[Editor's Note: We'd like to welcome guest contributor Pete Hoherd (@FunkyCFunkyDo) for this recap.]
Palm fronds shrugged effortlessly at us on our final approach into the venue. Swaying peacefully, purposefully, their silent grace showed us more life lessons than a year’s worth of living – some years at least. Listen to the silent trees. The dry grass on the rolling hills knew what the trees knew – rhythmically dancing in the same breeze as if they knew no other way of life. The music hadn’t started yet, but the harmony had. It was all around us, on the wind and under water, a subtle, relaxed energy, softly speaking to us. All it took was a moment away from your phone, your beer, even your best friend, to look around and feel that mellow mood unifying. All it took was that moment to know that something special was on the wind this night.
Photo © Derek Gregory
A soft roar trickled through the crowded Sleep Train Amphitheatre as the Phish took the stage. One section at a time, like ripples lapping at the shoreline, took notice of the band’s (normal) anticlimactic return to the stage. The band seemed in no hurry. There was patience from fan and bandmate alike, harmonious acceptance that this was the last show of the tour, so let’s soak it in. The sky was a gradient of warm orange, fading into brilliant white, segueing into deep blue, and finally into a magnificent purple hue. The palms fronds still shrugged. This was nothing new to them. How lucky we were to be able to share this with them, with all our friends, in this corner of time, in this place, whatever it meant.
"Farmhouse" opened the show with a seemingly apologetic tone. I heard no groans, no mumbles – only smiles. After the weirdness of the Forum, although neither I (nor anyone else) would have predicted a "Farmhouse" opener, it fit. As if the salted breeze itself carried the notes from mind to ear, this version’s subtlety was as much of an acknowledgement of our collective situation tonight, the final show of tour, as it was an apology for the night before. Beautifully played, the sentiment was set. I looked behind the stage, the palm trees didn’t seem to care, they were happy to be there, just like always. "555" came next and Trey immediately took a grinding edge with his tone. Improvisationally normal, the song itself has an attitude – one palpable for any fan who has a seen at least a couple of versions of this song live. A good sign. A slowed down, bayou style "Water in the Sky" filled the 3-slot and provided a moment of reflection. Was this planned? Trey seemed to be looking at his feet quite a lot – perhaps at a group of songs the band wrote down, collectively, to let us in on what they were feeling. I felt as though they played this one for us. A trio of songs played with heart and purpose; songs meant to let us know they were just as aware as we were, and now that the hatchet was buried, it was time to do what we all came to to do: it was time to get down.
The gritty notes of "Ghost" hustled through the amps, and bodies started moving. Wide eyes looked around, heads turned to friends, feet started shuffling, and the fuse was lit. Wasting no time, Phish nailed the transition and embarked on a major key explosion within minutes of the jam segment taking off. Reminiscent, almost to a note, of the major key shift in the 12/31/10 "Ghost," this version prowled through the fading sunlight, with Trey stalking each note, Fishman attacking each beat, Mike thundering through the rhythm, and Page driving through the jam. A tour-de-force of Set I jams, we can only look back at this complete, peaking version and say “Whoa.” Trey knew something special had just clicked. He was smiling ear to ear as they returned into "Ghost" proper. Following a quick conversation with the man wearing a dress, "Ass Handed" (finally) got back into the rotation. Perhaps an acknowledgement of the previous night, who knows, the hard-edged 20 second jam gave way to the even harder edged, (ironically): "The Sloth." Played with gusto and attitude, band and fans alike were fully aware that this was going to be no ordinary show.
After nailing "The Sloth," and a few giggles and smiles later, "Martian Monster" announced that we had been selected to be the first astronauts to explore the planet Mars! How serendipitous that I was wearing my space suit for this show! I can only assume the rest of the crowd was aptly prepared, as the first volley of highly controversial dance moves were unleashed during this truncated, yet fiery space expedition of thumping bass and scratching clav. As the dissonant retro rockets fired to get us back earth, with fluttery beauty "Reba" made her second appearance of the tour. Meandering placidly and cohesively through the composed section, the jam called on the name of the wind to guide it through cerebral soundscapes. The palm fronds noticed. A swaying jam, the music was interwoven with soft progressions and warm builds. Delicately gaining in momentum, just as the waves were a few miles from the venue, this "Reba" jam reached a blissful peak, with Trey conversing with the breeze, acknowledging the role it had been playing in Phish’s final show of Summer Tour 2016.
In "Reba's" aftermath, Trey stepped back to talk to Fish, and both started giggling in a grinning, sinister way. FINALLY! The return of "Ass Handed!" Again! Fish took the mic and reminded us of what he told us at The Gorge, “Truer words have never been written in a a song.” (Or something to that effect). This is our concern, dude; you do indeed get your ass handed to you; every day. With energy now radiating from every corner of the sprawling amphitheater, the band sank its teeth into undoubtedly the best "Tube" of the last seven years. Fantastic Fish/Trey interplay gave way to Mike taking the reigns in the second half of this extended (finally!) "Tube." Page patiently sprinkled flourishes and textures throughout, taking a backseat supportive role, and assuring that this jam would hold together. At one point I believe I saw him mouth to Mike, “Do we have any peanut butter to go with this jam?!” Well that’s not entirely true, but it may as well have been, as the Sandwich King’s smile said just as much as the music did.
Continuing the FUNK, "Wolfman’s Brother" appearered next. Talk about controversial dance moves. When the band moved into the "California Love" tease/jam, security was taking shelter as far away from the whirling masses as possible. People were getting down. There was no stopping us. We knew it, the red shirts knew it, and the band knew it, as they blistered through the jam into a reprise of "CA LOVE" before swooping back into "Wolfman’s" proper. Not a second after the closing chords, Page started "Walls of the Cave." Moving confidently through the song's meaningful lyrics and emotive notes, I looked to the palm trees again. They swayed their approval, speaking inaudible words – words only felt by those lucky enough to be in attendance that evening. A seismic build erupted into a flurry of notes, as Trey and Mike exchanged scales. Fish crashed his cymbals in approval, and Page hammered the ivory with passion. The band hit a lock-step, volcanic peak that sent shockwaves through the bordertown. Mexican residents falsely reported an earthquake, how silly, it was just Phish.
Phish took the stage again after an abbreviated setbreak. I don’t blame them. We were just as eager to dance as they were to play, it seemed. Wasting no time, spacey noise permeated the loudspeakers and "Down with…" wait… no… could it be?!? "2001"!! Marking the first time "2001" has opened Set II since the legendary "Moby Dick Show" in Deer Creek on 7/11/00, the dancers' moves were bordering on the prohibited. Transitioning through swampy funk, a "CA Love" reprise of sorts, and dirty disco grooves, both peaks were executed flawlessly, giving us a top contender for best "2001" of the last 5 years or more. The spaceship was now primed for blastoff, and "46 Days" was the rocket fuel of choice. Taking notes from the "WOTC" jam, this version was a welder’s torch of focused energy. Cutting through the night sky like a comet, "46 Days" streaked brilliantly in the 2 slot of the second set. A take-no-prisoners jam complete, the band shifted back into the song proper before fading into "Piper," which continued the energy of the first two songs. Trey stepped back after the lyrics with thought and purpose. He had ideas to take this somewhere. Fans of 2003 "Pipers" will enjoy this one quite a bit. Trey reverted back to some of his classic 2003 licks to engage this one in a feeding frenzy of tension and release. Just as the jam started to sprint, Trey jerked his head over to Cactus who was pounding away in deep bass bliss. Something clicked for Trey. An idea! You could almost see the lightbulb above his head. He dropped the chopping block on "Piper" (sigh) just as it seemed it was going to be one of “those jams,” but undaunted, Trey ripped into "Twist" with a purpose. They got through the refrain with pep, and Trey immediately dropped into a tone and progression reminiscent of 7/23/97 "Ghost." Twinkling and sparkling, the minimalistic starshine groove floated in a free form tapestry of punctuated drum hits from Fish, rumbling vibrations from Mike, and layered organics from whatever concoction of psychedelia Page had arranged in his fortress of keyboards. Shifting gears on a dime, the jam picked up pace. Fishman toyed around the "Twist" beat as Trey scratched over him. Mike unleashed a sonic bombardment of approval as cosmic noise dissipated into the ever-darkening night sky.
"Backwards Down the Number Line" emerged from the depth of night in true celebratory fashion. Trey triumphantly tiptoed around the chord progression, emanating the happiness and positivity at this song’s core. One could not help but smile as the jam reached a swirling, cathartic release – every person in attendance was singing along with the chorus, “ALL MY FRIENDS!” The goosebumps are as real as I write as they were in that moment. That is why we go to shows, that is why we push our bodies, minds, and spirits to their limit: to form the unbreakable bond of understanding, of unity – of friendship – that only a Phish show can provide. "Carini" crashed the late-set love fest and was greeted with perhaps some of the most controversial dance moves of the night… most of which border on superlegal. A hard-edged rocker enveloped the crowd in a wash of power chords and ferocity. A freight train of music, the jam hinted at turning into a major key bliss jam, the likes of which we all know and love so well in this day and age, but alas the jam evaporated quickly and peacefully into the San Diego sky. "Harry Hood" showed us to follow the light, as "Carini’s" darkness disappeared. Some fun, nose-to-nose interplay between Mike and Trey in the opening segment of the song was a harbinger of what the jam proper would hold. Glowsticks flying, smiles stretching, legs moving, the jam took on a progressively laser focus and old-school sentiment. It dug into its roots, finding the time and energy after a full nationwide tour to simply and purely explode, just as it would have in the mid '90s. Is that to say this "Hood" is comparable to those giants of two decades ago? Not quite. But there is simply no denying the sentiment, focus, and energy this "Hood" brought. To my ears, the most fiery version since Dick's 2011, the tension and release blossomed into a life-affirming peak, one which Trey circled back to over multiple measures. Striking again and again, Trey climbed the scales as Fishman was a flurry of brilliance behind the kit. Page’s piano cascaded waterfalls of triumph while Mike steadfastly anchored the harmonic trio to his 5-string Modulus. A full-band effort led by its fearless band leader, "Hood" exploded into one final, emotive peak. We can feel good. We did feel good. We do feel good. Good about "Hood." The chords falling away, Trey walked over to Page, who gracefully started the power rocker "Loving Cup." Played with equal parts heart and passion, "Loving Cup" put an exclamation point on a show that flowed as smoothly and swiftly as a Pacific Ocean current. A beautiful buzz indeed.
"Harry Hood" - Photo © Derek Gregory
After an excruciatingly short encore break (because we know this is the last time we get to see our guys for a month) Trey came out and proclaimed that they just couldn't end the tour without playing Page’s favorite song. "Sleeping Monkey" got a rise out of the crowd, with onstage verbal antics from Page, Trey, and Fish … a solemn, single sad bass note from Mike, who pantomimed a tear running down his cheek. Me too, Mike. Me too. As the final chorus rang through the crowd, people started to gather their… wait. Trey walked back to Fish who bore a grin bigger than a kid on Christmas morning. They’re not done yet! BOOM! POW! "Tweezer Reprise!!!" Words cannot explain the energy wave that pulsed through the crowd when Trey unleashed those first notes. "Tweezer Reprise" is always "Tweezer Reprise," until it isn’t. Until it is played without "Tweezer," on the last show of the tour, the final song of the night, when it is completely unexpected. But that’s the angle isn’t it? The unexpected. That’s why we travel thousands of miles, spend thousands of dollars, and smile at thousands of people: to share in the everlasting surprise that is a Phish show. A phosphorescent glow radiated off of all bodies as the "Ass Handed" lyrics were sung over the "Tweeprise" power chords, reminding us, humbling us, that no matter how good, bad, or in between you feel, no matter how many shows you’ve seen, no matter if your life was saved by rock and roll or if you’re just here to share in the groove, you are gonna get your ass handed to you every day!
"Tweezer Reprise" - Photo © Derek Gregory
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