Poor Phish. For the second consecutive year, their marquee summer event was nearly undermined by circumstances actually beyond their control. This being Dick’s and all, a plague- or (prairie) dog-themed show seemed all but inevitable, but to his credit, Trey only tossed in a handful of references to fleas and rodents over the course of the weekend. The situation was so ridiculous on so many levels; it couldn’t be left alone nor taken seriously.
Impressions on lot suggested that these tickets were a tougher score than even Hampton ‘09, which seems preposterous until you think about how much better the band is nowadays than at 3.0 ground zero. Still, $500 the low end on stubhub? Come on. Phish aren’t that good. Pervading fanbase opinion places summer ‘19 as mid-tier at best. Was it night three of Alpine that drove demand? General Dick’s mystique? Or a pipe dream that the plague would inspire something legendary, as natural disasters sometimes do?
In any case, I felt like showing up ticketless on Saturday and getting in at a relatively low tax rate was a minor miracle. I’m not very plugged into the Phish hot-take/rumor mill these days but response to Friday’s show had seemed muted. Saturdays are not generally the experimental affairs I crave in the modern era, but, eh, I happened to be in town, with a ticket already secured for Sunday. About an hour and a half pounding the pavement and not witnessing a single sale, and I was resigned to trying to sneak or bribe my way in, when some dude walked up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder, with the five most magical words a dejected wook could ever hope to hear: “My girlfriend couldn’t make it…”
It was just like I remembered it. My only previous Dick’s attendance was 2013, quite possibly the weakest of the nine runs, but a blast nonetheless. Such good buddies in Denver. There’s always plenty of dancing room in the back, the sound is always spectacular, and you never get more than a few minutes of daylight at the beginning of the show. In any sense at all, my enduring Phish motto is the darker, the better.
Confession: Almost all of the Kasvot Växt material grows on me each time I catch it. I felt a tiny twinge of regret having missed SANTOS on Friday. In fact it was basically the only song they played that night that made me wish I’d been there, but as you know, songs don’t matter. Still, Final Hurrah was a delight early on Saturday night, and you can bet I was pogoing to the opening strains of Access Me, a dark-horse 2.0 favorite of mine. In fact, the first seven tunes they played really took me back to Alpine ‘04, that night when they decided to briefly become cowfunky again for an hour or so. No, not that same indulgence in long, patient jams, but the sixth song was Ghost, and I can’t think of a better version I’ve witnessed. It hasn’t been a reliable vehicle in the modern era but it still gives you at least a modicum of a thrill to hear them slink into it, and honestly, this band can get into funk these days as thick and filthy as they ever did in ‘97-98, even though they don’t sustain it for several minutes on end every night.
What can I tell ya, I’m not trying to get used to first-set type-II. I’m trying to keep in mind that this has not been the norm for any more than a couple years at a time through Phish’s whole existence, and to never take it for granted. This Ghost may have been the premier jam of the whole weekend; I haven’t listened back to anything, I just know that my whole night was made right then and there, all I needed to justify the journey and money spent. I was meant to be here, end o’ story.
You see a lot of “I couldn’t believe it was only xx minutes” in fan reviews, this year especially, and the funny part is that people still, consciously or not, measure jam quality primarily by length. The magic of 2019 Phish is how many ideas they can flow through in a short amount of time, practically 1994ish, really, except in ‘94 they saved that shit almost exclusively for set II. But okay, it was only 16 minutes, what a drag.
I’m not saying the jamming was all smooth sailing, but again, I don’t necessarily value smoothness as much as the average fan. Ghost, Tube, Weekapaug, 46 Days, Set Your Soul Flea, Disease, none of these went according to any previous rendition I’ve heard. There were moments when you might’ve thought for half a minute, they’re lost, this is not pretty, but I very much don’t care, because I remember when being lost was the point and it would go on for ages. This latest version of Phish finally allows itself to get lost because the guys have the confidence and faith that one of them will rescue the endeavor before it gets out of hand. And without fail, they did.
Saturday night did get a bit special in the fourth quarter, although I’m still not a Bug hater after all these years, nor a Character Zero hater (and did they really sing “lost on the plague-ground” in Brian & Robert??). And Sunday’s first frame was very song-y, with three Växt tunes, but I thought Stray Dog (hey I was singing ”Prairie dog” but everyone says Trey was singing ”Plague dog” which I think is dumb) was a hot opener and I really like Turtle In The Clouds and as for the glue in your magnet…well I like the gist of the song but I thought this version fell a little flat. Oh well. But the cool thing was that Turtle prefaced an incredibly dynamic Wolfman’s, followed by a searing hot BOAF (the only instance of Disney sampling of the whole weekend?? Huzzah!), and then that Outlive Our Brains song trickled out into a Taste that was remarkably beauteous until Trey drove into the paint and biffed hard. Oh well, it had been eight years since I’d heard ‘em play this, and Trey took out his frustrations on a scorching My Friend, the outro of which bled smoothly into 20 Years Later, and all was right with the world as the set-closing Gin went way sideways for a bit before climbing triumphantly home.
I’ll have to listen back to Sightless Escape; I did listen to Ghosts Of The Forest once months ago but life’s too short to spend much time on Phish members’ solo albums. So I haven’t made any connection with this song yet but ballsy of them to open the second set with a debut and then plunge into fucking Fuego. Dammit all, I’d managed to avoid it through seven shows but the odds were of course against me. And the jam cycled through all these super generic 3.0 motifs but I can tell you that I was valiantly pushing away any cynical thoughts that tried to hijack my mood. What struck me suddenly was how little they’d been chilling in their comfort zones during these shows. That blissed-out Tube on Saturday was so sweet because bliss is no longer their default mode. And the Fuego jam cycled through themes so quickly on its way into unorthodox space that I scarcely had time to be perturbed by anything.
I’ll tell you my favorite moment of the weekend, though. The transition from the Fuego jam into Piper. I hadn’t heard a Piper, my once-upon-a-time-most-heard song, in over two years, and hadn’t caught a truly great one since, well, probably Alpine ‘04. But what made this instance magical was the transition, because I’ve always felt that Piper ought to be Phish’s Dark Star, in the sense that they should be able to find their way into and out of it gradually at any instant. It should be lurking behind the jams at all times, ready to creep in, yet for all these years it’s been this thing that Trey always rushes into and rushes through, like he’s obliged to squeeze it in and likes being there but doesn’t want to dwell in it for long. Well tonight, they dwelled. Is it too soon to call this the best Piper of 3.0? I mean it was only 15 1/2 minutes so I guess it doesn’t really matter eh.
Piper>Tweezer, songs do matter. I have to agree with Zzyzx in regards to the flow of this set: From Fuego onward, it was one long jam with occasional songs popping in for a couple minutes. That was what it felt like. The improv was so varied and so inspired; all weekend you never knew who was going to lead the next charge, but it was so evident that they were hearing each other and syncing up with each other’s ideas, just never for very long. Weird, weird music peppered throughout, and yes, dark and even chaotic at times. It still seems that most fans want nothing but long, joyous happyrock in order to push them over the top, like what they did every night of the Baker’s Dozen. Y’all can have that shit. Give me the Ruby Waves any day. Give me these Dick’s jams.
It goes beyond the jams, anyway. Just listen to Plague McConnell himself, even in between verses of the simplest songs. The reactivation of Vida Blue seems to have reawakened something in him; never in this era have I heard him play so aggressively and imaginatively without just resorting to overbearing gimmicks. Listen once through to just Mike, but notice how many times Trey follows his lead down a darker path than they’d been on, rather than bullying everyone into another two-chord major-key build. Trey himself, as I keep saying, has been so spot-on all year, and Fish—I didn’t notice much in the way of digital flourishes from him this weekend, but damn did he go hard on the gong during…crap, was it 2001? Was it Chalk Dust? I don’t remember.
For once, I’m saving the listen-back. I didn’t walk away from these shows with that Alpine 3 feeling of knowing something universally legendary had just transpired, but all told, these were two incredibly bounteous shows, so much of what I crave and so little of what I don’t. They felt like pressure’s-off, anything-goes shows. I couldn’t even say which was better, but they were both better than the general populace currently gives ‘em credit for. Surely not as good as 2012, probably not on the level of 2016, possibly a little shy of 2011 (again, I haven’t heard a note of Friday so I shouldn’t even write this) but easily in the top five Dick’s runs thus far. “Fall tour”, such as it is, is gonna be positively bubonic.