Uncomfortable truths are sometimes easier to acknowledge after the passage of time. This is especially true when there is a happy ending involved. So it goes with Phish's 2016 summer tour. Let's be clear: Heading into Dick’s, 2016 wasn’t just below average—it was among the most puzzling and disappointing stretches of the band's career.
Phish has always had highs and lows—many more of the former than the latter—but there was always an explanation for the lows. In retrospect, 1996 was about the band re-inventing itself after the peak of 1995. We all know the explanation for 2004, though the band still managed to scale massive peaks even during that time of trouble. In 2009, Phish was still getting their sea legs under them. But 2016 hadn’t provided an easy answer, at least not yet.
Photo © Dave Decro Photo
One obvious feature of 2016 is Trey's fascination with the Marimba Lumina and the rotation or percussion jams it has spawned. However, that's only part of the story. Even if you're not a fan of the Marimba Lumina-inspired jams, it’s a fairly small part of the show. No, the truly concerning aspect of summer 2016 was the tentativeness and unwillingness to stretch out songs in the rest of the show. There seemed to be a palpable sense of discomfort and lack of confidence onstage for significant stretches of the summer.
Not everyone will agree with that assessment, of course. But even those who do may have been uncomfortable acknowledging it. After Dick’s, it's a little easier to do so. The band that walked onstage Friday and dropped a massive “Ghost,” “No Man's Land” combo, along with a fantastic start-to-finish second set was simply not the same band we saw for most of the summer. Saturday saw another statement-making opening sequence in “Slave,” “DWD,” and “What's the Use?” What would Sunday hold?
After purposeful opening sequences on Friday and Saturday, Sunday's proceedings began with a somewhat wobbly version of "Moma Dance." When Trey started up "Chalk Dust" in the two-hole, there was reason for excitement. Not only had the number two spot had produced outstanding jams the previous two evenings, but the history of great "Chalk Dusts" at Dick's is perhaps unmatched by any other song and venue. Extended versions of "CDT" had been aired at every other Dick’s run, including two pantheon versions of the song on 8/31/12 and 8/31/13. What would last night hold? Though the somewhat slowed tempo and Dick's history had us dreaming of a mammoth jam, it turns out, we got nothing more than a tight version. So ends the Legend of the Dick's Dust… until next year, anyway.
A “Mike’s Song” played at Fare Thee Well tempo was up next. “Wingsuit” followed and featured a typically excellent solo from Trey, but the show could have been fairly described as a bit on the plodding side at this point. “Weekapaug” changed that with some particularly nimble playing from Trey, as the band scaled the first peak of the night, albeit a relatively small one. “Party Time” did well to continue the now upbeat nature of the night before we got to our first significant highlight in “Bathtub Gin.” Mike, in particular (who may have been the MVP of the weekend), seemed to propel this “Gin” forward until Trey grabbed the reins and took it to an absolutely cathartic peak that separated it from the realm of the “average great” 3.0 versions.
There are few songs I look less forward to in 3.0 than “Split Open and Melt.” The band more often makes a mess of this once great song and Trey has been known to conjure sounds of kitten strangulation from his guitar. Not tonight, though. The 9/8 bars in the jam section that so often seem to confound the band were successfully navigated and nary a whale call was to be found. The version itself was unspectacular, but sometimes that's plenty good enough.
“Tube” followed and continued its positive trajectory. Clocking in at roughly eight minutes, Trey employed the echoplex to great effect, complemented by the rest of the band exploring the deep funk potential that of the song that had for so long lied dormant. “Character Zero” followed, which was a positive because you either like the song, or fall into the “Don’t you worry, don’t you fret, There’ll always be the second set” camp, which rejoiced at the possibility of a tour-closing “Zero” encore being taken off the table.
For the third consecutive show, Phish delivered a meaty first set. The topic of conversation at setbreak seemed to center on just how good of a second set we could expect and, also, whether we should expect any setlist antics, in light of last year’s encore finale. We would not get antics; the “Thank You” encore seems to have closed that chapter of the Dick’s experience. What we got instead was far better.
Photo by Herschel Gelman.
“Crosseyed and Painless” opened the set, and the only question seemed to be just how big a version we would get. The answer, in all likelihood, is “bigger than you thought,” as it clocked in at either 18 minutes or an hour and a half, depending on your method of accounting. This version featured wave upon wave of peaks, with all four band members actively engaged with substantial contributions of ideas, before settling into “Steam.” “Crosseyed” reappeared in “Steam,” as it would in every other song in the second set and encore. This wasn't the first time Phish has tried this trick, but it was their most successful.
“Piper,” another song with a strong Dick’s history, batted third. The jam built to its usual initial peak and then, well, you can't stop the Marimba Lumina, you can only hope to contain it. Trey retreated to Fish’s kit and was soon joined by Page and, finally, regrettably, Mike, for a five minute “Drums” segment. This segment of the set didn’t do much for me, but if your biggest criticism is five minutes of drums in your 19-minute “Piper,” your set is probably doing just fine. Besides, the jam that emerged from the “Drums” was spectacular, returning (again) to the “Crosseyed” theme.
“Light,” which has likely been the most dependable jam vehicle of the summer, was next. This version started quietly, with a delicate little watery jam where all four band members are clearly listening to and playing off each other. A repetitive pattern develops, winds its way into a jam punctuated by a series of ascending notes from Trey. This is truly top shelf Phish at this moment, before, naturally, resolving into more “Crosseyed” teases. At this point, it’s important to note that the set was moving at approximately four songs per hour, which exactly how fast you want a set to move.
“Lizards” was next and provided the closest thing to a breather in this set, if your idea of a breather is a 25,000 person sing along paired with one of Trey’s most beloved solos. Great sets tend to feed upon themselves. The heightened energy can lift otherwise good songs to greatness. The “First Tube” set closer may not have provided much in the way of substantial improv, but the energy at that point was through the roof. Well, if there a was a roof, it would have been through it and, either way, it was a perfect way to end the set.
By the time the encore started, there was still the possibility of something otherworldly happening, but we settled for a rare encore version of “Walls of the Cave” (8/2/13 being the only other encore placement). Of course the “Walls” was adorned with one last set of “Crosseyed” teases before closing the book on Dick’s 2016. And what a book it was. Before the run started, no one had the right to have any expectations for these shows, but Phish stepped up and delivered the best show of 2016 (arguably the best two shows, along with Friday) and the best Dick’s run since 2012.
A true Dicksmas miracle!
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