What a year 2012 is shaping up to be for Phish.
It is worth remembering that 2011 ended not with fireworks but fizzle, as the band turned in an uncharacteristically flaccid run at Madison Square Garden. I had firm hopes – but limp expectations – that Phish would emerge in 2012 with a renewed sense of purpose, creativity, and fun. Thus far they have shattered those expectations by delivering a first leg that snowballed gradually and even methodically to a SPAC-tacular finish, and a second leg that (while somewhat more erratic) has offered a lavish mess of jaw-dropping improvisational highlights.
What an embarrassment of riches, and what better place to conclude the second leg – or, perhaps, introduce a “third leg” of sorts – than Dick’s?
The band walks on stage at 8:22 Mountain Time and hauls ass into a rare “First Tube” opener. Trey adopts a stripped-down approach to his soloing in the outro jam, bypassing the more exotic stops on his pedalboard in favor of simple overdriven tones right up until the very last measure. High-octane stuff and an attention-grabbing start to say the least.
Bluegrass tunes out of the gate are always a grand omen at a Phish show, because the band tends to set them aside unless they’re feeling nimble and on-point. To wit, “Uncle Pen” comes out of nowhere and truly satisfies. The workout in the middle always reminds me of “The Rose of Alabama,” which reminds me of The Outlaw Josey Wales, which in turn reminds me of Clint Eastwood, who turned in the performance of his life last night at the Republican National Convention. [And yes, in retrospect, it’s clear that the song was not played for this reason.]
“Carini” thunders forth at a deliberate clip and it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to know by now that Phish’s pump is primed. Trey explores the wah-drenched minor through the peak, and then moves to his Digitech to explore the subdued major space while Mike goes staccato, way up on the fretboard. For the several minutes that follow there’s some wrestling as each of our heroes compete to introduce the Next Big Thought. As often happens, that journey is as interesting as any destination could ever be. Ultimately this “Carini” is a spellbinding version that may not quite stand up to DCU but makes an extremely compelling case for 2012 runner-up.
“Kill Devil Falls,” one of this year’s over-performers, never quite blasts off, and that’s okay. I sort of like the idea of growers – songs that can telescope between short and long. Page has a few charming words to say per his recent routine, and after a hilarious “We Love Dick’s” chant, everybody’s favorite arpeggio announces the arrival of a super-rare, mid-first-set “YEM.”
At this point, the notion of a set that opens up like a flower, or peels back like the layers of an onion, can be summarily dismissed. Phish is in Denver tonight to punish your bishop. “YEM” is played flawlessly through the scripted section, then Trey grabs the reins immediately after tramps and throttles up furiously to a blazing climax. This antithesis of his delicate take on “YEM” at Bill Graham gives way to the most satisfying vocal jam in many years as the band picks up the “We Love Dick’s” chant, and sends it around the horn to gut-busting effect (“Fish/Page/Mike/Trey loves Dick’s...we all love Dick’s...”).
A well-earned “Ocelot” rears its head next, still warm from its appearance at St. Louis... but who’s bitching? As I mentioned in my recap from that show, it’s a song that continues to earn more of its keep with each successive version. Fishman shows quite a bit of restraint here, holding the peak at well over arm’s length for a good long while before Trey quotes “Crosseyed and Painless” and trills his way to an arguably ordinary climax. But it’s the last ordinary piece of business we’ll see this set, because by now, the tronz are ablaze with tweets from fans who have decoded tonight’s secret message – which is not “DRINK MORE OVALTINE,” but “FUCK YOU, UNSPECIFIED PREDICATE.”
That’s right – just as last year’s Dick’s run began with a show featuring songs that all began with the letter “S,” tonight’s show heaps some alphabetic gamesmanship onto the pile. Oh, it’s on.
This means that not too many songs could come next but “Undermind.” I am in lust with this song, and it’s welcome back after a one-show breather because it pushes all my buttons. It’s plainly obvious that every single band member loves this tune as well, because each of them get to show off, and anybody who can manage to sit still for this boogerific throwdown is off my Christmas card list. Recently, it’s about the full band bonus jam, which once again veers off in majestic, elfen directions. Mike does what he does best, injecting raw emotion into the most unexpected of places, while Fishman feeds rhythmic coal into the furnace and Trey calls in the whales to draw this electrifying jam to a close.
This no-less-than-stunning “Undermind” – which like the St. Louis “Limb By Limb” immediately re-defines what the song is capable of – ties a bow on what may very well shake out as the best first set of 3.0, the brilliant gimmick notwithstanding. Time and further examination will tell, but for now it’s time to catch our breath. Perhaps the second set will complete the dis? I can’t wait to find out, and I’m 100% certain that’s the plan.
As the second set kicks off, “Runaway Jim” suggests a few potential targets in the crosshairs of Phish’s callout. Romney? Rheumatoid arthritis? Rigatoni? Riboflavin? Rickshaw? Rod Carew? Whatever lies ahead, the brilliance of this gambit now becomes obvious: the shorter the word, the more compelled the band will be to jam, so as to fill 3 hours of stage time. I find myself praying for “FUCK YOU, RA,” so we can enjoy a set-long “Runaway Jim” jam followed by a cleansing “After Midnight.” And for a few awkward moments it sounds like that might transpire.
While I’m ultimately thwarted, this approach yields a “Runaway Jim” that goes entirely off-leash for the first time in far too long, and Lord what a blessing. I will resist the temptation to poorly describe this “Jim” and simply encourage you to give it a listen. It’s far from perfection but it’s a wonderfully game grasp for glory, and easily the most compelling version in quite some time.
The arrival of “Farmhouse” lets a bit of the air out of the gimmick by eliminating every reasonably possible anagram but one, which at this point one must assume will be the encore (editor’s note: WRONG).
A gloriously lilting and loopy end to “Farmhouse” bleeds patiently and ominously into a minutes-long setup for a monstrous “2001” – which of course is also known as “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by geeks like me. This ambient stretch finally terminates in “Alaska,” serving a well-earned sub-fuck-you to geeks like me.
Once again, Phish... well played.
“Chalk Dust Torture” seems an obvious choice for the C-song, but there is good news. See, the gimmick has Phish cornered, and they can either (a) choose to jam the ever-living shit out of this as they have several times since Hampton 2009, or (b) find an “E” song that they can extend for a good half hour. The second false ending in as many “Chalk Dusts” confirms suspicions that we’re in for (a). An extended “CDT” walkabout ensues, climbing a pretty damned respectable ladder to land among the 3.0 elite. And with a smile and a nod between Trey and Mike, the by-now-not-so-secret message culminates in a confection: the first “Emotional Rescue” in 12 years. Confounding expectation, Phish finishes the meta-idea by concluding its second set with “Fuck Your Face.”
At this point, the double encore of “Grind” and “Meatstick” serves little purpose other than to reinforce the entirely puerile nature of tonight’s statement, and to call our attention back to what came before it. All of this structure, after all is said and done, is pure distraction. What matters, and what we’ll talk about when it comes time to buy tickets to Denver next year, is the music. I’ll need a day or two to be sure, but in the immediate wake of tonight’s performance, I feel reasonably confident calling this the finest evening of music that Phish has delivered since 2003.
In no way do I mean to diminish SF3 or St. Louis, and in no way to I mean to set a bar that’s too tall for Dick’s 2 or Dick’s 3 to clear. Just calling them as I see them from my humble perch, and hoping you all enjoyed it as much as I did.