Phish can’t win sometimes. We all want different things from ‘em, and expect them to do ‘em all. Last time they played a Sunday show at Alpine Valley, they did. Three years later, not so much. It hits a little differently, though, when you were expecting to have to miss these shows altogether. The week leading up to them, every sniffle and ache sent me into anxiety thinking I was coming down with covid. Whatever the CDC might be saying today, I’m not going to hang out with 30,000 people unless I’m reasonably sure I’m not spreading a virus, so the negative test on Friday was the first time in a week I felt I could breathe properly. It had been a pretty stellar tour; even if the shows were a letdown, it would hardly matter.
We shouldn’t be looking back anyway, right? Comparing now to then, whenever ‘then’ might be. Yet Phish invite it, they make it unavoidable. To tell you the truth, I was already thinking about how much this tour reminded me of 1999 prior to the surprise bust-out opener on Saturday. That summer ’99 tour had so many jams, often out of unexpected places, just like ’22. And it also featured quite a few nights that were all Trey, playing guitar solo after guitar solo, fronting a fairly proficient goofy rock band. Just like in ’22.
So when they announced on Saturday that “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999” I suspected that this had maybe made it into online discussion. I don’t much participate in Phish discourse any more; it was a blast for many years and then it got stupid, so I don’t know much about what the leading pundits are saying these days. Surely lots of positive things.
When, after their fourth-ever rendition of Prince’s 1999, Trey started into Fluffhead, you didn’t have to be an old head to recognize the reference to the one true epic version of this song, which occurred here at Alpine in ’99. When, during its usually scripted and succinct final section, Trey instituted one of his patented turn-of-the-century delay-loop squeals, we could be forgiven for suspecting that this might be some kind of meta-gimmick show, perhaps playing all tunes that were popular that semi-hallowed summer, how about The Siket Disc in its entirety (PLEASE ACTUALLY DO THIS THO). Because this was almost too specific a nod to be believed, self-referential of long-gone days in a way that Phish usually reject.
It was more of a prank than anything, though. Are ya happy, now there are two epic Fluffheads that both happened here. Why yes, I am happy, don’t get me wrong; I too enjoy remembering past glories and having incomparably nerdy experiences with music. To think that this manufactured occasion would be the most interesting thing that happened all weekend, however. That’s the part that gets me.
Highlights? There were many, yes! Beginning the weekend with a mildly adventurous Fuego, yay! That goofy excuse for a song Clear Your Mind starting to sound like a real song, yay! You wouldn’t believe how long my optimism lasted. I’d argue that it tends to be a hallmark of the best eras of Phish when some nights the first set is better than the second, and both Friday and Saturday featured excellent, jammy first sets—undercut each time by dadprog agony in the end, yes, but still. THEY EARNED IT, we tell ourselves and shudder.
Friday’s second set kept pace valiantly; they were at least giving it a shot in every song, even taking David Bowie a little further than it’s gone in a long time. And all these jams featured safe, complacent improv with little to no variation in mood. On night one, okay fine.
Night two’s second set however was more of the same. That’s not to say I didn’t thrill to the first Number Line to break ten minutes in over a decade! Having been present for the first performance of the song, I never developed the hate for it that a lot of fans did, and on weekends like this the line “All my friends come backwards down the number line” hits deepest, because Alpine is the only place you’ll find all the oldest and dearest members of my core Phish crew. For some reason I had a feeling Mr. Completely was coming this weekend; I’d never seen Phish play it before, but I did see Trey play it right here 21 years ago, on a night when he declared Alpine Valley “the best place to play in the world”. Dropping in a mutation of Randy Rhoads’ iconic Crazy Train riff in this jam was another kick I needed—I’ve seen that song performed here a few times as well. Saturday night was memorable from beginning to end, even disregarding the rain; the jams still weren’t long or inventive or dynamic or particularly hooked-up.
If Sunday proved anything, it’s that Phish have heard the mantra of ‘never miss a Sunday show’ and are determined to confound. I have to say Sunday night in Atlantic City was kind of a bore as well, and Hartford sounded like a great in-house experience but certainly doesn’t dazzle on tape (but these both at least had a big Wave Of Hope jam!). The urge to defy expectations is one of Phish’s greatest strengths, until the expectation is simply ‘jams on Sundays’. Cruelly, they opened with The Landlady just like they did in 2019. Whereas that year, one of the best Phish shows I’ve ever seen unfolded, this time it was only a taunt.
Now truly, whatever else may have been lacking, Trey did play a mean guitar every night of this run. Overall competency of playing is another comparison folks might want to make between ’22 and ’99, a fair one if taken completely out of context. In ’99 it was the sloppiest they’d ever played, and in ’22 it’s the tightest they’ve been in a decade. Yet the tradeoff is clear in the historically bland song rotation. It’s not lost on me that Trey’s nailing Fluffheads and Rebas and Divided Skys and even Sugar Shacks; we’ve not been able to expect such things lo these thirteen or so years of Phish’s un-retirement. And how many of these years did we pine for red-hot lead guitar? And now that we have it…I’m bitching?
Look, in 1999 I was the kid who could be perfectly content listening to Trey wail all night and play nothing but the hits. If this had been a Trey Anastasio Band show, I’d still be that kid! In terms of Phish 2022, however, “the hits” amounts to a whole bunch of really bad songs. Which is weird because over the past four years or so they’ve debuted a whole bunch of songs I really like, and they’re just not playing them. Anybody remember Kasvot Växt? Phish really only remember Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S., apparently. Remember just this last Halloween when they debuted another twelve new songs? Only four of them even got played on this tour; they needed to make room for all those Drift While You’re Sleepings. I might as well give up on ever hearing Thread, the best song on Phish’s latest studio album, ever again; they need to play Blaze On ten times a year instead.
I’m all in favor of the Make Rarities Rare Again philosophy, until it’s the tour finale and you refuse to jam or even give fans the tiniest kickdown. Given the fact that I was feeling lucky to be there at all, it wouldn’t have taken much to satiate me. A token Tweezer or Piper? A mildly tense or forbidding minute or two of improvisation? No? Not even one of your little extra-minute Golgi Apparatuses? Maybe if I hadn’t listened to the whole tour leading up to this I could be blissfully unaware, but this was the show where Phish’s ability to glide through with minimal effort came crashing down. They didn’t feel like preparing many songs this year, and this weekend they didn’t even put in the effort to jam. It was a lazy and thoroughly unimaginative show, and at least somewhat intentionally so.
We like to believe, because they’ve told us so over and over, that Phish go onstage with ‘no idea what’s going to happen’. It’s bullshit though. There were chances of rain in the forecast all weekend, people, so Phish soundchecked Petrichor on Friday night, but it didn’t rain that night so they didn’t play it, saving it for Saturday. I’m not hating on this thoughtful doe-eyed curation by Trey; this was magic for many fans, a kind that Trey basically invented for the world to boot. I’m just saying, the focus put into this one very long very bad song inevitably steers the proceedings away from what I enjoy about Phish. Similarly, for whatever reason, they played Jerry Reed’s Broken Heart Attack during Sunday’s soundcheck, and that became the entire focal point of that night’s second set. And these are just the items we know of. The funny thing is, back in 1996, when Fish emerged from behind the drumkit twice to take the spotlight at Phish’s very first Alpine show, it nearly turned me off of the band for good, while in 2022 this bizarre interlude all sandwiched inside a Martian Monster produced the only memorable music of the night.
Okay, and the Gotta Jibboo, but again, that was only due to the guitar. I’m never going to resign myself to Phish just being a goofy rock band with a great lead guitarist okay? I hate trying to project intentions on the band members; I can’t read minds. All I know for sure is that someone decided, probably at some point during the pandemic, that the guitar player of this band needs to be more venerated as a Guitar Hero. You know how Ted Nugent likes to lament the fact that there are no Guitar Heroes any more, and he’s right, but actually that’s a great thing? Someone has realized, quite correctly, that the guy from Phish could totally be remembered as a Guitar Hero. And that was the clear intention of Phish at Alpine Valley if not the whole tour, to make this case.
Back in ’99 you used to hear those rumblings from fans, no question. I recall people bitching walking out of that Alpine ’99 show—it was sloppy, it was too short (another common and verifiable gripe about summer ’22). Grumbling about “Trey’s ego” was rampant. This year I can’t quite figure out if it’s really about his ego or he’s just going along with what seems to be the inevitable path laid out for him. For all I know it’s the other three guys wanting to see their buddy shine or get more recognition. I’m sure the mix in the band’s monitors is way more balanced than what we’re getting as fans, too; maybe the bass even sounds good up there. Out in the crowd, however, the weekend came off as one long monochromatic Trey wankathon with plenty of stupendous playing by Page if you strained to pay attention. (Mike was practically inaudible, just like back in ’96; we tried three different lawn spots that are usually primo for sound, this was my 43rd concert here.)
I hope it’s just a phase; it probably is. The biggest issue is that I know how many great jams Phish played this year when I wasn’t looking, and then when I show up it’s back to happy happy happy happy guitar guitar guitar guitar and still none of the songs I want to hear. Most runs of the tour showcased some variety of tone, some emotional dynamic; at these three shows, not a bit. Pure celebration. Just like a whole lot of fans want, and I don’t begrudge them this. Okay to hell with it I do begrudge them. I can’t even blame the band entirely for these mind-numbing setlists this year; I know it’s a give-and-take, and I know the Phish crowd keeps getting older along with the band, and as people get older they tend to care less and less about art and more about getting through the damn day.
Maybe Phish were tired, maybe they’d gotten their asses handed to them in ways I’m unaware of. Sunday was just a boring, predictable show, especially relative to the current tour, right down to Trey’s phony crazed mugging for the camera as he held his guitar aloft at the end of First Tube. (Why can’t I remember to keep my eyes closed?) And it was still a solid night of entertainment. I just don’t know how any of this is about getting out of the way of the music. All these years, Phish shows have sincerely been about the music for me. In that sense I’ve certainly outlasted the band. But they’ve finally beaten me down. And I’ll still never stop coming back, because as it has turned out, Phish is the thing that brings me together with the people I need to be together with. That work they have already done. So even if Phish is about limp prog-rock and vaguely creepy new-age preaching and guitar heroism for Phish, then for me it’s simply about friends and dancing. I’m just saying, the direction this band seems to be headed, some nights I’d almost rather take my fifty bucks and sit down with y’all for a nice meal somewhere.