Showing zero signs of a three-week layoff, Phish stepped onto one of the favorite stages in the land and delivered an awesome show from start to finish to open Denver’s end-of-summer trifecta. Knowing that many fans would be doing their best Encyclopedia Brown in trying to decode the setlist, the band used a bit of tongue in cheek humor in spelling out “Most shows spell something” backwards over the course of the show. Phish’s feat of the night, however, was crafting a flawlessly contoured performance with the given letters, including a fresh setlist and plenty of improvisational meat to go around. For a band that makes a living on doing the unexpected, chalk up night of Dick’s 2013 as another notch on their belt.
One could tell strange things were afoot immediately as the band opened the show with “Ghost” for the first time since The Fillmore in August 15, 1998. Last year’s “Fuck Your Face” show forced the band to jam, birthing four extended, timeless pieces of music, and three approaching the twenty minute mark. This year’s wordplay—on the contrary—made sure everything fit just so, therefore “Ghost” remained within orbit while providing a fiery start to the affair. The initial segment of the show felt a tad forced, as the band placed “Icculus” after a second-song “NICU” and following it up with “Heavy Things” and “Theme from the Bottom.” But the musical highlight of the set was just around the corner.
Let me start this paragraph by saying that I’ve grown to hate “Ocelot.” The standard blues rock build has done nothing out of the ordinary in memory, and has become but a stale place filler in the first set. That said, last night I found myself completely lost in the wide-open jam, having to remind myself more than a couple times what song we were in. This one got slinky and psychedelic in an instant and remained in a wholly creative space for the duration. And this was the point in which the show truly took off.
Rolling the improvisational zest right into “Stash,” the band absolutely slayed their classic vehicle in the no brainer highlight of the opening frame. Adopting a similar wide open feel as the preceding “Ocelot,” this jam navigated some twist and turns before arriving in some of the more hooked up, melodic playing we’ve heard from “Stash” since Merriweather’s outing. A graceful end of the set was highlighted by the debut of “Easy to Slip,” a Little Feat cover previously played by the Mike Gordon Band. The setlist prank remained in limbo, though many fans had long since caught onto the fact that they were spelling something backwards. I’m pretty sure that theories—and perhaps confirmation—of the setlist joke had made their way through the crowd, but how it would play out would be anyone’s guess.
A potent combination of “Punch > Sand” injected the main event with a primal tone, and as soon as the band dove into “Sand’s” jam, things got staight buck wild. From its first lick, this jam had “All-Star” written all over it, and by the end of some of the most exhilarating groove-based interplay of the year, it was a first ballot hall of famer. Veering out of structure into a scintillating passage of soul candy, the guys scripted a keeper that sits among the upper echelon of the year’s offerings—awe-inspiring music by a band that can do no wrong.
Phish brought back Mike’s “Say Something” and placed in squarely in the middle of the second set last night—and just like that the new vehicle started to deliver. Taking the gritty blues rocker off course, the band built into an atmospheric segment that eventually dissolved into “Walls of the Cave.” “Oh Kee Pah Ceremony” provided a mid-set surprise, but not the level of surprise as when the band rolled out of the ragtime staple into “Harry Hood.” Having only segued into “Suzy” and “AC/DC Bag” with any sort of regularity out of “Oh Kee Pah, the band added another song to an exclusive list last night with the first ever “Oh Kee Pah > Hood.” And the surprises just kept coming.
The final quarter of the set was carefully crafted and flowed like water from “Hood” through the end of the set, but midway through the “Hood” jam, the jam got very quiet, and out of nowhere the band slid into “Silent in the Morning.” Once again “Silent” appeared sans “Horse,” making it a clean sweep of the summer for “Horseless” versions. The opening notes of “Twist” continued the impeccable flow of this segment, and the jam quickly grew more interesting than the many hackneyed renditions that have dotted summer tour. And in a pairing that evoked the ending of classic sets such as 11.14.97 and 7.4.2000, the band put the cherry on top of the second set in the form of “Slave to the Traffic Light.” A wonderfully emotive version capped this beautiful portion of the set, and marked it complete.
The guys finished off their setlist tom foolery with a double encore of “Oh! Sweet Nothing” and “Meatstick”—and just like that another first night of Dick’s was in the books. Laying off all their major jam vehicles, the band has set up two filthy, action-packed shows for the next two nights, and something tells me one of them will be the show of the year. In only hours, perhaps that tale will be told.
I: Ghost, NICU, Icculus, Heavy Things, Theme From the Bottom > Esther, The Moma Dance> Ocelot, Stash, Lawn Boy, Limb By Limb, Easy To Slip*
II: Punch You In the Eye > Sand, Say Something > Walls of the Cave, The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony > Harry Hood -> Silent in the Morning > Twist > Slave to the Traffic Light
E: Oh! Sweet Nuthin’, Meatstick
*debutTags: 2013, Summer '13, The Moment