Review: Phish and their fans return to their natural habitat for Alpine Valley Music Theatre residency

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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They say absence makes the heart grow fonder.

In the case of Phish fans at Alpine Valley Music Theatre Friday, their hearts were practically bursting.

It’s the year of the great comeback at 42-year-old Alpine, its busiest season since 2004, with perennials of the last decade returning after some summers away.  

Last weekend, it was Dave Matthews Band; next weekend, it’s Jimmy Buffett. 

But this weekend it's Phish, making up for their four-year absence with three shows at Alpine (beginning Friday and lasting through Sunday).

Phish performs at Alpine Valley Music Theatre on July 12, 2019.

Sure, they’ve played at nearby Wrigley Field since then. But the Friendly Confines is no place for a Phish show.

Friday’s gentle summer breeze, the majesty of the setting sun and the half moon in the clear sky, the occasional flicker of a firefly, the warm acoustics floating off the rolling hills: it was the perfect complement. 

And most critically, Alpine had plenty of elbow room for Phish fans to dance. Seeing people getting down with abandon to the space hoedown swagger of “Rift” Friday was a sight to behold, an inspired synergy of song and audience that couldn’t possibly have the same allure in a cramped baseball stadium on a busy city block.

In this environment, thousands of fans let go and got lost in the music. Phish, though, remained laser-focused across Friday’s two-set, three-hour show. 

As he noodled on his guitar for 12-minute show opener “Sand,” Phish frontman Trey Anastasio actually looked like a fish out of water, mouth agape, quietly gasping for breath. But the concentration that he put into his instrument — it was as if his life depended on it.

Not every jam reached such intensity Friday. An elegant and intimate “The Squirming Coil” culminated Friday with the sweet, saloon-piano stylings of Page McConnell. 

And while the four Phish men were the most composed patrons at Alpine Friday (excluding cops and security), they still had fun. Anastasio lifted up his head and smiled during some choppy guitar riffs transitioning from “Light” to "Plasma"; they were proceeded by arena-scaling bombast and blues smolder and followed by tango melodies.

Jon Fishman brought some peppy jazz drums to a rendition of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (aka the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”). And the jubilation of "Everything's Right," Friday’s unofficial theme song, receded into a heady groove powered by Mike Gordon’s bass lines.

But the real stars of the show were the fans, evident by the euphoric roar and downpour of hundreds of fan-thrown glowsticks and LED balloons throughout a cover of Ween's "Roses Are Free" (a rather scant song Friday, at just five minutes, but clearly one of the night's biggest crowd-pleasers).

With these three Phish shows — plus Dave Matthews Band, Buffett, Hootie & The Blowfish, The Who and Farm Aid — you can’t help wonder if Alpine will revert to another quieter summer in 2020. Tours come in cycles, and it was just two years ago that operator Live Nation couldn’t even book a single act, leaving Alpine dark for a whole season for the first time.

And, hopefully, the only time. Wrigley Field’s got the Cubs, and they can have their stadium show blowouts each summer.

But Phish’s show Friday proved, when it comes to the live jam-band experience, there’s practically no place better than Alpine Valley.

The takeaways 

  • Anastasio looked a bit confused as he stepped onto the stage Friday. I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that a guy who looked exactly like him was standing front and center in the pit.
  • The beautiful surroundings and nostalgia factor are fine reasons for returning to Alpine, but I always get a kick out of the wry safety message played over the speakers at the entrance. Among the banned items mentioned this year: cannons, cowbells (even if you have a fever for more cowbell) and “selfie sticks that allow people to make fun of you.”
  • Here are a couple of gloriously goofy dance moves I saw at the Phish show I decided to name (trademark pending): the sweaty scalp rub and shimmy; the alpha male Yo-Yo swinger; the whack an invisible gopher with an invisible club hoedown; the skip through the schoolyard do-si-do; and the fiddle with the belt buckle (and pray your pants don’t drop) shake-a-roo.

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Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at

Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on "TAP'd In" with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.

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