26 in 26 of 2019: #21 07/12/2019 Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, WI (Chris Lambertz, @roofan2009)
Night one at Alpine Valley in 2019 began the band’s first three-night run, and 18th overall performance, at the historic midwest venue. The night started as many Alpine Valley shows do with a very heated, no real shade, trek to find friends and meet new people throughout the sprawling parking lot. Hanging with friends and bouncing from one easy-up shade to another, it soon became time to wander toward the venue. Waiting in line to get into the venue becomes like frying an egg on cement with the open space and abundant asphalt.
Once through the gates, concert-goers are presented with mounding hills surrounding the safer paved pathways winding down toward the stage. It immediately feels dramatically cooler stepping out onto that grass and a small breeze with the new elevation. The band had not been to Alpine Valley since 2015, and sadly I had not been there since 2012. Each run at this magical space created unique setlists and a few rarities thrown in over the years. With these the last shows of the summer tour proper (prior to Dick’s 5-6 weeks later) and capping off what had been a pretty great tour at that, the atmosphere felt electric.
The show started off with a kick of the bass and punch of the drums, dropping into “Sand,” bringing the funk and dancing to the start of the weekend. A very fast-paced and driving version commenced and quickly dropped into a fiery jam section. The jam picked up more intensity with each of the four members building to a swirling peak for the last minute of the song culminating in a powerful, shredding breakdown. As the breakdown crested, the classic riff returned with a few flaring guitar licks, and the song came to a close.
A light strum of the guitar strings came a few seconds later, followed closely by the cascading notes kicking off “Tweezer” and a roar from the crowd. The base segments of the song quickly geared up for the fan favorite tune and helped signal the hopefulness of the night and weekend to come. The structure quickly faded away from funky interplay to a more soaring and melodic pattern. The band dynamic was shining bright through the intent listening and thoughtful playing between the group. At the nine-minute mark a bit more of ripping guitar licks carried through from the previous segment.
These first two tracks of the night carried so many quick explorations into different musical spaces and then moving onto another sonic direction or thought. I feel this is fairly evident throughout the remainder of this show in some of the longer tracks – the band finds a great new space for the song quickly, and then jumps to another mini-jam or new song. I think this is a great thing for the exploration and constant stretching the band clearly worked toward (and came to further greatness throughout the weekend).
The remainder of the first set continued on with solid versions of each tune. Some songs stayed true and close to normal spaces, while others grew some legs to strut around a little bit in these miniature sonic explorations. The teases in “Lawn Boy” and “Camel Walk” from Mike were giving the continued feeling that anything was possible with this band. The evening itself grew cooler and the sky began to change into waves of purple, blue, and rose with light-white clouds floating on by. As the first set came to a close, I could see waves of people dancing over the hilltops as just silhouettes of the community we share.
As the night set in and a bright moon cascaded down, the band continued their venture through quick and deep jams. Each song seemed to get to a great new space and then veer off into a new section or song, sometimes the transition was smooth, but others were a bit more jarring. The driving last few minutes of “No Men In No Man’s Land” fizzled out into a blissful place and could have moved into another new exploration, but was cut short by, the thematically logical, “Prince Caspain”.
This same thing occurred for the highlighted jam “Light” > “Plasma” > “Light” in speed in which the band finds another unique place to take the tune before veering off to a new tune then repeat and repeat. This section of music is not one of the longer of the night and potentially not even one of the most creative jams to highlight. I enjoyed it and wanted to draw more attention to this run of songs because I feel this is one of the main reasons I continue to see this band over and over — willingness to try new things and knowing that sometimes they aren’t the prettiest landings.
The jam section comes quickly after the main portion of “Light” and gets to a very elegant and melody driven section between Page and Trey, which gave off a lot of Santana vibes. The transition from “Light” to “Plasma” was a fairly smooth one with light guitar and a fast-reacting Fishman to catch the change. The song was a perfect fit in the slot for the space “Light” had ventured to and where the evening was at overall. “Plasma” quickly moved through the song portion and into a subtle and darker-themed jam with Page and Fishman leading the majority of the musical discussion.
Eventually the band all lands on this lurching, sinking tone that brings feelings of a shipwreck or impending doom, and from this tonal darkness the key guitar riff for “Light” is brought in. The transition out of the dark jam from “Plasma” was a bit sudden, but also a perfect placement and logical direction for the songs and set to move. Again the band straddled this fine line of forcing the musical change versus finding it a bit more naturally. The needle would again tip back toward the more forced direction as the segments of “Light” were brought to a close from their reprised jam, and found the band in “46 Days” to land.
The rest of the set and encore carried on the same trends found throughout 2019, generally solid and inspired versions of the Phish songbook. While this show is rated the lowest of the three-day run, and easily overshadowed by the Ruby Waves jam, this show is filled with a lot of beautiful moments, many connecting and bridging beautifully and many that ultimately feel cut short. The biggest takeaway I had was the speed they could find these pockets of interplay and magic, even with many feeling “rip-corded” in their potential. The band was trying new things, having fun, and teasing a bit of what this weekend was to bring.