[We would like to thank Rob Mitchum for recapping last night's show. -Ed.]
Recapping the show before Halloween is a sucker’s bet. The narrative of any fall tour with a costume set capper inevitably becomes defined by whatever Phish chooses to do with that holiday show. Like a well-constructed mystery novel, once you know the twist ending, it’s rewarding to go back and spot the clues you missed your first time through. But any speculation about the 31st I make today will almost certainly have an expiration date of, oh, 72 hours or so.
Fortunately, this weekend’s run in the Chicago-adjacent suburb of Rosemont felt just as influenced by a past Halloween as it surely will prove to be foreshadowing of the next one. In the theory that each Halloween show is a symbolic snapshot of the band’s state at the time, the 1995 show in the pre-branded Rosemont Horizon is an easy data point to explain. As Phish learned how play the arena circuit, they cribbed notes from one of the best, learning The Who’s sprawling, anthemic rock opera Quadrophenia as they conditioned their own muscles to command the nation’s college basketball and minor league hockey venues.
Phish returned to the arena four times since that special ‘95 date, with some unremarkable shows in the slowly souring times of 1999/2000 and a well-regarded 2.0 date in February 2003. But on this visit, even if they didn’t explicitly dust off any Quadrophenia cuts, they seemed possessed by the spirit of 1995, playing nearly the whole weekend in a high-intensity gear that begged for some Pete Townshend windmills. Based on your appreciation of that particular Phish mode, you can blame/credit the venue, a boomy relic where the acoustic shortcomings are best dealt with at high volume, or the crowd, which showed up all three nights in Halloween party mode, never mind the calendar.
Friday and Saturday, Phish were happy to lean into that fevered vibe, but in an uneven first set Sunday, they risked pushing back against it with some mellower material. OK, not with “Everything’s Right,” which continued its consistent career with a patient build to yet another blinding-white crescendo, or “Destiny Unbound,” which paid hyper-specific tribute to the song’s long-anticipated revival in the same venue and same set slot on 2/28/03. But the pairing of “Heavy Things” and “Miss You” was the first time the band took an extended onstage breath all weekend, and seemed to indicate that there would be more of a relaxed, schoolnight feel for the evening.
“Tube” ain’t no ballad, but in the night’s most nuanced jam, the band settled into a relaxed, effects-heavy groove, perhaps content like the rest of us to watch Kuroda’s wondrous light rig do its crazy meteor storm impression and cycle through some tidy micro-melodies before a flirtation with the “I’m a Man” riff briefly brought back the classic rock crunch. That could’ve been the springboard back to more dangerous turf for the rest of the set, but it was quickly snuffed by the call for “Petrichor” -- a misread of the room not helped by a noticeably ragged performance.
After those 17 minutes, “I Always Wanted It This Way” had a heavy lift to win back the crowd, further handicapped when Page appeared to struggle to tame his synth effects and played more of the song and jam on organ than usual. The switch gave this version an earthier flavor, but also kept the middle section from drifting into the more experimental textures it typically finds (marimba’d or otherwise), as Trey, needing a big set-closing flourish, grafted an extra but standard solo on the end.
The jagged chords of “Carini” blasted away any lingering first-set cobwebs away and dispelled any notion of calmly winding down in the weekend’s final set. With the light rig hovering claustrophobically close overhead, the band kept the jam close to its menacing origins, Trey playing choppy, heavily delayed stabs over Page’s cushion of Rhodes. It logically set up the ensuing “No Quarter,” where the lights reconfigured from club-intimate to arena-rock spectacle, the rigging forming a giant occult triangle while laser-like spotlights criss-crossed beneath and approximated hexagons. If Jimmy Page was webcasting from Aleister Crowley’s Loch Ness manor, he surely smiled.
Unusually, “No Quarter” was extended past a straight cover, feeding an overtime period of heavy jamming that evolved smoothly into “Cities” — a delightfully mischievous soldering together of the early and late 70’s that pretty much no other band could pull off. A fine “Gotta Jibboo” bridged into “Twist,” where fluid, egalitarian improv grew increasingly starstruck until it just had to become “What’s the Use?,” Phish’s most regal composition in its natural climate as the apotheosis to a jam.
A brief, slinky return to “Twist” and the cool-down of “Shade” and it felt like we were in for a “Slave” to tuck us in for the night. Instead, the band caught their eighth wind, the out-of-nowhere drop of “Plasma” motivating one last segment of Rosemont ragers. “Plasma” creeped its way up to a reprise of the “Party Time”-ish jam from Friday night’s "Tweezer," and “Character Zero” got particularly raunchy, Fishman vocally egging on Trey until he was jumping back and forth from wah pedal to his mysterious box of pre-set loops at the apex. For dessert, a “Fluffhead” encore offered some contrast to the night’s other quarter-hour composition made up of several distinct sections, throwing the curfew to the wind and providing one last helping of peaky white light.
So closed a show sporting the weekend’s most interesting decisions, if not with uniformly successful outcomes. And so ended a weekend that didn’t touch the pure weirdness of earlier Fall highlights such as Hampton’s “Golden Age” and Nashville “Mike’s Ghost,” instead pursuing a more direct and aggressive approach.
But something about that tone felt appropriate, as (sorry) the shows took place against the backdrop of yet another blast of terrifying and tragic national news. For the record, I definitely do not want Phish to get political. But I’m also not too thrilled with them doing the exact opposite; “everything’s right, so just hold tight” is just about the worst advice possible for late October 2018 (obligatory: please, PLEASE vote next week).
When fans like myself long for the days of dark Phish, it’s usually the cosmic/experimental/ambient side we crave. But there’s an angry side to Phish too, that’s been seen all too rarely in the 3.0 era, which predominantly (and justifiably) projects an attitude of “we’re just happy to be alive.” It’s easy to defend music-as-escapism, but the up-with-people vibes of recent Phish performances and songs have felt increasingly disconnected from the real world happening outside, at least to this reviewer.
Not so much at Rosemont, where there was an jagged edge and ferocity all three nights, whether due to the venue, the awful news out of Pittsburgh, the ghosts of Halloween past, or the spectre of whatever they’re building up to Wednesday in Las Vegas. The ominous overtones lent this weekend a heavy air, but that made the occasional moment of release all the sweeter. It’s a dark season, for reasons much more serious than Halloween, and we’re lucky to have a Phish that’s more in tune with the prevailing atmosphere to see us through it.
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