I’ll cut to the Chase: a Phish fan tragically died at last night’s show after jumping from section 221 (or thereabouts) and landing in section 115 (or thereabouts) during “Destiny Unbound.” By all accounts it was a horrifying incident for those who witnessed any part of the fall or its aftermath. You can read about it in the news, in the Phish.net Forum, or on Phantasy Tour, Reddit, and anywhere else Phish fans talk online. I was on the floor when it happened and I had no idea - I didn’t find out until I checked my text messages this morning. In no way did last night’s tragedy shade my experience of the music in the moment, and while I’m deeply saddened by the news and find myself reflecting on the evening from a different headspace today than I had while walking back to my car after the show, I’m going to do my best to write from the (ignorant and blissful) perspective I had during the show. In hindsight it’s easy to draw connections between the show and our fellow fan’s tragic death (e.g., “How could they play ‘Set Your Soul Free’ > ‘Wingsuit’ after someone jumped to their death?”), but I’m working under the assumption that these connections are nothing more than unfortunate coincidences. If you were directly affected by last night’s tragedy, please find someone to talk to, and don’t be ashamed to reach out for professional help. Finally, if you’re ever feeling like you might harm yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - there’s someone available to talk to you any time: (800) 273-8255. Please take care of yourselves and each other.
Is hometown Phish the best kind of Phish? Maybe so, maybe not - many fans are never so lucky - but it’s definitely one of my most cherished contexts for enjoying our favorite band. It’s a unique feeling, having an intense familiarity with your surroundings while still having absolutely no idea what’s going to happen - set and setting indeed. On the one hand, it feels like I’m playing host to my friends who flew in from all over; on the other, aren’t we all Phish’s guests? But I digress… Phish played their 27th (I think?) show in San Francisco last night, on the 30 year anniversary of their second ever San Francisco appearance. By 6:15 pm I was parked south of Chase in front of the Potrero substation at Illinois and 22nd - had almost the exact same parking spot both nights - and began the walk north towards the venue under a light drizzle. Nothing like the first signs of rain to put a little pep in your step. I ran into a number of different friends en route - a few on Shakedown, which was hissing five hours too early; three more having a smoke under the overhang in front near the mirror balls; the Ohio crew hanging at the top of the stairs getting ready to head in; and finally made my way over to Harmonic Brewing by 7 pm, where a table full of friends I’ve made through this very website awaited. A couple QR code-ordered, table-delivered beers later, and I was on my way through Portal A down to the floor. The logistics at Chase were fantastic all weekend, despite the added complication of vaccination checks and handling of paper tickets, which they only use there for events planned pre-pandemic.
At 8:05 pm PDT, the band took the stage and surprised everyone with a “Bug” opener, the first time they’ve opened a show with the Farmhouse tune. It’s not my favorite song - it’s not my least favorite either - but it was an odd place for a tune that rarely appears in the first set these days. I can’t and won’t complain, as there’s something afoot this tour: whether it’s a rare mid-set “Hood” and a rarer mid-set “Coil” in Sacramento, or a rare mid-set “Slave” and a first-time set-closing “Moma” from Saturday night, the band is clearly and purposely defying our expectations. That’s almost always a good thing - some might even say it “bodes well” for the rest of tour, and we know how good Trey is at boding. The sound was great, and Trey’s guitar shimmered - that’s all that mattered at that point. Batting second and playing second, “My Soul” followed, and all I could think as Trey shredded his bluesy solo was that I should make a joke in the recap about him really giving John Mayer a run for his money with that jam. Achievement unlocked. “Back on the Train” echoed the Farmhouse theme, and we got our first glimpse of deeper improvisation on the evening. After the six-minute mark when they reached the point when it was time to reel it in or stretch it out, Trey set a loop (and an intention) that signaled it was time to explore. They traversed a little “Tweezer Reprise”-like ascending riff, and while several times it felt like the rickety locomotive might fall off the tracks into deep space, our conductor led us back to the station with confidence.
“Maze” - which I embarrassingly but briefly mistook for not “David Bowie” but “Theme from the Bottom” (lolwat) - made its first appearance since the Gorge, and did its job as a rousing first set stalwart. Page went nuts, CK5 went nuts, Trey went nuts, Mike went nuts, Fish went nuts - it’s “Maze” after all, that’s kinda the point - and the band collectively climaxed at a peak so high many people confused it for the fifth wave of the pandemic. When we eventually did get out of the “Maze,” there was a tower - “Steam.” One of the highlights of the evening, this version started off like most others, but the typical jam in D quickly dissipated into space briefly before making a shocking modulation to B, which immediately prompted a full-band “Dave’s Energy Guide” tease that shaded the next several minutes of jamming. This wasn’t your typical “DEG” tease - this immediately called the Jones Beach “Tweezer” from 6/28/95 to mind. As the jam continued to throb, falling further into space, Trey began calling the aliens we met at Shoreline last month using his new Stompbox pedal. The jam eventually returned to D, we got a little taste of bliss, and Mike reminded us what song they were playing as the band cruised back into the ending. Trey wasted no time in calling for “Destiny Unbound,” a treat every time it’s played, and a bigger treat for your recapper, for whom it was a first. As an aside, Saturday night’s show was the first time in my life I saw Phish without catching at least one song I had never seen before - a 47 show, 22 year personal streak - so it was nice to get a new streak rolling early last night. As is typical for the tune, Mike teased “Live and Let Die” in the outro, and no, it wasn’t a nod to anything or anyone besides Paul McCartney or perhaps Axl Rose or the new James Bond flick.
“Beauty of a Broken Heart” was up next, and was played well enough considering its relative scarcity - there was a little Page-Trey miscommunication in the ending, but that was all forgotten when “Reba” made her first appearance since Dick’s. Trey and Page made it through the fugal section unscathed, and I reflected briefly on how thankful I am that Trey spent the entire pandemic practicing. As the jam developed patiently, we got the first moment of perfect synchronicity when Mike and Trey anticipated each other and played an ascending riff in unison before the 9 minute mark - Page got so excited he had to tag along. The Mike and Trey interplay continued throughout the jam, in a manner not too dissimilar from Saturday’s “Slave.” Mike hinted a potential modulation to C - a Type II “Reba” would have short-circuited my brain - but ultimately the band was content to wrap up another beautiful rendition of one of the greatest songs ever written, with whistling. A set-closing “I Never Needed You Like This Before” killed two birds with one stone, filling the new song quota and serving as an exclamation point on a strange but quality first set. The house lights never came back on after the 81 minute first set, but I didn’t think much of it and went to grab one last beer with some friends.
During setbreak, I (foolishly) hoped for another big “Tweezer” to echo the Shoreline version still rattling around in my skull. After a verbal reference to Hot Tuna that I didn’t understand (addendum: figured it out), they opened the second set with “Evolve” - if I squint a little, I can read between the lines and hear Trey telling me to evolve my expectations of the setlist. The inoffensive tune got a short calisthenic workout before yielding to “Set Your Soul Free.” My initial reaction was of mild disappointment - three ‘new’ songs in a row? (including the first set closer) - but I thought back to the 7/25/18 “SYSF” from Bill Graham CIvic Auditorium, and how I had gone from groan to moan in the span of 25 minutes that night several decades ago - wait, that was only 3 years ago? This version of “SYSF” was absolute madness - they started jamming in B, but hopped to E for some major mode bliss, then again to C# where things got robotic AF (as the kids say), before changing key yet again to F#, landing in the quadrophonic bubbling electro-forest where I’m pretty sure Fish was born. At that point, between the technological marvel that is CK5’s post-apocalyptic light rig and Page’s toy store of synths, I just started laughing. Not to be outdone, Phish said to me “are you really trying to track what key we’re playing in bro? LOL at the entire concept of ‘keys’ and by the way what even is music at this point?”. CK5 jacked the house lights - total nod to his work for the New York Rangers and Knicks - a tractor beam hit me square in the face, and I began floating gently up towards the skies … just when I forgot what song they were playing, I opened my eyes again and thought of @n00b100 complaining about Phish not just leaving the jam unfinished. That jam did a number on me - what’s that memory erasing thing from Men in Black? - it felt like it had been maybe 10 minutes, not 26.
A serene “Wingsuit” didn’t just open the proverbial “fourth quarter” - it was a quarter of the set, though I had no idea where we were at that point. The jam glided along nicely, and Trey’s (sometimes divisive) use of the Whammy pedal came off pretty damn tasteful this time around. “Chalk Dust Torture” popped out of the “Wingsuit” fade-out, and while I’m always ecstatic to hear “CDT,” I didn’t know what to expect here. Was this going to be a mid-set jammer? Or was the set somehow almost over and this was one of those fiery exclamation points? I didn’t even know what time it was, and I didn’t want to look, so I locked in and stopped thinking so much. Trey added a little extra vocal zest in the verses, and his guitar tone was absolutely dialed … after the last verse they scurried into the jam, and almost immediately stepped up to A with Trey firing off some quick “Wingsuit” teases. After some rapid fire “DEG”-esque runs from Trey and Page with a hint (or quick tease?) of “Reba,” they changed keys yet again, this time to D. After a few minutes of blissful reverberations, they incredibly modulated key again, this time to G, and Trey stomped on his envelope filter to lace the jam with Manteca-MuTron vibes. Somehow they wound the jam back to D, and I got squeamish as it felt like some “Wooo!s” were coming up (I’m a never woo’d). Thankfully for my sake, they never came to fruition, and instead we were treated to an Allman Brothers-infused hosedown. By the time the jam hit the 20 minute mark - the second 20+ minute jam in three songs - I was racking my brain trying to figure out if I was witnessing the best “CDT” I’d ever seen (upon further review: yes, yes it was). End set. End set?? End set!! Four songs, 65 minutes - NBD.
I spent the encore break trying to put the pieces of my mind back together and get a grip on how I really felt about the second set and the show. The openers of both sets - “Bug” and “Evolve” - really didn’t do a great job of setting the tone for what was to come, which was top notch improv in both sets. But maybe the message was there all along - that a) it doesn’t matter what Phish plays, it’s how they play it and b) my feelings of mild disappointment with certain song calls in certain positions in the setlist are only predicated on my own expectations and experiences, so why not evolve past them? - and it just took me a minute to figure it out. I’m not really sure, but what I am sure of is that Phish has delivered the goods four times in a row in the Bay Area after 3+ years away from us.
I finally looked at the clock and knew we were getting at least two songs in the encore when they came back out at 11:10 pm and started up “Lawn Boy.” I never go to a show thinking “they should play ‘Lawn Boy’ tonight!” - it’s one of the stranger songs in the catalog, but man, it really is a perfectly written song that flexes Phish’s genre-hopping versatility. Page was all smiles as he paced across the stage, and once he took a seat again and Trey introduced him, he was on the hook for starting up “Wolfman’s Brother.” This show-closing treat had some serious Summer ‘97 funk vibes earlier in the jam (where it almost veered into “The Birds” before Trey reconsidered), as Trey’s octave pedal complemented Page’s clavinet perfectly. Fish was all over the place, deconstructing the tune one Lego at a time, until he finished tearing it down and the bottom fell out completely after the 7 minute mark. Mike took responsibility for building the jam back up, and the band pulled the crowd up for one more extended peak before finding the “Wolfman’s” theme once more and bringing us home.
Sadly, last night ends my year of Phish, but I couldn't be more grateful for all the California love after three years off. For those who are just getting started, have fun, be safe, and take care of each other! - @ucpete
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