As the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It may be one of the dumbest clichés ever coined, especially in considering Phish; we go see the same band night after night, and the results are drastically different each time, which is what we expect, so are we crazy? What about the ones who drive 400 miles in the middle of the week to see one show in a dinky, generic college arena, only to drive home the next day? These otherwise seemingly sensible people would only do such a thing if they saw it as a legitimately low-risk endeavor, probably. In my case, the question to ask is this: How could Phish make a relatively dogshit assortment of tunes like the one they played at the Chaifetz Arena, featuring not a single song I’d ever put on my dream setlist, worth all that time and dough and effort? The answer is simple: by being Phish, totally unpredictable, just like we like ‘em.
As a registered, card-carrying jamchaser, I was pretty pumped about the prospects; only one “Ghost” or “Waves” so far this leg of tour, no “Simple” or “Carini” since San Fran, and especially no “Piper” (on a pretty regular rotation these days) since last Wednesday, which all boded well for my second-set prospects here. Hell, I’d be happy with the predictable “Down With Disease” being the only significant jam of the night as long as it was a good one, which in the modern era, it almost always is. This year in particular, second sets have become pretty static in terms of song selection; you can’t go more than a show or two without a “Crosseyed” or a “Golden Age” or a “Light”, and few fans are complaining, considering the strength of the improv that the boys are churning out on a regular basis. So, my very wishful but still loosely plausible (excluding the requisite selection of ballads and filler) prediction for set two went like this: Carini>Disease>Sparks (a pipe dream, but they did play it once last year)>Drowned>Piper, Slave, also presuming there was a decent chance for “Ghost” or “Simple” in there somewhere. Phish played none of these songs, even though they were all either due or overdue. Instead, Trey laughed in my face once again for thinking I had him all figured out, and played the living hell out of a bunch of songs I couldn’t care less about, all night long.
The only thing predictable about the show was the opener. My favorite memories of “Punch You In The Eye” involve it wafting over a vast open sea of people in broad daylight, 40,000 strong yelling out “HEY” at the appropriate moment; I just don’t think it’s as effective indoors. But I guess in a way, everything works when it’s dark from note one, so no complaint to be registered; the song does get the blood pumping, even though the guys were a bit sloppy out of the gates. But it was pretty clear in the ensuing “Runaway Jim” that whatever else was going on, Trey meant business; he was in magnificent mode almost instantly. I almost got the sense that he and Fish couldn’t necessarily hear each other very well, in contrast to the fact that we in the audience could hear everything really well; this was unquestionably the loudest Phish show I’ve ever attended. So the axeman charged forward in almost every instance tonight, leading virtually every section of improv in a way that hasn’t been the norm this year, for better or for worse.
Watching the previous show’s setlist roll out on Twitter, I had breathed a sigh of relief when I saw “Ocelot”; thank God they got this time-waster out of the way. Whoops. I could’ve sworn Trey realized a couple seconds after he started playing it that he JUST did this, but no going back now; luckily for us, this was the best rendition they’ve played yet. It was actually a highlight of the set, with some actual unusual interplay (largely thanks to Mike) that went beyond the usual Trey wankathon. There was a moment where I actually thought it might blast off into truly uncharted realms, which was enough for me to still think that it some day might, which is the only hope I’ve ever had for liking the song. Plus, Trey played like a man possessed; I swear when the jam was done he gawked down at the guitar like he was wondering what had just happened. I’m not sure if it was the sound of the room or an anomaly of the sound system or what, but the guitar tone sounded especially ferocious for most of the night, and Trey was taking full advantage.
“Reba”. I re-fell in love with the song in St. Louis. It was one of the first Phish tunes I ever really knew; even before I was a fan, kids would blast this tune on road trips and at parties and everybody at least knew the “Bag it, tag it” part. For most of the third era, this song has suffered from premature conclusion thanks presumably to Fishman’s impatience, but the big fella has regained some composure this year, allowing more time for “Reba” to swell, and this was a gorgeous version with Trey at his most heart-wrenching, the ending perfectly timed. Following a Henrietta appearance (or, as Fishman was introduced, “The John Coltrane of the vacuum cleaner!”), it was the year’s second appearance of “The Curtain”, but this time they left off the “With” coda in favor of “Peaches En Regalia”, which was boisterous but still a bit unstable. The always-welcome “Mound” (hey, I didn’t say I hated all these songs; just that none of them are my favorites) came next, and then “Sample In A Jar”. For years, I kept missing this song and really craving it; then, into my world it fell, over and over and over again, until it was my most-heard Phish song and I was sick to death of it--it never really varies from one performance to the next. Somehow tonight I recaptured what I always used to love about it, possibly the most radio-ready song in the canon and the one that many fans singled out as heralding the downfall of Phish when it came out, all glossy and hook-laden, on Hoist in 1994, but still with these lyrics that nobody without inside knowledge could possibly grok. Predictable, now, but still quintessential Phish.
But the rest of this set held nothing special; “Camel Walk” and “Possum” were hot and briefly threatened to get interesting, but as “Quinn The Eskimo” rolled out my waning hopes for a sizable jam à la “Stash” or “Split Open And Melt” were dashed. Oh well; at least there was decent beer available and no lines for the bathrooms. This room had absolutely no character, but just like UIC Pavilion always does, it reminded me of my first show, Dane County Coliseum ‘95, always a good feeling. Setbreak seemed pretty short, the lights went down, and to my…lack of enthusiasm, “Chalk Dust Torture” began.
I’ve always loved the song, but its chances for creative exploration are exceedingly slim in modern times, so in this particular position in the set, it doesn‘t generally excite me (sue me for sounding jaded). After a pretty standard rendition and the exuberant “Can’t I live while I’m young!!” finale, everybody but Trey started playing the final five bars. Only lighting director Chris Kuroda caught on right away; even as Fish stubbed the song out, Trey continued noodling along to the jam that had seemingly been carrying on for a while in his head; he was determined, and the rest of the band dutifully picked up the fumble and ran with it. In an instant, I went from bracing for the next song to reveling in pure, disembodied improv and mentally kicking myself for getting hung up on songs. The little jam went very quickly into default 3.0 bliss, the starting point for many of this year’s most monumental excursions, and before we knew it, we had slipped right into “Frankie Says”, which the band had essentially played for a little while during the Alpine Valley “Light” but decided not to actually sing it--justice!
This is a song that doesn’t really have its own ending, so in another brief stretch of gorgeous melodic interplay, the guys found a slickly smooth path straight into “Undermind”. The underplayed tune worked perfectly here, but it was very oddly cut short by Trey’s dissonant wrangling, a messy intro to “Sand”. It was at this point that Trey, already firmly in charge, began to bully everyone else into submission. But seriously, at this point, who cares? Let the man rock. He’s on fire. Again, when the song would normally end, it was clear that Trey was monkeying around with something on his mind, and at the last possible moment he started strumming “Walk Away”; this time, the band caught on and never dropped the beat, charging right ahead into the most over-the-top ballistic version I can ever remember hearing. It was after this that the music actually stopped for the first time.
When Trey started “Limb By Limb” next, the predictable mid-set lull began; this song never goes big. Whoops. I know a recording of this isn’t going to be nearly as exciting as being in the room; the thing about this set that made it superb more than anything else is how completely unusual it was. All I ever ask of Phish is to do stuff I can’t see coming, and that’s set two of Chaifetz in a nutshell. “Limb” drifted downward on its usual trajectory, then Trey paused and started picking these little whining notes, then a bit of chikka-chikka, and it was clear that he wasn’t interested in finishing up along normal lines. They floated in a cloudy, blank-slate jam for a while, then it seemed that Trey was dragging everybody into a new song, but it was actually a spontaneous new theme, very promising at first but it quickly rocketed into something we don’t hear very often these days: Phish 2.0 classic rock jam, the kind with no destination in mind except hopefully a peak, the only difference now being the purposefulness and technical skill with which Phish 3.0 plays. This climax was huge, although there were no original thematic elements; by the end, Page was hammering his keys as if to remind Red that he and Mike were still there trying to contribute, but our fearless leader was off on his own trip and tonight was his night to shred. Only when Fish dropped sneakily back into the “Limb” drumbeat did anybody figure that’s what song we were still in.