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Published: 2003/07/31
by Chris Bertolet

Phish, Post Gazette Pavilion at Star Lake, Burgettstown, Pennsylvania- 7/29

A few months ago I decided to dovetail a business trip to Pittsburgh with a Phish show. Honest Injun, it was a legit piece of business; I'd needed to get there for a while, and July 28-30 seemed as good a time as any. I had managed to see only one other show on summer tour an excellent Chula Vista gig that petered out in the homestretch and was itching to get just a little bit more. I don't give any credence to rumors of another hiatus on the horizon (gosh, Phishheads sure are a jittery bunch after enduring those years in the dark) but it never hurts to see what you can, especially when the band is at the top of its game.

My colleague Donald and I worked a hard day in the metaphorical salt mines on Tuesday trying to convince piece-rate workers that they were empowered to affect change (don't ask). When we were done, we doffed our corporate vestments and headed out to the venue to scope out the scene. There was a Shakedown Street in swing (several, in fact) but the whole circus was a little subdued, seemingly the result of constant harassment by venue security. I heard many of these bumblebee ass-clowns pestering the citizenry and being verbally abusive throughout the lot, enforcing non-existent statutes (e.g., you can sell beer and sell bootleg videos, yiz hippies, but you can't hold a ticket in the air), and just generally being insufferable pricks. I wondered if the Post-Gazette would see fit to publish a story about the Stalinists who are minding the store at the venue that bears its name. I pegged the chances at slim to none, with slim having recently departed.

Anyway, the Post-Gazette (once the Star Lake Amphitheater) is structurally and sonically a nice venue, and it has lots of interesting vending choices, including a piercing booth. Personally, I have a hard time imagining asking some Swiss cheese tweeker to hook me up with a Prince Albert at a Phish show, but far be it from me to slag others who decide to go that route. The biggest criticism I have of the physical surroundings is that the parking lot is "paved" with huge rocks, many the size of a fist, that make plain old walking a unique hazard. I turned my ankle over twice and was fortunate not to sprain it. What brain surgeon made this call?

I put the day behind me, settled into my thirteenth row seat (thanks, Herschel), and quickly watched this innocent little business trip of mine turn into a headlong tumble through the Looking Glass.

As I sit here in the airport typing, I'm fairly convinced that this is the finest two-set Phish show I've ever witnessed, and that it will compare favorably with shows like 5/7/94, 12/30/93, and 12/29/94 to name a few from the canon. The only thing that soured the experience in any way was not being able to share it with the loved one(s) and friends who have shared so many others with me. I spilled some seven dollar beer in the dirt for my homies in tribute.

My first Daniel was a killer surprise (among many to follow) and the scatting in the middle was dead-on. But if Daniel came from left field, Camel Walk (also my first) came from Phish's collective heinie. This was a filthy, skanky, seething version that built to a fine growl and held together from start to finish. My neighbor and I decided that the band seemed to mean business, but we had little idea how truthful that statement was. Jibboo appeared next, and quickly bloomed into a muscular, chromatic rock declaration. Most decidedly not your Aunt Sally's Jibboo. There was nothing "textural" or patient about it they just blew the doors off. This will go down as many people's favorite Jibboo.

Cool It Down followed, but did nothing of the sort. CID contained a wonderful, Tweezer-esque jam in which Fishman and Trey (who was wearing a white t-shirt that featured an image of the face of Fishman, circa 1992 or so) paved the way for some terrific group jamming. Palpably, the band locked all the pieces together at once, and began to deconstruct and reconstruct rhythm and key and tempo, careening around from one theme to another and surfing a wave of rippling magma. If Phish has played this tune since the 10/31/98 show, I'm not aware of it, and I've been pining recently for a Velvet Underground tune that isn't called Rock and Roll. What a great fucking pull this was. By this time my show was made. Everything else, I thought, would just be the sauce.

I used Scent of a Mule to go buy much needed water and a beer but from my vantage in the concourse it sounded like there was some good business there in the jam. I'm sure the gentleman who ranted the whole way into the venue about how it was time for his Mule was very pleased. I'm fairly certain that the Fee that followed was incomplete in some way (did Trey not sing the middle verses?) but a neat little ambient outro gave way to a perfect segue into Timber. I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but you should probably get used to it: this was a stupendous version of Timber. As in Jibboo, there was no noodling around and no grab-ass whatsoever before Phish collectively decided to bring the mojito and crush skulls. There may be a few 1995, straight-to-the-jugular Timbers that can hold a candle to this one, but I can't name one off-hand. We were exhausted by the time the band dropped into a well-placed and well-played Circus.

The set was over an hour deep before they finished and I was sure that they would have to break soon, since I had assumed the curfew was 11:00. It wasn't and they didn't. My first McGrupp since L.A. in 1998 was immensely enjoyable, and tight as a drum. Page gilded the lily with some remarkable piano work at the end of a very unusual jam, and though the conclusion was slightly flubbed, it mattered very little. My neighbor, an attorney from Columbus named Chris, turned to me and joked, "Gee, what's next, Crosseyed?" I laughed. The crowd was so appreciative of what was clearly a special first set that the obligatory Golgi was met with great approval from all. I love it when even the jaded fan-boys get in the act and head bang to the standards.

I'll skip setbreak, as it mostly consisted of sitting around on asphalt (the Post-Gazette folks rope off huge swaths of grass around the concourse so you can't sit on it; thanks, fellas). As we took our seats, one of the crew members came out and placed sheets of paper at every band member's station on stage, which led me to believe that some kind of wacky cover was planned for set two. Heh.

Crosseyed, as I'm sure many folks have alluded to on, was a voyage of Vasco de Gama proportions, a nine-course meal of moods and movements. This was Trey's version from the start, and the first fifteen minutes or so were quite dark and pointed. In fact, Trey almost seem to be angrily snarling the vocals; I got the feeling that this song was a statement of disgust at the family of rodents who have infested the Oval Office and the general morass into which they seem hell-bent to lead us. We are innocent and we hang our hopes on statesmen and speechmakers. And for the things they promise us? Still waiting… The angry jam led into a more melodic and delicate section where Kuroda literally took over the band, and then it all spiraled back downward into the form of the song. The entire trip lasted about thirty-five minutes if I had to guess, before it segued neatly into Thunderhead. I am not the hugest proponent of Thunderhead, but it served as case in point that placement is everything. This worked out wonderfully for me, and proved to be exactly the breather I'd need to make it through the rest of the set.

I went bananas at the start of Brother and could not stop for the next ten or twelve minutes. Before launching into the jam proper, Trey yelled something into his mic that I could not quite identify, and then everything came wonderfully unhinged. This was the fourth "first" for me in this show, and by this time I was fairly certain I was dreaming. Brother reached a searing, soaring peak, and as it ended I prepared myself for the inevitable Discern (or the like) to follow. Instead, Trey made his rounds and started giving some quite specific direction to his bandmates. The crowd near the pit started cheering wildly, having picked up on the chatter, and the place went absolutely nuts as everyone stepped to their mics to harmonize the opening lines of Harpua. All I could do was shake my head and attempt to use my cell phone to call multiple friends, none of whom would answer. What the hell was happening?

The composed section of Harpua was laid out really, really well, and Trey began to weave a tale, which I will reconstruct to the best of my memory. What we didn't know about Jimmy, he said, was that he was sort of lost and adrift in his teen years and felt like he didn't really have purpose, or direction. He needed that thing that was missing in his life. He needed IT. So Jimmy is lamenting his waywardness with Poster Nutbag as they sit together around the fire, which is when they take out their guitars and begin to sing a sad song. A beautiful Bittersweet Motel follows, with the crowd showing gracious appreciation at the Erie and Pittsburgh lines. In the wake of the Crosseyed, the "everything looks like a nail" lines came off more like social protest than the romantic lament I've always taken them for. Very nice.

Trey continues on to say that Jimmy figures out what he needs to do to find IT so he joins a rock band. For a while it's great for Jimmy lots of one night stands, lots of adoration, lots of everything else but then the chicks lose their allure, so Jimmy decides that maybe it's time to settle down. In fact, Trey says, Jimmy "looks a lot like this guy" pointing to Fishman's face on his shirt — and there's a t-shirt out on tour that reads "Jimmy Hit On Me." Trey invites Fish to the stage, who says some strange things, and they launch into Fooled Around and Fell in Love — which it somehow becomes apparent is dedicated to Fish's daughter. This proves to be what Cryin' was supposed to be — a great Fishman cover in the vein of Purple Rain, delivered with great panache and quite a virtuosic Electrolux solo as well.

Harpua finished sloppily despite some tasty B-3 work from Page through the "dog in the station" section, and then I swear to God I thought that was all she wrote. The hi-hat intro to Bowie came as the night's final surprise, not just because there was another hard-hitting jam vehicle left in these freaking androids, but because for most of the lead-in it sounded more like Maze (which was also far more pregnant). This was a smoking, to-the-point Bowie that I'm guessing lasted 12 minutes or so, but they were a blistering 12 minutes. Dear Lord.

I was so sated and giddy after this that I dug in my heels and accepted the Friday or Wading encore that I was certain they were going to play. This approach may have something to do with how blissed-out I felt during the Farmhouse. Again, here was an illustration of the importance of placement. It's okay to play a mellow tune as an encore now and then if it appears once or twice a tour, and especially if you've just capped your hands down show of the tour with rock solid versions of Brother, Harpua and Bowie. I thought it was a fitting way to end the show.

As good as this gig looks on paper, I'm sure that there will be some skeptics who assume that the playing must have been sub-par or lacking or inconsistent. It wasn't. My theory is that Brad Sands or someone read the band the riot act for the prevalence of repeats on this tour, or said something to the effect of "you haven't played this or this or that or this…" Finally the band got sick of it and said, "Fine, we'll play all of that old school shit if it'll shut you up." It just so happened to coincide with a night of red hot chops.

[This could be nowhere near the truth, of course.]

So I'm now over the Great Plains somewhere, thinking how incredibly lucky I was to catch this performance, and about how much fun is in store for those of you bound for Camden and Maine. You may not get the preposterous setlist full of rare gems though you may, of course, since Destiny and Icculus and Sanity and Peaches and Fluffhead (etc.) are still ripe for the picking but you will certainly share an evening with a band that can do literally anything when the intention is right and the stars line up… as they decidedly did in Pittsburgh.

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