By Brian R Brinkman @sufferingjuke
When Phish announced their 2011 Summer Tour, they offered two caveats that threw fans for an immediate spin.
The first was that they were going to forgo a Fall Tour, a move that resulted in arguably their weakest NYE Run in nearly two decades. The second was a run of Labor Day Weekend shows at Dick’s Sporting Good’s Park in Commerce City, CO. Speculation brewed all summer over the locale, and timing of the run, as many wondered if the stand-alone three-night run would prove to be a worthy event, or a failed experiment.
It turns out the band threw down three of their best shows of the year, while initiating a new gag that would eventually speak volumes about their ability to communicate on a higher level with their fans through their shows.
The inaugural Dick’s show contained songs that all started with the letter ‘S.’ The next two nights, while short on gimmickry, were nothing if not brilliantly played. Featuring an absolutely transcendent take on "Tweezer" on 9/3, and a fully-flowing second set on 9/4 which peaked with an industrialized "Piper" and a fiery "Ghost" that wove in-and-out of the one-off joke-song "Guy Forget". The shows remain two critical stepping-stones in the band’s 3.0 era.
In 2012, Phish raised the bar on their Dick’s experiment, playing what many consider to be their best show of this era on the weekend’s first night.
Using each song played to spell out the archaic Mike Gordon number, "Fuck Your Face," the band forced themselves to jam multiple times throughout the show. Particularly in the first set closing "Undermind" and the "Chalk Dust Torture," Phish jammed with purpose, and seeming ease, resulting in numerous transcendent moments throughout. A brilliant maneuver that acted as a breaking point between one period and another, the show has been immortalized through a seemingly unending discussion and praise of the show’s boundless gems. The next two nights contained a litany of magic on their own, as 9/1’s "Light" is one of the defining jams of the era, and the "Sand" -> "Ghost" -> "Piper" segment from 9/2 will be forever remember for it’s blending of deep improve with seamless segues.
After a month off from their 2013 Summer Tour, the band once again played Dick’s over Labor Day Weekend, this time as part of their 30th anniversary celebration.
Once again, they used the Friday night show of the run to toy with their fans via some inventive wordplay. Spelling "MOST SHOWS SPELL SOMETHING", but unveiling it backwards, cued fans into the band’s intentions, while keeping everyone on their toes throughout the entire show. The third year at Dick’s however, proved to be the weakest thus far, as the only memorable jam to emerge was the second set opening "Chalk Dust Torture" from 8/31.
Perhaps it was the three-week break between their tour finale at the Hollywood Bowl and Labor Day. Perhaps it was the complexity of their Friday night gag that threw the weekend off. Whatever it was, the run was remembered more as a weekend in Colorful Colorado than it is for any music created.
Enter 2014 and the band chose to once again structure their summer tour as a month-long-block of shows in July and early-August, allowing for another three-week gap between the finale in Alpharetta, GA and the weekend at Dick’s. Speculation tore through the fanbase in the weeks leading up to the shows as fans offered up their dream gags and various speculations on what the band would do on Friday night, and why.
WE REALLY LOVE DICK’S!,
DEVOTION TO A DREAM,
WE KEEP IT ROLLING!,
GAMEHENDGE TROLL LOL,
ALS ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE… were just a few of the ideas fans had for how the band would celebrate their fourth Friday night Dick’s show.
When it came down to it, however, the band took a direct cue from a Rolling Stone Magazine reader’s poll from late-June that asked Phish fans to vote on their 10 favorite Phish songs.
While a slew of predictable classics rounded out the bulk of the list – "Run Like An Antelope," "Fluffhead," "Harry Hood," "Reba," "Tweezer," "You Enjoy Myself" – it was the No. 1 choice that stood out. Its ascendance reflected a group-effort on behalf of some of the band’s most dedicated fans to persuade the band to bust-out a song played only eight times, and not once since 1987: "Lushington." What few expected though, especially this late in the summer, was that the band would actually acknowledge the poll. In perfect Phish fashion, the band used the majority of the first set to spell out LUSHINGTON before poking fun at the crowd with their quick, heavy metal cut, "Ha Ha Ha."
While the gag ended there, the bustouts and jams were just beginning, as Phish moved past the gag and into the realm of fully-flowing second sets.
A theme that had marked much of the Summer Tour, Phish had worked to craft complete second stanzas where songs segued into each other with ease, the question of where one song ended and another began became a viable one. Jams flowed without restraint, all while taking care to maximize energy. Heard best on 7/4, 7/9, 7/12, 7/20, 7/26, and 07/30, Phish sought to repeat these moments of whole-band & whole-set unity throughout their three nights at Dicks.
Following the first set gag on 08/29/2014, the band immediately got to work in crafting a set that gave equal weight to rock and funk. Taking "46 Days" on an improvisational journey for the first time since it’s mini-jams on 7/5/2013 and 7/30/13, and it’s first truly exploratory jam since 11/18/2009, Phish expanded outwardly before fusing the funk riffs that emerged through Page & Trey’s interplay with "Back On The Train."
It was, however, in the combined, 30-minute jam session that emerged within "Simple" -> "Ghost" where the peak of the night, and perhaps that of the weekend occurred.
Building "Simple" to a blistering rock peak that sounded like a fusion of the 7/4 "Fuego" with the kinds of jams that used to emerge from "Simple" during the Fall of 1996, Page and Trey once again locked-in via the Clav and funk struts to cultivate a dance session that felt plucked from 1998. In "Ghost" the band reprised the 'Holy Ghost’ theme from 12/31/2010, shifting the song into major-key bliss that allowed everyone both in the venue, and at home on their couches to revel in the complete control and pure joy Phish has in playing, here in their 31st year as a band.
Saturday night featured the run’s weakest first set as the band offered rotational staples, and new material from Fuego without much in the way of inspired playing.
In the second set, however, they continued the whole-set-as-a-unified-jam approach that had worked so well for them throughout the summer. In an hour long segment that read: "Down With Disease" -> "What’s The Use?" > "Carini" -> "Light" > "Fuego" -> "Slave To The Traffic Light," Phish not only touched on their entire catalog -- playing one of their earliest and one of their most recent numbers -- they fused blissful ambient jamming with torrid machine-gun-Trey with funk breakdowns with complex compositions in a run of jams and segues that has rightfully been proclaimed as an instant classic. Rounding things out with the location-appropriate "Meatstick" and the first "Bold As Love" since 10/20/13, it was a set that will be talked about for years to come.
The encore saw the return of "The Horse," which hadn’t been played since 12/31/12, and during which the band toyed with eschewing it’s companion piece, "Silent In The Morning." Noting the kind of ‘stupid prank’ that has long-endeared the band to their fans, Trey wove a story about another nearly forgotten gem in their catalog, a naughty little joke called "In A Hole." A song written during the band’s jazzier days, it contained a chorus that repeated the song’s title, before the band shouted: "I’m An A-Hole!" The kind of joke only Phish fans would truly appreciate, Trey then initiated "Fluffhead" for only its sixth encore appearance of its career. A song which contains parts of "Lushington," the encore put a humorous and nostalgically rich cap on the show.
The weekend and the Summer Tour ended with a show that flirted at times with being an instant classic, yet whose parts were somehow greater in the end than the sum.
Opening with "The Curtain With" for the first time since 6/19/88 was a clear nod to the symbiotic energy that exists within Colorado for Phish and their fans. Further, having just passed the ten-year mark on their disastrous Coventry Festival where they attempted to conclude their career with an off-key take on the aforementioned song, its positioning contained an extra bit of emotional weight seeing how far the band has come since their return in March 2009.
The first set peaked with a quasi-extended take on "Wombat," a blistering "A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing," a funk-throwdown in "Wolfman’s Brother," and an energized closing pairing of "Tube" > "Possum." Intermixed were a few staples along with a pair of Fuego-tunes that balanced out the energy with a few puzzling moments due to song-selection. While it was one of the stronger first sets of the entire summer, it still felt a bit tepid in its attempts to showcase a diverse palate, rather than commit to a theme.
In the second set, Phish played an extended "Chalk Dust Torture" for the third 8/31 show in a row, continuing the legacy of the 2012 whole-band masterpiece, and the rhythmic mindfuck of 2013. From there, they sought to weave a complete set, instead finding pockets of brilliance throughout a set that felt disjointed at times. "Chalk Dust" petered out rather than capitalizing on its moment in the spotlight, and "Twist" and "The Wedge" felt more like fillers than fluid parts of a greater whole.
It was in "Sand" and "Mike’s Song" where the band connected on disjointed rhythmic holes that proved to be the unquestionable highlights. Particularly in the latter number, where the band locked into a groove and expanded upon the post-"Mike’s" jam for the first time since 2/21/03, Phish used the rhythmic discoveries of 8/29’s ‘Simple’ and 8/30’s ‘Light’ as a portal into the most enlivened "Mike’s" in over a decade. A moment that resulted in absolute pandemonium amongst the online Phish community, it was clear many had been waiting for any sort of experimentation within the bassist’s-penned classic.
In the end, Dick’s 2014 left a stamp on the band’s 3.0 legacy as a run that, while never surpassing the monumental achievements of their legendary 2012 run, was an important, and incredible fun run in its own right. Combining bustouts with an inventive (and, not to mention, non-overbearing) Friday night gag, with two fully-flowing sets, a dedicated approach to rhythmic expansion, and some choice explorations throughout, it was a memorable weekend for everyone in the Phish community.
It’s now that the band and their fans turn towards the first West Coast Fall Tour since 1999, as the speculation begins towards how Phish will build from the accomplishments and periods of growth this summer. If Dick’s 2014 is any indication, expect jams to come from anywhere, and expect second sets to continue to emphasize full-band and full-set improvisation and fluidity.