PHISH: The 2011 Southern Run | JamBandsOnline.com

PHISH: The 2011 Southern Run

Review by James D. McCallister

Photos by Lori Sky Twohy

The nature of Summer 2010’s southeast Phish shows, formidable beasts filled with interesting jams and breakout tunes, begged only one question for 2011’s run — would Vermont’s prog-rock stalwarts be able to top the last visit to what the natives call “God’s country,” bringing Leg 1 of the summer tour to a close in powerhouse fashion? The answer, as it happens, was indeed a strong run that included breakouts, jams, new covers, and arguably the best show of the year so far, demonstrating the Phish just might be at the top of their modern game. Here’s a look at this run venue-by-venue.

6/14/2011 Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park, Alpharetta, GA

Set 1: Dinner and a Movie, The Moma Dance > Possum, Cities > Fluffhead, Ocelot, Ginseng Sullivan, Kill Devil Falls > Bathtub Gin, Light Up Or Leave Me Alone > Cavern

Set 2: Carini > Sand > Down with Disease > Maze, Meatstick > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Bug > A Day in the Life > Run Like an Antelope

Encore: Quinn the Eskimo

6/15/2011 Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park, Alpharetta, GA

Set 1: Paul and Silas > Back on the Train, Foam, Water in the Sky, Runaway Jim, Army of One, Roses Are Free > Timber (Jerry) > Mound

Set 2: Mound > Tweezer > Julius > Slave to the Traffic Light, David Bowie, Suzy Greenberg > Gotta Jibboo > Harry Hood > Character Zero, The Birdwatcher > Kung

Encore: Funky Bitch > Tweezer Reprise

Night one of Alpharetta, two sellouts that also comprised the first webcasts since the holiday run, featured a band full of energy and creativity, though still with the occasional odd song choice that wounded the beast, knocked him off track, and kept jams bubbling with dark energy from truly taking on epic proportions. For an example of this, look no further than the second set’s outstanding Sand>Down with Disease>Jam>Maze, a sequence of music that probed dark funky grooves, disturbing soundscapes, and ultimately a resolution in the precise and disturbing classic that’s Maze. But to follow with Meatstick, whose novelty value expired along with the ending of the millennium? If Phish is going to give in to the silliness and winking pseudo-songs that used to characterize their shows, then by all means put a vacuum in Jon Fishman’s chubby hands, stat.

But speaking of classic Phish, there’s little doubt that this band is happy to bring out catalog material and play it with aplomb and precision — the opening Dinner & A Movie, played as an audience request, demonstrated that Phish’s chops and knowledge of its own history run wide and deep. Dinner got the show off on the right foot, unlike the audience-requested Buried Alive from over the weekend in Columbia, which gave Trey some measure of difficulty. This reviewer would much rather see Phish work up a difficult, fast tune like Buried Alive and destroy us with their deft musicianship rather than struggle through an unrehearsed version simply because some phan is trying to force the calling of a tune.

Speaking of the signs: To call the tune the tune is a sacred and joyous moment, cosmic, alchemic, magic. To force the band’s hand via signage and make a tune happen? Ego-tripping at the gates of hell. Let’s be honest — the “all request band” handlettered sign phenomenon is getting out of hand. To quote Bill Graham, “For once, let the band decide.” In any case, this phan didn’t pay $75 to look at the back of a piece of cardboard. Enough.

Following the terrific opening tune, Moma Dance and Possum demonstrated that Phish is here and they sound wonderful and Page and really everyone onstage looks positively giddy to be playing, but these somewhat perfunctory versions of oft-performed material served to move the set along in an energetic sense without breaking new ground. The choice next of the Talking Heads standard Cities offered the first potential window for the guys to explore musical tangents, but unfortunately this five-minute version didn’t even pretend to want to explore any emerging themes.

The Fluffhead that followed, overplayed in 3.0 but still a crucial and vibrant piece of Phish history, is performed here with precision and spunk. Notwithstanding the tremendous, nearly hour-long second set Clarkston trifecta of Disease>Fluffhead>Bowie, with its superb and adept transitions being more the exception than the rule in the world of modern Phish, the rigid, challenging composition-based multiple movements that comprise the Fluffhead suite feel to this writer’s ear better placed as a first set statement of chops and expertise and presence of mind than as a second set showpiece where a more lengthy improvisational segment is desired. But wherever he appears in the show — and Fluff’s been seen everywhere from opener to encore — it’s clear that he’s able to travel anywhere and still make himself comfortable.

A solid Ocelot, a breakout bluegrass tune in Ginseng Sullivan, and a spirited Kill Devil Falls led with a hard-splice transition into a Page-driven Bathtub Gin, here played for the second show in a row. Gin didn’t stray too far from its structure, but what followed would turn into the biggest surprise jam of the night — Light or Leave Me Alone. The Traffic cover, rare and welcome, turned into a strong, raging Type I romp that seemed to live and breath and expand of its own volition. All this set needed next was to have a Phish-tastic exclamation point placed upon it, and nothing brings the room up like a powerhouse Cavern. The moral here is anything but obscure — it’s a dose of high energy, quirky rock & roll that only The Phish from Vermont can provide.

Set 2 began with Carini, which on this tour seems to have lost whatever jamming potential it once displayed; here whatever improvisational potential is aborted by the impatience of Trey for a reasonably smooth segue into Sand, which in its current incarnation is far from a tragic occurrence. As noted above, however, the sequence that followed sent this set soaring to what would be the peak of the evening.

Following the terrific Sand>Disease>Maze sandwich, the Meatstick appearance heralded a choppy remaining set of music that included a standard short version of Also Sprach, an emotive but undistinguished Bug, the disturbingly psychedelic tension-and-release of the Beatles’ A Day in the Life, and finally topped off with an Antelope that raged, though no more or less than any other recent rendition. After encoring with the Dylan tune The Mighty Quinn, assayed by Phish perhaps more as a nod to the Grateful Dead’s familiar version than that of the original songwriter, the crowd roared and then filed out into the lots with smiles on their faces and fervent anticipation for what on the second night at this medium-sized suburban amphitheatre ought to be a jamfest of the first order.

This was not to be. Storm warning ahead.

The next afternoon, thunderheads built in the distance and a gray wall crept over the trees, the lot scene taking on an ominous cast with the first of several fronts to roll through. Vendors and tailgaters alike had to batten down the hatches for a brief, gusty period of intense rain and lightning — but nothing like what was to come.

Inside the band started off with another audience request — okay, okay, thanks sign people, I take it all back — and another rarity, Paul and Silas, not seen by this writer since 1994, got this damp, anticipatory crowd moving. Many a phan checked off a rare tune from their most wanted list on this night, I can tell you.

Sliding smoothly into Back on the Train, the band charged through a set of solid music that included Foam played to relative perfection and a galloping Runaway Jim. The Type I jam that followed not only lived up to the song title, but also featured the staccato Trey technique that, owing to some similarity to a sound effect from a television gameshow (the association of which with Phish’s musicianship being lost upon this reviewer’s ears), some online commentators have designated the “plinko” effect.

The lyrics of sensitive balladeer Page’s Army of One that came next seemed prophetic as the set progressed — despite tearing through a textbook, 3.0 era jam-free Roses are Free that segued smoothly into an inventive, explosive, furious Timber (Jerry) that led into the rare and desirable Mike composition Mound, the band could not compete with the weight of another storm passing through. All through Timber the rain came harder, the lightning closer and more intense, until in the middle of Mound the roaring rainstorm that flowed into the pavilion, drenching even those of us covered by its ostensible protection, forced Trey guitar tech Brian Brown to appear onstage and start encasing delicate electronic equipment in plastic. Trey clearly hated having to interrupt what’d been the flow of a strong developing set — and also leaving us to the vicissitudes that come with southern summertime weather — but nonetheless promised to return and finish Mound as soon as they got the go ahead.

The crowd, wet but peaceful and far, far from panic, weathered the storm with grace and patience over the break, which in the end didn’t seem much longer than a normal intermission. Thoughts swirled along with the howling wind: what songs did we miss? How would the set have ended? These question are lost to time, as Roy Batty said, like tears in rain.

While the weather never quite fully quieted, the worst of the intense storm soon passed by, and as promised, the band came back and picked up Mound where they left off — as it turns out, a difficult, spirited, but only quasi-successful attempt to recapture the complicated, syncopated rhythm of Mike’s rare tune. Mound’s moment had passed.

Phish charged through the remainder of the set as though they expected to be told at any time that another showstopping storm loomed — as though the devil himself followed snapping at their heels. From Tweezer’s acknowledgement that “it’s gonna get wet, wet, wet” to the oddly placed Julius > Slave to the Traffic Light to Bowie to Hood, the songs were performed with an edgy aplomb that filtered through this writer’s damp undies seemed in the moment, anyway, inorganic and rushed. (A further listening, one taken in a comfortable environment free from lightning crashing and trees snapping, reveals a well played set that doesn’t seem too terribly odd other than the greatest-hits feel of the song selection.) The webcast element might have played a factor in choosing the songs — a glurt of classic high energy Phish for all the couch-tour folk at home the world over. Fair enough.

In any case, other than a Suzie Greenberg that featured a ripping, raging Page solo, one Trey inexplicably tried to cut off much to the amusement of all involved, this set of good music felt solid but uneventful, at least until the end: In a night filled with strange energy, the oddest moment came with the troubadours shuffling over to the ill-used of late a capella mic for The Birdwatcher. This clever and amusing trifle took much discussion and huddling beforehand with fingers jammed in ears trying to find the right key, but the resulting trainwreck of a version portrayed four under-rehearsed vocalists standing before 12,000 fans winging their way through a song that, after its long layoff from last fall, was nowhere near ready to be performed in public.

Phish, in the best improvisational tradition, however, made setlist silk out of the sow’s ear of their Birdwatcher debacle by sliding seamlessly into a unique and amusing Kung, another surprise to make smile the statisticians and songchasers. Funky Bitch and the obvious unsurprising rocker Tweezer Reprise closed out this show with an encore that shouted back at the inclement weather, “We are Phish. We are indefatigable — neither rain nor sleet nor yadda yadda will keep us from our appointed task.”

The rain, all but over by the time the crowd shuffled back to the scattered lots, meant that the post-show fireworks and revelry would go on as though nothing unusual had happened — another Phish show, yes, but one forever marked by an asterisk. Perhaps the band could let us in, somehow, on what might have been played following the rain-out Mound. Or, maybe it’s best not to know at all, and allow this show to stand on its own merits — above average, certainly, but far from revelatory, unlike the next stop on the tour.

Next: Phish makes its presence known in the great state of North Carolina.

Over the course of a long career Phish has played North Carolina innumerable times, but perhaps none so memorable as last year’s stellar Charlotte appearance, at which the band would break out one of the rarest tunes imaginable, Fuck Your Face, not played in 23 years. Would they be able to top such a momentous event, surrounded as it was by an overall powerhouse show? As it turns out they may have, with a show already bandied about for best-of-tour-so-far honors, and coupled with another eclectic and satisfying performance the next night in Raleigh.

6/17/11 Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre – Charlotte, Charlotte, NC

Soundcheck: Dog Log, Blues Jam

Set 1: Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Bouncing Around the Room, NICU > Sample in a Jar, Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird, Axilla, Wolfman’s Brother, Scent of a Mule, Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan

Set 2: Backwards Down the Number Line > Rock and Roll > Ghost > Free > Reba, Icculus, Hold Your Head Up > Bike > Hold Your Head Up, Chalk Dust Torture, You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Wilson > Loving Cup

6/18/11 Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek , Raleigh, NC

Soundcheck: Babylon Baby (Incomplete)

Set 1: Cars Trucks Buses, Peaches en Regalia, AC/DC Bag, Guyute, Possum, Halley’s Comet > 46 Days, The Divided Sky, The Ballad of Curtis Loew, Run Like an Antelope

Set 2: Twist > Rift > Prince Caspian > Esther, Been Caught Stealing, Piper > My Friend, My Friend > Kill Devil Falls, Split Open and Melt, Golgi Apparatus, First Tube

Encore: Good Times Bad Times

Back in the old Deadhead and Phish 1-and 2.0 days, Charlotte could be a tough town on tourheads. With venue parking lots crawling with undercovers and an onsite magistrate (at late-era Dead arena shows, anyway) ready to mete out punishment, the Dead, and later Phish, could be counted on to rip through a blazing show or two despite the southern penchant for strongarm police presence, roadblocks, and the like.

Times have changed — not, as we’ll see, in Raleigh, but in Charlotte the lot scene unfolded at about as relaxed a pace and tone as anyone could want. With a modest security presence, the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, inside and out, seemed on this hot summer Friday night (and in 2010 as well) to be a place that folks could feel comfortable and reasonably free to pursue parking lot-type activities, with event staff in easygoing mode and the authorities hanging back and allowing people to get their Phish on in whatever reasonably discreet variety they wished.

A twist on this night regarding the sign phenomenon — continuing the “Page/Mike/Fishman’s House” meme that’s accompanied the tour, the fan sign that caught Trey’s fancy in Charlotte read “Mike’s House.” Holding the sign in his teeth, Trey kicked the band into Mike’s Song with a few muffled chords at first, but then jetting off on a rare Mike’s Groove opener that included an ethereal and note perfect I Am Hydrogen segment. The monster Mike’s jams seem, like enormous monster jams in general, to be a relic of past tours, but when this triptych’s played with this level of engagement — and as a rare opening segment — it’s difficult to find fault.

Next up the set threatened to morph into one of those fragmented song-driven affairs: a standard but fun Bouncin’, NICU sounding Phishy, tight, and with a neat slide right into Sample. These tunes made for a statement of danceable catchy songwriting acumen, but as to be expected, no real musical fireworks. Still, the band kept the energy in the “room” up throughout this segment, the merits of which are obvious.

The first of Charlotte’s treats to follow, however, sent an electric wave of happiness throughout the assembled masses.The once-a-year appearance of the weary shit-assed Col. Forbin and the helpful Famous Mockingbird was met with raucous approbation, and delivered in a version that felt more solid and exciting than last year’s Independence Day breakout of the classic duo. Lacking once again in a mid-song narration, the execution of the challenging Mockingbird more than made up for missing an element of oldschool Phish — storytelling — that could once be counted upon to define a particular set or show. In 3.0, the very acknowledgement of the rich Gamehendge saga in the form of the various tunes still in rotation, however infrequent some may be dusted off, served here as an adequate and exciting reminder of past glory.

Axilla I continued the set with a vicious, shredding urgency, while Wolfman’s Brother provided a  danceable jam that stayed firmly in Type I territory for its 10 minute length. Another welcome rarity came next — Scent of a Mule, fun, challenging, and another piece of unforgettable, amusing Phish compositional glory that holds at its quirky energetic heart the Page McConnell klezmer breakdown every Page-side rager wants to hear. The prior version of SOAM (or is that the acronym for Split Open and Melt?) earlier in the tour hadn’t been the best, with some mixed up lyrics and a struggling lead guitar part, but Charlotte’s Mule brayed and honked and kicked the living bejesus out of Tomahawk County’s insidious invading space aliens.

After such an appealing set of excellent material, only a current classic in the making, Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan, would likely follow, and follow it did, with a strong reading of Trey’s post-arrest lament regarding the hole into which he’d dug himself — or so the lyrics seem to indicate. It’s a brighter and more upbeat tune than such a description would suggest, which is perhaps the songwriter’s intention. Here, a bit of darkness creeps in with an atonal, shredding solo from the sensitive ginger at the heart of our favorite band, but otherwise this Stealing Time makes for a solid but unremarkable end to an already interesting set.

Charlotte’s outstanding second frame broke with a companion piece to the previous set’s closer, the oft-performed Backwards Down the Number Line, here presented with all of the emotion and pep that Big Red usually brings to this close-to-his-heart paean to an old and dear friend. This version features a bandleader and songwriter pouring out his heart in the form of emotive cascading solos that build to a thundering conclusion, one that led into what would be the meat of the set, a run of material that, even more than the rare tunes and antics to come, made this show a safe bet for inclusion on best-of lists for the year.

Placing Rock & Roll in a couple of different slots since last summer’s de rigueur Saturday night second set opener position, here the Velvet Underground staple of Phish shows since 1998 appears out of the last notes of Number Line, heralding a sequence of music sure to be included on iPod mixes of Summer 2011 for years to come. This twelve minute tune veers from its main structure almost immediately following the verses, in a driving, urgent jam in which all four band members are invested and inventive, and which takes us into deep Type II territory. The so-called Charlotte Jam, a conversation among brilliant engaged musical peers, is lively and rewarding, exploring a couple of spritely themes and ideas before wending its way down into an abstract deconstruction that opens a door to the dark funk of Ghost, in which the band clambers onto the higher ground that is pure improvisation, finding there a platform of inspiration and greatness. These are bold musicians at work, with mighty forces coming to their aid.

Ghost, at 11 minutes, wasted no time before following a similar Type I to Type II progression as Rock & Roll did, Trey listening to his band members each dancing around their own ideas, the group mind making the individual contributions into a lively and cohesive whole that, while interesting, isn’t a signpost to complete and utter outer space. What this jam represents, though, is an example of Phish letting themselves loose and allowing the music to happen as it happens, scaling peaks and then standing astride them like the kings of the jam world they are.

This impressive improvisational segment climaxes and finds its way to an almost Mind Left Body descending chord progression before dropping neatly into Free, itself once the launching pad for jam segments, but in 3.0 apparently no longer occupying that role. Nevertheless, this Free seemed rocket-fueled by the outstanding musicianship that’d come before, and remains as strong an arena rock anthem as one could want from an iconoclastic act like Phish.

As if all the preceding weren’t enough, here’s where the show got truly, epically historic — going straight into a super-desirable second set Reba, this band seemed determined to put on a show that residents of the Queen City wouldn’t soon forget. With nimble alacrity, Phish tore this complicated composition to shreds, and complimented the song proper with an extended jam that amplified and underscored the incredible amount of work it certainly must have taken for these musicians to continue to perform at this level of professionalism and inspiration. Reba might not include whistling anymore, but if the song’s going to be played this well, such an omission is easily dismissed.

“There’s something about playing at this venue . . .” And so begins a companion piece to the first set’s appearance of Col. Forbin: Icculus! Not played since Hartford 2009, here the musical exhortation — “Read the fucking book!” — came apparently inspired by a trip Mike and Trey took to see David Mayfield on their night off; both sporting Mayfield shirts, Trey explained that “this is the man who wrote the book.” One supposes that, to accord Mayfield such an honor, they must have had a terrific time at his show. In any case, Icculus stands tall as a huge “get” for many of the phans in attendance, this writer included.

As though inspired by the ghosts of Phish past, only one more classic moment had yet to be unveiled in 2011, and that would be the now uber-rare John Fishman showcase tune. Many shows had passed since the last Fishman vac solo, but at a Charlotte appearance already well on its way to being enshrined in the Phish Hall of Fame, perhaps this piece of the puzzle simply had to fall into place, if for no other reason than to allow childhood drummer Trey to wail on the skins during the Hold Your Head Up fanfare. Pink Floyd’s Bike seems now to be the preferred choice for these infrequent occasions; here, Fishman makes it through the first part and an amusing vacuum solo, but falters and forgets the words afterwards. No matter.

After taking the crowd-pleasing victory lap and reasserting Fishman’s primacy over the drum kit, the band had no choice but to bring this show to a close in the manner they’d played it so far — with powerful statements of both chops and historicity. Chalkdust Torture raged in a slot many might have suspected would be the capper on the set; instead, only the appearance of You Enjoy Myself, which considering all that’d come before made the most thematic sense of any song the band could have chosen to finish the show, could suffice to conclude this monstrous performance. Is this YEM a worldbeating alltimer? Probably not, but it’s entertaining and played as well as anything else in this wonderful show, which is high enough praise.

A double encore — Wilson, in keeping with the Gamehendge theme, and Phish encore staple Loving Cup, now forever lurking in the shadow of its version as part of the Exile on Main Street set at Halloween 2009 — made this most recent classic Phish Charlotte show that much more special. One wonders if given the chance, these inspired cats might have played all night.

Next stop Raleigh, which after this amazing Charlotte show had its work cut out for it.

First order of business: it’s quickly apparent that Raleigh’s scene isn’t nearly as chill as that of the previous stop. Undercovers and uniforms are aggressive and many arrests are made, 77 in total. Inside the venue, it’s more of the same in the pavilion, with strident uncool ushers in constant states of agitation trying to “control” the crowd and keep people out of the aisles, in general making asshat nuisances of themselves and impeding enjoyment of the show. Storm warnings and swiftly moving banks of gray clouds also brought memories of Alpharetta 2, but ultimately nothing more than a few sprinkles would fall.

Sign breakouts continued this night with a pair of instrumentals — Cars Trucks Buses made an excellent appearance, and even more significant breakout Peaches en Regalia felt acceptable but something of a struggle for Trey — one rehearsed, one not, perhaps? In any case, however annoying signholders might be, at least we are getting bustouts at virtually every show thanks to the pliant, all-request band.

AC/DC Bag, complete with staccato soloing and a propulsive driving beat, positively stormed the gates of heaven, providing the real and true launching pad for another strong set. Guyute, a standard but nonetheless steller and engaged reading, preceded the derided and indisputably overplayed Possum, always fun, here appearing in a nine minute version that for all its danceable atonal charms still adds little to the Possum legacy, other than as an increasing all-time statistic.

Having unleashed that mild dose of snark, let it be said that the frequency of a fun song like Possum — enjoyable for both band as well as audience — should in no way be seen as an egregious breach of setlist protocol. Complaining about Possum being played so much is overthinking and contextualizing the experience in a manner that does a grave disservice to the spirit of the music and those who make it — it’s being too concerned with statistics and not the excitement and energy of the moment at hand.

With its Cadillac rainbows and lots of spaghetti, Haley’s Comet is an intricate and welcome selection whether an interesting jam develops out or not, which unfortunately this version doesn’t even approach. In Raleigh’s case, we did get a propulsive Fishman-driven excursion that lasted a couple of actionpacked minutes, but Ripcord Trey forced the band out of what might have become a pulsing breathing entity of a jam into 46 Days, a not unwelcome rocker that here made up for a brusque jamkilling appearance by strutting its stuff with spunk and snap and volume. Faces, I’m sure, melted throughout the amphitheater, but as rocking a number as 46 Days is, it sometimes feels like a lawnmower cord being yanked over and over with occasional sputtering success.

Divided Sky. What is there to say? Phish brings their chops to this piece as always, it’s not unwelcome, it’s an old familiar friend with issues and history between the two of you and you know that when you run into him you want to give him a man-hug, shake hands, and maybe skulk off to take a whizz and maybe fill up your water bottle again. On an intellectual level? A statement of chops and history and all that. Like Fluffhead, you, Divided Sky, appear as a signpost to the enduring ongoing legacy of the men who first made this intensely intricately composed and cathartic symphony. Here this indelible and essential piece of Phish history, unlike a severely botched version earlier in the tour, delivered the goods. If Phish performing a crucial suite of music from its earliest days with this level of spirit and precision isn’t what we want out of a Phish tune, then I don’t know what is. Bravo.

Curtis Loew, welcome but undistinguished, and Antelope, much the same, plant the flag of the first set there on planetoid Raleigh in a manner that satisfied without fostering any undue exaltations or revelations worth describing — a good groove to send us onto the “15 minute” intermission would suffice us nonetheless, sirs, and for this we were duly grateful.

Set 2, the meat of any show worth its salt, eased into a dark tone with a Twist that seemed to emerge out of the ether and come fully into itself as a modest Type I jam that may have set the tone for the song, but not the overall set. The welcome and overdue Rift that came next altered the tone and trajectory of the set — no jams here, but another example of Phish playing to the best of their considerable abilities.

Prince Caspian > Type II jam > Esther — just about exactly perfect, a breath of new life into what is sometimes a setkiller of a song choice in Caspian, which here sparkles with a delicate improvisational segment far afield from the composed roots of the song, with digital delay effects that for a brief moment seemed to resurrect the ghost of 1998, a moment of ambience leading into the ominous carnivalesque pulse of Page’s Esther intro.

Esther, like Caspian, embodies a quieter, more introspective dynamic, and must be a tough call for this band to make energy-wise — yes, it’s a ‘get’ for many of us, but owing perhaps to a lack of exposure to the song by younger phans and its delicate-turned-exciting narrative that rewards the attentive listener both in a storytelling sense as well as musically, on the lawn — much more relaxed than in the shed proper — there came a bathroom exodus, a ripple of conversations, the sparking of personal combustion devices: an earthbound constellation of yellow and blue stars, ephemeral, flickering once, twice, then gone. It’s not loud grooveshaking arena rock, this lovely Phish tune, and for a Saturday night crowd in Raleigh, they seemed to want a bigger and more bombastic statement. Their loss; this reviewer finally got his Esther and was thus elated, floating above the amphitheater like a magic lantern — or else a young impressionable girl holding a suspiciously motivated puppet.

The appearance of Trey’s guitar tech for the second time on the Southern Run, this time heralding not an impending weather event but rather another astounding breakout tune, placed a second microphone next to Trey’s setup, a device designed to process his voice and replicate the twinned falsetto vocals of Been Caught Stealing! Not since 1998 had this tune been performed by Phish, and here it serves a distinct purpose: as an whitehot explosion of energy acting as a bridge to the second half of the set. Now the crowd seemed engaged, and for its three minutes of existence, Been Caught Stealing electrified the thousands cutting a metaphorical rug to this piece of essential and unique 90s rock history.

And what an interesting second half we’d get: a highly unusual cold-started Piper nonetheless managed to take off to the stratosphere, albeit briefly, before deconstructing itself into a Fishman- and Cactus-driven improvisation over which Trey’s filtered tone shucked and jived until heralding the appearance of My Friend, My Friend, the late placement of which in this set seemed to indicate that Phish had unusually creative plans for this, another in a series of tonally forbidding song selections. Despite its placement in the show, however, this five minute version is more acquaintance than friend to any particularly interesting jam that might have arisen. The voices deepen and elongate, but no maleficent laughter accompanies this performance, only a hard-splice segue into Kill Devil Falls. What, pray tell, is this song doing at this point in the show? Anyone’s guess — heralding the end of the set, perhaps?

Far from it. Following a propulsive but rote KDF, at last the jamband kings earn their title with a superlative Split Open and Melt. SOAM — or is this the acronym for Scent of a Mule? — fits perfectly with the dark tone of the set so far, and takes us on an outstanding, brief deconstruction of its minor-key melody before embarking upon a peregrination that goes into an improvisational space in which spirits of questionable motivation lurk — this tune doesn’t split open, but indeed the music melts into a mixture of dueling geometric lead lines offered up by each band member in turn, until at last devolving into a pulsating mass of rhythm and texture. After much patient and attentive four-way interplay, Phish found its way back to the tune without breaking a sweat, nailing the landing in a fashion that’s slick, satisfying, and organic.

After the improv highlight of the night, this odd, disjointed show — albeit one with numerous charms and highlights — drew to a close with a pair of tunes designed and executed to get the blood pumping and bodies moving: Golgi, with its ticket stub visible and held aloft in triumphant fashion, and First Tube, a kind of bookending instrumental piece to the two that started the show.

After such a rich and varied performance, perhaps no better way to end a Saturday night summer blowout than with the Zep, and Good Times, Bad Times makes strong, thrilling, crunchy guitar hero style farewell to the state of North Carolina, apparently until sometime in 2012. After two solid and at times astonishing shows, Phish aficionados may rest easy that the band brought the best of what it currently offers to the Tarheel state. May it be enough to last us until next year. Whatever flow Raleigh 2011 might have lacked, this remains a formidable assemblage of music that’s a worthy and unique to the Phish legacy that, alongside Charlotte, exists as a thrilling depiction of Phish playing to a high level of satisfaction for both band as well as audience.

Next: Portsmouth, a family affair, draws the curtain on Summer 2011 Leg 1.

With the end of the first leg of tour and so few bustouts left to play — as well as what’s become the annual 3.0 Father’s Day show — expectations ran high for this most intimate of east coast Phish venues. Last year’s show was a real trip without being much of a musical monster; what would 2011’s appearance bring? The short answer: a little of everything, a lovely if mostly unremarkable cap on what’d been a solid tour.

6/19/11 nTelos Pavilion, Portsmouth, VA

Set 1: Harpua > Brother, Down with Disease > Back on the Train, Funky Bitch, Timber (Jerry), The Wedge, The Moma Dance, Thunder Road, Tube, Alaska > David Bowie

Set 2: Crosseyed and Painless > Walls of the Cave > Slave to the Traffic Light > Fluffhead > Sand > Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley > Light > Backwards Down the Number Line, Suzy Greenberg

Encore: Julius

As rain threatened, the atmosphere around the waterside venue had a lazy-Sunday vibe to it, but not nearly as lowkey as last June’s weekday appearance here — a compact shakedown area raged, but with local government, including the police station, only a block away, the party didn’t get too terribly out of hand. Overall the mood was one of relaxation — no real reason to queue terribly early (except, of course, for committed rail rats), plenty of room inside whether in the pit, the seats, or the miniscule lawn section that’s probably one-eighth the size of a venue like Raleigh or Charlotte.

Harpua. The last of the breakout tunes, right out of the gate. But what, pray tell, would the four additional mic stands set in front of the band portend? Obviously we weren’t getting the Father’s Day Brother tub-gag with the kids . . . and Page’s dad could be seen dancing around side-stage before the show began. To make a long story short, as Trey said of Harpua itself, the dialogue segment (“Jimmy?” “Yes, Dad?”) was conducted with each of the band members’ dads, concluding with frequent Phish guest star Dr. McConnell delivering a profane twist on the key line: “Your goddamn cat died!” Crowd goes wild with amusement and delight, as do the band members. After the four patriarchs deliver a very much not-in-unison “How about a goldfish?” the men shuffled offstage with smiles and waves and good cheer bouncing around the room.

Who said we weren’t getting Brother? The mic stands are removed, out comes the tub, and the band goes right into what’s become the Father’s Day signature tune. Phish spouses and kids, one “in utero” as Trey says of an impending McConnell kid, jump in the tub, smiling and happy. With the relative ages of the offspring of these musicians and the sum total of college education expenses in their future, along with investing wisely we may likely expect Phish to be playing with some regularity for, oh, about 20 more years.

And so, after the stunts and smiles and families, Phish goes into what begin a string of repeat tunes from Alpharetta, many from the 2nd stormy show, a theme throughout the evening. Disease is played like a first set version, Back on the Train is what it is, Funky Bitch rocks out, Timber (Jerry) gets nowhere near the version earlier in the week, and The Wedge is far better here than in its unusual set-ending position from earlier in the tour. Solid but uninspiring.

If the first tunes represented emotion in the form of love and laughter, the debut song that came next offered a more poignant set of emotions — New Jersey native Trey sang with great emotion the Springsteen classic Thunder Road, in honor of a huge music industry loss from a few days earlier. “Forgive our shakiness,” Trey said. “We just learned that one in honor of Clarence Clemmons.” A crowd chant of “Bruuuuce” led Trey to further remark, “I don’t know if you’re saying ‘Bruce’ or ‘Tube’, so I guess we’d better play ‘Tube’!” And then the asteroid crashed, in what’s become a typical, in-and-out three minute modern version.

Alaska. Alaska. In the first set, yes, you do belong. This newer tune hasn’t been played quite as much as on the last couple of tours, and here is presented in a standard reading that doesn’t do much. At last the set gets Phishy with David Bowie, but like most of the other tunes in the set, this Bowie doesn’t take flight so much as competently do its job as bookend to a set of good music played well, if not to any unusually distinctive degree.

Set 2, a different beast.

Crosseyed. After being an occasional high-octane rare rave-up dance track, this Talking Heads cover now seems a part of the standard repertoire, if it can be said that there’s anything “standard” about Phish. This ongoing nod to one of the most creative and exciting Halloween concerts is a perfect tune for this summertime outdoor show — phans throughout the venue raged to this cover, and raged hard. A modern benchmark Crosseyed (no need to compare to classic versions such as the Halloween or West Palm Beach ’96 monster) can be found in last fall’s Charleston excursion, and while this one doesn’t live up to that barnburner, it’s still a corker of a song to start off a second set, and melts into a gooey morass of Type II space that flows neatly into the next tune.

If anything’s been lacking in 3.0 Phish, it may be some of the 2.0 compositions that, for all the difficulties of the era in Phishtory, remain interesting and compelling songwriting that lends itself to improvisational exploration. Waves proved its mettle earlier in the tour, but in Portsmouth it’s Walls of the Cave’s turn to shine, and after a shaky beginning, shine it does in a reading that more than does justice to this rare song’s significance. If our civilization and culture manages to survive the foolhardy and unsustainable approach to living we’ve adopted, it’s a safe bet that Phish has indeed made their mark on the walls of our pop cultural cave, and will be duly remembered — perhaps even revered.

In a show that’s now developed flow, we are washed by Waves onto the shore of Slave to the Traffic Light, another repeat from last year’s Portsmouth outing. This one’s introspective and patient to build, the band members’ gorgeous interplay crafting a soundscape that builds to a reasonably cathartic peak, like all good Slaves should.

What’s that you say? You want another segue into a defining Phish second set jamfest? No, not yet, intrepid listener, for instead all hail the appearance of Fluffhead. As noted in the Alpharetta review, Fluffhead sandwiched into a second set jam probably isn’t an ideal placement, but if it works (as in Clarkston), it works, and here the transition felt natural and appropriate to the moment. The crowd’s energy dropped noticeably, but the band assayed the tune to the best of their abilities, with Mike in particular slapping the bass line with relish and aplomb. In its own powerful way, Fluff built to a higher peak than Slave, with Trey climaxing the tune with flying fingers and cascading waterfalls of notes.

What’s that you say? You want another big jam or two after Fluffhead? The Waves didn’t crash onto this beachfront of Sand, but a in complementary piece to the earlier jam tunes, this rendition, at 14 minutes, is the clear highlight of the set. In a surprise move that brought the crowd up, the band allowed the jam to sort of peter out, fade away into silence . . . and then back into Sand! A real treat.

The brief Sand coda leads not so gracefully into crowd favorite Sneakin’ Sally, a five minute groovefest featuring a very short vocal jam. Sally finds her way into Light, not so much with grace as intent from Big Red. Light doesn’t light the world on fire like one might once have expected — the show is on the downslope now, the opportunities for band interplay waning in the face of the ticking clock.

So, what’s to be done but one more Number Line, Suzy Greenberg, and Julius to end Leg 1 of Summer Tour 2011? You guessed it. Suzy shines the brightest, in a raucous Page-driven version that references various tour memes — what? and the Page’s house joke are both given their appropriate and referential due. Overall these last few tunes, full of vim and vigor and pep, take us out on a note of rock and roll that’s shot through with passion and energy, more than making up for the fact that not only is there no surprise to these selections, but also no special encore nod to the night being the conclusion of something — but then, to Phish, this isn’t the end of the tour, not with a holiday festival and a west coast jaunt in the offing.

For all of us who’d decided to make the southern run with our favorite band our shot at 2011 glory, however, Portsmouth signaled a farewell moment, and happy, happy we were to have experienced all the unique and exciting moments in this ongoing legacy of Phish that we’re all, each and every one of us, privileged to be able to share. Best of luck and happy shows ahead for all of you with tickets still in hand, travel plans, and Phish in your future!


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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