Phish jealousy is a powerful force. Throughout most of the band’s history, it’s been directed at attendees of great, obscure shows (“Damn you for getting Dark Side in Utah when I spent three paychecks to hit Vegas!”) In the modern era, it’s largely been aimed at the northeast, which has practically monopolized the band’s touring schedule.
But after last night’s show in Chicago, it’s time to acknowledge the obvious truth: the midwest is a bunch of lucky sonsabitches. Sure, they haven’t been saturated with tour dates like the northeast. But on the heels of June’s shows in Michigan and Ohio, the scorching first of three nights in the Windy City’s UIC Pavilion proved that when the band comes to the midwest, it comes to rock.
The band took the stage before a raucous crowd that seized on every lyrical cue and fiery note of Trey’s rocking solo in Back on the Train. For those who assert that the energy is inherently greater at indoor shows, the band’s first performance of the year in a closed space provided supporting evidence.
The conventional but very strong opener yielded to versions of Rift and Guelah Papyrus that were notable for embellishments from Trey and Mike. The ensuing Scent of a Mule was a bit rough around the edges, but kept the frenzied energy of the crowd intact. That energy stuck around for the inevitable Jesus Just Left Chicago, which included an excellent solo from Page.
Now five songs old, this set might be expected to take a breather, but it kept on running. Don’t be fooled by the typical mid-first-set placement of this Wolfman’s: this version was significantly more creative and loose than nearly all 3.0 versions. Led by Page’s organ and Mike’s high-fretboard counterpoint, the jam took a turn into Light Up Or Leave Me Alone-esque territory, reaching an excellent climax before returning to the Wolfman’s theme.
Phish – 8/15/11 – UIC Pavilion – Chicago, IL (setlist via phish.net)
Set 1: Back on the Train, Rift > Guelah Papyrus, Scent of a Mule, Jesus Just Left Chicago, Wolfman’s Brother, Anything But Me, Babylon Baby, Reba, Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues
Set 2: Sand > Light > Dirt, Waves -> Undermind > Steam > Fire
Encore: Camel Walk, Guyute, The Horse > Silent in the Morning, Harry Hood
The bathrooms filled during Anything But Me, which was well played in its first appearance in nearly 2 years and second since Coventry.
Next up was the debut of Babylon Baby, a song off Mike’s 2010 release “Moss.” Having shown up during the 8/9 soundcheck, this version of the song was more polished, particularly the tricky instrumental interludes. The song came across quite well, particularly for a debut, and had a pleasant little jam to boot.
After a couple obscurities, the crowd wanted some hits, and the band obliged with Reba. While the jam stuck to familiar Reba terrain, Trey kept things interesting with some tight, powerful, melodic playing. As we’ve noted many times on OPT, his riffing on Type I rockers like Funky Bitch and Chalkdust has been strong all tour, but last night featured Trey at his most comfortable when things got more unscripted.
To cap off a set that included some powerful playing and a handful of setlist surprises, Phish revealed their biggest surprise of all: Alumni Blues. Inspired, per Trey, by a green ball that “came up here just enough times,” the song was a total romp in its third appearance since 1999. Though Letter to Jimmy Page wasn’t entirely clean, it didn’t matter: the band and the audience were having a blast. Trey took a longer-than-usual solo upon the return to Alumni, leaving expectations high for the second set.
Expectations are dangerous things to take into a setbreak. Anything can happen to the crowd’s and the band’s energy in the exactly-fifteen-minutes before they return to the stage. Furthermore, a couple wrong setlist turns or a tired band member can leave memories of a hot first set in the distant past.
With all that in mind, last night’s second set easily exceeded any reasonable expectations, providing a couple of the most memorable hours of music since the band’s 2009 return.
Trey set the tone with some wonderfully patient, lyrical soloing in Sand. Page’s clavinet brought the jam into a funky darkness, from which Light emerged. The jam followed an all-too-familiar trajectory: first, Trey does some weird modal soloing; next, everything gets strange and atonal; then, Mike takes the reins and funks it up as Trey tries to figure out what to do next; Trey gets impatient and starts a new song.
Fortunately, the next song, Dirt, emerged fairly organically from the dying Light jam. Even more fortunately, it was played beautifully. Some of the instrumental sections in the song’s ending, which seemed to have been forgotten in many recent versions, have been re-remembered.
The energy picked back up with Waves, which led off a three-song sequence that would prove to be the greatest of the show’s many highlights. The first jam out of Waves included some powerful chorded soloing from Trey, but it’s the outro jam that merits discussion. Transitioning quickly to a minor key, there were hints of Undermind in the rhythm section. But the jam kept building, evoking the jam out of A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing. Trey laid down some masterful soloing over Fishman’s murderous beats, which at times recalled Timber.
Eventually, the jam gave way, in a totally satisfying segue, to a raucous Undermind. With the band now loose and loaded, the night’s third 2.0 song resulted in one of its finest jams. Following a pumping bass-led groove, the drums dropped out, and Page busted out his secret weapon: the theremin. As it did in the Storage Jam and the Gorge Rock and Roll, the instrument provided some rich layering on a beautiful spacy jam.
Out of the fog came Steam, making an appearance in its second straight show following a two-month break. This version included some particularly inspired soloing from Trey.
They say that where there’s Steam, there’s Fire. As OPT friend Rob Mitchum noted, all seven second-set tunes had one-word titles; no title was more apt to summarize the rousing set than Fire.
If the second set was long on quality, though, it was short on quantity, coming in at just barely over an hour. Never to fear: as the band took the stage for the encore, Trey noted that, though there was usually someone hassling them about the curfew, this show had no curfew. As the crowd went bananas, Trey pandered a bit with a 4/5/98-esque “so if you get bored, you can just leave!” and then pandered a bit more with a five-song encore.
Following what sounded like the first few beats of Glide, the band launched into another tune that, like that song and Alumni Blues, appeared in the nearby 7/24/99 show’s encore: Camel Walk. The fan favorite was followed by a Guyute that, while not as clean as its Tahoe predecessor, would have provided a nice finishing touch to the evening…if there hadn’t still been three more songs.
The tour’s first Horse/Silent was notable mostly for Trey’s laughter during the final lines of the former song. Proving that the no-curfew thing was no joke, the band fired up Harry Hood. The jam’s tender first section, which has been its more favorable half in this era of peakless Hoods, included some questionable notes from Trey. Fortunately, he redeemed himself as the jam progressed, spewing out flurries of trills and ascending melodies as the song approached one of the most satisfying climaxes in its recent history. Finally, at 35-plus minutes–more than half the length of the entire second set–the encore finally came to a close.
The band proved a great many things last night. In Wolfman’s, they proved that they’re capable of weaving memorable jams into a set that’s memorable mainly for its song selection and flow. In Babylon Baby–not to mention Steam–they showed us that new songs can still elevate a set. In the second set’s final foursome, they reminded us how powerful a set of music can be when each song and each jam flows organically in and out of those that surround it. And in the encore, they kept us guessing, and they kept on rocking, and they did it because they wanted to.
After a show like last night’s, there’s only one negative comment I can think of: it’s too bad there are only five shows left on Phish’s 2011 schedule. Let’s make them count.