21 in 21 of 2017: #19 09/01/2017 Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, CO (Brian Brinkman, @sufferingjuke, @_beyondthepond)
No Men In No Man’s Land > Carini -> Ghost
This was a serious Phish show.
My first experience at Dick’s came five years earlier. My wife and I were married in late-August 2012 on the side of a mountain outside of Missoula, Montana. We had just sold everything we owned, moved out of Portland, Oregon, and were on the precipice of a two-year journey that would see us through 35 states and 12 countries, including a year-long stay in Korea. Following the wedding, we made our way through Wyoming, arriving in Denver on the morning on August 31, 2012.
On that drive south through Fort Collins, we had listened to the Limb By Limb from St Louis and I had commented that I’d hoped we’d get just one jam that really surprised me during the 3-night run at Dick’s that year. By the end of the run, I not only saw the best Phish show I’d ever seen, but I also caught surprise jams in “Carini,” “Undermind,” “Runaway Jim,” “Farmhouse,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” “Prince Caspian,” “Light” and “Sand.” I’d say my expectations were more than met by Phish during that honeymoon weekend in 2012.
Three years later, we welcomed our first child into the world, and the following spring (2016), my wife told me to book a weekend in Denver as a way of celebrating a crazy year at work, and to make up for the fact that when I’d attempted to take one final dude’s weekend in September 2015, our son decided to surprise us four weeks early. I booked my flight, got a great deal on floor tickets, and spent the whole summer looking forward to Labor Day weekend when I could let loose at Dick’s. To top it off, my wife’s company had approved a job transfer from Maryland to Denver. My trip to Dick’s was not just about me now, it was an opportunity for me to do some research and house hunting for our move in November of that year. Life was perfect.
In the late summer of 2016, my wife started to feel a strange mass in her left breast. Following an annual check-up, her midwife ordered a biopsy, scheduled for Monday, August 29. Fearing the worst, but hoping for the best, she told me she still wanted me to go to Denver. We didn’t expect to get the results for a few days, maybe a week, so no reason for me to cancel the trip. Her mom came to stay for support while we waited.
We got the results on Tuesday afternoon: Stage 3 Breast Cancer. Everything changed in an instant. What had seemed like such an important trip for my well-being and pent-up stress, suddenly seemed meaningless. With my flight set to depart on Wednesday morning, I quickly cancelled it, and then went about selling my tickets on Cash or Trade. Within 30 seconds of posting them I had 400 replies. I picked the first person, told her what happened and that she needed to bring amazing vibes to the show for me, then sent the tickets off without second thought. Wading through the terrifying new world we’d suddenly entered, we paid little attention to the Dick’s 2016 run, only later realizing how epic it had been.
The fall was terrible and surreal. Suz began chemo in October. The Cubs won the World Series in November. Trump was elected a week later. Suz spent a week in the hospital battling pneumonia right before Christmas. Friends and family visited every weekend. We did whatever we could to retain some semblance of normalcy for our son.
For Christmas, my parents gifted me three days off over New Years, and I headed up to NYC to catch Phish while they took over duties around the house. As 2016 turned to 2017, we had one more chemo treatment to get through, then surgery, and then radiation. For the first time in four months, we could see a light at the end of the tunnel. Her oncologist was ecstatic with her results, and we started to talk about the future again. On February 24, we received the call that her second lumpectomy showed no remaining signs of cancer. Suzi was cancer-free after a six month battle. It was the happiest I think I’ve ever been.
Around that time, the Baker’s Dozen was announced. Looking ahead, we had no reason to worry, and only reason to celebrate. We snatched up tickets to July 28-30, and in an act of total redemption, bought Dick’s tickets. Only now, I wouldn’t be going alone. We’d go as a family, and have the chance to not only celebrate Suzi being cancer-free, but also introduce our child to the West.
Three days later her mom was admitted to the hospital with what we thought was a stroke. Two weeks later, following a brain biopsy, we received the worst news possible: Terminal Brain Cancer. Her mom was given 2-5 years to live by a quack oncologist and didn’t live to see Memorial Day. During the Spring of 2017, we spent 9 of 10 weekends in New Jersey taking care of her mom in between five days of radiation for Suzi in Maryland. We lost her mom on the afternoon of May 28, 2017.
As we spent the summer trying to recover from 10 months of total shell shock, I left my job to work for the company my wife was at, and we planned our trip to Denver. We saw three phenomenal shows in New York City, but kept our focus entirely on Dick’s. We had to get there this year. No way around it. We met because of Phish. We got married to Phish songs. Our honeymoon was spent with Phish. We even gave our child the middle name Piper after witnessing a particularly excellent version at Merriweather Post four weeks before he was born. Phish was one of the biggest parts of our journey together.
Serendipitously we flew to Denver exactly one year after Suzi’s biopsy that would reveal her cancer. We spent three days in Denver hiking, hanging out with old friends, sipping away at breweries, and plotting our move in early 2018. All of this leading up to the Friday night show at Dick’s on September 1.
As I said above, this was a serious Phish show.
Heading in, all I wanted was something that would make me forget about the awful year we’d just been through. In return, I got one of the best five shows I’ve ever seen the band play. In a moment I’m sure all fans have experienced at least once, I felt as though the band was playing directly for me. It was as if they were doing all they could to ease my pain, to say everything would be alright again someday.
The “Blaze On” opener sang out to us in its joyous refrain: “You’ve got ONE LIFE – Blaze On!” Then it jammed for 15 minutes, thus putting me in my place.
The lyrics of “555” and “Breath & Burning,” with themes of life-altering events & surrendering to the flow no matter the challenges you face, suddenly connected with me in ways I never thought possible.
“Theme From The Bottom” > “Free” was the perfect description of the last 12 months, as we both felt as though we were emerging from the depths back into life.
The absurdity of “Tube,” which spilled over into a blissful jam allowed me to forget all my troubles for ten minutes of down-right dirty dancing.
“Roggae” brought me back, reminding me of Magnaball, where Suzi was 32 weeks pregnant. We were approached by a midwife who instructed me to use the word Roggae instead of relax when Suzi was in labor.
“More,” the sappy and poppy, self-serious & ultra-earnest love letter to the world, connected on a level I’d never allowed it to before. Trey was right — there must be something more than this. Whatever this is is just what changes for the individual.
At setbreak, I hugged my wife, sat and laughed with our old friends, and embraced that cool breeze that swirls through Colorado when Summer’s fleeting hours make way for Fall. We were satisfied and grateful Phish had just graced us with an incredible Set I. Little did we know what they had in store for Set II.
When they walked back on stage and dove into “No Men In No Man’s Land,” I didn’t know what to expect. “NMINML” is a favorite of mine from the 2015 crop of tunes, one I always knew had a major jam vehicle in it. Yet, to this point, they hadn’t ever totally showcased what it could do outside of a disconnected 20 minute New Year’s Drone Jam. For the next hour, no one spoke, everyone was focused and at attention of the band. This was serious Phish.
“NMINML” charged out of the gate before retreating into an ambient jam that evoked something out of 2.0. This was subtle, nuanced music that required your attention. Page and Trey shone here through textural playing, bobbing and weaving in and out of disjointed melodies. As a diehard Eno fan, this music spoke to me directly & reminded me of the first time I’d heard Another Green World. At times, it seemed to touch upon the early-morning blissful and hushed whisper of Yo La Tengo’s 2000 album, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. But, before long, the band was charging for the gates, as they drove the song to an epic peak that recalled the “Light” I’d witnessed in that stadium five years earlier.
Where a ballad would’ve been apt, instead we got “Carini.” Holy hell. Another 20+ minute jam, this “Carini” saw the band build upon the ambient and textural patterns of the “NMINML”, but here allowing Trey to dictate the direction of the jam. This wasn’t your ordinary scare the demons away “Carini”. This was a purposely billowing, melodic, Trey-led piece of music that evoked the 2014 version from Dick’s that proved to be his finest lead moment of the entire year. In its final minutes, it became wonderfully absurdist and demented. In what could have led directly into “Catapult,” or indirectly into, say, “Farmhouse,” instead this segment led directly into “Ghost.”
For the entirety of my Phish fandom, my two favorite songs have been “Divided Sky” and “Ghost.” The perfect show contains both. I’ve seen this exactly twice. While tonight wasn’t one of those, the fact that the band selected “Ghost” of all songs to conclude this hour-long, set-opening trio was everything I needed. A raging, propulsive, capital R Rock & Roll “Ghost,” there was little left to ask for from Phish once this was over. Capping the jam off with a thematic “NMINML” jam, the set felt complete.
Following it with the always welcome and always emotive “Hood,” the crowd had a chance to step back and reflect on the hour of music the band had just unleashed. The set ended with “Cavern,” the exact song that rang out on August 25, 2012, when our officiant declared us husband & wife. Suz and I laughed and hugged and smiled the kind of shit-eating grin we’d been waiting for for so damn long.
It was a serious Phish show with serious implications, a true sign of the power of the band, and a breaking point for Suz and I, as we began to move forward in earnest towards the life we now live in Denver, and away from all the awfulness that had consumed us for a year.
Brian Brinkman lives in Denver, CO with his wife, son, two cats, and a dog. He is the co-founder of the Beyond The Pond Podcast and loves The War on Drugs. He once listened to every single 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995 show on their anniversaries. If you’d like to ask him about it, he’ll talk about it for longer than you were hoping.