Regular readers of this site may have noticed that the admins did not post a “Best of 2016” this year, as we did the last three years. Delicate flowers that we are, 2016 took a lot out of us. For starters, it wasn’t 2015. That may be an unfair comparison, with 2015 being the consensus best year of 3.0, but it’s also the nature of the space-time continuum. So, fine, point conceded: it may be unfair to be critical of any series of shows for not standing up to the band’s most recent high water mark. But Summer 2016 paled in comparison to 2012-14, too. In fact, many of us viewed it as the most lackluster tour since the band’s first post-breakup tour in June 2009.
Fortunately, as lackluster as the summer was, the Dick’s run proved to be a turning point (if you squint a little, you could see the seeds for the turning point start with the west coast run). In fact, a group of us began ranking the 2016 shows and two things jumped out. First, summer really was that underwhelming. There were 45 shows in 2016. Only one show from among the first 25 so much as threatened to make it into the top 10 (7/15/16). The other top 10 contenders came exclusively from the last 20 shows of the year. But -- there’s always a but -- here’s the thing: those 20 shows produce a damn respectable top 10 shows. As good as 2015? Um, no. But when you consider they came from a 20 show stretch, you realize that Phish actually ended the year in quite strong fashion.
And yet we still couldn’t be bothered to produce a top 10 list. Why not? Who knows. Blame the Marimba Lumina. Or the LED panels. Or 12/31/16 III. Or maybe it had something to do with the ongoing malaise that set in after the 2016 presidential campaign (which tended to suck all the air out of the fact that just eight days prior Phish wrapped up one of the finest four night runs in their career). Or maybe we’re just lazy. Or old. But never let it be said that ol’ @lumpblockclod doesn’t give you your money’s worth. Here’s one person’s top 10 Phish shows of 2016: 1) MSG3 2) Vegas3 3) Dicks3 4) Vegas1 5) Nash2 6) Dicks1 7) Vegas2 8) ATL1 9) Vegas4 10) MSG1.
By now you may be asking yourself, “What does all of this have to do with the show Phish played last night at Chicago’s Bank du Jour Pavilion at Northerly Island?” Honestly, very little. But it saves me from having to write an introduction for the recap, and maybe it distracts some of you from the fact that I didn’t attend last night’s show. So, from the couch, let’s see how Phish fared in the second show of Summer 2017…
“Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” kicks us off; certainly not as dramatic an opener as last night, it sticks to the script, as does the ensuing “Moma Dance.” It’s been 7 shows since the last “Moma,” and that qualifies as a reasonably large gap for the song. It hasn’t gone more than 9 shows without being played since 2.0. “The Wedge” is next and is always a welcome song to hear, but the band is still on autopilot. As Rick Pitino might say, “7/20/14 is not walking through that door,” at least not this set. If someone has something more insightful to say about this opening trio, I’d love to hear it.
“Halfway to the Moon” follows -- Thank you, @pagemcconnell! -- and I’m halfway to sleep. I apologize. I’m sure this recap strikes the great majority of you as overly negative -- and it probably is! -- but I’m just not sure who Phish is playing this set for in 2017. Sure, there are first-timers at every show, but it’s not like these are even the “greatest hits.” What I’m saying is I’d like to see the boys take the stage looking for a little more fun. But it’s still early, and Phish has been largely treating the first set as a warm up set since 2009. I should be used to this by now, and yet it still frustrates me that the band chooses to play only a handful of shows a year and then so often goes through the motions for half of those shows. I mean, I only write a handful of recaps a year, and these takes couldn’t be hotter. (NB: comparing my shitty little recap to even the worst of Phish shows is a joke.)
Few songs scream summer first set as much as “Ya Mar” and we get a gooey little Mike solo towards the end. Kinda fun? “Martian Monster” remains my favorite Haunted House song and the band is starting to show signs of life, with Trey playing some fiery little leads. The relative upswing continues with “Party Time.” We’ve reached fun, danceable Phish! Page announces his presence with some deft organ playing. If I were at the show I would be uncrossing my arms and removing the frown from my face at this point (NB: Also a joke; I have a great time at every show I’m fortunate enough to attend, honest).
“Wingsuit” has really grown on me, and is probably my favorite Fuego song. Alas, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this one doesn’t really stand out. This is not to say it's not a perfectly fine version. It is… I just don't find Trey’s solo as stirring as, say, 7/12/14 or 8/7/15. You can probably guess my feelings about “Bouncing Around the Room,” but in this case you’d probably be wrong! The song is somehow welcome in this spot. A concise “More” closes the set in strong fashion, and I can't help but relate to the chorus. There's gotta be something more than this. Thankfully, there will be in Set II. (BTW, if you haven’t, you should really check out the Phish.net song history for “More” by Kelly D. Morris, particularly if, by this point, you’re looking for positivity.)
The Phish debut of “Corona” opens the second set. While it popped up in at least one soundcheck in 2013, it’s safe to say no one expected it here. The opener is short, but Trey sounds good. “Simple” follows, and fasten your seatbelts, everyone, it may just be time to go for a ride. This “Simple” heads straight for bliss territory after the verses. The bliss eventually gives way to a more general ambience, but still featuring some imaginative leads from Trey. He then steps back and we go from ambience to full blown space. Let the record show that at 10:36 p.m. EDT this jam could have died, and probably taken the show along with it, but Mike turns the jam on its head and it becomes a dark bluesy jam that is a bit “Tweezer”-y at first and then feels like it could drop into “Timber-Ho!” at any moment. The battle station is fully operational at this point, with Mike leading the way. The jam works its way to a major key peak, and then somehow keeps going. By the time it dissolves into “Winterqueen,” we have an all-time great version of “Simple” (for sheer length only two versions outlast this 27 minute monster: 11/16/94 and 12/9/97) that will surely be among the finest jams of the year.
The ‘Queen starts out spacier than usual, hinting at the possibility of an atypical version, but hints are all we get before Trey leads the others into “Light” (apparently before they were quite ready). The “Light” doesn’t stay on for long before slowly (and maybe a little awkwardly) seguing into “Scents and Subtle Sounds.” The “Scents” jam starts out in typical “Hood”-like fashion before downshifting to something approximating a 2011 “storage” jam. Things get dark, dirty and swampy and before we know it, we’re treated to a surprise late second set “Cities” (not to mention a much more successful segue). A seemingly short “Slave to the Traffic Light” recalls “Cities” in that there are some good points (it’s a “Slave” closer!) and some bad points (a few sour notes), but it all works out. Far be it for me to complain about a “Slave” closer, but let the record reflect that if I were in charge of setlist construction (a position I am available for on either a full-time or consulting basis), “Cities” would have ended the set. “Loving Cup,” the second Exile song in two nights, sends us home. Well, not me; I’m already home.
Remember all those awful things I said about the first set? DISREGARD! DISREGARD! I mean, they’re all true, but when they play a second set like that, they’re also largely irrelevant. This is why we go to see this band time after time, year after year. I started out this recap listing my favorite shows of last year. A quick, back of the envelope calculation puts last night on the top half of that list. Just imagine if they weren’t playing with one hand tied behind their back.
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