The last few weeks have been rough both personally and for the Phish community at large. I caught Covid after a Billy Strings concert and on September 28, I had to go to the hospital as I was having symptoms of hypoxia. Fortunately it was "just" the Covid creating pneumonia and the ER sent me home a few hours later, but in the moment it was terrifying. I didn't know if I would ever leave the hospital again.
The one cool thing that did happen from that horrible day is that Trey was tipped off that I was there and he sent me a message from his solo set that night, telling the story about how me timing songs and how I might not have been the fan that musicians dream about when they form a band, but ultimately moved it to a direction of genuine affection, a sign that Trey really does care about the community.
So after the drama of catching Corona, fearing for one's life, and then recovering, three weeks from the day of my hospital visit, I somehow found myself inside Matthew Knight Arena - on the floor close to the stage no less - about to see Phish. And what do they start with? "Down With Disease." And not just any "Down With Disease" but the 6th longest ever played. While I doubt it was intentional, that opener - complete with a few interesting themes, a "There is a Mountain" tease, and some very cool effects from Mike - felt like a perfect way to mark the end of one of the scariest chapters of my life.
After 25 minutes, the "Disease" segued into "Runaway Jim." Unlike the main character in the lyrics, this one stayed close to the main theme, it hit a very strong peak. Everyone can have their own headcanon as to what kind of dog Jim is, but in Eugene he was clearly a greyhound.
Phish is frequently about the contrasts. Formal song structures morph into an improvised jam. High energy songs wind down to a ballad. A heartfelt tune about losing one's sister can suddenly become a semi nonsensical track about llamas being used as weapons of war in a mythical land. So what better way to follow up a song about a tamed dog than one about a wild cat.
OK, I'm going to go on a digression here, but we need to have a little chat about "Ocelot." While I don't always share the hatred for certain designated songs, I usually can figure out why. The Ocehate though always confused me. The mid-song jam, while never particularly long nor "Type 2", usually goes to an interesting space. This version in particular reminded me of a good "Roggae," hitting a very nice peak. It's time to acknowledge "Ocelot" (or "Ocleto" as I like to call it after an amusing brain slip when I was writing it down on my setlist at The Gorge one year) as a completely enjoyable part of a Phish complete breakfast.
After the brief excursion to 2009, we were returned to the early 90s with a "Rift," "Horn," "Ya Mar," "Stash" combination. While the lyrical miscues in "Rift" were amusing - one great thing about the Phish community is that our default behavior to anything different, even a mistake, is to be entertained by it - I want to focus on the second pair.
One of the stories I always try to imagine is how the members of The Mustangs reacted when the first royalty checks started coming in. For those who have never heard this, "Ya Mar," is just a song that Mike randomly heard on a Caribbean vacation. He bought the tape and later Phish started performing it. Seeing how The Mustangs aren't exactly a household name here and Phish is rarely known much outside the United States, that must have been an interesting conversation. They might not know who Phish are, but they definitely know exactly when they play one particular song. This version was extra fun with some word play about grandfathers. "Play it for your grandpa Leo," exhorted Trey before Page's very strong solo.
Before we go forward, I'm going to go back. There are going to be nested flashbacks here people. Everyone hang on! Prior to the show, I went into downtown Eugene to get some tacos to eat in the lot. While I was driving to the Matthew Knight, I went past the Hult Center. Phish played there exactly 27 years and 5 months prior to this one: 5/19/94. That was my very first day in the Pacific Northwest. It was part of a trip that would cause me to move up here. While the show itself isn't the best of 1994, the "Stash" from the night is arguably the best one I have ever seen. I usually go back and forth between this version 9/9/99. So playing "Stash" in Eugene raises the bar. You can no more go through the motions with this than you can a "Tweezer" in Tahoe.
While it didn't hit the heights of the Hult, it did feel like they were trying to channel a similar space. Multiple times I felt it get to that intense, dark place that "Stash" can embody. It definitely would require a relisten to see how close it came; alas my Live Phish code is not yet working as of writing so this is going off of memory. Regardless, the attempt was made and the version played was a highlight of the night.
And then the other shoe dropped.
Yes, for me personally, Eugene was my first event since recovering, but it also was the first Phish show since the Chase Center concert two nights previous where one fan fell to his death and two others were injured in an unrelated fall. It was a terrifying event where even those who witnessed it will never able to completely forget. An obviously emotional Trey took a moment after "Stash" to acknowledge the injuries, the deaths, the connection we all have as a community, and how something like that would affect many of those who attended or even just were following the show on the webcast. It did feel like the energy from that night was coloring this one, but it became more apparent after Trey's comments.
The second set especially felt like it was in a dark, introspective area that they couldn't quite shake. If I were to describe the set with one word, it would be "weird." This wasn't going to be a dance party. The jams repeatedly went into space. At one point during "Twist," I wrote, "Dark but cool," in my notes and that feels like a summation of the evening. Even a reliable high energy song like "Blaze On" found itself in a quieter spot that was more reminiscent of "A Love Supreme" than its normal self.
Perhaps the quintessential part of the set was the penultimate song, "2001." While I have few notes about this due to the fact that I somehow found myself against the rail right in front of Trey during this (thanks Henry!) and - especially after Trey told the story about me timing up front - was extremely self conscious about picking up the clipboard, the ending of the song stood out. As they went into the second passage of the climatic build, the triumphant theme that is the centerpiece of the song, the release of the tension, they decided to just not play the peak. Instead they took it down, eventually segueing into "Sigma Oasis." It's a unique version. The ending will probably be a love it or hate it with little middle ground sort of thing.
For a show in the wake of a tragedy. "Drift While You're Sleeping," felt like the appropriate call for the encore. As they played the end section about the short length of time we have here, they were able to channel that into the very strong peak that the rest of the show was largely avoiding. It really was a night to reflect, a night to see where we had been, but - ultimately - a night to remember that we only have so much time here so we also need to push on and enjoy what we do have. It'll be interesting to see if that was the cathartic moment the band needed to push through on the second night of Eugene or if the introspection will continue and become a theme of the tour.
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