In a clear step forward, and quite a strong statement out of the gates, Phish greeted the salivating Colorado crowd with a barn-burning second set last night at Red Rocks. Boasting a much looser and more exploratory feel, the band navigated a frame that raised more than a few eyebrows on the opening night of tour. Above all else, the show represented a third-step in the re-evolution of Phish that could easily deliver us to the greenest pastures yet. Building off of Hampton’s recital-esque showcase and June’s directed, yet not-so-exploratory improv, the band loosened considerably last night with playing that reminded us of who we are really dealing there on stage.
Using the other-worldy atmosphere of Red Rocks to launch phase three of their comeback, the surreal, tiered and barrier-less surroundings gave you the distinct sensation of floating in space while watching Phish perform on another planet. And perform they did. Kicking off summer’s second leg with the heaviest “Mike’s Groove” of 3.0, the band finally treated their classic suite with the care it deserves. Blowing out both ends of the “Groove” with the most significant incarnations of “Mike’s” and “Weekapaug” since their return, the band let the juices flow, and opened the four-night stand with a monstrous roar.
Yet the band silenced any over-celebration with the ominous opening of the first-ever Red Rocks “Ghost.” Certainly the centerpiece of the second set, this extended jam explored several psychedelic palettes before before Trey picked up on a familiar melody- possibly a quote- and built it into the peak of the jam. Stretching in many directions, it was a joy to hear Phish take their time and craft an exploratory excursion of the likes that we haven’t seen this summer. The conversation piece of many a post-show conversation, this “Ghost” exhibited the risk-taking, open-ended improv that we have all missed so dearly, foreshadowing what is to come.
The non-stop meat of the second set continued with a looser, more extensive “Wolfman’s,” whose rounded contours and bulbous, over-sized grooves matched its surroundings perfectly. Taking the jam in a more exploratory direction, the band found themselves into a quasi-reprise of the “Ghost” jam that had preceded it, thematically tying the two pieces together. The “Ghost > Wolfman’s” excursion will certainly live on as an early tour-highlight, regardless of what is to follow. The band followed up the set’s darker journeys with a beautifully placed “Limb By Limb”, brightening the feel to the otherwise sinister set. Also centered in this cool oasis was a stunning performance of “Billy Breathes,” a song the band had soundchecked earlier and prepared for this moment. Taking the necessary patience and allowing the composition to blossom, this was certainly a highlight of the second set.
As if the band hadn’t done enough on night one of tour, Trey was chomping at the bit to start up “Bowie” as Page wound down his piano solo of “Squirming Coil.” A devastating version of the show-closer put a furious exclamation point on a incredibly encouraging first night of tour. Boasting a far more relaxed feel than any of the June shows, it seems that Phish is settling into a more confident style of communication. With virtually no straight ahead rock-based improv, Phish brought it last night, relying far more on their original creativity and less on the pre-charted path of any of their songs. Another page has been turned in the the ongoing saga of the Phish, and all signs point to shining galaxies ahead. With improvisation aplenty that already outshone a lot of June, last night got things started in the best way possible. These next three nights are gonna be something special.
First Set Notes: A well-placed and poignant “Divided Sky” opened the show as the inclement weather of the day broke into a beautiful night for music. The second song “Ocelot” gave us the first glimpse of the band’s looser style, as Phish explored the piece for its most engaging version yet. The “Stash” was completely off the meat rack, immediately dwarfing any piece of improv from June and crafting one of the enduring memories of the evening. Stash away those June recordings and make room for new ones, because it will only be getting better from here!
I. The Divided Sky, Ocelot, The Wedge, Poor Heart, The Moma Dance, Horn, Stash, The Horse > Silent in the Morning
II. Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Ghost > Wolfman’s Brother, Limb By Limb, Billy Breathes, The Squirming Coil, David Bowie E: Loving Cup
Red Rocks 7.30.09 (photo: Graham Lucas)