Historically, Phish has used their tour-ending shows as a summation of the musical ideas presented and explored over the previous month. But as Summer 2011 has been a multi-pronged macro-tour, instead of one final statement, in Denver we will get three. And last night, Phish began their summer swan song with a magnificent outing that put on shining display the stellar state of the union. Spanning their improvisational spectrum over a wide range of songs— all united, in loving tribute, in the key of S—Phish came out with a powerful performance at Dick’s on Friday, having their way with any piece of music they chose to play.
Using jams of all shapes and sizes, the band threw down a relentless second set—and a meaty first—that was underlined by the ultra-responsive interplay between all band members and the confidence with which they delivered the music. Interestingly, in the promotional shots for these Denver shows, Mike is standing front and center while Trey…well, Trey isn’t. And this image, perhaps nothing but a coincidence, provided a photographic snapshot of the band right now—guided by Mike. As the summer months have worn away, so has the notion that Trey is the leader of any and all jams. With Mike’s next-generation bass-playing providing the glue for so many of the band’s modern excursions, Phish has formed its new sound around Mike’s leadership and his ability to gel with Trey in a one-brained, 11-stringed musical monster.
And never has Mike’s navigational rudder been more apparent as with the second-set opener, “Sand.” Though the band has played many stellar versions of their dance anthem over the summer, this jam grew into something more significant. As Trey took a back seat to Mike’s ninja-like craftsmanship, the guys locked into a whole-band adventure that followed a different contour. Flying through upbeat textures with a bass-infused backbone in the vein of an “Antelope” jam, Phish locked into—and peaked—a jam that didn’t finish with a guitar showcase but ended with a legitimate whole-band arrival. Serving as a frothy cap on a summer’s worth of unforgettable versions, you can take this one to the bank.
Following the fiery set-opening dance session with a rare stand-alone “Simple,” Phish followed up one standout jam with another. As the band bled into a quasi-ambient plane, still backed by subtle and jazzy rhythms, they were once again pushing the envelope of new-school sound-sculpting. Taking the audience on a cerebral ride through the other side, Trey brought us back as he delicately plucked the beginnings to “Steam” underneath the experimental plane. Merging the two songs quite well, Phish went on to crush their most significant version of “Steam” to date—a seething and heavy-handed jam that followed Mike’s sinister ideas while translating like candy in the open-air surroundings.
Blending “Steam”—a song about the merging of souls—into “Soul Shakedown Party” the band struck a poignant, mid-set chord amidst a show that was scripted in memoriam. As the band sat within the the reggae stylings of the Bob Marley classic, Trey began to pick the beginning of “Seven Below”—a moved that would have come across far less fluidly were it not for a quick adjustment by Fishman. And with “Seven Below” came a completely original, groove-based journey that stood as the exploratory centerpiece of the set.
Trey led the band into the fray with staccato links out of the gate and the jam just continued to build momentum. Bouncing ideas off each other with a silly precision, the band crafted a rhythmic romper room, eventually taking things way outside the box with a full head of steam. Moving from groove to the abstract, the band allowed things to expand organically until they reached a subtly dynamic and totally sublime soundscape during which Trey counted off the beginning of “Suzy.”
“Suzy” provided a bridge of fiery funk to a cathartic combination of “Scents and Subtle Sounds” and “Slave to the Traffic Light.” And in these two selections, Trey let his spirit soar. Taking “Scents” (albeit without the intro) on a far more emphatic ride than its Super Ball return, and coupling the heart-tugging version with a pristine “Slave,” Phish was masters of all domains last night. Check how Trey holds a note amidst his “Slave” solo while the band builds around him in frozen moment of majesty.
Up until this point, for a show filled with songs that all started with the same letter, the flow wasn’t compromised for a second. But when they started “Silent in the Morning” without “The Horse” and moved into “Sanity” and onto “Sweet Adeline,” the band’s joke had finally caught up with them. Though after a set like that, a little fun never hurt anyone at all. And then, in a total prank, as everyone tried to guess what “S” song would be come next for the encore, Phish came out with a left hook in “Sabatoge,” leaving the audience in fits of laughter and adrenaline.
And just like that, two weeks removed from UIC, the band hopped right back in the saddle with an authoritative performance as if they hadn’t skipped a beat. And there was significant meat to the first half, taboot.
Though the show started rather slowly through “Strange Design,” once the band jumped into “Stash,” the vibe of the evening changed immediately. Delving into some rare first-set psychedelia, and following it up with the lock-step funk of “Sneaking Sally” the band turned a slow set eventful in no time. And within lay a three-song sequence that provided the most memorable stretch of the first set half. Phish first took “Sally” for a swanky stroll and then, spurned on by Mike’s envelope filter, they built into a darkening jam that grew more abstract until they made a virtually seamless pass into “Sparks” for the first time in 15 years (11.29.96). Steeped with a deadly, old-school precision, the band the passage from The Who’s “Tommy” in dramatic fashion. And a few songs later, the band was right back in the thick of things with a “Split” that saw Trey and Mike take front and center over a driving canvas of sound. Transforming into a cacophonous symphony, Phish took things to the heart of the matter in a version that saw them finally work their way back into the song’s final peak for the first time in a while. Closing a marathon first set with “Squirming Coil” at almost 10 pm, the band was laying it all on stage in a very special night.
And if that was chapter one—and Phish hasn’t even played a song that starts with any letter other than “S”—I’d say we’ve got quite a bit to look forward to over the next two nights!
I: 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
II: Sand, Simple -> Steam > Soul Shakedown Party -> Seven Below > Suzy Greenberg > Scents and Subtle Sounds > Slave to the Traffic Light > Silent in the Morning > Sanity, Sweet Adeline^
*1st since 11.29.96 / ^1st since 8.1.99 / ^^1st since 11.21.98