Rolling Stone once called Phish “the most important band of the ’90s,” and whether or not you like its music, it’s hard not to respect what the geeky Vermont quartet accomplished during that ambitious decade, from playing beautiful, quirky fugues and often-brilliant group improvisations at sold-out hockey arenas, to covering the likes of the White Album, Quadrophenia and Remain in Light, to putting on festivals for crowds of 70,000.
Now all of Phish’s members, who met in college, are in their mid-fifties, and the group still hits musical heights on stage every night. But the ’90s era of Phish making its eccentric, classical-influenced compositions like “Divided Sky” and “You Enjoy Myself” into gorgeous arena rock and writing interesting tunes like “Guyute” and “Maze” is ancient history. For a long time now, with albums such as Joy, Fuego and Big Boat, Phish has delved into what its fans playfully call “dad rock.”
But those same fans still show up en masse to see the group, as they did over the weekend for Phish’s annual Labor Day weekend run of shows at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “Phish Dick’s,” which the annual run is affectionately called by Phish heads, has been going on for nearly a decade, and the band most likely chooses Dick’s over Red Rocks, 1ST BANK Center and Fiddler’s Green because its cult-like fans can camp outside the 27,000-capacity venue.
Even though camping was canceled this year because of plague-infested prairie dogs, inside it was a smiley Colorado love-fest for Phish. The band is still incredibly ambitious at times, in impressive and lovable ways — from playing thirteen straight shows at Madison Square Garden a few years ago without repeating a song to writing a whole album for a fictitious Scandinavian prog-rock outfit. On Friday night at Dick's, fans gamely waded through dad rock for intermittent peaks of marvelous guitar solos from Trey Anastasio and the group’s famously volcanic jams.
Seven out of the eleven songs from the first set were from after Phish’s 2000-2002 hiatus — i.e., from Phish’s sort-of adult-contemporary songbook. Exciting older, more rocking tunes — like “Free,” from 1996’s Billy Breathes and “Rift,” from the 1993 album of the same name — made the crowd erupt. But during the set break, the fans I spoke with all essentially said the same thing: “Phish is playing great, but this set list is horrible.”
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Why not make fans happy by playing old stuff only and spending more time jamming, like post-Jerry Garcia Grateful Dead projects do? Because the guys in Phish have built a career on having fun and being ambitious and goofy, making themselves happy and enjoying the support of fans who feed on the band’s joy, even when it swings and misses. Indeed, this is the band that treated (or maybe tricked) 15,000 fans at its 2013 Halloween concert by forgoing its Halloween tradition of covering another band’s classic album to instead play an entire album, Fuego, that fans tend to agree is the group’s worst.
In that vein, because Dick's has no video screens, very few of the 27,000 fans in attendance Friday could really see Phish at all — not that any of its four members ever move around on stage or play to the crowd whatsoever — so the focus on music and music alone was immediately obvious. But my favorite moment Friday, at my first Phish concert in seven years, was spending time with an old friend (in town from San Francisco with his husband, whom he met on a Phish tour 25 years ago) who said he sees “Blaze On,” which concluded the first set, as an empowering LGBTQ anthem. For a band that’s known for following the Grateful Dead as a two-set jam band, Phish — especially since Anastasio went sober following an ugly 2006 drug arrest and successful rehab stint — cares far more about lyrics these days, and plays much shorter improvisations that don't get as dark and weird as in years past. On Friday, Phish impressed me the most during sections of older songs that take serious execution, not jamming.
Phish's second set on Friday repeated the first set’s formula of playing newer, lyric-heavy songs and capping them with succinct guitar-led jams, most of which were wonderful. By the end of the night, Phish finally dipped into its bag of crowd-pleasers. First, a dynamite version of the sprightly funk-rocker “Sand” (with its takedown of spiritual materialism), then a magnificently creative version of “Harry Hood,” a sprawling suite that fans of almost any kind of music can appreciate.
Phish’s set lists on the final two nights of this “Phish Dick’s” run were heavier on the crowd-pleasers than Friday and included in-jokes about the camping situation, as when Anastasio changed the lyrics to “46 Days” to “taste the fear/for the plague is drawing near.” But Friday, which featured not a word — even “thank you” — from the band, was for the hard-core faithful who analyze and appreciate every note. Whether you love or hate Phish, the band deserves respect for making every performance unique and honest, and never keeping more than a few toes in the past.