In its decade-plus of annual (save for 2020) performances at the 20,000-capacity Dick’s Sporting Goods Park outside Denver, the Vermont-jamrock band Phish has provided a lot of unique memories, from spelling out “Fuck Your Face” with a setlist and repeating “We love Dick’s” during a vocal improvisation (2012) to weathering a scourge of plague-infected prairie dogs (2019).
With lightning striking the area repeatedly, a two-hour delay last Friday night delivered the one thing only fans could deliver—a rain-soaked streaker.
Other mayhem ensued due to the severe weather—from bathrooms becoming anything-goes parties to the venue allowing essentially anyone in, whether or not they possessed a ticket. The crowd that stuck around (to my eyes, nearly everyone) was rewarded, and not just with a rollicking version of “No Man In No Man’s Land,” which includes the lyric, “You’re happy that we’re here / exposed to all the elements.”
When the heavy rain and lightning subsided, and the show, scheduled to begin around 8 p.m., finally kicked off at 10 p.m., Phish frontman Trey Anastasio launched the band into the hard-rocking “Carini” juxtaposed with an incredible light show. Fronting a band known as much for its humor as its musicianship, the red-haired Anastasio sang through a big smile as he changed the lyrics to:
“I saw you with Carini and that naked dude / at least he had some boots.”
Levity aside, Phish has always known—having taken so many cues from its predecessors, the Grateful Dead—the importance of treating fans well, and instead of its usual two-set show, the quartet played one two-hour set after the weather delay Friday. The sprawling set was loaded with fan favorites, from “You Enjoy Myself” (during which singer-guitarist Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon jump on trampolines with their instruments still strapped on) to “Reba,” “Tweezer,” “Ghost” and “Chalkdust Torture,” all of which feature sing-alongs and plenty of opportunity for improvisation.
The second of four straight nights at Dick’s, Friday’s show will be remembered for the storm and the streaker as much as for, like most Phish shows, Anastasio’s virtuosic musical ambition.
Several times, such as on the swinging “Julius,” Anastasio’s rhythm section fell apart on him, failing to keep up with his energy and his waterfall of on-the-spot ideas. With key parts of songs, such as the ending to “Reba,” improvisation-based, it’s impossible for multiple minds to always sync up, and as Phish’s quarterback, Anastasio inevitably has to deal with some dropped passes. The benefit of that without-a-net approach, however, is that concertgoers also witness the dark, tasteful magic of a jam like Friday’s take on “What’s the Use?” and the tight, sprightly playing Anastasio’s bandmates provided underneath his soloing on “Weekapaug Groove” and “Chalkdust Torture.”
Fans who attended Friday’s show were even treated to a rare Phish cover of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” which was apt with the film Moonage Daydream debuting in a few days, and effective, because keyboardist Page McConnell matched Anastasio’s talent and creativity with his own.
For some, the parking-lot party at Phish shows is even more important and memorable than the music, and a walk through it is quite a trip. Young people openly sold balloons filled with nitrous oxide like beer at baseball games, shouting “Ice cold!” over and over as they dragged tanks around just outside the stadium’s gates, in the parking lot, on the soccer practice fields, and even along the roads as cars entered. Along with the ubiquitous nitrous-oxide sales, elaborate food, drink and merchandise stalls popped up, selling everything from $10 veggie burritos to hippie dresses and homemade shirts featuring clever images and lyrics from Phish and Grateful Dead songs.
As ever, the parking lot at Dick’s became a city unto itself during Phish’s annual Labor Day run last weekend, and its four kings rewarded residents once again Sunday night as the fourth and final show concluded with a version of the irreverent showstopper “Icculus,” which Phish has only played 18 times over its 40 years as a band.