Saturday night brought the 33rd time that Phish played Dick's Sporting Goods Park. If you're an Orioles fan from the 1970s, this number brings to mind Eddie Murray. A Billy Strings enthusiast would mention that 33 is a special number for him. A vinyl collection would desperately want to type "1/3" after the 33. We've made it a third of the way to 100 shows in this soccer stadium, the second most frequently played venue (MSG being the first) outside of the Burlington clubs they cut their teeth in (see The Front, Nectar's). Phish were going to spin another set in Commerce City and hopefully it would not be one to skip.
Humans are pattern-matching creatures and, if I'm being honest, when I was assigned the Saturday night slot to review, I was definitely nervous. While only sporadically backed with actual evidence, the concept of Saturday being the lame night---the proverbial "Saturday Night Special"---is ingrained in our culture as much as "Never miss a Sunday show!" is. From the perspective of a recapper, it doesn't matter much if the show is good or bad, just as long as it's notable. Fortunately Phish definitely delivered.
Phish came on stage shortly after 8 PM, amusingly after they made the big deal on Thursday about how we needed to arrive early, as Phish's start would hew closer to show time than normal, and this night started all of 4 minutes later than the 1st---and, indeed, Phish decided to start with a crowd pleaser: "Punch You in the Eye." With a longer intro than usual and "The Landlady" section played at at the pace of the standalone version rather than its much faster "PYITE" speed, it felt like a good night for those who worship at the altar of patience.
(If you're wondering, the closest I was able to find to a God[dess] of Patience this morning is the Korean Ungnyeo, a bear who was in a cave with a tiger. They were both told to stay in a cave for 100 days eating nothing but some provided garlic and mugwort. The tiger gave up after the 20th day and wanted some better eating. As a result of being patient, Ungnyeo was transformed into a woman on the 21st day, and she is known as the bear woman. She later birthed Dangun, the founder of Korea. For those who want Phish to be more meticulous in their performances, erect your shrine to Ungnyeo before the show every night. For those who like tighter performances, carry in stuffed tigers!)
"Wolfman's Brother" followed and like the parenthetical digression above, that is a song that could go in multiple directions. Sometimes it's a quick dance song, othertimes it's the rationale the band uses for an extended improvisational journey. This night it was the eye of the tiger that was victorious. It was fun and high energy but wrapped up quickly. When it was followed by "Walls of the Cave," a song only recently liberated from its set-closing role, it felt like it would be tigers tigers burning bright this evening. However, instead, the theme of the night would first appear: when you're expected to zig, zag!
Phish could have left the cave walls quickly in search of better food but instead they went spelunking. In a jam with "There is a Mountain" and "Let It Grow" themes, they played around with some funk and cool effects. This was the first highlight of the night and gave fair warning to set expectations aside for the evening.
Speaking of throwing aside expectations, Page was making such interesting sounds during the "WotC" that he was rewarded with a song from his criminally underrated self-titled album, "Heavy Rotation"---a song that has been in anything but. "Mercury" was also debuted the same night (7/22/15), but has been played 10 times as frequently. However, tonight the rules would be slightly bent and we'd get its second performance of the year. Page was incredibly stoked to be performing this. His piano in the end jam is outstanding, especially when given extra power by Trey's punchy fills.
So we had an extended jam, we had a cool performance of a song that contained the phrase "Nothing but time to kill." The next two songs were to be "Boogie on Reggae Woman," a song known for having very cool outro jams and then "Stash," a song that regularly explores before returning home. Everyone could see where the show was going, but never count out a tiger!
Instead of being jam vehicles, both of these were played as songs. "Stash" is such a cool song that it can be sad sometimes to have it be treated as mere prelude. Phish have always been about the dichotomy of two forces, but it's not a battle of good and evil. Sometimes what the set needs is some fun high-energy songs, and this delivered. And for those looking for more ursine energy, the "Free" briefly pointed in that direction.
Speaking of rule breaking and expectation defying, after the standalone appearance of its life partner "Weekapaug" the previous evening, "Mike's Song" was not the most expected call to close out the set. It fell not into "Hydrogen"---note for those playing at home, the last time "I am Hydrogen" was played without "Mike's" or "Weekapaug" was 10/31/87; if that happens tonight, causally mention that to your friends to impress them for knowing that off of the top of your head---but into "Bug," getting a debut try-out in the first-set-closer spot. Since the theme of this recap has suddenly become the dichotomy of opposing Phish energies, I think this is an appropriate place to talk about "Bug," specifically the space before the chorus.
While Phish is known for improvisational delights, they sometimes create these spaces of utter beauty. There are three that always stand out to me. Two of them are known and largely respected, "What's the Use?", and the quiet build of "Slave to the Traffic Light." But the third? The third is Mike taking his blissful bass line right before the scream of "Bug." It's short but it's one of those moments I could live in forever. Mike has an amazing tone, and Trey and Page frequently play around it. Stop disrespecting "Bug" and don't tell me that it doesn't matter when you do. It does matter damnit! You have a chance to bring bliss into your life every time the song is played. Embrace it!
Set break. Get a drink. Remove the liquids you had previously stored. Find some friends. You have thirty minutes. Go do it! Now! The clock is ticking!
Continuing the theme of changing things up, for the first time ever in Phish's long history, "Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S." opened the second set. This is a new set spot. Will you always remember where you were when it happened?
"Kill Devil Falls" followed and the fans of Ungnyeo were prepping very nasty letters to the editor, but---again---expectations were made to be ignored. This unfinished version clocked in close to 15 minutes with a jam in the middle that felt like "L.A. Woman" or the middle section of "Fuego." It's high energy and improvisational and unexpected, all of the major Phish food groups at once!
After a sudden lurch into outer space, the Oops: All Openers theme continued with "Sigma Oasis." Confound expectations? We're already there! While this jam didn't hit some of the heights elsewhere in the show, the last two minutes have some stunning Trey/Page interplay. It's short but it's so worth your time. And then it led us to somewhere surprising: the first "Thunderhead" since 2003. Where did that come from? The storm was yesterday after all.
"Thunderhead"---or as it frequently was called this night, "Wait, is this 'Thunderhead?' I had forgotten about this one!"---has another brief but blissful outro jam. The new no-expectations expectations made us suspect that we'd be back to chilling with bears and eating honey, but instead, a surprise "Moma Dance." Thrown into the middle of the second set, the jam opened up again. After a beautiful transition, our reward for this exploration was a high energy rock and roll dance party---an event where both tigers and bears were quite welcome!---which then fired us in a quick spacey transition into the shock of "No Quarter."
"No Quarter," or as I like to call it sometimes "Pas de $0.25," is the Spanish Inquisition of Phish covers. It's an option and we know it is, but no one ever expects it. Fortunately, this is a much more welcome surprise. It was at this point where the realization was beginning to sink in. Wait. This is actually a really good show, isn't it?
It wasn't quite over yet though. After a "2001" that also served to play with us (part of the jam between "verses" was temporarily lost and then placed in the middle of the second pass at the theme), we got one last journey, "Split Open and Melt."
There's a movement where people talk about "scary" or "evil" Phish and how it should be more of a component of modern shows. This "Melt" lived in that territory. The jam was spacey and a little freaky but it also gave Chris a chance to show off what his new light rig is really capable of. While the lights have been able to move for a while now, this setup has the ability for complicated choreography. There are multiple banks that can move independently, some were sinking while others were floating. It reminded me of the whales and dolphins swimming around the Garden on Earth Day as they traversed interesting patterns. Stop talking about tigers and bears. The earth is covered with water. Let's musically and visually explore deep underwater territories. I hope you got your dancing out of your system already, as this is a dive. As much as I was enjoying it, I actually was relieved for the return to the song. I was getting a tad freaked out. Perhaps to calm us, Trey reprised the "We are the Phish from Vermont" joking introduction from 7/11/00 as the set came to a close.
After the encore ("Fee" into a short but beautiful "Slave" to send us home with a hug), after the walk-out to Diana Ross's "Upside Down," after the trip back to homes, hotels, and other rentals, after the hanging with friends and the consuming of postshow snacks, it did feel like a bit of a journey was done. It's usually said ironically but with multiple interesting jams, surprising setlist calls, the constant surprise, and the reminder that patience, and getting the bear and the tiger, need to both be present for maximum bliss, this Saturday night was indeed quite special.
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