Review: Phish @ The Gorge

It is a simply breathtaking wonder to behold. Combining with that expansive view is the celestial syncopation of the sun setting behind the stage daily, and the moon resting on the ridge behind the audience all night, makes this a must-see locale for any music/nature lover. As Trey Anastasio told us after the encore at the end of night one, “This is an incredible place to play.”

With all that being said, the music still is the factor that drives us out here. And Phish went out of their way to make sure that most fans thought the trip was worth it. This is not to say that the shows were note by note perfect, but it was clear that Phish was making a clear effort to take seemingly structured jams and standard versions of songs and stretch them out a bit farther than the norm. A bit of exploration always requires taking some musical risks.

August 5, 2011 – Night One

The quartet busted out of the gates with a huge, 93-minute opening  set. From their post-breakup batch of new tunes, Kill Devil Falls seems to have won out as the worthy rocking show opener, and the version that opened up at The Gorge lived up to that expectation. This was followed by some standard versions of some old school Phish fan favorites: The Wedge and a fun and bit experimental Bathtub Gin. Nellie Kane was a nice surprise, especially since it has only been played four times since 2000. But the set really hit its stride with the Taste > Roggae combination. Taste is an often overlooked rocker, that when done right has the mighty searing heat to close out sets. And this version seemed to get the set moving in the right direction.

The Roggae won out as the major surprise of the weekend to most. This version had some serious legs. Once it seemed near to the typical ending point of the song, they launched into a five-minute blues-driven jam that was one of the more interesting pieces of music played during the weekend. Roggae also happened to fall during the prolonged sunset behind the stage, and the lyric “A circus of light where dreams can take flight” seemed to be a nod to the natural glory taking place behind Phish. I can safely say that it was the best Roggae I have ever heard and I guess that is one less bathroom break song that I can rely on.

Following this was an oddly chosen but well played run of three cover songs that include James Gang’s scorching rocker Walk Away, Son Seals’s Funky Bitch and Ween’s Roses are Free. All in all this night hosted seven cover songs, and there were a lot of tips of the hat to Phish’s influences across the board. A scorching hot David Bowie closed down a massive set, and left fans drained but wanting more.

The second set started off with an uneventful version of the always-optimistic Backwards Down The Number Line, and led to a version of the Velvet Underground’s Rock and Roll that was not at all typical. This was Phish at their most psychedelic and unrestrained and possibly the major musical highlight of the weekend. Once the jam started it was clear that they were taking their time to get the groove just right. Mid-jam, Page left the confines of his keyboard nook to head over to the theremin. For nearly 20 minutes they deconstructed and reconstructed a variety of rhythmic structures until we couldn’t hear the original Rock and Roll through the music anymore. If this isn’t the Type II jamming that fans have been asking for, then I don’t know what is.

At the 12-minute mark of the Rock and Roll jam, Mike Gordon seemed to take over driving the funky groove. He led us through a Moma Dance-esque jam that was just deep and nasty. After this section faded, the jam led to the quirky yet groove-oriented Meatstick. But the Phish funk was not done, and Stevie Wonder’s Boogie On Reggae Woman completed the funk trifecta that was the clear high point for night one. Mike seemed to shift his bass work over to his Boogie On tones while still playing Meatstick to add to the smoothness of the transition. Musicians often talk about playing “in the pocket,” and I nominate this three-song combination of Rock and Roll -> Meatstick -> Boogie On Reggae Woman as an example of the heart of Phish’s pocket.

The rest of the show was not quite up to par with the insanity that the beginning of the set brought. A two song breather of Farmhouse and Show of Life slowed things down a bit and they tried to pick them back up with a Julius and Character Zero, but the momentum that the set had picked up earlier was gone at that point. The final cover of the night, The Rolling Stones’ Loving Cup, ended things on a high note, and what a beautiful buzz it was.

August 6, 2011 – Night Two

For their second show, Phish’s set didn’t jump out of the gate with the same intensity as they did on night one, but by day’s end, they would make up for it many times over. A standard Possum opener kicked things off followed by the always funky, and based on the teasing the previous night, seemingly inevitable, Moma Dance. Both versions were good, but didn’t particularly stand out. Ocelot was notable less for its jam and more for its sun-related lyrics, since the first set was almost all during the sunset and the post-sunset shift to night. As the days were scorchers, the lines “When you see sunlight, move out of the way,” and “Knowing you’ll bake like a snake in the sun,” really were relevant to the shade based adventures that were required pre-show.

The first set really got cooking during Allen Toussaint’s On Your Way Down, which also reached into the lyrical bag of tricks once again to honor the beauty of our surroundings with its opening line of “Sunrise, Sunset.” From there the set really took off with an inspired Wolfman’s Brother. Phish loosened up a jam for the first time this night and even teased a little Led Zeppelin in the middle of the wolf-funk.

This transitioned into the highlight of the first set, a raging Maze. What I love most about this song is that no matter what, you are guaranteed a solo from both Page and Trey that are both focused on hitting that ever-rising peak. And on nights where they are in the zone, this one can steal the breath from any dancing fan. On this night they killed it and kept the momentum rolling into a quick Wilson, which led to a huge set-closing Fluffhead. Although the set started a bit slow, the second half of the first set was well worth a second listen.

But with all this first set fun, this show is going to be remembered by the all-out dance party that broke out in the second set. A Chalkdust > Tweezer opener got everyone up and dancing to start off the set. Prince Caspian kind of seemed out of place, but it was a quick musical detour, until they kicked it back into full throttle for a nasty Sand whose constant groove is maintained by Mike and Jon Fishman’s locked step groove. Sand eventually led back into another taste of the Tweezer. The rocker Birds of a Feather followed and although this version was pretty standard, watching the fans who all dressed like Larry Bird and carried “BIRDS” signs all weekend scream and toss their signs in the air in celebration made it all the more enjoyable. Waste brought the tempo back down, but not for long as a cover of TV on the Radio’s Golden Age followed suit to set up the final push into the night. This is a newer cover in Phish’s repertoire, and it seems like they absolutely love playing this one.

From that point things just got crazy. A late second set Reba surprised most, and really shined. They even gave the mostly shelved whistling section a go, even though it wasn’t nailed, the effort was appreciated. And as if we thought the set had been winding down, the hints of a final Antelope to close the night were seeping through Trey’s noodling. This was not your average Antelope, this Antelope was a gift for anyone paying attention. Right off the bat you can hear Trey whistling the end of Reba within the confines of the Antelope. Shortly after that we got another taste of the already feasted upon Tweezer. Mike teased a bit of Nellie Kane, some more Golden Age references emerged and a Sand tease led directly into the fierce explosion into the jam. Teases like these can make you scream and cheer, but the jam is what makes you sweat, dance and jump and this Antelope jammed me darn near dehydration. This set had the ebb and flow that just keeps me coming back for more.

The encore started off with a standard Suzy Greenberg, but it took an ever-weird shift as they headed into the strange and otherworldly feel of Sanity. Played only a few times in the past decade, this is a deep cut from Phish’s bag of tricks. They were not done with us yet, and neither were they done with the Tweezer even though it had already peaked its head into different parts of the second set a few times. The raging, anthemic Tweezer Reprise closed out the two-night run in style, and we were all left breathless to take in all that just transpired.

One sure sign of a strong two-day run of music is a lack of consensus on which night was the best. After the weekend concluded, I heard all kinds of talk of which night was best, and there was no clear winner. All that means to me was that Phish put together two great shows.

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