Tag Archives: chicago

Summer Tour 2017: Return To Chicago

Phish Summer Tour 2017 kicked off in Chicago this weekend, and I was back for the first two nights at Northerly Island (versus last year’s Wrigley shows). The opening night of any tour is always a calculated risk, as the changes the band has rehearsed and managed, from the lighting rig to new songs to subtle routine differences finally get amplified, literally and figuratively.

While the first night was careful, fun, and full of new songs for me, the second night showed what I hope the rest of the summer will be like:

  • The new lighting rig is outstanding. It’s back to being lights to capture rhythm and a bit of timbre, without the large LED panels that honestly I found distracting and seemed to require too much physical orientation. The new rig has mobility of the various spars to change intensity, direction and fills, but it’s “just lights” and so opens up (believe it or not) more creativity for CK5. The number of cans shot out into the audience was a nice touch as well; sitting in the back of the pavilion it was cool to see 20,000 (or more) people having an insanely good time.

  • The Type II jams were alternately paced by Trey, Page, Mike and Jon. At one point during the “tribal” riff in the 7/15 “Simple,” (maybe 12-13 minutes in) Fishman clearly picks up the syncopated lead and just powers into the next set of ideas. It felt like much less noodling and more carefully choreographed musicianship.

  • Page was on fire. Even without keyboard staples like “Suzy Greenberg” or “Squirming Coil,” he was taking leads on songs, paving the way for some great interplay with Trey.

  • First set of 7/15/17 is some of the tightest 72 minutes of rock and roll you will ever hear. After the TAB tour in the spring, I was hoping some of Trey’s soloing energy would carry on into the summer, and if anything my expectations were well exceeded.

  • “Northerly Simple” will be marked with the “Tahoe Tweezer” until something more epic comes along. That was the first long jam of the summer, and it covered all kinds of musical ground. Deep into the groove, it was easy to just listen to whatever themes they were exploring, and after five or six shifts, I realized they’d been buried in the not-so-Simple jam for close to half an hour.

    And so it’s a few days off for me; after swearing I would refrain from back to back shows after last summer, I hit both Friday and Saturday this year (newly repaired knee held up well!). Can’t wait to see what they bring to the Garden later this week and through the thick of the Baker’s Dozen.

    As for Chicago: What a great city. Walkable, fun, great food, architecturally stimulating, more great food, emergent neighborhoods that show what 10-30 years of careful curation and investment can do (think DUMBO but with lawns and less attitude), and now enough Dunkin’ Donuts to fuel my inner wook.

    As for Northerly Island: Reviews seem to be mixed on the venue. I think the lawn is a mess; it supposedly holds 20,000 people and it’s completely flat, so you see the band on a video screen, ideally get some phase-corrected sound delivered live, and get to spread out a bit. If it rains it’s a short extension of Lake Michigan and for only a few dollars under the pavilion pricing, it seems like an expensive ducat for three hours on your feet. Only one road in and out (and Saturday night, that road was closed early so getting to the venue via Uber was more of an adventure that you’d hope for pre-show). There’s no vending or tailgating allowed, so there’s no Shakedown, no lot, no fun pre-gaming. Water ran $5, as did soggy pretzels, and beer was $12-14 with premium drinks topping $20 each. That said – the sound in the pavilion was crisp and first rate (no echo, no weird absorption). The sight lines, even from the back, were great. Security was effective but mellow, and the people working in the pavilion were, to a person, friendly, accommodating and interested in seeing everyone have a good time.

  • Six Nights, Five Shows, Four States, Three Crews and A Phish

    Call it a midlife crisis, call it a case of good luck and logistics rewarding me after difficulty getting tickets in 2015, call it a bit of rejoicing in my 53rd year: I went to five consecutively scheduled Phish shows, in six nights, spending time in four states with three different concert crews in two time zones. I’m visibly exhausted, but mentally elated. I’ve learned my limits (2-3 shows per summer with at least a day off in between, ideally a day without work or travel).

    Chicago: A raucous start to the Wrigley shows, with a blistering Chalkdust Torture and a super funky 2001, and a second night in the second city that included a near-perfect Fluffhead and a Piper->Steam jam that covered every modal, tonal and mental staff space available. Toss in a trip to the Chicago Music Exchange, some insanely good BBQ and Italian beef (on top of a sausage, should have been a Meatstick hint) and a ride on the “L” and it was a wonderful way to enjoy a dad-and-lad weekend with my favorite bass player (who also happens to be my recent college graduate son).

    Deer Creek/Noblesville: Leaving Chicago at dawn was a hint; the venue is far from downtown; I just couldn’t get the right combination of food, water and rest to make it all click. But got to catch up with an old friend, shared a lot of stories, literally parked next to my cousin whom I’d been chasing all through the Windy City, and saw another impressive show.

    Travel Day: I think I worked on Monday but I’m not sure what I did. By Tuesday morning I was repacked and en route to Philadelphia after a solid day of work.

    Philadelphia: Shows at the Mann have become something of a summer centerpiece — the same crew pre-gaming, the trip into Philly that is full of anticipation, knowing that the band usually has family members in attendance and always seems to put in an extra effort. This year only raised the bar, with a “Crosseyed and Painless” that knocked my tie-dyed socks off, some new songs, and finally, after six years of chasing, wishing, listening and discussion, a “Meatstick” that was fun, goofy, funky and worthy of being played in a city that boasts of its pork stores and meat sticks.

    So why, why, do I grind my knees for 4-5 hours at a show, walk up some insanely tortuous hills, smile when some happily dancing phans bounce off of me, give up sleep, proper hydration and perhaps a bit of hearing above 10 kHz? I think I get the same happy, I’m-glad-to-see-this-gang, sincerely aligned feeling that I used to get at Princeton Reunions; the summer is here and Phish is on tour and for a few hours, nothing else matters. It’s the set list, some jam explorations, some blistering solos, and the tension and release that continues not just intra-song, but through two sets of live music that get twelve to forty thousand people singing, dancing and cheering along for the ride.

    Some more thoughts on my summer tour of the tour:

  • The musicians in Phish truly enjoy working with each other. If we all loved our co-workers, trusted them, and got wonderful, surprising and creative output from them each and every day, the DJIA would be at 30,000.

  • Those thirty seconds between the house lights cutting out and the first notes of a set opening song embrace and entangle the excitement and mystery of a first date, a surprise party, and seeing an old friend after an absence. You know the dynamic range of possibilities, but the approach and sound and fury are all there to get you by surprise.

  • After five shows and well over 100 songs, I only heard four songs repeated. Was rewarded with a few songs I had been “chasing,” collecting them the way numismatists look to fill that open circle in the album (Meatstick, Steam, and a Fishman vacuum solo). In any other concert, a drummer in a dress modulating the sucking sound of a vacuum into a microphone would border on the absurd; with Phish it’s just another silly counterbalance to the intensity of the well-craft composed pieces.

  • After the statue-still pause in “Divided Sky” (Wrigley night 2), I may have shed a tear. I’m in the middle of a musical adventure, in a new city (for me), standing in the upper deck of a storied baseball stadium looking out over a sea of people 20,000 leagues and stories deep, and one of my favorite bands is frolicking – no other word – through a lullaby inspired composed section before tearing off into an inspired bit of soloing. Being there, with my musically inclined (and talented) son, soaking in the summer night and sounds and fragrances (of all types), just hits you in the sentimental bone. “Divided Sky” has been on my “favorite song” ascent for years now. Add to that the fact that Ben and I have heard “Harry Hood” in a majority of our shows together, and it’s becoming a bonding experience — Philly has King of Prussia, Boston has the Hood milk jug in the Fort Point Channel.

  • I was thinking that the only song I wanted to hear (but didn’t) was “Cities” (more than made up for by the “Crosseyed and Painless” 2nd set Mann 2 opener), after some prompting from Ben I realized I would have also liked a “Ghost” and “David Bowie.” That said, I was so enamored of what I did hear, and how I heard it, that to wish for anything more would be gluttony at the musical buffet.

  • The mark of an insanely good show is that moment when you think you’ve hit a peak, and then the band pivots into something unexpected but even more wonderful. The mildly bluegrass “Oh Kee Pah” segues to “Suzy Greenburg” and then Fishman and Page are trading fours like jazz musicians in the solo section. “Slave to the Traffic Light” soars and meanders to a major and majorly good conclusion, only to give way to the opening arpeggios of “You Enjoy Myself.” (Mann 1) A near perfect “Fluffhead” comes out of a darkly complex “Tweezer”; the set concludes (you think) with “Harry Hood” but then eases into “Tweeprise.” (Wrigley 2).

    All told, it was a great week with great friends, old and new, and a set of shows I will listen to in the depth of winter when I miss the smell of grilled meats, greasy french fries, and spilled beer.

  • Guitar Heaven: Chicago Music Exchange

    After years of second hand conveyance of its greatness, we ventured into the Chicago Music Exchange Saturday afternoon as part of our pre-Phish-at-Wrigley festivities. With adulthood musical interests heavily influenced by the original Sam Ash and Manny’s (when they were two entities) in Musician’s Row, we are both somewhat snarky about music shops and also always on the lookout for that sincere mix of expertise, axes, and environment that makes you feel at ease no matter the extent of your chops, geography or wallet.

    The Chicago Music Exchange (@ChicagoMusicEx) is our new comfort zone.

    The main entry of the Chicago Music Exchange

    The main entry of the Chicago Music Exchange

    When you walk in you’re greeted by walls of guitars, sorted by vendor – if you’ve never seen a wall of Rickenbackers, or better yet, an entire wall of Gibson Les Pauls (further sorted into black and sunburst/tobacco finishes) then you should make the trip. It’s hard to quantize properly – imagine being at a car show where car from commuter can to high end speedster is on display with all variations in color, options and vintage. There are 50 year old guitars with all of the signs of being played hard, and pristine mint models that await their first introduction to an amplifier.

    The wall of Gibson Les Pauls at the Chicago Music Exchange

    The wall of Gibson Les Pauls at the Chicago Music Exchange

    The second, and more subtle, sense is that the store is optimized for people to come in, play and relax. There are comfy couches and chairs, and some benches lining the display walls. Sound protected rooms with an abundance of high-end amps and cabinets are there for you to audition guitars, so you avoid the cacophony and fatigue-inducing “I can go one louder” of a purely open floor. I was looking for the “No Stairway To Heaven” sign – although this weekend it more properly should have read “No Stash” (the dexterity demonstration of Phans with six strings everywhere).

    Downstairs, in the appropriately punned “Bassment” we found an equally wonderful assortment of gear, from new Rickenbacker 4004s to local luthier Serek’s work to more Fender basses than you could play in a lifetime. Again, accommodating setup for musician and family roadie alike, and the staff knowledge was as remarkably deep as it was freely and politely dispensed. Years ago I read stories about Steve Howe (of Yes fame) going into Manny’s in New York to see “what was new” and I have to believe Chicago Music Exchange provides an equivalent experience.

    The bass-filled Bassment

    The bass-filled Bassment

    Despite the siren (and drop-D tuned) calls of the Serek, Sandowsky and Warwick basses, it was not our day to add to the ever-growing guitar collection. The coda to our visit: “We just played $50,000 of guitars, can I get a shirt?” asked Ben, and the front desk staff was only too happy to go find one in the right size/color scheme. It’s the small things that make customers — especially long-distance customers — eager to return again and again. It may be the centerpiece of our next pilgrammage to the Second City.