Phish, Champlain Valley Exposition, Essex Junction, VT – 9/14
Photo by Brian Jenkins
Music is an intensely subjective art form. Phish, one of the greatest and most beloved bands to those of us who’ve developed the taste buds for them, have been on fire as of late. Two well-received back-to-back three-night stands in Chicago and Denver to “end” summer tour, a show so close to Burlington you could spit on it, and an event catered to bring some relief to a great state that has a long way to go to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Irene. Do you think anticipation and expectations were high for this show?
A wise woman once shared to my friends and myself one late New Year’s Eve, “expectations create drama.” Nothing could be more indicative of what ended up going down at the Champlain Valley Exposition.
Perhaps no one really wanted to come out and say it, but from the subjective viewpoint of a 1.0 fan with roots in New England, who now calls the west coast home, it was impossible to not believe something extraordinary was going to happen in Essex Wednesday night.
If you want to listen to some raw, organic, free-form music, check out the initial 13+ minute groove from the soundcheck, and listen to when Mike says something along the lines of the jam they just played should “basically” be the next Phish album. If you want to hear Trey talking about psychedelics and Christmas, hear that “it’s about time” for a theremin/vacuum solo, catch a “Peaches” into “Cannonball” exploratory jam, and listen to some loose, goofy Phish, check out the soundcheck. Hearing it, you would have thought indeed the show itself would be straight magic. When bassist Mike Gordon came out before the first set and introduced the Governor of Vermont, Peter Shulmin, for a positive, upbeat pep rally to start the show, it seemed like it was inevitable; the night would be historical.
The truth is the show was fun. But in all reality, a Phish show is fun. In the scheme of things we might need to get on soundcheck tour based on what what’s been going down in these pre-show warm-ups as of late, but I digress. Seldom would I say one can actually leave a Phish show and accurately argue it to be full-on “garbage.” While some may disagree, I’ll honor that it’s pretty close to impossible.
Even Vegas 04’ had a few brief moments (“Free”), as did Coventry (SPOAM). I’m not one to criticize the band because of what they choose to include in a setlist. They should play whatever it is they feel like playing. In all reality the Essex show reminds me that I would still rather see Phish play a standard show, than see almost any other band on the planet. But “safety” is not what many of us were thinking was going to happen in Essex. “Safety” is not why we’re addicted to Phish. I know that any expectations we fans create is our own fault, but without fluffing the amazing effort put forth by this amazing band to lend a special hand to their home state, 9/14/2011 will undoubtedly go down as one of the more standard, generic, uninspired Phish shows of the 3.0 era.
It’s extremely hard to heavily critique this show because in all sincerity, after an amazing leg two of summer tour, what a class act this band is for throwing something like this together at the last minute. That’s what matters the most. The money raised is going directly to where it’s needed the most. That said, from the perspective of a show reviewer, and a long-time fan, looking through the lens of this being a review of the bands musical performance, given that Phish is capable of unimaginable brilliance, and that they had in fact played such amazing shows as recently as Labor Day weekend, there’s no amount of fluff that can gloss over the lackluster show that was played in Essex.
There were highlights. The standard song choices were played well. We were at a Phish show after all. Second set actually got off to a hot start. After the band took the stage from the almost completely flat first set, Trey made mention of all the friends the band had seen throughout the course of the day. He mentioned not having seen former drum technician and engineer, Pete Carini, and proceeded to drop into a very charged version of the fan favorite tune, “Carini.”
The energy of the headbangesque song was exactly what the crowd needed after a first set that was about as bland as Phish could possibly get. The “Chalkdust” opener made sense. Still, it was relatively short and didn’t leave its regular form in any way. A funky favorite in “Moma” was next, although nothing too special came from it. “Moma” moved into “NICU” smoothly before “Funky Bitch,” which saw a lot of playtime in leg two of summer tour this year. By the time “Sample” and “Cavern” were being played the beer garden was almost overflowing with show attendees.
Again, nothing was played all that poorly, but a majority of fans in attendance were expecting the show to really pop tonight. Could you blame them? Maybe so, maybe not.