Let’s be frank, Phish’s modern first sets have been, for the most part, pretty lame. A selection of songs with one or two composed jams sprinkled in serves the purpose of getting everyone’s legs warm and drugs working in time for the second half. Once in many blue moons, the band will drop a highlight with lasting merit before setbreak, but most often there’s very little substance of which to speak. At Dick’s however, first sets took on a more emphatic role in the evening, each offering far more meat and engaging music than usual. Let’s take a walk through the first halves from a few weeks ago.
Ghost, No Men In No Man’s Land , Breath and Burning, Undermind, Heavy Things, Stash, Ass Handed, The Wedge, Alaska, 46 Days
Phish came into their annual Dick’s weekend lacking any momentum from summer tour, and many in the community weren’t exactly sure what band would show up at the annual Labor Day party. When the guys came out and opened with “Ghost” for the first time since 2013, however, it felt like they delivered a certain message of intent. A compact though fiery rendition kicked off the weekend and was backed up by the always-energetic “No Men in No Man’s Land.” Upon the lyrical reprise at the end of the song, it seemed that Phish was ready to move on, but in a surprise move, they exploded into an outro jam that blossomed into an abstract foray. Staring from a chugging groove, the band gradually moved into darker territory where Trey eventually took over with wailing and echoed guitar screams. Maintaining a quickened tempo throughout the piece, out of nowhere Phish had kicked down the improvisational door and we were barely twenty minutes into the weekend. Though the set took on a more standard contour from here, it did feature a slightly stretched out version of “Breath and Burning” which provided a dash of hope that the band might jam off the new single come fall as they prolifically did in its second ever version in Philadelphia this past summer. The set, however, did contain one more standout highlight in its “46 Days” finale, where immediately upon the ending of the lyrics, the band dove deep into a primordial soup. Led by Fish’s tribal marching beat, they built a thick, distorted soundscape into which Trey unleashed furious guitar leads, slyly blending the “What’s the Use?” theme into this darkened excursion. The band was fully synched up in this sinister passage, foreshadowing good things for the weekend. And just like that we had ourselves a first set. Set break contained a palpable buzz after this set, as fans felt a mixture of excitement and surprise at what had just transpired. It was the rare time folks really discussed the music of the first set rather asking where that joint had gone.
Slave to the Traffic Light, Down with Disease, What’s the Use? > Maze, Farmhouse, 555, Wolfman’s Brother, Divided Sky, Rock and Roll
The second night started off in a bizarre, though explosive, fashion as Phish welcomed the Saturday night audience the first “Slave to the Traffic Light” opener since 1988. The band backed up this surprise with a legitimate “Down With Disease” jam in the two slot, opening up the piece into experimental waters and taking the jam into dark, dungeon-like territory. Led by Trey’s growling tone, once again Phish had delved into the depths of improvisation at the very beginning of the night, offering some serious music to engage the crowd from the get-go. A rare stand-alone version of “What’s the Use?” came third, continuing the strange but welcomed song ordering. At this point, the set came back to earth a bit with the first set staples of “Maze,” “555,” and “Farmhouse,” but the guys followed up this trifecta with a popping version of “Wolfman’s Brother.” Led by Mike’s larger-than-life bass leads, the band leaned into into a slowed down, heavy-handed version of their cowfunk vehicle, that kept the energy of this opening frame sky high and the crowd enraptured. With “Divided Sky” and “Rock and Roll,” Phish completed quite the first half of music, arguably the best of the three-night stand.
The Moma Dance > Chalk Dust Torture, Mike’s > Wingsuit > Weekapaug, Party Time, Bathtub Gin, Split Open and Melt, Tube, Character Zero
On the third night in Colorado, Phish scripted a powerhouse first set song list that never relented from start to finish. Though they stayed within the confines of each selection, the band unleashed several type-one improvisations of crowd favorites. An early set “Mike’s Groove” got things warmed up quickly, and following a “Party Time” interlude, the band dropped a searing three-song sequence of “Bathtub Gin,” “Tube” and “Split Open and Melt.” The “Gin” was the clear highlight of the set, featuring energetic interplay between band members amidst an upbeat and peaky jam that continued to climb higher and higher. Mike anchored a somewhat extended “Tube” jam, and “Split” saw the band lock into an aggressive and abstract soundscape that, while not uncharacteristic of the song, formed an engaging and more-than-worthy highlight. “Character Zero” rounded out the opening half, a set that once again lent some serious weight to the concert before set break.
The presence of legitimate first sets gave an enhanced feel to the shows in Colorado, and completely shifted the vibe of each night. To be totally transparent, it’s a shame the band doesn’t offer the same level of music in most of their first sets. Shows are about three hours long, and the first set comprises almost ninety minutes each night, why waste it? Not to say that each opening frame needs contain multiple type-two jams, but how ’bout a little more meat for the kidz, ya know? This is a fairly universal sentiment across the Phish community, and these Dick’s shows illustrates how a significant first set can provide a far loftier feel to any given night of Phish.