In Phish’s continuing dominance of the Red Rocks stage, they launched a Saturday night show that carried a heavyweight ninety minute first set as well as another second set strewn with risk taking and creativity. Since coming to Colorado, it seems that the band is making a point to take all of their jams to unique places, a virtual antithesis of June’s contained and directed playing. Clearly far more musically comfortable together only a month later, Phish seems like they have rekindled their determination and desire of the mid-Nineties, but with all of the musical acumen they have accumulated over the years, resulting in some of the most magnificent music from the band in ages. 2009 is great time to be a Phish fan, and last night delivered several more reasons why.
While “AC/DC Bag” opened the show, the moment of truth that so many have awaited came next. Taking everyone by surprise, and a minute to register, Phish was stepping up to play “The Curtain (With)” for the first time since they finishing their “career” by horribly botching one of their most sacred compositions at Coventry. We all wondered when the band would confront the piece that left us with the most bittersweet ending possible five years ago. And last night was the night. With supreme confidence, the band nailed “The Curtain” and when they entered “With” the mood became reverent. As a silence drew over the crowd, the band delicately painted the initial, would-be “Rift,” melody through the summer night like a sunset reverie. Blissfully flowing through the song’s ethereal textures and sublime improvisation, the band played with breathtaking majesty and emotion as a sense of redemption filled the the air. By far the most significant highlight of the night, all was right in the Phish world again; the past was fully behind us and only the sense of possibility lies ahead.
The first set fireworks continued with the bust out of “Mound” for the first time since their first comeback show at MSG in 2002- and before that, 1996. Played with such precision, and having been absent from setlists for so long, it virtually sounded like we were hearing a new song. Reminded of the song’s quirky rhythms and melodies, it was like visiting an old friend after almost forgetting they existed. The most standout first set of Red Rocks continued with a triumphant “Jibboo,” that after “The Curtain (With),” felt like a bursting celebration of Phish’s return to to happiness. Trey stood out, taking the jam into a quiet beginning before bringing it to a soaring peak in the waning hours of a gorgeous summer day.
It was at this point that Phishy antics reentered the scene for one of the first times this go-round. Trey announced that this would be the “hand signal” portion of the show, and proceeded to make silly gestures to communicate what the next song would be for the rest of the set. A sure fire sign that the band’s heart is back and in the right place, Trey created a mock pig nose, pretended to punch Mike and Page in the eye, continually stretched an elongated tube to allow Fishman to catch on, mushed a dog sled, and entered a pseudo-antelope trot throughout the rest of the set without talking to his bandmates at all. Like a mini game show before each song, fans had a chance to guess Trey’s signal before the band busted the next song, bringing the element of fun firmly back to their live show. And their enthusiasm was infectious, as the Saturday night crowd became giddy with the band’s energy.
The “Tube” was the loosest yet, as Gordon laid down some heavy bass lines to compliment Page’s clav work and Trey’s fiery licks. Maintaining a serious pace to the funk, the band opened up the song a bit more, but the set’s improvisational highlight certainly came in a scorching set ending “Antelope.” Bringing back memories of Red Rocks “Antelopes” of the ’93 and ’94, the band got creative with the song for the first time in eons. Taking a left turn out of the song’s aggressive grooves into psychedelic debauchery, the band took the jam into maniacal, abstract darkness before crashing back to earth.
Following the first setbreak of the weekend that actually felt like summer, the band stepped out for their sixth set of the run and continued to take daring musical risks. The anthemic Saturday night set began with the one-two punch of “Rock and Roll > Disease,” both jams entering completely original territory, though not nearly as flowing as Friday night’s spectacle. After an extended high-energy shred session through the song’s straight ahead rock, thing got more interesting as the music slowed down, moving into some exploratory improv. Featuring some prominent bass work by Mike and collective stops and starts by band members, Phish was at it again, exercising creativity over safety, putting together a unique, yet somewhat disjointed, jam. Finally working their way into “Disease” in a less than fluid manner, their classic vehicle took center stage. Moving into a percussive groove and into some totally original improv, the excursion was both poly-rhythmic and Fishman-centric. The band wound their way through several innovative segments of non-guitar-led improvisation, and into a completely different vibe than anything we’ve heard so far. Phish was going for it in what was certainly the most out-there and entertaining jam of the night.
The rest of the show, though well-played throughout, was fairly straight forward. When they segued into “Free,” I thought for sure that the band would let loose within the confines of those massive rocks, but the song was- again- wrapped up quickly, used only as a landing point for “Disease.” The long-awaited return of “Esther” finally came for the first time since 2000; another reminder of an amazing Phish song we have long forgot about, and continuing the trend of accessing the full range of their catalog. “Dirt” filled in the second-set ballad slot before the band closed with a gorgeous “Hood” that connected with the summer evening in regal fashion. Taking the old-school jam on a meticulous path to a show-ending peak, “Hood” left every one feeling good after a very upbeat set. And the “First Tube” encore would put an exclamation point on the night.
While the jams might not have been as cohesive last night as Friday, nobody can deny that Phish showcased their renewed spirit of discovery once again. With the band taking copious musical risks, each set won’t turn out to be a masterpiece, but it’s all about the ride- and right now, Phish is a pretty wild ride with mysteries lurking around every corner. And what more can we ask for from our psychedelic juggernauts but to go for the jugular and see what happens. It’s inspiring to see them so ready and willing to put their ideas out there for testing. The unknown adventure is what this is all about, and right now, each set is exactly that. Stay tuned for Sunday’s conclusion- more intrigue awaits.
I: AC/DC Bag, The Curtain With, Mound, Gotta Jibboo, Guyute, Punch You In the Eye, Tube, Alaska, Run Like an Antelope
II: Rock and Roll > Down with Disease > Free, Esther, Dirt, Harry Hood
E: Sleeping Monkey, First Tube
8.1.09 Red Rocks (Photo: Graham Lucas)Tags: 2009, Summer '09