Wow… What a summer.
When Phish first announced their 2015 summer tour dates I could not believe it. Being a Bend, Oregon local, I could not believe it was finally happening. Years in the making. Years of us begging the band and its management to come play a couple of shows in our gorgeous little town.
A bit of context; over the past few years, every single year, the “Phish is coming to Bend” rumors would gain a ton of steam, only to never materialize. Once, I personally handed Trey a letter — at his symphony show in Portland — that said: “Please come play Bend, your Phamily loves you out there!” (among other things). The letter went on to explain the town, and how even though it’s a tiny venue that’s in the middle of nowhere, it was worth the additional effort. The magnitude of the Bend announcement was especially potent since the Gorge was inconspicuously left off of the summer 2015 tour schedule.
The Bend shows were an especially tough ticket. The locals here eat up good music when it rolls through town and Phish is an enormous draw for the Les Schwab Ampitheater. Unsurprisingly, the show set a record for the tiny venue’s quickest-sell-out-ever according to a few friends who work at the theater.
Chrissy (my wife) and I got a chance to visit with Chris Kuroda on his tour bus before the shows. He is such a warm, genuine and grateful fifth member of the band. It was interesting to hear his perspective about them playing in such a small town. The words “this feels like 1994” were echoed by all of us! That awesome, psychedelic, glowing owl you saw on stage during the webcast is owned by the venue. Even with the early curfew and with only a handful of songs being played in full darkness (after a breathtaking sunset on both nights), CK5 plugged his rig into the whole house lighting system and worked everything in beautifully. Perhaps not so ironically, a slew of the band’s tour artwork, merchandise and ticketing also had owls on it, so the stage was set perfectly. Buffalo Bill was around.
It was absolutely incredible for the band to unveil so much original material at a tiny venue on the opposite side of the country. I had no idea what to expect, let alone four Phish original pieces — Shade, Blaze On, No Men’s and the other-worldly Mercury — and three solo project debuts, Trey’s Scabbard, Mike’s How Many People Are You? and Page’s Heavy Rotation. The entire atmosphere had an exceptionally rare and exciting vibe to it. People were genuinely at peace to see the band in such high spirits. The venue’s security was happy and relaxed. The band was stoked and everyone could feel it!
The tour continued along through California with a nice stop at Shoreline and a beast of a show at The Forum in Los Angeles. Tons of people are clamoring for Phish to play a New Years run at The Forum in LA. The weather is nice, it’s a big city so the ticket sales would please management, and it’d be a bit easier for people in the West and Southwest to attend given that travel delays to and from the Northeast can be brutal around the end of December. While Madison Square Garden in New York is arguably one of the best places you could ever see the band, The Forum seems like a West Coast version of Hampton Coliseum. Look up some pictures and you’ll see how much fun Kuroda has with that place. Not to mention, a little change is good every once in a while. Nothing wrong with a New York > Miami > Los Angeles NYE Run rotation!
Phish’s summer tour next found them winding their way down South with two stops in Texas and one in Alabama. Then came the Nashville show. If you haven’t read about the significance behind the Second Jam in Mike’s Song please find the time to do so right away.
At this point, the band is truly firing on all cylinders. The interplay between Trey, Mike, Page and Fish has been astonishing all summer. When they are focused and deep within extended jams, nobody is repeatedly dominating the direction of the improvisation. They are all communicating in a way that can only emerge from thirty-one years of playing together, getting to know one another and organically progressing as a unit.
Trey seems a lot more patient, while at the same time being a lot more aggressive and attacking when he feels the moment is ripe for the shredding. Mike seems to come in at just the right time, every time, with layered melodies and bass lines that set a beautiful foundation for Trey and Page. His creativity and tonality force Page to use more complex chord progressions, and it’s forcing Trey to open specific scales with uncharacteristic interval patterns played in minor keys. They are all pushing melodic boundaries by testing the limits of certain scales and harmonies very deep within their improvisational jams. This is impressive stuff that can only be achieved through a lifetime of playing music together.
Page has continued to shine. His song Heavy Rotation hasn’t seen another appearance since the Bend shows. So hopefully they rework the tune, bring it back to its original key and give it another go. The jam has incredibly serious potential to become a true launching pad. Fishman continues to impress me. His speed, intensity, and ferocity has picked up tremendously since 2009. It once again sounds like he’s got eight arms.
This all genuinely equates to the band simply blowing people’s minds again and again. Night after night. Old fans and new fans alike. People have been left speechless, picking their jaws up from the floor all summer long.
The tour continued to roar through Kansas City and then Blossom (always an incredible place to see Phish) followed by a two night stop at Alpine Valley. One of my favorite venues. I’ve heard first-hand stories about Alpine Valley having a hard time competing with venues like Northerly Island in Chicago. As of last August, Alpine Valley was listed for sale with an asking price of $8.44 million dollars.
Management argues that Chicago is generally an easier gig to pull off when the weather agrees. Phish can fully sell-out at least one of the nights and the logistics are easier for them to plan. However, as evidenced by Trey’s extremely welcomed Forbin’s narration about it being the band’s 17th show at Alpine — and him being shit on by a bird which is what inspired him to play Forbin’s — Alpine Valley and the shitting bird will always hold a special place in Phish’s heart. There’s a pit up front now and it feels like a private show when you’re down there. If you haven’t seen Phish play a show at Alpine, make sure you do before its sold and torn down and turned into a strip mall.
Next up were some absolute heater East Coast shows in Philadelphia, North Carolina and Maryland. The band was back on its home turf and everyone was gearing up for what would surely be a blowout at Magnaball.
The town of Watkins Glen is really quaint and nice. The whole time you’re there you’re surrounded by lush farmlands and rural settings. The region is known for great winemaking and has a slew of vineyards sprinkled throughout. My kind of place. The locals were extremely kind and accommodating. I love when a town/city/county acknowledges the impact that Phish has on the local tourism industry. Phish’s circus brings millions of dollars to these communities. Magnaball was on the cover of the local paper every single day. Also, “Phish Concerts Boost Bend Tourism” was a massive front-page headline in our local paper when they opened the tour.
Chrissy and I flew straight out of Bend, Oregon across the country to Elmira, New York. Ever since we opened our first Oregon state-licensed dispensary (www.Oregrown.com) last January, life has been beautifully chaotic! This was a very welcomed vacation for us. We were elated to hear about all of the amenities that would be onsite.
The food and beverage options were incredible. There were bathrooms everywhere and for those of us that like to ride the rail up front, we had plenty of amenities very close by at all times. This was an extremely well-planned layout.
The grounds at Magnaball were very inviting. Everything was within pretty close proximity to each other. The Ferris wheel was lit up and ran well into the night. The security was generally very relaxed. Everyone was there to have a great time. Apparently, Nascar was held at the same track in Watkins Glens the weekend prior to Magnaball — with Nascar drawing 100,000 people — so the staff was really happy with the Phish crowd and how polite everyone was being.
The weekend’s music started out with a BANG! Simple > The Dogs > TMWSIY > Avenu Malkenu > TMWSIY > Free got the crowd fired up. Avenu Malkenu is always such a special treat. Getting to watch the Red Haired Jedi Ginger sing in Hebrew will never, ever get old! Especially on Shabbat at sundown! The Hebrew prayer/chant has a very powerful meaning:
“Our Father, our King,” is repeatedly chanted to invoke the gracious favor of a God who is conceived of as both distant and approachable, both stern and merciful; whose powerful nature can be portrayed as both Ruler and Parent toward the people Israel, who view themselves during the High Holy Day season as both dependent and unworthy of favor – “Deal with us graciously for Your own sake, since we can plead little merit before You.” Encapsulated here are the ambivalent feelings of we mortals toward the power in the world outside us over which we have uncertain or little control.
Next up was Mock Song which hasn’t been played in over 300 shows. An exceptionally standout version of Bathtub Gin closed out the first set. I cannot say enough good things about this Gin. Arguably the best of 3.0. Just listen to it. On repeat.
A solid combination of non-stop jamming in Chalk Dust Torture > Ghost > Rock and Roll > Harry Hood > Waste > No Men In No Man’s Land > Slave to the Traffic Light lit up the second set, and a raucous First Tube that had Trey drooling brought the show to a close. Boy, man, god, shit does he love that song!
The second day got off to a great start with a beautiful Divided Sky to open the daytime set. The clouds were parting perfectly for a gorgeous pause. This was Phish in all its glory, raging the enormous stage they built for themselves on their home turf in the middle of nowhere. (I love when there are no enormous screens right next to the stage). A great Moma Dance and Mound gave way to another attempt at the intensely intricate Trey composition Scabbard. The tune itself is very ambitious for them to play and I’m loving that it’s made its way into the regular rotation. Another go at the rocking Mike tune How Many People Are You?, a beautiful Circus and a stampeding Antelope closed out a very high energy daytime set.
The band hit the stage for the second set of the day and laid down a six-song masterpiece; Wolfman’s Brother, Halley’s Comet > 46 Days > Backwards Down the Number Line > Tweezer > Prince Caspian. Listen to the Caspian that closes this set. It’s undeniable platinum age Phish.
For the third set, the band seemed to be moving through transitions with ease. Everything was flowing like butter. An astonishing Blaze On > Possum > Cities combination made way for a resonating Walls of the Cave. Being in this part of the country, with the depth to this song, you could feel the energy in the air.
“Written during a dark time for the United States, “Walls of the Cave” simultaneously serves as a heartbreaking allegory and a source of comfort following 9/11. According to Tom, Trey agrees with fans whom interpret “Walls of the Cave” as a tribute for the World Trade Center. Tom says “WoTC” is probably a somber homage to the WTC attacks, but it was “unintentionally on purpose.” Either way, “Walls of the Cave” is another emotionally charged tune that has attempted to console fans in the aftermath of a horrific tragedy.”
— Eli @ OnlinePhishTour.com.
Next up was the late-night, not-so-secret set/drive in jam. Again, if for some reason you still haven’t listened to this, please do so. Immediately. This is primal Phish. This is why we love this band. I’ll spare you a nitty-gritty description, but needless to say, this was one of the best sets of live music I have ever seen in my entire life.
Sunday’s show opened with a ferocious Punch > Buffalo Bill. Buffalo Bill hasn’t been played in over 100 shows and is one my favorite rarities. We were having a blast yelling along with the band on the rail. A beautiful Limb x Limb and a standout Reba made way for a hilarious moment in Phish history. I Didn’t Know started off like any other acapella version except, when Fishman came out to play his vacuum solo, Trey pulled out a piece of paper and starting reading off a list of heartfelt Thank You’s to the crowd. Every time he came close to mentioning a name Fishman would take a huge suck from the vacuum. It was thoroughly entertaining. Trey was controlling Fish’s sucking by using hand gestures and telling him to “stop sucking ” or “suck it.” Interpret it however you want.
The final full set of the weekend was incredible. I’m really digging how much the band is enjoying Martian Monster. That song gets Page, Trey and Mike deep into effects loops and it gets everyone grooving. The Scents and Subtle Sounds > What’s the Use? > Dirt combination had me eating out of the palm of the band’s hands. That version of Scents and Subtle Sounds contains some of the most beautiful melodic harmonies you’ll ever hear Phish play. They turn the beautiful and gentle jam into a masterful piece played with intent and conviction. A stellar Mike’s Song > Fuego > Twist > Weekapaug and then back into Martian Monster brought the second set to an end.
The encore was pure Phish jubilation. A twenty minute You Enjoy Myself with a full-blown Chris Kuroda lightstravaganza accompanied by what must have been a half-million dollar fireworks show that the band put on for us.
After the Sunday show and the final set of Phish music concluded, an absolutely epic dance party ensued at the second stage/drive-in screen. The Montreal-based DJ Freeworm and Franky Selector that ran the setlist after the Sunday show deserves a huge round of applause. Kuroda told me that they hired a French Canadian company to do the screen setup and to do some of the effects. I can only imagine the size of the parties held overseas with screens like this. I’ve seen some pictures of enormous dance parties and raves in Israel, Canada, Brazil, Germany, etc. The whole place was getting down while some beautiful Pollock Phish prints with psychedelic effects were being projected onto the enormous screen in the background.
Ladies and gentlemen…
This summer was one for the ages. The band has been building some serious momentum since 2009 and it’s clearly showing in the way they’re playing. Two years ago at MSG — after a handful of us reached out to the band amid growing concerns that they would potentially split up again — we were assured that we had nothing to worry about. The band had the hilarious image below created. It was projected on the overhead screen at Madison Square Garden during their 30th Anniversary New Year’s Eve run in 2013. The calm this has brought the entire scene is really magnificent.
At this point, Phish sounds as good as I can ever recall them sounding. The debates between fans are spirited and positive! The intricacy, musicianship and communication the band exhibits on stage is astonishing. And the simple fact that they’re having so much fun together is reason enough to drop everything you’re doing and make it out to Colorado next week for the fifth annual Phamily Reunion. Anything is possible at this point.
This is a magical time, folks.