Phish tends to open runs in Chicago with statements. Last summer it was the barn-burner “Down With Disease” at Toyota Park to begin the tour, at a time when everyone complained that first shows of tours were always rusty and dull. Fun fact: the band took three days just prior to that show to rehearse in a dingy shed known as the UIC Pavilion. This year, Chicago ended the tour, but once again fans knew from the opening jaunt of “Back On The Train” on the first of three nights back at UIC that Phish meant business.
The place was a sweatbox from note one. Floors and walls oozed moisture as the incredibly lax security must have allowed in a few hundred ticketless kids. Stifling humidity and a blanket of smoke combined to make deep breaths an effort, and the water situation in the venue bordered on unsafe; dehydration functioned as a contact high once vendors ran out of H2O at the beginning of the second set. And there was Trey, onstage in plaid long sleeves, making sure anyone who suffered through these beastly conditions was going to get a night to remember.
If anyone had doubts about the band’s intentions, “Wolfman’s Brother” erased them. Trey’s creativity, his unwillingness to travel down well-worn improvisational paths, had been percolating all set, and here he finally let loose, all while basically following Mike’s lead. The key to spontaneous, naturalistic group improv isn’t magic, it’s communication, just like a marriage, and the boys were finishing each other’s sentences for ten odd minutes.
That’s not to say that the intangible connection between band and fan doesn’t account for the elevation of certain Phish shows to legendary status. Responding to a fan-made sign, the band played one of its most simplistic pop ballads, “Anything But Me”, but if you consider its lyrics as a plea from Trey to his fans, you might get a bit of perspective on how much that connection means to the band. Maybe it was mainly the crew I was with, but there wasn’t a lot of chit-chat in the crowd; Trey pretty much had our full attention.
I’ll quickly mention the sublime “Reba”; in 2011, Phish has remembered how to play this song at near-full potential, and it’s a wonderful development. And “Alumni Blues” with a surprisingly tight “Letter To Jimmy Page” in the middle was also a rare treat. But it’s the second set that makes this Phish’s best show of the year (so far). The second set is also maddening for the fact that it’s the only one of its kind in this era. It’s the old free-will-versus-fate conundrum that can never be solved, but fans will keep asking: if they can do this, why don’t they do it every night?
Let’s not even consider the thematic nature of the song titles themselves in this perfect set of Phish: to a fan, the second set basically reads like this: jam>jam>Dirt>jam>jam>jam>Fire. At every opportunity to create something unique and beautiful, Phish went for it. Fans like to talk about segues between songs that come together so smoothly, you don’t even realize they’re happening; they’re talking about “Waves”>”Undermind”, and the final section of the “Undermind” jam, with Page on Theremin, could be its own new Siket-Disc-esque song. The set was one long, intense conversation that covered the broadest possible spectrum of topic and emotion, the kind that turns friends into soulmates. The strange part was how normal and effortless it seemed at the time--we were transported to a place where nights like this happened more often, even though nights this good never happened very often. Walking out in a daze, we couldn’t remember when, but surely this had happened before. Like most momentous events, it takes time to sink in.
So much about this show reminded me of Alpine Valley ’99, which I can pinpoint as the night I got Phish; a microcosm of the year’s tours, that show was often sloppy but the spirit of adventure and risk was never stronger. It had been the last time I’d seen “Alumni Blues” and “Camel Walk”, for one thing, and they played a four-song encore that night that sort of blew everyone’s mind. On Monday at UIC, the five-song encore lasted over a half hour, ending with a performance of "Harry Hood" that went to eleven. And even though the show wasn’t actually much longer than others on the tour, it still felt like a band that had just given us an all-timer of a set, determined to give us even more. Phish 3.0, reinvented, redefined.