The UIC Run Was the Best Phish We’ve Seen this Era

UIC Pavilion (Dave Vann)

Now that the dust has settled and we are well past the customary 72-hour rule, it’s time to talk about what happened at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago.  The three-show run that took place in the <10,000-person college arena represents the best playing from Phish (Trey) that we’ve seen at any point in 3.0.  While there are certainly other high points we’ve experienced during this era, none were able to fully encompass all the Phishy elements that UIC did.  With a strong first leg (stronger than any of the era’s previous tours), the second leg was truly the exclamation point of what they s tarted in Bethel.  And–if the second leg is the exclamation point–the UIC Pavilion is like the dot at the end…only, instead of a dot, it was like the crater from 10 nuclear explosions.  The collective shows will be seen as a true gem that will not be forgotten any time soon and it permanently sealed the UIC Pavilion into the Venue Hall of Fame.

The three nights in the Windy City boasted the most well-rounded Phish experience we’ve seen since at least 2.0.  There was deep improvisation, fantastic song flow, excellent song selection, pure silliness, seamless segues, a new song, massive encores, long show times, and patience–all topped off with Trey’s rejuvenated desire and ability to attack his fucking guitar.

 

UIC Pavilion (Dave Vann)

Trey’s guitar playing was exponentially better from the year before when he returned to the stage with Phish in 2011.  After criticizing him for two years (and having people send me emails telling me to do everything from stopping listening to Phish to KMS) I was blown away by his guitar playing in Bethel and went on to write The Feeling I Forgot: ‘IT’ is Back–along with Trey’s improved dexterity came creativity.  While the end of the first leg tapered off from the excitement that was built in the first half, Phish returned to the Gorge with heaps more of creativity.  However, after a worthy-but-disjointed effort in Lake Tahoe, Phish rolled all that is currently good about them into a dense, ten-hour package of live music in north-eastern Illinois.

Each show, all taking place in the middle of the work week, featured its own distinct personality:

The first night harnessed the best second set of this era, edging out Detroit’s from earlier in the summer.  The seven-song second set, all songs with one-word titles, was armed with flow likened to that of late 1997–or Eminem.  One song seamlessly and naturally bled into the next; although no song reached the 15-minute mark, each featured unique jams and outros that give each song the feeling that it’s nearly 20-minutes long once you’re finished listening to it.  The jamming got sparked in Sand but really took off during Light.  The dark improv eventually morphed into Waves, a version that was laced with sexy licks from Trey, including what I now call “the lick” (listen below).

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After a dense and beautiful jam, Fish started thumping a la Timber, but instead, came a flawless segue into Undermind.  Ever since Undermind was brought back in 2009, I’ve been openly begging the band to give us an extended version.  The song is a Petri dish for jamming–and on 8/15, the Petri dish finally is populated with something special.  In an era where it often feels like Trey is rushing everything, this set was refreshing like a cold pillow.  The Undermind jam reached a very special place–Trey began playing in a direction that eventually led Page to his theremin before slipping into the first Steam in as many shows!  Steam took a more rock-guitar route with some impressive leads from Trey before popping into a rambunctious version of Hendrix’s Fire.

UIC Pavilion (N. Richter)

The first set, along with all three first sets, shouldn’t be overlooked either.  Over the course of the run, the first sets treated us to great versions of Back on the Train, Scent of a Mule, Jesus Just Left Chicago, a unique and blissful Wolfman’s, the rocking debut of Mike’s Babylon Baby, Dinner and a Movie, a requested Ha Ha Ha, a unique CDT, Mexican Cousin, Jim > Foam, I Didn’t Know with Otis Redding shirts, Ocelot, a totally new take on Limb by Limb, Possum, Gin, and Maze.

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One of the things that has been looked over by almost everyone following these shows is the fact that each first set opens and closes with something unique.  Back on the Train had not opened a show since 3/7/09 at Hampton, and it was only the third time the song did ever.  The Alumni Blues that closed that very same set was both a request and particularly hot.  Alumni flew off the handle after its reentry from Letter to Jimmy Page–it’s a must-hear version.  The last time Alumni Blues closed a first set (that we know for sure, according to Phish Net) is 4/15/1986–over 25 years ago.

Dinner and a Movie opened the second night.  Although Dinner opened up Alpharetta earlier this year, the last time it was used as a show opener before that was 11/18/1995 in South Carolina.  The set closer of the second night may have taken the cake as most unexpected though when they dropped the first Let it Loose since Festival 8.  Although the song lost a bit of umph without Sharon and Saundra, the song was beautiful and soulful.  I have gotten so tired of typical set-closing songs this era–the Bowies, Antelopes, Caverns, Character Zeros, etc–it’s such a fresh feeling when the band leaves the stage after something out of the ordinary.

UIC Pavilion (P. Brotherhood)

If the second night contained the big first-set closer, it was the last night that boasted the big first-set opener.  When the beginning of Forbin’s crashed through the arena, the crowd freaked.  The last time Forbin’s was used as a show opener was 11/3/1989 (about 1,500 shows).  Also, despite it lacking narration, it was the best-played Forbin’s > Mockingbird since their return.  First Tube, a song usually reserved for second-set closers, encores and the occasional show opener, closed the set.  First Tube was used as a first-set closer twice in 2009 but not since 2000 before that.  Also, Trey was particularly fierce in this version–he took the song to a whole-new level going into the hot & sticky setbreak.

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The second night will be known for the Down with Disease.  A version that rivals, and possibly surpasses, Pine Knob’s from 6/3 takes the advice from the Rolling Stones ballad that closed the first set and truly lets loose–it  contains many twists and turns before morphing into Twist at around the 22-minute mark.  The intro to Twist isn’t rushed either; once they’ve officially arrived in the song, Trey takes a moment to before entering the lyrical segment.  This set also contained the longest YEM of the year, nearly 23 minutes!  The extended bass & drums is a treat; however, it doesn’t pack as big of a punch as many of the era’s shorter B&D sections.

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Trey’s playing should be closely studied from this run.  One thing I noticed is his funky chord vamping.  It can be seen in parts of Piper (after the Crosseyed segment), Wolfman’s, Light, Twist and Down with Disease to name a few.  There are times when I know he’s itching to step on the wah pedal.  This strumming can also be found in 2001 from Lake Tahoe and some other 2001s from the first leg.  If you’re reading this, Trey, please take your wah out for a spin–it’s soooo easy.

UIC Pavilion (Dave Vann)

It’s obvious that Trey has finally grown into his new Ocedoc–after two years of sour notes, scratchy peaks, and questionable finger speed, he’s finally tearing into songs like we’d expect from Big Red.  I was impressed at the beginning of summer, but now I can’t believe my ears.  I honestly thought Trey would have never came back around to this style of playing after what we saw in 2009 and 2010.  His shredding in Maze alone was enough for me to get my rocks off (you can see here, after Guy points out how animated he was during the run).  Listen to Trey in Back on the Train, Jesus, Alumni Blues, Waves, Steam > Fire, Jim, Mockingbird, Possum, Alaska, Crosseyed, Piper, No Quarter, Character Zero, and probably the best First Tube I’ve ever heard.

As long as you’re studying Trey (along with his increased patience and creativity on top of what I just mentioned), it’s important to note that Mike seems to have moved his “bomb”, or “meatball” effect to a pedal.  When Mike wants to drop a single, heavy, synthesized bomb, he just steps on a pedal now.  See: Mule, the end of I Didn’t Know, and the end of Buffalo Bill.

The third night was the celebration night.  I’m not gonna make excuses for Trey busting his load early in nearly every song during the second set, but I’ll say that after the two nights before, he’s allowed to do what he wants.  I’ll also say that it’s still a very interesting and fun set–the entire set was laced with a Crosseyed and Painless theme.

UIC Lot

The blazing Crosseyed sunk into soupy darkness before segueing perfectly into a ripping No Quarter.  Timber finally appeared after teasing us at the end of Waves two nights earlier.  The short Timber morphed into an interesting, albeit short, Tweezer that included another Dave’s Energy Guide tease (this time from Page).   Phish Net claims there was a Tweezer Reprise tease from Trey, but I’m having trouble finding what they’re talking about.  The spaztic rendition of Piper reprised the Crosseyed theme by both teasing and quoting before sinking into a funky jam.

My one big problem with the entire run was the fact that Trey felt the need to play Ghost.  I get the nine-minute Tweezer and the five-minute Caspian, but a three-minute Ghost?!  Literally, there was no jam–not even as long as the album version.  As Guy Forget said in his review of the show, “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.”  However, if the only problem with a run of three shows is the fact that they played Ghost, I think it was a pretty damn successful outing.

Nevertheless, the Ghost “jam” moved into Makisupa.  After two nights of serious music, we finally got a dose of silliness with Trey referring to some old artists with newfound 420-friendly names (Dank Sinatra, Harry Chronic Jr., etc.) and taking us to both Page’s and Cactus’ houses.  After an interesting Sleep > Buffalo Bill combo and a botched Golgi, Charcacter Zero took us right back into the Crosseyed Theme.  Like Blossom’s Zero reprised the Possum from earlier in the set, this one did it with Crosseyed–awesome stuff.  I love how they’ve been playing the song all summer  The set-closing ‘Lope was laced with more Crosseyed teases and even takes us to Fish’s house at the end.  It doesn’t stop there; during Trey’s part in the Funky Bitch encore, he lets Crosseyed quickly surface again–and again in Tweeprise, which reminds me of the Meatprize from 10/23/2010 in Amherst.

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Although there are many highlights (all of which can’t be touched upon in the effort of keeping this article somewhat brief), this run wasn’t about any specific highlights; this run was about the attitude the band took the stage with.  It’s about the fact that they (yes, mainly Trey) chose to, although cliché, surrender to the flow and let the music just play them.  I ask you to try and find a 3.0 set that shines with as much musical character as the second set of night one does.  I beg you to find a 3.0 jam that is more impressive than Down with Disease -> Twist (I already brought up Pine Knob DwD -> Fluffhead).

I know this article will probably generate a lot of disagreeing points of view–I expect that with a title so bold–but I look forward to discussing how this run stacks up to other shows with you guys.

Here’s to Dick’s making UIC look like a soundcheck.