Phish Dick’s 2017: Nights Two and Three

In what has become a solid yearly tradition, Phish brought three nights of high-energy improvisatory rock and roll to a sold-out Dick’s Sporting Goods Arena (soccer stadium) in Commerce City, Colorado this past Labor Day weekend. I was lucky enough to be in attendance for the Saturday (Night Two) and Sunday (Night Three) shows. Without any shows scheduled for the rest of the year, Phish closed off a historic summer, riding high on the wave of a solid thirteen-night residency at Madison Square Garden in New York City (Baker’s Dozen Run).

One of the most fun aspects of any Phish show is the fact that the musical performance is only one part (albeit a very large one) of the full “experience”.  Upon arriving at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (lovingly referred to as “Phish Dick’s”), phans are met with a very large and accessible Shakedown Street, the open air market that began at the time of the Grateful Dead. Colorful vendors sell food, drinks, artwork, glass, t-shirts, and other less-than-legal items to pre-show partiers in what may be one of the most fun examples of unregulated capitalism.  I was impressed by the size of Dick’s Shakedown, and a walk through is a key part of the Phish show ritual.

Upon entering Dick’s itself, I was surprised by the size of the venue.  Dick’s is certainly no Meadowlands Stadium, but it is definitely larger than a venue such as Madison Square Garden, for example.  With a sold-out crowd, the venue became a cozy sea of bodies very quickly but never felt too uncomfortably tight.  A quick overview of the stage showed that the amazing Madison Square Garden Baker’s Dozen lighting rig was once again being used, with lighting director Chris Kuroda at the helm. (An aside: It is quite unusual for fans of a group to know the name of the lighting director, however, Kuroda’s lighting rig is such an integral part of the live Phish experience that fans have taken to calling him CK5, with ‘5′ designating him as the group’s fifth member.)

On Saturday night, the band came on slightly after 8 pm, launching into the classic “Simple”.  As an opener, “Simple” received a solid jam treatment, stretching out to fourteen minutes before giving way to a dance-party “Martian Monster”. Other Set One highlights included a very tight “Reba”, a rousing “Sand”, and a jammed-out “Wolfman’s Brother” towards the end of the set.  With the amount of jamming and exploration that occurred in Set One, there was a palpable “How can they possibly follow that up?” feeling throughout the crowd.

Overall, Set Two was a pure Saturday-night rock and roll dance party.  While jaded Phish veterans may have been slightly underwhelmed by the lack of deep exploratory jamming, the solid third quarter Fuego, Steam, and Chalkdust Torture section provided the band with a chance to go into full singalong rock-star mode. A fourth quarter “Mike’s Groove” included a beautiful “Winterqueen>What’s the Use?” segue within, before giving way to a blissful “Slave to the Traffic Light” to end the set.  Encores included a fun “The Lizards” and a chaotic “Run Like an Antelope.”

As phans filled the stadium for Sunday night, many gave predictions for what the night would hold. Popular predictions were for a huge “Tweezer” or “Down With Disease” to open Set Two, but what Set One would hold was anyone’s guess.  Set One opened with a novelty “Buffalo Bill” before giving way to a funky-but-brief “Moma Dance”. For me, the real highlight was the second quarter, beginning with “The Wedge”.  “The Wedge” was jammed on nicely, but gave way to an extremely exploratory and somewhat dark “46 Days”.  After settling back down on Earth, guitarist Trey Anastasio led the way into a full-speed-ahead “Bathtub Gin”.  This jam reached an intense peak, where, in a very cliche moment, I completely forgot what song I was listening to before being reminded by the re-appearance of the recognizable “Gin” theme.

Photo by Taylor Hill

Those who put their money and reputation on a huge Set Two opening “Down With Disease” were certainly paid in full. The jam out of this DWD was full Type I guitar-hero, with Trey soloing straight to an early peak before giving way to a dark and ambient section.  Out of this ambiance arose a slow building and intensely evil group jam, which became so full of psychedelic energy that it could best be described as an alien spaceship launch meets a Chernobyl-level reactor failure.  Segueing out of “Disease”, the first notes of “Light” were accompanied by thousands of glow sticks being thrown from the upper seating levels, giving the sense of a glow stick rainstorm, quickly leading the way into a more blissful jam, followed by the inspirational stadium-rock of “Rise”. Other personal Set Two highlights were a fun and adventurous “Piper” and a very tense but exhilarating “Possum”.

I was very pleased with the first encore, “Waste”, as it is one of the few Phish songs whose lyrics are somewhat meaningful to me, and despite being very similar each time, is very uplifting.  The final song of Dick’s 2017 was “First Tube”, giving phans one last chance to dance all of their energy out, and leaving them with the image of guitarist Trey Anastasio, bathed in white light, with guitar held high overhead.

I cannot close out this review without including this personal story though, which I feel is truly representative of what Phish is about.  On Sunday night, I was only able to attend the show alone.  While sitting down to relax before the show, I started chatting with the guy next to me about the run of shows.  He soon introduced me to his crew, a diverse group of experienced phans, many who had met each other through Phish concerts alone, and soon I was part of a larger group, even if only for the show.  During set break though, I went to check my phone, only to be met with a black screen.  Dead phone.  This was definitely a problem for me, as the venue was about 11 miles away from where I was staying in Denver, I was alone, and had been planning to use Uber or Lyft to return after the show.

I mentioned this to Nate, one of the guys in the group that I had been happily pulled into.  He told me not to worry about it at all and to just enjoy the show because his crew would get me home. After the show ended, Nate and his crew told me to come with them, and they grabbed me an Uber back to their place in Denver, where I was able to charge my phone and meet a few more of their friends before making my way back to where I was staying.  I am so thankful to Nate, Matt, Trey, Casey, and all of the other guys and girls in their crew whose names escape me for helping me out despite just meeting me, and I will pass on that good energy for sure.  These are the kind of people that Phish attracts, and I am so glad to be a part of that scene. I encourage anyone who can to attend a Phish show and form their own opinion of “Phans” and the music that unites them.

 

Check out the full Sunday night performance here!

 

Featured image by John Leyba, The Denver Post

The Grateful Dead’s “Holy Grail”: Does It Hold Up?

 

What elements are required to make a show the “greatest of all time”?  Is it the location, the quality of music, the performance, or a combination of all of these elements?  With the Grateful Dead’s official release of their long held “Holy Grail” show, which took place in Barton Hall, at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York on May 8, 1977, listeners get the chance to find out.

As any more-than-casual fan of the Grateful Dead knows, it’s not long after one’s introduction to the band’s huge catalog of live recordings that whispers (or in some cases, shouts) of a singular date, May 8, 1977, begin to appear.  I can personally remember sitting on the lawn at SPAC, my local summer amphitheater in New York, waiting for a Phish show to begin, and hearing a remark made behind me by a former Deadhead, arguing with his companion, “No, man, no way you can beat May 8th, man.”

So it was with some excitement that I sat down to hear the Grateful Dead’s first official release of this famous show, promising crystal-clear audio for a show that has only ever been heard through audience recordings and soundboard patches.  Regarding audio quality, like so many shows from 1977, the sound is very strong and well mixed, with all band members being able to be discerned.  Phil’s bass is very strong (always a concern), just check out “Dancin’ in the Streets” with your subwoofer to see what I mean.

However, it’s not the audio quality alone that makes the great show. For those who have never listened to the Grateful Dead, this is perhaps the perfect show to start with.  Set One comes out the door with the classic late-1970s Dead sound, leading off with some Bob Weir-sung swagger on “New Minglewood Blues”. By “Lazy Lightning>Supplication” though, the Dead are beginning to reveal their true form, as the song begins to shed its verse-chorus structure and depart into musical freedom, lead by Jerry Garcia’s somewhat restrained lead guitar. Later in the set, the band moves through a solid version of its folk-y classic “Brown-Eyed Women” and sees Jerry Garcia lay down a strong “Row Jimmy”.  It is the closing song of Set One that stands out, though. The aforementioned “Dancin’ in the Streets” certainly dates this concert, but it is still a nearly 20 minute trip through a psychedelic disco, with the band tight as ever, each floating around the central groove before rejoining to end the song. 

It is in Set Two, however, where the magic of the Grateful Dead really shines.  If Set One represents some level of musical restraint, then it can be said that the opening notes of “Scarlet Begonias” represent a point of no return into total musical freedom.

Paired with its longtime song partner, “Fire on the Mountain”, this monster 25 minute “Scarlet Fire” cements its place as one of its most popular examples, with a focused mid-point transition, and Jerry Garcia’s guitar soaring above the huge wave of sound provided by his bandmates during the last half of “Fire on the Mountain”.  The following “Estimated Prophet”, a personal favorite, is the darkness to the light that precedes it, with Bob Weir describing a seemingly apocalyptic vision of delusion with a backdrop of a romanticized version of America before allowing the music to leave into a snaking cosmic exploration.  The band comes back to Earth with a strong version of the classic favorite, “St. Stephen” sandwiching a sprawling “Not Fade Away”.

What comes next, though, is for me, the high water mark of perhaps all of the Grateful Dead that I have heard, truly.  Attendees of the concert have since described feeling a wave of energy radiate from the crowd as they heard the opening notes of this “Morning Dew”, a relative rarity.  Beginning as a low-energy, somber tune, “Morning Dew” rises in energy as it progresses to its emotional peak, where instrumental music says all and more than lyrics possibly could have.  Closing with the utterance, “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway…”, Jerry Garcia speaks to the existentialist that lives within all, urging listeners to live in the present, as the past is gone and the future is coming.

So is this truly the “greatest Dead show of all time”?  For me, this question can not be answered, as the musical power that the Grateful Dead convey can not be simplified to any moment, song, or concert.  What this concert is, though, is a measuring stick.  This concert brings unparalleled consistency, power, tightness, exploration, and emotion together to deliver the trademark Dead experience.  So, if you can only listen to one Dead show, make it this one.

This concert can be heard on the Grateful Dead’s newly released “Cornell 5/8/77” set, either as a 3-CD or 5-LP set, or, of course, on digital streaming and download services.

http://www.syracuse.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2017/05/legend_of_1977_grateful_dead_show_at_cornell_lives_on_at_40th_anniversary.html

http://www.spin.com/2017/05/grateful-dead-day-cornell-show-40th-anniversary/

http://www.stereogum.com/1939833/why-even-non-heads-should-listen-to-grateful-deads-famous-cornell-show-from-40-years-ago-today/franchises/sounding-board/

 

 

What’s The Deal With Jam Rock? (Or, What Happened to the Tuesday Rock Show?)

As one or two of you may have noticed, the Tuesday Rock & Roll show has gotten a little weird over the past couple of weeks.  Gone are any semblance of verse-chorus structured songs, or even any song structures at all.  Instead, long, meandering jams, seemingly devoid of any purpose, often lasting well over ten minutes, seem to have taken their place.  So what’s going on with this spaced-out music and why is it a part of the Rock Show?

Vermont-based jam band Phish (http://phishthoughts.com/tag/new-years/)

Jam rock has deep roots in rock music; there is no genre that describes it more closely, hence its name.  But listen a little more closely, and you may hear the country-blues-rock-jazz fusion of the Grateful Dead, the Zappa-esque funk grooves of Phish, the “jamtronica” of Lotus (peep Jessica’s recent review of Lotus at Park City Live: http://kuteradio.org/tag/lotus/), or the progressive influences in the music of Umphrey’s McGee.  This is an eclectic genre that truly shines in its most unrestrained form, live performance.  Jam bands, in a practice that is not widespread around the live music scene, never perform two shows with the same setlist.  More importantly, though, no two songs are ever performed exactly the same.  Jam bands perform their shows “without a net”, that is to say, they have no set plan for how any single song will be played. Instead, their extended musical explorations, which often branch out of rehearsed song sections, are reflections of a single moment in time which will never be replicated.  Such is the beauty of jam rock: it is an endless supply of new music due to the fact that no two performances will contain the same music.  Though it may be a hard concept to explain, there is no greater musical gift than to be able to constantly hear totally new versions of your favorite song, with familiar parts where they should be, and totally new pieces elsewhere.  Thus, live recordings (apart from going to concerts!) represent the best way to consume jam rock, which each unique performance captured as a musical snapshot of a particular moment.

Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead (https://www.pinterest.com/farrelltimlake/homegrown-dead/)

So you might be thinking, “Just because they jam doesn’t mean that it is good!”. You would be absolutely right.  With such unplanned, improvisational music, flubs and truly aimless jams are bound to happen.  But when all elements come together and bands are firing on all cylinders, amazing moments occur.  At their best, for example, the legendary guitarist Jerry Garcia can be heard weaving flowing melodies throughout the rhythmic tidal wave of the Grateful Dead, and Phish’s legendary ability to turn jams on a dime gives them an ability to bring frenzied musical-freak outs to soaring, totally focused peaks.  Often, audience reactions can be heard slightly on recordings, and there is a clear sense of mutual exchange of energy between the bands and their audience as each push each other to continue exploring musically.

http://www.dead.net/fanphotos/jfk-stadium-7-10-87

Before you dismiss jam music as only for spaced-out hippies and freaks, give it a listen.  It works equally well in the background or for focused listening.  Let the bands take your ear with them wherever they decide to go, and recognize the depth of musical theory, knowledge, and experience that allows these bands to step onstage without a set plan.  You may begin to notice clear signs of totally unspoken musical communication between band members, and you may be surprised to hear the return of familiar chords and lyrics after particularly meandering or intense jams.  Should you enjoy the music and continuing listening, you may begin to get the sense that there is a huge community around this music, but that topic is for another day.  In the meantime, you might be able to start to understand how a little Vermont band like Phish can sell out four nights in a row at Madison Square Garden nearly every New Years weekend, or how a bunch of hippies from late-60s San Francisco, called the Grateful Dead, were able to fill football stadiums well into the 1990s.  There is truly more to this music than first meets the ear.