Coming out of the canceled Curveball festival, speculating the plan for the first show of Dick’s has been a hobby for many. They would do rare songs to appease those who missed the festival! The show would spell something with the setlist! [Insert tweeter's/forum member’s/random guy who had seen a few shows' favorite song that they’ve never seen] would be played of course… twice! Others tempered speculation saying that Phish would just play a normal show, and people had to keep their hopes in check for the “Harpua” opener or for the mysterious ball that was the centerpiece of the artwork to somehow appear in Commerce City.
Somehow both groups were wrong. Phish didn’t play anything unusual. Every song had been played already on Summer 2018. Outside of “Cavern,” (somehow not performed since the way distant past of 7/28/18) every song had even been played in one of the 8 previous shows in August. However, despite playing a night where the building blocks were standard, they somehow still manage to confound any normal expectation.
Getting to the venue proved to be a bit of an ordeal. New traffic rules meant that the usual 15 minute wait to park the car stretched well over an hour. Metal detectors slowed the entry some more, requiring patience. Dick’s has been such a well-oiled machine that any variant to the program seems shocking. Some of the delays likely were due to the Colorado football game taking some of the security, so that should run more smoothly tonight. My advice is to get in early.
Between the traffic and a few health issues, I might not have been in the best mindset when lights went out. As Phish opened with “Free,” – wait, this isn’t the “Anarchy” bustout we’ve all been wanting oh so much!?!? – I looked at my wrist. It still had my Curveball wristband on it because I vowed it would actually see Phish. Well guess what, it had, but I think it was its vibes that were causing all of my issues. I removed it as the chorus began, and as the band sang, I was “Freeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”
While “Free” isn’t that odd for an opener, the song that followed was oddly placed. Excluding a couple of one set festival shows where set rules don’t apply, “Harry Hood,” hadn’t been played in the first set since 12/2/03. Coming this early was a statement, two actually. The first is that unless you can figure out a message that starts with “FH,” there was not going to be a gag with the titles of the songs. More importantly though was the sign that they meant business this night. They weren’t going to mention Curveball or shows that didn’t happen, but instead would take out their frustrations through ridiculously strong playing. While not the longest version ever, it still managed to find a few digressions along the way to the peak, which is a great sign.
After a pause to consider the option, another oddball song selection followed. “What’s the Use?” is a song of transition, usually used to end a second set jam and move it into the next song. Having it come out of a dead stop felt weird, but it didn’t affect the playing at all. For the past few years, they’ve been playing this song with delicacy and grace, and this night was no exception. They brought it way down to a beautiful quiet space, before playing the riff that marks the second half of the song. When they’re giving extra emphasis to the songs as well as the jams, we’re usually in for something amazing.
After another jam – this one out of “Blaze On” – turned into a fun dance party, the highlight of the first set came. One would think that it would be time for a shorter song or a composition, but instead we got “Ghost.” No abbreviated version, this went through multiple segments until it finally landed on a fast funk jam. Then, completely out of nowhere, “Crosseyed and Painless” emerged. It started as a quick tease, but always attentive Dick’s crowd caught on immediately and gave a loud cheer. Perhaps that’s what egged on the band to take their time and craft a stunning segue into the Talking Heads classic. Like so much of this set, this was in a weird spot. There have only been three first set “Crosseyeds” before, all in 1997. Star Lake Ampitheatre on 8/13/97 was the last time Phish played this before the break, and it had extra power coming in a place where no one expected it.
As the jam petered out and morphed into “Simple,” an exciting idea started to form. Maybe this would be a backwards show, one that started with the “Free” encore, and then played a second set in reverse order. Could we have a “Weekapaug” > “Hydrogen” > “Mike’s?” The “Cavern” that closed the set – the first song since “Free” that was played in its normal location, ended that idea, but this was an exciting set. The music was well played but changing rules lend extra power to their performances.
The only question at the break was if they could keep this up for the night. The “No Men in No Man’s Land" > "Carini” to start the second set answered that. This was the same combination that started the second set of the first night of Dick’s last year. This might not have matched the length of 2017’s performance, but they made up for it by the fiery conclusion of “Carini.”
Outside of the “Cavern,” and maybe “What’s the Use?”, there hadn’t been a song-focused performance really since the opener. The “Theme From the Bottom,” acted as a palate cleanser. After so many improvisations, we needed a bit of a usual song to rest our ears for a moment. But the theme of the night was the jam, and we still had a few tricks left to witness. “Mercury” had a great mid-song improvisation and then the set closed with one last open-ended song – “Light.” Despite having a lot of the focus of the night be on freeform playing, with funk jams and dance segments and some spacey elements, the one classic form of Phish jamming we had not yet seen was the build jam. “Light” provided that, building to a peak, and – as perhaps was appropriate on a night like this – just ended the set after it had been fully explored.
It’s a cliché to say that Phish like to make a statement with their music, but on this night that seemed to be true.They not only played many jams, but even the composed sections were nailed, freeing us from the usual trade-off that comes from when the band plays more loosely. All of the pent-up frustration from Curveball came out in the form of excellent full band improvisation, and while there might be an element of lament present because of that – if Phish are playing this well, what might have been a few weeks ago – at least we managed to get this show (and whatever might come the rest of the weekend) out of it. A reminder of why we put up with the downsides of tour was really needed, and Phish most definitely delivered. Here’s hoping it lasts for the rest of the run!
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