One of the things we like to do as Phish fans is try to guess which shows will rage the hardest. Venues with unique qualities, whether it is the name (The Bomb Factory), the location (The Gorge; Red Rocks), or the building (Hampton Coliseum) tend to be prime candidates in games of “Find the Rager,” so of course a lot of early money was on The Oklahoma Zoo Amphitheatre to host a memorable show. Expectations increased after a standout show and epic “Limb By Limb” the night before in St. Louis, even though the band seemed to take a potential animal-themed show off the table by also playing “Runaway Jim,” “Ocelot,” “The Sloth,” “Camel Walk,” and “Possum.” Unfortunately, expectations are sometimes confounded, and the Zoo gig would prove (at least on tape) to be more bear than bull, with ample mistakes, low heat, and little flow.
“Kill Devil Falls” is a high energy opening tune, but this version doesn’t seem to have its batteries fully charged yet. “Rift” is up next and is rendered in solid though not pristine fashion. Trey takes a moment after “Rift” to mention that the trip to the Zoo Amphitheatre was a band request, and they are so excited to be there that they are “kind of freaking out.” “Wilson” is played with about the same level of accuracy as “Rift,” and is followed by a “Backwards Down the Number Line” which struggles and ultimately fails to get over the hump.
“The Moma Dance” gives us our first dose of Cactus, though a small one, and sets up a bust-out of sorts, the second “Divided Sky” of the year. Even with a bit of lyrical flubbage, “Divided Sky” is strong and brings some needed lift to the set. That energy is maintained, though not built upon, by “Wolfman’s Brother,” which offers a little bit of plinko, a healthy dose of funk, a dollop of rock, and one of the better peaks in the first set. “Axilla” is next in a bid to maintain the momentum, but Trey badly mangles the intro to “46 Days,” which feels like attempt to shout some more life into the set. “Ya Mar” can’t offer much help, since Trey seems to have largely abandoned soloing in the song. This version seems particularly short, with Trey playing just a few measures before returning to the closing riff. “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” appears for the first time in eighteen shows, and is one of the higher points of the opening frame, but the set-closing “Run Like an Antelope” plods in sleepy fashion toward the break before a violent peak erupts.
“Down with Disease” starts set two where set one left off, with a lyrical flub and meandering jam that finds Trey trying several ideas which never take hold. “Disease” grows spacey and starts to fall apart before Trey creates a jarring segue by abruptly counting off “Birds of a Feather,” which receives a cursory, album-length reading.
“My Friend, My Friend” is one of my favorite tunes, and actually is the first Phish song I heard live, but here it seems randomly inserted and is beyond sloppy as Trey can’t seem to find his place on the fret board. The transition to “Rock and Roll” is enjoyable, though, with the Velvet Underground song replacing the “myfe” lyric. “Rock and Roll” lives up to its name, taking a traditional type-I approach before entering an “it was all right” reprise of sorts that is one of the more interesting moments of the night. Before the jam can get too weird, though, it dies away and is replaced by “Twist,” which starts out sparse and jazzy before swelling and flirting with a pretty ambient section. This “Twist” never finds its way, though, and all of the extra “woos” tacked on to the end can’t change that.
“If I Could” is a gorgeous tune and I’ll always be happy to hear it, even though I’m not sure what happened to the final chorus. This breather is quickly followed by “Light,” which starts suddenly, adding to the uneven feel of the show, and spends most of its time in dissonance without transitioning into one of the spectacular “Light” jams we’ve become accustomed to. With “Light” dying away in the same fashion as most of the evening’s improvisation, Fishman rolls into “Harry Hood.” The “Hood” intro is choppy, as is the modest peak at the end, and the jam in between is restrained though smooth. Smooth, though, is not a word which can be applied to the start of “Character Zero,” which is bad enough to get Trey laughing at himself and hollering “Hey!’ when he finally nails the riff. “Zero” and “Suzy Greenberg” close the set without reaching great heights and with plenty of slop, and with the “Slave to the Traffic Light” > “Loving Cup” encore, we can finally say that we’ve “seen the zoo,” and move on to Colorado.
The show at the Zoo didn’t provide the antics that some had hoped for; there was no quirky theme or “Harpua” bust out to keep people talking for months. Each Phish show is special, though, and with only three more left on this tour, a down night in Oklahoma will do nothing to diminish the excitement for Labor Day weekend. Dick’s, Ho!