As one might expect, a not-exactly-heated debate rages regarding whether or not we should refer to 2021 (and beyond?) as “4.0”. I’d probably be in the camp that doesn’t really care, except it’s so nice to have an extra (and extra-short!) term to utilize when you write about Phish as much as I do. I also don’t quite understand the resistance; eras don’t correspond to betterness, they simply acknowledge extended breaks in touring. As it happens, they have also tended to accompany dramatic shifts in style and/or tone. That’s certainly debatable in this case, although few who’ve been to shows this summer would deny that something about the whole endeavor has changed.
There are significant stylistic and strategic and sonic differences between when we last saw our heroes (in Mexico, during the carefree surely-it’s-not-actually-a-pandemic phase of the pandemic) and summer 2021, however. In particular, there’s a distinctive new mode of improv that has emerged, something my friend Matt called ‘the first meaningful evolution of Phish craft since Europe ‘97’ and the more I listen to the marquee jams of this tour, the more I agree. Just as ’97 wasn’t solely about cowfunk, the 4.0 sound doesn’t solely encompass the singular cosmic robo-skronk that has crept into so many jams this summer; it extends throughout the shows and all of the sonic realms at Phish’s current disposal. It is an overall restlessness, a refusal to play or sing anything on autopilot. It’s also the profound loss of both time and loved ones that pervades them and us, yes, but even as those specific reverberations fade in the relistening to these shows, the music remains very clearly on a different level of relentless experimentation and remarkable playing by all four guys.
So to hell with it, it’s 4.0, maybe not because of the palpable change, but the change is there. Let’s move on to Dick’s. These were the easiest Dick’s tickets of all time, that much was clear. The weather was perfect. The vax/test check-in was a breeze, as was entry. We took to meeting up with various folks on the grassy area by gate B, where we enjoyed the soundcheck, which featured George Jones’ “She Thinks I Still Care” and the second-greatest “Funky Bitch” of all time. (I kid, I kid.) I can’t lie, I was missing a lot of buddies and my wife and my dogs and cats, and despite a fairly productive night’s rest, the 15-hour drive from Milwaukee the day before plus the altitude had taken a bit out of me; my dancing was not up to par on Friday. This did not detract one bit from the music I’m pretty sure.
I like to look at the weekend as one long show, and Friday was an all-over-the-place initial segment. You had setlist gems like “Timber” and “Vultures” and “Pebbles And Marbles” and you had super poignant moments like the breathtaking “Beneath A Sea Of Stars Part 1” and you had stupendous jams out of “Carini” (a song that had grown so formulaic it was almost as if the jam was a composition) and “Chalk Dust Torture” and you had some impressive thematic interweaving throughout the second set, and not simply in the form of mash-ups but yes that’s part of the whole 4.0 deal. At Deer Creek I had found this to be a fun gimmick; as the tour has worn on and as I’ve listened to more of these little experiments I’m loving them more and more. This Dick’s style isn’t quite as dizzying as Creek but it’s more encompassing of a lyrical through-line which quite honestly encapsulates a lot about being Phish that folks would do well to take notice of. Or do they need to spell it out for you.
Saturday’s first set was another one as good as a sizable percentage of 3.0 second sets, with one of the most out-there renditions of “Tube” I’ve ever heard and respectable lil’ jams out of “Blaze On” and “Ghost” as well. The second set was the one I could’ve done without; suffice it to say I don’t need to be bludgeoned over the head with comforting new-agey sentiments, especially at the expense of jams, which following the 25-minute “Everything’s Right” opener, were nonexistent. I get it, Trey has desperate proggy needs and I should just be thankful they didn’t play “Petrichor” at all this summer (I AM!) and crammed all the happy happy dadrock into this one set. Besides, there was that 25-minute “Everything’s Right”, I didn’t forget that.
I’ll admit I had a slight crisis of faith after Saturday, though; there were plenty of times in 3.0 when Phish needed a major barnburner of a Sunday night to salvage a run and laid a massive egg instead. It wasn’t that long ago, y’know? But they had definitely pulled off the necessary feat at The Gorge this year and they did it once again at Dick’s. When I look at the setlist, I feel awe, not at all due to the songs they played (although I did pine for the “McGrupp And The Watchful Hosemasters” that they bestowed on us, and it had been 647 agonizing days since the last “Meatstick”) but rather the memory of how it all went down.
The whole weekend was indeed a sort of stamina test for fans; having glimpsed the setlists from Shoreline on Tuesday and Wednesday, we knew Phish had at least ostensibly wiped many of our absolute most-desired songs off the table of possibility for Commerce City (“Harry Hood” being the only actual repeat). Combined with unlikely heavy-hitters played the previous weekend, not to mention getting “Ghost” out of the way in a first set, Phish deliberately shunned almost all of their classic improv vehicles this weekend. I would say for some fans, that definitely mattered. Trey’s inner monologue for Sunday’s second set, assuming something I completely made up in my head is true, went as follows: ‘You want “Tweezer”; here’s “Set Your Soul Free”! You want “Piper”; here’s “Ruby Waves”! You want “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “First Tube”; here’s “Most Events Aren’t Planned”!’ You can look at the setlist and scratch your head all you want; it was one of the most engaging twisty-turny unpredictable weirdo-improvisational journeys this band has ever taken me on with some of the most shattering musical peaks I can recall. Believe me, I wanted that “Tweezer” as badly as anybody, until it clearly didn’t matter any more.
And the funny part is, the best individual jams, as if such a consideration matters one good God damn any more, were in the first set. The first time they ever jammed “Sigma Oasis” at all provided one of the most scintillating moments of the tour, a crescendo that felt like they assembled it hastily with the final puzzle pieces coming together at the last second in a shimmering rush and then dissolving as quickly as it appeared. And let’s not forget the fucking “Sand”, in the third slot just like at Creek and yet another masterpiece.
I suppose for the rest of my life I won’t be able to get through another “Sand” intact. This is what it all comes down to, as I already mentioned a month ago; Phish shows are about reaching through time and space to touch the souls we miss. And that goes for the living ones, too, of course; as we get older and particularly following an extended forced isolation, Phish shows become mostly about the people you get to see, and man I got to see so many dear friends, and there were so many who were there who I didn’t even get to see, and those who couldn’t make it, and those who are gone. So it was hard to get mad about the incessant chatter for much of the weekend (although kudos to whoever yelled ‘NO TALKING DURING SAND’ at his chatty buddies, which I think had a positive overall effect on the rest of the night!), nor even the puzzling sound mix with Trey dominating Page and Mike, unusual for Dick’s unless my memory fails me. It was a lot to soak in even being around people for a whole weekend. At the same time, it was the end of the tour; most people I knew had already hit at least one run prior. So in a sense it took less settling in, felt more normal than Deer Creek had. For me, though, it was still remembering. It was still recovering. By Sunday night I finally felt like I knew what the hell I was doing again. A few hours later I was on the road back to Milwaukee.
The way we all were glowing, though, walking out of there on Sunday, knowing we’d just taken in something extraordinary, realizing that almost 40 years into their career, Phish can still do this to us, wondering if all the Goose fans in the house had had their whole lives revealed to be a lie (I kid, I kid!), that was the truth of it. It can all be sliced and diced but it can’t be taken away. We’re so blessed to be able to do this again. Above all let’s never forget that.