[Recap courtesy of Pete Hoherd, user @FunkyCFunkyDo.]
If you haven’t already peeked at the setlist from last night’s show, good. If you have, who can blame you. If you have, but haven’t listened to the show, having only been able to restrain your jaw from gravity’s (read: Phish’s) best efforts to detach it from your body, please read on, as this may well serve as a review and medical advice.
The sun was punching its timecard for the day when Phish took the stage for the first time since the hallowed Baker’s Dozen shows. The moon had been out quite a while, surely relishing in a victory lap from last week’s eclipse. But for Phish, this corner of time and space, reserved for them since 2011, was exactly zero parts nostalgia and immeasurable parts trailblazing. There was no looking back, only forward, and how apt that “Blaze On” would be the impetus of the next leg of our journey.
Wasting no time, Trey strums the opening chords of “Blaze On.” Energized and loose from the onset, Trey immediately guides the song into an upbeat, some might call generic, outro jam. But this is where the generalizations stop. Like quicksand, Page and Mike suck the jam into a murky and thick soundscape. It roils through improvised musical turbulence, tension mounting. This is the opening song? "Blaze On"?? Get out. Just before we could get fully submerged, Trey leads his band out of the darkness and into a swift, bright climax, while returning to the refrain, “You got one life, blaze on!” It was advice, as much as it was song. I’ll take two.
“555” sunk some fangs into the second selection of … “Wait… you’re sure THAT was the opener?!” …yes, it was. People were still in disbelief as Mike rumbled through this bass-heavy, pulsing song. Played with a smirk’s worth more attitude, this version provides some early set funk and sass that set a tone for the, oh, handful or so of songs that would come after it. After that heavy opening volley subsides, “Breath and Burning” enlists itself into the third song of the set with a loose and airy feel that was sobering, to say the least. Trey, wide-eyed, head-titled, is visibly having a blast onstage as he watches Page mix cocktails on his keyboards. Mai tais, anyone? Page’s choice, sandwiches aren’t his only culinary expertise after all, as he leads the band into a delightful, calypso outro jam that has a shot or maybe two extra than what "Breath and Burning" normally calls for.
“Theme From the Bottom” takes the stage in what seemed a surprise placement to my ears. I think this was the band saying, “Let’s go get em!” Fishman is especially bright in this version, with Trey very skillfully nailing the oft-missed bridges and composed sections of the song. The jam, however, belongs to Fish. Rabbit punching his kit, quick strikes and nimble hands, the jam builds into a cathartic (even if “standard-great”) peak. As though rehearsed, and your author most definitely thinks so, Phish in lock-step segues into “Free.” Without missing a literal beat (and some setlist students may argue it is a “->” not a “>”, as “Theme” wound down, “Free” started up and off we went, again! Shifting the spotlight to Mr. Michael Gordon, he wields his Modulous like a blacksmith wields an anvil and hammer. Deep, punishing notes shook the earth itself. Bedrock quakes, mantle shifts, and seismologists in the greater Denver area scramble to identify the source of these tremors. Notes so heavy that Trey abandoned his guitar and walks over to his effects board to start summoning the demons from the cracks Mike is creating. The song trudges on, demented and eerie; the days of “Free” being a standard 5-6 minute, more or less predictable, jaunt through rock progressions seem to be over. Whether the jam ends, or the earth succumbs, I know not. What I do know is that Mike has unfinished business.
Trey jumps right into “Tube.” The rhythm section of the band is gnashing their teeth in the short chorus before the funk starts. You can almost feel Fish and Mike lurching forward as Trey sings the refrain, “I thought that I could help.” Pretty sure they took that line quite literally, as Fish and Mike explode into some filthy, funky music. It was in this jam when I questioned Fish’s authenticity as a human. Octopus, definitely, as having a meager four appendages seems rather implausible for the rhythms he was hammering out. At two different points the jam seemed to wind down, and at two different points, it was Trey who answered the bell. Much like “Free,” and it seems *every* other song these days, Phish, led by Trey, is showing an improvisational courage that I have not heard, consistently, since 2003. This “Tube,” if nothing else, is funky bravery at its finest.
The sweaty aftermath of “Tube” releases us into a hypnotic and mesmerizing version of “Roggae.” Where some of "Tube’s" dance moves that I both witnessed and partook in were highly x-rated, "Roggae" lends itself to modest humility. Slowly revealing the beauty of decrescendo, this version drifts along effortless. The jam takes on an underwater feel. Mike forms bulbous notes, essentially musical bubbles. Page and Trey, like schools of fish, dart into, out of, under, and in between these slowly rising bubbles. We are deep in the water now, shades of blue turning darker, but not ominously. Fishman starts to buoy the jam. The bubbles rise, finding the path of least resistance to breach the surface tension, ultimately doing just that, splashing and popping about in a celebratory and playful fashion. If you ever want to know what being underwater sounds like, listen to this “Roggae.”
“More” closes the set. Much like how “Roggae” can translate ocean waves into soundwaves, “More” can translate the best hug you’ve ever been given into an auditory embrace. Warm and endearing, "More" celebrates what is surely a… a… an eight (8) song first set!? Get right outta town with that, Phish! The punchy, love-filled release of “More” highlights the jam-filled, courageous first set, and sends us into setbreak thinking a common refrain at a Phish show, “How can they possibly top that?”
Before set two, it was rumored that the Event Staff was handing out towels and goggles, reminding everyone, “Safety third.” Needless to say, something Phishy was afoot. “No Men in No Man’s Land” pops into the opening slot. If you are a Simpsons fan, surely you know the bit about “Moe’s Funk Dancing for Self-Defense.” That is to say, when someone disses your fly-girl, you give ‘em one of these ::dances extremely controversially:: Now, multiply this sultry shuffle by about 20,000 people, and you have an idea of what went down during “NMINML.” Greasy funk, anchored firmly by Mike for the first nine minutes, gives way to an incendiary (hey, Trey’s incendiary too, man) peak. Unrestrained and without caution, Trey heaves handfuls of notes across the warm Denver air (now’s probably a good time to find some of those goggles, safety third after all). A relentless musical attack, "NMINML’s" chorus returns, but does not signal the end. Not by a long shot.
The band embarks into deep psychedelia. Menacing, brooding soundscapes. Phish tries to navigate the treachery. Each member embarking into their own corner of darkness. The jam becomes four individuals trying to find their way back to each other. Lost in the thick haze. Have they reached the point of no return? Does the rabbit hole, indeed, have no end? This is what Phish does so well. They manipulate our emotions. They can turn a nearly pornographic dance party into a terrorizing ordeal. Trust is key in moments like these. Trust that Phish knows the way. In an instant, right before crossing the event horizon, their four individual journeys find each other, and burst out of the darkness like a gamma ray from a collapsing star! Lightning flashes! Goosebumps send in reserves! And dogs and cats make a pact to never fight again as the second, ferocious peak of the song catches fire. No time to cool down though; take a deep breath, though, as we are about to dive deep again.
“Carini” snarls out of "NMINML’s" cosmic carnage. “Carini’s” got an attitude. “Carini’s” got an edge. And Carini’s gonna get you! Wasting no time, Phish’s improvisational courage leads hem bravely back down the rabbit hole. The fissures in the earth that Mike had opened up during “Free” were now turned into chasms by "Carini." Thunderous bass notes literally shook your bones. Mike was captaining this ship. Eerie, haunted sounds escaped from Page’s synths, creating nightmares in our brains. This time, we may not escape the edge of darkness. This time, we may be swallowed whole. But trust Phish, fellow listener, because they know the way. Modulating into a major key jam, the sun starts to rise out of infinite darkness. Only Phish has such control over the heavens. Patiently, Trey starts licking at some blissful notes. Not attacking like he did one song prior. Methodically, the jam swells. Wave after wave of happiness washes over the crowd. The energy virally spreads unrestrained.
BOOM! POW! The release! Three dimensional auditory explosions propel “Carini” into a peak, for this particular title, that has not been heard in this song. But again, the jam does not relent. Instead, it drops into a sassy, post-peak funk-down. Your author was sure there was going to be a -> “Camel Walk” and, in preparation, decides to unleash his most superlegal dance move ever. To say that we were boogieing down would be a personal insult to Stevie Wonder. Our dance moves were so hot that… [redacted] …so security put yellow caution tape around us – not to keep people out, no, but to keep us IN. A fool’s errand, as we simply could not remove our pants fast enough (maybe this is what those towels were for). Is it the best ever? Might have to consult “10.31.13,” “10.18.13,” and “2.17.97” before answering that, but this is a discussion sure to happen in the annals of Phish for a long time.
Cool down? BOSH FLIMSHAW! Even though the “Camel Walk” fakeout was a just a tease, having “Ghost” takes its funky place was rather acceptable. Some 45 consecutive minutes of music had been played at this point, and Phish showed no signs of slowing down. “Ghost” ripped from the onset. Trey especially seemed to relish in this version. Avoiding darkness entirely, Trey sprints into the jam. Like crafting a Lisa Frank ensemble from his guitar, that is to say, puppies and kittens and rainbows, Trey bounces and shines and bubbles his way through the jam. It shifts into a slightly Latin affair before reaching a volcanic like peak. Teases of “NMINML” seemed to rumble through the PA, but were absorbed by Trey, again, recoiling and striking at the peak! Again and again, as if he were spring loaded, Trey darts up his fret board, showering cascades of triumph over his captive listeners. And then again, for real this time, Trey guides his band back into “NMINML” proper before closing out the jam. What a ride!
“Harry Hood” comes next and you know, it was one of those moments at a show where… where you can’t even really cheer. Not out of contempt, no, quite the opposite. Your brain, your senses, your imagination cannot comprehend how skillfully crafted and executed this set (and show) has been. This “Hood,” although not a world-beater, was impeccably placed and impeccably played. The recipe for happiness can be found as Mike and Trey trade notes back and forth, and as the jam swirls into its cathartic release. Trey steps back to Fish’s drum stand and gives him the nod. “Cavern” bursts through the cacophony that usually signals the end of the show, but not tonight. We get five more minutes of Phish. Bonus Phish! “Cavern” was the exclamation point that this show deserved, even if it did not need. Amazing job, Phish.
The first half of the encore, “The Horse” > “Silent in the Morning” allows us to meditate on what we had just experienced. We had climbed mountains, and sat on top of the world. We escaped the jaws of the underworld, only to trust Phish to evade the totality of darkness. We danced, we sang, we celebrated that whenever you are at a Phish show, everything really is, and forever will be, alright. Enough sappiness, for now, as Trey, uhm, tried to play “Character Zero.” You know, its moments like these when Phish is totally humanized. Trey botched the opening so badly that you could see each of his bandmates jerk their heads around to make sure Trey wasn’t having a stroke onstage. Thankfully, Trey approaches the mic, literally in full laughter at his own mistake, and proceeds to slay the standard but oh-so-delightful sing-along song to close the night. Even when they mess up, they still find a way to do no wrong. And if this is the new baseline for Phish, well, hold on to your butts.
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November 22, 1997
20 years ago
 Lyric changed to "Michael Esquandolas."
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