Now ten years into 3.0, it’s quite clear from this vantage point that there’s no less inspired, less significant, less noteworthy tour, in the entirety of the era, than Summer 2016. Coming off a remarkable Summer 2015 Tour, a strong showing over New Year’s Eve, and an inspired debut performance in Mexico, there was little reason to wonder if Phish would lose the momentum of 2015. Not only did they lose it, but by the end of July 2016 many wondered if we were witnessing the natural conclusion of Phish 3.0. Jams were non-existent at times, and when they popped up, they were often uninspired. Trey spent much of the summer hiding behind the Marimba Lumina, reminding many of December 1999, when he plucked at a keyboard in the midst of deep jams. Only here, the second instrument offered distraction in place of subtlety. The majority of shows suffered from a lack of flow and conscientious setlisting, and, while there were certainly outliers - July 8, 9, and 10, which wrapped up the east coast leg, July 15 at The Gorge, and July 18 & 19 at Bill Graham - the tour was littered with questions.
Closing the tour out with a one-off show in Chula Vista seemed an odd choice, only reflecting the confounding tour, but proved to be an inspired moment of directional change. Looking back, however, the show represented a turning point for the band, as over the next 18 months their creative output leapt forward dramatically, and they rarely had an off night. The following month at the Lockn festival offered another opportunity for the band to connect and they turned in one of the finer shows of the year during their first headlining performance. Over Labor Day, they played their best weekend at Dick’s since 2012. Littered with standout jams, unique show structures, and a show on September 4 that felt like a statement on the goals the band had going forward. Classic songs fused with an incredible second set, one that flowed effortlessly and even incorporated the Marimba Lumina in a fitting and impactful way. As the focus in the fanbase turned towards Fall, MSG, Mexico II, and the rumored MSG residency one year later, the only lingering question was how the release of their new album, Big Boat would fit with their renewed momentum.
Phish is a non-traditional major rock band in the sense that their album releases don’t dictate their touring schedule nor their touring approach. This is a good thing seeing as Big Boat, while featuring moments of creative breakthroughs for each member from a song-writing standpoint, can best be described as inessential. The Fall 2016 Tour, while focusing heavily at times on the new songs off Big Boat, was in more ways a veteran rock star tour of new & lesser-visited markets, showcasing literally everything Phish does great in 3.0, and setting the table for their most ambitious adventure in seventeen years.
The first weekend in Charleston and Jacksonville allowed the band the opportunity to debut their finest multi-part composed piece since Guyute, Petrichor, along with the rest of their fourteenth studio effort. In both the Mercury from October 15 and the Piper from October 16, the band broke through with a jam on the best song they’ve written in 3.0 - one that was shockingly left off of Big Boat - while adding another fantastic Piper to the year. Moving north to Nashville, the band brought out Bob Weir for night one, crafting a second set that seemed to fuse the ideas and sounds of The Dead and Phish better than any evening outside of April 1999. The Twist found midway through Set II felt lifted from 1974, and showcased a blurring of the sounds of the two American jam icons in a way that couldn’t have occurred prior to Fare Thee Well. The next night offered a complete show where Set I showcased thoughtful setlisting choices mixed with newer songs, while Set II flowed with precision, and featured high quality takes on Tweezer and Harry Hood.
Back-to-back nights in Atlanta raised the bar on the tour. Both nights felt complementary of each other as the band focused on energy, their most revered songs, and inventive jams in Down With Disease and Simple. Their second-ever visit to the Verizon Theater in Grand Prairie, Texas displayed the highs and lows of the era. Night one was reminiscent of the second show from Nashville, fusing energy and inspired song selections with quality jams in the second set. Most notably, perhaps the freshest song Phish had unveiled in twenty years, I Always Wanted It This Way, jammed with creativity, showcasing the potential of the new Page track. The second night has become an adverb in the community, describing a specific kind of off-night for the band.
Much like 2018, the tour peaked & will be forever remembered for the outstanding four-night run in Las Vegas. With three nights leading up to Halloween, the band used the shows to capitalize on their successes over the previous two months. Some three years later, this run still feels equally like a peak moment and an important transition towards The Baker’s Dozen, Fall 18, and the songwriting output of 2018/19. Each first set was packed with energetic song selections, fluid transitions, and slight jamming, all of which are a tell-tale sign of Phish on a creative peak. The jamming in Golden Age, Piper, Down With Disease, Birds Of A Feather, and Sand were packed with fresh ideas and meaningful attempts to push the band outside of their comfort zones. Listening now, there’s little doubt the seeds were planted during this run for the improvisational accomplishments we’d hear just nine months later.
Closing the tour with a nod to the recent passing of David Bowie, the band covered Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars. Akin to their performance with Bob Weir, this was a symbolic gesture to one of their heroes, and a statement on the level the band had reached at this point. Still guided by their mentors, they were emulating them here; taking the lessons from the past, and sprinkling through their own on-going evolution. An important touchstone as they moved towards 2017s peak, Fall 2016 will always be remembered as a tour that reassured a fanbase and transitioned the band towards one of the most special years in their history.