As Phish's summer tour approaches and they play their first shows of 2010, there's been enough time to soak in all the music they made during their triumphant return to the stage in 2009 after a four-and-half-year breakup.
It's great to have them back making music again. It'll be interesting to see what they do in 2010 in terms of reinventing their sound, the direction they take with new songs, and if they take even more improvisational risks. If you look at the history of the band and have followed along, that's the expectation.
They didn't break too much new ground sonically in 2009, as it was more of a year to return to form. What made it great? There was so much reinvigoration and passion on the stage. As you can imagine, there were plenty of inspiring moments and jams that lifted off into the stratosphere. Right from the start at Hampton there were wonderful moments hearing these four musicians improvising together again. And by the end of the year, they were on fire in Miami for the New Year's run.
Here's my pick for the ten best Phish's jams of 2009. These are audience recordings. If you're looking for higher quality recordings, they are available at Live Phish or from any of your nice friends who at one time visited Live Phish.
"Back On the Train" - American Airlines Arena, Miami, FL 12/30/09
Phish in a nutshell: nobody would have predicted that "Back on the Train" would be the jam of the 2009 New Year's run in Miami. This was improvisational magic where they took flight from an unsuspecting spot and lit the place up.

"Stash" - Fenway Park, Boston, MA 5/31/09
Probably the most consistent jams since they've been back have come from "Stash." They play like they're always reaching for something new. This is the type of improvisation where they fearlessly embrace the darkness, digging deep to release all the inner turmoil that everyone in the room is dealing with. This one from Fenway is a gem. Sometimes you forget that Phish can also play as abstract as some of the most forward-thinking, avant-garde jazz musicians -- from the careful stretching of parameters of form, to its complete obliteration.

"Seven Below" - Times Union Center, Albany, NY 11/28/09
Second set opener -- 24 minutes of bliss. Let's be thankful (it was Thanksgiving time) they didn't go into "Shine" about 13 minutes into it…

"Bathtub Gin" -- The Gorge, George, WA 8/7/09
Beautiful venue, beautiful Gin.

"Backwards Down the Number Line" - SPAC, Saratoga, NY 8/16/09
They just opened up and went for it to start the second set. Maybe it's just me or maybe there's something in the air at SPAC -- remember that "Down With Disease" second set opener from SPAC '95?

"Ghost" - Asheville Civic Center, Asheville, NC 6/9/09
They nailed this one in Asheville. It kept getting better and better and better…

"Sneakin' Sally Thru the Alley" - The Gorge, George, WA 8/7/09
A cover tune that Phish doesn't play too frequently, but this rendition makes you think they should -- it has it all: a nice vocal breakdown, a schizo, edgy funk jam, and then they settle into a spacious, ambient jam that sounds perfect to fade off into their next move in the set.

"Kill Devil Falls" - Bonnaroo, Manchester, TN 6/12/09
This was the jam of Friday's late night set at Bonnaroo. It went from ripping. To oozing. To dripping.

"Ghost" - Times Union Center, Albany, NY 11/28/09
They went into this from "Seven Below" (see above) and it was sloppy and all over the place, but, man, did they find some spots.

"Crosseyed and Painless" - Alpine Valley, East Troy, WI 6/21/09
This one smokes.