Author's Note: I usually write these reviews with the aid of extensive notes taken during the show. The Caribbean damaged my phone, temporarily broke my smart watch (messing up my timings), and destroyed a lot of my paper to take notes. We will soldier on anyway!
While Phish have played in Mexico before, this was my first year attending instead of watching on the couch. The one thing that most fascinated me as a spectator were the people dancing in the Caribbean Sea. The waves might have pummeled them, but they were having an amazing time splashing and cavorting. It was a beautiful, warm night in Cancun, and we decided that we would do the splashing ourselves, posting-up not far from the stage but surprisingly far from land... ok, about 20 feet from dry land, but that still is a somewhat abnormal perspective to see the band.
The previous day, we did a day excursion to Beach Palace, where there were signs about how to handle a turtle that had washed ashore on the beach. What they did not address is what we should do if there were one in the clouds. Phish helped educate us by opening with Kasvot Vaxt's hit single. Apparently, you should say things out loud, and decide that you do indeed want to live another day.
While "Turtle" might be about defiant optimism, it was immediately followed by a mirror image. The first "Shafty" in nearly 8 years told a different story. We might be in paradise, seeing our band in warm water with unlimited drinks and churros, but what if it turns out that we've really been damned all along? The dark, melodic jam that followed the "Shafty" made the odds of that being true even less likely, but that's what makes it so insidious.
The jam out of "Shafty" had the feel of "Plasma," so it made sense that it resolved itself into that song. The dark jam continued after we were plasmatized, continuing the contrast between the celebration of the stunning locale and the theme of the music. But perhaps we needed to reflect on things, as---after a moment that reminded of the apropos "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing's" coda---they resolved it back to "Shafty," playing it again from the beginning. This second "Shafty" was a bit of a mashup, as they sung the music over the music to "Plasma," before ending the "Plasma." The "Shafty > Plasma > Shafty > Plasma" is an impressive piece of work: not driven by peaks but by beauty, and quite unexpected that early in the show.
After a brief palate-cleansing trip to the land of "Lizards"---complete with people throwing water in the air for the choruses---we had the second big jam of the set: "Bathtub Gin." These days "Gin" is largely about the big peak, which would have been incredible in the environment, but when Trey hit the "Shafty" theme almost as soon as the jam began, it became obvious that there was a different path being explored here. That's not to say that there was no bliss here, but it was one with effects and intriguing melodies, not fast playing. It was a "Gin" that called-out to the mysteries of the deep, asking us, "What could be out there..."
...apparently, lurking underneath the surface of the sea, is revelation: the realization that maybe---just maybe---we actually are in Hell. After so much reflection, Trey finally brought the jam into a peak, and the darkness was about to be resolved into bliss, when suddenly, "The terrible thing about Hell." This version of "Shafty" was largely sung over the feeling of "Bathtub Gin's" jam. We had three different revelations that euphoria was really a trick to disguise where we were, all with different ways to bring us to the revelation. Paradise really being a trick: maybe it was an homage to the recently ended The Good Place, specifically the episode "Dance Dance Resolution." Does anyone know if Trey is a fan?
After two interesting jams and a crowd-pleasing favorite, it figured it would be time to take a breather. Instead they retapped the space with "Blaze On." The third extended jam of the set flirted a bit with "Shafty," "Plasma," "Crosseyed," and "What's the Use?" but largely just stayed true to the reflective theme of the set.
As the jam petered-out, Page started up a piano solo. After years playing on the beach, we finally were getting the perfect song for the environment. "Sea and Sand" made its first appearance since 1998 in a stunning version, albeit with a few lyrical hiccups. Seeing "Sea and Sand" as the sea was washing over us is something that made the sacrifices involved to get here worth it by itself.
After a fun "Possum" gave us a chance to splash around for a bit, the first set came to a close. Two bustouts, one song that was underplayed, some setlist games, and three interesting jams; sometimes people think of first sets as just an appetizer for what's to come, but this was a full-fledged meal.
After the break, we started out with the second performance of the new "Sigma Oasis." As another beach/sea song, it was quite appropriate. I don't know what will become of this song, but I want to point something out about this performance. Right before "Our ligaments falter, we scatter like art," Mike plays a stunning bass fill. It was a short, blink and you'll miss it moment, but these little landscapes are one of my favorite things the band does.
"2001" was an interesting call for the second spot. While it used to be slotted there, lately it largely is an end-of-the-night song, one brief last jam before we get to the closers. Being placed earlier in the night gave it a chance to breathe, clocking in at over 12 minutes. It's not quite the 1997 funk show stopper of yore, but for those who want to see meatier "Zarathustras," this is a good omen.
The rest of the second set will have a potential split between attendees and webcasters. Instead of extended jams, bustouts, and crowd pleasers, we moved to new material and microjams. This is another case though where setting makes a difference. The euphoria of the "Drift While You're Sleeping" peak, the energy of the "I Always Wanted It This Way," the peak of the "No Man's," all worked so well as the waves began to pick up and become more powerful.
It was finally during "Piper" when it became obvious what was happening. The quiet build was punctuated with the sound of the waves crashing due to the wind picking up. And then the skies opened. Rain at a show is a wild card. Sometimes it can make everyone miserable, but the warm rain just felt incredible. The waves picked up in intensity and almost knocked us over a few times. I don't know how it will play for those on the couch, but for the sea dancers, it was a time that will never be forgotten.
Phish is not a band that's known for its encores, but we had a surprise left. After a very strong "Sand," we got a surprise segue into "Weekapaug Groove." This is only the 4th known time "Weekapaug" has been played in a show without "Mike's Song" and they gave it a chance to breathe. After "Smoke on the Water" teases and a funk jam, it was building-up to a great peak. The rain was falling! The waves were crashing! The band was playing well! This is paradise! It must be heaven!
...but that's the reminder for the night. The terrible thing about Hell is that you can't even tell when you're there. Instead of ending the "Weekapaug," we got one last reprise of "Shafty," this one infused with the joy of the illusion that we might not be in an infernal dimension, and we were sent off into the night.
This show was atypical in many ways, with the location and the setlist calls, but the weirdest thing about it is that this easily could be the rare Phish concert where both the first set and encore are preferred to the second set. And while that does say something about how the usual peak of the night went, it also speaks to the impressive nature of the rest of the evening. We might have learned about the insidious nature of Hades, but the reverse is true too. The amazing thing about Heaven is that you can also get there when you least expect it. Sometimes the fool is not actually oblivious.
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