Interesting!

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The following post originally appeared on the Phish.net Blog:

I admit it: I’m a setlist snob.

I started formulating this realization on the field in Indio, when ZZYZX turned to me and said, without the condescension implied, “I remember when I was chasing bust-outs.” And my response was succinctly “If we’re going to hear a 10 minute jam, I suppose I’d rather have the jam be off of a song I haven’t heard before rather than one I’ve seen a dozen times.”

But as true as that is, it’s not the real story. The real story is that I am chasing bust-outs. Not just bust-outs, but “interesting-ness”. And “interesting-ness” changes with the seasons. I’m actually chasing anything at a show that makes me think “Interesting!

I’ve posted about setlist construction before – to me, as a bit of a Phish geek – it’s fascinating. Those seconds when the band takes the stage, before the first notes of any song, are magical and hopeful – anything can happen. Will it be AC/DC Bag? Will it be Punch? Will it be a song I like? A rarity? A random cover? Will it be something that will make the show immediately legendary, like Harpua? Or an entire cover album?! It’s maddening!

And so it goes, between every song of every show… I wait with bated breath for what might be.

I thought Black-Eyed Katy was awesome in 1997 — one of the highlights of 11/22/97, I’d say. When Moma showed up in summer 1998, it was a funkified sensation. But now Moma makes me cringe – standard fare on a standard night, been there, done that. It takes a lot to make Moma catch my ear these days. Guyute was a patient fan’s reward not too long ago. But these days, I hear groans when Phish launches into a fairly standard execution of this complex composition, which is no small musical feat. Some used to call Roggae a “set-killer,” but here we are in 2010, and 2009 made it into a cherished treasure.

That’s the thing with setlist mechanics: they change every year, if not every tour. As certain songs get played over and over (Kill Devil Falls, anyone?), they lose interesting-ness and uniqueness. When songs disappear and re-appear, they gain it. I’m not sure I think Spock’s Brain is even a very good song, but it’s certainly a rare treat, and that makes me wish I’d get a chance to see it played.

This is how it unfolds, without fail, as I review each show’s setlist. A show that opens with Vultures? Interesting! A show that features a bust-out? Interesting! A new and random cover that could be a one-timer? Interesting! A novelty show, such as the M show, GameHoist, or even the recent Saw It Again adventure? Interesting! The appearance of a song like Dogs Stole Things in a 2010 setlist is interesting, but in 1997, not as much.

A song like Stash is one where I’ve simply fallen out of love, and yet, my most recent shows, Stash has lead to an incredible jam. Ditto Down with Disease, Bathtub Gin, and Wolfman’s Brother. Seeing these doesn’t inspire an Interesting!, but it might be. Hearing a song like Harry Hood or Fluffhead live is almost always satisfying to me. But when I see it in a setlist from a show I’m not attending (or couch touring), it doesn’t make me think “Interesting!” Ditto for Bowie, YEM, and Reba.

On the other side of that coin, songs like Brother, Camel Walk, and Destiny Unbound are rare and interesting enough that, even when executed in standard fashion, they are eye-catching.

Funny thing, if I made a mix of my favorite Phish live song performances for a fellow Phish fan, it likely wouldn’t include many of the “interesting!” setlist choices, but rather, the best jams. And what songs are they? Ghost, YEM, Piper, Split Open and Melt. Not quite “Interesting!“, is it?

As you can see, judging a show from its setlist is almost always a bad idea. It’s much smarter to use the advice of those in the know, or employ something like the Phish.net show rating results to find shows to hunt down. But that doesn’t mean that some of us don’t go against better judgement, and look for those shows with setlists that make us think “Interesting!