When Phish kicks off an unusual summer of touring in your town with three shows -- and then delivers -- there are no small thoughts. So, here are five big ideas taken away from the Northerly Island 2017 run.
1. Can one song make an entire run?
Let's talk about the "Simple" from Saturday night. Not only was this performance an all-time version of a universally beloved tune, but coming during essentially the midpoint of the entire run, it provided a pivot point from which to consider everything that came before and after.
But it's not just how good it was (it was very good), the "Simple" worked as much as a signal as it did a song. There have been entire years of recent Phish that didn't have a jam as exploratory or ambitious. Ideas were free-flowing from all four band members, pushing each other to change direction and add-on themes like they were playing for themselves, but generating genuine rousing moments like they were playing for a crowd. It just never quit. It was the type of pure hose that earns it's own nickname -- I see folks are already calling it The Chimple.
The monumental jam set the table for the run's many complementary pieces. Just a few songs later, the blistering "Scents and Subtle Sounds" approached the improvisation in an entirely different way -- built around give-and-take between some hyperactive Gordon bass lines and higher register Anastasio comps.
"Your Pet Cat", as a mid-second set showpiece on Friday, was bold and confident, with playful segues into and out of "Golden Age" an unexpected treat. Using "Harry Hood" to reference the rare show-opening "What's The Use?", and even evoke a little "Mountain Jam", was a fine Phishy touch in a year where Allman Brothers were (sadly) newsworthy as well.
Sunday's "Carini" didn't quite get to the epic spaces as The Chimple, but was stretched considerably -- alternating between blissy major key jamming and the tune's more sinister tendencies. The tension set up between the darker parts of "Carini", the melancholy "Twenty Years Later" and paranoid-sounding debut "Thread" was relieved appropriately in the sequence starting with "Bathtub Gin" later in the set, finding the right balance between head candy and dance party (helllooo "Super Bad" quoting, start/stop "2001").
All told, the "Simple" provided the cover to go out and exploring these other facets of the band's palate throughout the weekend.
2. Is Phish out to prove something?
It has come to my attention that tickets are still available for most (all?) Baker's Dozen shows.
The Dozen is ambitious and unprecedented, but even for a fanbase as rabid as Phish's, presents some logistical challenges. Perhaps some motivation is in order?
Opening weekend has typically been an "establish the norms" affair for Phish -- they set up the expectations so they can defy them down the road. So, going after it hard in the first weekend means the stakes are higher as we move closer to this thirteen-show stand.
They've already shown they can be creative with marketing The Dozen (the donut tickets, exclusive Ben & Jerry's flavor, 13 webcasts), and now it looks like they may take that to the music as well. The opening weekend bodes well -- opening up jams and minimizing ripcords. They even gave the world a taste of the Dayton show for free via YouTube last night.
And there's plenty more to work on and improve going forward. First sets were generally unremarkable and despite a handful of debuts, the bust-out factor was negligible.
Perhaps these are messages to fans: better get your tickets, order up them webcasts, because there is something to see here.
3. This band is not nostalgic, and neither are we.
This big thought is going to be wrapped around the song "More". I'm going to be honest: Big Boat never won me over.
One of the main problems can be found in the lyrics of a tune like "More". They sound like they were written by somebody trying to satirize Phish -- it's just so broad and lacking in nuance. The tune itself sounds like the band just reading from standard arena rock playbook.
But to see the crowd on Saturday night react to this relatively new tune, it was kind of heartening. You'd think it was "Tweezer Reprise" with the fist pumping and general excitement. And it's a bit contagious.
We may be old, but we're not going to demand fealty to the old days. The band is more than happy to oblige -- sometimes magnificently ("Martian Monster", a fifteen minute "No Men In No Man's Land"), sometimes pleasantly (a set closing "Blaze On"), and sometimes cringely ("The Line" is something that somehow still exists).
Certainly no set played could be mistaken for one from the band's salad days, and all things considered, that's a very good thing for both sides of the stage.
In fact, four shows in and we're still awaiting the summer's first "Mike's Song", "Weekapaug", "Tweezer", "Twist" and "YEM".
4. New songs, rated.
Speaking of new, the band dropped a remarkable six debuts over the course of three nights. Let's take a look at each.
"In The Good Old Summer Time" -- A fairly innocuous a capella number that is interchangeable with many of the songs Phish might typically slot into that role in years past ("Carolina", "Amazing Grace"). Gets one point off for putting the phrase "tootsie wootsie" in my head. B-
"Everything's Right" -- The first of this summer's transfers from the TAB repertoire. First half sounds like a TAB song (bad), second half sounds like a Phish jam (very good). This one's a keeper, especially mid-first set. A-
"Leaves" -- A come-down, landing-pad ballad. It's a song choice they'll have to earn going forward. With a strong, but not top-tier start to Friday's second set, they didn't quite get there for "Leaves". As such, it kind of fell flat. C-
"Love is What We Are" -- Makes the lyrics for "More" seem like something from Blood On The Tracks. Has it really come to this? Like Poochie, it's been rastatfied by 10% or so. Seems destined to be sent back to its home planet, but what do I know. D
"Corona" -- The second TAB crossover. Unremarkable in it's set-opening debut performance, but I'm not ruling it out just yet. And, hey, you can even get Phish merchandise at Target now. B
"Thread" -- Doesn't quite feel finished, but it's is welcome contrast to a lot of the sunshine and rainbows of the other new material. When they figure out exactly how and when to play this one, I believe good things are afoot. B+
5. A new chapter, for Phish and for Northerly Island.
The best tour openers hit the rest button on the band. With the debuts, the big jam, and the variety, i think that is exactly what's happening.
Even Kuroda's lights seem to be renew, with the LED boards tossed aside and an prodigious array movable harnesses. It evokes classic lighting from year's past, but with a twist. Sound familiar?
And let's also note that this has been a return to a venue that hadn't hosted the band in three years. After some (*ahem*) snags in 2013, this feels like re-establishing of a beach-head in Chicago. Especially since these three shows (plus Dayton & Pittsburgh) seemed like bonus shows post-Baker's Dozen announcement.
It's physical isolation is both blessing and curse. Never the most convenient place to get to, and entirely weather dependent, with the proper planning, it can be downright adequate.
The entrance road to the venue was bustling before and after with vending, oddly dominated by locals rather that tourheads. A ten year old boy was selling donut coozies to benefit his football team (?!) and there was no shortage of "ice cold" N2O.
While the lawn appeared fairly packed on Saturday, the crowd was more sparse to bookend the weekend. Exorbinant concession and parkting prices I'm sure worked out well for Live Nation in any case. After the third run here, there are more data-points on Northerly than ever. It'll be interesting to see what happens in years to come.
Stream or Download all three shows (source bt.etree.org teamikoiko)