21 in 21 of 2018: #17 08/11/2018 Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, MD (Scott Bernstein, @heyscottyb)
Phish fans have a language all our own and two of my favorite phrases are “::flips desk::” and “butter jam.” For my entry for Myke’s fantastic series I get to write up a segment from August 11, 2018 that provides examples of what those phrases are all about. The “Mercury” > “Ghost” pairing from the quartet’s first of two shows at Merriweather Post Pavilion is 32 outstanding minutes of Phish worth hearing again and again and again.
“Mercury” is one of the best additions to the repertoire of the last five years. Not only is it well-written and unlike anything else in the catalog, it leads to monster jams. Phish took “Mercury” to the next level at Merriweather last summer as the four-piece continues to find new avenues to explore out of the multi-part composition.
The “Mercury” > “Ghost” came within a five-song second set that was all killer and no filler. Phish opened with a typical “Sand” shredfest. After the magical sequence we’ll get into next, the band went with a straightforward “Fuego” that was more about the little nooks and crannies that were filled in than the improv. A perfectly-placed and absolutely gorgeous “Slave To The Traffic Light” ended the frame on a high note.
So let’s get into the butter jam and desk flipping action. Phish has “Mercury” down and the version in Merriweather was nearly flawless. After the lyrics, Trey immediately utilizes the Leslie speaker effect that was so prominent last summer as soon as the jam starts. At first the guitarist focuses on funky rhythms. He then employs a phased out and chunky tone for a solo. Anastasio comes up with one gnarly variation after another on the song’s main theme. At one point it almost sounds like he’s playing backwards.
Page moves over to synth and uses his other hand on electric piano. It’s not often McConnell leads a jam, but the chord structure he lands on at 12:35 marks a key change from the dark minor key to a pretty and ethereal major key. This, my friends, is a “butter jam.” Phish are masters at transitioning from minor to major keys in a way that warms my heart every. single. time.
The last five minutes of “Mercury” is the money shot. All four members contribute to exploring new space. Mike and Fish hold down the bottom end, while Trey and Page exchange riffs. By the 16-minute mark they are so far from typical “Mercury” space and in terrain that Phish fans hope they’ll reach whenever a song starts.
Trey decides the moment is right and starts up “Ghost.” The transition is filled with cool interplay, especially between Mike and Page. Just as in “Mercury,” Phish begins the jam by traversing in a dark minor key before segueing into a heady major key. McConnell is once again in the spotlight in fronting the move to “butter jam” deliciousness.
While both “Mercury” and “Ghost” contain butter jams, the former is more adventurous and the latter is more about a build to a huge climax. Some of the bass lines Mike drops around the six-minute mark are absolutely magical. Then, Anastasio turns the Leslie back on for a series of Dead-esque riffs that sound straight out of “Here Comes Sunshine.”
Phish patiently explores the pretty terrain and at 8:10 Anastasio focuses on a hard rock chord sequence that he uses to lay the ground work for the aforementioned build. The quartet is sailing down a river of butter as the tempo increases. Check out the cool flurry at 10:23. Here’s where the first desk is flipped. For those unfamiliar, when Phish reaches a powerful moment I use the energy infused to ::flips desk::.
Just when you think Phish are done and ready to end “Ghost” they hit yet another gear and euphoric peak. Many desks continue to be flipped and perhaps one such desk was destroyed and set on fire. How else to celebrate such a fierce yet beautiful series of moments? 13:15 could be one of the most ::flips desk:: moments of summer tour. I can only imagine all the high-fives exchanged over the course of the “Ghost” peak. Even the finish of the song is pretty cool and unusual.
I can’t recommend this sequence highly enough. We’re so incredibly lucky to have a band be able to pull off such marvelous improvisation 35 years into their career. Can’t wait to see what this summer brings!
Scotty is kind of the man.