Many, many years ago, having gradually come to somewhat of an understanding of the legend of Red Rocks, I said to myself that my first show here has to be either U2 or Phish. As the years went on, the likelihood of that wish coming true dwindled; Phish was banned in ‘96, then broke up in ‘04, and U2 seemed less and less likely to cram itself into such a small venue until utter irrelevance sets in. So, Phish finally got back together this year, the rumors swirled, a four-night run materialized, and somehow we managed to get ourselves tickets to the final show of the most highly-anticipated weekend in music since…well, since Hampton. As we made the hike in between the crimson boulders, the only question was whether Phish could outshine the beauty of the venue itself.
Nothing could ever take the place of Alpine Valley in my heart of hearts, but Red Rocks is beyond comparison. It’s impossible to conceive of humans creating something more incredible than what Mother Earth molded on the slopes of Morrison; we can only commandeer the landscape and imagine how best to enjoy it: how ‘bout a Phish show? Okay, let’s give the humans a little more credit: the way the seats are set up here, with all kinds of foot and elbow room for everyone, the affordable selection of craft beers and quality food, the mini-museum listing every headliner since 1906…”wow” pretty much sums it all up. Like much of my first weekend in Colorado, I wandered around the place in awe until the show started.
“Roses Are Free” hadn’t even occurred to me as the opener (go figure); it was simple, and so fun to sing along to. “Wilson” is “Wilson”, what else can I say? This one never really diverged from the appointed path but it’s pretty much always a joy. I can’t get too excited about “NICU” except that main guitar melody really is killer, but this time, it was a great example of how when the new, sober Trey fucks up, he recovers. Great Page solo, Fishman loose and creative…pretty sweet for a song I think of as a time-waster. That’s what I would normally say about “Prince Caspian”, too. But tonight, it finally clicked: I get it now. In this gorgeous amphitheater with incredible sound…the crowd in harmony according to natural vocal range…ooooooookay, now I get it. Trey painting new melodies with each brushstroke…a perfectly executed coda…oh yeah, I remember now.
“Back On The Train” continued the hot streak with a jam where everybody just kept doing interesting shit the whole time; it never did much more than meander (as usual), but it never lost momentum. Then came “Reba”, right on cue. The composed section was not as crisp as it could have been, but maybe just because it was my first post-breakup “Reba”, the heart of the song struck me as gorgeous, with a real peak and an ending that for once didn’t seem rushed by Fish. And Mike! He is incredible throughout the song (seriously, throughout most of the night). Instead of whistling, we got a mid-set “Grind”, so nailed and in these acoustics, rich and hilarious.
I had suspected we might get deluged with new stuff at this show, and the prospect didn’t bum me out one bit. Yes, it’s JAMS I’m yearning for at a Phish show, but the geek in me feels so warm and fuzzy getting to hear Page’s “Beauty Of A Broken Heart” and Mike’s “Sugar Shack” for only their second unveilings ever. A set-ending “Kill Devil Falls” was climactic, and not just because we’d been in a fairly long intensity lull. There was a brief flirtation with some really deep Trey/Mike noodle casserole, and the jam reached a very naturalistic crest, followed by a gradual cool-down before the main theme raged back into being and sped to its conclusion. For a first set, pretty damn impressive.
I was not…thrilled to hear Mike rock out the opening notes of “Boogie On Reggae Woman”; I just seem to be stalking this song lately, and it never has been a fave. It just has a lower potential for evil jamming than most songs, and tonight’s version was no exception. After a per-funk-tory few minutes (sorry), this thing steers into an interminable Trey-led ‘spread jam. This thing would be a highlight for any other band, but this is Phish. Phish can do so many things no other band can, that when they play even a great, long cookie-cutter jam, it leaves me frustrated. Just no real creativity from Trey. Some great Page/Mike interplay and a very imaginative Fishman tried to get things started a few times, but Trey’s recycled bluesy lickage nosed in rudely every time. I was happy to hear it trail off.
“You Enjoy Myself” is a song I’ve felt I could do without for a while now, but it came alive for me again tonight. Another solid rock jam, this one a bit more creative by Trey and just so old-school-“YEM” in its trajectory that it really blazed, and the vocal jam was by far the best this year (even discounting the Kuroda factor--yowza). In the darkness, a second drumkit was brought out unbeknownst to the crowd, and when the a capella refunkified, Fish and Bill Kreutzmann drove it expertly into “Undermind”; this was truly brilliant. I WISH I could say the same for the rest of the set…
A guest star, almost without exception post-hiatus, severely damages the potential for the type of music I pine for at a Phish show. Trying to synthesize Fishman’s inherent, intuitive grasp of where his boys might go, with some other dude's style, makes that good stuff almost impossible to come by. You can’t expect TWO guys to hear the clues and switch beats for a segue! And you can’t really kick a jam into high gear the way Phish does without the potential for Fishman to just go off, which he can’t do if he’s shepherding another guy. These are the excuses that I’m just doling out to Kreutzmann to explain his poor playing; you can take them or leave them, but you can’t tell me that the two drummers were lining up for any extended period of time. “Undermind” itself was decent but you could just feel its evolution being stunted. The actual drum duet was…I’ll say “pointless”, that’s being judicial. “Seven Below” was only interesting at the end, and only by accident, as there was no beat by then and everybody was just wonking together.
The only highlight that remained of the set was “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, which remained syrupy slow for its duration, the beat straightforward enough that Bill didn’t generally stand out. The pace added some depth to the funk, Mike was dizzying throughout, and Trey led everybody into a fast-swelling crescendo before the final chorus that was really unusual for the song and pretty thrilling. Then there was a confused half-return to the funk jam after the climax, which awkwardly became “Waves”. Kreutzman had played this with Mike and Trey previously in SerialPod, and I just can’t stand what he does to the song; he robs it of all its mystery with his pacing in the composed sections, and I kept hoping Fishman would coax him into calming down but it never happened. By the time Trey began “Character Zero”, the knowledge that it would be the end of the set brought on a disappointment no amount of wah-wah Trey could assuage. And I’m not a “Character” hater! It rocks, but it just wasn’t going anywhere it hadn’t already been a hundred times. I sang along anyway.
The encore almost saved the set (no more Kreutzmann). “Bittersweet Motel”, dedicated by Trey’s daughter Isabella to some guy named Matt, was a treat to hear. “Bouncing Around The Room”…I suddenly realized I had no idea when I’d last seen Phish play this song (as it turns out, ‘95!), and just loved the heck out of it. I think I predicted “Wading In The Velvet Sea” only because I know I am so bad at predicting Phish, and what they actually closed with was much more to my liking: “Slave To The Traffic Light”. And even though the ending was as predictable as could be, there was no chance anybody could screw it up as such. I guess the effect is a bit more satisfying than the more mysterious but sloppy climax, even though at the time, I must admit I felt a little let down. Sometimes it’s hard to remember all the stellar moments when you’re concentrating on the relative crap that just happened. But the show somehow grows more and more satisfying upon reflection, and nothing can ever take away the majesty of the night as a whole. My first night at Red Rocks made it impossible for it also to be my last.