The start of any tour is always met with a sort of apprehensive excitement. On one hand, the pure excitement of having Phish back is more than enough to get us going. Yet we are still unsure of how the first go-round will turn out. Coming off of the year that was 2015, expectations were very high and rumors of a new album were swirling. What were we to expect in 2016? A few new tunes? Some bust outs? How were the boys playing after the extraordinary run they just pulled off? Was Trey going to actually play “Sugar Shack” mistake-free? Anticipation was at an all-time high even if the thought of past tour openers were in the backs of minds.
The past few years have yet to produce a truly extraordinary, Best-Of-list-making affair. Some have even come to refer to the first few shows of a tour as “warm up shows” — a good time for the band to dust off some rust and get used to playing to a live audience again for the first time in 5 months or so, even if they’ve been doing it for 30 years. While it’s easy to fall into this mentality, it is still a stereotype for a reason. Even coming off the incredible year that was 2015, the carry over to the first show in St. Paul seemed to go right along with recent memory and stick to the same archetype of tour openers. This isn’t to say that it was an “off night” or that nothing could be taken away from the show, but with the longest jam being 11 minutes and 17 seconds and coming in the first set, it is hard to put this show as a whole in any “Best Of” category. It seems that the band is just trying to get comfortable again and sticks very close to the vest in terms of improvisation while hitting a bit of outside ball on the song choice.
“Pigtail” was the tour opener and while it seems like an odd choice, I cannot help but think of my first show and the guy behind me yelling for “Pigtail” during every break the band made. The “Wolfman’s” that came next, while compact, has a few glimpses of gold throughout it. Possibly mistakes but a bit of dissonance gets brought up and then quickly put away. Three songs in and you get what should have been the opener in “Daniel Saw the Stone,” a rarity now, that set the pace for the song choice in the rest of the set. “The Dogs” got everyone howling and a nice “Undermind” led into a 796 show bust out of “Dear Prudence” that wound up seeing a lot of action in the first half of the tour. “Round Room” and “Uncle Pen” added to what would be the East Coast leg of the tour’s main theme in bust outs and song selection over heavy jamming. “Walls of the Cave” capped the first set and got the honor of being the longest song of the night, clocking in at 11 minutes and 17 seconds. (Yes, “Bathtub Gin” is technically longer on live phish but Trey talks for about two and a half minutes putting the actual song around 10 minutes.)
The second set started off with promise in concise “Mikes Song->Hydrogen->Weekapaug” and continued the bust outs in the form of the Velvet Underground’s I Found A Reason, last played in 1998. Hindsight being what it is seems to suggest that the reemerging of past Halloween songs throughout the tour was a conscious effort and foreshadowing of the Ziggy Startdust set. While not a bust out per se Billy Breathes also makes an appearance once again solidifying the timbre of the first leg of tour and the band’s focus on song choice.
It was a tough choice in a very lean show on what the jam of the show would be. On paper, with the second set having a “Mike’s Groove,” “Ghost,” “Simple,” “No Men’s” and a “Bathtub Gin,” it seems like they would all provide solid ear candy, but the choice really boiled down to “Ghost” vs. “Simple” with “Gin” coming in a close third as it capped off the night in a great peak, type 1 fashion. “Simple” was in the running for having a really nice Page-led ending and a more ambient jam feel to it, but overall was pretty straightforward.
“Ghost” has always been a jam power broker with lots of history and the respected territory that comes with it. This “Ghost,” like a few recent versions which usually end up in the first set, sticks to the type 1 jam style but has a bit of attitude to it. Right off the bat, we get a “Little Drummer Boy” tease and a nice steeming funk session that everyone seems to click on immediately. Trey does revert to the classic pitch shifter which is perfect for the type of music “Ghost” invokes. (Even if it is a bit played out, it is still a nice effect.) We never veer off the course of the classic A minor jam but we do see Trey really peaks nicely with a Santana-esque line that has to be the most interesting improvisational moment of the show. The interplay between Trey and Page is fantastic and we eventually hear Mike come in sparsely at the end when Trey once again reverts to the pitch shifter and we get a bit of space before hitting the main “Ghost” once again. I would be remiss to omit that the only deterrent of this jam is that it went into what is commonly referred to as “The Bathroom Line” and one writer will literally go to the bathroom even if no excretion is required, out of principle.
St. Paul, while being cast as another tour opener, is actually notable for being a litmus test for a majority of the 2016 summer tour. While it might not be for everyone, the fact that it was the polar opposite of what 2015 had been and some phans even said lacked, it was a look into the way Phish operates. They do what they want and there is little you can do about it. As another new tour comes upon us, just remember that even just having it is a majority of what makes this good. The ability to complain and critique and analyze something new should never be taken for granted, because before you know it we could just be listening to “Ghosts.”