REVIEW: Phish at Dick’s (for Relix)

photo by Dave Vann, Phish photographer

REVIEW: Phish at Dick’s 8/31/2012
for Relix Magazine
by Adam Perry

It’s been a few years since I last identified Phish as one of my favorite bands. As of late, acts such as Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, Dr. Dog and My Morning Jacket have produced more profound and interesting material, while consistently putting on exciting live shows. But here and there Phish pulls of unforgettable musical feats, such as the second set on a Sunday in San Francisco a few weeks ago, centered around a dynamic performance of the Talking Heads’ “Cross-eyed and Painless.” Plus, there are certain show-stopping, smile-inducing talents Phish possesses that no one will be able to match, such as the gall to perform a dark improvisational set atop a control tower on an Air Force base in Maine the middle of the night, regaling the nosebleed section at an arena while seated in a flying hotdog, and bringing out the likes of Kenny Rogers, B.B. King, Jimmy Buffet, and Jay-Z to sit in.

On Friday night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, a quirky soccer stadium just outside Denver, the Vermont quartet (which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year) once again pulled off an amusing feat. After spelling out the words “FUCK YOUR FACE” with the first letters of the first twelve songs of the night, Phish broke into “Fuck Your Face,” one the group’s most obscure tunes.

Then, during the group vocal improvisation that concludes “You Enjoy Myself,” the band riffed on impromptu Dick’s-themed lines such as “Mike loves Dick’s,” “Trey loves Dick’s,” and so on. “You Enjoy Myself” was preceded by keyboardist Page McConnell stating, tongue firmly in cheek, “We love Dick’s.” Personally, I find it remarkably amusing and endearing that four men approaching 50 years old, who have been playing music together since college, and who will fill a 25,000-capacity venue with college kids three nights in a row without the benefit of a radio hit or much promotion whatsoever, not only had sexual innuendo on their minds for three hours but went to the trouble of selecting songs from their catalog based on pulling off a sex-themed joke.

Not only that – after the “Fuck Your Face” prank was pulled, presumably in an ode to Dick’s, Phish’s encore included the aptly named “Grind” and “Meatstick,” a near-twin of the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain,” partly sung in Japanese. And this after the band last year, at the same venue on the same weekend, played only songs whose titles start with the letter “S,” as a tribute to a friend who’d passed away.

But hijinks aside, the show Friday night in Commerce City was musically one of the tightest, most energetic and cohesive Phish concerts I’ve ever heard. Bassist Mike Gordon, in particular, was confident and creative from the stellar work he did on a raucous version of the bluegrass tune “Uncle Pen” to his feature moments as frontman on the Rolling Stones’ campy disco gem “Emotional Rescue” (Phish had not played that song in a dozen years) and the dormitory prog-rock of “Fuck Your Face.”

Perhaps most interesting Friday, however, was how the acronym-focused evening pushed the quartet out of the ossified setlist box they’re often constrained in. Generally, each set ends with one of the “big” classics like “You Enjoy Myself,” “Divided Sky” or “David Bowie”– which include fiery guitar solos, classically influenced arrangements and improvisation meant to bring the music and the audience’s liveliness to a fever pitch. But at Dick’s on Friday, the effort to spell out “FUCK YOUR FACE” with the first letter of each song meant straying from traditional set-building, culminating in extended jams out of unlikely songs, such as the Latin-tinged “Undermind,” a beautiful 15-minute version of which finished the first set.

Almost as a rule, when Phish is having fun – whether by inserting the riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” into every song, as they did at a show in 2000, or repeating “We all love Dick’s,” as they did Friday – the quality of the music is enhanced by the electric atmosphere, with smiling faces all around. On super-charged versions of “Runaway Jim” and “Carini,” Anastasio played crisp, explosive guitar leads, no doubt inspired by the fun the band repeatedly told the crowd it was having. When entrenched in musical hijinks, Phish seems to feel more like a focused, energetic unit, and the smiley buzz around the venue seems to feed that energy.

Speaking of units, in Commerce City I was able to reunite with my 22-year-old cousin Daniel. I hadn’t seen him in three years, and it was a treat to enjoy such a unique show with him and my brother, Jeff, who was in town for the weekend. Here’s hoping the next generation of our family gets to have such unbridled fun, and hear such good music.

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