Believe it or not there’s a benefit to writing about music weeks after seeing it. Getting some distance from an event as well as re-listening to the music is valuable when evaluating a series of shows. Such is the case with Phish’s last concerts, a three night run over Labor Day weekend at Dicks Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado. And while not necessarily timely, these words should hopefully be a bit more reflective.
Additionally, the band is back in the news, releasing their 13th studio album, Big Boat, on October 7. Phish is also about to kick off a 13 show fall tour, starting in Charleston, SC, on October 14 and ending with a four night run at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for Halloween. Yeah. Phish. Vegas. Halloween. So let’s see where they left off before they pick back up.
The first thing that you have to ask yourself when considering these shows should be “how many ‘dicks’ jokes can be made.” As this was my first time seeing Phish at Dicks, plenty of Dicks jokes popped up throughout the three days. The band seems to enjoy making Dicks jokes as well, so there really is no end to Dicks.
The band has called Dick’s Sporting Goods Park home for Labor Day weekend for the last few years, and has played 18 total shows there dating back to 2011. Additionally, the band has done something special at most Dicks runs, including plenty of setlist shenanigans and special bust outs. It is safe to say that seeing Phish at Dicks is a must, as they have played plenty of epic shows here over the years.
While not containing any hidden messages, the shows played on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were nothing short of awesome. The band jumped into and out of jams with great precision and a sense of aggressiveness not seen during the summer of 2016. They played some great tunes, some new material and even had a couple of bustout performances that got the crowd revved up to a fever pitch. I am pretty sure I told everyone who would listen that they were playing with a driving purpose, as if to say to all those who didn’t like their summer tour performance that they can do pretty much whatever they want when they want to do it. My kind of Phish, and made for a long and enjoyable Dicks weekend.
The weekend got rolling with a surprise Ghost to open night one set one. While more of a traditional run through, the tune was a great way to kick off the weekend, and was one of a couple of first set surprises throughout the three shows. A well-played fun version set a tone for each of the first sets, with Slave to the Traffic Light opening night two, and Moma Dance in the opening frame on night three. The Slave opener on Saturday marked only the second time Phish opened with the tune, the other back in 1988.
No Men in No Man’s Land filled the second spot on Friday, and the boys got into this version. Clocking in at well over 10 minutes, the band stretched their legs a bit as they jammed through No Men, which has been one of the great new additions to the Phish catalog. The first example of the aggressive style the band was feeling, the No Men jam was tight and high energy, and even better upon re-listen.
Another new tune slid into the three-hole on Friday, as Breath and Burning made its 4th appearance. This one earned a spot on the forthcoming album, Big Boat, and of the 3 versions I have seen (Mann and SPAC), Dicks was better. High energy, and the crowd loved the “rage with Page” line in the second verse. This one is sure to grace future sets with some semblance of frequency.
Undermind followed Breath and Burning, and Phish took a turn for the funk. A solid 8 minute version showed once again that they were serious about serious jams. Page’s licks on the keys, combined with the echo effect Trey used around 2 minutes in, got all the asses shaking in Dicks.
Heavy Things was next. Though many phans tend to use Heavy Things as an opportunity for bladder relief or beverage refill, I often reflect back to the Big Cypress version and the “Cheesecake!” chant the band led the crowd on as the New Year’s Eve 2000 coverage spent a few moments with the 80,000 strong crowd in the Florida everglades. Fond memories.
Stash got things kicked back up as the band reached the mid-point of the first set Friday. Complete with the requisite crowd participation, Stash clocked in at 10 minutes, and once again Phish jumped right into the jam. Trey and Page had some enjoyable interplay as the band built the jam, and the tune was played to almost perfection.
Some stage banter about the way the band has played Dicks would precede Ass Handed, making its third appearance since they debuted the brief Fishman ditty at The Gorge back in July. The Wedge, a first set staple, got everyone singing and dancing along, smiles all around during the 6 plus minute version.
Alaska succeeded The Wedge, and the band got into a nice little funk jam after the composed section was complete. Not seen since 2014, the first Alaska in 77 shows was driven by Fishman’s strong play on drums and clocked in at almost 10 minutes. The boys provided plenty of groove that contained some ripping guitar peaks and created a lot of Dicks swaying.
The first set ended with a nice punch, as 46 Days rounded out the ten song opening frame. 46 Days again featured the aggressive jump-in-head-first jamming the band had set the tone with early on, and was a highlight of the opening night and a great way to bring the set to a close.
The second set began with Run Like an Antelope, and Antelope was as fun as it usually is. A setlist staple, Antelope has rarely opened a second set. Fans have to go back to 2004 to find the most recent ‘Lope 2nd set opener. The boys really were on fire, hitting the technical aspects with aplomb and maintaining an energy level that had been reported missing during much of their summer tour.
The second slot of the second set was filled with Mercury, making its fourth appearance since its debut in Bend, Oregon in July of 2015. The complex tune has many changes which the band executed with alacrity. Expected to be a part of Big Boat, Mercury was actually left off the new LP at the request of producer Bob Ezrin, much to Trey’s chagrin. This was a first timer for me. I have gotten into the 12 minute Dicks version on multiple occasions in order to learn all of its intricacies. I’m still not there yet, but can say that I am a fan.
Mercury segued into Seven Below, which was teased a little later on in the set as well. Yet another aggressive instrumental presented itself during this version, as Trey took the lead and ran with it. Fishman and Page McConnell also stood out, and around the halfway point of the 9 minute version, I thought my head might explode. Trey brought me back down, as he tends to do when he plays the emotional peaks and valleys of a tune like this.
As they deconstructed the jam in the remaining minute, I sensed what was next by hearing just a few of Trey’s licks. Sure enough, Birds of a Feather arose from the din, delighting the euphoric crowd. Another great sing-along tune, Birds also featured a dirty jam that the boys jumped right into. It was fast and furious and generated another gear of energy from the already lit crowd. Trey used the echo effect quite often throughout the weekend, and the venue sound reflected it well. Clearly they know what they are doing, and after 18 Dicks shows, they have a great idea how to make the venue rock.
Had to have that: Wombat came next. Such a fun tune, Wombat created lots of smiles and falsetto singing throughout our section and the crowd at large. With some dark alley-type funk, Wombat is one of my favorites off the band’s previous Album Fuego. Mike Gordon drove the tune with his masterful bass play, and everyone seemed cuddly but muscular as the song found its groove.
Then the bomb was dropped. The boys weren’t holding anything back on this night, as an exploratory and jam-licious Tweezer followed Wombat. The Tweezer jam started just after the 4:00 mark and continued steadily and- once again- aggressively, for another 12 minutes. Dicks was raging as the band reached the peak of the jam, which they easily dialed into the opening of Runaway Jim. Another sing along tune, Jim featured the aforementioned Seven Below tease less than 2 minutes in, delighting the setlist geeks (myself among them) in the crowd.
Jim segued into the set-closing Suzy Greenberg, and the rocker was a ton of fun. Page and Fishman had some sick interplay about 4 minutes in, especially considering Trey joined Jon on drums and assisted the mumu-wearing rhythm specialist for about 2 minutes. The crowd dug it, and helped the band bring down the house with some solid backing vocals.
While most figured a Tweezer Reprise would pop up in the encore, not many correctly guessed that the slower melodic Bug would precede the high energy finishing tune. At that point it didn’t matter, as both band and crowd alike were elated at the events of the evening. My first Dicks was a success.
Dicks Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City CO
Set 1: Ghost, No Men In No Man’s Land, Breath and Burning, Undermind, Heavy Things, Stash, Ass Handed > The Wedge, Alaska > 46 Days
Set 2: Run Like an Antelope, Mercury > Seven Below > Birds of a Feather, Wombat, Tweezer > Runaway Jim > Suzy Greenberg
Encore: Bug > Tweezer Reprise