Disclaimer: I watched most of this show via webcast, but the stream died during “Gin” and really only got going again for me during “Lizards,” so I had to fill in the gaps by listening this morning. Now let's do it.
The show starts with a fan request as Trey asks what a “0-172 Dinner and a Movie” sign means, and then announces that “This is for you!” “Dinner and a Movie,” not seen since Deer Creek last year, is slightly undercooked and direct to video, but typical opener “AC/DC Bag” is right behind to get the set’s musical boulder rolling down the mountain. As “AC/DC Bag” dissipates, Trey holds on to the last and highest note while Fish leads us into the “Maze.” This is the kind of strong, complete rendition that makes “Maze” a great first-set tune. Page dances all over the organ, with attentive compliments from Trey, who then fires off a picture perfect solo to bring us back home. “Mound” is up next, and is a bit of a struggle in places, but “Funky Bitch” is served up Chicago style, with a deep Mike crust, swimming in Page sauce, and secret Anastasio spices.
“Bathtub Gin” begins with a laugh, as Trey’s attempt to start the first verse is interrupted by extended Page histrionics. The Chairman spins several times and tries to hit every key on every board he has before taking a bow, to everyone’s delight. “Bathtub Gin,” like other tunes that have been around for decades now, has gone through several incarnations, beginning as a deconstruction exercise before evolving into a full-blown jam monster. In recent years, “Gin” has become more of a straightforward rocking song, coming to a boil steadily and blasting off some steam as it does here with two smooth peaks. “Wilson” is well played, and also sounds understandably a little rushed and a touch angry as the rain has started to fall in Chicago yet again. “Water in the Sky,” never a more appropriate selection, is also quick and clean. Then, with meteorological chaos unfolding, the band launches into “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” By now, even on tape, you can clearly hear the storm; if not the actual wind and rain then the crowd buzz and the band’s reaction to it. Instead of dampening this Phish performance, though, the deluge fills it with life. Mike’s bass solo in this “Boogie On” wins the first set, no contest. It’s more ferocious than any supercell and it amazes me that its heat didn’t turn the whole island into a steam bath. As if the weekend hadn’t been odd enough to this point, Trey opines that it would be great to have munchkins out tarping up the equipment instead of roadies. Finally, drawing “Boogie On” to a close, they make an attempt at starting “Run Like an Antelope” before an announcing that they have to stop for a while. Trey makes sure to note that it’s not his idea, and Page vows that they will return. Certainly one of the wilder ends to a set that I’ve heard.
An enormous cheer greets the band as they make good on their promise and take the stage for set two. “Energy” makes its third appearance and this time goes from the potential of Alpharetta to a kinetic, type-II jam. There are several enjoyable moments and hints of where versions may go in the future. Listen to the fluttering from Page that is echoed by Trey and Mike around the 10:30 mark, for example, or the weird and darker shift that almost occurs around 11:15 thanks to some fat notes from Mike. My favorite part of the jam, though, is the last 90 seconds; not because the jam is over, but because it’s the most adventurous it gets before moving on. “Ghost” sounds like they know they’re working under tight time constraints, and therefore the tempo is fast. Yet it’s a very tight, great sounding version with focused work from all four band mates. This “Ghost” should be high on your list of proofs when you need to show why jams don’t need to be long to be awesome. It’s fantastic, complete with cool “Seven Below” section and a heavenly segue into “The Lizards.”
Nothing makes the hair on my arms stand up like hearing the crowd reaction to an “Oom Pa Pa,” and rarely has one been more deserved than this one. Now, what to say about this “Harpua?” It was awful and wonderful. First, it features the cast of The Second City, who Mike and Fish had joined on Friday, as a supposed group of Philadelphia fans who have been holding a sign that says “Poster Nutbag the right way.” This improv bit develops into a rap about Al Gore, erectile dysfunction, puppies and kittens. It’s more or less a train wreck, as the Second City gang seems out of their element at a rock concert, but I would say it’s worth hearing in a “you’re not going to believe how terrible this is” way. Mike’s narration, on the other hand, is a moment that goes in the “Harpua” Hall of Fame, with a plaque bearing the inscription, “Oh, fuck, there’s a dog here.” Even if you think the Second City appearance is terrible, a Mike story is always must-hear. We often use the word “treat” in these recaps for rare tunes, but for “Harpua,” I feel a word like “joy” is more appropriate. I certainly will be elated if I ever hear one live, Al Gore boner rap or not, so I’ll admit, I’m jealous. With story time over, the band polishes off the show by completing the first set’s aborted “Antelope” and quickly fitting in a “Character Zero” encore with thanks to the amazing fans that stuck it out to the end. And all of this in time to beat the 11pm curfew. Wow.
While I have been and always will be a proponent of reviews and recaps from an archival music perspective as opposed to recapping “the show” as a live experience, you obviously aren’t going to know what it was like to be there by listening or watching a webcast. I’m looking forward to hearing those stories, because I can only begin to imagine how it must have felt to have half a show cancelled on Friday, get a three set show on Saturday, endure a monsoon on Sunday and be ultimately rewarded with “Harpua.”
And how about this band? Through a tour that has been plagued with problems thus far, they have been playing very well and getting stronger with each stop. It has to be hard as a musician to play your best when it seems like you can’t even make it through a single show without someone showing up to collect two of every animal. Even on this crazy, waterlogged night, Phish produced musical gold with “Boogie On” and “Ghost,” as well as opening up new options with “Energy.” It’s exciting to guess what’s on tap for tonight in Toronto, and then it’s Westward, Ho!