26 in 26 of 2019: #25 08/31/2019 Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, CO (Brian Brinkman, @sufferingjuke
The Unknown & What’s Next
By: Brian Brinkman
I’ve spent the last few months of my life deep in interviews for Undermine S2 with notable Phish fans throughout our wide community, asking them all personal questions about the band they’ve dedicated so much time, money, energy, and faith to. The answers have been enlightening in the way you’d expect:
“I always loved music, but nothing ever reached me in the way Phish has”
“Every Phish show is a gift”
“My life would be completely different if I hadn’t discovered Phish…and I don’t want to know what it would’ve been”
The stories behind these answers have offered further insights into the dedication of so many in our community to chasing show after show, discussing the nuanced subjectivities within the band’s history online, and building up their own social network around the evolving world the band has created.
As someone who has followed the band for the last twenty years, hearing the backstories of so many Phish fans has only furthered my own understanding of the larger Phish story.
It’s also made me consider the answers to the same questions I’ve asked so many. Of everything I’ve asked, “What does the Phish experience mean to you” always garners the longest pause, the deepest sigh, and the most thoughtful answer. I ask it early in the interview, as a way to set the table for the remainder of the conversation & as a way to message to the interviewee, that this is a space for you to dive deep without a clock.
Considering this question for myself I’m drawn immediately to the jam at the heart of this essay: the 8/31/19 “Ghost.”
The 2019 Dick’s run is a strange one. Caught between the Alpine “Ruby Waves” and the MSG “Tweezer,” midway through a year of transition and an onslaught of new material, it reflected the uncertainty of Phish in the late-2010s, while featuring some of the most inventive jamming of the year. It’s the lone Dick’s Run I’ve seen without a Friday show that completely exhausted you and wrecked your pace for the weekend. However, at the same time, the second set on 8/30 is one of the strongest I’ve seen in the venue. Moments bubbled up throughout the weekend, however it didn’t prove to be the kind of run to sustain listeners throughout an unexpected 18 mo break. And yet, when listening back, the moments from within, in particular, the “Ghost” from set one on the Saturday show, highlights everything I look for in Phish: the balance between embrace of the unknown & the mysteries of what’s next.
At the moment it began, the 8/31 show had followed the same ho-hum, settling-in approach as 8/30’s first set. Rotation tunes, a rarity tossed out, a blues jam; all of which seemed to showcase a band waiting for inspiration, rather than pushing for it. Thus when the deep A minor grooves of “Ghost” bubbled up from the stage, the crowd released a roar unheard since the previous night’s “Mercury” jam. What followed was one of those rare moments of unhinged exploration within the first set that feels like a reward for Phish fans everywhere. Following an uncharted path out of the song proper, the jam almost immediately (7:58) left the standard track so many 3.0 “Ghost” jams take where they modulate into a major key before finding the first exit towards a bliss peak. Satisfying to be sure, it was clear on this night that the band had deeper intentions for a song which, historically, speaks so clearly to their reinvention some 22 yrs prior.
The Rhythm section dominates here. Fish and Gordo crafted a pulsating beat which forced Trey and Page to adapt immediately, going all in towards a wall of sound jam where sonic landscapes expanded up and outwards, and the lead guitar faded away – the hose proving as useless a tool in this jam as it would be in an ambient meditation.
Part of what makes Phish such a remarkable band is their swift adaptability. Just one song earlier, in “Funky Bitch” the band was playing as standard a blues-rock jam imaginable. Mike & Fish holding down a bar stomp rhythm while Trey soloed over the top. It’s the kind of westernized jamming that the band could play in their sleep, but they’ve consciously spent four decades avoiding in their deepest explorations. Now, back in the “Ghost,” the embrace of King Crimson-style jamming – where all four members are in unified conversation, where listening is key, where risk taking is predominant – is front and center here.
The jam could fall on its face and fail in an instant. And that’s the point.
The unknown: charting rhythms and melodies the band has rarely explored in effort to communicate to each other in yet another new and unexplored way in their unending conversation. And what’s next: around each corner, a surprise; being present is the most important skill for a jam like this, but one has to be constantly aware of where the jam’s going to make it work.
Reaching a climax around 11min, the jam felt akin to the 12/2/03 “Piper,” a version so psychedelic, so rhythmically-tranced, so sonically-driven through eastern communication, that it’s a tragedy how it’s fallen by the wayside in Phish history. At one point, the riff from the 11/23/97 “Gin” emerges, a throbbing and dystopian funk riff which feels a part of the “Ka-Kinda Busy” refrain from Lada Gaga’s “Telephone” and we’re thrown into an end of the world dance party that feels a part of the last half of 2019.
It’s in these moments that, in the venue, I feel like I’ve left my body. Bent over at a 90 degree angle, I dance without care, hypnotized by the music. Embracing the unknown. Dancing towards whatever’s next.
For the next two hours, this jam seemed to shift the entirety of the 8/31 show, dictating spur of the moment decisions, sonically inspired jams, and inventive song selections. “Tube” would follow & track towards the Madchester style jamming that had dominated the song since it’s Baker’s Dozen brilliance. I got my first “Mountains In The Mist” in the perfect venue for the song. In the second set “Weekapaug Groove” splintered out into a noise-ladened jam which landed in “46 Days” before “Set Your Soul Free” once again fell into a world of prog-inspired madness before resolving in “Down With Disease.” Weaving through melodicism and rhythmic experiments, it resolved itself in “NICU” which directed the set, the show, and the run towards a more standard conclusion. Like much of 2019, it was the brilliance within the cracks that defined the year and lingers with us as Phish moves to restart their career in a new era, two days from now.
The unknown of what’s to come is often daunting. We are entering the first Phish tour in nearly two years amidst a swirl of health-related crises that seek to overshadow the moment. And yet at the same time, so many of us desperately need the release that will come from the band connecting in a deep musical conversation. We have no way of knowing what will come next, but holding faith in the unknown, and knowing that we’re entering a moment, once again, where Phish has the ability to conjure up magic in the most unexpected of places, is perhaps all we need right now.
Brian Brinkman is a Producer at Osiris Media. He is one of the Executive Producers, Co-Hosts, and the Editor of Undermine. In addition he is the Host/Producer of The Drop & THE RAVINE, and the Producer for 36 From The Vault. You can typically find him begging Kevin Shapiro to release 7/25/99.