Phish slammed the door on their greatest three-night stand of the year last night, again crushing two sets of highlight-ridden music for their Denver audience. In their tour finale, the band unveiled a spectacular final set littered with buttery segues, smoking improv, and the razor-sharp musical marksmanship displayed throughout three glorious nights in the Rocky Mountains.
Once summer’s last set kicked off with “Rock and Roll,” it would be quite some time before the band put their instruments down for a breath of air. Another frame of Phish in which the highlight was “the entire thing,” the band closed tour in high-style with a set teeming with creativity and seamless communication. Moving from “Rock and Roll’s” full-throttle shred fest, the band dropped into half-time—a pit of musical quicksand that slowed things into a swampy realm immediately. As the band was breaking down the music into its next stage, Trey began layering the iconic introductory lick to Abbey’s Road’s “Come Together” into the mix. As the band latched onto the idea and crafted a smooth transition into the song, they dusted off the Beatles’ classic for the first time since Cleveland on December 8, 1995. And just as the band smoothly as they spliced the set’s first two selections, so would they their next two, sculpting fluid transitions into “Twist” and then “Piper.” I know I’ve said this in the previous two reviews, but the band—again—oozed a vigor and confidence unseen even at UIC’s previous trifecta only two weeks ago. Such demonstrative playing would take them through my favorite “Twist” I’ve heard in some time—an intricate four-part exchange that possessed a laid-back yet directional quality that allowed the piece to breathe while still never losing momentum. All night long, Trey’s lead lines attracted a white-hot spotlight, and within this “Twist,” his playing absolutely shone. Completely within context and without missing a beat, he laid down “Low Rider’s” melody, another idea on which the band smoothed right into as they jammed on War’s ‘70s relic before slipping right back into “Twist.” The seamless transitions continued as Phish morphed, with uber-patience, from “Twist” into its song mate from birth in 1997, “Piper.”
At this juncture, the set had still not stopped for a moment and the band was absolutely on fire. Under such circumstances, there was no better place to launch into than the wide-open musical fields of “Piper.” A piece that takes no time at all to get into deep waters did so especially last night, as Phish locked into a whole-band groove early on and with ease. And from there, the improvisational beast of the night would truly take foot. Moving through infectious dance patterns at a mile a minute—a vibrant illustration of musical density—Phish took hold of the jam by the jugular and never let go. Never meandering and directed like an inanimate assassin, the jam sprang to life as the music coursed through the band from another dimension. Passing through several sections of hard-edged rhythms, including an indiscernible vocal chant over a sublime sequence, the show’s centerpiece culminated in a wide-open, Theramin-laced chase through a psychedelic portal. In, perhaps the most precise and fast-paced uses of his retro-futuristic toy—the magic ingredient to some of the most sublime jams of late-summer, Page led the way deep into the storage shed. And amidst this exploratory monstrosity, Trey wove in mind-melting “Mind Left Body” licks that briefly allured his band mates amidst this primordial soup.
To resolve “Piper’s” journey into the center of the earth, the band brought us to heaven with the most magnificent rendition of “Harry Hood” since Worcester’s modern classic last December. A version that combined a modern staccato soundscape feel with a very old-school, whole-band assault on the song’s theme, when “Hood” is given this kind of treatment, it delivers us to places only known only to the heart and soul. With a mid-‘90s precision and sublime guitar melodies, Trey led the whole-band excursion through the holy piece with phrasing so sublime it sounded like he was narrating a story. Passionate to the core, this “Hood” provided an hugely cathartic exclamation point to the first part of the set and the shows highest high. Regal and life-affirming while also quasi-experimental, this “Hood” is a must hear and taps into the very ethos of the band.
Phish followed up this platinum playing with a dip into the second “Roggae” of the late-summer. It seems that the Gorge’s opening night sunset psychedelia cracked a wall in this song and its potential is now beginning to seep out. This blissful soundscape provided the perfect compliment to the sky-scraping “Hood,” and an ideal late-second set selection whose change of pace doesn’t didn’t alter the improvisational focus of the show. And at the least-expected time of the night, Phish dropped into “Ghost.”
Charging into driving, groove-rock textures, the band was locked in annihilation mode. Trey and Page simply went to town, riding their galloping rhythm section into a highly-danceable version. Well into a highly danceable version, Trey unleashed a bold and familiar lick, but before I had time to process what it was, the band had slid right into their cult-classic “Guy Forget” for the first time since Phoenix 2000, and only the second time ever. Blending right out of the “Ghost” jam, the band finally returned their ever-elusive piece to the live stage after several soundchecks over the past few weeks. A smashing highlight in a set—and weekend—filled to the brim with mind-numbing musicianship, the band crushed the “Ghost -> Guy Forget -> Ghost” combination, and then closed the set with a searing run though “Walls of the Cave” within one week of the ten-year anniversary of 9-11. Bringing the set full circle with a “Rock and Roll” tease within the fiery “Walls” jam, when Phish had finally did put their instruments down, no one could possible have asked for anything more.
The summer tour that once loomed like a never-ending monster has finally been laid to rest. With three shows that represent the crème de la crème of 2011, the band has completed their 33-show path, and—god damn—the Golden Age of Phish has reached a whole new level of excellence! In a perfectly-placed encore, the band concluded its summer of reinvention with the song that represents of the rebirth of Phish, and hearkened back to the unknown, though limitless, possibilities of 2009. Well, two years later, as Trey sang “The only rule is it begins” amidst a triumphant tour-closing jam, the words of promise have never rung truer.
First Set Thoughts: The third outstanding first set of Denver opened with a bang in the form of “Maze”—the first time the song has opened a show since Albany on December 9, 1995. Spirited versions of “Back on the Train” and “Rift” set up the first set gem—and one of the best single jams in the entire show—“Bathtub Gin.” Running an absolute guitar clinic, Trey broke out countless licks in his repertoire in a rare showcase of such focused, six-string acrobatics outside of Trey tour. And with the complimentary support of his band mates, Trey signed his autograph forwards, backwards, and upside-down on a version that immediately jumped out as the most groovalicious in ages. Thought not extending the time of the song very much, Phish has now learned how to make “Tube” into a beast again. Last night’s version was the second consecutive outing that popped with creativity and shining luster. A compact, though incredibly intense “Timber” followed before “Chalk Dust” closed its summer with another creative—though more contained—adventure. With three consecutive first sets of substance, and six straight sets of top-notch Phish, the band flew out to Colorado and wrote their own narrative of How the West Was Won.
I: Maze, Back on the Train, Rift, Bathtub Gin, The Way It Goes*, Halfway to the Moon, Gumbo, Halley’s Comet > Tube, Timber, Roses Are Free, Chalk Dust Torture
II: Rock and Roll -> Come Together -> Twist** -> Piper > Harry Hood > Roggae > Ghost -> Guy Forget -> Ghost, Walls of the Cave
E: Backwards Down the Number Line
*debut, Gillian Welch, ** w/ “”Low Rider” jamTags: 2011, Summer 2011