True Phish fans, i.e. every single person at Red Rocks Friday night, were rewarded for their vigil through the rain with a transcendent second set that may have included some of the band’s finest live moments — ever. Photos by Todd Radunsky.
The rain just won’t quit. I’m huddling inside a trash bag and a stream is becoming a river underneath my feet. Waterfalls tumble down red rocks. Amid a sea of soon-to-be-swimming Phish fans, a single refrain pulses through my brain: “I got a blank space where my mind should be.”
Indeed. What other reason would explain 9,500 people giggling through a tsunami? It could be the music that preceded the drenching: 90 minutes of purely unpredictable and feckless Phish. Or maybe our waiting is about what will come: who the hell knows.
In a blowout that shattered any chances of tidy definition, Phish joined Mother Nature Friday at Red Rocks in a tempestuous journey that veered and caromed with no discernible navigation other than the whims of a band and its fans. It was the quintessential Phish show; a psychedelic spectacle that encompassed everything the band is and could be. Good and bad.
There was the pretentious and indulgent: “Time Turns Elastic,” a new 14-minute composition that tries to be every Phish song in one. Its unfolding layers of pompous and overwrought vignettes drained much-needed energy from the middle of a first set engulfed in tornado-like gusts and sideways rain.
The overwhelming and crushing: “Split Open and Melt” arrived late in the first set, after the band’s crew had wrapped every stack on the sparse stage in plastic tarps and it sent the crowd into a frenzy. It was a purely improvisational exploration that resounded with a single theme: wet.
The frivolous: “Lawn Boy,” a classic featuring a leisure-suit-ready Page McConnell stalking the stage, crooning like a lounge master and bassist Mike Gordon hammering out wicked bass lines like he’s in another song.
The responsive: A nonchalant “Water in the Sky,” arriving just as those drops became deluge. The playful: The new “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan,” with that reverberating, even teasing stanza about vacant craniums. And an effusive “Bathtub Gin” — with the get-ready-for-the-rain line screamed by all in attendance: “and we love to take a bath!” — that pursued at least three different storylines as Trey Anastasio explored and unfurled the tune’s wandering interludes.
And that was just the first set. The promise of that second set — to shake off the rain and cap an already spectacular first set — was what kept us huddling for an hour in a downpour. The reward for our sodden patience was unexpected riches. Within seconds of taking the stage, Phish drove us off a cliff and into a maelstrom that rivaled any Front Range storm. Attacking “Drowned,” — a Who classic that Phish has elevated to never-before heights, with the line: “Let me be stormy and let me be calm. Let the tide in, and set me free” — Phish churned into a set that would be an improvisational masterpiece and a highlight for the entire phlock.
Jon Fishman — donning the Henrietta dress — took the reins late in “Drowned” and flawlessly ferried his dampened dancers into the Talking Head’s “Crosseyed and Painless,” triggering a massive glow-stick war that almost eclipsed Chris Kuroda’s magical light display. Kuroda used “Crosseyed” as the canvas for a starry splash of visuals on the craggy backdrop behind the band, furthering the psychedelic shine of the moment. Fishman’s vocal cadence was dead-on David Byrne, which is even more impressive considering it comes atop his consistent John Bonham blitz on the skins.
Taking a breather with “Joy,” — the title cut of its upcoming album — Phish lightened the mood with a rubbery, feel-good tune that waxed insipid at points. (“We want you to be happy. Cause this is your song too!”) But the momentum of “Crosseyed” could not be denied as the band poured everything into a “Tweezer” that left jaws agape as it morphed into a deliriously engaging tome that deliberately faded into “Backwards Down The Number Line.” With a closer imminent, anxiety ruled.
This was the moment that could make or break the set. “Fluffhead” was a perfect choice, with a lumbering pace but peaking apex that — in this fan’s opinion — would rival the best of anything the band has ever played. The seamless roll from “Fluffhead” into “Piper” was inspired and everyone in the house knew this was a special night. And for the ultimate kicker of a most memorable Red Rocks revelation: a tenderly addressed song the band debuted 13 years ago in the same venue, The Beatle’s “A Day in the Life.”
The encore “Suzy Greenburg” was particularly taunting, with a school-yard playfulness that ground against the expected and explosive “Tweezer Reprise” illuminating a rare moment built by a band and its fans; a collaborative effort that will go down in the record books.
Time Turns Elastic
Water in the Sky
Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan
Split Open and Melt
Drowned > Crosseyed and Painless
Tweezer > Backwards Down the Number Line
Fluffhead > Piper > A Day in the Life
For the late-nighters:
The hardest working man in show business, the mighty-lunged Karl Denson is terrorizing the Gothic Theatre again tonight with his turbo-charged brand of brassy jam funk. The sax-flute player with the huge guns can wax spacey swing to Latin groove and Friday’s late-night show was a relentless — and incredibly loud — display. Friday night’s funky “Bridge” had the entire house tumbling. And if you really need more guitar after a Phish show, Karl D’s Brian Jordan is a force on the ax. His rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” was so spot on you’d think he shared the late great’s DNA.
Click over to Colorado After Parties to get the low down on Karl D and other late-night offerings this weekend.
Check Reverb daily for updates on Phish’s four-night visit to Red Rocks.
Todd Radunsky is a Boulder-based photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.
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