By now you know (if you read this site) that Phish and its fans were forced to surrender to the elements this past weekend at Northerly Island, their first ever run of shows at an outdoor venue in the heart of downtown Chicago. The weekend started off picturesque, as most three-night runs do and, despite some weather hindrances, Phish fans were left with imprinted memories from the best “Prince Caspian” ever, a unique three-set show, Mike Gordon cruising the parking lot on Sunday, the first “Harpua” in 70-shows, and of course, a hell of a lot of hippies dancing in the rain.
Before Friday’s show, Phishheads gathered lakeside on a stretch of grass and enjoyed arresting views of the beach and Chicago’s skyline. Inside the venue, Phish’s stage was backdropped by that same skyline, and fans were treated to $4.00 beers (an olive branch from Live Nation for the Jimmy Buffet mishap) beneath blue skies, a great start to the weekend.
In the first set to kick things off, “It’s Ice” and “My Soul” both featured some jazzy cosmic scale climbing from Page, my pick for weekend MVP. Also notable from the first night was Fishman on the Marimba Lumina, my first time hearing this instrument live, in “Scent of a Mule”. Live, this instrument sounds like hypersonic bee colony. “Down With Disease” opened the second set with some winning broken down intervals as a good ole’ midwestern flash storm rolled in. The show was evacuated shortly therafter during the prelude of “Prince Caspian” (see the link above).
Rather than canceling the show over the loudspeakers, the venue advised concertgoers to check social media…only there was no cell reception. Myself, along with thousands of other shocked and determined fans, waited around the venue for some 30-minutes until Wizard of Oz-type winds blew over the venue, forcing me to find shelter in an alcove at Soldier Field. I lost some of my friends (one of them ran four miles the wrong direction!), but finally ended back at my nearby hotel around 10:30pm. On my way out, I watched a sea of some 30,000 glowstick-lit Phish fans wander off the island toward Chicago. All of this is funny now that I’m dry, but at the time it was upsetting and, moreover, quite a bit shocking.
To compensate for Friday’s headache, Phish played three sets on Saturday for the band’s largest audience since Super Ball IX. Set I featured a rare first set “Twist” that practically walked into “Oye Como Va” and a Mike-tastic “Destiny Unbound”. The second set opened with a beating “Back on the Train” followed by an exhilarating Mike’s groove that consisted of “Theme from the Bottom” sandwiched between a structured, yet satisfactorily jammed out “Mike’s Song”, and a lively and rhythmic “Weekapaug Groove” (with Page on the talkbox!). I really dug this “Weekapaug”. The “Theme” featured moments of machine gun star-shooting from Trey, a sound that’s as addictive to his fans as the sound of slot machines to gamblers.
Next up came a spirally “Golden Age” that started to approach Phish’s “Plinko”-style of jamming, before breaking down into an interplanetary minimalist sound that flowed right into “Waves” and, then, an A+ “Piper” that offered up some interesting detonations of its own. Page got back on the talkbox for “Piper” keeping things spacey and weird. This was my favorite set of the run.
The 12-minute “Light” in the third set was also a highlight of the weekend. It contained some excellent free-form talking between Mike and Trey. It’s breakdowns and subsequent flourishing melodies sounded like “Timber” one moment and an ebbing ball of light the next.
Next up came a well built “Harry Hood” (thanks, Fish!), a tried and true Phish delicacy. This “Hood” featured Page on the talkbox and then, as “Hood” always does, lead fans through an enchanting spectrum of musical moods. I mean, is there really anything better than getting hit in the head with a glow stick during “Harry Hood”?
On Sunday, Phish foreshadowed the “Harpua” gag that was to come in the second set by opening with “Dinner and a Movie”, per a fan’s sign request. The energy picked up with “Maze” when Page dropped into his fast funk groove on the B3. The band played a tight rendition of “Mound”, one of Mike Gordon’s more complex contributions to Phish’s catalogue, priming and tuning the band in for a quick, 6-minute down n’ dirty rendition of “Boogie On Reggae Woman”. At this point in the evening a heavy, drenching rain (I didn’t have my eyes open for much of this song) took over the once-blue lakeside sky. Phish funneled their audience through the storm by laying down a score of porno funk that had the audience bouncing like buoys of joy. What bliss this was, albeit short-lived! The “Bathtub Gin” featured an extended prelude, piloted by Page, in which the keyboardist treated fans to an enigmatic 360-degree twirl around his rig (see below).
The set was cut short after “Antelope” due to rain, but the band assured fans they’d be back so we all waited out the hour-long storm in the open air (not even the beer vendors had annings). A handful of lucky fans were able to procure some space beneath the Dry Goods and Mockingbird tents or in portable bathroom trailers. I spent some time in one of these trailers and was moved to watch a young woman provide “makeup help” to a line of helpless females with mascara dripping down their faces. Only at a Phish show…
When Phish came back, they dropped right into a serene 15-minute “Energy” that ebbed into a nine-minute “Ghost”. I especially enjoyed Chris Kuroda’s new rig at this point in the show; during “Energy”, Kuroda switched on some LED swirlers that resembled the LivePhish logo. I could have listened to this jam go on all night and wanted the band to continue stretching it out. That is, until I heard the opening notes of “Lizards”, a Phish proverb-rich anthem that I can never get enough of, followed by “Harpua” (my first!). Both of these songs warrant excitement if nothing more for ther significance in world of Phish pholklorica (and relative scarcity in the setlists).
Hearing “Harpua” live was a treat, as I had not seen it performed live in some 49 shows. On recordings, you miss out on the brilliance of “Harpua”’s syncopated melody (I believe it’s in 7/8 time) and choral lyrics. Trey cracked a few jokes before inviting Second City’s improve comedy troupe to take the stage (they were holding a sign that read “Poster Nutbag the right way”, and share their own version of Poster’s tragedy. The comedy troupe’s gag sounded like a slew of LSD-induced non sequitors and inside jokes strung together, like fans and trolls talking at each other in an online forum. This “Harpua” felt like a nod to Phish’s critical online community that analyzes the band’s every move, oftentimes condemning the band for not doing things “the right way” aka their way.
Regardless of whether or not you thought the gag was funny, or buy into the idea that the band was trying to tell us something, let’s all take a step back and remember that it’s this type of intellectual risk taking (here, blurring the lines between comedy and music and also exploring their fan relationship) that sets Phish apart from other artists. Worth a read is UNC student James Kaminsky’s blog post “Explaining Chicago’s Harpua” . After Trey “kicked” the troupe offstage, Mike told his own witty version of Poster’s death, successfully bringing back the LULZ before dropping into “Antelope”.
Between Friday’s and Sunday’s monsoons and Sunday’s triathalon show, weather alone made this show a memorable run for all attendees. Thirty years later, the band is communicating exceptionally well and seems to be finding efficiency in their jamming (worth noting that no songs broke the 15-minute mark this run). To me, this is a theme that has emerged throughout the Rain Tour. It seems that the band no longer needs 15-minutes to get someplace poignant, though I’m certainly eager to potentially get a little more of that on the West Coast.
See you at the Gorge…