Three songs into Kenny Rogers' set at Bonnaroo on Sunday, he expressed his gratitude to the organizers and the crowd for welcoming him to the festival. He made some quip about young fans remembering his music (blissfully unaware to the apparent hipster irony), closing with a proclamation of his intent to play every one of his hits. The tent erupted.
With Rogers, a greatest hits set is expected. He does not need to prove himself at Bonnaroo, as acts have done over the past eleven years. All attendees are expecting to hear are recognizable songs, as he has been performing for years in Branson. While Phish certainly no longer needs to prove themselves, their fans, by contrast, do expect more than a run through of the hits. Especially during a four-hour slot on what could arguably be the largest stage in live music. But other than one or two moments of surprise and adventure, Phish's show was filled with songs that simply muscled through the bigness of the event.
After relatively mild temperatures for Bonnaroo over the first three days, the expected Sunday rains arrived early in the morning, adding an alternative sound to the poundings of dubstep. Other than making paths muddy, the rain actually held off for most of the day. Approaching Phish's start time, the two rumors floating around were a Kenny Rogers sit-in and rain early in the first set.
Surprisingly prompt, Phish took the stage around 8:05. While a crowd participation song like “Wilson” or “Punch You In the Eye” was expected, the low rumblings marking the beginning of “Down with Disease” was met with whoops and smiles. At least the expectation of a band that meant business was there. “Down with Disease” was a good version, but not necessarily the precursor to exploration.
Mention should be made of how good the sound was. The PA on the main (What) Stage, was impressive all weekend, particularly for Radiohead and even Bon Iver. Sound engineer Garry Brown had each of the four members dialed in perfectly. During the second song, “Funky Bitch,” I was noticing bass lines of Mike's I had never heard before.
“The Moma Dance” showed some patience - of course it is part of the song, but during the age of the "rip cord," patience is not always apparent. “Sample” was good enough, as was “Axilla.”
Earlier in the day, Kenny Rogers had played “The Gambler” during his set. But if Phish felt moved to invite a “legend” on stage, it was hard to believe that Phish would have played anything else with Rogers. And as a reprise, it was about as to-the-book as it could have been played – the band seemed hesitant, matching Kenny’s surprise and appreciation for the reception he received (on both stages).
It was during the ensuing “Possum” that Phish put their own spin on “The Gambler,” as Trey teased it both in the beginning build up as well as later in the song, along with his current go-to “Streets of Cairo.” “Wilson” goaded us to acknowledge that yes, we are indeed having fun. While Phish.net has noted this closing run of songs with segues, the only one that stood out was the “Tweezer” > “Free” – and that was not necessarily smooth. “Tweezer” may have veered a bit into the realm of jam – but nothing of note, slowing down into the opening strums of “Free” before it transitioned into that recognizable melody. Of the recent additions to Phish’s catalog, “Backwards Down the Number Line” seems to be the perfect choice for a crowd of 80,000 strong out in a field. There is a bit of Americana timelessness to that song that just seems to work – especially Sunday night. And if “Number Line” felt right, then “Cavern” was just as fitting. With the rain falling steadily and after four days of walking and dancing, we all needed a reminder as to what to take care of.
The first set started with expectation and ended with predictability. Enjoyable, certainly, but only pieces of the “Disease” and “Tweezer” may be calling for a second listen. Those around me were smiling – a little wet but not worse for wear – but there did not seem to be much discussion of what happened on stage. Just smiles and nodding of heads.
The band returned after a relatively short set break and launched into TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age” for the tenth time. It took me a few moments to place the song but I was immediately pleased with the choice. Phish tackles the song’s rhythm quite well, and after its exploration the last time it was played (12/31/11), there was the possibility... But after a few moments of letting go, the band dropped out for Fish’s familiar intro to “2001.” Early in the song Page used this great funky tone on his clav that I wish would have kept going for minutes – one of my little highlights, partially due to how good it sounded. I will admit, “Chalk Dust Torture” took me a bit by surprise; I was not expecting the song to come out of “2001.” Again, pretty standard.
As can be expected, cell phone coverage while at Bonnaroo is hit or miss. When texts come in, they come in as a deluge (as it seems glow sticks are tossed any more - all at once). With that said, the setlist for the two Worcester shows had not sunk into my consciousness. I was not aware of “Down with Disease” having opened the second set of the second night until after the fact. I had, though, noticed the pleasant buzz around the “Carini” -> “Taste” from night one. So I was a bit surprised with the “Carini” repeat. Especially as the song took off and grew into my favorite piece of improvisation of the evening. Dark, exploratory.
When they dropped into the first “Shafty” in nine years, I could not have been happier. For those “particular” fans around me, there were hugs and high-fives – followed by the desire to drop “stats knowledge” on those who would listen. The song just grows out of this funky little repetition by Mike, with Trey’s whisper-like lyrics, resigned with how oblivious we all are. More an idea than a full song (similar to a few other little gems from The Story of The Ghost), I just can’t get enough of the melody. I couldn’t help but think back to the “Maze” > “Shafty” > “Maze” I was blessed with 12 years ago.
The smiles kept coming with the segue into “Rock and Roll.” Judging from the crowd’s reaction, this was the fan favorite of the evening. We were all gathered in the middle of Tennessee for music, particularly rock and roll. Just a great choice. Stretched just enough into the realms of Type I, the jam was led by Trey and had some “Chalk Dust”-like energy.
For this fan, it is here where things took an unfortunate turn. I have seen “Alaska” at my last three shows, and all instances have been late into the evening. After a strong start to the set and a great run of three songs, the proceedings ground down to a bit of a halt. Looking back at the timings, “Alaska” appears to be the third longest song of the evening; this is just odd to me. Unfortunately, the subsequent “Harry Hood” would not elevate the set back to its heights.
I find “Harry Hood” to be one of the most beautiful songs in Phish’s repertoire. As the lyrics suggest, it just makes you feel good. From the opening taps on the woodblock to the “pretty” middle section to the rousing “Feel Good” ending, it works as a package, even with the crowd participation of “Hood” chants and glow-stick wars.
But this complete beautiful package was not played Sunday night. Rather, the song was left unfinished with a jarringly forced transition into “Light.” Standing there, it felt as though Trey forcefully grabbed control and took the song completely off the rails. (I kept hoping for a return to “Harry” - for the rest of the show. Alas.) It is not as though “Light” is a song I do not enjoy hearing; ever since its debut at Fenway, I actually enjoy the song’s drive and energy, reminding me of “Pebbles and Marbles” when it gets going. But it is hard to get behind this version simply due to how it painfully interrupted “Harry.”
As standard for the band these days, when in doubt, muscle through. That is how the “Character Zero” felt. The “Rocky Top” was received with joyful dancing for the few around me that felt a special affinity for the home state of Bonnaroo; their dancing made me smile at least.
We all knew that a “Tweeprise” was coming, but there was some hope for something more. Maybe the end of that “Harry”? There was plenty of time left in that “8:00 to 12:00” slot that kept flashing on the screen before Phish took the stage. “Show of Life” was not at all the song that the crowd was hoping for (not to speak for everyone, of course, but that was the general feeling). Whether the song was fitting or not, the forced sentimentality and simplistic melody are off-putting. “Julius” has always been a feel-good sort of guy, and he did his best to change the mood of the encore. “Tweeprise” was standard great. Thundering air-moving notes from Mike signaled a, well, triumphant end to the show – about 15 minutes before midnight.
As the band took their time leaving the stage, soaking up the crowd, both fireworks and rain appeared in the sky. Good timing with the rain; some of the crowd wondering if the fireworks were supposed to accompany music. Hoods and umbrellas were raised as we all shuffled out, stepping on glowsticks and mud.
As a critical fan of this band so many of us love, I am aware of the struggle between losing myself in the moment and being critical at the times when I am disappointed. For a band whose appeal is closely tied to the allure of the unexpected, am I biting the hand that feeds me when they surprise me? I will admit, I caught myself tapping my toe to “Alaska” during its monotonous jam. What it may come down to is that the unexpected is no longer for the sake of adventure – it seems to be due to comfort. We have had this body of experience when the unexpected was wrapped up in taking chances, pushing the limits to the point where it became the norm, the reason so many people traveled night after night. Now playing it safe has taken the place of taking chances; playing it safe is still unexpected for this fan.
Maybe I should think of the lyrics to “Backwards Down the Number Line.”
Laughing all these many years
We've pushed through hardships tasted tears
As we get older together, and remain friends, we will have the past moments of happiness to remember together. Without being too maudlin (as “Show of Life” unfortunately is), it might be worth repeating those lyrics to oneself. And let your toes tap to whatever Phish is playing for you.
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Mike Gordon: September 23, 2016
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