After six long months off the road, Phish finally returned to the stage tonight in Chicago, kicking off their 2017 Summer tour with a fiery performance at the Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island. This show marked the first of three nights in the Windy City, and the first of only eight shows this summer that aren’t part of the eagerly-anticipated Baker’s Dozen residency at Madison Square Garden. Phish came out of the gate swinging in set one, showing that their week of rehearsal at Milwaukee’s BMO Bradley Harris Center was well worth the effort. However, an uneven second set left a little to be desired, as the mix of new songs, lackluster jams, and minimal experimentation left the show firmly cemented in “warm-up show” territory.
Surprisingly, the Siket Disc fan-favorite “What’s The Use?” started things off in set one, the first time that it’s ever appeared in the show-opening slot. The song continues to evolve in 2017, going from epic rarity to reliable rotation favorite over the past few tours. While the song is typically associated with wild moments of ambient improvisation, this version was short and to the point, while the band was still able to achieve the blissful space that makes the song so revered. Big Boat‘s breezy “Breath & Burning” followed, and Phish certainly exceeded expectations while delivering a fun and ambitious version of the song. “Breath & Burning” wasn’t necessarily every Phish fan’s favorite song from the 2016 album, but the band is starting to harness the song’s powers, inserting a short-but-sweet improv section towards the end of the track.
The beloved “Wolfman’s Brother” appeared in the three hole, which allowed for the band to truly let loose for the first time of the show, as they locked in for some jamming that featured interesting work on the snare drum by Lincolnville, Maine’s newest Selectman, Jonathan Fishman. Anastasio kicked into second gear when Fishman returned to the main groove, and he used his tension/release talents to full effect as the band worked their way through their first jam of the tour. Three songs in and the band already appeared to be firing on all cylinders.
Oddly enough, the band followed up “Wolfman’s” with the debut of a new a capella cover, a song called “In The Good Old Summer Time,” which dates back to 1902 and composer George Evans. Guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio took a moment to express how much fun he and the band had performing that new song before they launched into “Everything’s Right,” a new song that was debuted by Anastasio with his Trey Anastasio Band this past April at Wanee Festival. The vocal harmonies were a little rough–keyboardist Page McConnell and bassist Mike Gordon don’t quite match the vocal prowess of Jennifer Hartswick and Natalie Cressman in TAB–but the song fit right in with the Phish catalog and provided a nice opportunity for some ambient jamming out of the song’s main form. The band settled in nicely, and they quickly found themselves in a comfortable groove, with Anastasio’s patient playing vibing well with McConnell’s use of his electronic piano and synthesizer elements. Anastasio then took back over with his soaring guitar piercing through the dissonance. This is one of the most impressive debuts by the band, at least in terms of improv potential, in many years. At the peak of the jam, the band dropped back into the song’s driven, funky beat while Anastasio applied a “plinko” feel, reminiscent of the band’s jamming earlier in the 3.0 era.
The brief “plinko” jam fizzled out into the familiar opening chords of “Limb By Limb”. The song’s exploratory jam section was the perfect fit for the moment, allowing the band to blow off some steam after building the tension tremendously with the previous song. This version of the song felt triumphant, as Anastasio led the band from one peak to another before the song was brought to its natural conclusion. Bluegrass classic “Nellie Kane” by Hot Rize. “Theme From The Bottom” came close on its heels, to the delight of the Chicago audience. “Theme” has turned into one of Phish’s go-to classics in the 3.0 era, and the band turned in another powerful version in Chicago. “Blaze On” emerged out of the final notes of “Theme.” It wasn’t a particularly memorable version of the song, with a mediocre piece of improvisation coming out of the song’s jam section before the band completed the song, took their bows, and left the stage. While the ending may have been slightly lackluster, the set as a whole was full of energy, and showcased a band that was simply ready to get the show on the road.
After a lengthy setbreak, Phish led off set two with the funky “No Men In No Man’s Land.” The song’s “happy that we’re here” lyric got a big cheer from the crowd while the band made quick work of the song and used it as a platform for improvisation. McConnell made expert use of his arsenal of synthesizers, moving back and forth between different boards to create a call-and-response effect with himself, while Anastasio used his delay loop pedal to great effect. Trey eventually turned off the effect and started playing some Jimmy-Page-esque guitar stabs, screeching out into the night sky. Phish kept the jam going for a few more minutes, and, when no other clear direction emerged, the band moved swiftly into “Fuego.” “Fuego” featured a brief jam with a few quality moments (but nothing too special) before moving on to the sinister “My Friend, My Friend.” It was a typically rocking version of “MFMF”, before the band eschewed the “myfe” ending for the intro to the Chilling, Thilling Sounds of the Haunted House favorite, “Your Pet Cat.” McConnell was on fire during this version, slapping the clavinet while dropping samples and sound effects from the song’s narration throughout like a madman.
“Your Pet Cat” transitioned smoothly into TV on the Radio‘s “Golden Age.” Just as the band was moving into the song’s jam section, they dropped back into “Your Pet Cat,” complete with “Golden Age” teases. After a few more minutes of speed-funk jamming, the band finished up this fun section and started up another new song, the soft ballad “Leaves.” “Leaves” fits well with many of the newer soft-rock songs in Phish’s catalog, which means many of the band’s hardcore fans will have strong opinions about it when they get to hear it tomorrow or over the course of the summer. Only time will tell if “Leaves” becomes a live staple for the band, but for now, consider that a lukewarm debut at best.
Fishman’s tom-drum intro to “Harry Hood” brought the energy back up, as the band started up one of their most beloved songs. Anastasio delivered some bluesy playing reminiscent of the Allman Brothers Band‘s “Mountain Jam,” before linking up with the rest of the band for a soaring reprise of “What’s The Use?” in the middle of the jam. The band emerged from the “What’s The Use?” reprise and went right into the euphoric peak of the “Harry Hood” jam, capping off the improvisational highlight of the evening.
The band caught their breath before starting up “Shine A Light” from The Rolling Stones‘ Exile on Main Street. Phish delivered a spirited take on the classic ballad, before moving on to a set-closing blues-rocker known as “Julius.” Julius was high-0octane as usual, but by all means this was a standard version of the song.
For the encore, the band turned in their fourth debut of the night, a reggae-tinged ballad called “Love Is What We Are,” before closing things out with one of their earliest songs, “Golgi Apparatus.”
In the end, tonight was an up-and-down show. There were some fun jams–namely, the “Everything’s Right” jam, “Your Pet Cat”->”Golden Age”->”Your Pet Cat”, and “Harry Hood” with “What’s The Use?” teases all stick out–however, overall, this show left something to be desired for hardcore Phish fans. With that in mind, it was your typical “first show on tour,” a show that will quickly fade into the ether while Phish builds momentum over the remaining twenty dates they have scheduled for this summer. Phish returns to Northerly Island Saturday evening for night two at the Huntington Bank Pavilion.
Phish | Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island | Chicago, IL | 7/14/2017
I: What’s The Use?, Breath & Burning, Wolfman’s Brother, In The Good Old Summer Time*, Everything’s Right* > Limb By Limb, Nellie Kane, Theme From The Bottom > Blaze On
II: No Men In No Man’s Land > Fuego > My Friend, My Friend > Your Pet Cat -> Golden Age -> Your Pet Cat, Leaves*, Harry Hood^, Shine A Light
E: Love Is What We Are*, Golgi Apparatus
^”What’s The Use?” Jam