Like an episode of Sesame Street for big kids, last night's Phish show was brought to us by the letter "S." A few songs into its set, a theme began to emerge. To wit, every song the band played began with the letter "S." When everyone first picked up on the fact that Phish might be playing a themed set, there was some speculation that the band might be spelling out something over the course of its six sets, while others murmurred that it might have something to do with a surprise cameo by Carlos Santana - in town this weekend for a pair of performances at Red Rocks.
Whatever the case, a theme had clearly developed, and nobody was quite sure why at the time. Nonetheless, it made the rest of the show an extremely fun guessing game for nerdy fans. Throughout the set, "S" could have just as easily stood for silly (during "Sanity) or solid (for Mike Gordon's solid bass work on "Sand"). Turns out, the "S" actually ended up standing for sweet: In an incredibly sweet and overwhelmingly touching gesture, the outfit had purportedly* dedicated its entire 26-song set to the memory of a dearly departed friend.
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And while this speaks volumes of both the band's catalog and its amazing skill as musicians that the guys can pick a letter of the alphabet and build a setlist around it on the fly, what made it special is that it was done in tribute to Scott Ian Nowak, a member of a group of volunteers who help clean up venues after shows called The Green Crew. It's things like that that have endeared this band to fans for nearly three decades.
Despite some glaring problems with the venue's staffing and logistics, the venue itself was spacious and floor space was surprisingly roomy. The band took the stage around 8:15 or so after a slight lightning delay, and started things off in somewhat lackluster manner with "Sample in a Jar." The last taste Colorado had of Phish on night three of its three-night stand at 1STBANK Center last October is arguably one of the worst Colorado Phish shows every played. "Sample in a Jar" as an opener brought memories of that night flooding back, with quite a few eye rolls and 'What the hell is this?' looks on people's faces.
Halfway through the next song, "Sparkle" is when folks began to notice the "S" trend, a notion which was bolstered by the bombastic opening chords of "Sloth." Next up was a bust-out of the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Virginia," a tune that was only played for the second time since Phish covered Exile on Main St. over Halloween weekend 2009. As the band played, a group of Virginia expatriates hugged it out, and those not lucky enough to see the Exile set in person got a small taste of what that night was like.
"Suskind Hotel," a frantic bass-heavy tune from bassist Mike Gordon's last solo album followed, and this was the first song of the set that the band really stretched its legs on, bringing the improvisational middle section to a high point with Anastasio hitting "Birds of a Feather"-like peaks in the jam.
Keyboardist Page McConnell's beautifully-sweet homage to good friends, "Strange Design," came next, followed by an eleven-minute take on "Stash." If Santana was going to come out with the band, this calypso-inspired jazz tune would have been a fitting tune for him to sit in on. But, alas, there was no Santana to be seen, only a well-played if standard "Stash."
The next ssssselection in the ssssset was Robert Palmer's "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley," which turned the soccer stadium into a full-on funky dance fest. The band ducked into a vocal jam midway through, dipping back into the song's instrumental breakdown with a dark, head-nodding jam reminiscent of the now-famous "Cities" jam from the Greek Theater last summer.
"Sparks," a song from the Who's Tommy that the band hasn't played in fifteen years, followed, and the guys sounded like they'd been playing it on the entire tour. Moves like this are what made the night so incredible. Not only was there a theme the band was following, but they were clearly going through the same thoughts as the nerdier phans in the audience: "What "S" songs do we know?"
The band next veered back into Exile on Main St. with "Shine a Light," followed by a strange and jammy "Split Open and Melt" and "Squirming Coil" to end the set. As the rest of the band walked off the stage, Page McConnell finished the piano solo at the end and promised the crowd that the band would "be back Sssshortly."
* Contrary to persistent conjecture among fans, a poster professing to be Tom Marshall, a long time associate of the band, noted on a popular Phish message board this afternoon that there was no special significance attached to the "S"-themed set last night.
Via PT: "Secondly, the S set. What does it mean? Well, it's nice if people found a meaning for it...because frankly, it was just a funny idea. Trey first mentioned it to me right after the UIC Chicago shows. We have been in touch a lot planning a writing trip later this month. I said it sounded absolutely perfect."
With 26,000 available tickets, this was the easiest Phish ticket in Colorado since the band played Fiddler's Green back in 2000. It was hard to move five feet without running into friends, and the massive soccer field gave everyone plenty of room to space out. We didn't move from our spot on the field all night, so it's hard to say how the sound was out in the seats - but it was loud and clear twenty yards back on Fishman side.
The Jam-heavy tune "Sand" opened the second set. It was solid but standard, and the band never left the basic melody of the song, with Gordon holding on to the steady bass line and McConnell and Anastasio noodling over the top. "Simple," a song that usually fits in the middle of two others ("Mike's Song" and "Weekapaug Groove") made a somewhat rare standalone appearance last night in keeping with the alphabetical theme. The song went into a typically fluttery and airy piano and guitar jam, with Gordon laying huge waves of rolling bass over the top.
"Simple," meanwhile, sputtered in a wash of pedal effects from Anastasio before the open lick of "Steam" began to surface. The eerie, creepy tale of wolves and horsemen closing in a lone figure in a solitary tower, and the slinky, evil melody have made this new tune a quick fan favorite. Weed smoke blended with the plumes of fog rising from the stage during the chorus, which may or may not have factored into Bob Marley's "Soul Shakedown Party" popping up out of the feedback at the end of "Steam." The crowd lit up in more ways than one with the Marley cover, passing joints and slinking and skanking to the simple two-chord progression.
More S-centric songs followed, and in retrospect, it was hard to remember what order they came in. Solid versions of "Seven Below," "Suzy Greenberg" and "Scents and Subtle Sounds" filled out the middle of the set before the band started to wind things down with the fittingly titled "Slave to the Traffic Light" (which described all of us after the show). Like "Simple" earlier in the set, "Silent in the Morning" appeared sans "The Horse," which has preceded the tune for most all of its life. "Sanity" was extra sssssspecial, with Anassssstassssio accenting every "S" in the sssssong. The band wrapped up the sssssecond ssssset with an pitch-perfect version of the a cappella barbershop classic, "Sweet Adeline."
While there were still dozens of "S" songs for the band to choose from for its encore -- and everyone had a guess during the encore break (if you heard someone yelling for Sweet Jane, that was probably me) -- nobody was even in the ballpark on calling "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys, which the Phish dudes pulled out for the first time since Hampton, Virgina in 1998 (immortalized on the live release, Hampton Comes Alive!).
The guys raged on "Sabotage" like it was still topping the Billboard charts. Gordon's bass drop and subsequent solo during the breakdown shook the aluminum flooring under our feet and left us all in a frenzy that kept up until well after the band took their bows and the house lights came up.
With an opening night like that, the band has set the bar pretty damn high - but if the energy of last night and the solid musicianship keeps up, these next two nights are going to be superb. Seriously.
Page down for Critic's Notebook, a look at the commemorative poster and a full set list. Also, if you're going to the show tonight, be sure to check out our Phish Survival Guide and the rundown of Top 10 Phish Collector pins before you head out, so you know what to expect and look for. Oh and if you haven't already read the Top 5 Best Local Phish Stories. There's some whoppers in there.
Personal Bias: I have no bias. Phish really is the greatest band ever. Random Detail: $9 for a PBR tall boy may be a new record. By the Way: Despite the obvious theme of the show, people still held up signs for non-"S" songs.
Here's the full setlist from last night's show, which you can download individually or in its entirety at LivePhish.com. Any guesses on what the boys will play tonight?
PHISH Dick's Sporting Goods Park Commerce City, CO 09/02/11
Sample In a Jar Sparkle Sloth Sweet Virgina Suskind Hotel Strange Design Stash Sneakin' Sally Thru the Alley Sparks Scent of a Mule Stealin' Time from the Faulty Plan Shine a Light Split Open and Melt The Squirming Coil
Sand Simple Steam Soul Shakedown Seven Below Suzy Greenberg Scents and Subtle Sounds Slave to the Traffic Light Silent in the Morning Sanity Sweet Adeline
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SHOW NOTES - First "Sweet Virgina" since 12/05/09 in Charlottesville, VA - First "Sparks" since 11/29/96 in Daly City, CA - "S" show purportedly an homage to Scottie Nowak, who recently passed away