Phish: Alpine Valley 2015

Wed Aug 12 2015

Sorry if the Blossom review was a bit insubstantial. I promise this piece is way longer.

As the tour rolls on, Phish slowly shakes loose from run-of-the-mill first sets. Saturday night's may have been the least interesting of the weekend, but like Blossom, it ended very strong, this time with the unexpected breakout of "Frankie Says" (which they teased heavily but never quite played at their last Alpine stand), "Maze", "Mercury" (still far from thrilling, but this song has a lot of potential compared with the Fuego crop and most of the songs that have followed it, and they need to play it more often so it can get good!), "Reba" (very straightforward, but elevated above most pre-2015 3.0 versions simply due to Trey's enhanced guitar prowess this summer) and a "Possum" completely dominated by Page.

The second set was a mixed bag. It seems "Down With Disease" is beginning to fall from grace a tad after six straight years being the only truly reliable jam workhorse. Saturday's was mildly exploratory but when it wrapped up it hadn't covered any significant new ground. "Halley's Comet" had only had one significant 3.0 outing prior to this run; Trey began brewing up the funk early in the composition, then let loose for the jam, which by its very existence was a pleasant surprise. It wasn't long before the guys found themselves adrift, though, so Trey began crafting a nice, patient segue into "Twist". This was nowhere near as thrilling as the recent Shoreline version but again, Page was magnificent.

"Twist" came to a natural conclusion, Trey opted for "Light", one of the best post-breakup Phish songs there is, and the crowd went suddenly, indubitably silent, which struck me as incredibly lame. Even if you don't dig the song itself like I do, you should be getting pumped for the improv potential in its wake, but apparently this is another disconnect between me and the fanbase at large. This particular jam didn't do much of anything, and I couldn't fault the band; there's no way that abrupt muting of enthusiasm went unnoticed.

Then came the highlight of the show: "What's The Use?" Not only was it an appropriate sentiment after the crowd energy deflation, as well as a nod to the celebrated "DWD">"WTU" from Alpine 2010, it was an utterly glorious rendition, by far the most powerful one I've ever heard. All was again right with the world.

So, no excitement about "Light", yet the general populace is all over these stupid "Vlad The Impaler" lyrics in "Fuego", a song I keep hoping will go away or at least become a rarity, a guaranteed ten minutes of jamless dadprog nonsense. But heck, we knew it was coming at some point, and I'll admit that certain aspects of the damn song are catchy as hell. I've grown to hate it less with time.

Sadly, it did signal the beginning of the end of the show. "Backwards Down The Number Line" cemented a fairly 3.0-heavy set, which was sort of welcome given the deliberately old-school feel of Blossom. "Number Line" clocked in almost as long as "Fuego" purely due to Trey's happy noodling, and "Slave To The Traffic Light" closed the set with a bang.

We weren't gonna get any otherworldly encores this weekend, but I'll take "Meatstick" any time. It did make two consecutive Alpine Valley shows to encore with "Meatstick", but who's counting? Plus there was a bonus "Character Zero" guitar wankathon to end the thing. I used to get fed up with these, but it feels so good to have Trey back in raging heroic mode that I'll take every opportunity to soak it up. Who knows when he's gonna lose his swagger again and duck back into whale mode for a couple years.

Sunday had a lot of fans straining their brains in search of Dead songs and teases, as it was the anniversary of Jerry's death. Nothing materialized on that front. We often say that Phish shows aren't about what songs they play, we don't want them to be about what songs they play, but sometimes they are, anyway.

When I was in my early 20s, most of my friends thought of Phish music as mindless, happy music. When I wasn't feeling socially anxious about even bringing up Phish, I'd try in vain to show them how not-happy Phish music could be. The misconception was always maddening to me, purely because of how untrue it was, but you can't convince smalltown punks to give Phish a chance with tapes, and you can't convince smalltown punks to pay $30 to see Phish, either. Then the 3.0 era comes along and that awkward kid in me is like 'fuck, they were all right, I'm an idiot'.

Sunday was the antidote. There have been glimpses throughout this current tour—certainly the Blossom "Tweezer" comes to mind—but Alpine got the extended evil. All it lacked was a face-scorching "David Bowie". The opener was a great fake-out, too. "The Very Long Fuse", in its first appearance since Halloween, still sounds like an unfocused fragment of a jam, and very lighthearted. I despise the relentless Disney samples, but it was pathetically refreshing to hear something besides "THEY ATTACK" or "YOUR TRIP IS SHORT", good lord people how can you stand to hear those phrases over and over and over again like that? How can you possibly still get a kick out of these vapid little gags?

Then Gamehendge crept in with "Colonel Forbin's Ascent", followed by "narration" in which Trey sleeps in the parking lot and gets shat on by a bird, inspiring the bustout of "Fly Famous Mockingbird". I hadn't realized at the time that it had been so long; UIC 2011 is still pretty fresh in my mind, and other than that it was New Year's Eve 2013, the hockey-stick set. It was kind of crazy how quickly word had gotten around in the lot that they'd soundchecked these tunes; I think we first heard it about five minutes after we'd parked. I've never been that geeked about these tunes, honestly, but I am a sucker for every opportunity Trey takes to tell us how much he loves Alpine Valley, because heck, this is where I saw my first concert ever and it still feels like home.

"Brian And Robert" is a great song, but "Saw It Again" is what really got me going, one of Phish's outright wildest songs and only the second time I've caught it. I love "Esther" pretty much any time too, and now I've somehow hit the last three shows it's been performed at. "Weigh" was really sloppy; the Midwest is a magnet for this tune in 3.0, as well as "The Sloth". It would be downright odd how many of these rarities happen to be the ones I've caught a lot of in the past three years, except that's an inevitable consequence of extreme Phish nerddom: You quest after a song for decades, then once you finally hear it live, it starts following you around. In relative terms, of course. Once every couple years, oh my!

"Sanity", I'll take one of these per year, please. Then, the moment I'd been dreading: "Split Open And Melt". One of my absolute favorite Phish compositions. In its heyday, pretty much the best Phish song there was. In 3.0, usually an abysmal, nonmusical embarrassment. Occasionally, it's been weird enough to forgive, but for the past two years at least it's been a showcase for Trey's most belligerently discordant, godawful guitar playing of his career. This time was gonna be different, though. It still didn't play out like some masterpiece, or like the band has formulated any strategy whatsoever for playing it, and Trey, as he often does, struggled to figure out what key they were playing it in, but the jam wasn't horrible, which is more than I can say for any rendition since, well, that hockey-stick show again. It was a grinding maelstrom, somewhat reminiscent of the Cincinnati '09 version, except when it began to twist up into itself again, Trey taunted us mercilessly with fake endings, keeping the other three guys on their toes as he drove to a rare natural conclusion. It almost gave me hope that there could be another great one some day.

Thus ended the first set, which was composed entirely of tour debuts. How entitled has the fanbase become that some of us see this as meaningless? How jaded must one be to take such a thing for granted? This was easily my favorite first set of 3.0, in person; there have been a few better ones I reckon but not many.

All I wanted from this second set was a "Piper". This was my 50th Phish show, and if I dig down deep, Alpine Valley "Piper"s are largely responsible for creating the dragon that I've been chasing all these years. I didn't get my "Piper". That will have to wait until Magnaball. I got something better, though: another "Tweezer". If I dig down deeper, as far as I can reasonably get, "Tweezer" is the core of it all. "Tweezer" is somehow more the crux than Phish. Phish is only at its best when the "Tweezer"s are flowing. Trey is nothing more than a slave to "Tweezer", and all he can do is spend his life trying to get back into "Tweezer"'s good graces. And we cling like leeches to these times when he gets there.

Blossom's "Tweezer" was actually the darker, more pensive one, but I think Alpine eclipsed it in overall flow and intensity. Once the jam turned happy and began swelling in textural ecstasy, it did indeed remind me of The Grateful Dead, in the way that it felt, and in the way that it functioned as an uplifting beacon after a relatively dark show, the moment of salvation. I don't have enough context to name a song or time period or anything, and I could be totally wrong. I don't really care; it was great music and also sounded exactly like Phish.

Once again, it was smack in the middle of this extended string of my absolute favorite fucking Phish songs. Opening the second set with "Run Like An Antelope", there's an idea! Let's face it, this is another one that has almost completely lost its pizzazz in 3.0, but maybe if you start kicking them out as second-set openers you'll get them to remember their potential—look what has happened with "Chalk Dust". Then "Carini", which ought to produce Phish's evilest jams but rarely does, although tonight's stayed pretty dark, engrossing for its brief life before giving way to "Waves". Sure, an epic jam would be nice, but "Waves" requires no jam for me to be in heaven when they play it. It acted like a jamless version, then Trey decided to fade back into it, and a nebulous thing emerged but didn't last long because he already had his sights set on "Tweezer", which he wound into in the most unique way I've ever heard, this crazy woozy tone, daring you to believe that that's the riff he's actually playing.

If that weren't enough, there's always the quasi-return of the second jam in "Mike's Song". It's not as if the band went back and relearned how to do this properly; "Mike's" has been a drag for most of the modern era, largely because of how great it once was, but for two straight performances now, the band has ended it and then pushed on into improv afterwards, much like they've been doing with "Chalk Dust". It's not a smooth transition, and it strongly supports the theory that these guys don't ever discuss or rehearse their strategies for, well, much of anything, but the mere fact that "Mike's" can once again produce a real jam is amazing, and Sunday night's version got to some really cool places in a short amount of time before trickling away into unremarkable versions of "Blaze On" and "Weekapaug Groove".

That's where the "review" would end (do I mention that they've now played "Frankenstein" at three of the four 3.0 Alpine runs? Nah.), except I'm one of those people who still gets really emotional over "Tweezer Reprise". Two of these in three nights…I wonder if some fans feel that's excessive, if anybody heard that riff coming at the end of "Waves" and thought 'AGAIN??' That's a real bummer if you did. Sunday night was all about Phish kicking down their best songs and playing 'em with fire. I walked away very excited, not only for my next shows, but for the next shows. It's been a long time since I've felt that way.

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