One of the aspects that made the Denver shows so powerful and stand out from so many others this summer was their first sets. While first sets have been fairly routine this summer with highlights here and there, the three in Denver popped with energy and inspired playing throughout, while including some of the standout moments of the weekend. In their end-of-summer showcase in the Rockies, Phish crushed six straight sets—and below is a glance at the three that came before setbreak.
This first set was the only one that took a little bit to get going, but it was also felt like a marathon, clocking in a 14 songs. As Phish set the ‘S’ theme, an early-show combination of “Sloth,” “Sweet Virginia”—though seemingly random at the time—came as welcome additions to the setlist. But this first set truly took off with “Stash,” a song whose appearances have waned this summer. Delving into an intricate, guitar-led conversation, Phish sparked this frame with a classically-shaped rendition defined by intensity and vigor. Splashing into “Sneakin’ Sally’s” post-vocal jam section, the grooves commenced, but they weren’t typical rhythms. Trey danced around a prominent pocket with short rhythms licks before gradually oozing into a solo. Hitting as a band whole-band, the guys slammed into big-time dance grooves before Trey moved into a seething solo alongside Mike’s envelope-filtered dementia. Getting far from “Sally” into a dark and dungeon-esque realm, the band brought the piece down to almost nothing before the dramatic return of “Sparks.” Having clearly practiced the piece, the band tore The Who cover to shreds, highlighted by the precision drum work of Jon Fishman. Thus concluded the most improvisationally significant portion of the set, but Phish went on for a fair bit longer. Breaking out “Shine a Light” and “Split Open and Melt” as the standouts of the set’s final portion, Phish took “Split” into groovier places than recent versions before building out into more abstract and dissonant interplay. A dark horse jam of this show, this “Split” was a more solid. start-to-finish version than we’ve heard in a while. The darkness of “Split” set the table for a lighter closer of “Squirming Coil,” and the first set of the ‘S’ show was complete.
Sample in a Jar, Sparkle, The Sloth, Sweet Virginia, Suskind Hotel, Strange Design, Stash, Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley > Sparks > Scent of a Mule, Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan, Shine a Light, Split Open and Melt, The Squirming Coil
This first set, though featuring only “Wolfman’s Brother” as a legitimate jam vehicle, kept my full engagement the entire time. Powerhouse versions of every song, even “Possum,” kept this set on track from beginning to end. Particularly stellar versions of “Moma” “Ocelot” and “Divided Sky” had the show moving at full speed before the band pushed things in into overdrive. Slaughtering “Funky Bitch” and “Axilla,” the potential highlight of the set came next in “Llama!” Huh? Yeah. Exactly. Phish hadn’t played a “Llama” in memory that harnessed the fury of the song’s glory years. But this one most definitely did. A perfect example of the energy and passion that underlined the band’s playing all weekend long, “Llama” practically burst at the seams as Phish tore through the first noteworthy rendition in ages. Juxtaposing a dripping “Fast Enough For You” against the manic backdrop, the stage was set for a show-stopping “Wolfman’s” closer. While several versions of summer have built away from the funk into another song altogether, this creative excursion returned to the song’s theme in a rousing set-closer.
Possum, The Moma Dance, The Wedge, Ocelot, The Divided Sky, Funky Bitch, Axilla > Llama, Fast Enough for You, Wolfman’s Brother
The final first set of Denver was super-charged from the get-go, as the band dropped a “Maze” opener for the first time since Albany on 12.9.95. Riding this adrenalized wave into spirited versions of “Back on the Train” and “Rift,” the centerpiece of the set came next in “Bathtub Gin.” Applying the full-throttle energy of the beginning of the show to a groove-centric version of “Gin,” Mike and, especially, Trey shone in what has to be considered one of the era’s top versions. As Trey ran through so many signature rhythm patterns, Mike punched holes in the spaces between, and the band immersed the audience in one of the weekend’s standout jams, regardless of set. Absolutely on fire, Phish was firing on all cylinders in the fifth of six sets. After the contemporary cover of Gillian Welch’s “The Way It Goes,” the band came back with one of the strongest versions of Page’s “Halfway to the Moon” to date, a song that is still begging for the second set spotlight. The subsequent sequence, whether intentional or not, carried quite a bit of irony. Phish powered through four of five songs for which fans have been begging jammier treatment—“Gumbo,” “Halley’s,” “Tube,” and “Roses Are Free.” Crafting an engaging “Tube,” the segment, nonetheless, felt a bit tongue in check from the band, thought each piece was nailed with high-powered playing. The fifth song in that run was “Timber,” a compact piece that favored screaming textures over rhythmic interplay, stood out as the late-set gem. “Chalk Dust” featured a creative though contained jam that punctuated the first set.
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 (*debut)
When Phish plays two sets of inspired music, their shows take on a whole different contour. Instead of everything building towards the second set, in the best first halves, one has to remind himself a time or two that set break has yet to come. In Denver, Phish didn’t just throw a couple jams into a longer run of songs, they actually sculpted legitimate sets with a beginning, a middle and an end. Contoured frames of music rather than the disconnected and liner song-fests that have plagued so many shows this summer, Denver’s first set delivered in full. Building momentum toward the main event while containing plenty of action on the under-card, Phish put together some heavy weight shows in Colorado. And their first sets—in a refreshing change of pace—contributed significant plotlines to the stories.
Jams of the Day:
“Stash” 9.2 I
“Llama” 9.3 I
“Timber” 9.4 I
Tags: 2011, Summer 2011