Miraculously, as far as I know, we all escaped Deer Creek with our lives, but it was dicey for a while there as our tents were pelted with horizontal rain and lit almost constantly by lightning for a good hour or so early Saturday morning. But somehow the drive to Wisconsin seemed to fly by; past Corn Runs had been bogged down by merciless traffic jams and/or lack of air conditioning, making this the smoothest Creek-to-Alpine Valley trip I’ve ever been on. Alpine lots were low key in the still-oppressive heat, but the place seemed pretty full as Phish came onstage and we all wondered if this would be the show where they finally have an off night.
Aside from only the fifth appearance since 1993 of “Daniel Saw The Stone”, the first set was pretty uneventful, certainly the least interesting of the run in terms of song selection. “Let It Loose” was obviously a welcome choice, as Phish continues to dig into its Stones and Velvet Underground Halloween costumes for gems but obstinately refuses to whip out any Talking Heads tunes besides “Crosseyed And Painless” and “Cities”. This performance of “Ocelot” was definitely the best one I’ve seen, but in all fairness, barely different from any of the others; it’s just that Trey is at peak command of his instrument right now. I just don’t relish the five-minute wank-a-thons that never vary from template. The only real diversion was a really nice version of “Timber”, type-I but featuring plenty of great interplay from the band, making us feel like that wide-open first-set exploration was right around the corner. Page added some extra oomph to a fabulous “Oh Kee Pa Ceremony”>”Suzy Greenberg” to close the lengthy first set.
In one of the oddest placements of the run, Phish came out in set two with a completely ordinary “Backwards Down The Number Line”; perhaps Trey just wanted to see if something might happen, but nothing did. The obvious remedy was “Carini”, which as usual failed to disappoint. The snarling riffage gave way to a chuggy noodle by Trey, spinning circles around the rest of the gang who clung to the prescribed stomp perhaps a bit too long to allow this one to really take off, but this version was great just for Trey’s endless stream of ideas. By the time Page and Mike seized on a fruitful pattern Fishman was losing steam, and Trey allowed for just a bit of synth ambience before sparking “Wilson”, perfectly placed and who could blame him for wanting to hear the crowd chanting at the biggest shed of tour?
“Golden Age” has served most often as an interlude or a starting point for some other vehicle, but tonight it was its own entity, made all the more perfect by its title being a condition that many fans are coming around to acknowledging as the current state of Phish. Led by Page’s clavinet, the boys leapt into a murky funk ride as they picked and poked at each other and crafted a subtle but insistent danceosphere. It was never allowed to slow down; as a breakdown of the rhythm loomed, Trey hinted and Fish instantly caught on, slithering into “2001” like it was their home. It was fantastic but not terribly long with only a few flourishes besides the gnarly segue/intro. But this set was far from over.
The classic Saturday night romp is “Rock And Roll”; it’s more often a set-opener but tonight it launched in the middle, and again, Trey lay back and let Page and Make put together a sonorous piano/bass bed to flow through. The biggest difference at this point between Phish 2.0 and 3.0 (aside from 3.0 being able to play intricate compositions and sing semi-properly) is that you will never get bored listening to the boys improvise nowadays; they are seemingly adamant to never let a jam flounder or meander, shifting constantly from one motif to another before anything can get stale. 2012 has marked a renewed focus on thematic improv; instead of soloing, Trey is more likely these days to lay down riffs and patterns for everybody to work with, and the results of this tendency were on full display at Alpine, perhaps the most potent weapon in the Phish arsenal that hadn’t become prominent until this year. Trey, Mike, Page, Fish, all throwing out coordinated ideas for several blissful minutes, treating our ears like they were an amusement park.
I’m still conflicted about “Steam”. It’s wordy, its guitar riff is too similar to “Theme From The Bottom” and the dry-ice blasts are as hokey as the hissing sound effect, probably Phish’s most Spinal Tap-esque endeavor. Yet at its core, it’s an intriguing, well-conceived song, and it seems to have potential to actually take off into space some night, but not tonight; a promising droning rhythmic outro quickly gave way to near-nothingness, at which point I felt an intense craving for “Piper” and was instantly rewarded. Could there really be a fourth centerpiece jam in one set? Yep, the most thrilling one of all; before anyone had a chance to think, Trey unleashed a wicked guitar riff and everyone rallied to it. Within a vigorous charge by Fishman, Mike eventually wrested control as Trey floated above with gorgeous airy tones, then settled into a strum pattern that sounded like it might’ve burst from “Birds Of A Feather”. Even after the beat broke down Trey and Page kept going on a shimmering, summery duet that could’ve been its own song. Another in the distinguished line of superior Alpine “Piper”s that must be heard.After “Quinn The Eskimo” it was the “Harry Hood” everyone knew was in store. For whatever reason Trey has been unwilling to finish this tune lately, chopping off the ending at Bonnaroo and Portsmouth, and judging by the Alpine rendition he maybe should keep doing that; after a lovely beginning to the jam, Trey basically gave up on patiently crafting something and just started strumming the ending chords, resulting in the sort of climax that nobody in the band can get together on. This was the lone misstep of the set; when the dust settled on the blistering “Character Zero” that ended it and the raucous “Good Times Bad Times” encore, there was a massive glow emanating from the happy attendees. Glancing from face to smiling face and nodding and murmuring song titles in awe was about all we could do.