Telluride '88, Red Rocks '94 and Denver '97 -- these aren't just places and years to Phish fans. They're monuments, pivotal parts of Phish's Colorado legacy. Out of nearly eighty concerts that the band has played in the Centennial state and more than 1,578 shows in all, they represent high points of the band's career and various peaks of their musical eras. This past weekend, Phish showed over three nights that after nearly 24 years touring in Colorado, they still have the stuff of legend.
Whereas the opener of a show is often like an icebreaker, Phish's choice of "First Tube" on Friday night was like kicking in the door of a party with a megaphone screaming, "I'M FUCKING HERE!" Not that it was a clue as to what was to come in terms of the setlist, but the band certainly laid down the foundation for the rest of the night stretching the tune to a lengthy nine minute buildup to the screaming feedback and loop outro.
Not letting the energy drop at all, guitarist Trey Anastasio blasted into one of only two cover songs for the night, Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen." Bluegrass in Colorado is never a bad idea, obviously. It began to sink in about halfway through the fourteen-minute "Carini," as the band moved from one of their most metal, power-chord arena rocker to a beautiful, spacey and jam that completely left the original crunchy structure: The first letters of the first three songs are F-U-C.
Are they doing it again? Fuck me! They are. Nearly a year after starting out the Denver run with an entirely "S" set of songs, the band was once again in on a joke and it was up to us to figure it out. "Kill Devil Falls" sealed the deal. It was fucking on, whatever it was. And so was the band, who, like most people observed, hadn't played like this in years. Though the song selection was somewhat erratic, the group was in a constant groove all night with drummer Jon Fishman really pushing the rhythms and forcing the band to create around him, as opposed to dropping off early into spacey cymbals.
If you weren't in on the joke at this point, McConnell made it clear when he thanked the crowd and said how happy they were to be back for a second year in a row: "We love Dick's. We do." Anastasio's rolling lead into a "You Enjoy Myself" that spanned nineteen minutes (!) and went into a vocal jam that showcased how goofy this band can be. Anastasio started it out with, "I love Dick's, you love Dick's, we love Dicks's," and the rest of the band quickly caught on in singing the praises of Dick's until finally cracking one another up repeating "Trey loves Dick's."
Guesses began to float around as to what the band was spelling out. There were a few other random ideas, like "Fuck your Signs", in relation to the people holding up signs for the last few years for songs; "Fuck your Dicks," for the obvious juvenile humor; and even "Fuck you Mitt Romney" -- seriously overheard from some guy a few rows up.
But the two most realistic ideas: It was either going to be tonge-in-cheeck Fuck You to someone in particular, or (more likely) the band was going to spell out a very rare and old Phish song, "Fuck Your Face." The tune was captured on the band's White Tape demo from the early '80s. By most accounts, it was only played once in April of 1987, before being shelved for 23 years, until it resurfaced in 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina of all places.
And so for the second year in a row, the rest of the show became a guessing game. But instead of only "What song will they pull out next that starts with this letter?" but now: "What letter will it be? Some songs were easier to pick than others, like "Ocelot" and "Undermind" to round out the "YOU" and the rest of the first set.
But they weren't just filler, both were face-fuckingly long versions of two relatively new songs (in the grand scheme of things). "Undermind," in particular, took off about seven minutes in and became something completely outside of itself for another seven or eight minutes until Anastasio thanked the crowd and the band bowed out to end a fucking awesome first set.
The selection for second-set openers - if the "Fuck Your Face" thing were to pan out - was narrow. Was it going to be "Reba" or "Ramble on" or "Ride Captain Ride"? Or maybe "Rip this Joint" or "Rock and Roll" or "Rift" or "Roggae" or what about "Run Like an Antelope"? Nope. How about a sizzling, twenty-minute "Runaway Jim" instead? Fucking-a, right.
Two words down, one to go.
"Farmhouse" wouldn't have been anyone's top choice for the next song - maybe a "Fluffhead" or a "Funky Bitch" or a rare "Fly Famous Mockingbird" without "Col. Forbin's" in front of it. But "Farmhouse" it was, and fuck you if you don't like it, they were going to play it - and jam it the fuck out in one of the more creative musical moments of the evening.
In ten minutes, they went from Anastasio's Vermont country crooner about cluster flies and northern lights to the rumbling spaceship takeoff formations of "2001," a cover of a (classical) cover which is technically titled "Also Sprach Zarathustra." Bassist Mike Gordon picked up on it and began thundering on the low end and even cuing light director (and so-called fifth member of the band) Chris Kuroda to crank the fog machines and kick the lights into hyperdrive.
But in a good-natured "fuck that" to what was becoming the obvious direction for the next song, Anastasio turned to the talk-back mike behind him around the time when Fishman would begin the signature funky beat to "2001," said something to the band with a wicked smile, and then completely changed directions into "Alaska".
"Chalkdust Torture" has been a fuck you song forever and only made sense as their choice for the "C" song. "Can't this wait 'till I'm old, can't I live while I'm young?" has taken on a different slant as the band grows older - but as long as they play like they did last night, they keep the music fresh and young even for those of us seeing them for fifteen years or more. The band began to abandon the song about five or six minutes in, with Gordon thumping out what sounded like teases for "Slave to the Traffic Light" at one point and a few teases from McConnell and Anastasio for "Esther" - the most likely choice for the next song.
But fuck your expectations. Phish threw them all out of the window for the last three hours, why would you have expected anything different now? Instead, the band kicked out the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue" for only the fifth time since Hampton 1997 to complete the "Fuck Your Face" spelling (and theme of the night). Gordon's falsetto Mick Jagger went perfectly over the classic, thick opening bass line for the short but sweet second of two covers for the night.
And finally, "Fuck Your Face." A song about Gordon's desire to fuck your face with his guitar. Seriously. With a Sailing the Seas of Cheese-era Primus-like feel to it, the song rips, and while it's cool to have a few songs kept on the shelf and rare - it wouldn't kill us all to hear this strange tune played more often. It didn't make the most bombastic set-ender, and Anastasio just simply yelled "Thank you" before building the band up to a final, "Day In the Life"-like finish and walking off stage.
Walking back out for encore, McConnell made a small reference to the "S" set last year, thanking the audience for putting up with the band's "shenanigans" on stage. They weren't done, though. One last bit of dirty humor for the night: They ended a show about face fucking with the appropriately titled "Grind" and "Meatstick."
Keep reading for more on nights two and three, as well as set lists and Critic's Notebook.
Night two started out on fire as well with an ultra-rare "Run Like an Antelope" first set opener. Checking back over internet Phish stats, the band has only opened one other show with that tune back in April of 1989. So how do you follow night one? By fucking everyone's face from the start on night two and never letting up.
"Run Like an Antelope" raged. It was like someone had played the band a tape of themselves from 1995, and Anastasio said: "Oh yeah, that's how we're supposed to play that song," with an intro section extended to about three minutes, solid shredding guitar and pounding drums from Fishman. It also helped that it was loud as hell in Dick's the entire weekend. Even up at the suite level, the sound pressure and volume were powerful enough to shut up the crowd and get people moving.
The dance party started with the opening notes of a fast but slinky tempo "Tweezer" from Anastasio that went from perfect to sublime at about the five minute mark when McConnell started laying down melted cheese-creamy Rhodes lines over Gordon's rounded low-end sound. Anastasio took a subdued backseat and let the band take the jam forward as a whole for another four minutes before slowly building up to a fierce solo and eventually bringing the band back around completely to end the song. But the music wasn't over at all.
Following a delay loop of Anastasio's, Fishman picked up the tempo and led the band out of the song into space for a few seconds "what will they play next?" before Anastasio went into the opening chords of an almost perfect fourteen-minute version of "Fluffhead" - a song that McConnell has really brought new life to in the last three years with his much louder, fuller sound in the mix.
Other highlights of the first set was the well-placed Ween cover, "Roses are Free" after "Fluffhead" to bring the crowd back down from high-energy to simply just high. McConnell's screaming Hammond lines and Gordon's head-bopping funky bass on Son Seal's "Funky Bitch" made that song shine, and the entire band seemed to reconnect with a late-'90s summer vibe on the eight-minute "Theme From the Bottom."
The second set, though, was the one people were still talking about on Sunday afternoon on Shakedown Street. TV On the Radio's "Golden Age" opened up the second set - a usual placement for the tune that Phish has managed to morph into one of their own much the same way as the "Roses" in the first set has become a pseudo Phish staple. But by the six minute mark in the tune, the band has moved on well past what TV on the Radio ever imagined for the song and were off into a nearly fifty-minute, three-song exploration.
The jam out of "Golden Age" drifts along on McConnell's boogie Rhodes with Fishman's manic but driving beats, while Anastasio and Gordon noodle out notes on top for about five minutes of sonic space and beats. The band briefly ditched out to go into "Prince Caspian," but the mood of musical exploration had clearly set in, and instead of letting the ballad-like song fade out into one of McConnell's typical beautiful piano solos, the band began picking up steam and jamming the tune out into another lengthy jam -- this one darker than the one out of "Golden Age," with Anastasio making his guitar wail and scream with metal-like attitude over a soupy Zeppelin-like Hammond low end. Fishman cued up a change of pace that very briefly seemed to be going into another dimension of Phish's musical single mind, but Anastasio dipped into 2009's "Light" - a song that has become a massive jumping off point over the last three years.
And Saturday night's version will easily go down as one of -- if not the -- best played yet. That is to say, the band nailed the composed part of the tune, but they were off onto another planet by six minutes into the song. McConnell layed down a chanky clavinet over Fishman's excited drumming, and Gordon followed along, thumping out notes as he saw fit, while Anstasio played around with feedback and loops for about two minutes, before a melody began to develop into at about the thirteen minute mark. There was a lot of "Holy crap this is good... what song are we even in anymore?" going around - something that hasn't been uttered in years. And that was just the beginning.
By the eighteen-minute mark, the band dipped back into the same style of moody jam that led out of "Caspian" with a few teases of the Talking Heads "Crosseyed and Painless," Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and sprinkled McConnell's "Beauty of a Broken Heart" in for good measure, before the band began to wind down the music and eventually sputter out the song with a kick drum from Fishman that was barely audible above the roar of the crowd.
Gordon must not have had the funk bombs out of his system with his teases, because the band went into "Boogie On Reggae Woman" next followed by the duo of "The Horse" and "Silent in the Morning" - the latter being played by itself only a handful of times, including last year at Dick's at the "S" show.
It had already been a solid and long show at this point, but the band had more rocking to do (more on that in a minute), and Anastasio picked out the opening power riff to Gordon's "Mike's Song" that was solid but standard up until the transition that usually goes into "Hydrogen" or "Simple" - this time replaced by Zeppelin's "No Quarter." The band has really been enjoying this song the last few years. So has the crowd, for that matter. McConnell does his best Robert Plant through a thick, heavy Leslie effect and his over-driven, reverb-heavy Rhodes lays a hauntingly-perfect background for Anastasio's Jimmy Page.
Encore was the only time really allowed for levity in the show, with Fishman coming out eating a banana. Fishman nearly passed out backstage due to "rocking so hard that last set," Anastasio informed us. "Picture him back there in his dress - the little guy - with a banana. And it made us think of this song."
And into wonderfully goofy "Sleeping Monkey" the band went. But that wasn't the real encore to cap off a night with so much energy. That was up to a quick but intense "Tweezer Reprize." Glowsticks soared across the sky, while Anastasio danced his happy ass off on stage and Kuroda lit up the stage in an epileptic's nightmare. Had there been a roof, it would have been blown off by the buzz in the building.
Keep reading for more on night three, plus set lists and Critic's Notebook.
Night three's set one started out solid and promising with the Medeski, Martin and Wood-inspired McConnell tune "Cars, Trucks and Buses." The excitement from the band seemed to be there, but by the second song, "AC/DC Bag," the energy seemed to be lacking. A flubbed intro to "Down with Disease" took the air out of the sails of that song and the jammed out section at the end seemed more forced than any of the band's ventures all weekend had up to that point. It wasn't bad, but it didn't go anywhere and after the two nights prior, it was hard to not have expectations up high.
"Bathtub Gin" was more of the same. It was a good version, musically, sure... but the band never seemed to pick up any cues from one another, and it never really left the same form and melody that defines the tune in the first place. As if to change gears and see if they couldn't get something firing from a different angle, the band went into Hot Rize's "Nellie Kane" - a two-minute bluegrass number sung by Gordon that nobody on stage seemed to be really into.
A solid "Sample in a Jar" followed, but by this point, the set was clearly not going to live up to the four prior to it and the mood in the crowd reflected it. By the time the band got around to playing one of the most solid versions of "Maze" all summer, it felt like the band was dragging the audience back to life. But eventually McConnell's furious and frantic organ lines did the job and brought things back to (somewhat) normal levels.
"Haley's Comet" was up next, and although it's a solid song (and a solid version), it's nothing like the epic "Haley's" of old. Not that we should expect '90s-era phish anymore, but after the two nights leading up to Sunday's show, it didn't' seem out of the question for an epic twenty-minute Haley's jam.
Instead, exploration was given up quickly with Anastado abandoning the song for "46 Days," a bluesy rocker that, admittedly, provided the most energy of the night up to that point and would have been a great way to call the set quits. Instead, they dragged it out with a last-ditch "Possum," which didn't have the time to really get off the ground musically. The song is an audience sing-along favorite, though, and didn't need a ten-minute jam to do the trick of appeasing the masses before setbreak.
Someone must have said something to the band at setbreak, because the twenty minute "Sand" opener was completely different stylistically from the hour-and-a-half set before it. The band seemed ready to jump off the deep end and get back to the space they were in the previous two nights and didn't disappoint. By the seven minute mark, "Sand" had left the building, and the band was going into new realms and by the eleven minute mark, they had stripped the song of everything and rebuilt it with a spacey jam reminiscent of Phish's style in the "Tower Jam" from the IT festival, or the "Headphones Jam" released through LivePhish.
That eventually built back up to the "Sand" melody about ten minutes later, but only briefly before Gordon began plucking out a glass-smooth transition into the opening basslines to "Ghost" -- a song that carries the same deep, funky dance grooves as "Sand." In fact, "Ghost" was really just a pause in the same continued musical exploration for the band that they started with "Sand." The song eventually deconstructed to quiet melodies and splashes of cymbals and was really the end of the largest improvisational section of the night for the band.
While a furious "Piper" erupted from the silence at the end of "Ghost" and quickly built to a very strange, explorative space, nobody in the band seemed to really ever hook into it. "Piper was followed by "20 Years Later," a song that has only been played out seven or eight times and probably could be shelved and left as one of those "that song was good on the album" tunes.
"Lizards" and "Harry Hood" ended the set in a final dose of classic Phish songs, and though neither will be memorable compared to the laundry-list of great musical moments from this weekend, "Hood" contained a very humble, special message from Anastasio thanking their fans for one of the best summer tours the band has ever had. "I don't want to go home. Thanks you guys. We love you guys."
"And we'd also like to say, 'Fuck your face.'"
Keep reading for set lists and Critic's Notebook
Phish Dick's Sporting Goods Park 8/31/12
First Tube Uncle Pen Carini Kill Devil Falls > You Enjoy Myself Ocelot Undermind
Runaway Jim > Farmhouse > Alaska > Chalkdust Torture > Emotional Rescue > Fuck Your Face
Phish Dick's Sporting Goods Park 9/1/12
Run Like An Antelope Backwards Down the Number Line Tweezer > Fluffhead Roses Are Free Funky Bitch The Moma Dance When The Circus Comes Theme From The Bottom Golgi Apparatus Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan
Golden Age Prince Caspian > Light Boogie On Reggae Woman The Wedge The Horse > Silent In The Morning Mike's Song > No Quarter > Weekapaug Groove
Sleeping Monkey Tweezer Reprise
Phish Dick's Sporting Goods Park 9/2/12
Cars Trucks Busses AC/DC Bag > Down With Disease Bathtub Gin Nellie Kane Sample In A Jar Back On The Train Rift Free Ride Captain Ride Maze Halley's Comet 46 Days Possum
Sand > Ghost > Piper Twenty Years Later The Lizards Harry Hood
Character Zero "Light" 9/1/2012
Download all three shows as well as the rest of summer tour at www.livephish.com
Personal Bias: Best band + best crowd + great venue = awesome time all around. Please make this an annual event, Phish (but also give us some Winter tour love too!).
Random Detail: The mayor of Commerce City was apparently in attendance night two and loving every minute, putting him in the running for the coolest Colorado mayor of the week award.
By the Way: Congrats to Kristen, Ian and Phish's newest in-utero fan - he or she starting out right.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.