[Thank you to Dr. Stephanie Jenkins for this recap, and to her friend Yaron Marcus for the fabulous photography.]
This year’s Philosophy School of Phish concluded in late August. For the fourth summer in a row, I’ve had the privilege of teaching this course, offered through Oregon State University’s Ecampus program. During this session, I introduced fifteen non- (or not yet-) phans to our favorite band through an eight-week survey of the philosophy of art and music. Witnessing student’s reactions to their first Phish shows and answering their questions about what Dr. Jnan Blau has termed the “Phish phenomenon” helps me to remember what it’s like to be a Phish neophyte and gain some reflective distance on what it means to be a phan of Phish.
In preparation for writing this recap, I’ve been reflecting on the significance of Phish’s annual Labor Day tradition. Without question, Dick’s is my favorite spot for seeing Phish; it’s the only venue for which I’ve had the honor of attending every show. Each year, the stadium has been blessed with numerous unanticipated song placements, contenders for “best of” versions (such as the 9/1/2012 “Light”, 8/31/2012 “Undermind,” 8/29/14 “Simple,” 9/2/2011 “Slave,” and many more), top-notch jamming, and creative setlist pranks. Over the course of seven years, Dick’s has acquired a mysterious, otherworldly atmosphere that evades linguistic description. It’s certainly not the only sacred site for Phish phans; Madison Square Garden, Watkins Glen, and, of course, Big Cypress, for example, carry their own mystical charm and historic weight. What is so special about Dick’s? Why does my annual journey to Commerce City feel like a pilgrimage?
In my attempts to answer this question, I’ve returned to the observations my students have made about the meaning of phan-hood: the community. In their “Concert Field Notes” assignments, students consistently remark on the unbridled joy, passionate commitment, and collective freedom that unite the audience and distinguish our community from other music scenes. While the course’s assigned readings analyze the theme of community from a theoretical perspective--Dr. John Drabinksi calls it the “occasional community”, while Dr. D. Robert DeChaine prefers the concept of “communitas”— attending three concerts over eight weeks immerses students in the experience of the Phish community.
Seeing Phish through my students eyes has reinforced my belief that the meaning of Dick’s is, simply stated, community. I’ve made beloved friends at this venue that will last a lifetime, friends who are family because of the music at this particular space. Attending the Labor Day run together has become a phamily tradition, where we return to celebrate our band and each other. My experience is far from unique; I’m sure most Phish.net readers who’ve attended multiple Dick’s runs have similar stories.
Of course, this is just my hypothesis; my thesis might be a “load of shit.” So, in the spirit of attempting to capture the “meaning of Dick’s” for our community, I asked a number of my friends to define the “Dick’s experience.” Here are some of their responses:
“It’s a chance to spend three days together with people who have become family over 7 years. We have had marriages, divorces, and children born. We only met because of the music, the mind blowing music.” –Ellie Kastner
“Hope. Freedom. Happiness. Kindness.” – Satoshi Sakuraba
“Domestic Riviera Maya. It’s not a festival, but it kind of is.” – Chris De Cotis
“You mean other than large inflatable penises? Community. Love. Dedication that borders on obsession. Tradition. Phamily.” – Jill Peters
“Adventure.” –Nathan Tobey
The magic of the Dick’s community, which includes the shared ritual, lasting friendships, and anything-can-happen vibe, permeates the venue and has the power to transform a solid, but average show into a transcendent, cathartic dance party. And that’s just what it did last night. Compared to the now legendary Baker’s Dozen run and the consistently outstanding jamming of previous Dick’s shows, the second night of Phish’s seventh annual Commerce City Labor Day run could be considered underwhelming. Or, at least, the surprisingly jam-lite second set might have disappointed discerning listeners (otherwise lovingly known as jaded vets). But these thoughts didn’t occur to me until I took on the critical gaze of “show recapper,” and I haven’t spoken to a single person who didn’t enjoy both sets. After all, who would complain about a type II “Simple” opener and “Lizards” encore?
Overall, the show was a well-executed, jam-filled first set that overshadowed the more mellow second set with concise versions of Phish staples. Notably, night two featured the long-awaited first appearance of “Reba” at Dick’s, and a stand-out version of “Wolfman’s Brother.” At 8:05pm, the band walked onto the stage, where they were set up about five feet closer to the audience than in previous years, and Mike’s “negative differential resonance” horn from the Baker’s Dozen had disappeared.
With no need for warm ups, the band launched into a show-opening “Simple.” Unlike this summer’s magnificent Chicago and Baker’s Dozen “Simples,” this version did not pass the 20-minute mark. It did, however, develop into a beautiful, celebratory type II jam, which is a rare pleasure for the opening slot. The concluding, quiet transition jam was interrupted by the “Martian Monster” Laura Olsher narration sample and led to a succinct, yet rousing, version of this Halloween favorite. For the third spot, “Reba” was finally taken off the Dick’s bench, to the delight of the entire audience. This cherished tune has been hard-to-catch lately, but it delivered a soul-cleansing, gorgeous jam that caused me to shed a few tears around the 10-minute mark.
After Reba’s whistling conclusion came a noteworthy, electrifying “Sand,” which featured some Hendrixy shredding from Trey. After a brief pause following “Sand,” Mike led the band into the Gordon/Murawski tune, “Crazy Sometimes.” While this song is still finding its “jam” legs, its third Phish appearance offered an enjoyable, dancey celebration of neurodiversity.
During the Baker’s Dozen, pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph concluded on Twitter that Jon Fishman is “one of the top best pocket drummers in the world.” The final three songs of the first set offered a series of songs providing evidence for this statement and highlighted his precise, groove-grounding percussion work. The standard “Limb by Limb” included a “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” tease from Trey and segued into the show MVP: a spectacular “Wolfman’s Brother.” For the second year in a row, Phish treated the Saturday night Dick’s attendees to jammed-out “Wolfman’s”; both performances are “must listen” versions. This year’s rendition featured moments of Trey singing along with his guitar solo and a slow, funky build into a spacious jam with a powerful conclusion. The first set, which easily could have been mistaken for a second set, concluded with an energetic “Walls of the Cave.”
Phish’s third performance of “Everything’s Right” commenced the second set, the song’s first appearance in a set-opening spot. It was followed by solid, but succinct versions of “Fuego,” “Steam,” and “Chalkdust Torture.” “Fuego” included a brief, spacey jam, while “Steam” contained a few Zeppelinesque riffs from Trey before the final verse. “Mike’s Song” followed “Chalkdust” and lacked its second jam, despite its reappearance at the Baker’s Dozen. Then came “Winterqueen,” which was the song’s first “Mike’s Groove” appearance. This unusual placement birthed a mellow, contemplative jam before transitioning to “What’s the Use?” Next, Mike’s bass solo then announced “Weekapaug Groove.” In contrast to last year’s Saturday night Dick’s show-opening placement, Saturday’s “Slave to the Traffic Light” gifted phans with an emotional conclusion to the second set.
The first Gamehendge tune of this year’s Dick’s run, “Lizards” opened the two-song encore, while “Run Like An Antelope” closed Saturday’s show. Both songs in this unexpected twenty-minute encore were well-played, and left the audience enthusiastically anticipating night three. As you prepare for Sunday’s final show of the summer, take a moment to appreciate the inspiring community that we are a part of, and ask yourself: “What does Dick’s mean to me?” Let us know what you discover in the Comments.
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November 22, 1997
20 years ago
 Lyric changed to "Michael Esquandolas."
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