I’m a firm believer that the only reason Portsmouth’s nTelos Pavilion hasn’t become a beloved tour stop is that it had never been graced with a top shelf throwdown. There had been some interesting shows such as the Father’s Day “Harpua” to open 2011, and the “Dog Log” bustout with a dreamy “Hood -> WTU?” in 2012. But nothing that made catching a show at this cozy little amphitheater tucked into the harbor must-see Phish, which always struck me as odd considering it’s just south across the water from one of our hallowed cathedrals, the Hampton Coliseum.
Night one had mixed reviews but I had really enjoyed the loose, happy to be there vibe. Some found it “song-y”, but Phish had played a marathon 3 hour 22 minute show the night before, a mere 7 minutes shorter than New Year’s Eve (if you don’t count handing out birthday cake as a song). When Phish is happy, I’m happy, so I was ready for night 2.
Set One’s are just gonna Set One, but there were plenty of good omens in the opening frame. “Bathtub Gin” kicked off the show with a bang. Solar Garlic @solargarlicband once called it “The Lake Wobegon of jams. All appear above average.” This was true once again, but opening with a song you knew would run 12 minutes seemed like a statement of intent to push the music a little deeper.
“It’s Ice” caught fire in a Page-led funk fest, we got some great rarities (“Guelah”, “Mountains in the Mist”, “Meat”), and an average-great “Bowie” to close it out. It all looked poised for a memorable close to Portsmouth, and for Phish to finally put their stamp on Hampton’s summer cousin.
Me high-fiving my mirror image
The Summer of Everyone Get’s a “Fuego” finally arrives in Portsmouth with Page McConnell’s piano opening the set. Fishman owns the intro, and Mike Gordon makes his presence known early, getting funky fast. Trey’s tone is perfect and he hits all the notes. However you feel about the success of “Fuego” on its first full tour, at least it was thoroughly rehearsed by this point.
4:30 Is there officially a drop to this song? We’re in LawnMemo’s house so we’ll say yes. The boys come roaring in together and nail the drop/return/whatever! We are rolling with some real momentum.
6:00 It’s time for Viking Warriors and then we get to levitate. This is my tribe and I like our new anthem! The tribal fire is raging and we’re all getting down. Some tasty playing from 7:00 – 8:30 by Trey, but at the same time you can feel him staying close to his bandmates, more playing the leading theme than leading the jam. Big Red declines to take us to the mountain top, and instead of soaring changes to a murkier tone, like a fog rolling in.
9:05 Fishman responds to Trey’s descending tone with some tumbles on the toms and a new sound begins to take shape, an early departure into Type II territory. The groove becomes dark, oceanic. I keep waiting for a fog horn to cut thru this, but Trey plays further enchants us with some hypnotic riffs instead of leading us out.
It feels like our tribal fire is suddenly burning low and we all have to lean in. I think we’re on a boat, but we also have this fire – things are getting dangerous. Trey starts weaving a new line and the earth opens below the water and we’re all being sucked under.
I’m getting flashbacks to the Hampton “Tweezer”, dredging up deep emotions and scraping the bottom of my heart to confront my fears, myself. Can this be happening? We broke out into a full blown fall jam!
11:25 – 12:00 If you are in the camp that 2014 Summer Tour after Randall’s mostly sucked because Trey suddenly got obsessed with aimless rhythm guitar, you may be breaking this section out as primary evidence. Weird chords but not quite chords, adding turbulence into the stream we were being sucked down. But it’s also not a ripchord, and you can hear everyone else swirl around him. Our Jedi might be keeping his lightsaber holstered, but you can feel the flow of the force and the communication among the quartet.
12:05 Trey changes over to some chucka-chucka guitar. Page hears him and drops the clav and starts to shift the jam. Why did we get so heavy? It’s summer after all and it’s time to get happy on the lawn!
Fishman shifts his beat and Trey drops out providing more space to open up a dirty jam. The crowd roars in approval as Fishman goes full octopus mode. Page McConnell is all Jab-Jab-Body Blow-Hook on the clav, and we’re bobbing and weaving along with him.
This jam still has an edge but I’m grinning so hard. Page comes up for air finally clearing further room, and Mike comes roaring in grabs a hold of it with everything he has with some meaty bass riffs. Welcome to your tribal space funk section. The music becomes a beautiful soup, and it becomes both difficult and seemingly pointless to try and pick apart who is making what sound. All I know for sure is Mike Gordon probably left tooth marks.
Mr. Rhythm Guitar himself plays new theme at 15:45 – full blown joy! Very gentle happy chords that make me cry, just a celebration of life, playing in utter harmony with with the surrounds, weaving a song of time and space and the moment we get to share together.
I feel the soft breeze off the harbor, and the cool grass of the lawn on my toes. You can look over your shoulder and see the masts of sailing ships bobbing happily, just behind the concession stand. Steal away, let’s steal a boat.
The music simplifies and clarifies. Page starts playing super happy clav riffs. It’s summer and there’s a funk party again! Let’s cruise down this hallway for awhile.
Finally at 17:55 Trey pumps the brakes on this train with a discordant little weird phrase to start the wind down. Everyone collectively eases off the gas and let this wind down to a gentle, pretty stop.
How you feel about this jam says a lot about how you feel about mid-summer tour 2014. On one hand, the band is definitely hooked up, and riding this kind of thick group funk paved the way for the Dick’s Simple, or belongs in your fantasy Tube jam (that’s never going to happen).
On the other hand, I get that Phish is at its most majestic and powerful when Hero Trey is soaring above these kind of grooves, and that never happens here. It’s hard to say he even plays lead guitar for the final 10 minutes of the jam.
Sorry Page, I love you and would buy you all the sandwiches your heart desires, but Page Peaks even at their clav-funking finest will never flip the desks of my heart like Trey Peaks. Dave Chappelle was right, electric guitars make white people act like fools.
Final Verdict: While I would put it a slot below the July 4th fireworks show and the monster from the Mann, this version has more than enough going for it. It’s a real “Fuego”, Jack!
I remember going to this show there was a lot of “what is wrong with Trey” talk, but I was focused on a Mike quote from a band interview that ran concurrent with Merriweather. Discussing their current interests, he said, “We’re looking for little musical motifs with melodies and chord progressions that we’ve never heard before, ideally fresh to the moment.”
This will always stick with me thinking back on these shows. I don’t think there was ever a lack of ability for face-melting, just a temporary lack of interest. I wouldn’t want to see Trey play this way forever, but one of the reasons I see Phish over and over is to catch them in different moods, and expressing different parts of their musical mastery.
Don’t trash this unicorn! For those who want some more lead guitar in their jams, I nearly wrote about the 22 minutes of “Meatstick>Piper” that came later in the set, stick around for it.
About Me: Eric is co-founder and video director at Blue Clay Studios outside of Saxapahaw, NC. He’ll take the Denver “Ghost” over Radio City 6 days a week and twice on Sunday. The best “Ghost” he saw live was 11-19-98, but does regret not being at 7-21-98 with all his pals. Eric saw his first show in ‘95 and thinks everyone who did so too should have a big “Class of 95” Party this summer. He talks about himself in the 3rd person every chance he gets.