Last year, when we got shut out six ways from Sunday on Telluride tickets, we opted for a trip to Wisconsin to see them at Alpine Valley. The wife was a huge sport then, too, being roughly four months and change pregnant. Our daughter’s been with us for over eight months now, and between two monster student loans, two car payments, and the 12-headed monster known as day-care fees, there just didn’t seem like a way to make any of my second-leg-of-tour options –- Chicago, Denver, or Portland -– work.
The way it did wind up working was for the wife to say that we didn’t really have enough money saved up for our big family vacation next spring, so she suggested we postpone it a year, and that I use some of what was saved to go see Phish, the most inexpensive route being to catch them in Colorado. For that, and many other things, the wife deserves massive, massive kudos. Not only was this a huge financial sacrifice, but it also meant that she would spend Labor Day Weekend on her own, and solely responsible for the baby.
I didn’t immediately reveal a sense of elation, but that’s kind of been how I roll in the last few years; excitement doesn’t really grasp me until the thing at hand is right around the corner. I did feel a bit more amped once the tickets arrived in the mail, and that edge grew even more when Phish finished their three-night run in Chicago. It meant that the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park shows were near, that I’d soon be again in the presence of my favorite act.
Stress was gnawing at me Thursday as the work day wore on and items on my to-do list were still mostly unchecked, and once most had checks, and I was in bed, I tossed and turned all night. The cause of this was general anxiety about getting up, on the road, and to the venue without feeling rushed, but Adeline woke twice during the night, too, which didn’t help.
I rose, nonetheless, at 3:30, showered, made coffee, and crossed off the remaining two stragglers from the list. I checked my e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter for the final time for a few days, and inspected the already-loaded gear in the car. I woke the wife, who woke the baby, and put her in her car seat, and we were off to Uncle Jake’s, who was driving two of his nephews, and I west.
Things were a little confusing upon our arrival, as there were five people outside, but no Uncle Jake. I knew the two young men were his nephews, but I wasn’t sure if these were the same two nephews I’d met before, nor at which festival I’d met them. I introduced myself to them, and immediately felt embarrassed as they -– Michael and Cameron –- both clearly remembered me. I asked if it had been Wakarusa we’d been at; they were quick to correct me: Festival8.
The wife was anxious to get the baby back home, to get both of them back in bed, but I wasn’t sure what to do as Uncle Jake’s SUV looked like it had roughly six square inches of space for my gear, and I had a lot of gear. On the back was fashioned this trailer-hitch shelf for extra storage. It too was loaded.
Alas, Uncle Jake appeared from what was likely a morning-coffee visit to the throne. We assessed what of mine could be left behind, said goodbye to our respective loved ones, and were off in the darkness. For some reason shotgun was reserved for me, and so I made a valiant effort to stay awake for the duration of the drive, while our two 21-year-olds and one 23-year old slept their way across Kansas. I nodded off once or twice, but only for a few minutes.
Everyone was awake and alert for the entrance into Colorado, and our arrival in the thriving metropolis of Montbello was enough to wake a dead cat, as we struggled to find much of anything resembling a grocery store. We obtained some directions, and visited with a crackhead, before making our way to Safeway and the neighboring liquor store for all of the essentials. In the parking lot of the latter, a middle-aged man pulled up next to our car, saw the fullness of the shelf, our arms full of booze boxes and bags of ice, and, with a puff of his miniature stogey, said, “Are you guys by chance on the road?”
We all chuckled, and he informed us that we appeared to be doin’ it right, but not to forget to sit down on the curb and smoke some weed in the event of a problem (Editor's Note: Thanks, bud.). We got to the venue and got parked, and saw the checkpoint tent through which we would be forced to trudge with gear in tow, every last bit of it to be inspected for potential rules violations. It was hot out, and the parking lot was sand. The four trips to our allotted three squares of soccer field were borderline brutal.
Nevertheless, we had a good group effort to get groceries, alcohol, three tents, and a shelter with seating for five up and operational, which was key for a good start to the weekend, as it would gauge, in my mind, how the harmony would or wouldn’t exist within our camp. It was also key, because as we were driving in the last tent stake, and shaking out the last bag of ice, security came around to announce that they were expecting heavy rains and high winds in the next five-10 minutes.
And based on the wicked lightning forks stabbing the ground around the venue, and the swell of monster gray clouds, this was no joke. I spoke briefly with a friend in Denver, who was hiding under a tree with his wife and son, their bike ride suspended by the same storm.
“It’ll pass over you quickly,” he said, “but yeah, you’re about to get crushed.”
This thing came whipping down upon the soccer field, sending massive shade tents cartwheeling across the field like tumbleweeds. Uncle Jake dove into his mansion of a tent while the rest of us grabbed what rain gear was within arm’s reach, and a leg of our own shelter to literally keep it from being ripped away from our middle square of real estate. Luckily, we’d managed to scarf down a few of the hot dogs and grilled-cheese sandwiches Uncle Jake had made before the sky opened on us.
As expected in a scenario like that, many whooped, hollered, and yelled, encouraging the storm to try and ruin the still-being-christened weekend for them, their own Lieutenant Dan match against God, if you will. Some folks howled with such volume that I began to question their sanity, but knew it to be validated by their even-louder bellows that emerged some 20 minutes later, when the storm subsided, and a vast Colorado blue that ensconced a beaming sun replaced those dark
pillows of that had just assaulted hundreds and hundreds of tents. But, we survived, and by the grace of something, everybody’s stuff stayed dry, even the inside of my fossil of a tent. And toward the venue we went. The line was a complete disaster first night as Dick’s employees feverishly hole punched any and all tickets that was shoved into their personal space, which is what the door attendants were checking to see if your ticket qualified, via hole punch, for a floor wristband. Jackpot.
Set one started with “Sample in a Jar,” which contained nothing noteworthy. I’ve heard that same “Sample” a bunch. (Note: Ed Rooney voice…) “Nine times” to be exact. And three of them were set openers. “Sparkle” followed which is always fun, and with high energy –- except when it’s sloppy -– but it always seems so rushed anymore. This version was crisp and clean, though.
“The Sloth” came third. Still unremarkable. “Sweet Virginia” started, and I felt like now we were talkin’ kidney beans. Solid execution, great placement, and I always like getting Fishman involved early on the vocals. “Suskind Hotel” followed that, and it’s cool to be present for only the second performance of it. There’s a lot of hype going around for both the performance rarity and the Trey-led jam, but it didn’t do a whole lot for me. In fact, the jam reminded me of the Mike Gordon line from Bittersweet Motel:
Trey: “Mike, what’d you think of that set last night?”
Mike: “I thought you played a lot of notes.”
Trey: “You always think that!”
It did, have a crisp finish to it, though.
“Strange Design” is always pretty, but for a so-far-uninspiring first set, it was a rough spot for me and my fading enthusiasm to have a slow song. My phish.net stats listed one track played at 13 shows, two at 10, nine at nine (“Sample” being one), and nine at eight, of which “Stash” is one. This is the price you pay, obviously for seeing a band 30-plus times, but the way the set had thus far unfolded, I was not too thrilled. Regarding the jam: some decent Trey, some of that too-busy Trey.
The lovely bass and groove-infected clav funk that comes with “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” almost always guarantees a win-win situation. For me, though, night one at Alpine last summer featured a “Sneakin’” that would be tough to top, especially having seen it just two shows ago. All told: decent crunch, fun vocal jam that trickled into some of that thick, spaceman Gordon spunk. Real nice. Might be goin’ somewhere here.
“Sparks,” an instrumental number from The Who’s Tommy followed, and I’ll be honest: I’d never heard the song before, and frankly, have never owned a copy of Tommy, so I stood there blank-faced for its brief duration. “Scent of a Mule”’s another eight-timer for me, but I typically enjoy it if the Trey/Page dual doesn’t feel rushed. It was rushed, though, and moreover, they rushed right to it, but when you’re waist deep in a 14-song first set on night one of three, something’s gotta give. Not a bad version.
I dig “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan.” It’s got some edge to it, and in a Phish society that bashes content from Joy, I’m –- at least for now –- prone to stick up for it. Nice beginning to the jam, though it quickly threatens – via Trey and Page – to lose me. Decent finish. Never been a big Rolling Stones fan, but I love that “Virginia,” “Shine a Light,” and “Loving Cup” appear to get the most play from the Exile on Main Street album, as they are among the best cuts, in my opinion, from that record, and this version of “Shine” was delightful.
I’ve written previously about how I think the lyric “smooth atonal sound” is a bit of an oxymoron, and while I know there are those in the land of Phish that get off on it, I do not. Some of the most atonal jams I’ve heard have nearly brought me to my knees, made me feel as though my chest was going to split open and gush. “Split Open and Melt” scares the shit out of me every time I hear it live because of the massive potential it has for crushing me. This version went straight to the jam, and I was looking for a railing to white-knuckle, but it wound up being mellow in its intensity, and featured some blistering Chris Kuroda work.
“The Squirming Coil” is a long-time favorite of mine. I can’t recall a version I didn’t like (regardless of set or set placement), and this one was no exception. It closed out the set, and as you may’ve noted, every song started with the letter‘S’, which was all the buzz that night and the next day.
I found it cute.
Intermission is probably a good time to discuss how what’s going on with you largely determines your experience at a show, perhaps to a degree measurable in comparison with what’s going on with the band. I mean, on most nights, this band doesn’t suck, so if you’re in a good space, they’ll probably push you into a great one. I think I was a little off from a wacked-out night of sleep, not really eating a meal to speak of all day, and then pounding 87 beers from the moment the storm let up through most of set two. Because of the mayhem going in, I lost my people, and spent the show getting knocked around and shoved by everyone –- and they’re there every show –- that had to get up front.
I’ve been up close at my share of shows, and it’s great, but not everyone can do it. Actually not very many at all can. It’s called physics. You can only put so many objects in a finite space before that space has to shift. There was something about the general ennui I felt during set one, and via my swift exit/return to/from the concession stand, I was probably 12-15 rows back, Page side, and early, therefore feeling determined to man my small plot of land.
I’d also felt like there was something energy-wise happening with both myself and with the band at the end of set I, something that could carry over and develop into a huge second half. While I was in line, I heard one of the many knuckle-headed gems you hear from Phish fans, and it went something like this:
“Bro, if someone’s givin’ you negative energy at a show, you gotta either turn it into positive, or just walk away.”
Great in theory, I suppose. In practice, not so much.
So there I was, in my spot. House lights go down, crowd rowdies, and whatever the percentage is, people rush. When most had settled, I wound up with a guy behind me that decided he was going to put his folded-up, bagged lawn chair (or umbrella, or whatever it was) directly against my heels, and stand all but touching my back.
I’m sure there is one, maybe two, larger pet peeves in my archive, but I can certainly not think of one right now. When people put their feet on my book rack in grade school, and scraped their soles against its edge, or kicked it repeatedly –- intentionally or not –- it would drive me nuts. Same at manager meetings in restaurants where we’d around a high top and someone’s gotta put their feet on one of my chair’s rungs. Or when I work hockey games for the Central Hockey League, and I have someone standing behind my chair, leaning on it, and noticeably breathing on my head. These things fire me up big time.
I won’t carry on in great detail about this incident, but I let it affect my second set. At first I didn’t do anything because it was weird, and I thought maybe it was an accident. But like I mentioned, people keep flooding the very front, those on the edge get forced back. Eventually, I offered a gentle shove to his item, thinking he’d notice that it was in my space, and move it. Instead, he shoved it right back into my heels.
This literally continued for the entire set, each shove exchange a bit more aggressive. At one point, he was like, “Dude, quit tryin’ to move it back,” to which I wanted to say, Yeah, man. That’s what we’re all trying to do here: not move backwards while people flood the front.
Anyway, the music.
“Sand” was the opener, and it had great energy, some solid cylinder firing. It segued into “Simple,” which you can almost never go wrong with, and on this occasion it featured a patient, full middle section. I suppose it would be appropriate to say that Mike did in fact “drop a meatball” in there, and, more generally speaking, there’s some cool, spaced-out stuff happening amongst the three of them, while Page quietly sounds like the attacking creatures from Galaga.
I was stoked to get a “Steam,” and, given my thoughts on specific-track expectations for shows –- never have them -– I was going against my own grain and feeling like I’d be bummed if we didn’t get one in six sets at Dick’s. There had to be one. It was the only new song, really, of the summer. Typically, with first experiences, you’re just stoked to hear it and be there for the rendition, which I was. I also dug how they came out of the jam.
Still no pauses, and into “Soul Shakedown Party” we go. Who doesn’t like a little Bob Marley dropped on them? Here’s how I generally feel about “Seven Below”: best song on their worst album, but it’s a song that should’ve been faded out on the studio cut because the jam is disjointed. Page, however, began this jam with some nice church organ, and for the most part, it was a solid, skanky, echoing jam.
The stats say I’ve seen “Suzy Greenberg” eight times; I say 18. Either way, it’s a good thing Page keeps carrying this tune out of the mud of mediocrity because, well, it’s real damn mediocre. Still no pauses, and a pretty execution of “Scents and Subtle Sounds” straight into a “Slave to the Traffic Light.”
The stats say I’ve seen “Slave” four times, which, again, feels like an under-representation, but not one I have a beef with, because, like “Squirming,” I’m a sucker for it. I always seem to get one when at an outdoor CO venue, and it reminds me of how happy I am to be seeing Phish, and specifically, seeing them outdoors in CO. Could be my soft spot for the song, but I feel like they crush it every time, too.
This segued into my first “Silent in the Morning,” and I unfortunately got it without “The Horse.” Thanks, ‘S’ set! It should be noted, though, that Mike, just like in the studio version, just dumped delicate popcorn on the crowd with this bass line. Segue into “Sanity,” another first, Trey accenting the ‘s’ sound like a Ssssesssame Sssstreet ssssock puppet ssssnake. At song’s end, he was not even attempting to be discreet about it, but buying time for Page and Fishman to get up front for an acapella version of “Sweet Adeline,” my daughter’s namesake song, the first I’ve heard since her birth.
“Sabotage” for an encore is, by and large, a crowd pleaser, I think. Got ‘em fired up for second night, anyway.
The moment the house lights came up, I turned to the heel shover, and let him know that I wasn’t trying to move back, that his stuff was in my space.
“You have a great night, man,” he said, and turned to walk away.
All things (re)considered, it was a fun first night, and regarding my occasional boredom and seen-this-a-bunch commentary, I felt like they covered some serious ground Friday night, meaning they checked 25 songs off of the list, leaving things pretty up in the air for nights two and three. Like I said yesterday, “even the greatest of shows aren't great for everyone, regardless of what transpires on the stage.”