Phish: Chicago 6.11.10
Article By Andy Zimmer
Photos By Jessica Pace
Like meeting up with an old friend, there is something both exciting and familiar about seeing my first Phish show of the year. There is the eager anticipation of what I expect from the meeting; a rapport that has developed over years, which will always remain intact. This is mixed with the unknown. How has my friend changed? What are his new interests? These kinds of unanswered questions add an air of mystery and surprise to a meeting that is already assured to be memorable. We will make the most out of every moment, my friend and I. Because, despite our best intentions, no one really knows what the future holds. Love the past, live in the moment, and look to the future; such is my approach to many things in life... friends and Phish included.
So it was with this mish-mash of, probably overly-analytical, emotion that I entered the parking lot of Toyota Park on Friday to see my “buddies” from Vermont. When we arrived around four, I was surprised how quickly and efficiently traffic was moving into the venue. No huge backups along the roadways. No confused event staff. This place really seemed to have its act together. And with legions of fans, old and new, descending upon Toyota Park from every angle, it’s a good thing they did! To their credit, the fans kept their exuberance tempered within the bounds of reason... for a Phish show. And the staff took a hands-off approach to the evening inside and outside the venue.
Although my parking lot wandering was minimal, you sensed a festive mood in the air. As the tour-opener and, thusly, the subject of much speculation and debate, the crowd was giddy to have all their questions answered and suspicions put to rest. Every fan that I know, myself included, loves to speculate on the myriad of concert possibilities and subtle nuances that make each show unique. And the one thing that I’ve learned after years of playing those games is that the more that I think I know about how, what, or why the collective mind of Phish may think; the more often I am proved wrong. But it’s still fun to try and make your predictions and see if they come true.
We entered the venue and I proceeded to ascend the longest wheelchair ramp I’ve ever seen. The architect must have had a sense of humor when he designed this place, because to call this ramp accessible was well across the line into regions of the absurd. But, then again, the evening demanded an extended foray into the absurd. So, I suppose that this was par for the course. My party of lunatics... eeeeerrr, friends found our seats and settled in for the show. We had little time to make ourselves comfortable before the band took the stage. The crowd was ready, and greeted the musicians to the “Windy City” with a loud and heartfelt applause. Apparently the band was ready too, because they wasted no time in starting off the tour with a bang.
From the first guttural bass rumblings, much of the crowd seemed to anticipate the first song. And, as the funky opening bass line from “Down with Disease” cracked the humid air, the scene erupted. Yeah... this was why I come back time and time again. The solid funk-rock of DWD immediately drew the crowd in and the show was off like a rocket.
Although it wasn’t particularly exploratory, the DWD was well executed. And it seemed that the band hadn’t acquired much rust during its down time. Settling quickly into the pocket, the band funked its way through DWD with the crowd finding its own grooves and dance moves. Short and sweet, DWD ended and was immediately followed by another funky fan favorite, “Wolfman’s Brother”. I think that these tunes compliment each other quite well when paired together. While both offer lots in the way of Gordon-driven bass lines, “Wolfman’s” is a nice, poppy counterpoint to the deeper, darker places that DWD habitates. The song worked its way into the first real extended improv of the night, by way of the plunky, bouncing interplay between McConnell and Trey. hey keyboard/guitar jam finally gave way to a final guitar assault by the red-headed axe wielder before winding to a close. The energy in the stadium was high (as were most of the patrons), but the band still had notches to reach, and from the opening notes of “Possum” the place turned into a hippie-hoedown dance party.
This is a perfect song for Mike Gordon’s vocal delivery. Bluegrassy and confined within a limited range, the vocals play right into Gordon’s wheelhouse. However, if songs about road kill don’t immediately want to make you get down and groove, you may have had to look past the silly lyrics and wait until the song really took off. With some of his best soloing of the first set, Trey worked his way up and down the fret board noodling in and out of peaks and valleys with ease. His playing seemed loose yet concise at the same time, and the rest of the band was able to unify around his solo. This was the first point in the show, for me, where the band sounded completely locked-in. It sounded like they were all listening to each other, and filling in where they could, or should. The group-think dynamic was in full effect. While “Possum” may have left many sweating and ready for a breather, such was not in the cards. Continuing a pattern of strong bass leads, Gordon dropped the band into its first cover of the night in Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman”. This song has the potential to be a launching pad for serious extended jamming by the band. And as Paige took the first lead of the song with a 70’s clavinet-sounding solo, I thought that the tune would be drawn-out and jammed. So, I was a little surprised when it somewhat abruptly ended.
As it turned out, perhaps Paige was just saving his ammo for what he knew was to come. Playing the first technical, composed song of the night, the band whipped old and new fans alike into a frenzy with an excellent version of “Reba”. This song has been hit or miss in years past, in my opinion. Comprised of multiple composed sections, each with difficult technical elements, at times in the past the band was not equal to the challenge of “Reba”. I listened with a critical ear to see how the band would pull the song together and was delighted with the result. Tight, yet fluid. Syncopated, without sounding like a metronome. I was impressed. Clearly, the band has spent some time in the practice room during their time off, and it showed.
As “Reba” ended, and I was excitedly chatting with my buddy, I heard the impossible. Well, I guess I’m talking about Phish, so “improbable” is likely a better fit. For weeks, I had been telling my friends that surely they would cover “Jesus Left Chicago” by ZZ Top. Although, I was not convinced of my own words, I hoped that by saying it enough I could make it a reality. Seldom played by Phish since the 90’s, this has always been one of my favorites of their vast catalogue of covers. And I figured that if there was ever a chance to hear it again, it would be in Chi-Town. Immediately I knew that the band was dusting off this classic for the folks in the Windy City; although it seemed as though most of the crowd was unfamiliar with the song. The slow blues-vamp built with intensity until the keys dominated the soundscape. With the rest of the band hanging on to support him, McConnell unleashed a strong solo that Trey then tried to top. The full tilt, blues boogie spun the audience on to their heads and left them begging for more.
Following “Jesus Left Chicago” the band returned to their early, technical material with the opening notes of “The Divided Sky”. Like “Reba”, this song has multiple, technically demanding, composed sections. When seeing this song live, I’m used to hearing several instrumental “flubs” throughout the song due to its difficulty. However, this version may be as clean as any that I have heard. It certainly wasn’t the “best”, or most euphoric, version; but it was well executed and further proved that Phish has put some real time and effort preparing for this tour. “The Divided Sky” gave way to a short, yet intense, version of “Golgi Apparatus” that had the crowd singing along with the lyrics.
I was pretty sure that “Golgi” would take us right into the set break, but the band still had a trick up their sleeve. Without pause, the familiar beat of “David Bowie” let us know that the band was far from finished. At this point, I was pretty much floored by what had been thrown at us, and was amazed that Phish still had gas left in the tank. Especially given that fact that “Bowie” is another song that contains very composed elements. However, it fell right in line with the rest of the set... perhaps not the most rowdy, but flawlessly executed. The middle section contained a spacey, ambient jam that was then kicked into overdrive for a big finish. Overall, I was impressed by the first set. The jamming may not have been the hardest, but the song selection and execution was impeccable. I was ready for set two!!
The sun was down, ready to showcase the visual wizardry of Chris Kuroda, as the band took the stage for the second set. The band started the set of with “Light” off of 2009’s Joy. “Light” has become one of the newer songs that Phish has drawn out into extended jams and was, thus, a fitting opening to the set. As the song morphed into the improvised jam, the mood got spacey and ambient. Trey strummed some a-tonal chords and started looping into his familiar whale-call tone. At points, it seemed as though the other instruments were trying to push the tempo as Trey was content to let the song lag. Out of the space emerged the familiar drum beat of “Maze”. I thought that “Maze” was probably the strongest offering of the second set, with relentless organ work by Paige that drove the song into a manic frenzy before being taken home by a brooding solo from Trey that slowly built until breaking through with reckless abandon. Unfortunately, this probably represented the best of what set two had to offer. The rest of the set never again reached the energy levels and intensity of “Maze”.
The slow-funk of “Ghost” was next up in the show. The band seemed to be playing the song slightly slower than I remember, and was more minimalist in composition. The song slid into a spacey jam that was a common theme for the rest of the set. Instead of riding the wave of tension and release that elevates Phish jams into the stratosphere, the song meandered its way around lots of whale-call notes and ambient noodling from Trey. At points throughout the song, as well as the rest of the set, it seemed as though Mike, John, and Paige were trying to push the tempo and elevate the jam. But Trey was stuck in a hole and never really started working his way up the neck of his guitar. Ever so briefly, he would erupt with a flurry of notes, only to dip back again into the ambient. This same pattern continued as “Ghost” worked its way into “Limb by Limb”; another song that I felt was capable of more than it delivered. “Limb” never really hit its stride. Many of the big changes were anticlimactic and did not resonate as strongly as I’m used to. Once again, the jam section dissolved into a muddled sound with no really intriguing direction or peak and petered out with a fairly average vocal jam.
As the song drew to an end, I was hoping that the band would segue into a high energy “rager”. Unfortunately for me, they kept the mood mellow and dropped into “Prince Caspian”. “Prince Caspian” always has the potential to be euphoric sing-along. However, this version never really hit its stride. There just wasn’t enough inertia behind the sweeping chords and the jam quickly ducked into space. Once again, the rest of the band seemed to be trying to pull the song up, while the guitar kept it subdued. With little lyrical interplay between the band members, the song sounded thin.
In keeping with the theme of the set, the band next went into the classic pairing “The Horse”>”Silent in the Morning”. Typically, I absolutely love hearing this somewhat-rare combo. I think that they are lyrically beautiful and stand at odds to those who claim that all of Phish’s lyrics are nonsense. However, in the middle of a set that was seriously lacking in energy, this combo did little for me. What the set really needed was an injection of adrenaline. As “Silent” drew to a close and the band went into the next song, I thought that was exactly what we were getting.
The quirky intro to “Run Like an Antelope” was a good sign that the band wasn’t done rocking for the night. “Antelope’s” have been known to be major jam-vehicles for the band. This is a song that Phish has never been shy about stretching out and cutting loose. The beginning started out typically, and Trey seemed to be re-energized. However, the mid-song jam faded into the same uninspired zone that plagued the entire set. With the drums, bass, and keys furiously trying to drive the jam out of the basement, Trey kept this “Antelope” on the tarmac... it never achieved liftoff.
Phish closed the set off with a new song, “Show of Life”. At that point, some life was what the set needed. The new tune had a simple chord progressing and some, clearly, introspective lyrics. It was reminiscent to me of “Bittersweet Motel” or ”When the Circus Comes to Town”. This song may never develop into a fan favorite, but is a decent-enough short sing-along. In time, the band may choose to extend the ending jam, which seems like it may have bigger potential. However, this version was succinct, yet cleanly played for a new song.
If the second set was lacking energy, the encore tried to make up for it. Phish can back out with a rowdy double-encore of “Cavern” and ”Julius”. Both of these are short rockers and, to their credit, Phish played them with the gusto that they deserved. Despite going out on a high note, I didn’t think that they were able to salvage what I consider to be a pretty poor second set. Maybe all the technical playing of the first set wore the band out. Maybe they didn’t want to blow their load at the first show. Who knows? But I was surprised with the stark contrast between the first and second sets. As I left the venue, I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I was pleased at the high level of technical execution and apparent enthusiasm shown by the band. On the other, I was confused by the atypical muddled jams of the second set, lack of tension and release, and poor communication between instruments. As I hopped into my car to hit the road, I resolved to keep an open mind and see what the band had planned for the next night in Cleveland.