Where to start with the weekend's music? I could easily reel off a laundry list of highlights:
The amazing "Scent" duel on Friday, with Fish contacting other worlds on the marimba lumina. The balls deep transition from "Theme" into "Weekapaug". A contained, but smoking "Piper". The fine improv in "Light" that threatened "Timber Ho" for a few short measures. The thrilling, world-spinning sequence of "Energy" > "Ghost" > "Lizards" on Sunday. Mike's inspired "Harpua" narration.
But taken in isolation are just moments -- and in these words I hope to arrive at something a bit more "big picture" about this weekend. Yes, weather played a significant role -- and more than just a shower, it insinuated into everything that transpired.
We all do our best to come into a Phish show unencumbered, ready to absorb and open to whatever is tossed our way. There's rarely a case when having expectations, especially unrealistic ones, have served to make the experience more enjoyable.
But expectation is also a funny thing. It is part of what defines this type of music; it plays a role in defining why audiences connect so deeply with it. Bands like Phish play a game with audiences the by establishing a standard, then challenging it, then defying it. It's what makes the whole deal so satisfying. And when a circumstance is so unusual, like when a show is cancelled two songs into the second set (*cough*, Friday), using this tactic to acknowledge what we are all going through seems to be in order.
Well Phish did... and they didn't. Certainly Saturday's surprise three setter was an outward gesture towards contrition. But that in itself set up even more expectations, given the rarity of such an event.
Patience is a word that gets tossed around a lot with respect to Phish. Often it is used to describe the art of focus and creative persistence within jams and songs. It's what makes a jam band a jam band -- exhibiting patience in musical performance creates an environment where time drips away, allowing the band and the fans to become lost in the process of creation.
But patience can also describe entire shows and even runs. My best nights spent in Phish's glow have been characterized by a disregard for the clock -- where everything seemingly unfolds in the manner it is intended, unaware of any prescribed timeline or template. Everybody wants to keep it going because it feels so good.
The opposite of this is when the band is playing like it's their obligation and not their pleasure. While I am confident it was not their intent, nearly every set in Chicago felt like a rush to the end. Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was the draw of the city, but at times one more song, segue or jam could have gone a long way to feel like the band was comitted to smashing through that barrier, and they just never appeared. Instead, it felt like there was some place else they'd rather be, reeling of songs to check them off the list, and send the crowd home to get dry. And that was exactly not what I needed to be feeling after dealing with mother nature's wrath and a failed experiment of a venue.
I acknowledge that all of this is coming from the jaded vet in me, and I do feel like a real bag of shit looking a three set gift horse in the mouth and dumping on "Harpua", but I believe this does tie into this patience argument.
With the weather behind us on Sunday, the band came out swinging at the beginning of set two -- creating the most engaging, dynamic and yes, patient, music of the weekend. At the onset of the "Oom Pa Pa", the "Harpua" seemed to be the perfect exclamation point to the set opening suite (Energy > Ghost > Lizards). But goddamn if it didn't turn out to be a controversial "Harpua", the dreaded circumstance where Phish essentially yields the stage to outsiders. The Second City segment actually started out beautifully but then went on too long and was too unfunny for my tastes. But that's not what makes the whole thing so disappointing; it was the waste of such enormous potential and how they followed it up.
The whole concept of the "Harpua" narration is essentially improvisational comedy in the Second City mold -- a loosely structured story that the performer is free to riff on as needed. This troupe should have slayed this. Wild theories about "The Right Way" and fans' criticism of Phish aside, it feels like Second City came in without a plan when when the plan was sitting RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEIR FACE. It's a goddamn story about a cat and dog who get in a fight -- not exactly comedy gold, but I've seen skilled improvisers do a lot more with less without invoking Al Gore and a woman's right to choose.
Fine. It was a mis-step, but one that checked a box for a large portion of the audience and for that I am happy. It also ate up a large part of the second set. Not a problem if the band was ready to be patient. But as it was, it was immediately time to wrap up the set with "Antelope", a move most folks could see coming a mile away after it was aborted as the first set closer (see also "Prince Caspian" opener on Saturday). A standard version brought the set to a close after less than 70 minutes. Chuck in a Character Zero that could have been performed in their sleep and a set that started so promising ended up too tidy, too predictable. And with a huge head-scratcher tucked right in the heart of it.
Having been through the wringer all weekend, endured an abrupt first set, and a longer than usual set break being pelted by heavy rain, I feel the situation called for just a little more patience.
It goes without saying that you have to have below average shows in order for there to be such a thing as an above average show. You're welcome, rest of the country, Chicago's got your back. At least a below average Phish show is better than the best day at work.