[We would like to thank Rob Mitchum for recapping last night's show. Rob is a science and music writer in Oak Park, IL. He tweets about Phish @phishcrit, other stuff @robmitchum, and has undertaken the Sisyphean task of writing about every Phish show on its 25-year anniversary, which will take him until at least 2047…and counting. Thank you Rob! -Ed.]
When Twin Peaks came back for a miracle third season in 2017, it succeeded where many other TV show reboots failed. It reunited beloved characters, but didn’t offer up the simple comfort of familiarity. Everyone looked older – an obvious fact, but not one that television usually admits. While some characters were still stuck in their former patterns and roles, others were different in ways both surprising and frustrating. A slew of new characters were introduced, expanding the show’s world in ways that weren’t always clear. There was no easy retracing of steps, and that tension, combined with the emotional weight of a story that had been living in viewer’s heads for 25 years, made for an experience unlike any other.
Before last night, I had barely heard any 2022 Phish. Not for lack of interest. Thanks to my newsletter, I have been immersed in the summer of 1997, with no Phish free time remaining to keep up with the modern day version. I am aware of this tour’s highlights and controversies – They’re playing some songs too often? What else is new? – only in social media passing. I’m so busy teasing out the narratives of 1997 that I haven’t had the free hours to do the same in real time with 2022.
So this review, of a show a few days shy of the 25th anniversary of their festival named after a Twin Peaks reference, will just have to be what everybody loves best – a comparison of modern-day Phish with their status in the banner year of 1997. Don’t worry, this will not be a “back in my day, the lawn at Alpine was twice as steep!” grump fest. But it is a chance to experience the first night of Alpine 2022 as a time traveler would. Alpine Valley looks exactly the same as it did the first time I was there 26 years ago (I wasn’t there in ‘97, which would have made this conceit work better, oh well), and after your eyes are damaged enough by Chris Kuroda’s LEDs, the band looks pretty much the same. But the similarities throw all the differences into sharp relief.
What jumps out first to our time traveler is the efficiency of today’s Phish. The opening “Fuego” builds straight to what would have once been a show-stopping peak, while in “Clear Your Mind” Trey uses his “Run Like Hell” rapid delay trick – the pay-off of a half hour of jamming in “Ruby Waves” at the last Alpine show – for just a couple quick bars in a solo between verses. There are also big league segues from “Clear Your Mind” into “Twist” and “Halley’s Comet” into “Destiny Unbound,” and it’s still only the first half of the first set. “Destiny Unbound!” They just…play it now! No cannibalistic death chant required!
My dual timestreams really start to warp with “Moma Dance,” the song that encoded the 97 cowfunk sound and in doing so, tamed it. To my surprise, 2022 Phish lets the wild funk back out of its cage, producing a “Moma” that was the unexpected highlight of the first frame. In what’s normally the closing solo, Trey gets stuck on one note and dumps effects on it to escape; by the time he does, the jam has changed around him to a slightly sinister twilight groove that they ride sideways for several more minutes. Alternating high single-note stabs and chukka-chukka muted chords, Trey clears space for Page’s grand piano, peaks the jam, then slides back (fluidly, for once) to properly finish the song. It’s the kind of “what comes after the funk” jam they were grappling with in 1997, now effortlessly executed.
At the start of the second set, another time crack forms. An enthusiastic fan throws Trey a facsimile of his classic black Pepe Le Pew t-shirt, famous for shows such as 7/23/97, 11/21/97, 4/5/98, and 11/2/98. Trey drapes it over his gear, summons his memories of the late 90s and…asks Fish to sing “Ass Handed.” Again, efficiency – they don’t even need much of a song to spark deep improvisation now, taking Fish’s shower ditty out for 5 minutes of hard rock improv.
Instead of Pepe vintage, they then play three more songs – “Set Your Soul Free,” “Golden Age,” and “Lonely Trip” – that debuted 2009 or later. Like David Lynch denying his audience the classic Agent Cooper for 16 episodes, Phish won’t just simply rehash the past. But “SYSF” and “Golden Age” still float through friendly, mid-sized jams stuffed with interesting ideas, the former resolving to a lovely major-key rumination for a cool, starry night on what passes for a mountain in the Midwest (shades of 8/1/98’s planetarium “Tweezer”), the latter cycling through a collection of lite-funk patterns.
Finally, Pepe Le Pew gets his day with “Ghost,” very likely the song you hear in your head when you see a photo of young Trey in that particular attire. However, like Mike, “Ghost” has grown more muscular in old age, no longer a spectral saunter but a launch pad straight to the hose. On the other side of a mighty peak, it feints towards a “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” ending (another ‘97 echo) but uses the heavy-metal riffage to reprise “Ass Handed” instead, sparking an exhilarating finish-line sprint full of deranged synth, guitar, and bass tones and Fishman chopping the beat in half.
“The Howling” is the new character introduced for the reboot season, in this case a 2020’s remastering of “The Moma Dance,” already fitting right in with a "2001"-style fanfare, an arcade light show, and built-in audience participation. From there, it’s Phish classique with “Simple,” “David Bowie,” and “The Lizards,” some old friends our time traveler friend would be happy to hear. "Bowie" is perhaps the song with the most to lose from a 97-to-22 comparison, and the band’s age can’t help but show in its virtuoso composed sections. But here, the jam gets a winning modern-day revamp, flipping to a major key where they are far more comfortable in this era and reaching another satisfying climax before subtly redarkening to finish “Bowie” in traditional fashion.
The only way to be disappointed by it would be to inflexibly expect the old “Bowie.” And that’s the trick with comparing 1997 – or any past era of Phish – to what they’re doing currently. For a band that never stops evolving, mythologizing the past is a trap. Speaking as someone who has listened to every note of it up through (as of today) August 13th, 1997 had its flaws too; it’s quite messy, which may have made the eventual successes more exhilarating, but also occasionally involved “urinating in their fans’ ears.” 2022 gets straight to those highs with an almost astonishing speed, so fluidly that it’s easy to forget how difficult it once was.
Twin Peaks, Phish, it doesn’t matter if it’s better or worse, all that matters is it’s different. With 25 years to build upon, it’d be a tragedy if it wasn’t.
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