[This recap of last night's tour-opener is courtesy of Chris Cagle, user @OrangeSox. Thank you Chris!]
Many have remarked that Phish has begun to tilt their “tours” toward “destinations” built around holidays, major cities, and tourist enclaves, but when The Baker’s Dozen was announced, the tilt became a topple. Three night stands in Mexico, Chicago, and Denver, along with the thirteen in New York, account for 22 of the year’s currently announced 24 shows. Just two stops on the route from Chicago--in Dayton and Pittsburgh--to New York give the Summer any real appearance of an actual tour, as many fans envision one.
For a few “jaded vets,” the bravado novelty of a 13 show residency in the nation’s most established performance space could not overcome the failure to more fully reach the band’s broad audience coast to coast. The announcement of five shows across the Midwest leading to New York did little to quell the rancor; the shows were even dubbed by some to be “warm-up” shows.
Many more marveled that the band would be so bold as to take over Madison Square Garden for three weeks, and the additional shows beforehand gave a lot of people the chance to catch a show this Summer when there were no shows before. That the four need a little warm-up should come as no surprise, and it's undeniable that The Baker’s Dozen deserves the extra effort. Their first show of the Summer proved again that even while the band adjusts to being back onstage together in front of thousands, moments of glory abound, giving solid reason to believe the next week will warm up indeed.
This was the second Summer Tour opener in the Chicago metro area since the reunion, having begun in Summer 2010 at Toyota Park. Last year’s Summer Tour swung into the Friendly Confines at the beginning of tour as well, but Northerly Park seems to have become the best place to bring the circus in Chicago, the host to two mostly well-regarded three night stands in 2013 and 2014. The location downtown, the accommodations nearby, and layout inside make the place a natural fit as a destination in the new touring model.
The air was cool all day around Chicago pre-show, and until showtime, dense clouds covered the sky. As the first set progressed, the clouds cleared so that by sunset, blue sky glowed across the expanse. To our right of the stage is the shore and lake beyond, to the left the skyline of Chicago. The lawn has a slight incline to it, just barely enough to enable sight of the stage, which is far enough away to be almost indiscernible. The venue is big, almost huge, hopefully too big to sell out.
Already loved for its stands seating and general admission floor, the lawn was better than my expectations. I wondered, though, if the stage might have been raised, because it seemed quite high above the heads of people on the floor. One thing that was definitely different about the stage this tour is Kuroda’s setup. Gone are the LED screens from last year, and in their place is a tiered, movable curtain of LED lights, easily more lights than have ever been on stage before.
When “What’s the Use?” began to open the tour and show, the crowd was appropriately dumbfounded. Whether many knew it or not, it was the first time the song had ever opened a show or begun a set for that matter. Really at home as a landing pad after jams with great peaks, it’s a strange song on its own, which was compounded by its placement in the opening slot, setting a unique vibe for the show right off the bat.
Set one proved solid front-to-back, constructed well, and executed pretty strongly. The “Wolfman’s Brother” continued its reliable dominance in the first frame, and brought the night’s first outpouring from the crowd after “Breath and Burning,” which Trey really seemed to enjoy. The new acapella tune, "In the Good Old Summertime," is a real oldie that dates back to the nineteen aughts, and has been a standard ever since. It was strange appearing in the middle of the set, but it felt topical (to say the least) and will make another nice addition to the barbershop repertoire once Fishman masters his complicated lead.
After some sincere "thank you's" for the crowd by Trey, the next number, a staple of the recent TAB tour, “Everything’s Right,” felt much different at the hands of the four. It became the surprise highlight of the first set, after the guys pushed directly into uncharted territory after its final verse, similar to second “Breath and Burning” last Summer at the Mann. Once Trey found it difficult to find his place in the extended groove, he abruptly snatched “Limb by Limb” from the dissolving sounds. After some predictably rusty moments through the first verses, they eventually found their way into a soaring version.
“Nellie Kane” brought Mike to the mic for the only time, and earned a big wide smile from Trey, possibly for the outrageous suit Mike donned (wish I had a picture!). “Theme from the Bottom” followed, proving its reliability to showcase the band’s strengths yet again. A concise and rousing ”Blaze On” wrapped up the set nicely. And for “NMINML” to open the 2nd set seemed just as natural, in that these two songs feel as comfortable in the setlist now, as if they were old standards.
The strongest piece of music on Big Boat for extended jams, "NMINML" continued its dominance as a set-opener, carrying over a wide range of sonic territory that always seemed rooted in the song’s melody. As this extended version winded through several themes, Kuroda began to do something quite interesting with the lights.
I would rather leave a technical explanation to another person, but during most of the show, the lights formed a tiered wall above the band along with a line across the back of the band over to the side of Mike and Page. Their colors were brilliant and intense, and now Kuroda's ability to flash lights toward the crowd in vibrant color is much stronger.than before. During “NMINML,” the lights descended to form a kind of arch above the band, providing a potent effect to help push the jam. The lights then fluidly moved to a different location for “Fuego,” in the shape of a wave. By the beginning of “My Friend, My Friend,” the lights were returned to the tiered wall.
“Fuego” followed fluidly after the “NMINML” had naturally returned to its finish. Not a very deep version, this one nevertheless featured a strange moment in its jam when Trey played what seemed like sour notes, just barely wrong, but instead of stepping away from them for something that sounded more right, he went deeper, and crafted an interesting few bars that pushed the band out for a couple more minutes. That has always seemed like an important knack for him to have sharpened, and it requires deep listening and patience for the band to stick with him. There were several instances like this last night, small gelling moments when the band took the extra step, that portend better things to come.
Sure, there were flubs galore, even a couple of tough ripcords. But throughout the night, the band played with an enthusiasm that pushed easily through those moments more often than not. The four seemed happily aware of each other, too, just rolling with it. These are small things, and they add up to leaving me doubtless that the band will fully hit their stride on this trip leading to MSG.
“My Friend, My Friend” continued the predictable theme of beginning a little hesitantly, but by the time the song’s prelude concluded, the band had nailed the tempo, and Trey didn’t miss a note in the melody. To play that song in a landing-pad-type position in the set was pretty cool, and it lent a dark energy to the opening trio of the set. Trey was talking to Page a lot at the end, clearly trying to get the next song figured out, which led to a little more confusion than necessary before Page pressed the key to start “Your Pet Cat."
A guaranteed dance party, this one explored some new territory, complete with a coda that seemed like it was a setup to make a smoother segue into “Golden Age,” which ended up coming in quite abruptly. Sure, “Golden Age” had a stellar 2016, so I expected people were thinking something similar should happen. Instead, soon after completing the verses, Trey pulls the “Your Pet Cat” melody right into the mix, which Page then followed with some caterwauling samples. That these hijinks were decently executed on the first night out on tour is pretty exciting. It felt spontaneous and goofy, and in our part of the lawn, it was the most enthusiastically received moment in the set.
The next debut in the set seemed to hunt and kill the “Golden Age” before there was any chance it could go deep. I’m gonna leave "Leaves” (a new tune) alone for now, just not feeling up to say much about it yet, except that it had some pretty interesting vocal interplay between Trey and Page, and sounded in a way like an outtake of the practice sessions for Ziggy Stardust. The “Harry Hood” after it, though, provided another rough-hewn gem in the night, featuring that quality of exuberance over precision, as Trey fumbled affectionately with the “Mountain Jam” theme, perhaps a nod to the previous rough year it’s been for the Allmans, before utilizing the melody of “What’s the Use?” effectively to move the "Hood" from its center, which would come back around to a sizeable peak. “Shine a Light” and “Julius” felt more like a two song encore than set closers.
But the first actual encore was another new song, the reggae-inspired "Love Is What We Are." I support the sentiments in the songs Trey is writing right now, but when it comes to Phish's reggae originals, I will likely always prefer “Makisupa” to this one. “Golgi” provided an ideal classic counterweight to a set that was definitely overloaded by its new material. It’s way too soon to write the second set’s new songs off, but I am not taking them home to meet the parents yet.
Looking back across the first night’s list of songs, there are a few I would be very happy to hear any night of the three night run. But that said, I'm glad they played got a lot of the new songs out of the way on the first night. The pallette of songs for the next two nights has been well-refined after last night. Even if the band’s engine needs warming up, it sounds real fine already nonetheless. Trey’s extensive TAB tour definitely kept his hands strong and ears open. Little tweaks here and there could have this big motor roaring by the time it makes it to MSG. But, I will be happy to see just how far it goes the next two nights!
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Mike Gordon: January 14, 2018
2 days ago
Mizner Park Amphitheater
 Mike Gordon debut.
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