Phish: UIC Pavilion, 8/16/11

Mon Aug 22 2011

With the bar set impossibly high the night before, Phish came out on night two with a trio of tunes that just happened to be exactly the kind of opening I dream about.  I don’t know what it is about “Dinner And A Movie”; it has always just been the most hilariously sinister song in the repertoire, and the little part of me that still cared about the novelty of hearing Phish play short bursts of geek-satisfying awesomeness that I thought I might never hear was suddenly and permanently satisfied when I heard Trey scruff his strings with a taste of that opening chord.  Same kind of excitement, though not as ecstatic, for “Ha Ha Ha”.  And then another tune that’s finally back in the saddle this year, “Chalk Dust Torture”, screechingly intense guitar picking by yer man Trey.  Absurdly, this beginning was my favorite part of the show.

I say “absurdly” because there were far more impressive things that went on afterwards.  This second leg of summer tour had been somewhat maligned for its lack of variety, both in song selection and improvisation, but as this set rolled along, it seemed that the band was bored with the usual stuff, and not interested in playing the usual way.  Even through three of my least favorite songs ever--“Mexican Cousin”, “Walls Of The Cave” and “Ocelot”--Phish was finding ways to keep my interest.  The classic “Runaway Jim”-“Foam” combo packed a punch, and I have to grudgingly admit that even “Ocelot” seemed vibrant and not utterly formulaic.  Chicago even got a second straight out-of-the-ordinary “Limb By Limb”; last year’s version had a sweet little vocal jam ending, and this year’s was all spectacular group interplay/unconscious Trey shred.  A second-ever take on the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Loose” set the crowd a-jabberin’ to usher in setbreak.

Many fans will tell you they go to Phish shows in pursuit of the huge, exploratory jam.  Tuesday night’s “Down With Disease” was the type of experience that makes a run worthwhile for the jam-chasers, 20 minutes of pants-seat invention, as first Page and then Mike led Trey and Fish off the beaten path and into murky and ethereal tangents, and eventually Trey prompted a final climax with some funky, metallic chugging.  The Midwest has been blessed this year with a couple of all-timers from the most fruitful vehicle in the Phish 3.0 canon, and while the UIC “Disease” didn’t eclipse the version from Pine Knob in June, it’s a must-hear all the same.

Beyond this epic, we were forced to find delight in non-jammy places.  The way “Twist” oozed into existence out of the post-“Disease” ether was enticing, and the jam was an enjoyable stroll but not very dynamic.  Later, Trey inexplicably, viciously killed Phish’s most fertile new cover tune, TV On The Radio’s “Golden Age”, almost as quickly as humanly possible with sustained feedback that apparently meant “NEXT”.  “You Enjoy Myself” never really strayed from its template, but it was nevertheless a hot version with the kind of insane, disturbing vocal jam that can only develop indoors.

But then there was “Backwards Down The Number Line”, which has become a real curiosity among Phishheads: despite the fact that it was the definitive starting point of The Reunion, many fans have maligned it for being too poppy, killing set momentum or rarely sparking any grand musical statements.  Tonight’s version was not experimental by any stretch, but it was well placed and ebullient, and as for me personally, I can guarantee that when I'm old, even the shortest, simplest versions of this tune will evoke more joy and pleasant memories than any of the meandering, directionless half-hour jams of the sad, drugged-out era that preceded this one.

The lyrics of Tom Marshall are often constructed to chase each other around in your brain for years before you figure out what the hell they’re about, which, instead of being frustrating, actually sets the stage for epiphanies akin to the craziest instrumental peaks when the light goes on at a show.  Such was my experience during “Theme From The Bottom” tonight; whether I’ve got Tom’s intention right or not, my feelings for the song will never be the same, and my show experience improved immeasurably in the aftermath.

The encore wasn’t quite as long tonight as Monday, but one of its three tunes was “Slave To The Traffic Light”; you know how it’s going to end, and you even know basically how it’s going to get there, but when the band is dialed in and bursting with emotion and the crowd is giving it all back like we all were at UIC, you still get that elated burst at the climax, just like the old days.  In those moments, the air we breathe is an intangible, subconscious substance that has something to do with familiarity and the degree of unpredictability within it, and by night’s end we were all gratefully drenched in it once again.
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