1900 miles separate Chicago and George, WA, home of The Gorge Amphitheatre. That’s already a long way to schlepp a band the size of Phish, but the plan was there’d be nearly a week to do it. Then the Toronto show got flooded out, forcing the band to jog eastward another 500 miles for a Monday makeup gig – instead of westward toward Washington at what one imagines would have been a leisurely pace. Like the forces majeures that plagued the first half of summer tour, it’s the kind of unforeseen circumstance that demands teamwork and improvisation. A test of the band’s mettle.
So what’s the verdict? Will we see a road-weary Phish tonight, or a battle-hardened unit that takes the stage at The Gorge with clear heads, full hearts, and a shared desire to win their westward campaign? Let’s find out.
“AC/DC Bag” is in a typically heavy rotation this summer, but the version that leads off tonight feels good and mean, and less perfunctory than the Chicago version from last Sunday. The first “Timber” in 26 shows is on deck, and it pops nicely too. I love this strange, mysterious cover with all of my fan’s true heart and wish it were played more, but its rarity makes it that much more special.
“Wolfman’s” closely follows the trajectory that nearly all recent versions do: an early first set stretch that gives the band a chance to gather some smolder. After working to a respectable peak, they tumble headlong into a fast and free “Funky Bitch." Fishman drops out during Page’s organ solo to wonderful effect and it’s suddenly apparent that tonight’s show has a whole mess of potential (and we’re just getting started).
Trey leads a soulful take on “Happy Birthday” for Chris Kuroda – who richly deserves the sentiment – then the rhythm section teases “Satisfaction” while Trey executes a wardrobe change behind Page’s rig. Now Trey saddles up and starts “Wilson." The audible makes perfect sense, as he’s wearing a fan-supplied tee-shirt that references his recent gambit to get Seattle Seahawks fans to perform the “Wilson” chant when phenom QB Russell Wilson takes the home field this season (the team just started training camp two days ago). It’s a powerful “Wilson” with a healthy dose of loose stage banter, and by the time it’s over, Trey has managed to enlist an army of PNW fans in his bid. Get on it, Seattle!
A standard “Possum” follows, and then a short but ferocious “Tube." Wait, let me take that back. Every “Tube” is short these days, and it’ll be news when they’re not again, so I’ll just leave it at “ferocious” and be done, lest I seem dispirited and prickly about it.
The first “Secret Smile” since the Festival 8 acoustic set cools things down with delicate melodies and lyrics acknowledging the setting of the sun, giving the audience a moment to pause and appreciate the day – and their arrival at this astonishingly beautiful place. Next up is a nightfall “McGrupp," another song that benefits from light rotation and feels special every time. Tonight’s version is crisp and well-rehearsed with only a few minor hiccups, and Trey sticks the climactic solo with dexterity and confidence. The expected set closer is forestalled a few moments for the first reading of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Curtis Loew” since last summer in Kansas City. It’s a lovely garnish, for sure, but this first course wouldn’t be complete without something melty...
The band hooks up early in this “Split Open and Melt," stripping it down to parts before building it back up again. The players take turns kneading and poking at the song’s amoeba-like membrane with no apparent destination in mind, but that’s always been the point of this song to me: stop worrying about where you’re going, and lose yourself in where you are. Fishman delivers a handful of breathtaking fills at the peak, bringing home a rock solid first half that offers at least a pinch of something for everybody.
The set breaks this tour feel uncommonly short, and tonight is no exception. As a result, it’s safe to say that the “Crosseyed and Painless” that opens the second set is enjoyed by many from the bathroom lines.
The PNC “Crosseyed” set a tall summer bar for this song, and the whole band comes out swinging here. The first five minutes of the jam deliver a relentless blast of high-octane cock rock, followed by the briefest of retreats to consider the next theme. Trey takes the helm and steers the band through a series of twists, dark tunnels, and barrel rolls before emerging into an open space that sounds pregnant with another song – perhaps “Golden Age”? But Trey isn’t done with this one yet, and instigates a delicate instrumental conversation with Page.
Fish suggests a new tempo that’s slow and syncopated, much like “Roggae," but “Twist” prevails instead, and spirals quickly into alien realms laced with fear and expressions of suffering. It’s a thoroughly arresting moment that ends too soon, as “Steam” bubbles up through the hellscape. “Steam” remains within its scripted form, but serves as a smart companion piece to the “Twist." The effect is akin to hearing one continuous song instead of two.
An up-tempo “Waves” arrives next in perfect counterpoint, rinsing off the darkness in favor of day-glo trebles and bouncing bass. Trey takes a chord-based approach to his solo, and quickly initiates the second “Twenty Years Later” of the tour. I love what this song has to say about how perils and trials shape us as people, and I love the heaviness of the outro jam. This is a powerful reading of the song, and very well placed.
“Mango Song” is perhaps less well placed. While it has historically split time between the first and second sets, I think it’s a hard sell in the fourth quarter of a Phish show. Still, this version sounds a lot more controlled and purposeful than the SPAC version from a few weeks ago, and its misplacement is hardly enough to deflate the set. I’ll take it.
A standard lovely “Bug” occupies its familiar “Jerry ballad” slot, and then Trey quotes “Bug” again in the hi-hat intro to “Bowie” (the birthday boy’s favorite Phish tune, and arguably the comeback kid of summer tour). Like “Twist” and “Tube” from earlier tonight, it’s a zero show gap for “Bowie," which the band thoroughly demolished in Toronto. No such Godzilla waste tonight, but another fine version with dazzling work from Fish at the peak.
The band could take a bow at this point and leave the stage, but they push things into Bonus-ville with an apropos “Rocky Top” and a spectacular “Character Zero” that quiets the haters with a fistful of STFU. Trey asks Kuroda to turn off the lights – this will never get old or tired at The Gorge – and engages his bandmates and crowd in an unchained “howl at the moon” jam that culminates in 3-4 minutes of molten feedback. It’s a bit that could have fallen flat on its face were the playing beneath it not so fiery and assured, but instead it delivers a statement: this band has pushed its Master Reset button, and stands ready to stir things up out west.
The “Hood” encore conjures personal memories of 8/2/97 at the Gorge (hear it!), and features some tasty talk-box lines from Page in the first instrumental verse. A somewhat abrupt ending gives way to more feedback and space, and then “Fire” gives a nod to the Mile Marker 28 blaze along State Rte. 97 that caused delays for northbound fans over the past several days. “Move over, Rover,” exhorts Trey, “And let Jon Fishman take over!” – acknowledging the drummer’s remarkable work from start to finish this night.
By the time this “Fire” is extinguished, the band has been on stage for nearly two hours, dropping the second set of a show that is very easy to love and very hard to poke holes in, even if I wanted to. It could be the only show of this tour so far that demands an attentive listen from start to finish, and it bodes awfully well for what lies ahead.
Stay cool out there, campers, and we’ll see you tonight!
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February 21, 1991
26 years ago
Encore: Suzy Greenberg
 Charlie Chan and Random Note signals.
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