Phish: Alpine Valley, 6-21-09

Sat Jun 27 2009

Ahhhhhh, Sunday, knowing you have Monday off. Ahhhhhh, not being stuck in a car for eight hours. Sleep in, cook out, shower at your leisure and get to the lot with plenty of time to spare, it just can’t be beat. We discovered that the green lot is the secret awesome lot (don’t tell anybody), complete this afternoon with free t-shirts and the guy with the “Phish” balloon hat. Coming off a show that felt like one long tease, it was starting to feel like crunch time as I enjoyed a delicious Unibroue 17. This is the last date of the leg. There have been magical moments, but half the shows of the tour have been sub-par. Make no mistake: I am the exact opposite of disappointed. I am utterly appointed. But there’s no point in pretending it was a breathtaking tour start to finish. And in keeping with the last two Alpine runs, there were so many “essentials” that seemed like they had to be crammed in somehow; how would they ever find time for jamming?

“Brother”, decidedly not one of those essentials; I hadn’t even dared to hope for this song to be busted out, forget about all four guys’ kids jumping in a tub one by one at the front of the stage! Naturally, “Wolfman’s Brother” followed, akin to “Tube”/”First Tube” at Camden, and it was a short “Wolfman’s” but it got pretty thick pretty fast and wrapped up before it could get boring. “It’s a thrill to be back here, we’re so excited”, Trey gushed as he acknowledged the guy who’d been holding the “Funky Bitch” sign all weekend; Mike was enthusiastic as hell on this one, tons of fun.

There have been times when “Divided Sky” has seemed like little more than a time-waster, times when it was agony thanks to Trey’s loss of motor control, and times when it is heroic; this was the last, a marvel of composition and passion, nailed by all involved, with a really-and-truly jam that just emitted pure joy. Speaking of which, I’d remembered “Joy” as a mellow ballad from its debut a couple weeks earlier; it had gained considerably in strength for its second performance, really more of an anthem now, the lyrics ringing out more universally. It has that Anastasio/Marshall trademark of bouncy sadness, so lacking in most of the 2.0 crop.

“Back On The Train” was a pleasant surprise. Lyrically, of course, it was propitious, but the jam actually cruised along smoothly until you suddenly realized it had gone quite a way out there, Trey rescuing it just in time from contented obscurity, a very enjoyable little journey. Then came the only real disappointment of the set, “Taste”. They’re just not feeling this one any more, haven’t for a long time; it’s stuck on autopilot, except for the end, which is never crisp. The jam here was actually the best I’ve heard in a while, Page starting with some Elton-style rock and roll, and rather than instantly meandering flatly to a mistimed crescendo as usual, they took it way down, then backed gradually into the mediocre, unnatural peak. Honestly, it is a shame sometimes that they feel they must play certain songs. Yeah, fans would clamor, but wouldn’t you rather have something to clamor for than all these uninspired clone jams that obviously are not a priority for the band? (“Harry Hood”, “Tube”, “Moma Dance”, “Reba”, “Caspian”, “Free”, “Slave”, you’re all on report as well.)

I never thought I’d be so happy to hear “Poor Heart”; I used to feel like it was so overplayed, but nothing’s overplayed now! But I did know there’d be tears for “Silent In The Morning”, just couldn’t help it. It’s just a big long “Bouncing Around The Room” but it holds such weight for me. Why does it feel so good to sing “just last year”?? Imagine how good it’ll feel next year.

The surprise of the set was “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday”>”Avenu Malkenu”. Yet unlike the ballad-heavy, disjointed Fox Theatre show last week, this was an impeccably-paced first set, positively ebullient for most of its length as good first sets are wont to be, every song looking smart next to its neighbors. This followed so naturally after “Silent”, pulled off impeccably, “Malkenu” even featuring a killer Mike solo! And it was the perfect interlude before the set-closer.

I know a lot of people persist in resisting “Time Turns Elastic”, but I’ll remember this set forever as the one where “TTE” found its moment. Yes, there are some little, awkward vocal turns in this song (that whole “Seen all, seen all” portion still bugs me), and it can be jarring at times. It borrows heavily from the past (“Fluffhead”, etc.), but when they really nail it, it becomes a grand, Yes-esque opus. It wasn’t even as precise as it could be tonight, but the jam came into its own, the infinitely rising chord illusion, à la “Taste” but segmented, making each spike subtly different and powerful. A part of me might just be seeing “TTE” for what it could be, but I still felt that it gelled perfectly at the end of the set. And a big part of it was just that Fishman dominated the song, really coming on in the end and taking the song higher than it’s ever been. Would this bode well for the second set?

I confess, deep down, I grudgingly figured on “Down With Disease” to open set two, even though I was hoping for “Dinner And A Movie”>”Tweezer”. “Crosseyed & Painless” was auspicious; just the fact that they played it was a gift. It raged for a short while, eventually sinking into its own unknown territory, but it was interesting throughout. It ended in an occasionally mesmerizing ambient jam, eventually petering out so that “Disease” could slowly materialize in its wake. And you know, with that spacey intro, “Disease” really works best segueing out of ambience, doesn’t it? It hewed pretty close to its core motif for quite a while, Trey eventually toning it down with some heavy noodling; it brightened quickly but failed to regain any momentum. It was still pretty exploratory by this tour’s standards, and in the end, it kind of revisited the spacey swath that it always starts with; even though we never got that gleeful return to the main theme, this was pretty cool.

Quite suddenly this year, I’ve become completely sold on “Bug”, and it’s all because of Fish; he has turned this song into his own personal canvas, and I suddenly got the impression that this song was about music critics, and Fish was beating us all over the head (“IT DOESN’T MATTER”), rattling off fill after fill like a martial artist. This was also the point at which it seemed that Trey and Fishman became psychically linked for the remainder of the show, feeling out changes and moving songs forward with a single mind.

This made for a thrilling “Piper”. The boys simply could not wait to let the worm loose, barely getting through the lyrics before just raging. It quickly morphed into a speed-funk jam that could’ve turned back into “Crosseyed” if it wanted to, but it never quite did. Then Trey started in on some ascending dissonant chords, plunging the jam into darkness before it briefly re-funkified and then rocketed spaceward like it always seems to do at Alpine--ever since 2000, anyway. I am wholly in favor of keeping up this tradition indefinitely.

It had to end eventually, the words we sailed upon leaving us “Wading In The Velvet Sea”, which inexplicably became a Fishman vehicle in the end almost the same way “Bug” has, but not for nearly as long; it hung onto its melancholy beauty all the same. Next, Mike got the collective rump shakin’ with a standard “Boogie On Reggae Woman”; this was fun, as long as you weren’t expecting any sort of escapade, just a little romp to prepare you for what was inevitably the end of the set, “Slave To The Traffic Light”. I was way overdue to see this one, so I have to say I was pretty ecstatic. I can’t say that it was the impossibly monumental jam that the best “Slave”s achieve. This song was retired for years, and perhaps justifiably so, because it has such a defined destination, and the boys just weren’t having the same kind of fun getting there any more. It may not have peaked relentlessly tonight, but at least they were all on the same stanza when it did peak, which made it satisfying enough for me.

Sigh. Only the encore remained. They came out and basked in the mutual waves of gratitude bouncing around the amphitheater, then nestled in for “Grind”, which only took one take, and then…I was really feeling a “First Tube”, but it wasn’t meant to be. Page emerged with the keytar, Mike with the flaming bass, and Trey with a five-necked guitar??? It was a bit of a culture shock, considering these are three guys who never need anybody to run out with a fresh instrument, ever. And they sent us all into hysterics with “Frankenstein”; not the most exacting version ever, but by then the hillside was so ablaze in energy, this thing crackled through us like conduit, bathing us in an implosion of static before slamming home the ending like a reanimated behemoth, Fishman stealing the show as he had the entire set. It was quite simply a trip to watch and a blowing off of audio-steam to end this fantastic weekend.

While Saturday’s set may have been a bit radio-friendly overall, it paled only in comparison to Friday night at Deer Creek, and when it rocked, it rocked. But this Sunday night tour-ender was right on par with the Creek. It didn’t feature quite as much intuitive creativity as Creek’s second set, but it packed enough goodies and emotion into both sets to rival anything we’ve seen this millennium. As a whole, it may have been the most perfectly-crafted and -arranged pair of Phish sets I’ve ever seen. No “Chalk Dust”, no “Bowie”, no “Wilson”, no “Reba”, no “Mike’s”! (And still no “Llama”???) None of the classics I had been resigned to expect, but that was all part of the beauty: if ever you could predict Phish, those days are over, and good riddance. Time to live, while we’re young.

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