What happens when you get Phish out of California, put them in a tiny venue in Chicago and let them loose? Well—last night happens. Scripting another page in their rich history at UIC Pavilion, Phish sculpted a top-shelf second set defined by free-form jamming and stunning original interplay. One of their most musically adventurous sets of the year was comprised of song selections that represented Earth’s classical elements in “Sand,” “Light,” “Dirt,” “Waves,” “Steam,” and “Fire.” And with the set’s final piece, “Undermind”—a song whose self-referential lyrics rang the truest since Hampton—Phish was the symbolic fifth element in a universe where all things felt aligned again.
Taking the audience on a non-stop journey through the depths of psychedelia, Phish plunged into the unknown time and time again during a set that has to be considered among their finest efforts of the year. Playing comfortably on the astral plane, Phish danced more than a few spiritual jigs last night in a second set that flowed as naturally as ever. It’s tough to discuss any single highlight of a musical experience in which the entire whole stood out. Each piece, while magnifying different aspects of the band’s repertoire, was tied together with remarkable cohesion as the band migrated from one musical plane to another as naturally the patterns of the Earth.
Starting with the sinister swank of “Sand” the band showcased their one-minded playing with a heroic dose of Phish groove. The band took the song far beyond rhythmic gymnastics however, as they moved right past the song’s conclusion into a hard-edged ambiance. Amidst this context Mike and Trey had an eerie, one-on-one conversation that gradually brought the band towards “Light.” And after a small time off from being the band’s central portal into the center of the cosmos, “Light’s” two versions of tour have been exactly that. Taking last night’s piece into the heart of modern Phish experimentation, Mike stood at the center of an intergalactic jam. As the band pushed eclectic and alien boundaries, the wide-open style of play that defined the jam would soon come to define the entire set.
Whispering through “Dirt,” the band’s spirit of exploration came right back into play in the to-die-for sequence of “Waves -> Undermind > Steam.” The band followed its musical senses wherever they led them, never altering their natural flow for a moment in one of the year’s most endearing improvisational segments. The band spilled out of the lyrics of “Waves” with a delicate-turned-ferocious groove in which Fishman and Mike set the stage for Trey join in with seething accompaniment. And the groove that the band dropped into at this juncture was pure magic. This dark escapade, more than a few times, seemed heading for “Timber Ho,” but Trey took everyone by surprise as he layered the lyrics of “Undermind” seamlessly over the bands undulating patterns. And out of this song—so lyrically poignant at this stage of the game—came some of the most magnificent music we’ve heard this year.
Trey has routinely said throughout his career, that he feels that musicians are vessels for universal music and vibrations that already exists among us. The musician’s job is to get his ego out of the way so this tidal wave of universal sound can flow through him and enlighten the audience to this common realm. And within a tour and era where this egoless state hasn’t been readily attainable on a show-to-show basis, last night it most definitely was; the music coming from “Undermind” is the only proof you need. (Though the entire set will provide more than a few mind-numbing illustrations). Flowing naturally from the song’s textures into a totally transcendent reality, spirits merged within the sweltering psychedelic storage shed of UIC. And when this spectacular journey was seemingly winding down, the band continued jamming with purpose, gradually transforming the piece into “Steam.”
Placing their newest song in its most significant slot yet, the band dripped through “Steam”— a landing point that seemed perfectly fitting within the inhumane temperatures and humidity of UIC. The band had just melted our faces with four centerpiece jams, and then used Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” as a musical victory lap around the pavilion. Adding the tongue-in-cheek cap on a thematic set of “jamming with the elements,” Phish left nobody begging for more when this set ended. But there was a lot left to come.
With an all-killer-no-filler second half, the band, apparently, pulled up a bit short of curfew. Performing an unprecedented quadruple (or quintuple) encore that featured “Camel Walk,” “Guyute,” and a monster version “Harry Hood” as the cathartic exclamation point, the band left it all onstage last night in the heart of Chicago.
With communication divine, the band took their audience on a musical journey into the heart of the present moment in Phish’s world. With a lens on new styles and experimental jamming, the band brought the Midwest up to speed with one of their most impressive performances of 2011. Delicate and soulful, yet demonic and cutting-edge, UIC’s opener showed what the band is capable of right now. And for those who liked what they saw, you’re in luck, there are two more nights to go…
1st Set Notes: A slow-starting first set blasted off in earnest with an incredibly creative take on “Wolfman’s Brother.” Building the groove into uncharted ground, Trey laid way back as the rest of the band formed an emphatic rhythmic template. Slinking into the mix one note at a time, soon Trey stood atop the jam leading the troops to glory. But the journey between these two points is quite astounding. Balancing the experimental grooving of “Wolfman’s” with a classic dose of bliss, the band unveiled a first-set “Reba” that sailed through tranquil waters with with unparalleled band-wide interplay. In addition to playing a particularly shreddy “Alumni Blues” to end the first half, the guys also unveiled Mike’s most promising song in a while, “Babylon Baby.” What seemed at first like quirky Gordeaux horse-hockey, upon re-listen, really has substance. Coming pre-loaded with a whole-band launch pad, it will be interesting to see if song sticks around.
I: Back on the Train, Rift, Guelah Papyrus, Scent of a Mule, Jesus Just Left Chicago, Wolfman’s Brother, Anything But Me, Babylon Baby*, Reba, Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues
II: Sand > Light > Dirt, Waves -> Undermind** > Steam > Fire
E: Camel Walk, Guyute, The Horse > Silent in the Morning, Harry Hood
*debut, **Page on theremin