheeseburger in Paradise and we’re on our way to the show. We share a cab with a group of random dudes from the hotel lobby all named Brian or Adam. We wandered, pre show, and I marveled at Hampton Coliseum. The lot was buzzing, friendly, and bizarre. You couldn’t give a ticket away. Which is a shame. Because once inside it was clear that this was the beginning of a special tour.

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Hampton Coliseum, 10/18/13. Click to enlarge.

The band came out  with a tight, propulsive 1-2 of Wolfman’s and Jim. I’m a drummer, so I naturally key in on Fishman, and he made his intentions clear from the outset. He was digging into the funk of Wolfman’s, chipping away and carving out a groove around the beat. The first set moved along pleasantly, building to Stash, a song they’d killed over the summer (particularly on 7/14/13).  Trey wades slowly into the solo, bending notes, dark notes, interlocking with Mike, lifting to a strong (if not superhuman) evil peak. Fishman flubs the ending and the other guys razz him about it, lending some personality to the set. The night is young. The tour is young. Walls of the Cave caps the set in high energy fashion.

Twist opens the second set, which is refreshing. I’ve dinged Phish for having a “place for every song, and every song in it’s place” mentality in 3.0. But for all my displeasure with summer tour, I couldn’t say they weren’t shaking up the setlists a bit. The energetic cocktail hour jazz of the song proper moves into another solo from Trey that builds to a nice, happy, reasonable peak. They are getting almost too good at this. They know exactly how to set course for the heart of the sun. Regardless, it feels great and it’s fun to dance to. As the solo winds down, Trey starts chopping some wah blasts into the groove, then finds a gnarling swirl of noise while Mike snaps wet lasers at the crowd. Things get slow and spacey. Are we in a Type II Twist jam?!? We most certainly are. This is refreshing! Twist moves into a space that’s as oxy-fied as anything from 2.0, but not as thin and rambling. This is dense, outstretched stuff. The band wallows around in space for a while, which is always a good sign. Patience is indeed a virtue, and something that’s been lacking at times in 3.0. We land in Free, which is expected but welcome. Roggae is a beautiful song, but it’s dubiously placed in the third slot of set 2. At least that’s what I initially think when I hear the opening notes. But then I go back to the idea of letting go, of coming in with no expectations. Roggae is a beautiful song, and that’s enough. And that attitude serves me well as Sparkle comes up next. I can’t deny the stomp of a good Cavern, and as I tweeted post show, the Carini that followed would not have happened without Cavern priming the engine.

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I spent a good amount of time during the summer tour wondering what CK5 would do indoors, without the new backdrop. Here’s my answer.

Carini has long been a favorite of mine. I like dark, heavy Phish, and the song has only been getting better and better as a jam vehicle since early 2012. This version hits hard and features a nasty solo from page while Mike shoots effects laden darts into the air. Page then brings the keys down to a carnival in hell kinda place, and Trey jumps on this idea to bend the groove back towards the light so quickly that it snaps your neck (6:30 at phishtracks.com). Suddenly we’re in a super joyous place, the music bopping along, Trey whipping out soaring hooks over Fishman’s bubbly quasi-calypso beat. This is a complete 180 from where we were 90 seconds ago. This just isnt fair! We then settle into my favorite type of moment, the jam after the jam. We’re getting farther and farther asea, and I’m in heaven. Fish starts up a low down dirty shame of a cowbell groove. Its refreshing to hear Trey really let go and let ideas unspool.

Carini winds down into Number Line, a fine song which can feel like a let down due to it’s frequent placement as a celebratory landing pad. I love 20 Years Later for it’s Godzilla-stomp groove of an outro, and always wonder if this will be the time the monster busts loose (soon, child, soon). Trey compliments Mike’s glowing green shoes (a pair of Air Jordan 1’s) at the end of a satisfying, set closing Antelope, and Mike takes his first drill solo. Between Page’s talkbox, Fish’s Marimba Lumina and Mike’s drill, speculation as to what Halloween album requires these new instruments runs through my section of the coliseum. The encore kicks off with When The Circus Comes, a rare treat which always takes me back to my second show, 12/31/97. Suzy closes things out with one last chance to let loose, and next thing I know we’re streaming for the exits.

As is often the case on night one of a run, the after show experience is kind of a blur, and we make our way back to our hotel to crash. We’ve got two more days in Virginia, lots to see and hear, and many new friends to make. It’s clear after just one night that this tour will be something special, that the band is on a whole other level this time around. Sleep comes easily, as my consciousness fades while pondering what else the next two weeks will bring. Not expecting, just pondering.

It was about 9am on Monday morning of Labor Day weekend. I’d downloaded 09/01/13 – the final night of the 3rd annual stand at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado – and transferred it to my phone in anticipation of walking the empty, early morning Montauk beach to the sounds of the latest show. There’s nothing I love more than going no spoilers on a SDB of new Phish.

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This was the final, triumphant display of summer tour 2013. The 30th anniversary year. 2012’s summer tour had finished on such a high note, on the same Colorado soccer field, almost exactly one year earlier. I had made my first trip out to Colorado for the ’12 Labor Day run, and had been both in awe of the environs and floored by the 3 tremendous shows. Yet here I was, one year later, on the verge of disappointment with the entire 2013 summer tour. The boys just hadn’t been playing like I’d been expecting them to. The summer 2013 tour hadn’t been a continuation of the ideas that came to a head at Dick’s and MSG 2012. Instead, we had seen Trey trying to rework his entire sound; backing off the sustain, using more whammy pedal, ceding ground that the rest of the band didn’t seem prepared to fill. I listened to every show of summer 2013 one by one, lamenting the fact that the boys weren’t building on the peak they had reached at the end of the 2012. But lamenting is not something I want to do when it comes to Phish. Or life, for that matter. I needed a new perspective on the music, what it meant to me, and what I was looking to get out of it.

I’d approached my 4 day vacation in Montauk determined to find a new perspective on reality as well. Montauk is situated at the tip of Long Island, protruding into the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, and for a Manhattanite that might as well be the edge of the earth. I needed to get in the clear, geographically, so I could get clear mentally. I thought I might be able to wrap my head around some new ideas there, far from the crazed days of life in the city.

And I was.

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On my fourth day removed from alarm clocks, trains, commuters, offices, and deadlines I had open ears and an uncluttered mind. After I walked a mile down and back across the cold, pallid beach, I sat myself in a chair a few feet from the ocean. I listened to the second half of set I.  I watched the waves crash upon the dull beach, then recede into the sickly grey horizon. And my mind alighted upon a new concept. No expectations. Approach life with no expectations. Approach Phish with no expectations. I had arrived upon something that was both profound and entirely new to me. Forget what you expect. In fact, don’t even forget it, because you just shouldn’t expect it to begin with. Stop trying to make the band conform to what you want it to be. In fact, just stop wanting altogether. Trust in this band. Trust in this life. It will be OK.