When Phish visited Telluride in 1988, it was the Vermont band’s first road trip. A slick promoter was promising a tour, cash and crowded shows. The tour didn’t happen. The cash was not there.
The band crashed at a flophouse and played a pair of Telluride’s storied bars for a week to fewer than a dozen locals, scraping up just enough cash to power home.
The music recorded from those shows 22 years ago remains a treasure trove of inspired performances. The music from their most recent stand –- Monday and Tuesday in Telluride’s festival-friendly Town Park -– was equally enlivened as the band saturated stunning set lists with a laid-back, groovy mountain vibe.
While not as fluid or fleet-footed as Monday night, Tuesday’s show saw the band burrowing through new and old compositions and unearthing wildly moving jams in some unexpected corners. Once again, band leader Trey Anastasio stalked the shadows of many songs, letting his bandmates, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and keyman Page McConnell, add their homebrewed concoctions to the Phish stew.
McConnell, whose golden touch can gild any song, took first set opener “The Squirming Coil” and the James Gang’s “Walk Away” to glorious spaces. Gordon, who for a second night took control and flooded the box canyon with yawning reverberation, busted out a rare second set “Destiny Unbound.” Fishman channeled David Byrne while pounding a relentlessly vigorous “Crosseyed and Painless” that served as the explosive meat between the second set jam sandwich of “Mike’s Song” and “I Am Hydrogen.” Gordon served the stink in “Weekapaug Groove,” which oddly saw Anastasio working as a mellowing buffer to Gordon’s bullying bass.
That’s not to say Anastasio didn’t rip into deeply creative and emotional jams. It’s just that he seemed most connected in unheralded and often overlooked places. The backside of the uncommon “Timber (Jerry)” featured some of the red-mopped guitarist’s most expressive moments of the night. His spirited “Limb By Limb” and “Run Like an Antelope” provided short bursts of the old Anastasio, who used to stretch his six-string prospecting into 30-minute meanderings.
Today’s sober and surrounded-by-family Anastasio finds his nuggets with impressive agility and then quickly moves on, which has troubled some of the band’s segues of late as he rushes toward the next flashpoint. It’s awesome to see his fire and precision at the very best it’s ever been -– we’re getting 23-song shows! Remember when a show was 12 songs? But sometimes I guiltily find myself pining for just a taste of those old junkie jams.
Anastasio dropped a dribble of that old school sound during the second-set “Carini” and the ever-floating jams of “Free,” but it wasn’t anything like the half-hour psychedelic spasms of yesteryear. Maybe that’s better. This is the grown-up Phish, which plays with searing emotion and tight technique that was often absent in the party-down ’90s and early aughts, when the band’s boisterous backstage was known as “The Clinic.” And the flock is grown up too, as evidenced this week at Telluride.
A decade ago, a Phish invasion likely would have crushed the village, not unlike the infamous Morrison debacle during the 1996 Red Rocks stand, which led to the band’s temporary ban at the amphitheater. But today, following a five-year sabbatical, Phish fans have jobs. Kids. Money. Telluride’s shops, bars and hotels bustled with energy all week as fans left lots of cake in their wake. A tourism exec on the radio said the valley’s innkeepers corralled an estimated $1 million in lodging revenue and the rest of town split another million.
That’s a grown up party. The realization of the fiesta never faded for a moment. Both the band and the fans swelled with celebration as lightman Chris Kuroda’s starbeam light show filled the valley Tuesday and Anastasio recalled their 1988 visit, noting the return as “a complete thrill for us.”
As if to convey their heartfelt thanks, the band’s encore cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” sent the flock out into the night with a blessing: “May the good Lord shine a light on you / Make every song you sing your favorite tune.”
The Squirming Coil
Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan
Let Me Lie
The Divided Sky
Roses Are Free > Limb By Limb
Bouncing Around the Room
Run Like an Antelope
Mike’s Sing > Crosseyed and Painless > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove
Carini, Free > Heavy Things
You Enjoy Myself
Encore: Shine a Light
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Story corrected to show Phish’s Telluride visit in 1988, not 1998.
Jason Blevins is a strange dancer, but that has never stopped him.