Photo by Rene Huemer
It’s Labor Day weekend in America’s counterculture capital of Denver, Colorado, and that means Phish is in town to help the population party down. The jamrock kings and their fervent fanbase have created a new tradition here, with this weekend’s three-night stand at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in the outlying suburb of Commerce City being their eighth consecutive Labor Day weekend run at the local soccer stadium. But these shows are even more highly anticipated than usual due to the heartbreaking last-minute cancellation of the band’s “Curveball” festival in Watkins Glen, New York two weeks earlier.
Just as Phish was about to take the stage for their soundcheck, the county health department pulled the festival permit after a historic level of flooding from heavy rains earlier in the week had knocked out the local water treatment plant and left the festival site with contaminated water. The devastating news shocked the brains of everyone who had made the journey, leaving fans to go through stunned disbelief, denial, and bargaining before bitter acceptance. The unbelievable turn of fortune (following highly successful Phish festivals at the same site in 2011 and 2015) appears to have been a climate change-related event from a so-called “100-year flood”, yet the type of heavy weather that’s been occurring with alarming frequency across America in recent years. Phish fans were left with no choice but to try to make the best of it by just hanging out with friends around the region for the rest of the weekend.
“We were reminded yet again that Phish is about so much more than just concerts, or even music; it is about love and family and friendships, and that can go on even without the show,” wrote publisher Christy Articola in her long-running Phish fanzine Surrender to the Flow. That sense of collective counterculture community is what makes Phish festivals such special events. But for those who could pull together another trip, the next best thing was just two weeks down the calendar at Dick’s. The 27,000-capacity soccer stadium has become a modern-day mecca of sorts for both Phish and the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture that has bloomed in Denver over the past decade.
San Francisco used to be the counterculture vortex for the rock ‘n’ roll crowd, but the existential real estate crisis brought on by the Bay Area’s tech boom over the past decade has affected the region significantly with skyrocketing rent costs leading most young people to look elsewhere. With Denver having a thriving music scene of its own, with Colorado beating California to the punch on the legalization of cannabis in 2014, and with housing available at roughly half the cost of the Bay Area, Denver has become the 21st century hippie capital of the USA and rightfully so.
Dick’s has therefore become the largest venue that Phish plays and this lends the weekend a mini-festival vibe of its own (with camping in the adjacent soccer fields available as well.) The stadium setting also creates a sporting atmosphere that makes Phish shows at Dick’s feel a bit like a World Cup soccer match or college football bowl game (except there’s little doubt about which team is going to win.) Anticipation runs extremely high as showtime on Friday, August 31 arrives. A fierce “Free” opener sets a liberating tone and instant catharsis then arrives with the seminal “Harry Hood”. The song’s early placement here is akin to scoring a goal in the opening minutes as glow sticks start flying across the stadium, a long time Phish tradition dating back to the spontaneous glow stick combustion that occurred during “Harry Hood” at the band’s historic Great Went festival in Limestone, Maine in 1997.
The mesmerizing “What’s the Use” follows with its interdimensional psychedelia and it starts to seem like Phish might be using the setlist to express a certain theme as they will sometimes do. That theme deepens with the playful “Blaze On”, one of a handful of newer songs that have become instant classics since 2015 as Phish continues to deliver unusually strong new material for a band more than three decades into their career. The jam factor deepens here as well, with the quartet exploring the melodic groove in energetic fashion.
Photo by Rene Huemer
Things get serious with “Ghost”, one of the band’s most reliable vehicles for their quintessential free-flowing “hose” jams. The song’s deceptively simplistic chord structure serves as a launch pad toward a mystical jam space. Bassist Mike Gordon conjures a melodic low end that drummer Jon Fishman’s dynamic beat dances around, while guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell weave liquid melodies as the quartet’s improv “X-Factor” starts to gel. The sonic magic surges as the exploratory jam finds Phish at the top of their game before leading into “Crosseyed and Painless”, another fan fave ever since Phish donned the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light album as their musical costume for Halloween 1996 in Atlanta.
The seamless rippling segue from the electrifying “Ghost” jam into the explosive funk groove of “Crosseyed” is tone science mastery in action, conjuring a wave of ecstatic euphoria across the stadium. Phish is delivering what feels like a second set in the first set, clearly blowing off two weeks of pent up steam from the Curveball frustration. Fishman’s edgy lead vocals always tap into the song’s existential alienation with a tangible zeitgeist angst, heightened further here in the wake of Curveball’s climate change disaster. The smoking jam leads to still more uplifting catharsis with “Simple”, a classic anthem where fans join the quartet in singing, “We’ve got it simple, because we’ve got a band.” The climactic rocker “Cavern” brings the set to a rousing conclusion and it’s easily a clear contender for best set of the summer tour.
A five-song second set continues in a similar direction with an all killer/no filler agenda. 2015’s “No Men in No Man’s Land” has become an anthemic modern classic with lyrics speaking to how “the lies may bite but the truth has all the teeth” and a funky flavor recalling the Grateful Dead’s late ’70s arrangement of “Dancing in the Streets”, jamming here into the explosive hard rock crunch of “Carini”. The soaring melodic jam in “Theme From the Bottom” never fails to elate and gives way to “Mercury, yet another instant classic from 2015. Why the band allowed renowned producer Bob Ezrin to leave this ambitious prog-flavored gem off of 2016’s Big Boat album remains a puzzling mystery. The song’s elaborate composition includes a segue into a darkly infectious groove that opens up for some intoxicating improv, before an 18-minute “Light” closer shifts the mood back into a bright major key mode.
A “Martian Monster” encore seems to comment on recent events with its “Your trip is short” sample referencing both the protagonist’s spaceship trip to Mars and the abbreviated Curveball trip, before a double encore of “Julius” ends the night with a hard rocking yet cautionary vibe that seems to hint at the climate change crisis. The undeniable strength of Friday’s show raises high hopes for the rest of the weekend and while the Saturday and Sunday shows may not be as consistently strong, there’s still plenty more musical magic over the next two nights. Saturday opens big with a “Sand”/”Down With Disease” combo, two more heavy hitters and just like that Phish has scored two goals in the opening minutes. “Wolfman’s Brother” provides another peak with more of the band’s patented cosmic funk action developing into a crowd pleasing jam.
Photo by Rene Huemer
Trey brings things back down to Earth in an excellent way with “Everything’s Right”, one of a handful of songs debuted since 2017 that feature an upbeat vibe and socially conscious lyrics that seem aimed at generating optimism amidst dark times to help catalyze a spiritual revolution for higher consciousness. “Everything’s right, so just hold tight / This world, this world, this crazy world I know / It turns, it turns / And the long night’s over and the sun’s coming up,“ Trey sings in defiance of the madness wrought by the Trump regime’s foul domain of greed and avarice. He repeats the “everything’s right” line like a mantra as the band moves into a bluesy jam space that builds in soaring fashion. The classic “Bathtub Gin” then provides a big finish to the set with stellar hose jamming powered by Page’s phenomenally flowing piano.
Photo by Rene Huemer
The second set opens strong with a deep jam on “Set Your Soul Free”, another of the inspiring new songs that has quickly become a vibrant jam vehicle: “I’m trying to share, what it’s all about / Let the music do the talking, it will help you out / Stay up for days, don’t get down / Roll with the funk now, turn it around / Burn it down burn it down, set your soul free / We’re all here together, in this spirit family / Everybody’s dancing, everyone can see / Burn it down burn it down, set your soul free,” Trey sings. The band gets into some fluidly connected jamming here that reveals how innovative Phish can still be in 2018, exploring a multi-dimensional sonic landscape that takes the audience on an uplifting journey to a realm where anything seems possible.
Other highlights include a “Piper” jam stretching back into the spacier territory visited in “Set Your Soul Free” and the band’s ultra-groovy take on the “2001” theme, which has become a Dick’s tradition. The prototype funk groove ignites a blissful cosmic dance party that never fails to conjure peak euphoria with the tune’s inherent sense of spiritual rebirth. The good times keep rolling with “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley”, a great pairing with “2001” as it enables Mike and Page to continue utilizing similar tones from the space funk realm. “Slave to the Traffic Light” concludes the set in climactic fashion, one of the oldest tunes in the songbook that still sounds fresh thanks to its unique composition and peak melodic jam.
The encore of 2016’s “More” provides a statement bookend with “Set Your Soul Free”. Challenged by Big Boat producer Bob Ezrin to write lyrics from a more personal point of view, bandleader Trey Anastasio dug deep to author this endearing voice of a generation song that expresses the universal angst of trying to live in peace and harmony in a world that’s only grown increasingly insane since John Lennon diagnosed it as such in a classic 1968 interview.
When Trey sings, “We’re vibrating with love and light, pulsating with love and light, in a world gone mad, a world gone mad, there must be something more than this,” there’s a cathartic sense that he’s speaking for everyone in attendance and that this collective aspiration can somehow help manifest a more harmonious society. Cynics may argue that these hopes are naive, but expressing such idealism in such an infectious song is part of what has cemented Phish’s place as the Gen-X heirs to the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture revolution of the 1960s.
The band picks up this theme right where they left off with Sunday’s “Soul Planet” opener, another uplifting anthem debuted this past New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden. The song speaks of a truly evolved world where, “Everyone’s together on the soul planet / There’s one beating heart on the soul planet… There’s no need to be running on the soul planet / There’s room for everyone on the soul planet… And I’m helping you on the soul planet / And you’re helping me on the soul planet… And the power is love on the soul planet / And the wind is music on the soul planet / And we’re Screaming through space…“
As with “More”, the song utilizes some basic spiritual concepts from the ’60s counterculture movement for peace and love to conjure a vision for a better world. “Soul Planet” has also become a prime jam vehicle right off the bat, with some free flowing jamming here that sets a great tone. The rest of the set unfolds with more of a standard delivery, although a bustout of Bob Marley’s “Mellow Mood” is well received as are hot takes on “Tube” and “Funky Bitch”. A “Run Like an Antelope” set closer revives hopes for a big second set and these hopes are realized with the second set’s opening trio of “46 Days”, “Tweezer”, and “Golden Age”, which finds Phish throwing down 40 glorious minutes of inspired jamming.
Mike seems to lead the “46 Days” jam with some propulsive low end, yet when Phish are really dialed in like they are here, it feels like all four members are leading the jam as the music plays the band. The quartet makes a buttery smooth segue as Fish starts a cowbell rhythm that the band jumps on to spin into seminal jam vehicle “Tweezer”. A most memorable moment soon occurs as fans in one of the stadium suites use “Tweezer” as their cue to start tossing what will reportedly be some 20,000 glow sticks over the side, generating a stunning glow waterfall that leads to a glow war monsoon as the “Tweezer” jam inspires the glow sticks to fly all over.
It seems like everyone is loving the majestic visuals but controversy abounds in the ensuing week as the “Tweezer” glow war re-ignites a 20-year-old debate about the merits of glow wars vs. the non-recyclable plastic garbage left over at the end of a show. Most Phish fans rightfully endeavor to be eco-conscious and the band has long contributed funds to environmental causes through their Waterwheel Foundation. But the debate is the same as it ever was with the anti-glow stick side on a 20-year losing streak, due to how the amount of plastic refuse from glow wars at Phish shows amounts to less than a drop in the bucket of America’s pollution problems.
A brief “Manteca” tease turns into a tight segue into “Golden Age”, the TV on the Radio song that Phish has made their own. The lyrics once again find Phish playing to manifest a better world as Trey sings of “The age of miracles, the age of sound, there’s a golden age coming round…” The song’s near utopian vision always generates a resurgent sense of hope for humanity to overcome the dark forces that aim to keep society trapped in a greedy rat race, leading to joyous spirits all around. The jam evolves nicely, building on the song’s uplifting melodic vibe with a bouncy syncopation that elevates the blissful jam to an even higher level. The high level jamming is largely absent from the rest of the set, but this inspired 40-minute sequence has been a keeper.
The almost mandatory “Tweezer Reprise” encore wraps the weekend with “the most exciting two minutes in rock” as the band blasts through one more “Tweezer” sequence, with the glow sticks flying across the stadium once again. The parking lot “Shakedown Street” scene has been thriving after each show but especially after the Sunday finale, with friends reveling in a sense of spiritual renewal that’s hard to find anywhere else. This sense of spiritual renewal from music traces a lineage back to the jazz world, with Phish long incorporating such elements into their aesthetic such as their influence from innovative jazz legend Sun Ra.
“Music could be a bridge to potential, to the future; it’s possible to paint pictures of infinity with music. ‘The bridge’ was a metaphor for another reality, a break with the cyclic order of life and death. Music could be used to coordinate minds. It could touch the unknown part of the person, awaken them to the part of them that we’re not able to talk to, the spirit,” wrote author John Szwed of Sun Ra’s musical cosmology in his biography Space is the Place. This sense of philosophic and artistic daring has long informed Phish’s improvisational ethic. The band could easily rest on their instrumental laurels, but pushing the envelope with their newer spiritually-oriented songs reveals Phish as a band that continues to challenge both themselves and their audience to move in a more inspiring direction to better meet and overcome the tumultuous challenges of the current era.