Without further adieu, I give to you what I consider to be Phish’s top five improvisational performances of the past year (one happened to be in 2011). In a year that saw many songs break form and forge new sounds, these stood above the rest and will soon be looked upon as classic Phish jams, regardless of era.
#5 “Split Open and Melt->Have Mercy>Piper->Split Open and Melt” – 10/20/2010 – Utica Memorial Auditorium, Utica, NY
To the dismay of many fans, the raging monster of the nineties, “Split Open and Melt,” came back to life in 2009 as a shell of its former self. No longer reaching the insane guitar peaks of ’93 and ’94, the band took the song on ambient journeys of dissonance before arriving back in the famous “Melt” riff. While some fans enjoyed the new style, many felt that Phish could no longer pull of the balls-to-the wall insanity that encompassed virtually every melt pre hiatus.
For the first half of 2010, the jams took a similar dissonant direction. In August, Phish broke “Melt’s” traditional form by seamlessly drifting into “Dog Faced Boy.” This oddly placed fan favorite gave hope to many that Phish would later reprise into the end of “Melt,” but alas, it never happened. “SOaM” made one more traditional appearance in Broomfield, CO, before Phish finally hit a home run with it in Utica, NY.
Demonstrating their technical proficiency, the band moved through the composed portion with ease, before landing in the jam. As the jam took a surprising melodic course, no one knew what to expect. As each band member began to drift into what almost sounded like a lullaby, Trey quietly came to the mic and began singing the opening lines of “Have Mercy,” the reggae tune originally performed by The Mighty Diamonds.
After the brief reggae moment, the song bled into one of the most beautifully sublime and melodic pieces of music the band has ever created. While “Have Mercy” is normally a contained, fun cover song, Phish turned it into the breathtaking improvisational centerpiece of the evening. As the stunning jam wound down, Trey introduced the opening licks of “Piper,” the rest of the band quickly joining in.
After ripping through the composed section, Phish again took the jam into unknown territory. The jam began to take a dark turn, and before anyone could blink, they had arrived back at the conclusion of “Melt,” a feat that had escaped them two months prior.
The seamless flow of songs combined with the creative improvisational jamming cemented this segment as a true gem, regardless of era.
#4 “Simple” – 1/1/2011 – Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
As I spent a good deal of time lauding this wonderful piece of music in my full review of the show, I don’t have a lot left to say. Feeding off of the energy in the Garden, Phish took this jam to the edge of nothing, and then built a breathtakingly beautiful epic, convincing many that a pre-rehearsed song was being performed. The whole band latched on to Page’s delicate melody, swimming as one sonic unit forging a wave of sound so ethereal and grand that it truly must be heard.
#3 “Harry Hood” – 12/28/2010 – Worcester Centrum, Worcester, MA
Another song that left much to be desired in 2009, “Harry Hood” saw its true return to glory in 2010. While many early summer “Hoods” fell into the blasé, cookie cutter jam, lacking any real standout qualities, the song blossomed over the course of the year, coming to full fruition in its last appearance of the year.
Nailing the parts of the song that hung them up just over a year ago, the band moved effortlessly into the jam that has won the hearts of fans world wide. Straying from the traditional “Hood” jam, Trey and Mic began to exchange staccato licks, telepathically echoing each others musical statements. In a game of musical ping-pong, the co-leaders of the band took the crowd on a journey through the cosmos the likes of which no one had ever heard.
The staccato rhythms continued, foreshadowing the stylistic playing that would infect Trey’s playing over the next three nights. As the jam came back around to the traditional “Hood” peak, everyone in the building knew that they really could “feel good about Hood!”
#2 “Ghost” – 12/31/2010 – Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
When Phish seamlessly slid into “Ghost” out of “Down with Disease” (a feat they had yet to accomplish in their two years back) in the weekends center set, everyone knew they were in for a blast to the past. Attacking their funk-favorite like it was 1997 all over again, Phish absolutely destroyed this version of “Ghost” like the three headed monster that melted faces in the nineties.
Joining together in a swarm of sonic beauty, Trey took hold of the beautiful fondation his band had created, and sent the audience soaring to the heavens. His majestic guitar solo continued ever higher, bringing everyone in the building into a natural state of ecstasy. Few Phish jams ever reach this sacred place; this is truly a remarkable jam that stands alongside the best Phish of any era.
#1 “Light” – 8/7/2010 – The Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA
While several other jams reached higher peaks, no other jam in the past two years saw the band lock into a creative groove like they did during their last night in Berkeley. It should come as no surprise that the best jam of the year came from “Light,” their new-school jam vehicle.
As the band worked their way out of the composed section, the crowd roared loudly as the band ventured into the unknown, fueling their creative spirit. As the audience continued to push the band, Phish created the most holistically creative piece of music in years. Every member of the band offered unique musical fills, complimenting each other without ever taking over.
The band moved through several unique phases of the jam, each transition a place where the Phish from a year prior would have awkwardly started another song.
Perhaps the band was just in that special place, perhaps it was the combined energy from the bay-area fans, or perhaps it was something else entirely, but Phish was 100% locked together in a way they have not in years. As the jam came to a natural end, everyone in the arena exchanged hugs and hi-fives realizing that they had just witnessed the birth of a modern classic.