The Scene: With Phish’s three-show tour-closing Colorado run officially in the books I thought I would take some time to reflect on what I thought turned out to be a well-played and fun weekend of music, sights and amazing late-summer weather.
Before I get to the music I’d like to comment on the concert venue, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Friday night’s Phish show was the third concert in the stadium (the first being Kenny Chesney back in 2007). Dick’s is nothing spectacular in terms of view, atmosphere or facilities. The venue is exactly what it is, an MLS soccer stadium with an enormous field that was covered with metal grating for this run of concerts. The sheer width of the concert field is a little overwhelming especially when packed with people. I must say it’s a logistical nightmare trying to move across the floor to the facilities on the main concourse. The bottlenecks of people that formed at the few staircases they had available on the floor level were absolutely ridiculous and could eventually be downright dangerous. Why the venue didn’t put portable bathrooms at the back end of the concert field still mystifies me. I will say that despite the lack of planning on the venue’s part for crowd flow the sound in venue was actually pretty damn great on the floor and even in the stands at the back of the stadium where delay towers provided extra punch.
Phish: I am sure everyone has their opinion (good or bad) about the 9/2, Friday show. Yes, it was a gimmick show that featured 26 songs that began with the letter “S.” However, this gimmick show worked for me, providing an interesting and entertaining night of music. Even though there was very little big exploratory jamming (excluding the meandering “Split Open and Melt” and space jam of the night “Seven Below”) or smooth seques (“Soul Shakedown Party -> Seven Below” was very forced) the sheer volume of rare material played made the show a perfect opening night for a three-show run. Simply put, it was a very fun night of music.
To put the Friday show into perspective think about this: Two Rolling Stones songs (“Sweet Virginia,” and “Shine a Light”) were played in the same set, The Who’s “Sparks” was played for the first time since 11/29/96, the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” was played for the fourth time-ever, the first time since 11/21/98, “Sweet Adeline” was played for first time since 08/01/99, “Silent in the Morning” was played for the fourth time-ever without it’s typical intro “The Horse,” “Soul Shakedown Party” was played for the third time since 2004 and “Suskind Hotel” was played for the second time-ever. On paper this show would make most Phish junkies drool. It is easily the biggest stat-building show of the summer. However, as crazy as the show concept was and as sporadic as the song selection might have seemed, or felt, there were definite highlights. The Mike Gordon-penned song “Suskind Hotel” was a pleasant first set surprise, providing the first inspired weekend solo from guitarist Trey Anastasio. The crowd energy in the first set seemed to really take off during the “Sneaking Sally through the Alley > Sparks > Scent of a Mule, Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” run, the later featured some smoking guitar work from Anastasio as well. By set break everyone at the show was buzzing with “S” excitement—would the “S” theme continue in the second set? If so, what songs would they play? Truth is, at that point it didn’t matter if the first set lacked flow, the “S” buzz had taken over and that carried into the night’s second set.
Perhaps by sheer luck, Friday’s second set flowed better than the first and the opener “Sand” only fueled the crowd energy. A few of my personal second set highlights include a very beautiful and often underrated “Scents and Subtle Sounds” that gradually slid into a pretty divine “Slave to the Traffic Light,” which could have easily ended the set and left the crowd roaring for an encore. The “Sanity” and “Sweet Adeline” that followed and the “Sabotage” encore continued the “S” madness and were all fun, at times hysterically funny, and totally unexpected. Was Friday night a mind-blowing show? No, it really wasn’t. But it sure was fun as hell and was absolutely entertaining to be there.
The 9/3, Saturday night show had a much different vibe and featured a pretty typical Phish 3.0 setlist, or at least very similar to a lot of the standard shows they’ve played over the past few years (minus the rocking “Llama” and “Fast Enough For You,” which I thought was horribly placed). Saturday’s show did however churn out some great performances. The first set “Funky Bitch” was pretty damn hot, as are most songs where Trey plays the blues. “Llama” was a nice treat (Dan Cajka, you finally got it!) and the set closing “Wolfman’s Brother” were all great fun. Quick note: This was the first set closing performance of “Wolfman’s Brother,” which seems pretty logical considering they’ve consistently been rockin’ the hell out of the song over the last two years.
The second set was full of great song selections, however I do think a lot of the jams and solo segments meandered—simply put, the jams seemed a little “stock” to me. I will admit that the “Down With Disease -> Tweezer” one-two punch that started the set was fantastic and the “Tweezer” jam was one of the best I’ve heard in a long while. It was an absolutely gorgeous jam—rooted with an infectious Gordon bass groove that allowed Page McConnell and Anastasio to float in an out over the top of the groove while Jon Fishman filled in the gaps—great reserved playing from Anastasio on this one. I will never have any major complaints about “2001” other than I wish they’d play it longer. The 3.0 jam vehicle “Light” was noteworthy; even if it did start off a little rocky (not sure what Gordon was doing in the intro). “Light” had a great jam section and a really creative segue into a “Down With Disease” refrain from Anastasio before venturing off into “Julius.”
When the band came out for the night’s encore Anastasio alluded to the previous night’s “S” theme announcing “We’d like to play a song that begins with the letter ‘S.’” The crowd cheered, then “Sleeping Monkey > Tweezer Reprise” capped off the evening.
Personally, the 9/4, Sunday show was my favorite night. For starters the song selection for the most part was superb, the jams had great direction and creativity, teases were everywhere and both sets included many of my favorite Phish songs. “Maze” opened the show (first “Maze” opener since 12/09/95) however the first real heat of the night came during “Bathtub Gin.” During the song’s jam segment the band quickly dropped into a funk groove that carried through the entire jam, basically setting the tone for a night of groove based jams. The following number was an unexpected surprise, the Phish debut of the Gillian Welch song, “The Way it Goes.” The song is a mid-tempo country number featuring Gordon on lead vocal and didn’t seem to do much for the crowd on-hand as most didn’t know what the song was. Perhaps the strongest aspect of Sunday’s first set was the unbelievable flow after the band got through the mid-set breather “Halfway to the Moon.” The set ending run of “Gumbo, Halley’s Comet > Tube > Timber (Jerry) > Roses Are Free > Chalk Dust Torture” was simply awesome. Great playing, great flow, great Phish.
Sunday’s second set gets my pick for set of the weekend—the band was firing on all cylinders, almost every jam had unique elements and chances were being taken by the band as a whole. The second set opener “Rock and Roll” was typically great and worked perfectly as a launching point which segued into “Come Together.” The musical segue itself was effortless and smooth, at least until the vocals came in. Sure, the band totally botched the vocals and chord changes to “Come Together,” which was the first since performance since 12/08/95, but it really didn’t matter; it seemed totally spontaneous and was great fun. “Twist” followed and the tune has actually become a 3.0 favorite of mine with its steroid funk jam. This one is especially notable and has a great series of “Low Rider” teases that flow through it and also segues nicely into a very unique “Piper.” “Piper” came out of its vocal refrain blazing before settling into a major key groove that featured a really cool “Roadrunner” tease that carried on for a few minutes. “Harry Hood” was simply wonderful and the band seemed to finally be getting their Hood-swagger back by slowly trying to include the much-missed jam peak near the end of the gorgeous segment before the vocal refrain—easily one of the more inspired versions I’ve heard in 3.0 and very refreshing to hear this song begin to finally show some life in 2011. “Roggae” was yet another highlight and this version differed greatly from the majestic Gorge version last month. Sunday’s version included a big build in the jam segment which then gave way to the quiet/loud segment which was missing from the Gorge version. “Ghost -> Guy Forget -> Ghost” (first “Guy Forget” since 10/01/00) continued the groove-based set and I was a little taken back by the “Walls of the Cave” set closer. I honestly thought they had another song or two in them. I was equally surprised by the single-song “Backwards Down the Number Line” encore but then again, I wasn’t that surprised; Phish is going to do whatever they feel like doing and I guess that’s the song that got Trey writing Phish songs again. Overall Sunday was a pretty stellar show and it provided a perfect coda to a weekend of Phish shows. Let’s hope the band makes it back to Colorado soon and doesn’t take too much time off.
Stage Presence: B+
Set/Light Show: A