A Bucket Full of Thoughts: Phish @ Dick’s, Labor Day 2011

Phish = pot of gold? | Photo by @phortin

When Phish decides to completely blow your mind with three straight shows, six sets, 70 songs, and over 9 hours of music, it’s tough to write about the experience. It really is. I’ve written a few now deleted paragraphs that just can’t do the Labor Day Weekend justice. It was truly some of the best Phish I’ve ever seen.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Gorge and the most defining jam of 3.0 (to these ears) in the Rock and Roll and now I write about the most defining three-night Phish run since, well, I can’t really think of one. Phish delivers regularly, especially in 2011, but in the past we’ve usually had a show which always hurts the three-game hit streak. Even the UIC run, closing out the 2nd leg, energized even the most cynical fan — yet still had its ups and down musically.

But not Colorado.

In September, each event, whether it’s the “S” show, next night’s “Tweezer” or the “Guy Forget” finale cannot be overlooked. There isn’t a set you can skim through…browse over. This is the real deal, the cream of the crop, no filler, and especially no junk. There isn’t just one must-listen-now jam from Colorado, there are at least 15. Yes, that is a remarkable statement that I have no trouble arguing…

Actually I’ll do that for you right now.

Dusssssssssssssty | Photo by @phortin

Night 1 – “S”eptember “S”econd, 2011

After Mother Nature delivered a dust storm, some dark tornado clouds, heavy rain, and a rainbow, Phish decided to give the “Yeah, I was at THAT show” gift. What started out as a typical Sample opener turned into a stadium sized “shit show” in minutes. It wasn’t until Strange Design that I myself caught on, most notably because the girl behind me was writing down the setlist in old-school fashion. She taps some of our crew on the shoulder and begins exclaiming…”Not sure if you realize this but all the songs begin with S so far — No really look!” And that was that. The hissing ”s” sound filtered it’s way amongst the audience, realizing this night was going to be special no matter what. The bathroom stalls were filled with chatter — “Think they’ll keep it going in the 2nd?” or “The jam into Sparks!?” — including one jubilant fan (well, maybe they were tripping) started calling the soccer field Sesame Street.

If Phish wanted to make a statement in Colorado, they wasted absolutely no time at all. This show won’t just be talked about for the theme either, it also had the substance. Top moments from the night include the jam out of Sneakin’ Sally into the first Sparks since 1996, then an entire second set that never let up. Yes, the whole damn thing is good, from the dance rhythms of Sand to the best new song of 3.0 in Steam to the Soul Shakedown Party into Seven Below (jam of the night). And don’t forget to listen to the best peak in Slave since 1995 that drops into a Horse-less Silent, then stay for the Sabotage encore where Mike Gordon absolutely wishes he knew how to make THOSE same sounds in the ’98 versions. It’s a show brought to you by the letter “S”, and one that phans will reference as special forever.

Night 2 – September 3rd, 2011

Expectations were running a little higher than normal after the “S” show the previous night. I tried to keep my predictions subdued, but Phish started off the run with an exclamation point. It’s only human nature to expect bigger and better things going forward! The Possum opener quickly put everyone in check as this would be a Phish show, not reliant on any theme, just four musicians playing the songs they want — and boy did they play them. The show began to pop once Llama hit our ears, easily the best, most fast-paced version in some time. The ever present Streets of Cairo was teased, than a rare Fast Enough For You, and a 3.0 All-Star in Wolfman’s Brother sent us into setbreak knowing the real nuts would be exposed soon. I always talk about three-song punches and you really won’t find a better knockout than Down with Disease -> Tweezer -> Golden Age. The Tweezer is the unequivocal highlight of the show, a must-listen from every angle with foreshadowing jams to Golden Age and some Green-Eyed Lady teases thrown around to keep you paying attention.

It was so mind-melting that mid-jam my friend asks me “Is this as good as I think it is?” I responded, “Lets wait til it’s over but YES, Yes it is.”

This onslaught of musical ideas that stepped into the freezer immediately propels this version to the top of the heap for me. It belongs in the “best Tweezers in the past 10 years discussion” right up there with 2/28/03. The band was firing on all four cylinders, so much so, that Kill Devil Falls, a song usually placed in the first set, was given some second set treatment and jammed to Bonnaroo-like proportions. Granted the end of the set relies on some classic closers but it delivers so much on the front end that we shouldn’t complain.

Phish delivered again. If the “S” first night spectacle was a homerun, the 2nd night was a triple… 2 for 2!

Night 3 – September 4th, 2011

The Finale. After delivering on the first two nights, Phish could do no wrong. Everything was gravy for our crew at this point. Knowing the song chest was still full with sure-fire winners, especially the way the band was playing, they couldn’t screw this up unless they rushed through songs (UIC3). Our crew of about 30 took over Section 120, while Phish took over our ears right from the get go. Maze Opener! My buddy Genser called this by the way. Not sure how since it was the first Maze opener since 12/9/95 (One of the best Phish shows in history containing a best-ever YEM), but he did. Then he went ahead and called the second set Rock and Roll opener. I can’t remember a time when I called the first AND second set openers in the same show, so he won a high five from yours truly. After one of the more energized versions of Maze in recent history, Back on the Train was next. As with most of the Farmhouse tracks from 1999, it got the band loose and ready to explore (and explore they did). After Rift came the best version of Bathtub Gin since the 18 minute Gorge version in 2009.  With Low Rider teases and a jam that never strays too far from the theme, this one is so TOP SHELF it’s hard to reach. Pun intended. It was now time for Trey to step back and “give” Gordon and Page their song selections. Cactus in The Way It Goes and Page with Halfway to the Moon. Thankfully the band soundchecked the Gillian Welch cover earlier in the day (multiple times) so I knew it. Halfway to the Moon, Page’s best addition to the catalog and a hopeful nominee for the new Phish album coming next year was a welcome treat.

Rounding out the set was Gumbo and then the “blue balled” Halley’s Comet > Tube.  Tube, another song stuck in park in 3.0 was actually put into first gear a little more than usual. Trey peppered in some of his most famous tease licks in the form of Charlie Chan. At the time I knew I recognized our pal Charlie, but couldn’t place him! With a firey Chalkdust to close the set, Phish had rolled out the best 1st set of the run. When you are fully engrossed in the music and all your friends at one point say “I can’t believe this is only the first set!” you know the recipe for “Top Shows” is slowly coming together (foreshadow).

Colorado | photo by @phortin

With just one more set standing between us and the end, the crowd was antsy. The last hurrah until New Years for many of us! Rock and Roll started things off innocently enough, I was not expecting the Storage-Style just a good jam, but instead Phish threw us an uppercut in the form of “Come Together”. With Trey leading the charge teasing the hell out of it, Mike steps up to the plate and welcomes the classic Beatles tune into our minds. The set completely takes off from there with a slow slip into Twist that features more Low Rider teases and an almost complete full band jam on the song. Then Phish decides to add another nominee for “Best Segue of the Year” in Twist -> Piper. The Piper is the meat of the 2nd set, and this time, instead of aborting the jam as Trey did at the Hollywood Bowl into Mike’s Song, the make-up date with Page’s Theremin is front and center. Interestingly enough, the theremin portion of this Piper isn’t even the butter — it’s the Roadrunner theme throughout. Harboring back to 9/11/00 and the “I’m in Love with Massachusetts” Opener” the last time I saw Phish in September actually. Goosebumps sprang up as Trey began nonsensically quoting “Radio On” and the Roadrunner theme gave way to some of the best Piper jamming in this era. The show could have ended there but then we wouldn’t know who the ghost was. Harry Hood was welcomed with Mike Gordon showing us that the version in Worcester last year wasn’t an aberration. Dropping meatballs in between Trey’s lickity licks, the band then gave us the only slowed down but transcendent portion of the set in Roggae that dripped into the opening notes of Ghost. My new pal Schwartz commented during the Ghost that Trey was playing with the fire of Santana, and sure enough Oye Como Va was present amongst the groove looking back.

Then slyly and effortlessly the band slid into their rare but not forgotten Guy Forget. The tennis player hadn’t made an appearance since October 1, 2000. There must be something about the Autumn that makes Trey remember the Forget. Capping the set off with a return to Ghost and a stand-alone Walls of the Cave, a tune I thoroughly enjoy from the Round Room album, Phish hit another one out of the soccer park.  Phish delivered the gift of three amazing shows all containing something new and fresh.  The Backwards Down the Number Line encore would feature zero complaining from this guy.  Like it or not, BDT#L is a song that helped bring Phish back together, a song that Tom Marshall wrote and sent to his child-hood friend sparking their creativity together again. I ate up every last second of that tune, hugged friends and told everyone I’ll see them on New Years in NYC!

Onward to Vermont and New Years!

Make no mistake about it. This three night run in Colorado over Labor Day Weekend was not Classic Phish, it was REFRESHING Phish. The kind you knew was possible, back to back to back nights of A+ Phish. Mark it down, September 2011 as the return on the faith Phish has provided! Yes, 2010 had it’s moments with a few A quality shows, and UIC was an awakening (especially that Element set and encore), but if you were to keep only five shows in your show bucket since 2009, three of them would be from September 2011. There was something for everyone over the weekend from once-in-a-lifetime shows (sssSsss), to all-star jams (Seven Below, Tweezer, Gin, Piper etc.) to bust-outs (Sparks, Sabotage, Come Together, Guy Forget) to teases we cherish (Low Rider, Charlie Chan, Cairo)…It was the Phish cornucopia we hope to dine on at every show and this time we did. A buffet of Phish that never fills us up because we always leave wanting more.

Some of us will get more, in the form of a benefit to help the flood victims in Phish’s home state of Vermont. Phish, ironically enough, will play on one of their (self-nominated) biggest fan’s birthdays, September 14th at the Essex County Fairgrounds in Vermont. Yes, I’m talking about myself. My 29th year on this earth will begin with Phish’s first shows in Vermont since Coven….Since 2004.

Unfortunately, living in California and working that night means I’ll be relegated to the just-announced Couch Tour, but that’s fine with me. I’ve donated to the VT cause through @AdamIcculus and also the @WaterWheelFoundation and you should too! My birthday wish came true. Working until 4pm on Wednesday next week then it’s off to my living room in Santa Monica, CA for some birthday drinks with friends and my favorite band. Cake & Couch Tour!  No better way to ring in 29…well, except if you want to charter me a flight to Vermont. Taboot!

Run run run run | Photo by @phortin