The Daily Ghost

26 in 26 of 2019: #19 07/09/2019 Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT (Jake Cohen, @smoothatonalsnd)

The crystal was red hot…

Allow me to back up a little to explain. 

There is nothing like casino Phish. This is not to say that casino Phish is the best Phish, because “best” is subjective and, in fact, I like many other kinds of venues even more than casino Phish (festival Phish, Gorge Phish, MSG Phish). But just as there is nothing like an MSG Phish show, there’s just something about that sweet spot combo of sanctioned debauchery, most folks staying onsite or nearby, pool times, and being in a place where the whole point is that you start partying after midnight that perfectly lends itself to the Phish experience. It’s not for everyone. 

Of course, Connecticut casinos are a very different breed than Vegas casinos. The place more or less closed down around 2am. We were admonished by hotel staff for trying to keep drinking into the wee hours of the morning. Still, we the phaithful descended upon Mohegan Sun battle tested from 3 Vegas runs in the previous 5 years, ready to do all the #wookshit that the casino brings out in us. You know who was not ready for #wookshit? The dance moms.

I guess there aren’t that many venues in Southeastern Connecticut to hold a large dance competition for kids, so by one of those fortuitous strokes of kismet, a casino hotel full of Phish heads doing all kinds of NSFW things coincided with a few hundred pre-teen girls and their overbearing mothers. It’s tough to tell who had more sequins and glitter but I’m willing to bet we gave them a good run for their money on the sparkle front. The facebook melts from parents about the H O r R o R S these kids had to witness were epic.

Oh, about that crystal…

Just before the show, my wife decided that she wasn’t at all happy with her show attire, and went back up to the room to change. She wanted some kind of different necklace too, and our friend Julie, who’s kinda lowkey into crystals, suggested a nice piece that she had on a necklace. My wife, who’s not really into crystals, liked it and off to the show we went. 

We find our seats all the way to the back of the venue directly across from the stage. A bunch of dudez with supremely bad vibes made us decide to move even farther back, and we ended up in the last row, with the carpeted wall of the venue just behind us. And then Phish dropped into the first version of the Apples in Stereo cover “Energy” since 2013.

Just like in 2013, “Energy” became a launchpad for improvisation, leading into a tight groove that wound itself into a “Weekapaug” with no preceding “Mike’s Song,” delighting the entire crowd (plus we were probably only 25 miles or so from Weekapaug, RI). A “Moma” and “Maze” with “Lengthwise” interpolated into the intro kept the energy really high (see what I did there?). Now, while I love “Petrichor,” this was not the right placement for it, and you could kind of feel the vibe drain out of the room. An odd choice to follow with “Things People Do” and a standard “Sample” kept things relatively subdued, but then a big disco-flavored “Bathtub Gin” closed the set with the casino vibes we needed.

Set 2 opened with “Soul Planet” which, as usual, led into a solid jam that wound its way into the first/only-ever performance of the Ghosts of the Forest tune “Wider,” which segued perfectly into “Undermind” since they have very similar grooves. “The Final Hurrah” seemed an odd choice here, since it felt like the right moment for a bigger jam. And then the gentle lilt of “Beneath a Sea of Stars pt. 1” ambled out of Trey’s guitar. 

Of all the Ghosts of the Forest songs, “Beneath a Sea of Stars” stands out as unique. So many of those tunes are either dark rockers (“Ghosts of the Forest,” “About to Run”), brighter anthems (“Ruby Waves,” “Sightless Escape”), lamenting ballads (“Friend,” “In Long Lines,” “A Life Beyond the Dream”) or prog-ish suites (“Drift While You’re Sleeping”). But “Beneath” is a kind of empty canvas, a simple two chord progression that is so delicate it feels like a lucid dream, floating along, as the lyrics say, “free of time.” Fishman’s unparalleled cymbal work really comes to the fore in this song, as he’s able to coax a rhythm out of the tune with the barest of raw materials. 

The jam begins and it’s this gorgeous, soaring modal soloing from Trey, like something out of a “Reba” or “Curtain With” jam, with beautiful interplay between Page and Trey. Maybe it was something about the way that Fishman was trying to improvise with his playing and avoid any kind of set pulse, or the fact that Mike starts trying to insert more minor scale pitches at irregular rhythmic places, or the counterpoint between Trey and Page, but gradually the rhythm starts to erode and lead into a more free space. Little peals of high pitched sound begin to creep out of Trey’s guitar, adding an even deeper psychedelic sheen to this already very trippy music. They’re locked in and it’s truly gorgeous improvisation. 

Around the 7 minute mark, Mike starts trying to push the jam into a new harmonic space, and the band is ready for it. Page is tinkling the keys high up on the piano, and Fishman is adding fully pulse-free accents and flourishes. The entire thing is wide open, meterless, no beat. It sounds like all four band members are in their own rhythm, but it’s still all working together. It’s damn near close to free jazz at this point, but far more consonant and still with that majestic feel. As they push through this momentary rhythmic haze, Mike is pushing hard for a more definitive groove, and Fishman hears it and decides to. JUST. GO. FOR. IT. Trey switches on a more distorted effect and just as it seemed like this jam might grow some legs, Fishman and Mike pull back and it falls into rhythmic disarray again. 

At this point, about 10 minutes in, it feels like there’s this constant push and pull between each band member, it’s the most united yet disjointed playing I’ve ever heard from the band because of the unique sound world of this song. It sounds like it’s going together perfectly while all falling apart simultaneously. I love this band. Each musician takes their turn for a few seconds hinting at a more standard rhythmic groove to embark upon, and then pulling back and letting it fall away. Page is probably the most active, pushing for a stronger propulsive groove, and Fishman and Mike eventually match Page’s fast fingerwork. Suddenly at 11 minutes in, Mike starts to push the groove along again and once more, the whole things feels poised for liftoff, only for Fish to pull back again and Trey to switch over to a watery, almost Jerry-esque tone on his guitar. If Phish ever played “Dark Star,” it would sound like this jam. 

At 12 minutes, Trey starts to push an intense tone that wants to again get a groove going, but instead it begins to growl and pulsate and turn into a dissonant and somewhat monstrous sound, initiating a sequence where Fishman again finally picks up a much faster groove and, finally, they’re in it. Page is propelling the groove along with percussive chords, Fishman is keeping the hi-hat fast and furious, Mike is grooving hard, and Trey, god bless him, is finally building a peak with frenzied soloing. Out of the depths of previous musical messiness, an intense jam is finally coalescing.

But it just wouldn’t be right for this jam to suddenly peak with the usual Phishy ecstatic build. That’s not the way for “Beneath a Sea of Stars.” This is a jam where exploration and constantly pulling back to find new rhythms and push in different directions is the modus operandus. Instead, Trey gets himself stuck in a clunky, slightly dissonant riff, that leads Fishman back to his free meter experimentation. And then just as it begins to morph once again, Trey starts playing a brighter tone and brings back the signature lilt of the song, steps up to the microphone and, as though he’s commenting on the rhythmic odyssey of the previous 12 minutes, sings “and we’re free of time.” The crowd roars in approval, unsure of whether the jam has lasted 5 or 50 minutes, and the song concludes.

My wife taps me on the shoulder, and says “you need to feel this crystal.” I hold the piece of rock around her neck in my hand. It’s burning hot. 


Jake Cohen is a musicologist living in Western Massachusetts. He has written about Phish for LawnMemo’s summer recap series for years, as well as articles in Surrender to the Flow. He’s also published articles on Phish in scholarly books, presented on Phish at national music history conferences, and appeared on NPR to talk about Phish and Phish studies. Jake is also the host of the new video series “The Black Roots of Phish,” presented by Phans for Racial Equity, appearing soon on their YouTube channel.