25 in 25 of 2015 #19 08/16/2015 Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, MD (Alex Grosby, @phishsonian)
Last year for 25 in 25, I wrote about SPAC, so it’s only fitting that this year I’m writing about a show at Merriweather Post. Why is it fitting? Both venues were favorites of Deadheads during the 1980s. Both were built in the 1960s for symphony orchestras. Lastly, Phish fans have derided both for the sound and view of their respective lawns. Just Google “MPP lawn” and the first listing is a post from Phish.net called “Is the MPP lawn really THAT bad??” Unlike last year though, I have never been to Merriweather Post. Every year, Phish would put it on the schedule and I’d book a room at the Columbia Sheraton in hopes of making the trip down from New England. But I have never known that pre- and post-show walk or the lot scene. So I don’t have show notes or experiences to relate to. All I’ve got is a copy of the soundboard and my ears so let’s go.
This was the last show before Magnaball and also a Sunday show. So expectations were high to begin with but people also were factoring in that Phish had thrown down the old school Tweezerfest the previous MPP Sunday show on 7/27/14 and the band was playing it’s best tour in years, save for a slight lull in Texas. Night 1 had the goods with fresh segues, the NO2 bustout, and great “Sleeping Monkey” banter encore. It was a perfect storm for an all-time show. I wish I could tell you that happened. I wish there were bustouts and type II jams galore but it was not meant to be. Phish turned out a solid performance with excellent playing. It just couldn’t live up to the hype. If this was a Tuesday in Alabama, it probably would have held up but again our expectations for Sunday night at Merriweather are just a bit more. Ok, actually they’re way more but Magnaball more than redeemed everything, so we’re cool.
Getting to the actual standout jam of the night, it was the “David Bowie>Possum” closer for sure. The sequence really begins with the “Stash.” But “Stash” was less a jam than a perfect reading of the classic tension building exercise it is. Page creates the perfect amount of counterpoint to Trey’s building lead, hitting dissonant notes on the baby grand at fantastic moments. Almost feeding off the crowd energy presented by “Stash’s” peak, Fishman fires up the hi-hat to push off. Mike joins in on the Meatball pedal to add to the spacey textures and the most classic of “Bowie” intros do. Trey fires up some pitch-shifting that actually recalls some classic early 90s “Bowies.” It’s wicked interesting when Trey finds those textures that bring back the nostalgia, probably not even consciously. The “head” of the tune, the part that says David Bowie/UB40 is played flawlessly, which says a lot of how on fire the band really was last summer. To be that late in tour and not having a single missed note on the bridge interlude between the two by Page or Trey speaks volumes. The landing to the jam is also amazing and the crowd again senses how close to perfect this ‘Bowie” is, cheering loudly at just the right moment.
The “Bowie” jam is really the 4-headed monster in action. Mike and Page drive the jam just as much as Trey’s lead. You can hear the trading of ideas back and forth so clearly. Trey has a line and then Mike has a line and then Trey has a line and Fish has a fill and the others hang back to listen a moment and then play off of it. If you were teaching a class about Phish’s musicianship, you might use this Bowie jam to demonstrate the band’s concept. Then, with about 4:10 left, you can hear them all arriving at point and Trey and Page play complementary parts for about on a riff for about 20 seconds, showing how synced up they are. As quickly as that comes, they go back to true jamming, Trey hangs back and let’s Page and Mike take over. Until about the 2:45 mark when Trey signals that he’s back to leading. At 1:45 though, Page leads the band back into the end of the tune and Trey goes right with him. No slow down or having to fit the end of the tune like I’ve heard in other recent shows. It’s a perfect Type I jam.
Almost as a treat for such a perfect Type I “Bowie,” Trey and Fish fire up “Possum” immediately as “Bowie” ends. “Possum” has such a weird relationship in the Phish catalog. A lot of fans hate that’s it played with such regularity, but after this summer it’s the 3rd most played song in Phish’s history with 504 behind “YEM” and “Hold Your Head Up,” making it the number two Phish original, which is also weird because no one playing it on stage wrote it. There’s something about that 31-year-old danceable blues boogie that the boys can’t let go. Maybe because it is a really simple tune after a masterfully complex number like “Bowie” that lets them unwind or it’s Trey letting out his inner Clapton, we’ll never know but this “Possum” really does swing.
After the “head” of the tune gets out of the way for the jam, Page actually kicks off the solos with a fun spin on his Hammond B-3. I then love that after Page’s lengthy solo, Trey doesn’t immediately go into his own solo. He and Page then do the improvisational standard of trading fours with Trey playing a bar and then Page. They’re just having a blast at this point, two masters of their instruments, having a conversation. It’s not revolutionary but a fun way to end a set, building to that familiar peak. It may not be Gamehendge or a 50-minute “Tweezer” but if you can’t just enjoy a really solid 4-part Type I jam, then why are you here? This jam from MPP2 stands as a firm reminder that Phish is a very special band, even when they’re doing what the fans consider ordinary work.
Alex Grosby was introduced to Phish in the glorious summer of ’94 when a radio DJ gave him a copy of Hoist and then he bugged his dad into taking him to Sugarbush ’94 in his hometown. He has since followed them all over and hosts “This Week in Phish” every Thursday at 2 PM Eastern on JEMPRadio.com. He also has a work in progress at http://www.phishsonian.net. He hopes to work with Phish Inc. to build The Phishsonian Institute, a pop culture history museum in downtown Burlington, VT. He lives in Ellensburg, WA currently and can’t wait to welcome you all to the Gorge this summer. Say hi on Twitter @harryphood or @phishsonian. His favorite Ghost remains 7/1/2000.