Five years ago on October 27, 2013, Lou Reed died at the age of 71, depriving the world of one of its greatest poets and bonafide Rock and Roll Animals, not to mention a huge inspiration on one Ernest J. Anastasio III. I first learned about this at a burger joint in Wethersfield, CT en route to the Phish show in Hartford that evening, and proceeded to confuse my companions by openly weeping into my iPhone. Phish proceeded to open that Hartford show with an 11 minute version of the Velvet Underground classic “Rock and Roll,” followed by a rare Trey request for a moment of silence for ‘one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived.’ The rest of that concert would live up to Lou’s challenge, as did most of Fall 2013. Now five years removed from that very date, how would Phish respond on a Saturday night in Chicago?
And after two Albany and three Hampton shows that were generally excellent, though marred by somewhat frustrating fourth quarters, consensus would indicate that both nights of Nashville and Chicago Friday were top to bottom heaters. This is all the more impressive considering that Wednesday Nashville and Chicago1 were up against the long shadow of the “Mike’s Song” -> “Ghost” from the first Nashville gig; a straight half hour of a propane weapon that this guy thinks rivals the best jams from the Baker’s Dozen. So that there’d be a bit of a lull on Saturday night isn’t entirely surprising; Chicago2 resembles some of the earlier Fall tour shows in that its best bits are diluted slightly by a snooze of a final thirty minutes. But it’s highlights scrape enough sky to ignite ‘jam of the tour’ debates amongst your wook friends.
Alas, Chicago is such an amazingly fun and vibrant city with great brunch options that nobody in attendance felt like writing about the show, so you’re stuck with me on my New York City couch. A well executed “Stash” opens the proceedings; the first time it’s been featured in said slot since 7/22/15 from Bend, Oregon. The compact jam featured a bit of a Middle Eastern hue, envisioning Trey in a Cairo night market (if not the ‘Streets of Cairo’). The Chilling Thrilling jam “Dogs” followed next, leading to the evening’s first genuine highlight, “Blaze On.” Trey can’t seem to get enough of calling for this song in the first set, and this was a particularly bright, uptempo version with plenty of the vocal adlibs that he’s been loving as of late. And here’s that excellent first set improv that’s been a welcome Fall ‘18 staple; the jam begins with “Plinko”-y noises supplemented by Page’s clavinet and Mike laying the shit down hard, eventually leading to Trey sustained note peaks, never leaving the “Blaze On” key of C Major, but still covering plenty of blissful ground over the course of 15 minutes. And it’s at this point in the show that my wife states that “Mike has really good posture for a musician.” Noted.
The remainder the first set consisted of well played versions of Set 1 staples; it’s weird seeing the band play “Water in the Sky” indoors as opposed to trolling wet fans with it, “Vultures” was refreshingly less train wrecky than usual, and the energy level at the Allstate Arena appeared to peak so high during the apex of “Roses Are Free” that I legitimately thought for a second that Trey was going to jump through my television and into my lap. And about the vocals; Trey really seems to be making a concerted effort to ‘sing’ on this tour, resulting in great ‘whoa, whoa, WHOA,’ vocal adlibs on nearly every song, “YaMar” and “Blaze On” in particular. It’s almost reminiscent of the decidedly not normal version of “Fire on the Mountain” that the Dead played in Normal, Illinois on 4/24/78, where a bizarrely animated Jerry adlibs “Let it burn, let it burn, LET IT BURN!” over the chords.
There was a time where opening the second set with a “Moma Dance” meant that the band had the intention of taking it deep. This was not that time, but it was competently performed. So when Trey calls for “No Men in No Man’s Land” as the second song, no less than three of my friends texted me within seconds of each other with a single word - “again?” Phish has played four cities this Fall, and each has received a NMINML, sparking many an Oprah meme on the social medias. But when Trey likes playing it as much as he does and for twenty-five minutes, who cares? This “No Man’s” stands as a contender for the best improv of the tour, progressing from finger snappin’ mutron Trey, to distorted classic rock riffs playing tag with Mike’s basslines, to mellow jamming in G Major that most of us thought was going to turn into “Piper,” capped off by what sounds like underwater rock and roll followed by evil robotic funk that segues properly into “Steam.” Clearly a “No Man’s” for the record books, and just the most recent of several Fall Tour examples of “why we do THIS.” “Steam” is followed by a relatively speedy, though compact “Chalkdust Torture,” and then Phish deviates from the previous three nights by kicking it into autopilot with the go nowhere sequence of “Fuego,” “Joy,” and “Suzy Greenberg.” None of these songs are objectively ‘bad;’ just evocative of the 4th quarter lulls that will keep the Albany and Hampton shows out of the upper pantheon of Fall 2018.
Bit of a limp to the finish aside, Chicago night 2 still contained the hallmarks of what’s become a most excellent Fall tour; fantastic first set improvisation and second set heavy hitters where the band gamely pushes through the jam instead of giving up the ship too early. And a “Rock and Roll” encore proves that Phish is date conscious as well; nicely bookending the last time they played a show on 10/27 with a Lou tribute proper. Blaze On indeed.
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