Phish: Alpine Valley, 6-20-09

Posted 06/26/2009 by cal

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If the camping hassles, the torrential rains, the oppressive humidity, and the incredible performance at Deer Creek didn’t sap every last drop of energy from us, the eight hours in traffic from Noblesville to East Troy sucked us dry. Tempers were clashing as we scrambled to get showered and ready to go, finally reaching the lot a bit after “showtime”--but of course, we knew we could count on Phish not to start on time. Funny how walking onto the gigantic lawn at Alpine Valley in anticipation of a Phish show can begin to drain away the tensions and irritability of a long, hot day.



I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Punch You In The Eye”; I knew I still had a lot to learn about Phish as everyone around me yelled “HEY!” in unison and I had no idea it was coming. Of course, since that day, it has been stamped in my brain as the perfect opening song for a Phish show, and the way it washes and swirls over the hills at Alpine is the most comforting and exciting sound, the most joyous song about wanting to kill someone that I can think of. It felt so good to be here again.

“Runaway Jim” served as a sort of second opener, rolling out through the multitudes as the first potential vehicle of the night. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was a solid breaking-in jam for the night, like a promise that the real shit was on its way. Then my brain got the better of me as the band started “Stash”. It had been the third song of the night at Alpine in ’04 and it STUNK, but the version from Asheville earlier this year was one of the best jams of the tour. This one pretty much split the difference; it never sank deep enough to emerge in triumph, yet it was never sloppy or boring, so pretty good for a first set, as I’m still marveling at the reality of Phish-at-Alpine, at long last.

“Ya Mar” was fine and dandy, even though Mike totally forgot about the second verse; who cares? “Bathtub Gin” never really seemed like it was going to blast off at any point, though. I don’t think the fellas are quite ready to take this one into the cosmos, but it was still a pretty good jam, and I can’t help but love the fact that they aren’t getting lost all the time any more. Even if they have to sacrifice the great unknown for the most part (Deer Creek notwithstanding), it’s worth it that for now, they are staying in the song, returning to it in the end; I missed that.

I don’t really care for “Kill Devil Falls” as an opener, as it has been multiple times this tour, but it’s growing on me all the same. Yes, it’s a middle-aged, avuncular “Chalk Dust Torture”, but it still has the capacity to rock. This was a standard version, but throughout the crowd, there were the rare individuals who were starting to feel this song, and it was sweet to think about how in a year’s time, everybody’s going to be rocking out to it. “Train Song” followed, and then a fairly run-of-the-mill “Farmhouse”. I almost began to fear that the set was dragging.

But in all my years of Phishdom, I have never lost sight of the fact that it was “Sparkle” that woke me from the worst physical illness I can ever recall and made me feel happy again, made my dread lift, because here was this band I had just discovered that didn’t sound like any other band, here was a previously undiscovered level of giddiness and joy, and I just couldn’t stand being motionless any more. Yet I’d never seen Phish play it! With the end of the breakup, I knew it was finally going to happen. So a virtual lifelong dream came true, not just for me but also for my buddy Taybor, a veteran of many more shows than me and also a “Sparkle” virgin. A veritable WOO-HOO moment.

Now, my relationship with “Run Like An Antelope” runs just as deep, having witnessed arguably the greatest version they ever played at my very first show (Dane County Coliseum, 1995) and being scared out of my wits by the realization that I had no frame of reference for what was coming off the stage and the reaction of the fans, wondering if maybe this was what psychedelic drugs felt like? So I just had to get an “Antelope” this weekend; that it followed “Sparkle” to close the set was just one of those oddly personal miracles that happen in a Phishhead’s life from time to time. Now, who knows if the song will ever again have the type of potential it had in 1995, but tonight, a) Trey and Fish were in perfect synch; b) it wasn’t long enough for my tastes but it wasn’t WAY too short; c) it ROCKED, flub-free, familiar, thrilling just being what it is. “Been you to have any hibachi, man?” We could all collapse happily into setbreak.

I can definitely dig a “Waves” opener for set two, and it was a pleasant, meandering, just slightly murky run-through, but it gave way before long to an inexplicably-placed “Sample In A Jar”; there is no possible flow between the two songs. Still, it did prep us for a flare-up in “Maze”, one of the few consistently exciting songs of the tour. It was a real Page/Trey battle, and they made each other look good over and over again.

I can’t really get excited about “Makisupa Policeman”, but this one was worth it for a genuine laugh: “Woke up this morning/Pissin’ in jah cup/Woke up this afternoon/Called my probation officer”, that’s rich. Besides, it quickly trailed off into “Ghost”. You couldn’t call this a barnstormer by any stretch, and nobody was together for the transition after “I simply hadn’t looked”, but for some reason, I was still enthralled. The jam was repetitive, it lacked any real peak, yet it filled in some missing piece in my personal groove puzzle, and I just felt plugged into it. Not terribly long, it finally surrendered to “Lizards”, and this was fine until just prior to the peak, when Trey somehow completely lost it and didn’t even play the payoff trill; oh well.

Then came the most bizarre part of the show. Call me crazy, but I could do without “You Enjoy Myself” at this point. When was the last time this song produced an unusual jam, vocal or otherwise? The supposed ultimate live song had become very scripted and unimaginative since even before the hiatus, and it seemed no different tonight, until it suddenly turned into “NICU” out of the blue. We never got a vocal jam, but no big deal. I’m not saying it was some gorgeous segue; it was pretty disjointed and made no sense, but I can’t argue with the why-bother-with-the-jam sentiment, except it’s just not fair to all the first-timers in the crowd. And then came “Prince Caspian”, the definition of anticlimax without its exclamation point, but it did trail off into “Waste”. I’ll freely admit that this one still chokes me up. And while it’s not like this is one of those songs that has any business getting people pumped up, I could feel the energy rising in the crowd as Trey flawlessly noodled out the end of the song.

That could’ve ended it, but then came “Fire”, a perfect choice for the set closer as it’s really been only the rockers that have caught flame this evening. This one was compact but furious, Trey zipping from mode to mode as if he just realized he’d forgotten to solo all night. It was almost too short to qualify as a highlight, but it drove home a point I can’t stress enough: Trey was so out of it in all of 2004, he all but eschewed the frenzied, melodic guitar solo because he didn’t have the energy for it. This tour undeniably features a Trey reborn.

Trying to guess the encore: I just can’t do it. I thought “Good Times Bad Times” would be perfect, but what we got was “Character Zero”, a hit-or-miss tune…a HIT tonight. If at any point prior in the show, we’d thought that Trey came alive, we suddenly realized we were wrong; THIS is Trey, alive! Once the slow, thoughtful wah-wah began, we witnessed more wickedness than we’d seen all night. Through a perfectly-paced jam right on to the very end of the song, Trey could not stop killing it. I don’t know why they didn’t just play another set after that, because that electricity felt like it could carry over into at least three more songs. But we were left in awe, that one necessary show-stopper nestled firmly in our long-term memories, just aching for tomorrow night.

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