It was only a few months ago when I was waxing poetic about palm trees swaying placidly over Sleep Train Amphitheater on July 23rd. Phish delivered a complete show that night, a show at which one can throw a proverbial dart with your eyes closed and confidently exclaim "BULLSEYE" before the dart finds its mark – a show that the palm trees seemed to acknowledge with gentle acceptance personified by waving fronds, as they have more important issues to deal with than silly bar games. Far removed from the warm, soft, summer breeze and tropical flora – well, for some at least – mired across the country in a deep freeze, we looked onward at our television and computer screens, margaritas and cervezas firmly, and ironically, coldly, in hand, hoping to be warmed by what Phish might deliver on Sunday. I found myself in the same situation as most of you, looking for warmth via the glow of the screen. The closest thing we have to a palm tree here in Portland, OR is the fluorescent pink and lime green hues of the The Palms Motel sign buried somewhere in the snow in north Portland. ::shudders:: A far cry from Chula Vista, and an even further cry from those running their toes in the sandy beaches in Mexico – beaches adorned with real palm trees. Real sunshine. Real warmth. Suddenly I have the urge to purchase The Palms Motel sign – maybe it'll give me a tan if I stand close enough.
Seeing Phish live in concert is a pinnacle life experience, no matter the show, quite honestly. Nothing beats the in-the-moment energy, enthusiasm, and raw electricity the band and fan symbiotically produce. In fact, as I write this the hairs on my body stand at attention as a wave of electricity flows through them, enough to power that neon The Palms Motel sign for at least six and a half seconds. Enough to get me that much closer to Mexico. But alas, a fool's errand. Because here I am stuck in Portland, OR, where, I kid you not, a state of emergency has been declared because of the snow and ice. No amount of inert gases could've transported me to where I really wanted to be. So, fellow lamenter, I offer you this review with as much diligence, integrity, and warmth that one can offer from their couch with sub-zero temperatures lurking outside; but reader beware: no matter how tall we make our margarita, nor how spicy the enchilada, nothing compares to being there, in that corner of time and space, at a Phish show. But I will do my best to take you there. Better crank up the heater and start mixing that second batch now.
Never miss a Sunday show. ::curses inaudibly to self:: Yeah, we get it. Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman" gets it. We all get it. Phish opened the show with the funkier-than-thou cover that got booties of all shapes and sizes shaking in a manner so controversial, that the Federales had no precedent on which to prepare. They could only sit back in awe as the pasty white Americans gave our Mexican Cousins a lesson in the super-legality of interpretive dance. Most lawyers charge $150 an hour for that kind of advice; Phish fans give it away for free. So Trey forgot some lyrics – well, a lot of lyrics – what's new? ::yawn:: If I've learned anything from seeing Phish, it is to check your expectations at the door and don't sweat the small stuff – you'll have a much better time that way. If anything, this flub let Trey take a step back to laugh at himself while Page and Mike locked into a filthy mini-jam. No complaints here. Smiles abounded due to the comedy of errors from Trey and stylistic funk from Page and Mike, and as the song wound down, Trey launched into "Simple." Whoosh! A master of efficiency, Trey sunk his teeth into "Simple" from the get-go. Whether he was consciously trying to make up for his swing-and-a-miss in the opening song or if he was simply (eh, ehhhh) feeling jazzed, this version buzzed from the jump. The jam segment seemed to want to venture into modulating territory, a la Magnaball's "Simple," but Trey had other ideas. Better ideas.
He jetted into "Tweezer" like a wave crashing over a jetty. A furious opening, played seemingly a quarter step faster than usual, Phish's energy swelled like a storm surge and broke over the crowd. Relying heavily on the funky wah-pedal at first, the jam toyed in swamp-funk territory. Thick and heavy at first, creating eddies of swirling music, the jam broke into another Trey-led section, this time him soloing triumphantly over an uplifting soundscape created by his bandmates. Wasting not a single note, there was no doubt who was captaining the ship last night, and Trey led his friends slowly back down into the "Tweezer" riff. For a moment I thought they were going to do the studio, deconstructed ending to the song, but as I said earlier, check your expectations at the door. Plenty of space for all. Like charting a wavelength, as "Tweezer" dipped into near silence, "Roggae" blossomed out into the tropics. Four-for-four in setlist construction at that point, Phish could do no wrong. The peaceful jam first featured Mike blowing bass bubbles. Bulbous notes that floated through the air. Mike led the band adrift into an ethereal portrait of what the sound of being underwater must look like. Trey caught on, blowing musical bubbles of his own; after all, any good captain knows when to listen to his crew. Page chimed in with flourishes on the piano, all the while Fishman splashed behind the kit. Again the wavelengths stretched upwards. Climbing higher in frequency and intensity until the band hit a unified, cathartic peak. The wave crashed as the soft re-entry into Roggae took back out to sea all that was built in those ten minutes of music. As the tide ebbs, it also flows.
"Nothing" found a surprising 2016/17 debut in the middle of this near-perfect first set. A slightly different arrangement to my ears, the truncated jam segment highlighted Page in a humble yet brilliant light. His spirited playing buoyed the jam as Trey delivered small licks on the guitar. Set filler? No way. Rather, a small current in the grand scheme of the mechanics of the sea of music. A small current which inevitably linked up and amplified something much larger; but what? Oceans after all, both those made of music and of water, are full of mystery. "Ghost." "Ghost" was lurking beyond the breakers. "Ghost" was funneling the energy to the shore. "Ghost" was what "Nothing" and the rest of the set had been setting up and building towards. This "Ghost" resides in the dreams of soul surfers and wave surfers alike. A breaking barrel of bright blue, this version could swiftly carry the imaginations of any fan, near or far, bikini or sweatpants, into whimsical euphoria. Hollow only in the sense of oceanic perfection, this version overflowed with blissful peaks and refracting rays of sunshine. The dream became reality as Trey again and again sprayed notes made of sparkling saltwater across the beach, enveloping all who danced near and far. Then, as if cued by the palm trees themselves (florescent or natural, I'll leave that up to you), Phish broke into the calypso sunshine groove of "Ya Mar." Flickering organ-work from Page was accentuated by tasteful cymbal splashes from Fish. Trey's notes fluttered like a beach towel caught in the breeze. Mike played his bass like coconuts dropping from, well wouldn't you know it, palm trees. All was right in the world of Phish as we bounced and swayed to island rhythms – some of you were lucky to have sand between your toes, while others were closing their eyes in complete empathy.
"Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan" followed a sun-tanned "Ya Mar," and delivered perhaps the only "standard" version of a song to that point in the set. Heavy and emotive guitar work, the brooding jam followed the wavelength-pattern of the set and took the band and crowd down into indigo blue darkness, with the surface seeming to fade further away with each passing second. Thankfully, as waves tend to do, we were lifted back up by a spritely version of "Rift." Although Page seemed to have some trouble with his solos, the overall energy and cohesion of this version lifted our collective spirits back up to the surface as if we were suddenly amassed into air bubbles. Finding the path of least resistance, the indigo blue faded to periwinkle, and eventually into sky blue as our bubbles broke through the surface where we were met by our long-time friend, "Fluffhead." Good to see you again, and thanks for the lift. Last night was just one of those nights, you know? "Hey Funky, never miss a Sund-" – YES YES I GET IT. ::grumbles to self:: I mean, really. If the mid-90s Chicago Bulls were a Phish set, they just might have been this one. Complete with The Alan Parsons Project intro and all. And Horace Grant's glasses. Especially those glasses. But I digress. "Fluffhead" is an amazing treat no matter the placement or venue, but to play it as a set one closer, of *this* set, in the context of *these* three shows? Man, Michael Jordan just dunked from the three-point line. Some rough spots from both Trey and Page in a few of the composed sections were quickly and willfully forgotten as the foursome nailed the peak and embarked on a energized yet patient outro jam. Soft, ironically, by "Fluff"'s standards at first, the jam grew into a Pipeline-worthy ride that, as any good wave does, showered triumph and power back onto those fearless enough to ride it. We must have set the Guiness World Record, because the 5,000 in attendance plus the uncounted thousands watching at home collectively rode that wave all the way to shore. Duke Kahanamoku smiled down on all of us – we should feel so lucky.
The din of a sea cave is not all that unlike the opening growl of "Down with Disease." Monstrous and intimidating, the noise of the echo chambers made by crashing surf and jagged rocks, and Mike's 5-string Modulous, can be harmoniously (read: dissonantly) layered over each other with no one except seals and crabs experienced enough to tell the difference. Maybe a few Phish fans could too, I suppose. We do have a knack for attention to detail. What rolled over the PA Sunday night as the sun finally set was no cave, no rush of ocean – it was Mr. Michael Gordon. "Down with Disease" sprinted out of the setbreak with Mike leading the way. The dancing palm trees behind the stage told me the wind was blowing last night. They were draped in dresses awash in psychedelic color, their tailor Chris Kuroda. How special this must have been for them – to be adorned with such richness and color, made of both light and sound. The colorful wind blew the "DWD" jam to soaring heights. The palm trees could not help but dance themselves, and each audience member took cues from their natural, long-removed cousins, as limbs and fronds flailed in unison to a soaring, rocking groove. For a brief moment, we felt so much as individual humans, as we did a small part of the much larger and more beautiful natural world. How humbling. How cathartic. As if on cue, Trey approached the microphone as the peppy jam surged onward. He began to sing the lyrics to "No Men in No Man's Land." You always know exactly what we are thinking, Trey. At that moment, none of us were individual men or women on a beach in Mexico or on hardwood floors in Oregon. No. We were all No (wo)Men in No Man's Land. We were adrift, afloat, and aloft. We were connected to each other and to nature. How amazing this pairing was, at this moment in time. Taking notes from MSG's seismic combination of "Light -> Party Time," this version of "NMINML" wasn't so much the version we are accustomed to hearing, but an evolved version of the song, adapted to fit into the groove of its preceding jam. This is a new musical idea of Phish: the layering of jams and songs over one another while altering, in-the-moment, the song's original structure. I hope they continue to expand upon this theme as their career continues to grow, as Phish is producing some historic segues and jams with this new direction of improvisation. "NMINML," following the peaking wavelength that "DWD" set up, took on a more rocking groove than its typical funk. No complaints here. In fact, had it not been 25 degrees outside, I would have removed my pants and cast them out the window in a celebration of symbolic approval of what Phish was accomplishing last night. Don't think for a second this was an easy decision, it wasn't; "DWD -> NMINML" was that hot.
The decision to remain clothed only grew more contentious as Phish dropped into "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley." Most of the dance moves I saw on my television screen would in fact land you in jail, at least temporarily, but seeing as how I have never been to Mexico, I assume the US knows better than to extradite its citizens from the warm, soft beaches. In fact, rumor has it the Mexican consulate was quoted that evening, saying, "We're not going near those guys." You don't know how lucky you are. "Sally"'s swanky funk sashayed all up and down the painted beach. Akin to the incendiary 8/19/12 version, this power-funk locomotive groove-train careened into a blistering peak! Wow! That sunburn on your shoulders took note: it was nighttime outside. That's what happens when you see Phish in Mexico. Fishman took over after the peaks exhausted itself and seamlessly layered "Possum"'s opening snare roll over the fading dissonance. Page had an idea. A warning. "Are you too near the shore?" The Sandwich King sampled "Shipwreck" noises from their thrilling Halloween show over Fish's patient build. Tumultuous and frightening, Page warned us again. Fishman combated the warning with bright rabbit punches to his snare. Page did not relent. The tension built. With a smile and a wink, Trey looked to Fishman to give him the signal: it's go time. ::snare roll:: And off we went! "Possum" leapt into the fray at full speed (possums are much faster than you probably realize) and scampered down the beach! Page sat down at his piano and chased the marsupial with flourishes of what I can only call Spaghetti-Western-Jazz. He morphed two styles of playing – something similar to what you'd hear in a gold-miners' bar in 1849 Colorado, with something you'd hear in a 1950s Chicago jazz lounge, as I am sure many of us can attest to. Ahem. This unique, playful style dashed this version with nimble accents and flowery notes. Trey riffed over Page's newly-created genre and there was a full-band conversation about where to take this musical time machine. "Possum" returned to 2017 with a hearty, satisfying peak as the muscles in our cheeks began to get sore from how much smiling we had been doing.
No rest for the weary though, as Trey jettisoned us into "Carini." ::the author had a real struggle with pants removal at this point:: "Carini" stirred the sea floor and muddied the water. Murky, dark, and evil, Carini lashed out like a Morey eel at passing prey. Page again sampled the chaotic "Shipwreck" noises. "Are you too near the shore?" "Crashing surf and jagged rocks!" Anyone dancing in the ocean at this point probably took a few steps closer to the beach. Smart move. This Leviathan may have just swallowed you whole. The wavelength of the show dipped into an opaque stew. Seaweed grasped at your ankles. Trey began dripping notes from his guitar the color and viscosity of molasses, with tones and filters so dark that the sun had second thoughts about there being a tomorrow. Mike rumbled like a boulder down a hillside. The full-band juggernaut that was once so bright, so cheerful, sunk into thick quicksand. Trey's notes grew more brooding. Fishman's hits, more punishing. The noise started to subside, or rather, relent, as the dark tempest rolled back out to sea. A twinkle on the horizon. Soft at first, it grew. Brighter, the high-hat splashes. Unmistakably now, "David Bowie" tossed us a life-preserver (most of us, too petrified to move, let alone think straight, had forgotten about the one under our seat... we should probably pay more attention to those safety warnings.) The composed section, like "Rift" and "Fluffhead," featured some forgivable missteps, but the jam swirled like a tornado across the churning shallow ocean. Almost as if it were premeditated, the jam took on a delightfully-poppy and fully-percussive tone. Taking elements from the impressive "Undermind" two nights prior, Fishman swung from drum to drum like an octopus in a reef. As if communicating by telepathy, the band moved out of this drum-induced party back into a quintessential "Bowie" build. For a brief measure or two, they toyed around with a Fishman-led dance party again. Mike approved, as he unleashed waves of thumping notes that made George Clinton say, "Make my funk the Mike funk." Once more the band returned to frenzied, "Bowie"-esque jamming, and Trey excitedly led them into a flawless, two-peak climax. They stuck the landing. Even the Russian judge gave it a 10/10! It was, in fact, that good. No one took a bow though. We weren't done yet!
The shoulder straps stayed snugly nestled against our shoulders, and buttcheeks remaeined planted firmly on their stools. What could it be? No way – you've got to be kidding me! "Harry Hood!" Scottie Pippen eat your heart out, Phish just broke your single-season win record (after all, Phish remains undefeated since 1983.) What a treat this song was – this set was – this show was. As I sat on my couch, or rather, danced on my floor, I wished that all of us could have been there last night. It was one of *those* shows. One that keeps us coming back; traveling locally, domestically, internationally; spending thousands of dollars, exchanging thousands of smiles; forfeiting vacation days but earning lifetimes of memories. "Hood" swayed through its beautiful composed section, with Trey taking liberties to improvise on some of his composed parts. Very unique indeed. The jam, paying respect to its environment, swayed like a palm tree and flowed like the tide. Touching on some Harry Hood "plinko" elements from years past, a vibrant, sun-filled groove engulfed us with warmth and comfort. Trey then took the lead, oh captain my captain, and set sail for perhaps one of the most satisfying "Hood" peaks of recent and extended memory. To be talked about in the same breath as Chula Vista's "Harry Hood," Trey heaved handfuls of joyful notes over the crowd. An abundance of riches, Phish turned the navy night sky into daylight. Color and zeal and passion, no spectrum could define the triumph of this jam. Trey circled the wagons one last time, climbing his scales, fully supported by his friends, his bandmates, and his fans into a final, blissful release that quite simply exploded in a radiance of happiness and unity. We all felt so good, good, good about "Hood." A non-stop, free-flowing, undeniably timeless show had just ended. With only (only?) an encore to send us back home.
"Slave to the Traffic Light" couldn't have been a better pick. Contemplative, reflective, and respectful, we looked inward as the musical notes flowed outward. We thought about the high-fives, the new friends, and what to call that one dance move we created during "Sally." We became thankful for what we are a part of, a community not only unique by definition, but by the experience the community lends to itself. "Slave," in the context of this show, was note perfect. Is that to say it competed with the high-flying, stratospheric "Slave"s of the mid and late-90s? Probably not. But honestly, it didn't need to compete. This meditative version was as soft as the sand, as warm as the sun, and as peaceful as the palm tree. It ended with a peak so energized, yet so humble, no words of mine can explain how it *felt* to experience it – even if I was three time zones away. Then, when "Tweezer Reprise" dropped, all of the glorious energy, all of the pulsing wavelengths, the troughs and crests, all that the show had churned out non-stop for the previous three hours culminated in one final peak: the crest of the wave. Our collective energy last night and any night we see Phish together – these are the moments that matter. These are the waves we ride. To borrow words from Hunter S Thompson, "That sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave...". One day that wave will finally break, and roll back, and we will be left only with these memories, but today is not that day. Today we charge forward. Into the sea. Today, we ride that wave.
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