Phish: Toyota Park, 6.11.10

Mon Jun 14 2010

Conventional wisdom dictates that the tour opener features a rusty Phish, under-rehearsed and unadventurous.  Many fans boggled at the choice of venue, a nondescript soccer stadium in a blah not-even suburb of Chicago, where Phish had played a contentious, hit-or-miss show on a Tuesday last August.  So the crowd trickled in for what was sure to be a songy hodgepodge of a first set; if 2009 was any indicator, the boys just aren’t up for much jamming until after setbreak.

All qualms were silenced after just one song.  In fact, just hearing the opening strains of “Down With Disease” was enough to restore faith.  “This has all been wonderful/But now I’m on my way” was the official kiss-off to the months between tours, and the jam that ensued was far more engrossing than any 2009 show opener (okay, except maybe “Fluffhead“ at Hampton).  Fishman asserted himself immediately, tongue out defiantly at those who (justifiably) suggested he was the weak link last year.  Page was aggressive and exuding joy; it had been the rare night last year that he showed as much energy as he did in just this opening jaunt.

Nearly every possible gripe about last year’s model was assuaged in a single stroke.  Exactly like “Fluffhead” at Hampton.

But that was just the beginning.  You can never judge a show by its setlist, but in this case, the setlist alone was a statement, pure and simple.  “Golgi Apparatus” was the lone non-jammer of the first frame, and there was nothing perfunctory here.  We’d glimpsed a clearly revitalized Trey on his February solo tour, and he picked up without a hitch tonight with his old band.  He was pure Slowhand on a remarkably focused “Wolfman’s Brother”.  They threw out “Possum” next, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and it was here that we witnessed Trey’s renewed sense of restraint.  A clear juxtaposition of roiling excitement and swaggering patience, our fearless leader was in total command.

“Reba”, though not terrible by any means, was the clunker of the set; as Page and Mike wooed each other in the early goings, it felt precipitous, and then Fish tossed a soft but potent fill to set the jam in motion, but they never built much out of it.  Ironically, I felt relieved, though; the dud was out of the way, and it was still kinda sweet.

Trey had given a well-received shout-out to the Blackhawks, who’d beaten his Flyers to the Stanley Cup, and the sweet strains of “Jesus Just Left Chicago” felt like a long time coming, the Windy City getting serenaded by name for the second consecutive show here.  Page was merciless and the endjams were pinpoint.  Everything was coming up Milhouse.

In the grand 3.0 tradition, Phish ended the set with “Golgi”…and then ended it again, with an insane “David Bowie”.  The effect is to get the crowd so electrified that we are forced to push our emotions beyond what we thought possible.  Dusk was just beginning to invade the stadium, so Chris Kuroda was getting his first real chance to show off.  We were bathed in a fury of strobe during the tightest “Bowie” in recent memory, every note placed for maximum potency, Fishman the mastermind behind every new development, taking the reins in a way he seemed to have nearly forgotten last year.  If you were somehow not bursting at the seams for this epic culmination, you probably aren’t cut out for Phish.  You just took in by far the best first set of the post-breakup era so far.

After what seemed like a refreshingly brief setbreak, the boys came at us with “Light”, frontrunner for defining Joy-period jam.  They sang in earnest, as did the crowd, and it was a thrill to think about fans’ tentative reactions to the new material a year ago; “Light” is now an open-arms anthem, and this may have been its best rendition yet.  It chilled in very familiar territory for quite a while, as they took it gradually farther and farther from itself, and you could be forgiven for fearing the usual mini-peak>descent into ambience, but then there arose a Mike creation, dark, pendulous, melodic, not altogether unlike the mellow interlude from Iron Maiden’s “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner”.  I could’ve drifted blissfully in this theme for another half hour, but all too quickly it was over.

As the wisps of sound gave way to Fish’s hi-hat, any flagging energy instantly rekindled.  Tough to put into words the profundity of kinetic connection that surged to life as “Maze” unfolded.  Trey’s initial solo was a twisting, grinding serpent, but again, a monster of self-control.  Then, Page proceeded to cut Trey’s work out for him.  I have never been in attendance for another “Maze” this ecstatic.  I’d pretty much forgotten that Page had quite this kind of fire left in him, and Trey responded with the kind of mindblowing tension and release that only he has ever mastered.

“Ghost” followed, inciting a ripple of incredulity.  They’ve worked out a slight adjustment for the almost universally-botched transition into the final chorus, seemingly solving that problem for good.  The jam was pretty standard, slow-build rock, really wanting for some nasty funk, but it crested nicely and sank into a rich denouement, a gratifying slow collapse following the return to the main theme, as if they didn’t want it to end, and Trey lovingly teased his way into “Limb By Limb”.

I’m not one to get too excited about “Limb”, and this one particularly was very meandering Dead, a dearth of excitement although lovely at times.  But in this day and age, we can (once again) never know when an instance of sublime Phishyness will ambush us.  Here was this fantastic little vocal jam ending.  Cloud nine.

Was this the proper moment for Fuckerpants?  Probably not.  I’m not a hater like some, but this was a pretty aimless wank when we needed a boost, and without that grinding coda, even this pretty decent run-through was rendered pointless.  “Silent In The Morning” was a definite pick-me-up for the obvious lyrical crux, but in truth, this exact thing was not happening at this time last year.  We were in a second-set lull, but the playing tonight was infinitely tighter than Jones Beach ‘09.  Without question, the promise of Miami improbably carried right over into Toyota Park, but with enhanced keyboards and drums.  No super epic mindblowing jams yet, but fluid bursts of creativity in abundance.

By this point, much of the crowd was soundly snozzled, so to shut up the proliferation of gabbers, Trey rolled out the cantaloupe.  A playful intro, and the jam began with such an ominous crush, the dip into subdued murk was almost painful.  Nevertheless, a persistent, relentless groove developed, with each successive gearshift hitting with dazzling force.  And then finally, Phish 3.0 took an “Antelope” to its breaking point, then pushed harder, so out of control that Fish completely missed the climax and raged on as Trey gleefully called him out on his unscheduled solo.  There have been plenty of classic “Antelope”s with bungled endings, and this was a dramatic new addition.  The wait is over: “Antelope” can be the absolute show-stopper again.

The final song of the set was the debut of “Show Of Life”, another one of Trey’s new ballad/anthems, a poignant nightcap that oozed gratitude and love for what we have here, this community of Phish and fan.  And while it’s been said over and over, it really can’t be said enough: we have our band back.  Trey and Mike rode high on the ever-rising wave of imagination and confidence they built last year, and Page and Fish put their ‘09 selves to rest.  The sheer passion for playing drenched us.  Drop your apprehension and prepare to get soaked all summer long.

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