25 in 25 of 2015 #9 08/02/2015 Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, Tuscaloosa, AL (Lilly West, @dphishin)
For me, the summer of 2015 was the culmination of two years’ worth of chaos, reflection, introspection, growing pains, and change. Things didn’t stop there but instead, turned out to only be getting started. When I made my plans for tour last spring, I was in a place of great openness. Pushed up to the edge. Nothing to lose. For the first time in my life I had the time, the freedom, the means, and the will to just surrender to the flow. And surrender I did.
My summer started on the rail in Atlanta, N1. Not having seen Phish play in my old stomping grounds since the Halloween show in ’96, I’d been contemplating an Atlanta run for a couple of years. So, when I decided to do 2015 right, that seemed like a good starting point. My sole hope was that I would finally catch the “Pebbles & Marbles” I’ve been chasing, but that didn’t happen. (Still hasn’t.) What did happen was that I was reborn that night. Out of the ashes of 43 years, I rose. Pure spirit. And I am forever grateful to the three people who were there to help usher me into my new world. You know who you are.
After going all-out for two nights in Atlanta, I was sweetly drained. My original schedule had me returning to Virginia on Sunday, but my oldest friend had serendipitously been sent to Mobile, AL on business that week and had treated himself to a ticket to Tuscaloosa. I hadn’t seen him since CMAC the previous summer; usually we’d do MSG together, but with the ’14-’15 New Year’s run taking place in Miami, neither of us could make it. Anyway, it had already been too long, and I didn’t feel like waiting another 3 weeks for Magna. So I made a last-minute decision to drive 200 miles farther from home to join him in the pit.
There are two things in particular I remember about the venue itself.
First, parking was a nightmare. The lot was full by the time we got there, and the overflow crammed every foot of the surrounding streets. We ended up paying $10 to some enterprising local who was standing at the entrance to her apartment complex’s resident garage, selling spaces as if she had the right to do so, and then praying that the car was still there when we returned. From there it was just a few blocks walk to the amphitheater.
Secondly, Shakedown was tucked in the shade of a highway flyover. It wasn’t the best Shakedown ever (that prize goes to SPAC, in my opinion), but it was certainly a good location for it. We landed on the scene as the sun was lowering and as we crossed Greensboro Avenue. The image – painted in silhouette – was one of the highway arching over the vendor tents on the left, the amphitheater on the right, against a sky like a ripe peach.
We weren’t in the pit five minutes before I thought Oh right…Alabama. It was just as much of sausage party as any other show, but these particular sausages were way too college-y dudebro, way too rowdy, and waaaaaaay too drunk for it to be any place but Alabama. Somewhere there was a vendor serving mixed drink slushies in plastic yards. That, plus the Southern heat didn’t seem to be a recipe for disaster at all…
We maneuvered our way toward the front of the pit and were in the fourth or fifth row when the show started. With the liquor-fueled edginess of the crowd, my own questionable reserves, and the band having left so much of themselves on the floor in Atlanta, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the night. But from the opening chords of “Sample,” I immediately felt the band/crowd connection that marks so many of the good shows, and all of the great ones. Clocking in at just over 6 minutes, Sample was a solid, no frills warm-up. They weren’t breaking away right out of the gate, but rather setting the pace for the show and creating room to open it up in the home stretch if the mood struck. “Sample” was followed by a “Chalk Dust Torture” that got the blood pumping and the alcohol-infused sweat flowing. In the jam that starts at 3:09 you can feel the band straining against the reins, eager, wanting to go, but knowing it’s too early yet. Beneath Trey’s clean riffs, Page is pounding on the keys. Maybe Atlanta did something to them, too.
“Train Song” was a chance for everyone, the band included, to catch their breath. I’m not a fan of the obligatory first-set Mike break – usually it’s farther into the set and sugar-shacks any momentum that’s built to that point – but this was early and perfect.
It’s such a vanilla song that I’m not sure if it’s possible for there to be any impressive renditions of “Devotion To A Dream,” but it’s a sentimental favorite of mine (as is Wading; keep your cheese to yourself, thank you). Vanilla or not, any time Fish is keeping the beat on the ride cymbal, you have to boogie. By the time they launch into the jam at 3:39, the crowd has been sucked in. Trey kicks it up a notch at 4:45. If you were there and still sitting still at 5:35, you must have had too much Alabama moonshine in the lot. But the song has no closure. It’s as if while Trey and Tom were writing it they decided to go out for veggie burritos and never returned to compose a proper ending.
(It was around this time that one of the dudebros who’d clearly had almost too much moonshine in the lot got a little handsy and had to be firmly admonished by my friend. C’mon, Alabama. Don’t be such a foregone conclusion.)
An always welcome but unremarkable “Meat” gives a preview of some of the easy funk to come in the second set. Page uses the opportunity to warm up the organ. Mike lays down a cool, smooth bass line. Fish has some syncopated fun. And then they transition neatly into “Maze,” which is where I want to stay.
I’ve given a lot of thought and many re-listens to this version of Maze in the last 10 months. Granted, I love “Maze.” It was my favorite song on Rift when the album came out, and it remains one of my favorite tunes some 23 years later. I’ve heard it thousands of times, in dozens of incarnations. Although I’ll never complain about them playing it, I will admit that sometimes they phone it in. The Tuscaloosa “Maze” however, was anything but basic. It was inspired. In fact, I consider it one of the most overlooked/underappreciated jams of 2015.
They don’t dick around with the usual “Bowie/Maze” suspense. Mike breaks out the bass line a mere 10 seconds in; it is the heartbeat of the many-headed beast that is the band and audience, merged. Trey leaves off making ambient noise to join in at :53. Upon re-listen, his vocals are weak, and he simply falls off at the end of the opening line. It’s not the only time this happens, either. But it doesn’t matter. The instrumentals are already driving so hard that they might as well have just skipped the vocals altogether.
Trey launches the jam at 2:33, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. The real magic starts when the Chairman takes over on the organ at 3:14. And then he does what he’s been ready to do since “CDT” which is launch himself into orbit. He sweeps us along in his sonic wake, filling our heads with carnival and groove while Fish and Mike keep the rhythm – Fish with a high, splashy cymbal and Mike with a swift yet subtle undercurrent of a bass line. Trey sneaks back in, building a counterpoint to Page’s swirling chords – but for nearly two whole minutes it’s Leo’s show, and it’s in that space-time that the Tuscaloosa “Maze” becomes something that sets it apart from most of the other 295 times the song has been performed live.
Page and Trey join forces at 5:08, dropping out of Page’s carny whirlwind and back into “Maze” as we know it at 5:52. But Page’s domination doesn’t end here. Instead, he switches from organ to piano and hammers away like a blacksmith at an anvil, clanging, ringing, and forging gleaming layers of sound as Trey begins peeling off lick after scorching lick. The first crescendo is reached at 7:56. Trey’s guitar starts to howl and then to scream as they hit another peak at 8:18, and it’s not until then that Page fades a bit to let Trey take them home.
The wave breaks at 8:41. It’s all downhill from there. We catch our collective breath during the familiar spiral through the echoing chorus and the last cartwheeling notes.
LILLY WEST lives in Richmond, Virginia, with 8 four-legged animals and a couple of two-legged ones. Phish has been the soundtrack of her life since she was 19. She’s counting on there being plenty of time to get out of tour-related debt after they retire. She’s not in a hurry, though.