Phish: Cleveland: 6.12.10
Article By Andy Zimmer
Photos By Greg Molitor
Driving through the night from Chicago to Cleveland, with a car full of borderline insane individuals, I felt at times like I was in a scene out of “A Clockwork Orange”. The car catapulted itself down the highway, almost independent of my control. And the crazed conversations of my travel companions lent an air of dystopian humor to our progress. Drives like this are a test of one’s will and patience; and should not even be attempted by the inexperienced or elderly. Without the proper planning and preparation they can turn pretty ugly really quickly. Fortunately, for me and my passengers, this was not my first rodeo... destination Cleveland.
The drive left me with plenty of time to get into my own head... analyzing, and then over-analyzing, the show from the previous night, wildly speculating what may go down at the next show, and trying to find perspective on a tour that was only one show old. You would think that, after years of doing the same exact thing, I would have worked through all the possible scenarios. But such is the nature of my addiction to Phish shows.
We arrived at Blossom Music Center in the middle of the afternoon. No hassles getting in, no long traffic jams, ample parking, and SHADE... so far, so good. We settled-in for the afternoon, took a quick survey of “the scene”, and then spent some quality time in the shade with a beer. As show time approached, we made our way to the main gates. Now, this was my first show at Blossom, so I could be “off” on a few of my observations; but getting in and out of the venue was a clusterfuck. From what I could tell, there was only one gate to get in an out. In addition, all foot traffic was funneled over a bridge, causing a major pinch point. These obstacles created a major traffic jam of fans that was in no way efficiently dealt with. However, the mob scene did allow me to get a glimpse of one my favorite “tour standards”... NAKED GUY! Every Phish tour I have ever embarked upon, I have had a run-in with Naked Guy. At this point, I really look at it like a good omen... the presence of Naked Guy means that all is right in the universe. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I almost ran over Naked Guy as I was pushing my way into the venue. One minute, I’m wheeling along trying not to take out the person in front of me, and the next moment I’m staring at a fully-naked hippie lying spread eagle in the middle of traffic. Perhaps, not the best place to lie down, but who am I to start questioning Naked Guy!?
Once inside, the venue itself was beautiful. I’ve been to lots of amphitheaters and, except for a rare few, they all start to look the same. Blossom was, in many ways, fairly typical. However, the top of the lawn was ringed in forest-sized trees, giving it a fairly secluded feel. After taking a lap, we found our prime viewing location, Gordon-side under the pavilion, and settled in.
The band took the stage to an enthusiastic welcome from the crowd and immediately settled in to do what they do best. The show opened with a cover of the Band’s “Look Out, Cleveland”. As a fan of the Band, I was familiar with the song, but I never expected to hear Phish’s take. I know that Phish had covered a Band tune or two in the distant past, but this opener caught me completely off-guard. Perhaps they were jamming some of the Band on the tour bus. Maybe it was just supposed to be a shout-out to the city of Cleveland... along the lines of the “Jesus Left Chicago” from the previous night. The world may never know. Regardless, the hometown crowd seemed to enjoy the choice and the band did it justice. The version was short, and followed the original version more closely than most Phish covers, but was a great way to start the show.
The band dropped into “Ocelot” for its next offering. A newer song, off of 2009’s Joy, “Ocelot” is not necessarily one of my favorites off the album. As a long time fan, I've grown accustom to many of Phish’s silly lyrics and fantastical stories. Yes, I do think that there is a deeper meaning to many of their lyrics than they get credit for. But some are just nonsense. “Ocelot” is a good example of this and, as a result, I’ve had a hard time getting into the song. That being said, the band played a good, not great, version of the song. The jam at the end showed signs of the tension and release jamming that I felt was missing from the Chicago show; which gave me hope for good things to come.
The opening flutter of Paige’s piano immediately gave away the next song. “Water in the Sky” is a simple, serene little number. Although it is never a number that I look forward to hearing, I don’t mind it. Usually played short and sweet, Phish typically inserts this song between two longer, and jammier, tunes. This was no exception, as “Water” was over quickly and the guitar-intro to “Stash” got the crowd back on their feet. A consistent crowd pleaser, Phish always gives themselves room to explore within the constructs of the song. Jams can range from the ambient-ethereal to the downright dirty. This version of “Stash” was not as heavily improvised as some, but was well played. The jam started out fairly down tempo and ambient. However, unlike the previous night where these style jams never really came together, the band was synched-up and moved through the space as a single unit. Although they transitioned the jam back into the main body of the song just as it was really getting interesting (a little too early, in my opinion), I liked what I heard.
Continuing with their trend of digging deep into their bag-o-covers, Phish treated new and old fans with a serious rarity. Yes, the Lynyrd Skynyrd penned “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” was played once last summer, but I actually had to dig into my Phish archives to find out when it was played previous to that (Summer ’93... in case you’re wondering). This was a serious delight for me to hear. Despite my well-worn tapes with versions of “Curtis Loew” from many tours past, this was one song that I had never seen Phish play live. Phish’s take on the country tinged ballad was done well. Slow and solemn, fitting the story related by the song, “Curtis Loew” will never be a balls to the wall rocker. But it doesn’t need to be.
“Sample in a Jar” brought the energy on stage, and throughout the venue, back to peak levels. I don’t know one Phish fan that, flat out, just doesn’t like “Sample”. It’s a damn catchy tune, and always turns into a giant sing-along. This version, although shorter than I was expecting, was no exception. “Sample” injected an instantaneous burst of energy and enthusiasm into the crow. It would have been fine with me if the band had just kept playing it.
After “Sample”, the band dove into “Time Turns Elastic”. This is a newer Trey composition, but has the feel, somewhat, of a much older piece. Like many early Phish tunes (“Fluffhead”,”YEM”,”Reba”), TTE sounds like it is actually written in movements with portions that are heavily composed. Unfortunately, TTE does not stand up nearly as well as the previously mentioned songs. I actually enjoy the composed instrumental sections, and there is usually a high energy jam at the end. However, the vocal arrangement and structure of the song is horrible and usually marks the “bathroom break” of the set for me. For a tune that regularly clocks in at over 15 minutes, there just isn’t enough there to hold my attention. I’ve thought that if they kept the composed instrumentals and then scrapped the vocals in favor of a mid-song jam, the song could work. But that’s not my decision.
Saving the best for last, Phish ended the set with what was, up to that point, their best playing of the night. The “Mike’s Song”>”I am Hydrogen”>”Weekapaug Groove” was just about as good as any live version that I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. The jam produced huge waves of sound. Held down on the bottom end by Gordon’s dirty bass, and driven to a manic frenzy from some eerie/brooding keyboard playing, Trey unleashed a monstrous sonic assault that kept climaxing with every note. Who says that tantric sex is the only way to have a 10 minute long orgasm!? “Mike’s” segued nicely into the ethereal “Hydrogen”. Similar to “Slipknot”, of “Help on the Way”>”Slipknot”>”Franklin’s Tower” fame for all you DeadHeads, “Hydrogen” basically just serves as a connector between the other two tunes. But it is a beautiful little number, and I always enjoy the tasteful guitar work that it comes with. “Weekapaug” started out straight funky, with Gordon laying down some porn-worthy bass lines. Some noodling guitar work from Trey melded into a guitar-organ jam, with both instruments weaving around each other’s sound. Ultimately, Trey took the reins of the jam, leading it to its peak and back into the end vocals.
Overall, a solid first set. Sure, there wasn’t the same level of technical playing that was exhibited the previous night in Chicago. But the improvised sections seemed much more together and inspired.
After the customary half-hour break, the band took the stage for the second set and immediately launched into one of my favorite covers. In my opinion, Phish plays covers better than any other band around, and their version of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” was no exception. Clearly a fan and band favorite, this was a great way to kick off set numero dos. The song was nicely drawn out, with some pure rock and roll guitar work from Trey. Eventually, the rock-forward jam slid into a stereotypically Phishy space-noodle jam. Paige was layering keyboard tones behind Treys rambling guitar. When these jams are “on”, they really work well. And, to my ears, everything was coming together. The jam slid deeper into space before a familiar rat-tat-tat of the drums announced the beginning of “Harry Hood”.
During the set break, as my friends and I were playing the “what will Phish play during the second set” game, I predicted (a.k.a. recklessly speculated) that we would hear “Free”, ”Character Zero”, ”The Squirming Coil”, and ”Harry Hood”. All of my “predictions” were really just songs that I like and wanted to hear; so I was excited that the band chose to give us a “Harry Hood”. “Harry Hood” is perhaps the most archetypal Phish song that I can think of. It contains all the hallmarks that help to define their sound……technical/composed elements, audience participation, a great platform for jamming, quirky lyrics... you get my point. During the mid-song jam, Paige was using a synth tone that would peel paint off the walls with lysergic-ease. It provided the perfect counterpoint to the intensity coming from the three other musicians. Gradually, an airy, mellow direction was diligently explored- almost drifting into space, but not quite- before the tune was built back up for its colossal, and euphoric, ending... the crowd mesmerized, taken captive by the sound, and manipulated like marionettes. I’m pretty sure that by the end of the song there wasn’t a single concertgoer that didn’t feel pretty damn good about “Hood”! “Backwards Down the Number Line” secured the third slot of the set. This is another one of Phish’s newer songs with clearly introspective lyrics. Maybe this reflects the new, more mature, direction that the band has taken. Perhaps the creative partnership between Trey and long-time collaborator Tom Marshall has taken on a more serious tone as they both find themselves squarely in their mid-40’s. With Phish, it’s really anyone’s’ guess. BDTNL is one of my favorite “new” Phish songs, and one that I have enjoyed seeing grow. This version had a long, synth-heavy improv section that was relaxed and spacious. However, instead of letting the jam dissolve as they had during the second set of the Chicago show, the band stayed together and moved through the space as a unit. BDTNL worked its way into a second new Phish song titled “Twenty Years Later”. Another reflective sounding song, I’m not so sure that this will move me in the same way as BDTNL. The chorus had a nice sing-along feel, and the jam had moments of intensity. But, overall, the song didn’t do a whole lot for me.
I always appreciate the fact that Phish is willing to put itself out there and take risks, especially with their choices of covers. Usually, the band and audience are rewarded with a great moment in music. But, like any foray into the unknown, sometimes things don’t always work out as anticipated. The next song, a cover of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” was a good example of the latter. The guys played their hearts out, Paige belted out the lyrics with an honest earnestness, yet the song never really came together. Sure, it was fun to hear, but it won’t be claiming a spot in my “dream set” any time soon. Speaking of “dream sets”, Phish followed up the lackluster cover with two songs that would absolutely make the cut. I had only seen “The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony”>”Suzy Greenburg” combo on, maybe, one or two previous occasions; so I was all smiles when I heard the first noodlings of “Oh Kee Pah”. If you have ever wanted to see ~15-20,000 people absolutely GETTING DOWN... Blossom during “Oh Kee Pah”>”Suzy G” was THE place to be! The whole venue was a full-on dance party and, although the songs were not long, the band played the hell out of them.
After sending everyone’s head to the moon, the band decided to give the crowd a breather as they transitioned into “Waste”. This mellow number has been historically used as a bathroom break song for many, but I like to stick around and enjoy it. Yea, it’s slow-ish and mellow, but it has a pretty melody and Trey always seems to sing it from the heart. This was a fairly run-of-the-mill version, and gave everybody just enough time to empty their bladders and grab a beer before Phish catapulted into the evening’s next rocker.
“Character Zero” is a balls-to-the-wall rock song, and one that I always enjoy hearing. The soaring guitar solos, playing the tension and release game like a pro, and the anthem rock-esque vocal delivery of “Character Zero” was a fitting end to an excellent set of music. The band pushed the song to peak after peak, splitting the sky with aural pleasure. After a short encore break, Phish returned to the stage with their final offering of the night, “The Squirming Coil”. This is a song that, over the years, has found a good home at either the end of second sets or the encore. For me, it’s a great way to end a Phish show and has always sent me off with a smile of contentment. The band gave the song its due diligence and ended it, as always, with Mike, Trey, and John leaving the stage; allowing Paige to close out the show with a flurry of piano.
Like clockwork, as the last notes of “The Squirming Coil” floated away on the breeze, the lightning started. I’m talking BIG, light up the whole damn sky, lightning. With every bolt that cracked through the air, the crowd let forth a massive cheer as they stumbled towards the exit. Hippies, tour rats, frat boys, girls dressed like butterflies, and every other sort of person imaginable flooded out of the venue and piled into their cars……bound for destinations unknown. Following suit, we joined the parade of fools; however, I knew EXACTLY where I was heading... home, to bed!!