Sometimes the waiting in life makes the reward so much sweeter. An extended, six-month gap of Phish-less existence ended in style last night with a full-on blowout in Chicago, arguably, the most exciting tour-opener since Summer ’99. Picking up right where they left off in Miami, Phish came out with an arsenal of tightly-wound improvisation, giving a nod to their rebuilding year while opening the gates wide open to the new universe of Phish 2010. It didn’t take very long for the band to answer whole lot of questions last night, coming out of the gates with an focused intensity unseen in this era. With a first set comprised of classic jam vehicles, and a second frame pointed directly towards the future, the band made just the statement that everyone was looking to hear.
Wasting no time on warm ups, the band fired out with an opening combo of “Disease” and “Wolfman’s,” each boasting succinct, densely-packed jams, which soon became the theme of the first set. With no filler whatsoever, the band moved from one piece to the next, leaving a wake of fire behind them. While featuring smoking renditions of “Possum,” “Divided Sky,” and “David Bowie,” the true highlight of the opening frame came in the mid-set “Reba.” Taking a minimalist approach to the jam, Trey sat way back after the initial grooves, allowing the band to sculpt their ideas around his sparse offerings. Tastefully picking up the lead, Trey lead the collective piece to a head, first with subtly, and then with soul-scraping intention. As “Reba” brought the show into dusk, however, little did we know the fury that lied right behind setbreak.
When Phish is at their creative best, they have an ability to weave together jams and songs with a stylistic thread that unites sets with staggering coherency. Often containing strong melodic themes and improvisational unity, these sets are remembered as far more than the sum of their parts even though the very parts of set are the breath-taking substance. Last night, Phish played a set that not only fell into these categories, but easily vaulted to the top stanzas of 3.0 with musical passages that brought a true sense of musical drama back to the stage of the Phish. Absolutely letting loose throughout the second half, the band’s drill-bit focus and energy never wavered, crafting a emotively contoured set that represents the tip of the iceberg for Summer 2010. Phish not only demolished every jam throughout the set, but connected everything with utmost care, in a musical stanza that left everyone drooling for Cleveland.
Annihilating the set-opening triumvirate of “Light > Maze, Ghost,” Phish immediately engaged in extended forays into creative, subconscious psychedelia, providing the Chicago audience with all they bargained for, while giving us some potential foreshadowing of a new musical direction. This fresh sound was characterized by bass-led rhythmic patterns painted by emotive wails and more sustained washes of tone and color by Trey and Page, rather than any clear melodic leads. Pushing “Light” and “Ghost” into completely new places, Phish announced their summer arrival with a unique and far-reaching take on two of their most significant songs, sparking imaginations of what lies down the road.
In the vein of 2009′s most creative “Light” from Madison Square Garden, this version moved well beyond it into a musical depth that we had yet to see from the song. Reaching new planes of open exploration, this multi-faceted piece passed through realms of darkness and of light, emerging as the most creative “Light” ever – for now. Merging with “Maze” through a drawn out, ambient passage, Phish attacked the song like it was 1993 all over again. Seeing the band shred apart “Maze” like they haven’t in memory, it became clear at this point in the show, that we were watching a different band than last year.
And then “Ghost” happened. Perhaps the most sky-scraping jam we have seen in 3.0 thus far, the band allowed the music to play them, reinventing what was possible on stage again. This several-tiered epic sounded like Phish being Phish for the first time in a really long time. With their musical proficiency at such level of such connectedness, the band was clearly able to allow their thoughts to fall by the wayside and play what they felt inside, crafting the first truly monumental jam of 2010. And something tells me there’s a lot more to come.
As “Ghost” slid into “Limb By Limb,” the audience might have thought they were getting a quasi-breather, but in reality, the band delved into a majestic piece of melodic jamming that really showed that things were hitting on all cylinders. A piece that remained largely-reigned in for 2009, stretched out into cascading dreamscapes, partaking the same magic carpet ride as the rest of the set. And just when everything finally settled, the band improvised a vocal ending to the song, adding a sparkle of Phishiness to the stellar version.
The following sequence of “Caspian, Horse > Silent” provided the bridge to a jazzy and dynamic “Antelope,” but not before the band took “Caspian” on a ride into waves of similar melodic bliss we had just heard from “Limb.” Following a calculative incarnation of their classic set-closer, most were busy catching their breaths from a dizzying “Antelope,” when Phish set out their newest spectacle – “Show of Life.”
Sometimes Phish debuts songs in akward places, and sometimes they just get them right; and in this case they chose latter. Placing their new uplifting piece on the heels of a such scorching set, “Show of Life” came into Phish’s worked in idyllic style. The juxtaposition of tone and pace after “Antelope” magnified the beauty of the band’s newest anthem. This song will unquestionably bring us on more than a few emotional odyessys before the month is out, providing Phish with a completely fresh, show-stopping palette for improvisation.
Closing the night with a raucous double-encore of “Cavern,” Julius,” the band sent everyone in Toyota Park home smiling.
And just like that, Phish was Phish again.
I. Down With Disease, Wolfman’s Brother, Possum, Boogie On Reggae Woman, Reba > Jesus Just Left Chicago, The Divided Sky, Golgi Apparatus, David Bowie
II. Light > Maze, Ghost > Limb By Limb, Prince Caspian, The Horse > Silent in the Morning, Run Like An Antelope, Show Of Life*
E: Cavern, Julius
PHOTOS: If you’d like to contribute photos of this summer to Phish Thoughts, please email them to email@example.com. There is no guarantee they will be used, but there is a need for some shots this summer!