Mike Gordon of Phish at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City last night during the first show of a three-night run. See tons more pics in the full Phish at Dick's, 9/2/11 slide show.
Sunday night's show at Dick's seemed like a continuation of the relaxed, anything-goes mood from Saturday night more than a balls-out party to end the summer. In a way, this was fitting for a band that has been working for the past three years since re-forming to find that comfortable consistency on stage. Still, it just didn't feel like the last night of the tour.
For a large part of the show, the musical selection and loose improvisation felt like the late 1990s, when songs like "Back on the Train," "Twist" and "Piper" were still relatively fresh to the rotation and hadn't been immortalized on the 2000 album Farmhouse -- well past what many consider to be the heyday for this band, but still an era when the group seemed to hardly even be trying on stage and still coming up with amazing nights of music. (Aside from the encore and debut of Gordon's out-of-left-field Gillian Welch cover, "The Way it Goes," the setlist could have been taken out of 1998.)
Less-jammy songs like "Rift" and "Gumbo" were spot-on, if not freshly updated versions of their old selves, thanks to years of aging in the musicians' heads. McConnell's vocals and piano work in "Rift" have an increased brightness over older recordings (and memories) of the songs. Other songs that led to extended improvisation in the past either didn't take off or seemed to come as an afterthought.
"Halley's Comet" drifted quickly into a "Tube"-like jam, which the band quickly abandoned to play the actual song. But the "Tube" that surfaced was a brief four-minute affair - the second shortest of the tour. Even "Timber," which averages around eight minutes most nights, was rushed to five minutes. Nothing was underplayed, and the band was clearly having a good time on stage, but it also felt like the musicians were trying to go somewhere without any idea as to where that might be.
Ween's "Roses Are Free" surfaced out of the flourish that ended "Timber," and didn't stray much from the standard cover version that Phish has made uniquely its own. It was a high point for the crowd around us, with a brief glow-stick war, followed by blissful dancing, until "Chalkdust Torture" blared out of Anastasio's amplifier to end the first set.
Phish's version of Lou Reed's "Rock and Roll" was perfectly placed as the second set opener. Like "Roses" in the first set, Phish has made this cover song its own. You believe McConnell when he tells you that his life was saved by rock and roll. And with a band like that backing him, could you ever doubt it?
Gordon, who,compared to McConnell and Anastsio, seemed subdued through the first set, hit his stride in this song, driving it toward the end into a clearly spur-of-the-moment cover of The Beatles' "Come Together" - the first since December 1995 and only the second time that the tune had been attempted by the band.
Anastasio somehow morphed the melody into the opening, swirling melody of "Twist." The song quickly dropped into its slinky, dripping-wet funky jam, anchored by Gordon's thumping, wandering bass lines. A brief tease of WAR's "Lowrider" shook the crowd out of the noodle-dancing trance it was in just before the grandiose buildup to "Piper." More of a building tempo and repeated chord progression than an actual song, "Piper" tends to extend well beyond the simple four-and-half minute version recorded over a decade ago.
Last night's "Piper" got strange, though, with the band teasing a Modern Lovers tune and jabbering something about the radio over the music and a lengthy, Kubrick-esque theremin solo from McConnell. About ten minutes into the song, the melody dissolved into a Plinko-sounding Trey guitar that dissolved the song into a spacey, ambient wall of sound. The band quickly talked it out the next change during the feedback before Fishman went into the tom-tom drum-roll intro of "Harry Hood." Gordon's bass lines were so thick and heavy that even Anastasio and McConnell looked at each other on stage with a "holy shit" look on their face at one point.
Light director Chris Kuroda was the highlight of "Hood." Playing along with the glow-stick war that had taken off in the audience, he played around with day-glo purples, greens and yellow washes of color over the band while building the spaceship-like appearance his light rig takes on as songs build. His lights were strung higher over the band than they usually are in the old sheds and amphitheaters they usually play, giving a much larger feel overall to the band and filling up the extremely spacious stadium as intimately as can be done.
"Roggae" solidified the late-'90s feel to the show for me, taking me back to carefree summer nights at amphitheaters across the South and Midwest. The song is a mellow, introspective break on 1998's Story of the Ghost and serves a similar purpose when inserted into a live set. Appropriately, Story of the Ghost's pseudo title track "Ghost" followed -- bringing the lofty, jammy atmosphere back to funky, dirty earth.
Like "Piper," the song started out standard but went into the realm of weirdness, with Fishman chanting "Guy Forget" over the song's improvisational section until the band went full-on into its obscure tribute jam/song devoted to the French tennis star. The melody has surfaced a few times, but last night was arguably only the second time that the full version had been played since Desert Sky Pavilion in Arizona in 2000. The band briefly went back into "Ghost" to end the song, where Anastasio told everyone that the "Ghost" is, in fact, "Guy Forget."
It was only 11:15 or so when McConnell started the opening of "Walls of the Cave," a standard ten- to twelve-minute tune from the somewhat-forgotten album Round Room, with multiple composed parts and a pounding, straight-up rocking finale. A good song, but not what anyone I was with would have expected to end the set.
Thinking positively, we figured we were going to get a long encore, since the band had pushed the curfew up until midnight the night before. Wrong again. The band came out, and with little discussion on stage went immediately into "Backwards Down the Number Line." It was a well-played, standard version of the sweet, sentimental song about lifelong friendship, but it was over before any of us realized it. Anastasio thanked the audience for the three nights, and the band finished and left the stage -- roughly thirty minutes earlier than they had the previous two nights.
I like the song, but it would be better in the middle of a set, or maybe even as a set ender in the middle of the tour -- but not as the last song of the tour and possibly the year, as the band has yet to confirm rumors of New Year's Eve shows in either Miami or New York City. It did not make for the most fitting end to what were generally three of the best Colorado Phish shows in this era of the band.
Random Bias: Night one of three was easily my favorite. Random Detail: Despite still having a few floor seats for sale at the box office, Sunday night was just as packed as Saturday night on the floor of the stadium. By the Way: While it had a few down sides, I'd gladly see more concerts at Dick's Sporting Goods Park and hope this wasn't just a one-time thing.
PHISH Dick's Sporting Goods Park Commerce City, CO 09/04/11
Maze Back on the Train Rift Bathtub Gin The Way It Goes Halfway to the Moon Gumbo Halley's Comet Tube Timber Roses Are Free Chalk Dust Torture
Rock & Roll Come Together Twist Piper Harry Hood Roggae Ghost Guy Forget Ghost Walls of the Cave
Backwards Down the Number Line