Another summer has passed, the ninth since the opening notes of "Fluffhead" kickstarted what has come to be called Phish 3.0. Phish has evolved significantly since then. They are more apt to play extended jams than in those early 3.0 days. They've also built up a significant catalog of original 3.0 material - about a third of the songs played in any given show can be expected to have made their debut since Barack Obama's inauguration (god, weren't those the days?). They've also created a new traditional run of shows: The Labor Day run in Colorado or, as Phish fans more simply call it: Dick's.
Last night concluded the seventh annual Dick's run. Most years it seems like the excitement and anticipation of Phish tour reaches a frothy peak at Dick's. This year was different. The Baker's Dozen was such an exciting event for so many obvious reasons that it seemed like it sucked a little air out of the Dick's balloon. (The same thing happened in 2015 after Magnaball.) There was no way Phish could top (or even equal) what they accomplished in 13 shows at MSG in a single three night run. Of course that made it all the more remarkable that on Friday night they threw down probably the best set of the year (at least in this recapper's opinion). Conventional wisdom was that Saturday was a significant step back from Friday. What would Sunday bring?
After opening with expansive type-II jams on both Friday and Saturday ("Blaze On" and "Simple," respectively), Phish went with to the other extreme and gave us a two-minute "Buffalo Bill." There's not much to accomplish musically in those two minutes, but still, of all Phish's anal karma songs, that's their best. The ensuing "Moma" and "Birds of a Feather" were their usual selves. Nothing particularly noteworthy about either version, though the "BOAF," in particular, showed Trey & Co. to be in good technical form for a third consecutive night. Perhaps feeling nifty with the fingers, Trey tried his hand at "Sugar Shack" next. If there was a Phish in-show casino, betting on Trey to nail "Sugar Shack" would be the ultimate sucker's bet. Everyone wants to bet on it, but it so rarely pays off. But last night it did, as it was probably the best Phish version of the song I can recall.
"Most Events Aren't Planned" was next and what a welcome addition to the repertoire this song is, offering Trey a spacious, textural groove to nimbly solo over. "Back on the Train" continued the trend of well played but unadventurous songs before the relatively new ballad, "Leaves," slowed things down. Since we're in the circle of trust, I will confess to generally enjoying "Leaves" (particularly the Maple "Leaves" from MSG). Admittedly, this enjoyment has come without close examination of the actual lyrics, which I'm kind of afraid to do at this point. Maybe we should just move on.
If Phish is playing in Colorado, you're probably going to take the highway to the great divide at some point. "The Wedge" has now been played every year at Dick's. The improvisational meat of the first set followed with "46 Days" and "Bathtub Gin," each of which feature patient builds to full band peaks. Sunday's first set may not have packed the same punch as Friday or Saturday, but still had its moments and, more importantly, served as evidence, that Phish no longer treating first sets as exclusively song-based affairs with little room for improvisation.
Before Set II, the smart money was on a "Disease" or "Tweezer" opener. We got the former, and an atypical version at that. After the initial post-refrain jam, we got little of the major key jamming that typifies so many "Diseases." Instead, this was a ride to space mountain. About 10 minutes in, the jam disintegrates into a pulsating, spacey vamp. Trey is content to sit back and allow Mike to lead the way with Page exploring alongside him.
Let's take a minute to acknowledge the excellence of Mr. Michael Gordon on this particular run. I'm not sure we've seen this sort of assertive, muscular jam leadership from in him in sometime (at least not consistently) but it was very welcome and paid off in a big way on Friday night, especially. And, frankly, it's the jam leadership we need. Now back to your regular programming...
Trey adds some nice ideas to this menacing "Disease," as it continues to build on the dark theme. The last three or so minutes of the jam descend into pure space, with Fish dropping out entirely and Page (mostly) holding a single chord. "Light" rises from the ashes and we quickly get the major-key bliss that was missing from the "Disease." The "Light" begins deviating from the theme fairly early (about six minutes in). Mike is again steering this jam and it doesn't take Trey long to find a pattern that ends of forming the basis for the jam. As the jam concludes, it sounds like it could go into "Steam," but instead Trey opts for "Rise Up/Come Together." I guess the song has a positive message, so it's got that going for it. Maybe not much else, though? For me anyway... YMMV.
"Piper" begins the so-called fourth quarter and, as is typical of so many 3.0 versions, it explores significant terrain in relatively little time. This version centered around some interesting Trey/Page interplay (counterpoint: a friend describes it as "rhythmically challenged") before Trey takes the reins and carves out a soaring solo. "Meatstick" is next, which just seems like a song that has had its day and served its purpose. It certainly seemed purposeless in this spot and was over in 5 1/2 minutes.
A standard "2001" follows and crescendos into "Possum." Over the course of 3.0, many fans have soured on "Possum," calling it overplayed and unadventurous... or both. However, I'm here to tell you that the dead marsupial is enjoying a veritable renaissance in 2017. Both last night and the Maple version are delicious and would make a welcome addition to your stew. Don't be put off by the fact that it's "Possum," just enjoy the savory flavors! A perfunctory "Suzy Greenberg" closed the set.
The "Waste" and "First Tube" encore satisfied fans of ballads and guitar pyrotechnics alike. Alas, it may have left those in search of last minute setlist antic heroics wanting more. Yes, it's true: if the "still waiting" message from last year left some fans uncertain, the message had to be received this year. Dick's may still be special, but it's no longer because the band plants Easter eggs in the setlists. No, it's special because it is the longest running tradition of this iteration of Phish, an iteration that remains creative, innovative, and - on the right night - awe-inspiring. Last night may have fallen short of awe-inspiring, but the year certainly has not. We are incredibly lucky for that to be the case in their 34th(!) year.
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