UIC Night 3: Short On Improvisation, Long On Fun

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

Following two driving shows that clinched UIC 2011’s spot in the 3.0 Hall of Fame, fans wondered whether Phish had anything left in the tank, and if so, where it would take them. Would the third show be more of a segue-laden, concisely jammed flow-fest, like the first night? Or would it hew more closely to Tuesday’s formula: tight, energetic playing throughout, with one face-melting jam?

The answer, in true Phish form: neither of the above. Instead, the band dipped deep into their bag of setlist tricks and their barrel of quirky antics for a show that was short on improvisation, but long on fun.

This approach is common in modern-era tour closers: of the 3.0 tours that have ended with 2-set shows, 4 out of 7 have included Harpua or Col. Forbin’s Ascent, often coupled with other crowd-pleasing debuts or rarities. Though the bustouts do inevitably please crowds, the desire to cram as many of them as possible into a set can at times seem forced.

The crowd’s explosive reaction to last night’s opening Forbin’s was anything but forced. The song, making a third appearance of the year for the first time since 1995, was played confidently. As on The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday recording, Trey used the “carcass” line in place of “shit-ass,” after a moment’s thought; perhaps he was afraid of offending some kids who were in attendance? (Or some incontinents?)

Phish – 8/17/11 – UIC Pavilion, University of Illinois, Chicago, IL (setlist courtesy of phish.net)

Set 1: Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird, Gumbo, Possum, Weigh > The Divided Sky, Alaska, Bathtub Gin, Maze, Cavern, First Tube

Set 2: Crosseyed and Painless -> No Quarter > Timber (Jerry)[1] -> Tweezer > Prince Caspian > Piper[2] > Ghost > Makisupa Policeman[3] > Sleep > Buffalo Bill > Golgi Apparatus > Character Zero[1] > Run Like an Antelope[4]

Encore: Funky Bitch[5] > Show of Life > Tweezer Reprise[5]

[1] Crosseyed teases and quotes.
[2] Crosseyed teases and quotes and Timber tease from Fish.
[3] Lyrics referenced Trey’s favorite music (“Dank Sinatra,” “Nat King Bowl”, “Harry Chronic, Jr.,” “Herby Hancock,” and “Van Inhalin'”), as well as Page’s House and Mike’s House.
[4] Crosseyed and Makisupa teases and alternate lyrics referencing Fish’s House.
[5] Crosseyed quotes.

Following the return of the true narration in the Forbin’s/Mockingbird bridge at Superball, many hoped the song would enjoy a similar treatment in Chicago. But Mockingbird started right up. Color me confused. These two songs are excellent, but what makes them special is the fact that something crazy or unexpected could happen in the middle. Remove the narration, and it’s still great to hear, but it’s only signaling that a big night is ahead by virtue of piggybacking on its past specialness.

Regardless, Mockingbird was played nearly perfectly – no small feat in any era.

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

Gumbo followed, and included a nice solo from Page, and some speedy licks from Trey, but it quickly gave the stage to Possum. Trey threw some modal curveballs into his solo, building tension that was resolved with a powerful, unconventional peak.

 

The set did a bit of seesawing in its next section. Weigh, for making its first appearance of the year, was well executed. The Divided Sky that followed was as well, but Trey struggled with the solo. Left with a bad taste in his mouth, Trey shared some Altoids with Mike in a two-and-a-half-minute break, before finally launching into Alaska. The Altoids worked: his solo was inspired in an energetic version.

Celebrating the fourteenth birthday of perhaps its most popular version, Bathtub Gin came next, and while it didn’t reach Great Went-like heights, it got close enough to satisfy. Even before the jam, Page’s between-verse solos were excellent; the first one, in particular, was among the best I’ve heard him take in this song. The jam gets off to a great start: anytime Mike is playing more notes than Trey, it’s a good sign. It builds patiently, briefly turning on the hose before returning to the Gin theme.

The energy stayed high for a Maze that included some great interplay between Trey and Page, followed by a guitar solo that almost sounded composed, moving easily from one phrase to the next. This is the kind of solo you could memorize and hum along to.

There were more long pauses (and some more Altoids) before and after Maze. The sense that the band had nothing but time would be completely erased in the second set, which was far more hurried. It’s easy to wonder if something changed the band’s mood at setbreak, or if they simply wanted to squeeze as much as possible into the final set of the tour.

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

Before we’d get there, the band unloaded a double set closer, with a thumping Cavern and an immense First Tube. The latter, which was played to a raucous Chicago crowd, blew the roof off the place with flying licks from Trey and massive supporting lines from Mike. Fishman eventually dropped a more swinging disco beat than usual, and the jam brought a strong but somewhat disjointed set to a soaring close.

Crosseyed and Painless, in its eighth appearance of the year, picked up right where First Tube left off, spitting out sparks with Trey in the lead but the whole band having fun and playing hard. The jam had a gorgeous outro, with Mike playing some vocal samples through some kind of box, reminiscent of Quadrophonic Topplings.

Eventually, this sonic quirkiness seeped into Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter, which last showed up at Superball. The intro was nailed, as were Page’s vocals. Trey attacked the beginning of the solo, with a David Gilmour-esque tone. Overall, a strong version.

Next up, Timber, which had been hinted at all tour, finally came to the surface, in a fast-paced version. Soon after the jam began, so did the Crosseyed teases, over which Trey sang “Still waiting,” to great and well-received effect. Trey began laying down some compelling rhythm work, but quickly cut himself off to start the final verse. It seems as if he may have forgotten that there wasn’t another jam in the song; as the tune came to a close, he starts half-playing the song again, but the band isn’t quite sure what to do. Trey becomes finicky, and plays the opening notes to Tweezer.

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

As @CGlush tweeted from the @YEMblog twitter account, “in a set devoid of any real improv so far, this Tweezer [might] be make or break.” A powerful reentry after “Uncle Ebenezer” seemed to portend good things; the jam quickly found its way to a spacey place where many of this tour’s jams started to get interesting. But this one was nixed by Trey, in favor of Prince Caspian.

And so the course was set for the remainder of the show: in lieu of improvising, Trey would keep his finger firmly on the “Next Track” button.

In contrast to many strong 3.0 versions, Caspian didn’t do much of anything. Trey, who seemed to be losing patience by the minute, took a measly solo, and then simply aborted the song, deciding he needed to be playing Piper immediately.

Piper’s jam was just beginning to find a way forward when Trey started teasing, then singing, Crosseyed. Mike’s hyperspeed version of the bassline brought the tease to the next level, and Fishman clanged out a complementary line that laid the groundwork for a great jam. Unfortunately, it was a jam that never happened: the groove died quickly, and Ghost started up.

There are literally less than 30 seconds between when the lyrics of Ghost end and when Trey abruptly cuts the song off for Makisupa. As @jeffersonwaful tweeted, Tweezer Reprise was 2 seconds longer than Ghost. It’s hard to imagine why the band even started playing the song. If the narration is the key to Forbin’s specialness, the jam is the key to Ghost’s very existence. No one cheers for Ghost because they want to experience the lyrics in a live setting.

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

Nonetheless, Makisupa was fun: Trey mentioned listening to some of his old records, then marijuanified some performers’ names (DANK Sinatra, Harry CHRONIC Jr., etc.). An awkwardly placed, but well played Sleep followed.

Now fully in iPod-shuffle mode, the band started Buffalo Bill. This is a funny song–it’s more of a real song than, say, Kung or Catapult, but it’s almost always used as a setlist flourish. Like those songs, it feels misplaced when it stands alone, as it did here.

The band next fired up another game of set-closer fakeout, beginning with Golgi, then a very short Character Zero that was unremarkable except for some more Crosseyed teases. Finally, Antelope actually ended the set. Despite some more Crosseyed teases and some nice interplay with Trey and Mike, the climax was far less smooth than you’d expect from a band at the end of a tour.

Treating Chicago to its third consecutive multiple-song encore, the band ended the run with an energetic, Crosseyed-flecked Funky Bitch, Show of Life, and some more Crosseyed teases in a rousing Tweezer Reprise.

This show had many memorable moments, and many songs (27, to be exact). The crowd, which was remarkably energetic throughout the 3-night UIC run, kept the fire going. But, like many of this month’s concerts, this one was persistently entertaining, but will hold up less well on tape. Like many modern gigs where Trey seems intent on bringing some extra fun to the show, his impatience in fulfilling this goal detracts from the fluency of the show and precludes organic improvisational brilliance.

But for all of the curtailed jams and awkwardly placed songs, this show had a few improvisatory highlights (Gin, Maze, Crosseyed > No Quarter) and a lot of unique, entertaining sections. And coming, as it did, on the heels of Monday and Tuesday’s more improvisational outings, this show served as an apt exclamation point to one of the era’s most memorable three-night runs.

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