A little background: Several months ago, Pitchfork announced Björk would be headlining one night of its yearly festival. As Björk was very near the top of our bucket list of live acts, my wife and I eagerly purchased weekend passes, even though Phish, as usual, was dragging its feet on announcing summer tour dates—WHAT ARE THE CHANCES, I scoffed. Under normal circumstances, I might have seriously considered skipping a Phish show for Björk, having never seen her before. But the problem with the Phishhead affliction is that you can’t skip a Phish show on your birthday when you’re already going to be only a few miles away from where it’s taking place. On the off chance that they play the greatest version ever of your favorite song, and you chose to skip it, you’d never be able to live with yourself. On the other hand, your wife might not be so severely afflicted…
This was the first year I can remember paying for my own Pitchfork ticket; I usually end up there as a member of the press. Being a civilian meant less of a feeling of obligation to catch as much music as possible, and since Phish would be the priority every night anyway, I went into the weekend knowing I wasn't going to get my money's worth out of these damned Pitchfork tickets no matter what. I had no interest in being rushed, and I had opportunities to chill with a lot of friends I rarely get to see, and that was more of a priority than anything else and probably contributes most to my feeling of immense gratitude coming out of the weekend. I also told myself that I wasn't going to write about these shows, because apparently I still don't know myself very well.
We arrived at Union Park in time to catch Angel Olsen, who captivated us immediately with her amazing voice. Her control is astounding; she can shift between registers like a yodeler but more subtly, and her songs sounded great on first impression. Woods served to strengthen my opinion that eventually a band will emerge from this new wave of psych rock with the improvisational prowess to set fire to the scene; it won't be Woods, but the lengthy jam that ended their set was pretty impressive even though their vocals were awful. Mikal Cronin was energetic but he played everything so straight it was pretty ineffectual in broad daylight, but Wire, as expected, had no trouble keeping everyone's attention; chalk up another mark for the old geezers showing up the young kids in all aspects of performance. (#getoffmylawn)
Then I had to track down a taxi. Truthfully, never even faced with the worst Bonnaroo schedule conflict had I been so tortured about which show to choose, but at the same time, there was probably never any actual doubt. After all, birthday Phish shows are even rarer than Björk tours. The last weather report I'd heard was for a good chance of storms between 6 and 10; I wasn't too concerned, had a poncho and in any case the rain chance was 0% for the rest of the weekend. I walked onto the lawn just as "Suzy Greenberg" was beginning. The band proceeded to play a very cock-rock-dominated first set, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing considering the state of Trey's guitar playing at this stage, as well as Page's newfound tenacity, forcing his way into every power-rock peak and challenging Trey's dominance at every possible moment. The only standout bit of improv occurred in "Wolfman's Brother", which featured a very old-school low-key beginning rife with classic group interplay and then swelled to mountain size. Otherwise it was more blues-funk with "Backwards Down The Number Line", "Moma Dance", "My Soul", "46 Days" and "Julius", apart from the recent pair of Merriweather first-set oddities "It's Ice" and "Scent Of A Mule" (both better than normal for 3.0 but not as good as the Merriweather versions) and an unremarkable "Limb By Limb".
Set two loomed. Storm clouds also loomed. And then, after a brief but engrossing "Down With Disease", Trey started "Prince Caspian" only to be thwarted by Page, who laughed and then deadpanned "Oh, to be Prince Caspian". What is this--is Page staging a mutiny against Trey for cutting jams short? Aw, crap, nope; the venue is being evacuated. Well, that was about the best possible birthday show ever; so glad I skipped Björk for that! Actually, I wouldn't change a thing; even trudging through Chicago in a torrential downpour with the one friend who hung out with me on the lawn was an essential piece of this jigsaw puzzle of a weekend.
Saturday was initially notable for an impressive selection of Founders beers that enlivened our late lunch at Rockwell's Neighborhood Grill in Ravenswood, and for the unusually high concentration of my favorite people in one room. It then became even more notable with the announcement that Phish would perform three sets tonight, which, aside from festivals and holidays, had not occurred since 1996 in Amsterdam. They were by no means obligated to do this, and in fact offered partial refunds for the previous night, but although the Phish organization is more of a detached, money-making machine than ever nowadays, the guys in the band still seem to make every effort to show their fans that we still matter. Of course, there's no pleasing some folks, but those folks are a tiny minority; this is the sort of occasion that's legendary before it even occurs, a gift that could only be tarnished by blatantly bad music.
The highlight of Pitchfork that day was Savages, unanimously amongst people whose opinions I heard. That, and then Swans, was kind of a dream day for me; since Phish doesn't get evil any more, a set of growling, droning noise was just what the doctor ordered to cleanse the palette for the night. Missing The Breeders stung a little (although the only other time I'd seen them--Lollapalooza '94--they totally sucked), but Phish was starting "early".
The only problem with the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion (for these shows, at least) is that you cannot even see the stage from the lawn, but why this is even a problem for anyone at a Phish show, I can't imagine; there are big video screens, and you can see the light show, and at that distance, who's peering intently at the band while dancing? The sound was actually terrific; way back and center, with the full effect of all the delay towers and all the room in the world to dance, was basically ideal. Phish came out around 7:20 on Saturday and re-started the aborted "Caspian" from Friday. Then came "Twist", which very rarely appears in a first set and featured a full-on "Oye Como Va" jam, which is not uncommon but still enjoyable. Then "Ha Ha Ha", and with the opening strum of "Possum" we realized the joke was on us and this would not be the missing second set from last night after all. Actually, "Possum" and "Kill Devil Falls" were both remarkably sizzling, with Fishman, Page and Trey battling for supremacy, but the only real jam came in "David Bowie". It's so good to hear Trey trying out so many different unique sounds on his guitar (and with scarcely a hint of the whammy pedal effects he foisted upon us mercilessly for the first week of tour); you could be forgiven if you were too focused on him to realize that Fishman was mumbling lyrics to "Melt The Guns" in the background, but Fish was the driving force behind the huge surge and climax as well.
Set two was easily the most satisfying of the weekend, opening somewhat oddly with "Back On The Train" and then easily the hottest Mike's Groove of the year so far, single-jam "Mike's Song" notwithstanding. The meat was "Theme From The Bottom", a somewhat adventurous version, and then in the cacophonous afterglow Trey began playing a disembodied trebly lick that gradually swelled into the beginning of "Weekapaug Groove" in mesmerizing fashion. This was the most interesting "Weekapaug" since at least the Star Lake version from last year, dominated (naturally) by Mike and his various melodic detours. This was perfect placement for the (still-boring-as-shit-compared-to-all-mid-90s-versions) Groove, provided there were still plenty of jams to come, and "Golden Age" immediately indicated that there were. This was your quintessential 3.0 bubbly-happy danceathon, riding high courtesy of some magnificent piano runs and then trailing off into organ and babbling-brook guitar ambience. Next was a magnificent though fairly conventional "Waves"; its ending was a heartbreakingly beautiful motif by Trey and Page that might've hinted at the never-yet-played Siket Disc track "Albert" while Mike cradled the whole stretch in a downy ambient pillow. Then came the jam of the weekend, "Piper". There was actually a bit of patience on display in the intro, exceedingly rare these days, until Trey sort of blurted out the first lyrics even though it felt like they were still warming the thing up. The jam itself had so many twists and turns that instances of what-song-is-this-again might've begun popping up in the crowd after a minute or less, pure the-stuff that makes Phish Phish. It eventually bled into a terrific "Slave" to finish the set.
Number three began with "Meatstick", and all I can say is I love the song to an irrational degree even when there's no jam. At that point things could've gone anywhere, which "Birds Of A Feather" occasionally has in the past but not tonight; no attempt was made, and I confess the ensuing choices of "Strange Design" and "Ocelot" were a bit dismaying, even though they both ended up being extremely welcome by the time they were done. It was "Light" that we were waiting for; as it burst gloriously out of the end of "Ocelot" anticipation levels skyrocketed. This one wasted no time in getting into one of those hypnotic King-Crimson-esque loopy conversations that some people in the Phish community will forever refer to as "Dave's Energy Guide" teases. As far as I was concerned, the night was by now carved into the storybooks. It wasn't an epic on par with the most revered "Light"s of all time but in terms of pure spontaneous music--and a rare glimpse of actual tension--this one sits as high as almost any other, once again driven by intuitive interplay between Page and Trey that simply doesn't happen very often. After a brief drumless interlude this thing damn near became "Timber", too; I'd say it was clearly a tease but what do I know. The lovely coda ground forbiddingly into yet another superb "Harry Hood" (with a brief stretch that was slightly reminiscent of the theme from I Dream Of Jeannie, I swear), and the always-welcome fist-pumpitude of "Good Times Bad Times" (but where was the "Heartbreaker" teasing now?) closed the set. If all that matters to you is type-II jamming percentage, then this show certainly fell short of your hopes, but in terms of overall quality of music, it was relentless from start to finish, easily one of the best shows of the tour so far.
Sunday brought by far the best food of the weekend (brunch chez Smituccis) and another great gathering of friends, followed by a fairly brief stint at Pitchfork. All I can say is I realize I missed a lot of the key acts, but despite the "surprise" performance by Run The Jewels (following a couple solo El-P songs) being quite good and Yo La Tengo's excellent LOUD/belligerently quiet/LOUD set (Why the hell did they bother recording a studio version of "Little Honda"? That version is so awful. This live version was so amazing.), this year's festival was largely underwhelming. I realize Björk was surely incredible before she, too, had to abandon ship early on Friday night, but unless The Breeders, R. Kelly and M.I.A. were all mind-blowingly good, I'm not very bummed about the all the music I missed.
Night three of Phish goes down as controversial, to say the least. It began in response to a sign that read "0-170 Dinner And A Movie please!!". It's unfortunate that this could encourage more signs, but this was one of those nuggets I had thought I'd be chasing eternally until UIC 2011 and is still one of my favorite Phish tunes, so I can't complain at all; little did we know then that signs would become a much more prominent theme later in the show. Fiery versions of "AC/DC Bag" and especially "Maze" followed, and then came "Mound", another opportunity for Trey to butcher a Mike song in 2013. Then "Funky Bitch" and "Bathtub Gin"; the tight song rotation would be so tolerable if it meant that the band was trying to evolve the tunes they do play, but "Gin" (like all of the most commonly played songs of the tour) almost never deviates from its formula, possibly the most painful condition of modern Phishdom. Its giddy, safe, ever-brightening swell is such a common default in other jams (particularly in the 2.0 era) that, well, maybe Phish is psychologically still stumped for a way out of it. I don't know. But this one was notable for its beginning, when Trey false-started on the opening lyrics as Page maniacally circumnavigated his entire keyboard army as if to say 'shut up Trey, you sing too much!' By the time "Wilson" started up, though, so had the rain; by the end of "Wilson", we were being pelted by a torrent of the stinging horizontal drops there was a zero percent chance of. This was already as severe as anything that had occurred Friday night, a fierce type-II attack by Mother Nature, but the band played on.
This is kind of what I live for. Including my very first Phish show, many of my favorite ones have been ordeals, and the same is true for other bands; maybe it's the fact that I undertake very few tests of endurance, but standing in a monsoon with my arms in the air screaming "CAN YOU STILL HAVE FUN???" is the peak experience. It's rare that I feel more alive than I did at that moment. The further delight of a stretched-out bass-a-thon version of "Boogie On Reggae Woman" was icing on the cake as the crowd thinned; most of the lightning seemed pretty far off even if the raindrops felt nearly solid at times, and we all started babbling incredulously as we grooved. But when this jam petered out and Trey started playing "Run Like An Antelope", the axe finally fell and Page once again had to be the grown-up and make everyone stop playing, though he cried defiantly, "We will be back!"
There was precious little shelter to be sought, and the storm was significant but never seemed dangerous. When the band emerged, radiating gratitude, the almost-waterless wind had begun to dry our drenched clothes and hair, and miraculously, most of my splintered crew managed to regroup in our chosen spot on the lawn for the final set of the weekend. Spirits were perhaps absurdly high, and after an hour-long weather delay, what Phish delivered at this point can only be considered the best possible way to please every single kind of fan who had stuck it out this long. First up was the second-ever rendition of The Apples In Stereo's "Energy", a much more exuberant rendition of the composition than its debut a couple weeks prior, which gave way to a fantastic extended jam--the beginning of which, unsurprisingly, sounded just like that default "Gin" jam, except they did break out of it into some murky cowfunk and then into various pastures from there. When the vehicle began to lose steam I could've sworn Trey was about to play "Free", which in its current even-more-formulaic-than-"Gin" state might have killed this set outright, but instead he switched gears into "Ghost", which was instead almost the best thing he could've done (I admit it, I wanted that fucking "Tweezer" really, really bad. But I trust Trey's judgment here. Really I do.). Clocking in at under ten minutes, it was delightfully uptempo and far-reaching, and despite the fact that it seemed on the verge of morphing into "Seven Below", it didn't. The ensuing "Lizards" was a straightforward sentimental nugget, capping 35 minutes of basically perfect Phish.
Next the band all went "Oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa-AAAAAA" and basically a lot of fans' nights/years/Phish-going careers were made in that instant. I realized at that moment how wonderful a world I had gotten sucked into, that the mere opening seconds of a single holy-grail rarity could elicit so much joy in so many people. It might have been the most predictable instance of "Harpua" ever--heck, they even did the "Look, the storm's gone" part twice--but that made it no less of a treat. What might understandably have made it less of a treat for some was the actual execution. Trey spotted a sign in the audience that read "Posternutbag THE RIGHT WAY" and invited that fan...er, I mean, that actor...onto the stage. At first I figured it was someone from Trey's musical, but then came a troupe of Second City players, who all proceeded to improvise an awkward sketch that included an even more awkward rap and ended with the most awkward possible shout-out to a woman's right to choose. It was all I could do to cling to positivity during this display.
"Did they tell it right, or do I usually tell it right?" Trey asked the crowd, and a number of implications started to become clear at this point. For one thing, Trey is gleefully aware of the "persnickety" nature of his fandom, and the sheer cringeworthiness of this skit could easily be taken as a fuck-you to anyone who thinks he or she could do a better job of running Phish, although I actually believe that Trey genuinely thought this might be funny. But in a way, it was also one of the riskiest moves he could make, inviting strangers onstage to hijack his show with their own version of improv. The irony is that many fans will claim that they gladly accept when Phish falls flat in the name of experimentation and extreme risk-taking, but for some this particular endeavor ruined the night; only the prescribed sort of risk-taking is acceptable. This thing clearly fell flat as a pancake (Mike's take: "I thought it was odd..."; Fish's take: "I don't think they've ever seen this band before."); prior to the rap, you could hear Trey playing a mournful little lick on his guitar that clearly indicated to the band and fans how horribly he knew this was going.Fortunately, Mike saved the day with his own version of the narration that, well, if this didn't make you crack up, I just don't know. Then came the "Antelope" that we'd all forgotten about from set one, sadly not a noteworthy version but this as well as the "Character Zero" encore are some fans' most sought-after bits all by themselves, as well as Trey just shredding like the needy rock star he is. See, he's going to do whatever the hell he wants when he's on that damn stage, no matter what I or anybody else posts on a blog; this set just happened to be the most succinct kickdown possible to every segment of the fanbase (except maybe the people who just wanna hear "Waste") and the tantalizing five-song set taboot, but it also left room for every kind of fan to bitch about some aspect or other. And the online conversation about Phish is mostly the domain of persnickety grouches for whom the adventure of live Phish is low on the priority list compared to the comfort of a posh hotel; you can predict how much they'll like a show based on song titles and track lengths, but this specific brand of Phish-hipsterism is not the norm. Most fans were thrilled at the appearance of "Harpua"; most of them just don't write blogs or argue endlessly about Phish on twitter. I'm there first and foremost for the open jams, but damn, there's so much more to love about Phish. The weekend was a brutally joyous ordeal, featuring several of the best jams of the year in fact, but more than that, the kind of ridiculous fish-story you envision telling your grandchildren about, adventure on the highest order that there is in terms of live music. But there was a vacuum solo.