[Take the Bait is spirited deliberation centered around the hyperbole of Phish’s music and fandom, passionately exuded via the written words of phish.net contributors @FunkyCFunkyDo and @n00b100. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of phish.net, The Mockingbird Foundation, or any fan… but we're pretty sure we’re right. Probably.]
The Bait: Summer 2021 is the best tour since Winter 2003.
Funky: Once in a great while, we are privileged to experience an event so extraordinary, it becomes part of our shared heritage. 1969: Man walks on the moon. 1971: Man walks on the moon…. again. Then for a long time, nothing happened. Until today. n00b and I are proud to finally present: The 17th volume spectacular of Take the Bait! ::crickets chirping:: I said, The 17th volume spectacular of… ahhh forget it...
Before we get started, let’s make one thing abundantly clear: we - verrry apathetically - do not care if you call it 3.0 or 4.0. “But Funky, Trey’s 4.0 guita-” QUIET YOU! “But n00b, they took almost a year and a half of-” YOU SHHMMM! And if any of you nerds nitpick this, well, I’m not sure how to finish that threat, but be warned: I will caustically and needlessly shame you in the comments section - like a mature internet stranger should. And n00b knows how to fire a crossbow! Very good.
Now, before we assault you with this severely opinionated novella about how you should personally be enjoying subjective auditory art, let’s make one more thing clear: Winter 2003 is a top-5 Phish tour. SHHHHH. It is. In 2003, regardless of your deeply held prejudices, Phish came back from an actual, planned hiatus full of beans! Setlists were wildly unpredictable; extended jams popped up with nearly equality in the first and second sets; You Enjoy Myself actually featured Trey soloing; the band jammed for the sake of jamming, as opposed to the sake of ripchording and ruining “the vibe,” which we know, of course, vibe-ruining was Trey’s modus operandi from 2011-2014. The very same years he stole Christmas and the New Year’s Day Rose Parade. They don’t call him The Bad Lieutenant for nothing.
There was a freedom and looseness to the music in Winter 2003 that was entirely liberating. Entirely new. Entirely unique. Even for a band whose onus are those three aforementioned adjectives. The essence of Phish is indeed improvisation, ergo, unpredictability. Three more applicable adjectives. I just got a new thesaurus, can you tell? But simply including (or excluding) those fancy, multi-syllabic words doesn't excuse some tours and years, especially recently, from falling into semi-predictable patterns. Bliss peaks, ambient wind-downs, and people saying, "Geez, Antelope sure isn't what it used to be." “Down with Disease” second set openers, “Slave to the Traffic Light” second set closers, every third show featuring “Wolfman’s Brother,” “Sample in a Jar,” "Martian Monster," and half-assed versions of “AC/DC Bag” in the first set. Yawn. (for real though, what the hell happened to “AC/DC Bag” in 3.0??). And, of course, Trey ripchording jams, to ruin your show, specifically. 3.0 Phish sucks. ::jaded vets swig pruce juice; nod in agreement::
But in 2003, stylistically, there wasn’t a discernible crutch or safe zone or theme threading the tour together, say, like, the aforemention paragraph of gripes, or, the “cow funk” of Fall 1997, or, “bliss” of 2015, or, the “dad rock” hit classics from the chart-topper Big Boat - ahh, Big Boat, destroying the vibes of what could have been epic shows in Summer 2016. No matter how long our odious astral voyagers slanging rocks on Phish lot charge their amethyst geodes in the full moon, Big Boat songs (for the most part), will hoover those good vibes like a [redacted by phish.net/legal] in a bathroom stall with a bag of mystery powder they found next to that same crystal booth on lot. Whole different type of moon rocks they were selling, whole different vibe being hoovered, but that’s for another time.
Take, for example, “Bathtub Gin” in Winter 2003. Three monster versions: 2.14.03 with its soaring, angelic peaks; 2.22.03 with its industrial, dense robo funk; 2.28.03 with its dreamlike sojourn through Babylonian meadows and gardens. All 20+ minutes (some liberty given to 2.14.03, but you get the idea), all must-hear jams, and all sound remarkably, bafflingly different - in the best ways possible. A magnificent microcosm of what Winter 2003 was all about. “Gin” from 2009 (save 8.7.09’s cosmic drip) through about 2014, and really, through 2019 if we set aside the Magnaball version, were more or less predictable: 10-13 minutes of building tempo to a peak that ranged from lukewarm to kinda hot. Fine… but lacking originality. My point here is not to disparage modern day “Gins,” (although this sets the table nicely for how the song was reborn in 2021), but to articulate, in a microcosmic sense, just how good, fresh, and creative the band was in Winter 2003. “Bathtub Gin” is one such example of pages of tracks and jams that I can reference here - a theme which re-manifests in 2021 - but you’re at work, or on the toilet, and don’t have time for such n such. Or maybe you do. You’re still here aren’t you? Get a job, you hippie - no thanks, work sucks - odd, I shouldn’t have been able to hear that.
In 2021, there was a newness to the music. Not just a slight evolution of sound, or subtle tweak to a rig, like what we witnessed as most of 3.0 unfolded. Not just in how it *sounded* as a full-band unit, which we will explore in more detail later. But in how songs and jams themselves were restructured and rejuvenated to give us some of the freshest Phish of the last 11 years. Phish came out in 2021 flowing with openness, unpredictability, and improvisation that, while stylistically much different than Winter 2003 (or any tour since then), showed us why Phish is still must-see TV, err… must-go shows! And they produced some of the best start-to-finish shows in a great while.
n00b: [emerging from a cave holding a lit candle in a candle holder and wearing old time stripey pajamas with a peaked cap] Wow…shit, we’re already back on the writing beat? Feels like just yesterday we were talking about the absolute joy that was 7/14/19. Anything happen since then?
Funky: I saw a blimp!
n00b: So, okay, that silliness aside, I think we could probably do a whole second edition as to whether or not Winter 2003 is a Top 5 tour; it’s certainly not terribly far away from there for me, for the reasons you described, but I do not have quite the same love for 2.0 as you (though who does?) and thus am not sure I can co-sign that statement. I won’t say I WON’T co-sign it, just not sure. I can certainly say that 2/16/03 II whips all sorts of unholy ass.
But I digress. Before we get into the actual process of debating this particular magnum opus’ bait, I too would like to say that I think Summer 2021 is a majestic jaunt in the band’s history, one that really does feel like a door was opened that had previously been closed. While I agree that I don’t care if you call this 3.0 or 4.0 or not (how I feel about this has been discussed elsewhere and thus will not be discussed here), I think one reason people HAVE been leaping to call it that even beyond the long layover is because of how different this tour has felt. Trey’s extended layoff allowed him to both refine his chops in a way he hadn’t done since 2015 and record some new songs; Page put out a new album that hinted at the sound he would unleash on many a night; the jams were longer, the playing sharper (mostly), the setlists shaken up.
One major shakeup was the band no longer immediately kicking off Set 2 with a jam vehicle, instead getting themselves and the crowd warmed up with something like “More” or “Theme From The Bottom”, which helped add a little extra flavor to these second sets. Another was jamming in Set 1 becoming more prevalent and just as exciting as anything in Set 2’s; the 8/11 “Halley’s Comet”, the 9/3 “Carini”, and the 8/31 “Stash” are all fine examples of this. And, as noted, the jamming was more expansive in length and in depth, as though the band had all this pent-up energy built up over seventeen months they could only unleash in 20+ minute bursts. Now, the contents of the jams were not new to 2021; any close listening to Summer and Fall 2019’s jamming that doesn’t result in grumbling about song selection or “Plasma” teases would reveal hints of what the band would hone this summer, a 6/21 “Jim” here or a 12/6 “Limb By Limb” there that pointed to a band ready to at least set blissful upbeat hose aside without ditching it entirely. But the way the band not only developed that darker and nastier jamming style, but integrated it into mostly seamless jams that had people thinking about 1998 again? That was new, and welcome.
All right, let’s get down to brass tacks. The modern era has not lacked for truly great tours - Fall 2010’s throwback foray into setlist games and wild antics, Fall 2013 destroying the Northeast with monster jams still spoken of in hushed tones today, Summer 2015’s Fare Thee Well-aided annus mirabilis, the astonishing Baker’s Dozen (plus five more) of Summer 2017, Fall 2018’s triumphant surplus of big jams and killer shows. But now what we’re saying - maybe, anyway - is that Summer 2021, just barely one month gone, tops them all. So let me ask you this question, Funky - are YOU saying that?
Funky: I mean… no. But yes. And this ironic dichotomy of opinion is why our “job” [aside: everyone working, in any capacity, for phish.net is entirely volunteer, hence why we have that “donate to Mockingbird Foundation” button at the bottom, and right here!] is so easy, and so difficult. We can say anything we want! Such as [redacted by phish/net/legal... again]. Ha! See! Look at… oh. ::siren noises quickly becoming louder:: Well, at least we still have the comments section, where I reject our readers’ realities and insert my own, unless, of course, they are in unquestionable agreement with me/us. Then I badger them for donations.
Still, of the many lessons I’ve learned in life, most of which via “the hard way” according to my family, saying anything I want usually results in me being grounded and my keyboard being taken away. And no dessert for three nights. So, saying anything is “the best,” especially in an artistic sense, is purely nonsense and will get us into trouble. But. It IS our “job” to churn out pages of nonsense, three pages worth as of right now and we still really haven’t said much of anything, besides nonsense, and, of course, further reinforcing my dogma that Winter 2003 is the grand poo-bah of purely improvisational Phish. Because it is. Plus I like saying grand poo-bah. Fun, isn’t it? Grand poo-bah. What a nonsensical word!
Back to The Bait! Because, this is… Take… the… you know… hm… now I understand why no one thinks I’m cool. ::siren noises quickly becoming louder... again:: I will say, with near certainty, that Summer 2021 was the single biggest stylistic change Phish has undergone from one modern-day (2009-present) tour to the next. Some contenders, for context:
Now let’s explore what went down in Fall 2019. I’m going to out myself here, all I really care to remember about Fall 2019 was the gargantuan, monstrous 12.6.19 “Scents and Subtle Sounds” and that the band teased “Plasma” in, like, every show… which got really old, really fast. 12.1.19 was a pretty dope show, too. So, like, two good things. ::dodges airborne tomato:: I suppose I deserved that. Again, Phish shows are always fun, and nothing can replace, take away, or undermine your personal experiences of emotion and friendship and oneness... andloveandlight... that you may experience at any given show. Still, you kinda know when they just.aren’t.quite.firing. I’ll leave it there. Hope you get "More" at your next show though xoxo.
For the sake of emotional support, Fall 2019 fans, let’s go back even further, to Summer 2019. This is where a brand new, breezy, dreamy, violet-colored style of drifting jams sprouted. These jams were the anti-peaks of yesteryear’s Summer 2015 exceptional explosions, and 2017’s cosmic collisions, and Summer/Fall 2018’s balls-to-the-wall blitzs. A new sound was emerging in 2019. A conscious, full-band effort to reinvent and redefine, rearrange but not refine Phish’s constantly evolving on-stage sound. I’m going to pause really quick - n00b, I’m going to hand off 2019 to you (we also did an entire Take the Bait on it) to refresh our readers on what exactly happened in 2019 that led us to the exasperatingly dramatic 2021 claims about which we are currently writing. Let’s fill in the readers on what was going down in 2019, so we can further explore just how different (read: good) 2021 was.
n00b: Ah, I love it, we’re really gonna build the tension in this essay before peaking with our Summer 2021 discussion.
Funky: Yes! Because tension-and-release! Like Phish! Like… Phish… ::crickets have left the chat::
n00b: So I think one thing that can be agreed upon by everyone is that Summer 2019 is the most controversial tour of the modern era, with that exceptional jamming we both have now discussed sitting in shows that *wildly* whipsawed in quality, as the band juggled not one but two full albums of brand new material in Ghosts of the Forest and legendary synth rock band Kasvot Vaxt’s iRokk in the songbook.
Funky: Let it be known that “Drift While You’re Sleeping” has brought me both tears of joy and tears of rage, depending on where it was placed in the show. Carry on.
n00b: I happen to be of the opinion that this is a pretty good tour, with jam segments like 6/26’s filthy “Fuego” -> “Cities” -> “The Final Hurrah” and 6/30’s “Mr. Completely” > “Twenty Years Later” 1-2 punch displaying how well the band was jamming when on; others disagreed, pointing to shows like the setbreak-less second Fenway show on 7/6 and, um, the rest of 6/26 as the band sputtering when the previous tour saw them sailing smoothly. Ultimately, I guess you could say it’s somewhere in between - there are problems more or less wiped clean by this summer’s tour, but this tour is as important a stepping stone as any we’ve seen since 2009 at its very best.
The Fall tour…hmm. People love to rag on this as a ‘tour’ for its short length (as though they wouldn’t have cut off a pinky to get that ‘tour’ last year!), and while I certainly am not going to bemoan having any shows over no shows, the band’s runway for settling into a rhythm was much shorter than usual and it showed. Throw in Trey deciding not to repeat songs Baker’s Dozen style (though with rather less success than the Dozen, probably because he likely didn’t put as much forethought into it), and there was an equally unsettling effect to the tour, more difficulty in linking up improvisationally than even the Summer, and ultimately a tour less controversial in its uneven nature than Summer 2019 was. That said, there are certainly high points - the first two North Charleston shows, the aforementioned Nassau show that I think features some real jamming nous in smaller packages (on that I agree; on the “Plasma” teases getting old…I’m fine with them, honestly), the wonderful second set of 11/30’s second Providence show. But Fall 2019 mainly serves as another testing ground for the band embracing their dark side, the delightfully weird 12/3 “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and crazed 12/7 “Melt” pointing the way.
And now that I’ve taken us through 2019’s tours, I feel like I must spare some words for the 2019 NYE run and Mexico 2020, which is where things get REALLY interesting.
Funky: That’s cheating but I’ll allow it.
n00b: The 2019 NYE run is, in a certain sense, the Dr. Jeckyl of 2019’s tours with Mr. Hyde taking a vacation, with cohesive second sets for 3 of the 4 shows (and even 12/31 II has something going for it), some lovely first set jamming (hey, another strong “Halley’s”, fancy that), and of course a lengthy and brilliant totemic jam in the 12/30 “Tweezer”. And Mexico 2020 built upon 2019 NYE’s promise, with equally strong jams that didn’t necessarily lean on the bliss hobby horse, a plethora of segues that showed the band reigniting their ability to connect disparate musical thoughts in magical fashion, and (most importantly) superb first sets that combined both great jamming and fun antics. The Mexico run showed a band that had learned some painful lessons from the previous year, had started refreshing old warhorses long thought forgotten - that 2/23 “Bowie”! - and looked ready to unleash a Brand New Phish on an unsuspecting American public. And then…they didn’t, and we know why. And now we’re here.
Funky: Mmhmm. Here we are, indeed: breaking the form of excluding NYE and Mexico runs in our analysis because they are such outliers within the framework of any given tour. But, rules? Where we’re going we don’t need rules! Or something to that effect.
n00b: Better warn you all, Funky’s about to crank this essay up to 88 miles per hour, we’re gonna see some serious shit.
Funky: Still, you ARE right, as usual, and as stated in our disclaimer in the opening. There *was* another display of brilliant dichotomy between NYE 2019 and Mexico 2020. NYE 2019, in my usually-bang-on opinion, was one of the most scorching NYE runs of the 3.0. In a year that featured Phish deliberately straying away from “peaks” and into ethereal space; a year that featured far less of their surgical execution of tension-and-release, and far more groove-based ambiance, NYE 2019 was full of peaks and tension-and-release! 12.28’s “DWD,” “Piper,” “Free,” and “CDT Reprise” wove together a powerhouse show - my favorite show of that run by a mile. 12.29’s second set, while less “explosive” than 12.28’s, could still fit unnoticed into a Summer 2015 show, and might not “feel” quite at home in a Summer 2019 show. 12.30, well, geez. Any fan, regardless of when you started seeing the band, can’t really ask for a more complete and all-encompassing jam than “Tweezer,” and, even as the bellcow of that show, “46 Days,” “Blaze On,” and “Ruby Waves’ are a trio of jams that made my pants fall off… more so. Negative pants. It happens all the time, stare all you want; people pay a lot of money for this and you’re getting it for free. Donate to Mockingbird!
And then we get to 12.31, a show which was building to an epic finale with its antics-filled and classically-trained Set 1; a smoldering (again, 2015-esque) Set 2 with a must-hear, smoking-hot combo of “Twist” > “Soul Planet” plus a supporting cast of surprisingly good, and surprisingly compact jams; and Set 3, well… shit. Can’t blame the band for shoddy manufacturing. ::made in USA sticker falls off, floats to ground::
Now onto Mexico, which I rehash only to reinforce your statement that the band took another conscious departure from Summer/Fall 2019. I am not as sold on that Mexico run as you are - I thought the originality and playfulness was great and nostalgic, but the jams, minus “Everything’s Right,” felt a little… hmmm… too relaxed. ::dodges airborne Corona bottle:: But then again, I was on my couch, in Portland, OR, underneath a sky that resembled the color of soggy underpants, with the only thing remotely close to sand was the litter my cat tracked all over the house. Meanwhile, I was yelling profanities at my TV to the blissed out “ugly people” (thanks for that, Trey) who were living my dream of playing in the ocean whilst listening to Phish. My inner Comic Book Guy was strong for that run. Very, very strong. Deep breath, Funky. Calm blue ocean. Calm blue ocean.
But, yeah, they were toying with real-time evolution, blending antics, banter, segues, extended jams, classic-looking setlists with the new, ethereal sounds of 2019. I don’t think it was entirely successful, but fuck it, it was Phish on beach in February. THAT’S SUCCESS, BABY!
And then, some 17 months later, we get Phish in 2021. No one knew what to expect. We had Trey’s Beacon Jams, Page’s Maybe We’re the Visitors, Trey’s (again) Lonely Trip, and Fishman’s unfortunate divorce. And Mike? Probz being weird somewhere. Love you, Mike. So many undulating factors to think about as we sat in our houses, staring at our walls, listening to “Brian and Robert” on repeat just to feel *something.* But since we’re here --- factors to consider in our loneliness, waiting for the lights to go down: musical ones, life ones, personal ones, world ones, health ones - who knew what we could possibly expect to hear in 2021. Would it be rusty? Timid? Explosive? Would Trey take over or would Page? Would it be successful? Was it successful? Ha - The Bait would make it seem so, wouldn’t it?
So, n00b, let’s talk Summer 2021. We’re finally here (we’re already there?). Was this a great tour because it was the first time any of us had experienced even a semblance of “normalcy” since early 2020? Was this a great tour because it was, in fact, a great tour? Was it even a great tour at all?
n00b: Well, to answer your last question first: of course it was a great tour. Yes, I think we would have lapped up just about anything short of fourteen-song second sets or the band reenacting the “Jazz Odyssey” scene from This Is Spinal Tap every show because of our relief and joy at having the fellas back on stage doing their thing. But leaving aside how nice it was to have them back on the road, these shows were by and large really strong affairs, for the reasons described above. Just something like the titanic second set of 8/6, with its multi-part masterpiece of a “Blaze On” and that stunning monster movie kaiju of a “Simple”, would make this tour at least partially a success on its own, and you could easily argue it’s not the finest show of the tour!
If I can do a little bit of psychological projecting, I think the fact that things are still only sort of “normal” also helped give this tour a little added frisson it might not have had otherwise. You could tell just how hungry the guys, and of course Trey in particular, were to be back there out on stage, and I think that really showed in the improvisation, as from the second show the band was already showing that they were going to step on the gas pedal and blast through improvisational stop signs in a way that they only really do in their finest tours. That “Carini” from 7/30 almost feels a bit quaint now, but it really felt like a mission statement when it was played, a sign that the gang was back and chomping at the bit to give us what we want, and still holds up as a damn good jam in the face of what we got later.
And what we got later - hoowee, what a cornucopia of riches! Two mammoth “Tweezer”s that displayed the Janus heads of Phish’s jamming style, with a glorious dance party in Alpharetta on 8/1 and a dive into the muck of weirdness in Mountain View on 9/1. A wonderfully straight-ahead “Birds of a Feather” in Hershey on 8/11 that poked and prodded at every boundary of “BOAF” proper in a very satisfying way. A staggering 47 minute “Soul Planet” that, like every 30+ minute jam of any era, showed us just how many arrows Phish has in its improvisational quiver. And the Dick’s run, which…well, you were there and I was not, you’re probably better equipped to discuss the greatness of that run. I’m obviously leaving out a ton of amazing music I could also discuss, but I don’t want to hog all the gushing about this tour, and if I did write about all of it everyone would fall asleep before this essay ended.
Funky: I’ll call WHAM!
n00b: So, because I was the one to drag this essay off topic, I’ll be the one to steer it back. I carefully considered how this tour stacks up against the finest tours of this era, and came to the conclusion that there are only two serious contenders to this one for the crown of “finest since Winter 2003”, and those would be Summer 2015 and Summer 2017. Summer 2015, as you surely remember, caught fire around the canonical 7/31 show, and from then until one of the era’s high-water marks at Magnaball the band churned out great shows like a plant in Detroit churning out Cadillacs. Summer 2017, thanks to a renewed commitment to long form jamming seen even before the thirteen-show residency at Madison Square Garden that had long form jamming coming out of its ears, boasts some of the strongest two-set shows of ANY era, perhaps peaking with the improvisational masterpiece of the 7/25 “Jam-Filled” show. I think that those two mammoth tours, and their accompanying Dick’s runs, are the only tours that can potentially be said to overcome this one.
So do they? No…and yes. I believe that Summer 2021 outduels Summer 2017…but not Summer 2015. And before I get into why, I’d like to hear your answer to our Bait question. Ain’t I a stinker?
Funky: My god, you smell bad.
n00b: Hey, man, *you* try living in a cave for a year and a half.
Funky: My mom frequently asks if I was raised in a barn. That's a type of cave, right? But… yeah, we’ll talk about that later, because this is done virtually, and I don’t know how I am able to smell… geez, what is that??
Oh, it’s the FUNK section from 8.1.21 “Tweezer.” ::slaps knee:: But you’ve already covered that, and the very real, very valid song highlights of the tour. What gets my ol factory system humming (I’ll stop with the smell jokes now) is the freeform consistency of nearly every set and show of Summer 2021. Allow me to elaborate ::the few lingering readers stock provisions in anticipation… of starvation... with how long this diatribe is going on:: My refrain for loving Winter 2003 so much was that Phish was *jamming for the sake of jamming.* Each night felt new, renewed, even. There were no themes or styles or even crutches, as I listed miles of text ago.
After taking so much time off between Oct 7, 2000 and Dec 31, 2002, creative musical ideas were bubbling over into each new Phish show. Each show featured some new style; some unheard vibe; some undiscovered emotion. The shows and jams within the shows were woven together like The Dude’s rug… and they really tied the tour together, did they not? Each show was so entirely different than its predecessor or successor, and Phish was on fire each and every night! It is, to this day, Phish’s most diverse-sounding tour. And that’s where this Winter 2003:Summer 2021 comparison comes in.
WIth the pandemic forcing us to restrain and reflect upon our lives and daily choices, creative outlets and artistic choices became much more imperative, and far less optional. To me, Summer 2021 Phish showed that a similar creative dynamism was percolating through the band. Even as early as Arkansas we had an astoundingly clean, yet astoundingly dirty segue-segment of “DWD” -> “Simple” -> “Fuego” -> “Plasma;’ stuff like that never happened in tour openers!
The next night we had that monster “Carini” of which you spoke, followed by a monster “Chalk Dust,” and then that filthy, sexy, sweaty “Tweezer!” And I am not going to dig into the smaller jams that buttressed these show-stopping behemoths, because my already out-of-style clothes are now coming back into style because this essay is going on so long. My high school English teacher, Mr. Soltis, is throwing dry erase markers at me, I can feel it.
To distill it down: take some of my (and maybe yours) top jams of the tour: 8.1 “Tweezer,” 8.11 “Ruby Waves,” 8.6 “Blaze On” and “Simple,” 8.27 “Chalk Dust,” 8.29 “Mr. Completely,” 9.1 “Tweezer,” 9.3 “Carini,” 9.4 “Everything’s Right” - none of these jams sound close to another. And, I am leaving a whole heck of a lot of A+ material off the list right now, just for clarity. The variety and spontaneity and freshness and coolness and *scariness* - it’s all there, and it’s all delivered with focused precision and gusto. But, let’s say, “Hey Funky, sure those jams are great, but I’m more of a whole-show kinda person.” Let’s use the three most recent runs, just for convenience and efficiency.
Gorge. 8.27 Set 2 was the single most serene, calming, meditative sets of Phish I have seen live, in my 87 shows. It was surreal; a dream; a psychedelic blanket of ponderous introspection and beautiful reflection. It moved me, emotionally and intellectually, in a way that few Phish shows ever have. And then, the very next set, 8.28 Set 1 was a maelstrom of fire and fury; channeling the seismic activity that shaped the rugged Pacific Northwest landscape. 8.29 featured a fun, pop-y, entirely loose yet entirely cohesive show anchored by a magnificent “Mr Completely” -> “Meat” (brought to you by the letter M) and a snappy “Crosseyed”- > “I Saw it Again.” Three nights, three entirely different and successful shows. Sound familiar? Winter 2003.
Shoreline. What a recovery from the hellish situation in South Lake Tahoe. Phish performed, perhaps, the strongest two-night run since SPAC 2004 (yeah, 2004, you read that right, check it out). True and sure enough the weirdness of “Soul Planet” and the swaggering space-funk of “Tweezer” get all the credit, “...perhaps UNdeservingly so,” says “Stash,” but have you listened to how strong and coherent and different these two shows are? The combination of old school and new school songs homogenized together to form shows which are, indeed, must-listen? Incredible stuff here - stuff that sounds *nothing* like what the Gorge delivered. Sound familiar? Winter 2003.
Dick’s. An all-time version of “Carini” on 9.3 registered on Richter Scales in Wyoming. Yet, this standalone, earth-shaking jam highlights another introspective night of Phish, like Gorge 1, and even further still, a night which blended together that old/new vibe from Shoreline. But even then, it *sounded* nothing like either. 9.4 had one of, if not *the,* first set of summer. “Everything’s Right” carried a rather tepid set 2 on its shoulders (rather, in its spaceship), but, when you have a Mulder/Scully seducing jam like that “ER” and a barnstorming Set 1, who needs anything else?? (it also doesn’t hurt to get a Trey-led “YEM” to close the night). And then we get to 9.5. A show which gave me the entirely opposite experience of 8.27. 9.5’s second set was the most menacing, terrorizing, mind-gripping sets I have experienced. The only thing that comes close is 8.5.11’s “Rock and Roll,” but that was just one song; 9.5 Set 2 was an entire set of monstrous music. I was scared, legitimately scared, during parts of it. ::Audience murmurs, “takefewerdrugsfunky.":: Well, I mean, I did! And you’re not my real mom! Ahem. I was not not wanting it to end, buuuut I was definitely checking my watch on how far into the set we were, hopefully inching closer to a set-closing, life-saving “Hood,” which we (I) thankfully got to pull ourselves (myself) out of that dazzling nightmare of a set. Three shows, three exceptionally different auditory experiences. Sound familiar? Winter 2003.
But the coolest thing is, we can apply this same comparison to any and all shows and runs across summer 2021. The variety, the depth, the looseness, the tightness - whatever your style of Phish is, is delivered in apex quality. If you’re a show person, good luck picking a favorite. I won’t even begin to list the top contenders. In fact, it would be easier to list the shows that don’t have a reasonable argument to be somewhere in the Summer’s top-5: 8.27 (just because Set 1 never quite clicked), 8.14, 8.10, 8.8, 8.3, and 7.28.
If you want to see new jams emerge from new places, check out what the band did with “Bathtub Gin,” “Stash,” “Piper,” “46 Days,” and “Mr Completely” this tour… just to name a very short few. If you’re a jam-segment person, check out 9.5 Set 2 or 8.29 Set 2 or 8.11 Set 2 or 8.8 Set 2 or 8.4 Set 2 or 8.3 set 2… and then tell me how these segments came from the same band, within the same 30-day period. Plus, for what it’s worth, this is about 1/2 of the exceptional “jam segment sets” that exist in Summer 2021. It was THAT CONSISTENT. Incredible!!
This got me all fired up, n00b. There is so much to explore, so much to discover, and so much to get excited about from Summer 2021, and Fall is just around the corner. So much newness, passion, originality, fun, depth… my dictionary and thesaurus just caught fire, simultaneously. And my keyboard is sweating to put those fires out. So, you know what, with our Bait question - we like what we like, especially within the world of art. It’s pretty tough to *tell* someone what’s good and what isn’t, but, man, I’d be hard-pressed and guilt-ridden to *not* recommend Summer 2021 as one of the very best, most differentiated, most dynamic, and really, one of the coolest fucking tours of Phish music of the last 20 years. It may have not have the peaks of Summer 2015; it may not have the swagger of Fall 2013; it may not have the exhilaration of Summer 2017, but it has anything and everything, part and parcel, from each of those tours, meticulously and deftly sifted together to create an artform that keeps us coming back for more: expecting nothing, and getting everything. Pretty cool to be us, eh n00b? At least that’s what my mom tells me.
n00b: Wait, can I go back and change my answer? Nah, I’m only kidding, but that is one hell of an argument you laid out there. I really do think that you got it right in just how different so much of the tour sounds from each other, and the different moods you can get between the furious bitches’ brew of 8/4’s bananas second set and the grinning joyful fun of 8/11 in Hershey and the laid-back starry-eyed vibes of 8/27 at the Gorge and the once-in-a-lifetime improvisational feast of 8/6 at Deer Creek and even the uneven but still quite fun Atlantic City shows (that 8/15 “YEM” is cooking with gas). And that is something else that separates the great tours from the pack - a variety of different moods that ensures that each show is like a fine wine that you bring off the shelf for its own special occasion, the Deer Creek seguefest you pair with fish or the Dick’s throwdown that goes great with New York strip steaks. Shoot, the Baker’s Dozen made that concept literal with the donut-flavored shows, and those shows have their own distinct moods too (ESPECIALLY 8/4, but that’s for another day).
So why am I sticking with Summer 2015 as the one tour to rule them all from 2003 onwards? Well, the short answer is “Magnaball”, but nobody reads us for short answers, so let me go on. The longer answer is that Summer 2015, in a sense, is the reason a Summer 2021 can exist at all, as it’s the first tour of the modern era that truly speaks to a band as confident and full of brio as the band that crisscrossed the country back in the 1990s. You had Trey in absolute peak form thanks to his Fare Thee Well woodshedding, a band invigorated after the tightrope-walking act of Halloween 2014 (say what you want about the songs, and many of you have, but you can’t deny the band wasn’t fired up to pull off that particular Brinks job), and a festival at the end of the tour beckoning the band and practically forcing them to make sure they brought their A-game. And even if the first sets were perhaps not as strong as this Summer’s were, the second sets were by and large as good if not better, full of dazzling long-form improvisation (the 7/31 “Kill Devil Falls” and 8/1 “Tweezer” were played on consecutive nights!), stunning returns (the fabled “Mike’s Song” second jam), outsized weirdness (7/31’s rotation jam in “Martian Monster”, the 94-meets-98 goulash that is 8/15’s “Tweezer”/“NO2” sandwich), and a host of second sets that stand the test of time in how organically well they were knitted together. And all of this momentum crests in what remains the era’s true high-water mark, three shows and seven sets (eight if you count the totemic “Drive-In Jam”) of high quality and outstanding playing through and through. Summer 2021, for its many good points, can’t match that. But how many tours can?
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how I feel about these tours - there are certainly no losers either way, and we’re talking degrees of greatness when you climb this high up the mountaintop. But I still think that the peak of that mountaintop remains occupied by Summer 2015. Then again, I’ve got that “Simple” from 8/6/21 playing in the background for the thousandth time, maybe I should run through that comparison again…
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