Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion is surrounded by trees. The stage itself has exposed wood, helping the venue to visually blend in with its’ surroundings, if not aurally. Symphony Woods are those verdant surroundings. The 40-acres of preserved land in the heart of the Columbia, Maryland was named for the American Post Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. Originally intended to be a summer home for the National Symphony Orchestra, Merriweather Post Pavilion has hosted everyone from Janis Joplin to Jimmy Buffett.
I haven’t been to Merriweather in ten years; the last time having also been for a Phish show, not surprisingly. As I returned to the venue in the woods, I was struck at how much security and police presence had been engaged for this two night stand. And I’d been warned not to expect much in the way of a Shakedown Street, at this venue, either. Fans I chatted with cited Howard County Police as having a ‘reputation’ for shutting down any attempt at vending. I would soon learn, during a chat with security inside the venue, that Phish was the only band for which Merriweather Post ever engaged such additional personnel. Given the extreme heat, and the lethargy it produced in many of us, the extra security was hardly necessary.
According to The Baltimore Sun, Howard County Police made a total of 21 drug- and alcohol-related arrests at two Phish concerts this past weekend at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, seizing three vehicles containing drugs and more than $10,000 in cash. Despite those numbers, officials referred to the arrests as relatively ‘typical,’ and ‘about the same as last year,’ officials said.
Temperatures were in the high 90s,. Humidity levels were at competitive levels. The significant delays due to detailed searches of persons and bags, and wallets, made ingress into the venue particularly long, slow, and hot. Once inside, the temperatures didn’t relent, especially for those under the pavilion shed. Water, at $4.00 a bottle, quickly became the beverage of choice, for many.
The extreme heat would seem to have affected the band on this night, at least for the first set. ‘Inconsistent,’ would be the adjective I heard most often. Opening with Crowd Control and Kill Devil Falls, the band replicated exactly the opening songs of their 2009 visit to the same venue. Perhaps the choice of Crowd Control was an indirect reference to the level of security at the venue? Probably not. But the metaphor was not lost on those in the audience.
Saturday night had plenty of highlights. But uneven playing, and some energy-sapping set list choices kept momentum from building, at times.
On the positive end, an interesting first time performance of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea,” as well as energetic versions of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Rock and Roll,’ and an encore of Led Zeppelin’s Good Times Bad Times, (ironically, also played at the 2009 show,) served as the evening’s covers. The second set provided the musical heat of the evening, with a bevy of Phish anthems, notably Free, yet another Tweezer for the tour, and in this case it’s accompanying ‘Reprise’ shortly after. ‘Slave to the Traffic Light’ was for most, a set highlight.
Sunday’s show brought the same oppressive heat and humidity, and an estimated 4000 less fans. On this night, I planned to spend the evening with my husband, and the rest of the tapers in attendance. Lining up early has long been the custom for Phish taper sections. Phish taper tickets have long meant, unofficially of course -- access to the section only, and no guarantee of getting the exact seat on one’s ticket. We began assembling in the heat, for the traditionally hours-long wait to earn our preferred spots for audio taping. But in the 3.0 era of Phish, taper sections are changing, and it’s often not for the better.
Fans have in recent years begun ordering taper tickets in the mail order lottery, with no intention of either taping, or assisting tapers with getting their gear into the section. In fact, these not-taping ‘tapers’ are demanding their seats and of course, venue security must enforce the rule, understandably. Unfortunately, it has sometimes meant that actively-taping fans with gear are suddenly uprooted and moved, often during the show itself. Once seated in the taper section, these not-taping ‘tapers’ shout and giggle and laugh and talk, seemingly oblivious to what’s going on around them. Tapers, who know all too well how tenuous their relationships and welcome are with venue security, are frequently at a loss for options.
Say what you will about whether taping in the audience is even necessary anymore, given LivePhish downloads. But the taper community is a vital and colorful part of the Phish scene. I shall hope for some consideration in the future about how taper tickets are sold. Could selling taper tickets separately be the answer? Maybe. I’m just not sure how much extra work ticketing agencies would be willing to do, to ensure that only those involved in taping were given access to these hard to get tickets.
There was no such issue with negative energy musically, however. And it was the music that ultimately distracted all of us from the mid-summer mid-Atlantic sauna that that Mother Nature has served the area, for well over a week, as well as the drama in the taper section.
Where does one begin, when dissecting Sunday night’s performance? How many ‘firsts?’ How many different points in this show could have stood alone as a show highlight? I still haven’t wrapped my head around it all, and I’ve listened to the show twice, now. Significant improvisation was found throughout the evening. Segues between songs were most noteworthy; and the band offered up an opening that caught many of us off guard.
Beginning the show with the first Walfredo since Vegas 2000, band mates switched instruments: Trey on Keys, Mike on lead guitar, Fishman on bass, and Page on drums. They soon segued into the first Mellow Mood in seven years. Tela, an infrequent visitor to live performance could easily have served as a show highlight, all alone. Yet, equally resplendent versions of The Divided Sky, Sample in a Jar, and Bathtub Gin ran close seconds. Despite a curiously-placed Brian and Robert, the set ended on a high note, with a raucous-version of Antelope.
Kicking off the second set with Wilson, Phish set the stage quickly for a set of musically-epic proportions. I’m starting to consider set two of Merriweather to be one of the best I’ve ever heard or seen. The band played the first Meatstick since 6/4/09 at Jones Beach, NY. It was a particularly jam-filled version, which had more musical inspiration than recent ones, and less about the actual dance. There was also the first Saw It Again since 8/3/03 Limestone, ME. The segues between Saw It Again, Piper, Ghost, and Jumpin’ Jack Flash were some of the most interesting and clever that I’ve ever head Phish play. Specifically the seque into Jumpin’ Jack Flash. I didn’t hear THAT coming..
Contact, a quick You Enjoy Myself, and Jimi Hendrix’s Fire round out this amazing set of music. Easily one of the best shows of 3.0 era, despite the multiple challenges of the day.