Worth the Wait: Phish Fall Tour Storms into Charleston | JamBandsOnline.com

Worth the Wait: Phish Fall Tour Storms into Charleston

Article by James D. McCallister

Photos by Lori Sky Twohy

Vermont’s prog-rock favorite sons stormed back into Charleston, SC this weekend after an interminable 14 year gap since their last appearance there. Like after Hurricane Hugo twenty-one years ago, this town, one of the most historic and beautifully preserved cities in the country, may never be quite the same—or at least its population of Phish fans, anyway, who surely have to be satisfied and moved by the musical gifts this now long-lived band came bearing.

Phish has been generous to the South this year, with the announcement of the Charleston stop on the fall tour—a single regional appearance between such far-flung places as Broomfield, CO and Augusta, ME—coming as icing on the cake that were the summer appearances at Portsmouth [link here to earlier review] and the Raleigh-Charlotte-Alpharetta, GA run, a satisfying set of shows that included surprising song breakouts and stellar playing. Charleston, as it happened, would provide more of the same, with the Saturday night appearance in particular as one of the more cohesive and exciting shows of the year, if not the 3.0 era in general.

The North Charleston Coliseum is situated about five minutes from the airport, and in the years since the band’s last stop here, a convention center and concomitant array of hotels have sprouted up like fungi after a rainstorm, making for a convenient and well-situated venue for the traveling Phish fan.  With the weather as gorgeous as could be—cloudless skies and temps in the mid-70s both days—the lot scene thrived with energy and anticipation. North Charleston’s notorious police presence seemed somewhat muted, and the pre-show vibe seemed predominantly one of relaxation and fun.

Phish’s fan base, like the band, is aging, and a common demographic seems to be 30-somethings who have starting having families—lots of kids around, another generation of jam-band music lovers nurtured and cultivated. As Mike Gordon argued before the retirement, there’s many advantages to longevity, one of which being the building of a multigenerational fan base, as the Grateful Dead so enjoyed over the long haul they took on the rock and roll highway.

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 15, 2010

With an all-GA seating rubric in play, the lines formed early, but for the initial rush of rail rats, fans seemed to take their time wandering inside. By the posted show time on Friday, the venue was still half-empty, though by the first notes of the powerhouse opening salvo of PYITE, Possum, and Bathtub Gin a half-hour later, the venue was packed. While the opening tunes were played with verve and crackling with Phishy energy, Gin, at nearly 13 minutes, represented the first jamming potential, but this version never strayed far from the melodic line, peaking with Type I style guitar-hero shredding.

After that nearly 30-minute trifecta of classic, well-played Phish, a band tradition continued with the appearance of Jack McConnell, Page’s dad and an SC native. Introduced as “theworld’s greatest tapdancer,” Dr. McConnell performed his signature tune, Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home, to the mutual delight of both band and audience. “It’s been too long since we’ve been here,” Trey also said, and the crowd agreed.

But the break offered by Bill Bailey signaled the tack the rest of the set, and the show overall, would take, which was an unusual number songs but not much improv. Boogie on Reggae Woman, the no-longer rare Destiny Unbound, and Backwards Down the Number Line, itself a burgeoning vehicle for interesting and varied jams, were competent offerings that kept the crowd moving but didn’t break any new musical ground.

Number Line is an interesting Phish 3.0 case—different kinds of jams have grown out of this new Trey signature tune, and it appears in varying parts of the show, including as a recent 2nd-set closer. In other words, a tune that appears on average every other show, but still looking, perhaps, for its true identity and place in the repertoire. Here, its jam was brief, and Trey’s guitar theatrics didn’t launch the tune into any unexpected Type II spaces—a Number Line, in other words, for a first set and not a flowing second set.

Bouncing Around the Room and Stash represented a return to classic catalogue material, with both songs played well enough without making any fresh, noteworthy musical statements. Both tunes are good showpieces for the rhythm section, and how crucial the contributions of Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman are to the overall success of the band, who on any given night may generally be thought of as Phish MVPs—you know the low-end anchoring is covered.

Joy is a sweet, heartfelt song, and much better in a first set slot like this than as a disruptive second set element. Like Number Line, this song has deep personal meaning for Trey, and as such he may play this as much and as often as he likes—it’s his song but “our song too,” after all. Whatever one thinks of the tune or its tone, leading us to places “we both know would be gone before long” is a profound existential statement, whether about rock bands and their fans—even some bands who’ve died and been resurrected—or other ephemeral subjects, like life itself.

A building, Type I climax, and then onto the oddest part of the set, a pairing of two brief rarities—Buffalo Bill and Dog-Faced Boy. Tunes like this are “gets”—if you’ve been following Phish, even for a long time, rare songs like this are possibly missing from your list of tunes that you’ve seen them play. So, when you “get” one, you “get” excited and strike it from your list (as Destiny Unbound was for me earlier in the set). What these tunes offer in a musical sense is probably not as exciting as the “get” part of seeing them played, but in a disjointed tune-laden set such as this, their unusual appearance is welcome enough—in particular, when followed by a rip-snorting set closer likeAntelope.

Asking the audience if we had any “naked dudes around here,” a reference to last December’s amusing stage-crashing incident in Charlottesville, Trey led the band through an exultant reading of this signature Phish tune, with the energy in the hall amped up to a fever pitch as a result.

Set the deuce opened with a quiet noodling intro to Phish powerhouse opener Down With Disease, which offered up a driving, exciting jam that led to the evening’s only real Type II event, a brief, almost-ambient jam that led into Prince Caspian, which after an average rendition then morphed into Twist, giving the crowd another triumvirate of flowing opening tunes to get the ball rolling. Twist had featured an interesting jam at its earlier tour appearance in Broomfield, and here offers a similar low-key exploration of the theme that never takes off into improv outer space.

Next, a surprise—Roses Are Free, the beloved Ween cover making an oddly placed second set appearance that could have boded well for a jam, but this 5 minute version didn’t take off in any meaningful way, and in fact signaled another disjointed series of standalone songs that were nicely executed without ever inspiring any real heady improvisational musicianship: My Friend, My Friend, which has been played quite a bit this year, new amusing Trey shuffle My Problem Right There, and phan favorite Tube, also becoming a bit overplayed. “Asteriod crashed and nothing burned,” yes, but at 3 minutes this Tube made its presence known, pulsed, throbbed and funked, then came crashing to an end.

Which brings us to what should have been the flowing show-capping Mike’s Groove—but that was anything but flowing. Mike’s Song started strong and built to a powerful peak . . . before just kind of stopping for an awkward non-transition into The Horse>Silent in the Morning, an ultra-rare choice of topping for a Mike’s sandwich, albeit one in this case that felt less than satisfying.

Which is a shame, as Silent in the Morning is a touchstone tune for this writer, a peak show experience at an outdoor Atlanta show over 10 years ago now during which an elegant,profound-seeming glowstick war erupted and cascaded upon our heads in seeming perfect synchronicity with the musicians. At this far remove of 2010, however, none of the Phish crowds I’ve experienced seem to know how to get a good glowstick groove going, with Charleston being no exception.

A full stop and onstage consultation then resulted in an even more odd choice for a mid-Mike’s slot: Mexican Cousin, which offers Phish at its most amusing, but is far from an improv-lover’s first choice to ease into the excitement and danceability of a peak Weekapaug Groove. As such, this tune ended on a full stop, with no transition into a cold-cranked Groove that, once it get going, managed to build up a decent head of steam before collapsing in on itself, the four virtuosi unable to nail the ending of what had been possibly intended as the set closer.

But perhaps due to the sloppy conclusion of the Groove, we got a hot buttered Suzie Greenberg, which as always got the crowd hopping and bopping. The biggest surprise came after yet another loose ending to Suzie—an out of nowhere Slave to the Traffic Light, which by this point seemed perhaps to be gilding the lilly a bit: three climactic set-ending tunes? Why not. Fourteen years is a long time between Charleston gigs—we need all the Trey shredding we can get.

Night one then ended with the first Character Zero of the Fall Tour, a standard encore that kept a mood of high energy going through until the last notes, but with the song neither a “get” nor a particularly noteworthy rendition, it was on to the lots and beddy-bye time with memories of the show and visions of Saturday night dancing in the heads of 14,000 mostly satisfied Phish fans.

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2010

Another stunningly beautiful Carolina fall day in the lot, with the added excitement for some fans of a college football afternoon—a few enterprising sports aficionados had set up TVs under their tarps so as to keep up with all the gridiron excitement.

The real excitement, however, was in the anticipation that Phish would lay on us a complementary show to the previous night’s song driven epic—what the seasoned showgoer hoped for now was an epic jam fest, the kind of show that best typifies the group-mind approach to music that defines a peak Phish experience. As well as a few “gets,” if you please.

Stoked for a strong show—what Phish audience isn’t, though?—the ebullient crowd greeted Kill Devil Falls with vociferous roaring approval. KDF remains one of the strongest openingtunes of the 3.0 era, an in-your-face rocker that set a we-are-here-to-rage tone for the show. Guelah Papyrus, on the other hand, appeared next as an effective nod to the Phishy past, a song not seen performed by this reviewer in many moons, probably not for years.

The real “get” came next, however, and not just for this humble scribe—The Curtain (With), at one time existing as the final Phish ever to be performed, now a mere rarity and highlight of this, or any, 3.0 show. Only performed once before since the retirement ended, the song underscored the notion that, while nothing lasts forever, and death be not proud, sometimes the end isn’t the end.

And the end of this Curtain—the With part of the deal—actually constituted half of the tune’s 12 minute length, making the only 2010 appearance of the early Trey composition a most welcome setlist selection, one that built to a wonderful peak of band interplay, led, of course, by cascading runs of notes from its lead guitarist.

A subtle but powerful conclusion led right into another “get,” one that inspired a fair amount of ecstatic delirium in the mass of bodies on the floor and in the stands—Mango Song, which falls into the category of fun but nonessential Phish material, made for a fine companion rarity to the wonderful surprise that was Curtain. The band dangled its grape-apple pies; tranquil and serene, the audience anything but. Serious boogieing now underway; an uptempo driving conclusion and then a breath of satisfied Page-pounding release. All smiles, onstage and off.

But rest for neither musicians nor audience—next, a strong statement of jamming intent as Trey led straight into the ominous, funky vibe of dance-party favorite Sand. At 10 minutes, far from an epic, but its appearance here in the first set signaled that this was a band intent on finding some spaces and grooves that had eluded them the night before. At the peak of Sand, we get the first inkling of Type II jamming, with a short but juicy stretch of band gestalt, a conversation among four friends, four incredibly adept players achieving an instance of musical satori before dropping back into the Sand backbeat and melody. If anything, this version felt truncated, and for this listener’s money could have gone on for as long as they wished.

Limb By Limb, another surprising choice for a first set slot, offered up interesting interplay, with nimble-fingered, somewhat dissonant soloing from Trey at times, an approach that suits the material well. Sneaking Salley Through the Alley continued the good stuff, getting the entire arena moving. Featuring a playful, energetic vocal jam at the song’s peak, Salley didn’t so much sneak through the room as stride confidently in and assert herself as the groove-shakingest lady in town.

Not content unless surprising us with nearly every song choice, and what constitutes as a true stylistic as well song rarity, Uncle Pen was perhaps a bluegrass nod to the region they’ddeigned to visit on this short, interestingly plotted fall tour. Another message came through loud and clear—this is a band that’s returned to its rehearsal oriented roots. Intricate, interlayered bluegrass musicianship is not something you can just call an audible on and expect the band to be as tight as they sounded in this instance. “When I don’t practice,” as Trey said in a recent interview, “it doesn’t happen.” Phish is serious about what they’re bringing to us, with songs like this as signposts to their intent, professionalism, and love of the game, so to speak. Bravo.

As rare as The Curtain (With), Phish then dropped another breakout on us, Pebbles and Marbles, a powerful, composed piece whose existence is best associated with the 2.0 era, with Charleston now only the third performance of the song since resurrecting the band, and the first in 2010. P & M typifies later-period Anastasio and Marshall songwriting, with lyrics less playful than profound, in this case with a melancholy tone pondering the nature of creativity, solitude, and making the most of what you find. Or however one wishes to interpret the piece. A bravura performance of what is one of the best post-2000 pieces of music, and an astounding inclusion in what’s already become a fascinating, unique set.

Cavern made its presence known as a likely set-closer, but in an instance of we’re-having-too-much-fun-to-quite-quit-yet, David Bowie burst onto the scene. Featuring climbing, striving, reaching dissonant guitar soloing amidst a flurry of complementary Cactus bass notes, Page’s two-fisted keyboard smashing superstrength, and Fishman’s rock solid drumming driving the frenzied tempo, this Bowie left the crowd screaming and sated, minds blown at what would have easily passed for a standout second set.

Eschewing its Summer Tour scheme of always opening Saturday night second sets with Rock & Roll, Phish blasted back onstage with jamming favorite and benchmark cover song Crosseyed & Painless, the only addition to the repertoire from the mindbending 1996 Halloween show, and a highly desired piece of improvisational music. Fans may look to the new Coral Sky DVD for a standout early version of this tune, but in the future it’s likely the Charleston 2010 version will rank high on future historians’ lists of best-ever renditions. Full of fire and fever and creativity, this Crosseyed made the most of its set-defining slot, 15 minutes of driving, purposeful Type II improvisation with an ambient segment, an unusual vocal and musical reprise, and an assured place in the hearts of the attendees, as well as Phish listeners everywhere.

Seeming to set the tone for the set, the band next did the unexpected and threw a curveball in the form of dark but bouncy ballad Dirt, which flowed naturally out of the fading denouement of Crosseyed. Melancholy and seemingly a song about death, the beauty of its melody belies the ostensible subject matter, which seems to feature in its four brief verses a protagonist who wishes to give in, give up, and simply die. An interesting message for so early in the set, which as we were to find out, was anything but at the end of its metaphoric rope.

But then pulling us from our melancholic ruminative Dirt came a transition that can only be described as flawless and elegant: Fluffhead, the beloved statement of intent initiated us into the 3.0 era at Hampton, here fell into a good slot that seemed to excite the already pumped up throng convulsing beneath the twirling pulsating colorsplashed lighting show, courtesy as always of master of the form Chris Kuroda. If Trey seemed to struggle during one stretch, the performance, including a strange bit of vocal improv, was no less exuberant and cathartic, as Fluffhead tends to be.

A funereal organ intro led us next into a brief freefloating space before building into Also Sprach Zarathustra, a bittersweet anthem, in this case, for fans of the University of South Carolina Gamecock football team, who at that moment were giving away an important game on mistakes and penalties. This heartrending situation was not learned by this reviewer until later, however, leaving him blissful, ignorant and able to enjoy one of the better versions of the so-called “2001” during this year of Phish performances. Page-driven chunky keyboard work drove this 7 minute workout to a state of funkified grace that peaked, as is the custom, with more swirling organ fills and a digital delay loop leading into the real jamming monster lurking around the corner.

The set now achieving a kind of sublime flow from one tune to another, Tweezer continued the modern Phish tradition of time-limited jamming, as noted in a recent Mr. Miner blog posting. This Tweeze wastes no time in getting to a place of Type II exploration, though Type II that remains more or less in orbit rather than blasting off into the unstructured ether.

A fast fade into recent Trey and Dude of Life composition Show of Life made for an emotional, personal benchmark for this listener. An arena rock anthem with straightforward lyrics and a predictably eruptive buildup, Show of Life is a big, melodic, positive piece of rock and roll heaven, acknowledging both timelessness and the limitations of our finite existence. This is music strong and powerful enough to bring eyesight to the blind and belief in the transformative, cathartic power of rock music to anyone with a halfway open heart and mind. This one feels like Trey’s Morning Dew, and honestly I couldn’t imagine it not being the end of the set, though there’s been precedence for it appearing in a couple of different spots.

And, of course, we know now that the band had much more to say, and did so with its most readily identifiable signature composition, You Enjoy Myself, another exemplary display of Phish’s musical chops, undiminished by time and far from road-weary on this young tour. The complicated improvisatory vehicle here was presented with aplomb and absolute precision; YEM is the cherry on top but also in many cases the meat of a set, here at a show-topping length of nearly 22 minutes fulfilling this role handily. The band wasted no time in getting into a wonderfully ambient headspace for a moment or two before plunging ahead with the composed portion of the epic tune. In a band whose catalogue includes numerous examples of their compositional and instrumental mastery, YEM stands tall as the perfect distillation of all that makes Phish both unique, as well as so deservedly loved and admired by music fans the world over. Nine minutes in, a Page and Mike-driven jam began that built in intensity until Trey took over to explore subtle themes and ideas with his bandmates, before then handing off just before the vocal jam to the rhythm section. Mike and Fish laid down a serious funk groove while Trey nodded and danced along. The vocal jam was typically bizarre and cool—in many ways, this is the moment of greatest pure improvisation that band exhibits, shameless and silly on one level, fascinating and complicated on another. And all created out of whole cloth, so to speak, in and of the moment at hand. Probably this least-appealing part of the Phish landscape to a casual listener, YEM with its vocal jam is actually the band at its apotheosis of whimsical, intricate creativity.

The musicians knew they had knocked one of the park, and the appreciative crowd, who’d already been duly rewarded for their enthusiasm and engagement, got a triple-threat treat for an encore: Page ditty I Been Around, which seemed to amuse the musicians, the recently adopted, Cactus-song Dylan cover Quinn the Eskimo, and a de rigueur Tweezer Reprise bombastic and thrilling enough to bring the house down. The Reprise put a powerhouse exclamation point on what had been two Phish shows that’d included just about all a fan could ask for—surprises, breakouts, compact but interesting jams, and moments of inspirational sublimity as well as loud waves of pure rock and roll heaven. Don’t wait so long, Phish, before you come visit us again in the Palmetto State.

James D. McCallister, of Columbia, SC, is a novelist and free-lance writer whose latest publication is a short story featured in the Kearney Street Books anthology THE STORYTELLER SPEAKS: RARE AND DIFFERENT FICTIONS OF THE GRATEFUL DEAD.

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