Following two shows that showcased jams of all shapes and sizes, Phish played an odd tour finale in which they rarely let an improvisational root take hold. Still crafting an engaging opening half of the second set the band carried legitimate momentum, albeit with short jam segments, as they segued smoothly from the show’s improvisational high point—“Piper”— into “Ghost.” But Trey decided to supplant any semblance of a “Ghost” jam with “Makisupa,” a move which wound up diffusing the entire set and sparking an innocuous run of made-far-radio Phish, leaving their leg two finale as the weakest of the Chicago’s three nights—by far.
“Crosseyed and Painless” made its second appearance of the month to kick off the final set of August in promising fashion. Bleeding into an ambient passage after a scalding run through the song’s theme, it seemed that Phish might be on the brink of a darker excursion. But as it turned out, this segment merely set up a seamless move into “No Quarter.” Pairing two iconic covers to start the set, as Phish dropped into a long awaited (and often teased) “Timber Ho,” the table seemed set for an extended ride. As the guys got into the onset of the piece, they quickly reached a “Crosseyed” reprise—including lyrics—the first of many “Crosseyed” teases throughout the set. Barreling through a torrid, though succinct, jam, the band trickled out of “Timber” with an intricate space that led into the opening licks of “Tweezer.”
Taking it back to the early-nineties, the band dropped an old-school banger that got straight to business, packing quite a bit of high-powered and well-phrased interplay into a shorter-than-usual duration. Moving into an abstract and bass-led realm in which Trey played staccato leads atop, the band was on the move. But just when they had settled into a melodic plane that was bound for glory, instead of following an obvious signpost to the sublime, Trey slowly curbed a still-jamming band into “Caspian.” Following a gentle and cooperative take on the song, Trey segued, unfinished, into “Piper.” And now the stage was set for the highlight of the show.
A surreal melodic exchange took very little time to break from structure, into transcendent territory and beyond. In a clever maneuver, the band worked a second reprise of “Still waiting” into to an already glowing jam. Eventually oozing into an ambient passage that brought the band into “Ghost,” this is where our story comes to a screeching halt.
Reeling off nine straight short songs over the rest of the set and encore broken up only by a set-ending “Antelope,” the band rode the show right into the ground. As if deciding halfway through the set that they wanted to change vibe 180 degrees, the band took a left turn out of an solid set and into jukebox Phish. Killing any continuity and any serious musical endeavors, a different muse seemed to speak to the band for the rest of the show. Turning an already song-based night into a relative head-scratcher, the odd decision left the show’s lasting segment reading “Tweezer > Caspian -> Piper,” with little competition.
Despite second leg breakouts of “Forbin’s > Mockingbird” (an opener for the first time since 1989), “Gumbo” and “Weigh,” the highlights of the mostly retro, up and down first set came in “Divided Sky” and the late one-two punch of “Bathtub Gin,” “Maze.” “Divided” just popped with far more energy than usual, as the song’s signature pause evoked memories of Trey’s transcendent experience during the same instance at UIC in ’94 (as told to Charlie Rose). “Bathtub Gin” brought the most danceable highlight of the first half as the band rode Mike’s galloping bass lines out of an introductory section of pocket-less playing. As the band opened the floodgates of groove, the piece’s emotional quality skyrocketed as the quartet converged in a triumphant romp on the coattails of Trey’s ferocious guitar solo. Blissed out textures defined this whole-band peak, perhaps the highest of the entire show. A blistering “Maze” followed suit before “Cavern and “First Tube” closed out the first half.
Stumbling to the finish line a bit, Phish closed out UIC with a show that could be summed up in a word: underwhelming. With the stage set for a gargantuan final set of tour—or at least a significant one—the band came out with a half a set of solid play and one lasting jam that was, arguably, not even the song’s best version of this short second leg. Following two high-quality nights of Phish at UIC, perhaps the band ran out of steam for the third? Scripting an engaging (but hardly groundbreaking) half a set, one has to wonder what caused such a sudden change in the show’s direction. But as one more part of Summer 2011’s colossal puzzle comes to a close, one more awaits. And one thing 2011 has proven with Bethel, Super Ball, and The Gorge, is that the band starts out runs on fire, a good omen Colorado’s three-night bash only two weeks away. Much more between now and then, but for now…I’m out.
I: Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird, Gumbo, Possum, Weigh, The Divided Sky, Alaska, Bathtub Gin, Maze, Cavern, First Tube
II: Crosseyed and Painless -> No Quarter, Timber* -> Tweezer > Prince Caspian -> Piper* > Ghost > Makisupa Policeman, Sleep, Buffalo Bill, Golgi Apparatus, Character Zero*, Run Like an Antelope*
E: Funky Bitch*, Show of Life, Tweezer Reprise*
* w/ Crosseyed teases and/or quotes