I could get used to this! And by "this" I suppose I could be referring to a lot of things: the majesty of the Hollywood Bowl; the flawless weather; the smooth security and ease of movement in the venue; the consistently kind people and old and new friends it’s been easy to bump into, despite having flown solo for my first West Coast Phish shows in almost 30 years of seeing the band. No complaints on the set and setting so far from me; it’s been a great weekend. So what about the music, did it measure up to the mood? Would we be giving out any new stars on the Phish Walk of Fame tonight? Roll cameras, action:
The stage was certainly set for a Saturday night special. After casting off any suspicions of no repeats from the opening notes on night one, with everything back on the table the band had a full arsenal of hits to dig into tonight, and they certainly put it to use. In fact with “Leaves” the only exception, the first set was comprised of songs all debuted in 1998 or earlier (many of them in the 80s). Four songs in, it almost seemed for a moment like Phish was going to walk out a full cast of their own star personalities from the catalog—not from Gamehendge, mind you—but the likes of the “Ghost,” “David Bowie,” “Esther” and “Harry Hood.” As it turns out, the only other eponymous character to show up would be Sneakin’ Sally (with a notable performance), but there were plenty of other roles to be played.
So “Ghost” appears for the second time this tour, and no one complains about a “Ghost” opener. It turns at around 6 minutes and Trey takes the lead with his familiar bluesy hop-around jaunting that tends to dominate a lot of jams these days as a kind of default mode. Modest criticisms of that aside (and more on it later), something does become quite apparent as we approach the 10 minute mark of this “Ghost.” One thing is that Fish continues to make his presence known and felt at every turn, and its had the effect of leveling-up jams that might otherwise not have the legs to get somewhere, but then do. The other is that Trey’s fingers sound as nimble as ever (or at least the last 15 years). The last 3 minutes of the “Ghost” are must hear for this reason alone; not so much wild improvisation as for machine-gun execution. He owned the Bowl from this moment on, and there wouldn’t really be any turning back.
“Bowie” had been looming and was equally welcome here, patient and soulful. For a moment I thought we might be treated to an old school improvisational take; the song’s dark tones being a perfect fit for the moody deconstruction jamming that has been highlighting this tour, with examples on display in Seattle’s “A Wave of Hope,” Berkley’s “Fuego,” and the stunning “Down with Disease” from night one in the Bowl. That wasn’t to be, but those fiery fingers were back for the finish.
“Esther” followed “Bowie,” suddenly giving the set a Junta flavor. A rarity through the late '90s and most of the modern era, “Esther” was played three times in 2022, this being its 2023 debut. Turns out the last (and only other) time I had seen it was at the Clifford Ball. That’s a notable gap! And I must have sensed it intuitively, because I found myself compelled by it emotionally, with lots of soulful, earnest playing from everyone, including Mike and Page, who really started to step up on Saturday.
“Harry Hood” came as a bit of a surprise to follow. I don’t know where all this time is going, but the last time the band was at the Hollywood Bowl was 10 years ago now, where an otherwise average performance was punctuated by a long, exploratory “Hood” that at the time was quite unusual. Fast forward ten years and now it seems like you’re more likely to see Trey deliberately direct the band away from the classic “Hood” sound, with its slow build and fierce finale. This one starts classic enough, but it’s not long before Trey pulls out his quick bluesy pluck, where he repeats the same note and goes up and down a little. Page layers some nice effects, and there’s a satisfying crunch as they bring it back to the “Hood” to close, but it’s all said and done before twelve minutes. Nothing offensive, per se, but put me in the camp that believes Harry would benefit from being recast in his original role, and given some room—to borrow from the "Leaves" that would later follow—to just breathe.
“Meat” was short and standard, with its deliberately disjointed deconstructive beat-break-down essentially serving as a launch pad for “Split Open and Melt.” This one had been looming large as well. I leaned over to my buddy and as the jam started said “this could get gnarly.” They don’t waste much time getting going, the jam essentially underway just before the five minute run time. Trey elects a much more favorable approach here under the circumstances, with slow and crunchy choices while the band layers, flirting with tonal change but also not wanting to take the easy way to major-key bliss mode. Fish is given room to pulse things along, Mike signals more deconstruction, and at around seven minutes Trey’s effects get even spacier, almost indistinguishable from Page’s sounds, and the whole thing melts all the way down before they start to rebuild it. But again instead of taking a straight path they swirl and ooze while Fish rattles and shakes the perimeter, not unlike the spaceship they built in the "Down with Disease" the previous night. Page isn’t content to let Trey take the whole lead and adds some absolutely raucous swells, like a “Meatstick” gone to the dark side. By the eleventh minute Fish is shuffling things forward and Trey goes for the finale, pulling out those machine gun fingers again only this time overtop a pretty magnificent wall of sound. By thirteen minutes they weave it back to the “Melt” theme, but it’s not a slow and sudden halt as you might expect; there are some very fast and furious riffs to be had before all is said and done. This here is your set one—and maybe show—highlight.
A breather was certainly coming, and I yelled out “Albuquerque” as my unlikely request—a beloved Neil Young song they haven’t played since 2011, and which certainly would have been an appropriate bustout for this part of the country. (They played Hendrix in Seattle and even acknowledged as much, and then Shuggie Otis got the local’s nod on night one here. This Canadian is well aware that Neil shares my nationality, but he’s also as much of an LA hero as any. Maybe we’ll hear some Neil—or some Zappa? ðŸ‘ðŸ‘ðŸ‘—tonight. But I digress.) Leaves offered the more explicit call to breathe, the only departure from the 1.0 song selection of the set, and I quite enjoyed the slow soulful outro, the song taking on an increasingly Caspian-like format.
“The Squirming Coil” was a classic call here, and like the “Esther” for me hit home in the right way. Trey struck up some beautiful rhythmic interplay with Mike over Page’s Keith Jarrett-esque outro before heading off for set break, and this performance is certainly worthy of your attention.
Set two picked up where Page left us, that is to say with more classic Phish song selection, and a “Chalk Dust Torture” that you knew was going to do one of two things: either be an in the box warmup, or a twenty minute + set opener. The band opted for the latter. I’d need to spend more time with this “Chalk Dust” to say for sure, but despite the run time and slot it I wouldn’t call it my show highlight. The more patient, effects-laden middle section is charming enough, as are the last few moments before the segue (yes that’s a ->) to “Twist.” But the aforementioned default-jamming mode that Trey likes to fall back on lately is all too suited to the “Chalk Dust” tempo and tone—a box he seems to impose unnecessarily as if the space needs to be filled up with quick notes that run up and down and side to side in their box and don’t go much of anywhere. The dexterity is certainly there, but when the ideas or inspiration aren’t, sometimes I wish he’d just sit back and let the rest of the band lead the way, or go off into his effects and loops, which he thankfully does do a bit of here. This is all easy enough for me to say from my own box in the Bowl, I acknowledge, and it’s an old story and tension in the band that’s been playing out for a long time. “Too many notes,” Mike tells Trey in Bittersweet Motel—and that was in 1998! I’m past worrying about it too much, but I also know when I’m engaged and astounded, and when I’m hearing the same theme recycled and there was a fair bit of the latter here. Your mileage may vary, don’t @ me, etc.
So the familiar “Chalk Dust” blow-up finale winds down and morphs into “Twist,” which gives the band an opportunity to slow it down, and do a little more deconstruction, slowly unwinding the blues that had gotten all wound up. Nothing too notable, but whatever job it did here was welcome all the same, because the set took a very strong, satisfying turn. For my money, the “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” “Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley” combo was this set’s highlight, a set two pairing that I had heard (like the “Sample,” “Disease” the night before), at my last 2022 show in Toronto on 8/10. This was used to similar dance-party effect, but taken a few steps further. Trey employs some effect that make it seems like he could pass for Mike or Page somehow in the mix, and they break it down disco-style, flirting with a start-stop that also veered dangerously close to woo territory, but Page was having none of anything that simple. He steps up at around 5 minutes here with an old school synth run that almost single-handedly throws this “2001” in the mix of notable versions of recent years. “Sneakin’ Sally” too deserves some attention, Trey setting the jam up with some simple, welcome rhythms instead of notes, and then a left turn just before seven minutes that Page picks up on the piano. The finale here isn’t unfamiliar, but like the “Ghost” opener is hard not to like for its fiery execution. The place was popping off. It shows signs of morphing into something else, but instead Trey fires up “Back on the Train,” which sees a return of the more homogenous bluesy rock out.
The fourth quarter ballad was clearly on the way at this point, with “A Life Beyond A Dream” playing an almost identical role to “Leaves” in the first set, as the penultimate number with a slow build to soulful finale. Trey hits some gorgeous notes. “First Tube” does what you’d expect after that breather on a Saturday night like this—full of fire and crunch and a welcome closer, Trey milking the Jedi cosplay as much as he can get away with.
You’ll never hear me complain about a “Run Like an Antelope” encore, and I was surprised to find it had been another 10 years since I had seen the song, the last one being a bit of a hidden gem in the first set on 7/3/13 in Bangor (seek it out if you haven’t heard it; it’s worth your time). This one sticks to the Saturday night task of sending everyone home with their souls lit.
All in all, a fine front to back performance which made up for whatever it occasionally lacked in innovation with classic song selection, execution, and spirit. The question on my mind now going into Sunday’s tour closer on the mountain: do I spot any celebrities from Gamehendge and, after 29 years, finally catch a "Tela" or a "Forbin’s"? Tune in tomorrow to find out!
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