[We would like to thank Denny Kinlaw, user @SaintAndrew, for last night's recap, his first Dick’s show. -Ed.]
Some venues simply flaunt their status as beacons of musical heritage upon the American landscape: the mythic aura of Madison Square Garden, the sublime scale of Alpine Valley, and the dingy intimacy of Hampton Coliseum all come to mind. To enter these venues is to enter into the mythos of rock n’ roll history. For Phish and their fans, these venues represent not only the ascendancy of a band that labored most of its career in the shadows of more commercially celebrated acts—with Phish finally “making it” on the main stages by 12/30/1994 and utterly destroying them by 12/30/1997—but stand out as perennial havens for a band that continues to achieve improvisational high-water marks thirty years into its career. While Dick’s Sporting Goods Park will never elicit the type of hushed reverence these historic venues tend to evoke, nor will anyone ever gasp with stilted breath “It’s magnificent” upon entering Dick's (See Gorge), it simply is the most important outdoor venue for mapping Phish’s shape-shifting achievements in the 3.0 era.
As a first-timer at Dick's, I was thrilled to finally see Phish in their favorite summer setting and eager to witness the band at the end of a tour that is argued to be the strongest since summer 2015. As online forums and podcasters squabble over whether the Deer Creek “Simple,” the Nashville “Mr. Completely,” the Alpharetta “Tweezer,” the Hershey “Birds of a Feather,” or the Shoreline “Soul Planet,” (etc., etc., etc.…) remains the jam titan of 2021, Phish continues deconstructing sets and discovering new openings for musical interplay night after night.
Opening with “Alumni Blues” sends what I assume to be a well-degreed Dick's crowd (Go Buffalos?) into various forms of delight. I see praise hands shaking in rhythm to “He’s alright” and big confident post-college smiles all around. The sightlines and sound are perfect from our spot on the floor, and the Saturday show is underway with a deep cut. I can’t really think of an opening song I’d rather see after a near two-year Phish hiatus.
My first “Turtle in the Clouds” keeps the sing-along crowd moving and Trey and Mike’s choreographed routine gets a lot of laughs from me. Trey launches into the song’s coda with confidence—you really get the sense that mid-century anthemic Swedish rock was by no means a throwaway Halloween gimmick for Trey as much as the means for him to solo like a 1970's guitar god on a regular basis. Equal parts “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Mark Knopfler guitar-heroics, “Turtle in the Clouds” is basically what results from a childhood spent attending Broadway plays while learning how to play “Money For Nothing” in your bedroom.
“Blaze On” allows Trey to open up his guitar more fully while the bandmembers settle deftly into a range of inspired soundscapes. I’m with you—“Blaze On” is a little too Carpé Diem for a crowd that likely spent the majority of their day(s) either rock-climbing or white-water rafting (no need to preach to the choir here, Trey!)—but you’ve known since Magnaball that this song gets the band where they need to be quick. Like the majority of jams this tour, Trey steers clear of any easy bliss template to instead explore a range of miniature motifs in conversation with Mike and Page. The communication deepens quickly. Each effect introduced—Trey’s mu-tron and Page’s squirrely synth—brings another conversation partner into the fray.
After the tour’s first “Cool it Down,” a fitting song for a remarkably mild and breezy Colorado evening, “Ghost” picks up where “Blaze On” left off. Trey turns quickly to the guttural growl of his mu-tron with sparse punches of notes that keep the tempo moving. Page pivots from his clavinet to the Fender Rhodes—an instrument that provides the real foundation for most the evening's improvisational forays—and once again we find ourselves in the middle of a four-person conversation that is untethered entirely from its original song.
It’s a cliché that when Phish goes deep into the pocket fans pull at their neighbor’s sleeve and sputter like Spicoli, “What song is this, again?” But hear me, seasoned and weathered Phish fans, I did this at least four times in the course of the night. Call it first-show-back-in-a-while bliss, second-hand spaciness, or just plain slowness on my part, but each and every jam (however brief) abducted me entirely.
“Ya Mar” reminds me that I am in Colorado at a Phish concert in 2021. But even this song has space-time expanding potential it seems, because it’s not even the second verse yet and I’m transported to the Deer Creek lawn and it's 1996—I didn’t even attend this show—and nobody has cell phones. Behold the power of music.
“Undermind” provides another ideal space for Trey and Page to let their respective toys speak to one another. We get our first taste of Trey’s delay-pedal—an ascending windmill of notes that scatters up and out like shrapnel—and Fish responds in kind with rolling toms and cowbells. It’s a slinky tune, any way you cut it, and you get the sense that Trey and Fish could have lived within the closing verse-drum back-and-forth for a few hours.
“Tube,” unlike many of the tour's preceding versions, skips over any semblance of pop-funk to go straight into what I can only call a gentle Rhodes-grounded groove. Even Trey’s lyrical delivery, playfully stretched this tour it seems, has a softness that prepares the band for a more muted entry into the jam. And sure enough, it doesn’t take but a few high-hat inflected bars of full-band interplay before I’m uprooted entirely from anything called “Tube,” and like a kidnap victim bound in the back of a windowless van, this ethereal music steals me from mere flesh-and-bone being. Trey locks into a phrase that has hymn-like earnestness and carries it up the neck over the course of what feels like minutes, peaking, collapsing back into the muddy blues of the “Tube” conclusion. Do listen to this if you have the means.
I’d like to point out that the entire fanbase surrounding me on the floor was locked in, non-chatty, and thoroughly amped that Phish decided to conclude their set with “David Bowie.” Saturday crowds get a lot of flak—an evening which caters to the Chompers and Chatters, presumably—but when everyone around you is pin-drop silent during the ambient hi-hat intro to “Bowie” you have found a good spot to watch Phish. Unlike Deer Creek’s version, Trey nails every note of the composition (take that flub-hunters!) and the band executes a gripping, if brief, take on one of their finest songs. Like many first sets this tour, I think to myself that what I’ve just seen is more than worth the money spent and planes boarded: and we get a whole other set in thirty minutes!
According to most music critics of repute, there are only two songs in the Western Canon of pop-music in which variations upon the lyrical refrain “Na-Na-Na” actually enhance the structure and listenability of a song: The Beatles “Hey Jude” and Simple Mind’s “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” “Everything’s Right,” sadly, is not included in this definitive list. Nevertheless, once you’ve made it past those “Na-Na”’s, you find yourself in the field of limitless possibilities afforded by the 3.0 composition. Like most of the evening's micro-jams, this macro-jam commences and builds not upon the pyrotechnics of Trey’s abilities, but upon the creation of a full-band soundscape that stretches, mutates, and collapses into itself like a white dwarf. We are exploring musical textures in this jam, tinkering with volume swells, mimicking small phrases across instruments. Page’s synthesizer, the MVP of the tour’s first leg if you ask me, finally returns to good effect. Nearly twenty minutes into the jam Trey decides to build upon the momentum with a few well-picked classic rock phrases before winding back into an echo-chamber of ambience.
“Fuego” enters into the fray with some plodding first-steps as the band finds its way without the aid of Page’s typical piano intro. The oddness of the song’s introduction somehow lends it a unique urgency (see what I did there, flub-hunters?). It’s a quick rendition, but one that strikes me anew in its capacity to animate a crowd: out of all the moments one might have bellowed to the sky with one’s hands in the air, this one brings out the crowd’s enthusiasm more than any other. I’m not sure what significance there is in that observation, but at the very least it shows a band that is by no means relying upon their classics to animate a crowd.
The featherweight beauty of a “Farmhouse” outro is often lost in the grumble of those who perceive such delicate playing an intrusion into their pursuit of Jams. Thoughts from my only visit to the bathroom for the entire show.
The final half of Set II featured abbreviated takes on several fan favorites, which I presume some will critique on the nature of their abbreviatedness. But what the closing section of Set II continues to highlight is the band’s adeptness at approaching their catalogue with fresh eyes this tour. “Mercury” drops with an up-tempo take that the crowd is ecstatic to hear. The segue into “Seven Below” is abrupt but welcome for a tune that has been in hiding thus far in 2021. Page continues to stand out as the critical member in these short ventures into non-Trey-dominated moments of band interplay. All heads are bobbing throughout the entire section.
My first “Drift While Your Sleeping” is performed flawlessly and allows for Trey to resurrect anew his Knopfler-cum-Broadway doppelgänger. I’ll debate whether or not this song “bombed” the second set flow with a friend for the remainder of the night. Call me a rube, but I actually don’t mind extended full-band compositions that meditate upon virtues like love. As if anticipating some nay-saying from the unconverted, however, the band concludes the set with a brilliantly executed “You Enjoy Myself.” For my money, there isn’t a sweeter spot in the entire Phish catalogue to appreciate Trey’s virtuosity on the guitar than the muted and non-distorted section that immediately follows the trampoline segment. Trey opts for an extended medley of liquid phrases over any effort to Peak, and lets Mike have the last word.
As if to remind the crowd that before Trey was writing 14-minute rock-operas advancing the thesis “It is and Always Will be Love,” the band encores with Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love.”
I’ll leave the statistical breakdowns and pie-graphs to more able hands than mine when it comes to “rating” where this Dick’s show (and run) live within Dick’s history. But as a first-timer at Dick's whose been seeing the band since 1996, I can only hope that tonight I have to ask my neighbor, “What song is this, again?” half as many times as I did last night. And I think that’s a big part of what we talk about when we talk about Dick's.
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