The 40th anniversary of Phish’s first show is less than two months away, and thus far the band has treated the occasion the way a human might anticipate the milestone: don’t even think about it. It’s just another year. Don’t make a fuss.
By and large, this is what fans want, too. We’ve seen all sorts of gimmicks and special guests on the Phish stage over the years, and usually they amount to little more than distractions. They can be helpful during stretches when Phish are otherwise not in top form, but 2023 has shown the band reaching new heights on their best nights. Probably best to keep anything out of the way that might disrupt the flow.
That’s a difficult enough task for anyone in this day and age; we’ve become a hopelessly distracted species, and most of us didn’t get to spend Friday relaxing and preparing for a Phish show. For the band, it was the final weekend of a “grueling” eight-date tour; for Chicagoans, it felt like maybe it had been a stressful week and it was rainy and miserable outside and everyone got very very baked in order to try and decompress for the occasion. Energy in the United Center for Phish’s first-ever show there was decidedly low, and the band delivered a wicked show in spite of us.
Emerging onstage to the theme from FRIDAY THE 13TH, Phish set a dastardly tone with the show-opening “Carini” but nobody is fooled by this gesture any more; despite its aggressive tone it almost invariably produces happy improv, and aside from the always cacophonous “Saw It Again”, it was a blissy, upbeat first set highlighted by a lengthy but monochromatic “Ghost” that segued smoothly out of “Halley’s Comet” (and indicated early that this was NOT to be a no-repeat tour) and then the 12-year bust-out of Neil Young’s “Albuquerque”. I also loved the wacky “Meat”, but I always love hearing that one.
Set II was almost as dreamy as it looks on paper; I say “almost” because there were a lot of miscues (which of course I’ll never think about after this review is finished). It was a relatively sloppy night all around and like during any banner era of their career Phish turned mishaps into opportunities to get creative. It’s largely on the shoulders of Jon Fishman; the past two years his drumming has featured increasingly more textural and polyrhythmic expansions, resulting in a more experimental bent all around. Sometimes it does throw his bandmates off, though, and sometimes Fish is the one who loses his spot, but Phish have regained their prowess at recovering and reconnecting in real time, so fuckups don’t really faze anyone any more.
Thus, what will stick with us from Friday will be the way they jammed practically everything in the second set, ESPECIALLY the marvelous “Sand” opener, even though nothing broke the precious 20-minute mark that some fans still cling to as a quality standard. And we’ll remember how Trey found his way into the “Talk” guitar riff during the quiet early goings of “Harry Hood”, resulting in only the ballad’s third performance since the ‘90s.
Chicago was grateful for such a bounteous first night and showed up on Saturday better-rested and ready to party. The continuing theme was a refusal to play anything straight and normal, but also never letting anything wander too far to get back home. “Sample In A Jar” got a jam; it’s not unheard of any more but it’s still a treat! “Tube” continued its ongoing hot streak. “46 Days” wound its way into a “Chest Fever” jam that they reprised again after returning to the song proper! You don’t hear Phish do stuff like that very often. Tonight’s token jaded-vet-pleaser was “Corinna”, the beloved Taj Mahal cover, soulfully rendered. Then following a raging MEAP (“Most Events Aren’t Planned”, that is), the band set fire to the room with “Cavern”; the crowd exploded in gratitude as the set clearly was over, yet Trey in his obliviousness tacked on a “More” that absolutely nobody else needed at that moment. It’s fine.
“Chalk Dust Torture” they’d just played on Tuesday, but seeing as that was a pedestrian version, Saturday’s second-set opener hardly even counts as a repeat. The band showcased a newly rediscovered talent for maintaining intensity during quiet moments (not for the first or last time this weekend), compressing the music into a tight, dense point and seeing how it might expand from there. I wonder if some day we’ll get another actual silent jam. In this instance, however, a fairly typical bliss swell is about all we got, and as the denouement began to waste away it seemed clear that “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was emerging but Trey axed this idea in favor of a very brief rendition of the year’s newest workhorse, “Oblivion”. It was with “Split Open And Melt” that Phish ripped open the cosmos, though. I thought about the years on end when this song didn’t do shit, when a fruitful strategy was exhausted or there WAS no strategy or they simply didn’t have the wherewithal as an ensemble to get creative with it. I thought about the wonky composition this started out as, a trifle really compared to this sonic beast emanating from the stage. The Phish of 1989 couldn’t possibly conceive of this psychedelic nightmare vomiting forth from this song. What a journey it’s been.
Saturday’s Split was the seventh of the year and they’ve all been stupendous. Its renaissance could end any time; it’s been the band’s most reliable show highlight for a few years now. I’ll never take these for granted but it might be time for a different song to step up soon, ‘cause a lot of the other old-faithfuls didn’t necessarily pan out this weekend. “What’s The Use” was a perfect comedown after the rare mid-set Melt, and during the silent portion of the song, Chicago could not contain itself; this had been too good a stretch and folks were vocally elated (not to mention Chicago being one of the chompiest cities in the country). Still, folks hoping for a big expansive epic were still waiting; “Everything’s Right” didn’t yield much more than a short happy plunker, and Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”, while certainly a crowd-pleaser, didn’t produce a type-II jam like it did the last time they played it in Chicagoland (Rosemont 2018). That left only “Fluffhead”, always welcome, slightly extended tonight and featuring Page continuing to dominate on the piano the way he had for most of the set.
There’s only one thing that has gotten worse about Phish shows since the pandemic, which is that Sunday shows are no longer the guaranteed marquee event they used to be. During the 3.0 era we’d often suffer through a couple nights of jamless drivel knowing that redemption would arrive on Sunday. We hadn’t suffered enough on Friday and Saturday, however, so rather than stuff Sunday’s first set with choice bustouts or jams, Phish opened with “Everything Is Hollow”, sounding as clunky as ever in its fourth outing because, well, they never play it? Or because it’s an intrinsically terrible song? Otherwise the set featured a six-minute “Timber”, a seven-minute “Mercury”, an eleven-minute “Stash” and a nine-minute “David Bowie” to end it. I give those timings because of how meager and unadventurous these songs were, sub-par efforts even for an average weeknight much less a tour finale.
Nevertheless, these are popular songs, and the average fan doesn’t care how long they go on. The trend carried into set II with “Drowned”, which managed about three minutes of rote jamming before dying unceremoniously. Then came “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing”, one of my faves from the 2.0 era. My first time catching it was at Deer Creek in 2009, a breakthrough night for the recently-reunited Phish; that night it had opened the second set and preceded Drowned, and in the years since, I’d seen Phish play it eight more times and they NEVER ONCE jammed it out. Tonight they did. I noticed again how Page’s creative, forceful playing was driving the improv, keeping it from sagging numerous times. And then in sneaks the Tweezer riff!
This almost instantly sparked a heated (possibly ongoing!) debate in the Phish community about whether this constituted PLAYING TWEEZER or simply teasing/jamming it as a theme, because many of us are incurable nerds and it MATTERS whether we saw one Tweezer this weekend or two. Now, as opposed to the “Prince Caspian” from Magnaball (aka Tweezerpants), this Tweezer interlude is a more outright and extensive instance of Tweezerness, albeit without any singing. Still, I don’t feel like I saw two Tweezers in Chicago; I saw a Tweezer on Friday that clawed its way briefly into another song on Sunday, an exceedingly rare occurrence in Phishdom (though rampant in the world of the Disco Biscuits). This was indeed a churchlike experience befitting Sunday Phish, and the improv in and out of the zombie Tweezer was glorious.
Only one glaring omission from the tour’s setlists remained on the table at this point: “Simple”. Since about 2017, this had been another of Phish’s most reliable vehicles. Until last summer when it seemed to lose some luster and it’s now settling back into brevity, although the way the little bliss jam imploded into noise at the end was inspired. Then they played another of my favorite 2.0 songs, “Pebbles And Marbles”. There’s a whole list of songs from that era they never play, including the song they once thought highly enough of to name their fucking comeback album after (PLAY “ROUND ROOM” YOU COWARDS), but I’m thankful this one still pops up. I couldn’t help thinking of the time they played it in 2003 on their lone 2.0 Illinois stop (Rosemont again), a messy yet triumphant dirge that was almost indisputably the greatest version ever until it busted wide open again in Santa Barbara in 2021.
Sunday night’s rendition was streamlined yet potent, and the follow-up was that ultrahip bustout of the evening: Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon”, in only its third appearance at a Phish show. It strikes me as more of a Saturday-night song but whatever; talk about a heady crowd reaction! When Phish played Feat’s WAITING FOR COLUMBUS as their musical costume (Halloween 2010), a lot of fans hoped Spanish Moon would enter the rotation as a new jam vehicle; now that Phish are good at jamming again…maybe it could finally happen?
Not this time. Not that they were QUITE finished jamming; “A Wave Of Hope” amounted to a valiant last gasp. This song has usurped “Ruby Waves” as the primary new-school rager and tonight’s went to spacecamp quickly, putting a resounding wallop into the set before the utter deflation of “Evolve” (it’s an okay song but could easily be mistaken for self-caricature and definitely does not get my feet or heart pumping). “Loving Cup”, we’re no longer sick of this song, right? We already knew this set was pretty much finished.
I’m sorry but we were clearly due for a “Sleeping Monkey” encore. Instead we got “Run Like An Antelope”, which I’ll probably never tire of hearing, no matter how predictable. I also enjoy “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” as much as the next dipshit but I could’ve gone for any tiny little rarity rather than this, or just get on with it and play “Tweezer Reprise” at that point, you’ve played this song nine times this year now? Is that really necessary?
Ah, but this is the endless folly of following Phish, because the past couple years have not been ABOUT rarities, yet we did get several of them this weekend. Unfortunately that translated to no truly epic jams, and that’s been the story by and large this tour. Phish 4.0: we only jam in the summer™. These, of course, can only be the words of an exceptionally spoiled Phish fan. Relative to pre-pandemic days, this weekend produced jams galore. The band has gotten so good that the baseline would’ve been inconceivable a decade ago. There wasn’t a weak show among these three in Chicago; there just wasn’t anything legendary, either. And at this point, only legendary will suffice.