Vermont’s finest troubadours rolled into Dick’s Sporting Goods Park for their fourth annual Labor Day weekend fiesta with higher expectations than usual. Phish fans generally know better than to go into a run with any specific expectations, but the band set such a high bar in their previous appearances at the soccer stadium just outside of Colorado’s Mile High City that fans couldn’t help but ponder what special treats were to come.
Would the band spell something out with their Friday night setlist as they had done in each of the three previous years? Would there be first time bustouts, following a 2013 run that had one each night (“Easy to Slip”. “On the Road Again”, “Legalize It”)? Would there be monster jams that received instant jam of the year nominations as occurred in 2012 with “Light” and “Sand”? The only certainty seemed to be that Dick’s weekend would be one of the top highlights on the 2014 concert calendar.
With Denver’s central national location, heady scene and a venue with a 27,000 capacity, the Dick’s weekend has become like a convention for the Phish Nation. It’s a relatively cheap flight from anywhere and everyone can get tickets. Add in Denver’s growing status as the new capital of the American counterculture (arguably having supplanted San Francisco in recent years due to the thriving music scene, lower cost of living and legal cannabis), and Dick’s weekend has deservedly come to be ranked as one of the top holidays in the Phish calendar year.
The theme for Friday night’s show became quickly apparent as the setlist began to spell out “Lushington”, an old tune not played in decades but voted the band’s number one song after some ballot stuffing in a recent poll by Rolling Stone magazine. The set didn’t have the jams of the first set from the epic “Fuck Your Face” show in 2012, but the band was clearly having fun. A rare cover of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” electrified the assembled before a well-placed “Ha Ha Ha” acknowledged that Dick’s shenanigans were in play again. Phish capped the festive set with a horn-driven “Suzy Greenberg”, thanks to a little help from friends Jen Hartswick and Natalie Cressman (who were in town gigging with the Everyone Orchestra.)
But the real fireworks came in the second set when the band threw down a “Simple”>”Ghost” combo for the ages. The quartet’s legendary yet ever unpredictable x-factor kicked in during “Simple”, as the band locked into a focused multi-dimensional jam that would extend to 21-minutes of sonic bliss. It was about halfway through the jam when fans realized something special was happening, and the space-time continuum seemed to stand nearly still as the band commandeered the cosmos. The next ten minutes were about as good as it gets.
The “hose” kept flowing during “Ghost”, as the band chemistry continued to gel. Guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell let the melodies flow, with one section of the jam recalling the renowned “Holy Ghost” jam from New Year’s Eve 2010 at Madison Square Garden. Bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman were at the top of their game throughout the “Simple>Ghost” sequence, enabling Anastasio to keep that hose flowing as long as he might desire.
Saturday’s show featured a roller coaster first set, with new songs “Devotion to a Dream” and “Wingsuit” shining amidst classics like “Free”, “Halley’s Comet” and “David Bowie”. But the band once again saved the heavy lifting for the second set, and one of the best sets of the year it was. “Down with Disease” featured a stellar jam that found the band dialed in at the height of their powers, before seguing into a rare performance of “What’s the Use”. This cosmic interlude led right back into another peak with “Carini”, a tune that has evolved into one of the band’s top jam vehicles in the 3.0 era. This version was one of the best, as the song’s hard rock progression morphed into an incendiary melodic jam that unified Dick’s once again.
The jam was starting to feel like it might get the “Simple” treatment from the night before as Gordon and Fishman fell into a nifty groove that had potential to go to the next level. But the only flaw in the set occurred when Anastasio abruptly cut them off to launch into “Light”. It wasn’t long before he led the band back into a similar jamspace though, as obstacles turned into stepping stones. “Fuego” appeared next and while it wasn’t jammed deep like many versions this summer, the dynamic title track from the band’s new album cranked the set’s energy higher. Fans with confetti guns near the stage launched a volley and the triumphant psychedelia soared. A “Slave” to the “Meatstick” combo was another crowdpleaser before the set was capped with a splendid reading of the Jimi Hendrix classic, “Bold as Love”. You could feel the love in the air as Anastasio channeled the guitar god as few others can.
Sunday afternoon on lot featured a spectacular rainbow, an ongoing Dick’s tradition, and there was no doubt that a musical pot of gold awaited. “The Curtain With” opener was extremely well-received, as were hot takes on “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” and “Wolfman’s Brother”. The second set built with a mountain climbing precision until culminating with a “Tweezer>Sand” combo that ignited the cool Colorado air. Pairing these two top jam vehicles had the crowd deeply enamored and it was the fourth straight Dick’s appearance for both. The band delivered some of their most exquisite sonic landscaping in “Sand”, as McConnell led some funky “plinko” jamming follow by gorgeous subtle sounds from Anastasio with his whale call effects. If the aliens from Star Trek IV: A Voyage Home ever come back to check on the whales, it seems Trey will be able to save the planet with his interstellar communications in language strange.
A “Mike’s>Sneaking Sally>Groove” wrapped the set in style, with fans delighting in the layered “Mike’s Song” jam that took on a more unique flavor than renditions of recent years. When it was all over, it was hard to fathom how quickly another Phish Dick’s weekend had flashed by. But with a 12-show West Coast fall tour awaiting in October, it would seem the best is yet to come for the sonic stunt men from Burlington, Vermont.
Photos: Michael Stein
Words: Greg M. Schwartz
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