Although “Chalk Dust Torture” had been a Phish staple from the early 90’s onward, never leaving regular rotation, it had rarely been used as vehicle for exploratory jamming. While a handful of versions popped off through the years—most notably Camden’s ’99 masterpiece—“Chalk Dust’s” remained a high-energy rock song throughout the band’s career. Over leg two, however, that pattern changed dramatically. Hosting three outstanding jams in its last three appearances of summer, “Chalk Dust’s” quickly became a Leg Two All-Star. Only once, however, did Phish extend “Chalk Dust” from its normal jam within the song, twice preferring to improvise out of its ending. But any way you cut it, “Chalk Dust” gave birth to a trio of stellar excursions during Leg Two that deserve inspection.
Following a standard shredder at Bill Graham and a particularly heavy-hitting, show-opener in Kansas City, when Phish tore into a late second set “Chalk Dust” in Atlanta—literally, the 400th of their career—it felt like they had hopped the train to Fizzletown. Not long into the jam, however, Trey elevated the chugging rhythms with cathartic melodies, coaxing simultaneously stunning piano leads from Page. Fish and Mike were right there without missing a beat, and Phish set the controls for the outer realms of the galaxy. Transforming the normally benign single into thrilling, multi-dimensional journey, the guys finally landed their musical spaceship on a far away planet, and as they climbed down to the surface to explore the new land, Trey hit the opening lick of “What’s the Use?” A totally under-appreciated nugget of gold, this “Chalk Dust” jam foreshadowed what was to come for the rest of tour.
The next time Trey called for the Picture of Nectar classic was in the unassuming slot of second set opener in St. Louis. It seemed like things would stay in bounds this time, but as the band wrapped up the song, they awkwardly bounced off the final downbeat and into uncharted waters. The guys came together quickly in a section of high-speed groove before Fish steered the ship towards calmer currents. Within seconds of this change, Phish immersed the arena in an ethereal and emotional open jam. Like hitting a switch, the guys jumped into IT out of nowhere. Trey spoke the words of the universe through his guitar in this understated and underrated passage. After a short, but engaging, full-band jam, Trey seamlessly wove the opening of “Frankie Says” into the mix. The band would fuse three more songs onto this opening couplet before stopping for a breath, and the most memorable chunk of that entire stretch was “Chalk Dust.”
When Phish got to “C” in the “F.U.C.K. Y.O.U.R. F.A.C.E” show, they had just finished playing second set versions of “Farmhouse” and “Alaska.” With only “E” to go, and few possibilities therein, “C” had to go huge. Thus, when the band started “Chalk Dust,” it seemed like yet another surprise call, but when considering its Leg Two action, it immediately felt like the natural choice. Even before this jam ended, Dick’s “Chalk Dust” had broken all barriers, capturing the heart of everyone in the stadium and beyond, and contended with Camden for the all-time number one version. You can pick your favorite, but this one is mine. Blasting out of the end of the song, much like St. Louis (and with far more precision) the band took little time to switch from from down-your-throat rock and roll into a hard groove collaboration that brought echoes of Atlanta’s “Golden Age.” Trey sliced and diced the music with rhythm chops while Mike threw down commanding leads that directed the beginning of this unforgettable jam. In no time, the guys were fully locked and moving as a single unit through hyperspace. Riding this four-man momentum, Phish shot through any conventions and into totally original music on the back of Trey’s most impressive melodic themes of the summer. This was the stuff of instant legend; musical glory of the highest degree. And to finish things off, they moved into a looped out, intergalactic, bass-led denouement that settled into a quiet outro and a massive ovation.
Coming to life in the final week of the season, “Chalk Dust” added a colossal surprise to summer tour’s long list of riches. The use of their anthem about youth angst as a exclamation point on their best tour in ages, held a certain irony for the guys as they cranked out some of the best music of their career while pushing fifty. On top of their game and as enthusiastic as ever, if one thing can be said about the guys in Phish, they are—most definitely—living while they’re young.
Jams of the Day: