REVIEW: Phish Summer Tour 2011 Leg 2 (Part Three)

Read part one (Gorge > Hollywood Bowl) and part two (Lake Tahoe > Outside Lands) first before diving into our final recap/review from Phish summer tour.

Next week about this time Phish will be deep into their second set on the final night of three-night run at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado, and that’s a good sign that it’s time to reflect on the awesome Leg II run that us lucky (!) West Coast fans were able to partake in this summer. I loved how most of 2010 the standard Phish bashing featured complaints about the selection of venues and dates the band had announced; maybe the band was paying just enough attention to feed us West Coasters a solid set of dates in 2011 as a response.

And for me, the three-night run at UIC Pavilion following the week out West was an easy decision for me given that I could come and chill back in my old stomping grounds in the city. I’m from the far western suburbs in Chicago and it made the transition from week-long road trip out West to a more relaxed friend and family affair for me. Even though the first three-nights were spent in a parking lot on the west side of the city at UIC waiting to see my favorite band, the rest of the week was hardly a vacation and more like a nostalgia trip for a few days.

As most any fan following along would know by now, the three nights at UIC to finish the run were far from nostalgic in any way shape or form in terms of musical prowess…and yet the whole set of curve-ball choices and sauna-like temperatures at these shows made it feel like some of the band’s first mini-arena shows would have felt like. I can’t say from direct experience in those “old” datys but my first show was indeed a college arena in the middle of Illinois and there was definitely a return to form that fans witnessed that night that is pretty damn hard to put into words. Just listen to this entire run like you knew what was good for you. The words following may take on more weight once you’ve actually heard some of the action yourself. And if you were there with me for all three nights, that’s something I’m glad we could share. It was an amazing three-nights.

August 15th, 2011 – UIC Pavilion Night One

Phish @ UIC Pavilion, Chicago 8/15/11

Me and @PeteLikesPhish were on a super early flight after three days at Outside Lands and it was a miracle we both made it into the cab that morning given how tired we are. (Definitely hat tip to the girlfriends on that one; men are nothing without a strong woman behind them! – heh). While we’re waiting at Andale to get a breakfast burrito, Pete met Diplo waiting for a flight to NYC after his Sunday Major Lazer set (which was ridiculous, by the way…”Pon de Floor > Barbara Streisand” was gnarly s***). So by the time we landed and got headed into Chicago to get some lunch and rage the lots, it had already been a helluva good day already and the weather was cooperating. And the lots at UIC were ridiculous…I hadn’t felt a lot scene like that in a while and it was something to behold and be proud of. It really seemed that there was a much larger contingent of folks that had prepared for this run than the ticket admissions would ever allow, which means tons of vending, tons of trying to buy/exchange for tickets, etc. In other words, “classic” lot scene at 110% was how everyone got their night started.

Luckily for me I had one more chance to shoot the band, so pre-show was spent hanging out with Joel Berk (who was shooting for Hidden Track) and the dude shooting for WXRT. It was a cool crew and I was happy to get a half hour or so to hang out with them. Before that, though, they had no idea what to do with me and they put me down in stage production for a few minutes. I hadn’t realized how “backstage” I was until Kuroda walked by.

Shooting the band at UIC was an absolute treat and easily contributed to my best photoset ever laid down on LMB. Go back for my entire gallery if you want to see the action.

The band was out on a terror from the first notes of “Back on the Train” and the entire show was a sweat-fest of energy and experimentation with the band’s choices and how they were playing. “Rift > Guelah” allowed me to shoot some old-school Phish, then I had to run out of the venue and I hit full stride running across the half-abandoned lot to find my car to ditch my camera. I made it back in time to hear Gordon hit his new bass-synth pedal on “Scent of a Mule” which was pretty sweet. The set was great, sure, but then I got that illustrious super old-school combo of “Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues” to end the set “after that green baloon made its way on stage” just enough times to give the band the obvious nod to the college campus we were all partying at.

But most of the first night (arguably the strongest night of the run) has been dissected under the set two lens when people look at what the band layed down in song choice. Some people are calling this the elements set and Pete called it the “one word songs” set early in the show, but I call it pure and unadulterated Phish in the format that I’ve found to be the most fulfilling over the years. In an arena. Sweating. With old and new songs. Unpredictable jams. And nothing but energy and a sense of “spirit” that pushed the band to do their “longest” encore ever on a seemingly random Monday in Chicago. It’s sets like this that we all chase. Musically it’s hard to put down into words, but the Sand is great. It hits this stride where it chills out, almost loses it right at 7:00, but Trey brings it back hard about twenty seconds later and the entire band gets into this new groove that really kept things interesting. The jam out of “Light” where the band keeps following each other in these ascending patterns is pretty rad. Then it fades and the band dusted off one of my ballad favorites, “Dirt,” hardly the best version ever but it was well placed for the rest of the set and made way to the real part that keeps getting repeated amongst the Phishy Chatty Cathy’s…Waves > Undermind.

Phish officially released the “Undermind” shot which is the band’s first official “theremin” vids. Let’s hope this isn’t the last time Page brings this out on tour…

I left the show sweatsoaked and full of pure bliss. Of the 32 shows I had seen up until that point it definitely seemed to fall in that Top 5 range pretty quickly. For some it was Top 3, and as such with every really good Phish show, perhaps the best realization is knowing that someone had never seen anything like that nor would they again any time soon. Best show ever was definitely a sentiment out of some of the folks I heard walking to the lots…what a chase.

August 16th, 2011 – UIC Pavilion Night Two

Phish @ UIC Pavilion, Chicago 8/16/11

The second night was a bit more exciting for me in a few ways because I had some extra stuff to do that day while in the city. I visited New Wave Coffee in Logan Square near where I was staying and hammered out a blog post with my photos from the show, but then I eventually made my way down by the lots to check out the Mock Show that was going on featuring the bevy of artists from around the scene set up to sell their prints to fans coming into town for the shows. That made way to an awesome tweetup where I finally got to meet @ohkeepahblog, @ericwyman, @onlinephishtour and a few other folks — it was great to see these guys in the flesh after all the online correspondence that everyone trades through Facebook Likes, retweets, etc. @taopauly was there too and was repping @CoventryMusic as he always does. Hella fun all around.

The show was also a bit more exciting in the vibe because I was going to be on the floor this time around, and I also had a good friend with me in the stands so I had a few spots to hang out at this show. And with the 1, 2, 3 punch of “Dinner and a Movie,” “Ha Ha Ha,” and a wild “Chalk Dust Torture” to start the show it was definitely going to be a scorcher. The playing was way out there, for sure…it seriously sounded so much stronger than all of the shows I had seen out West combined into one energy packed set. THEN “Mexican Cousin” — it was wild, man. That is the stuff dream sets are made; the hilariously placed ode to tequila drinking should be as common to the Phish experience as the random “Simple” throwback as they serve the same silly purpose that keeps people guessing at their shows.

Which, by the way, can’t be a sentiment only I feel. I’m pretty sure “Are they feeling silly tonight?” is a common thought of mine and many others when I approach my seats at any show, and the second night at UIC it was pretty clear early on that they were there to have fun.

But for my money, the real musical highlight came in the encore – “Heavy Things > Slave to the Traffic Light > Rocky Top” – three songs so oddly unique and so different in tone, tenor and flow and just quintessential Phish front to back. Like it or not, I walked away from this show again thinking “wow, this is exactly why I go see Phish.” And the second set was nutso; 20+ minute “Down with Disease” opener and a blissed out “Twist” to follow it – that could have been the highlight for sure. But no, I’d say Encore all the way. I don’t even really like “Heavy Things” and I’m pretty sure I groaned when they started the song, but the fact that they closed out the show strongly following that diversion is the thing that I love about not knowing or predicting what they’re going to do next. It’s almost the perfect Phish encore, in a way, whether or not they’re your favorite songs.

Phish - Heavy Things - UIC Pavilion Chicago 08/16/11

(can’t find “Rocky Top” yet — anyone take a video?)

August 17th, 2011 – UIC Pavilion Night Three

Phish @ UIC Pavilion, Chicago 8/17/11

After night two, my friend Mike who we stayed with jokingly asked me when I got back home – “uhm, so how are you guys doing three nights of that?!” The second show was intense and high energy just like the Monday night show, and it was frankly just something that I was ready and willing to be “okay” to be done with. Phish had officially satiated me at that point. Anything they played Wednesday or anything they “busted out” was just going to be a final bonus for me and I was so happy that I got to make that my 8th show of the year I could have cared less about how the band came off. And maybe in hindsight the band felt the same way; everyone seems to pinpoint the final night of UIC as the one that may have had a weakness here and there — the “short Ghost” or the “Forbins with no narration” as sample gripes — but it was going to be a nice capper on the tour for the band and it was the perfect capper on the entire run for me.

I ended up getting to the lots way earlier that day and waited for @PeteLikesPhish to arrive from work while I sold a few extra tickets we had in the lot to the people that needed them the most. I helped a girl get a ticket for her 20th show and generally attracted the attention of the hot lot girls looking for extras; I’ll take that over custy wooks any day.

Everything was ripe for a blowout on night three and the band came out swinging for the fences; they home-run’d on me with a “Forbins > Mockingbird” opener, a nod to how varied and interested the band was feeling when they were choosing the setlists that night. It was proof to me that the band really can come out and open with anything they’d ever want to, and I hope they continue to stretch their boundaries and limits on what’s a good soundcheck/warmup tune. This was the way to start a show. And set one definitely had its moments, with “Maze” being high energy and finding way for the band to get onto a “Cavern > First Tube” set ender that nobody indeed saw coming. Huge first set, huge ending…

The “Crosseyed and Painless” set two at UIC will be the one of memory; the theme and lyrics of the set two opener continued to find its way back into almost every song the band touched following it’s start to the set. When the band starts with their teases and mash-ups nowadays, it’s like when that old school magic occurs again when they’re truly just trying to make each other giggle on stage and be goofy for goofy’s sake. “Timber” got a tease. I thought the “Ghost > Makisupa” flow was great even though they cut off Ghost to give room a randomly placed “Buffalo Bill” preceding the banger set closers. And the “Makisupa” keywords are gold….Plus “Piper” had some joy in there…

In hindsight, though, this one would definitely feel different even as we left the show. I had already felt a bit contented and it was hard for this one to top or even change my opinion of how I felt coming off these shows. It was an amazing night of music and one that still stands up upon re-listening, but it definitely fades into the “entire run” for me in highlights and a fitting closer to my many miles on the road and nights spent in tents or on couches.

Well, it’ll stand up more than that, I guess. I’ll never hear the word “dank” now without immediately thinking “… Sinatra” in my head, so there’s that at the very least.

For the final third of my two weeks on the road seeing Phish, I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to it all. Definitely go back and listen to these three shows if you’re heading to Denver; the band is as “back” as they could ever be and I’m lucky I got to catch as much during 2011 as I could so far.

Let’s hope I can save enough for New Year’s Eve…