[We'd like to thank Matt (@scissortail) for recapping last night's show. -Ed]
“Phish is church.”
I’ve been seeing Phish for a long time, and I’ve heard many people say some version of this over the years. I’ve said it plenty of times myself. It’s slightly difficult to articulate exactly what we mean by this phrase. We just feel it. We know it. The strange and mysterious alchemy of the music, the fellowship, the collective joy, the freedom, the release—it lifts up our hearts and enriches our souls. For many of us, it is nothing short of necessary.
The first time I saw Phish with my friend Byron was at the Woodlands Pavilion near Houston in 1999. I saw Phish with Byron dozens of times after that.
On Saturday morning I attended Byron’s funeral in our hometown of Edmond, Oklahoma. On Saturday evening I attended a Phish concert in Commerce City, Colorado. My wife and I, and many of our longtime Phish friends, decided that our Saturday should unfold this way for two reasons:
Because Byron would insist on it. And because Phish is church.
So, with heavy hearts and puffy eyes—to the show we go. Throughout the day I had been thinking about, and sometimes saying out loud, things I wanted Phish to do. Or not do. (e.g. I hope it’s not a “Saturday Night Special” type, rock-forward show—I hope it’s chiller than that. I hope they play this or that song that has special significance to our many years seeing shows with Byron, etc.)
But as soon as I would say any of that, I’d remind myself: Putting specific expectations on a Phish show is a rookie mistake. How many times has Phish given me exactly what I needed, even if I didn’t know that’s what I needed? Enough times to believe that Phish is magic. Enough times that, late in the show as Trey shouted “Do you dare doubt me?!” I couldn’t help but laugh.
I have to ask the reader to bear with me here. This might get a little digressive. If you’d rather just read about the music then skip down a couple of paragraphs. I won’t mind.
When Phish announced in 2008 that their reunion was to be on March 6-9, 2009, in Hampton—and I, somehow, miraculously pulled two three-day passes on Ticketmaster, I immediately called Byron. March 6 was his birthday. We would see the long-awaited return of Phish, together, to celebrate his 30th year on earth. It couldn’t be more perfect. Sadly, because of what we’ve long suspected was nefarious pickpocketing in the line to get in, when we got to the ticket taker, Byron didn’t have his. And if you were there, you know: there was no finding another ticket in that lot. He simply got shut out, on his birthday, and it was heartbreaking to walk into that show without him.
Cut to tonight, our whole group is talking all day about how we can feel Byron’s presence, he’s sending us little messages everywhere, we keep seeing his face out of the corner of our eyes all over the place at Dicks. In other words, Byron is with us.
And buddy—you finally got your “Fluffhead” opener.
I’m no “Fluffhead” historian, but if anyone would like to point me to a better version than this I would be most excited to hear it. After the song proper, and the triumphant victory lap, Trey drops into a minor riff that signals: let us now jam. But in one of many cosmically perfect twists this evening, he quickly pulls out of the minor space into a beautiful major-key bed of blissful clouds. I would now ask the Bliss haters to exit through the Gate D metal detectors, because I am not interested. This was a piece of pure beauty and power. As it resolves back into the "Fluffhead" chords, Trey decides that another peaking victory lap is in order, and we’ve begun 9.2.23 in the finest way imaginable.
“My Soul” is not normally anything I want to hear. But this version is spirited, the band is clearly feeling it, it’s already becoming apparent tonight might be one of “those nights,” so I shall not quibble. No, Trey, I do not doubt you. A standard “Cavern” follows, then drops into “Reba.”
It’s a masterful selection, especially given what they had just done with “Fluffhead.” When your sonic palette is naturally leaning into “gorgeous,” then let’s get gorgeous, motherfuckers. Trey struggles with the middle section—because younger Trey is a sadistic madman and wrote a too-intricate guitar part that lags behind the piano part in such a way that no human should be able able to play it, and it’s a wonder Trey ever could, even in 1993. But if you’re mad that Trey gets a little tripped up by the composed part of “Reba,” I don’t know how to help you.
This “Reba” is—unsurprisingly—gorgeous. What else is there to say?
And then, “Mound.” A perfectly fine “Mound,” and I will never, ever complain about getting “Mound.” But when I look back on this show for many years to come, I will not be thinking of “Mound.”
“This too shall pass,” says Trey, and our group trades backslaps and shoulder squeezes. “WOPE” brings the energetic and rhythmic vibe that, to my ears, was the dominant factor on Thursday night. It’s welcome any time. But we don’t dwell long. “Taste” emerges and we step into space, through fog that surrounds.
Someone more familiar with music theory than me may be able to identify the scale Trey jams on in “Taste.” It has flavors of “What’s the Use?” But it also sounds like he’s charming a snake in a dusty bazaar tent. The band doesn’t really paint outside the lines here, but there’s no need to. “Taste” is beautiful and powerful. You’ve chosen a lane, Phish, and you’re cruising full speed ahead. Don’t detour.
This “Ghost,” as a set closing bookend to “Fluffhead,” is a fitting encapsulation of Phish’s powers at this particular moment. As the band transitions from song to jam, Trey’s guitar begins to scream—with burst after burst of wailing, aching, soaring power. Like I said about Thursday night (I missed Friday's show, naturally), some of the jamming this weekend seems more rhythmic than melodic, which I think has been wonderful. But this one combines the best of both worlds. Trey is “teasing” the “Ghost” melody during the “Ghost” jam. I know that sounds ridiculous, and it probably is, but that’s the way it felt to me. As this barrage winds down, and all of us are basking in the glow of its otherworldly glory, Trey brings the band back into the “Ghost” riff, and into the wall-of-sound bombardment that indicates the end of set one.
Nothing of note happens at setbreak. And the lights go down again.
To anyone who thought “Let’s get this show on the road” was an odd sentiment for a show that was half over, please do not doubt Trey. There is plenty more show on this road.
To say “AC/DC Bag” is a welcome call to open set two is an understatement. Long relegated to early set one, then barely played at all for reasons passing understanding, we could all use more “Bag” in our lives. Especially one that jams, which this one quickly proceeds to do. My only complaint with the jam is that I want it to last longer. The band is locked in, again with big flavors of the rhythmic interplay. But it dissolves into “Chalk Dust Torture,” and who’s going to complain?
I will say, the crowd at this point is electric. We have fully bought in to what Phish is serving us tonight. Confetti and glow sticks fly with abandon. The jam portion chugs along for a bit and then sinks down into a quiet, contemplative place. Imagine one of those pictures taken from underwater in the ocean, with rays of sunlight sporadically stabbing down through the surface. If that image had a sound, it would be this. And that’s even before Trey deploys that watery effect (not the Leslie, the other one) and we’re truly swimming. Mike and Trey are weaving musical phrases together like waves dancing.
Too soon we transition to “Ether Edge.” (Seriously, when I saw that “Chalk Dust” was less than 9 minutes I was aghast. Length does not equal quality, but it certainly seemed like I lived in that underwater space for longer than that.)
Look, “Ether Edge” isn’t a bad song. It did not kill the vibe. It would’ve taken a LOT to kill the vibe tonight, and “Ether Edge” didn’t even come close. But why am I still writing words about “Ether Edge” when we’re about to come to one of the finest segments of music Dicks has ever seen?
I keep mentioning the rhythmic jamming, especially from Thursday night. I saw some people describing Fishman’s vibe that night as “tribal.” I think that’s quite apt, and, as we leave the song portion of “46 Days,” here comes the raw, primal, tribal power of Fishman. I always say, Trey is why Phish is Phish. Fishman is why Phish is great. He’s all over his toms and cowbell here, and Trey eventually asserts an authoritative groove, layering in sounds from that wobbly, low-end filter he uses when he wants to leave the atmosphere of Earth.
But suddenly, on a dime, Fishman just picks up another beat entirely, and of course, everyone is locked into him within a millisecond because they share one mind on nights like this. Fishman and Mike are bouncing together, Trey is building himself another groove and Page is complementing, switching masterfully between electric piano and organ.
This eventually builds to a more traditional, ascending, major-key bliss type thing, goes back into “46 Days,” and inserts us directly into “The Howling.”
I don’t even know what words of mine could properly describe what happens here. Oh, you need some kind of cathartic release, do you? How about you move your body in unison with 30,000 beautiful maniacs while we all literally howl at the moon?
“The Howling” is a spiritual cousin to “2001,” and I never would’ve thought that’s something I’d want on this particular night. Of course, I would’ve been wrong. Yes, we get the funk dance party. Yes, we get to howl together at a bright and beautiful Colorado moon. But then we get something strange and spectacular. The band, as one flowing organism, somehow creates a spaceship of sound that is rhythmic, but blissful, but still funky, but also beautiful, but also kind of dark. What is happening? How is this possible?
The crowd howls its approval at random. Trey suddenly picks out a major-key riff, we’re rolling along, Trey starts singing “the Howling” again, but now it’s in this new major key and it is oddly delightful. Still as a single flowing organism, the beauty and power continues and slowly descends, soon those “Piper” notes creep in, and there are very few opening notes more welcome to my ears. I fucking love “Piper.”
Phish played a blistering “Piper” last year at Dicks. I remember it as one of the highlights of the weekend. I don’t have time for a listening comparison this morning, and who cares what’s “better” anyway, but I can’t imagine a more powerful “Piper” has ever been played in this particular stadium.
The jam begins to establish itself, and then it descends, as so many of these jams have tonight, into a smaller, quieter place—before steadily, patiently building to magnificent waves of energy. I feel shades of the monumental “Dick’s Disease” here, in that Trey seems to pull a fully formed melodic composition out of the spirit in the sky, down through his body, and out through his guitar. When a show flows as well as this one does, set two inevitably ends in moutaintop peaks and crowd ecstasy. This one ended like that. Trey thanks us, we thank Phish, and we expect one or two tunes will be tacked onto our evening, and all will be well.
An encore to a show like this is gravy. They could’ve come out and played the most standard “encore rocker” you could imagine—say, “Loving Cup,” and we all would’ve left extremely happy. But they did not. Not tonight. Tonight we get a set three.
The statisticians and historians among us have proclaimed this the longest encore Phish has ever played. I’ll take their word for it. And, forgive me, but there is not a ton to say about the progression of songs. “Theme” is beautiful, with Trey even dropping little major-key riffs into the empty spaces, like he can’t help but make everything beautiful tonight. “The Mango Song” is great. “Don’t Doubt Me,” as mentioned, gives me a wry grin, a lesson learned. “Evolve” is lovely. “Golgi Apparatus” is rousing.
And then Phish does something magical. One more mind-blower for the road.
Excuse my digression again. About seven or eight years ago, our friends Jill and Davy made our group some pink tank tops with iron-on graphics. The tanks have a Phish logo on the front, and on the back, each of us were given a punny, Phish-inspired nickname. The shirt they gave Byron had his nickname as “By-run Like an Antelope.” Naturally, from then on, “Antelope” has been the “Byron song.” We always think of him when Phish plays it. (And we always will.)
When we got the news of Byron’s passing, a lovely woman who is a friend of our friend Kate, made all of us some bracelets. We’ve been wearing them all weekend. We all wore them to the funeral. Earlier in the day when I was wishing and hoping for Phish to do certain things (even though I know I shouldn’t have been) what I was most wishing and hoping for was an “Antelope” to honor our friend.
And what happens? Phish plays the longest encore in history. Why? I don’t know. And they close that encore with the one song every single one of my friends needs to hear. We are all stunned this is actually happening. The word I kept saying after the show was “miraculous.” And tonight it is true. Phish is a fucking miracle.
I can say with the utmost confidence that I will never forget 9.2.23 for as long as I live. I’ve seen lots and lots of Phish shows. I’ve seen some that, like tonight, I would call transcendent—ones that made me wonder how on earth this band can do what they do and how it could touch my heart so deeply. Tonight was definitely that, but it was different. It was more. It was something akin to a religious experience.
When people say “Phish is church,” what happened to my friends and I this evening is the epitome of everything that phrase can mean.
In closing, I want to send my deepest feelings of love and sympathy to Byron’s wife and two stepsons, his sister and two brothers, his mother and father, and the countless friends who adored him and cherished the light he brought to this world. I encourage anyone reading this—whether you are a prayers person or a vibes person or whatever kind of person—to send your love as well. Imagine where you are in relation to the very center of Oklahoma, and beam waves of love in that direction. I also implore you to think about a friend or family member that you haven’t spoken to in a while, to whom you haven’t recently expressed your love and appreciation. Call them. Text them. Say it now.
To everyone reading this, to everyone at Dicks tonight, to the band, the crew, and the entire Phish organization: I can’t possibly express the depth of my gratitude for this beautiful community. Tonight, some of us needed you a great deal. As always, you were there for us. From the bottom of our hearts we thank you.