Hey nerds! When tour dates dropped this Spring, a chime of disappointment rang through my chest with the realization that my favorite band wouldn’t be coming within 1,200 miles of my home in California. A collective shrug inevitably felt by most of my west coast brethren. Yeah, yeah, we did get eighteen amazing shows between the summer and fall of ’21 (an embarrassment of riches really), but as a card-carrying member of hardcore phans, it’s in our very nature to be disappointed at least part of the time.
Traveling for Phish is certainly nothing new for me. The older I get and the more I become comfortable in my professional life, travelling becomes part of the fun, checking off bucket list venues as if on some imaginary bingo card. But also, I’m from the Midwest, so as I scrolled through the dates, my eyes were immediately drawn to this middle weekend in August at the behemoth that is Alpine Valley. A venue that’s imprinted on the DNA of any Phish kid living in the middle of the country. Also, I could use this as an opportunity for a phamily reunion of sorts with all my homies from the great North. In addition, I happen to love lakes, brats, cheese curds and swill beer, so win-win. Of course, I bought the ticket and made the pilgrimage to this sprawling Midwestern Phish mecca. I have a bit of a storied history with this venue, many of which would be inappropriate to mention on this fine forum, so unfortunately you’ll have to wait for my tell-all book for all the dirty details. Needless to say, I’ve seen many, many shows at this place throughout the years.
Last evening was my eighth Phish show at Alpine since 1999. We headed in early and settled into our seats in the pavilion in section 201, Page-side, rage-side. My legs were admittedly a little sore from dancing like a fool with a gaggle of friends on top of the hill the evening before. Alpine Valley, an old friend reminded me, is where Chacos come to die, snapping under the body weight strained by boogieing on a thirty-degree incline. It’s all part of the fun.
Minus a little rain on Saturday evening, I felt like the weather throughout the weekend was a major blessing compared to the countless other shows I’ve attended here with either sweltering humidity or torrential downpours. The mid 70s breeze blew through my party shirt, a hideous blue and orange Hawaiian number, whose motif is printed on a breathable football jersey-like material. Since its show count is probably somewhere in the 70s (Big Cypress being its first!), it makes me an easy target for friends in the know far and wide. At approximately 7:37 the band took the stage to overcast skies.
When the opening notes to “The Landlady” dropped I felt a few butterflies form in my tummy wondering if this show might parallel the last Sunday they performed here, the incredible bust-out heavy and jam-filled 7.14.19, a show I was sadly not in attendance for. Trey’s tone sounded great out of the gate, and the choreographed dance moves were well executed by him and Mike. Next up was “Runaway Jim,” with the promise of a big early show jam, but alas, it served as more of a warm-up with Type I / hose jamming and tapping out just over the seven-minute mark.
The always welcome “Divided Sky” was up next, perhaps the first Phish song I ever loved. The band waited like statues for three solid cheer sections for Trey to finish the last note in his beautiful composition. The improv section was clean and soaring. My hands became airplanes twisting and climbing uncontrollably above my head.
“46 days” came after, again with the promise of a big jam. I’ve been reenergized by this song with some excellent versions in recent history (especially you, numbers show). And while it was held just over the ten-minute mark, it contained some interesting jamming that started typically in minor key before flirting with major key, then modulating back to minor. The finish featured gritty guitar work from Trey and a pulsating outro filled with Page synths.
They dropped into the dad rock staple “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan” next. It’s not my favorite song, as I normally cringe a little bit after the Clif Bar and green tea line, however the jam was a rollicking, booty shaking affair, with a whisper of Trey shred.
I don’t have a lot say about the combo of “Sugar Shack”, “Shade”, and “Halfway to the Moon” that followed. I don’t feel too strongly one way or another about any of these songs except to say they are like stamps in my collection of which I may have a few too many. The “headin' back to Duluth” line in HTTM elicited an audible cheer from the crowd.
“Everything’s Right,” a newish song that I love. came next. Finally, we achieve lift-off, starting out with some George Benson-like playing from Trey. For the first time in the evening the band transformed into one living and breathing organism that could be collectively felt by everyone in the pavilion. Synergy accomplished with white light peaks; ER became the obvious highlight of the first frame.
Set break was indeed weird, but there I was again in my favorite living room on the planet. High fives and hugs were doled out like tic-tacs to all my old pals, some of whom I hadn’t seen in twenty-plus years. The geeks talked stats, the smokers puffed, and the trippers stared into the void. Smiles were exchanged with strangers. The band returned to the stage around 9:23.
I was pleasantly surprised when they led off with the Apples in Stereo tune “Energy,” a song that is positively Phishy, but remains a relative rarity since its debut at SPAC ’13. Somehow, I’ve managed to catch four out of its nine performances. The jam started out brooding and petered out around the eleven-minute mark. CK5 lights glowed with the chatoyancy of a cabochon-cut gemstone. Fishman fueled an intense jam that devolved into 4.0 swamp sounds before segueing into the tour’s second “Gotta Jiboo.” The echoplex at the beginning of the jam always gives me goosebumps as it recalls Phish sounds from a long past era. There were tasty licks from Trey and tickled ivories from Page. A short but multi-sectional jam ensued before breaking it down into “Soul Planet.”
Now would Soul Planet be the jam of the night? Hardly. A short but great jam did happen with long sustains from Trey before dropping into an oddly placed “Rift”. I generally consider Rift to be a first set song, so hearing it in the meat of the second set felt strange, although Fishman was on attack mode through the throat-warbling ending. An equally bizarre second set “Reba” was up next, but no complaints here. Reba is one of my all-time favorite songs, and I would have no misgivings if they ever decided to extend the improv section past the forty-five-minute mark. Mike contributed muscular basslines and while this Reba was an average 12:31, it provided that space I could live in forever; a place where mindfulness comes naturally as I swayed eyes-closed for much of the jam. They eschewed the whistling ending in favor of a surprise third quarter “Martian Monster”.
Cactus this time dropped some bombs and Kuroda fired up the fog machine. Under the cover of the mist Trey snuck back to Fishman’s kit as Fishman fired up the Electrolux. The debut of Jerry Reed’s “Broken Heart Attack” seemed like a vulnerable offering from Fishman considering his recent divorce. I love Jon Fishman, not just the player, but the person. I’m confident everything will work out for him being the shining star he is. LET FISHMAN SUCK! After running around like a madman to his least favorite Argent tune, “Hold Your Head Up,” complete with a walk across Page’s grand piano, he joined Trey back on the drums for a brief marimba lumina jam with MM quotes and trippy synths from Page.
With a renewed energy from the crowd they moved into a fiery “Possum”. Some good old-fashioned bump and grind followed before the set-ending “Slave to the Traffic Light”. A slightly better than average outro jam featured Mike taking the lead early before passing the baton to Trey who soared past the finish line with this crowd-pleasing tune.
“Waste” in the encore slot was perfectly beautiful followed by a perfunctory “First Tube.” Part of what makes Phish so special is that they are so many things to so many people, but no matter how you slice it, it’s always a hoot.
My hot take on Alpine: there were plenty of highlights throughout the weekend, but I personally felt none of the shows quite measured up front to back to many of those earlier in the tour. But hey, that’s okay. That’s partly why I go to twenty Phish shows a year. We as fans constantly live in fear of missing out, but the music this weekend became only an ancillary part to the greater experience. Sharing time with dear friends, meeting new ones, and creating memories that will last a lifetime. That’s what it’s all about, for me anyway. Hopefully my naked zipline ride through the dark at the after party on Saturday night won’t soon be forgotten. WARNING: Don’t tempt me with a good time! My heart is filled with gratitude. What a phamily reunion! I’ll see the rest of the fam at Dicks!
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