After nine years in a row playing the same venue over the same weekend, we’ve all established our traditions and routines. All of that got upended this year due to a plague infestation. Prairie dogs that live there were potentially covered with infested fleas. With the traditional Shakedown lot closed, parking at a premium, and knowing that we couldn’t undersell the issue since The Black Death killed 60% of the population in Europe in the 15th century, we had to adjust. Europe saw the end of feudalism. We might have to take a shuttle from a remote lot to see our concerts.
By the end of the first night, it was clear that the logistical issues would not be a big deal. Phish had the shuttles running on a quick turnaround; I got back to my room earlier on Saturday than I normally would have with post-show lot traffic, only with no parking fee and with a free Nalgene handed to me for my inconvenience. This system was arguably better than the normal parking in the lot. The Shakedown lot quickly got replaced with a new Flea Market location. Vendors took advantage of this to make funny shirts and stickers and koozies referencing prairie dogs, fleas, and civilization-ending infestations. The plague warning signs were a popular selfie spot. During the first night, Phish made flea jokes and used a Pure Prairie League song ("Aimee") as walkout music. Another lyric was changed on Saturday. When Commerce City gave us plague, we made plagueonade. Yum!
The 27th Playing of the Dick’s started with a cover of everyone’s favorite completely real, not at all made up, Norwegian/Icelandic band. “Stray Dog” had the lyric change du jour, as Trey sung that he was a "plague dog." He managed to get slightly better about laughing at his own joke, as he was only unable to sing one line because he couldn’t stop giggling. Dorky Trey always feels like a true gimpse into who he actually is. One of my favorite things about the band right now is that Trey feels free to play-out the same goofy jokes that he'd normally make backstage in front of 20,000 people, and it turns out that most of us find that just as amusing.
Speaking of jokes that translated far better than they had any right to, after a brief “Stealing Time” interlude, we got a second dip into the land of Kasvot Växt with “Turtle in the Clouds.” The surreal attempt at trying to reengineer what a 1980's Europop dance routine would look like was extended this night, giving Page an extra chance to shine and Mike and Trey a double shot at pretending to throw objects into the crowd. Trey also extended his solo at the end. The turtle seemed to fire him up, and the object of this excitement would be “Wolfman’s Brother.”
In something that would become a theme for the night, this version wasn’t especially long---it clocked in at 14 minutes---but Phish made every minute of its jam count. They left the standard funk jam and gave us a beautiful, high-energy space with some great Mike/Trey interplay. Once they created that, Page and Trey alternated some stunning licks on top of it. It was somewhat like the more delicate jams they’ve been hitting so well lately---"What’s the Use?” being a prime example---but Fishman kept the tempo going, so the beauty did not come at the expense of danceability. This is a moment that will always be popular with the fans for the simple reason that it’s really, really good.
After a short but punchy “Birds of a Feather” (complete with extra samples from “The Birds”), we got one final plague Växtination. “We Have Come to Outlive Our Brains” was notable for two reasons: it had a nice play on the “Harry Hood”-styled mid-song jam, and they tried a new style of morphing into a new song.
Traditionally, Phish have three ways of ending a song and starting the next: stopping and then starting the next song (song B) a little while later; starting song B as the previous one (song A) dies out or immediately after song A concludes; and when the jam of song A segues into song B and there's a transition between the two songs, for example, with some band members continuing to play song A as another band member or two begins playing song B, or when song B seems to logically and smoothly begin out of song A's jam. In Phish.net setlist parlance, we signify those transitions between song A and song B with a comma, a “>”, and a “->”, respectively. This night, they played a bit with a variation on those themes. So for example, they sung the outro “We will come to outlive your brains/I’m the glue in your magnet” lines over the intro of “Taste," creating a real -> transition between the songs. It was more like a crossfade than the typical > method of transition. While this one created a cool effect, the next one was educational.
“My Friend My Friend” is a song Phish debuted in 1992. “Twenty Years Later” first came out in 2009. When they started the intro of “Twenty Years Later” under the “My friend my friend he has a knife” outro lines, the crossfade all but ordered us to make comparisons between the two songs. They are not really thought of together, of course, but they both have jams with similar, dark feels in the middle. “My Friend” has stream-of-consciousness lyrics whereas “20YL” is more of a character study on the concept of aging while still wanting adventures. The former is much higher energy in its darkness. Regardless of the differences, pairing them showed that it really was the same people trying to explore the same type of idea, but just at a different stage of their life. You can even make a through line from here to the Ghosts of the Forest material to see how Trey plumbed that again another decade in the future. “Twenty Years Later” didn’t just have lyrics about how a person could still try to be the same even as they aged, it was an actual demonstration. Seventeen years later, they’re still upside down.
The first set would have one more intriguing jam to come. The improvisation of the closing “Bathtub Gin” started out with some great fills from Fishman - he was playing interesting moments like that throughout the run - before building into what appeared would be the normal way that they currently play the song. It would go to a euphoric peak, everyone would dance excitedly, and we’d all go to the break happy. Then it all changed.
Just as it reached the point where the fans up front would fire their confetti and streamers up in the air to heighten the peak, the bottom dropped out. While still a dance party, it was quieter and a tad more exploratory. They played there, and then Trey shifted back to the peak, and that extra space before the peak created a greater contrast than in the typical version, making the euphoric peak feel more earned.
The second set opened with another Ghosts of the Forest debut, “Sightless Escape.” Unlike a lot of the more contemplative pieces on the album, this track is a rocker. It might be a sharp relief in the album, but it makes sense to start a set that way. It was followed by another song that was the high energy track of its album, “Fuego.” This version left the normal "Fuego" territory and got quiet and pretty. Like many songs this night, the jam didn’t last very long but it did a lot in the time given.
While only time will tell how the “Piper” that followed will be remembered, this is a unique version of the song. Beginning with a very fragile singing of the first blast of the lyrics, almost sounding like a lullaby, the jam went to some weird, bedazzling places. Page was toying with some bizarre effects and pitch-shifting as the rest of the band played a dance groove under him. It sounded borderline electronica at times, an attempt at the new band Phish Tribe Sector Nine. This section of the jam felt different to anything Phish has ever done. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s always great to hear them still finding ways to connect and make different sounds after playing so long together.
This jam morphed into “Tweezer” after 15 minutes. The step into the freezer wouldn’t be particularly long by itself, but the jam found itself back into the land of the Fuego. They reprised the “rolling, rolling” chorus for a while before going back into a more spacey jam on the backside. What the interlude did was make this feel less like a series of short versions of songs, and more like a long jam that had songs occasionally interjected into it. Some shows are designed where you can just pull out the “Ruby Waves” or something and listen to that independently. Others flow from jam to song to jam to song, with them scrambled together into a whole. This is a second set that rewards far more if you listen to the whole instead of just wanting one great part.
Speaking of brief interludes, a straightforward “Also Sprach Zarathustra” formed as a segue from the space of the end of the “Tweezer/Fuego” jam and the rock of “Chalk Dust Torture.” Continuing the theme of this night, this version wasn’t long, but it played like it was. They immediately went into a punchy, Mike-led jam. It’s another fairly unique sound as the bass is really front for a lot of it. Between this and the “Piper,” this is a show that really does demonstrate that Phish still have new avenues to explore as an improvisational band.
After over an hour of playing with new spaces and approaches with an occasional song mixed in, it was time to actually remind us that the old approaches also can work. The final set of Dick’s 2019: This Time We Have Plague ended with a ballad and two closers. “Waste” and “First Tube” let us have moments that really hadn’t been present in the show: a great Trey ballad solo and a rock star Trey is a Jedi moment at the end of the set to contrast with the dorky ones from the start of the show. Just when you think you have them in a pigeonhole, they find a new approach.
Outside of New Year’s Eve, no show deserves a “Silent in the Morning” more than the end of the Dick’s run. This exact thing happened just last year and as “Tweezer (Reprise)” ushered us out of the venue, we all hoped that it happens again just next year. Phish and Dick’s and Labor Day just work so well together. Here’s hoping we all do this for years to come… well, everyone but the fleas. They were a plague on the scene!
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