The week of steady rain that has left Telluride swimming was not enough to dampen the colorful Phish carnival that took over the box canyon valley. With a stellar blast of exploratory rock-n-roll psychedelia, the Vermont-spawned quartet on Monday led its giddy minions through a rolling dancefest that saw cloudless skies and arms raised high.
In what many consider the most anticipated show in recent years -– with its highly coveted tickets trading for several hundred dollars -– Phish heartily rewarded its most lucky followers with a memorable mountain event that ranks on the very top shelf of the 27-year-old band’s trophy case.
Spinning off a three-night stand at the intimate Greek Theater in Berkeley, Calif., Phish showed zero weariness, offering a wandering and unexpected collection of songs with a single theme: dance time.
To celebrate their return to Telluride after more than 22 years, bassist Mike Gordon took the reins early with his thunderous “Down With Disease” opener, filling the lush mountain valley with resonant slaps that filtered all the way up the canyon, where non-ticketed dancers frolicked on cliffs in the trees.
Phish first sets tend toward songs, with carefully reproduced tunes carried just as they are written. While Telluride’s first set did just that –- with a supremely funky “Ocelet,” and a get-grooving cover of Traffic’s “Light Up or Leave Me Alone,” — the set also highlighted some vigilant exploration in “Stash” and “Caverns” by guitarist Trey Anastasio and Gordon. The late set “Possum,” saw Anastasio teasing a subtle country twang while the pair’s overlapping riffs in closer “Julius” lassoed an entire park of dancers into a frenzied boogie.
Set break saw the widest of grins. Telluride is not an easy place to get to. Fans worked to travel to the tiny village. They dropped big dollars on nice rooms, filling the town and its sister Mountain Village to capacity. Each night the band delivered some 750 tickets to San Miguel County locals and their bewildered but contented countenances were evident as they surveyed their hometown park and its rogue visitors. There were old ladies and infants wiggling next to grizzled and dreaded veterans in one of the more unique gatherings in Phish history.
But the realization was shared by all at set break: Phish was not going to let anyone leave disappointed.
The town itself is such a well-oiled festival machine. Without even a day break between last weekend’s jazz festival and this two-day bacchanal of boogie, entrance to the festival was smooth, the bathrooms plentiful, the beer lines efficient and across- valley transportation flowing. Not even a Phish invasion can throw Telluride off its festing game. Late night concerts –- with saxman Karl Denson in Mountain Village and Tea Leaf Green in Telluride — kept the town humming ‘til close to dawn.
Monday’s second set opened with “Sand,” which was nothing short of a command to cavort. Armed with his sixth custom guitar from band friend Paul Languedoc, Anastasio’s tender touch on the nostalgic “Backwards Down the Number Line” triggered waves of bro hugs. “Number Line” also marked the launch of the show’s peak jams, with a delightfully innovative “Prince Caspian” that morphed into a Yes-like prog rock anthem.
Gordon stole the show back with a richly syrupy “Tweezer” that stormed through the crowd like a tsunami. As Gordon popped his bass with Flea-like intensity, Anastasio drove right into a swinging “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” “Piper” followed as if the groove couldn’t get any deeper. Despite the chilled mountain air, the sweat was running as Phish slammed the accelerator into a “David Bowie” jam that highlighted the new Phish form.
Used to be that Anastasio filled any and all holes with a screaming riff, charging headlong into unexplored terrain and forcing the band to follow. That’s Phish 2.0. Today’s Phish is 3.0, a sort of third incarnation of the band’s music that sees a patient, plotting Anastasio serving in a supporting role that elevates Gordon, drummer Jon Fishman and pianist Page McConnell to ethereal planes. It is amazing to see collaborative jams that feature a single throbbing sound instead of your-turn and my-turn jams. It is a hallmark of Phish, a four-top of 30-year friends whose subtle onstage communication stands well above all others.
Monday night’s encore could have been a cookie-cutter tune, inserted lazily and automatically but Phish showed that unlike the Greek shows, Telluride will not be predictable. The encore cover of Bob Dylan’s 1967 “Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)” was last played in 1999, more than 200 shows ago, leaving fans wondering how deep the band would delve into its vast repertoire for Tuesday night.
Down with Disease
Light Up or Leave Me Alone
Summer of ’89
Backwards Down the Number Line
Boogie on Reggae Woman
Mountain in the Mist
A Day in the Life
Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)
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Jason Blevins is a strange dancer, but that has never stopped him.