[This recap is courtesy of Brian Brinkman user @howard_roark (@sufferingjuke / @_beyondthepond on Twitter). While the opinions expressed by a recapper on this site are not necessarily shared by any volunteer who works on phish.net, Brian is a volunteer on phish.net, so there's that. -Ed.]
Some Phish shows make you laugh. Some make you dance. Some make you rock out. Some make you think. Some freak you out. But the really rare and special kinds of shows leave you dumbfounded and speechless. Laughing incoherently, amazed at whatever it was you just witnessed, wearing a shit-eating grin, and incapable of putting into words what you and 30,000 others just experienced. Sunday night, July 14, 2019, was one of those rare & special Phish shows where everyone in the venue, and those following at home, all felt let in on a secret joke the band has been telling for 36 years. Bustouts, rarities, hi-jinks, lectures, and the longest jam of 3.0. It was a kitchen sink kind of a show and one that will surely be discussed with the best of the era, up there with 8/31/12 and 7/25/17.
The Summer 2019 Tour has been a fascinating one for Phish. They've incorporated nearly 20 new songs in their rotation while playing 200+ unique songs throughout the tour. It goes without saying that this kind of effort to play a large catalogue of complicated songs, all while introducing new songs that have no historical context or basis for where/when they should be played, is a massive challenge for any band, let alone one that's nearly 40 years into their career.
In addition, they've built off the jamming breakthroughs of 2017 and 2018, thus compacting their improvization at times, while spending more time developing space & fresh musical ideas rather than driving towards a simpler, blissful rock peak. Add to it, they spent a large portion of their tour in the NE Kingdom that they were raised in for the first time since Summer 2016. Between the Baker's Dozen parking them in NYC for 3 weeks, and the cancellation of Curveball in August 2018, the band hasn't spent as much time on their home turf over the last three summers. Since then they've released an album while writing two other albums worth of new material. It goes without saying that there was a lot of change within the band heading into Summer 2019, and it showed. Quite frankly, I don't think the band has taken this many risks within their playing and show construction since Summer 2012, even as some of the results have been mixed.
And so the band arrived at Alpine Valley, a venue they love & have played 17 times, to conclude an incredibly unique, if at times, frustrating month of Phish. Dedicating their first two nights to working through their newest material, and exploring ethereal spaces within their songs, there were questions lingering about how the band would approach the Sunday night set at Alpine, and the final show for seven weeks.
If the first "Landlady" in 122 shows (7/10/16) was any indication, then the first "Olivia's Pool" in 692 shows (11/17/97) all but solidified what the band was up to. Whatever the inspiration was, they were opening the vaults, and unloading on their fanbase. The first set was dotted with even more rarities: "The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday" > "Avenu Malkenu" > "TMWSIY" - 147 shows (8/21/15), only the third "Spock's Brain" since 2000, and the first "Glide" in 82 shows (7/23/17). Elsewhere the energy was kept strong with the second "Pebbles & Marbles" of the tour, Ghost Of The Forest standout "About To Run," and only the fourth Set I "Good Times, Bad Times" of 3.0.
These are the sets we travel to see Phish for even when we shouldn't. They're the reason we huddle around choppy Mixlr streams on Tuesday & Wednesday nights. They're the reason we get into spats online with other passionate fans about this crazy band we all love. The rareness of seeing a first set like 7/14/19 is why we're all still here in 2019 seeing this group of Dads who still aren't sick of the inside joke they've been playing on us all for years.
Oftentimes it feels like when Phish plays a first set as strong as 7/14/19 - especially one so focused on rarities - they lose a bit of steam going into the second set (here's looking at you 7/20/16.) There would be none of this Sunday night at Alpine.
Phish emerged from their "15 minute break" with intentionality and focus. Opening with (IMO) the best song they've written in all of 3.0 - "Mercury" - they shifted gears slightly, here focusing the next hour of music on their newest material. "Mercury" bobbed and weaved for about 13min before fading (somewhat prematurely) into "Ruby Waves."
At this point, there were some concerned fans - more on this in a bit - as it seemed as though the band's penchant to cut off jams during the final week of the tour was having an adverse effect on their shows. Yet in historical Phish fashion - think 11/2/98 level owning of your fanbase - the band didn't just take "Ruby Waves" for a ride, they jammed it for 38 minutes and 8 seconds. The longest jam of 3.0 and the 7th longest jam of all time. While the band has proven time and again this tour that they can craft really meaningful pieces of improv in sub-15min jams, few will argue that they didn't use the majority of their 38 minutes in purposeful and gushingly creative improv.
The Alpine "Ruby Waves" will be remembered as one of the best jams of the era as it should be. There were segments of ethereal bliss butting up against 70s arena rock, terrifying wall-of-sound repetition segueing into infectious groove-based jamming. Every time it sounded as though it were going to conclude, the band found a new direction. It was a statement on the work the band has put in over the past three years to fully connect again through improvisation. Justification for their longevity, and a massive creative reward for the multitudes of risks taken over the last six years.
It's wild in moments like these to think back to 2013 when they were celebrating their 30th year together. At the time they seemed to have reached a peak and were looking back on how they'd grown and survived over the previous three decades. Little did we all know that they were spending the year crafting an album's worth of songs they'd debut that Halloween. Since then, they've released two albums, while crafting two full records for subsequent Halloween shows, and Trey added another record in 2019 through a burst of individual inspiration. Now, as their fortieth anniversary looms in 2023, it feels as though they've gone through a complete creative rebirth 3-4 times over since 2013. In jams like the Alpine "Ruby Waves" we hear how much more connected and dedicated they are now than they were even during a year that was designed as an acheivement simply by means of them performing live in it. Whatever work they need to put in to continue creatively moving forward, I am all for.
And so, how do you follow-up a jam like the Alpine "Ruby Waves?" You come down with your late-night sultry blues jammer "Twist," mellow-out with "Swept Away>Steep," drool a bit while shouting "Death Don't Hurt Very Long," and then play the first "Icculus" in 210 shows (12/31/2013). You tell your fans to stop being so damn concerned, to read the fucking book, and drool along with their neighbors.
Toss in "Buffalo Bill," because, why the hell not? And then finally (finally?) the "You Enjoy Myself" we all could see a mile away and hugged like an old friend we needed to see right then and there. But, since this is no ordinary show, how about the first "Catapult" in 191 shows (7/27/14) and then the second "Contact" in a week, but this one dedicated to a Bride/Groom-to-be who Trey met at his hotel & gave the best engagement story ever to. Yes, of course, all of that.
In a show reminiscent of 8/14/09, 7/3/11, 8/31/12, 7/27/14, 8/9/15, and 11/2/18 for its old school vibe, and rare find qualities, the band then came out for their encore - with just about 2 min to spare until curfew - and claimed "there must be something more than this..." Must there be? Perhaps it's better to say that "in a world gone mad" a show like this must be possible.
"Tweezer Reprise" closed out the show in ideal fashion. A three-minute coda to their most historically exploratory song, it exists solely to make you scream and laugh and pump your fists and bash your head back & forth through the air like a crazed lunatic. It's stupid and loud and brash and hilarious and a perfect encapsulation of the energy Phish conjures up in their fans & their entire fanbase. We love it when it's played where/when it shouldn't be, and we love it when it's the final notes the band leaves us with on a tour.
And yet, it's a strange thing, a show like 7/14/19, especially closing out a tour that felt so damn different and so new for Phish. A tour where the band took so many chances with setlist construction and jamming. A tour where, when things aligned and clicked, it produced some of their finest music of the last 20 years. And a tour where, when things didn't connect, it was awkward and clunky, and never took off. To close out this summer with a show that was such a celebration of why we all listen to Phish felt a touch out of step with the overall themes of the tour. Though, perhaps that's the magic of a show like this happening at the conclusion of the tour, rather than lodged in the middle of it. Perhaps we and the band needed the reminder that, while they're clearly so focused on evolution and the next sound of Phish, the reasons why so many of us came to - and return to - their music, is worth celebrating again, even for a night.
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