Four Phish shows in four nights, and fireworks Taboot

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Summer 2010 will be remembered for many things.

There was the greatest environmental disaster to ever hit our beloved shining seas. There was the loss of a figure of Americana, Dennis Hopper. The General in charge of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan referred to Vice President, Joe Biden, as “Bite me.”

However, amongst these and other notorious events, something else happened…Phish tour.

Anticipation for the final four shows of the first leg of Phish’s summer tour had climbed increasingly higher over the course of the previous three weeks and 14 shows, and rightfully so. The band had clearly come out of the gates with a level of playing superior to that of the preceding summer.

While continuing an emphasis on the actual songs, and nailing down their composed sections (most of the time anyway), the band delved deeper into their catalogue of originals and covers than at any time in 2009 and quite possibly anytime in one single tour in their fortuitous career.  This, along with the addition of a first-time cover almost every night, sent a message to the phans loud and clear: anything and everything was on the table for inclusion in any given set list.

The questions about real experimental jamming and strong segues still lingered in many minds, but they had been at least partially answered the weekend before in Camden, NJ and Columbia, MD.  In short, expectations and excitement were high for the “Southern run,” as some were calling it, both as a result of the gleaned promise of earlier shows of the summer and for the celebration of our nation’s birthday as choreographed by the Phab Phour that was now clearly within sight.

The reasons why someone attends a Phish show are as diverse as the people that attend them – A show is an escape from everyday life, or another big moment in a way of life. Some show up to reconnect with old friends or make new ones.  Others go hoping to catch a certain song, either an oft-played favorite or a rarer tune they have never heard live before.  Many just simply want to hear good music played by skilled musicians. A well-played Phish show can offer some measure of most, if not all, of these qualities and a well-played run of shows almost guarantees it.

The only question remaining was, would the band deliver a good, or even great, run of shows?

 

Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion (Walnut Creek Amphitheatre)

Raleigh, NC -   July 1, 2010

phish1.jpgThe skies were clear and the temperature relatively mild for the beginning of July.  The answer came with the first, and always high-energy, “Llama” of the year.  Some of the virginal in attendance did not seem to know the song, but those that did responded with yells of approval.  The end of the tune was still reverberating when the band launched into their seemingly better known and widely-loved cover of Ween’s “Roses are Free.” Though both renditions were short and standard, the more seasoned phans exchanged hopeful looks that the double-opener signaled a special evening ahead.  The newer bluesy-rock numbers of “Kill Devil Falls” and the goofier “Alaska” book-ended with the first “Time Loves A Hero” (Little Feat) since New Year’s Eve 2002.

The excitement of the openers gave way to a mellower vibe, and Phish responded with “Water in the Sky.” This tune has taken an all new and even more exceptional meaning since the loss of Trey Anastasio’s sister and Mockingbird Foundation Founder, Kristy Manning, in 2009 when Anastasio dedicated the song to her when performing his Opus, Time Turns Elastic, with the New York Philharmonic. The loss and subsequent dedication may explain the upbeat tempo that the song has taken since that time- as a celebration of her life. It was punctuated as always by Page’s beautiful piano licks and the obligatory crowd response at mention of the Everglades in tribute to the Big Cypress run at the turn of the 21st Century.

The pulse ratcheted up a notch from here and the band synced up a bit during “Runaway Jim,” but the jam was steered to the end of the number right as it seemed to take off, in favor of the nautical funk of the “The Moma Dance.”  The energy of the crowd skyrocketed as asses began to shake and arms were aimlessly flailing about.  The people were ready to get down, and the funk provided the right avenue.

Just as that moment ended, the gorgeous and timely notes of “The Divided Sky” emerged to bid the setting sun farewell, and Chris Kuroda was finally able to work some of his lighting magic. Phish tackled the complex composition and arrived on the other side with a nearly flawless, beautiful band-wide effort that peaked again and again.  The set-closing “Cavern” provided a fun, but brief, energetic bump going into the break.  The opening frame of the four-night run was fun and solid.  It was long on good songs, a few rarely played, but short on jams.  Perhaps the second-half would round things out a bit.

phish2.jpgThe second set began with what has now become a customary tune, “Backwards Down the Number Line,” which kicked the second set off with its light-hearted sappiness and a typical rocking jam that the band has continued to polish since its introduction last year.

The absurd and fan-favorite “Halley’s Comet” followed and was ridden into “Light,” by far the most consistently experimental of the songs off of Joy.  The jam began in the realm of rock n’ roll, steered towards noise-rock, and emerged into the sowing of spacey darkness seeds that can flower into a good and weird harvest.  However, just as something new and scary seemed ready for spawning, Trey brought the chords of the chorus back in and the “Light” jam blinked out.

Any potential disappointment was quickly alleviated as the opening notes of “Fluffhead” appeared.  Even more admired since opening Hampton last year, this offering was a tad sloppy in moments, but more adventurous in others, and the set felt like it was building momentum.

Then in classic Phish fashion, they slowed things down with the Mighty Diamonds “Have Mercy,” only to pick some steam back up with the first cover of Traffic’s “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” since Big Cypress.  The early 70s groove gave everyone a chance to dance it up before dropping into “Free.”  Though providing a nice contrast, Mike’s quirky bass solo is all that passes for the jam these days, leaving many to wonder if we will ever see an exploratory “Free” again.

The always fun and energetic “Suzy Greenberg” came in to provide a lift as the closer, but it felt as though Phish had lost focus and momentum halfway into the set and never truly got it back.  Maybe the band sensed this as well, and responded with an unexpected “Boogie on Reggae Woman” encore.  And with this, everyone got a chance to bop and groove to the high tempo funk of Stevie Wonder, which became the unlikely highlight of the night and in turn, sent the masses out with a great feeling of exuberance and exhilaration for the next night in Charlotte.

 

Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre

Charlotte, North carolina – July 2, 2010

 

The weather in Charlotte was just as perfect as it was in its North Carolinian cousin the night before in Raleigh. In contrast though, there was a bit of a greater buzz outside the Amphitheatre than in Raleigh, perhaps because some of the youngsters now had a show under their belt and knew what to expect.  Maybe it was the short drive between cities that had everyone rested and ready to get down, or that the two-night holiday stand was in reach.

Security was a little tighter, but still pretty lax, and inside the excitement was palatable.  The feeling that we were in for a good one was strong in the air. And as the world turns, Phish would serve up a strong dose of just what the doctor ordered in two sets that were as spacious as they were intense.

phish3.jpgThe brief but frantic instrumental “Buried Alive,” kick started the show, and “AC/DC Bag” followed to further get the show on the road with rapidity and vigor. A strong albeit brief jam ensued but petered out into the irony of dark lyrics and upbeat music that is “Vultures.” The buzzard soared momentarily before landing to give way to the beloved funkiness of “Wolfman’s Brother.” Mike’s thick bass line led the way, and the rest of the band followed and filled in as the energy in the venue rose and flew.

Gears then shifted into an always welcome and well-played “The Wedge” that slowly sent spirits into ascension before the humorous tongue-in-cheek “Mexican Cousin.”  After the quick sing-along and accompanying hearty laugh, the boys got right back to business with “Stash.”  Page and Mike slowly and menacingly built the jam while Fishman patiently increased the tempo so that Trey could set about creating the tonal conflict that gives this piece its bite. The peak was more subdued than usual, and left a lasting impression of distress which was drawn on two songs its junior with a “Chalkdust Torture” that amped everyone into a rebellious frenzy as Trey crushed the solo as usual.

Though lacking a blockbuster standout, this set clearly showcased a much more cohesive effort, both in musical execution and in set list construction, than either of the previous night’s frames.  Containing thematic grooves and Phishy humor, as well as several hints of darkness that foreshadowed what was to come, this was a very good effort that showed promise for the rest of the night.

Much to the pleasure of the crowd, The Who’s “Drowned” opened the second set, and morphed first from rock into a slightly funk-tinged blues-rock. This song simply shrieks “set opener” and in an attempt to continue the inclination of the set, a wonderfully melodic jam led by Page’s work on the ivories slowly washed out with a clumsy segue into “46 Days.”  Trey dominated this number with his ripping Languedoc licks until a brief vocal jam on the chorus.

phish5.jpg“20 Years Later” began immediately, and the band took a brief foray into the murky space at the end of the tune that hinted not just at frightening huge jam potential for future outings, but at something kinetically sinister soon to come. The darkness was temporarily held at bay by a journey into the mythical land of Gamehenge courtesy of a surprising second set “The Lizards.” The exquisite composition promised joy and splendor, but then something happened and the blackness came barreling back with a thunderous “Carini” whose guitar-driven heavy metal fury grew and developed until it morphed into the mother (fucker) of all bust-outs, “Fuck your Face.”

Having not been played since its mysterious 1987 debut, this snarling, raucous monster seemed to even surprise god of all things light, Kuroda, who was unsure where to even shine the spotlight throughout the tune’s brief but bloody reign.  With “Fuck Your Face’s” abrupt commencement and conclusion, most had not even had a chance to digest what had just happened as the glorious space-funk of “2001” lifted off into the Odysseus space to which it belongs.  With Page’s out of this world chords and Mike’s bass-groove, it seemed as though we would all soon be taken to a Star Trek spinoff with a greeting from Data, but we quickly were returned to Earth to make time for “You Enjoy Myself.”

Through spacious textures, beautiful prog-rock, and dirty funk allocations, this “Y.E.M.” seemed to have a bit of everything, and the band as well as the audience relished in the pure splendor of it all.  Each member showcased their individual skills and their collective power.  The vocal-jam that was sandwiched in this track included Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Rolling on the River” and The Beatles’ “Get Back.”  This magnificent and very Phishy exclamation point to a remarkable set was met with thunderous applause. The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” seemed a fitting encore to send us into the night smiling and cheering, and it was.

A truly great show from top to bottom was in the books. It was filled with force, focus, and muscular themes and the scene outside was filled with celebration, fireworks, and a joyful buzz both for what we had just experienced, and with eager anticipation for the rest of the holiday weekend in Georgia.

Verizon Wireless at Encore Park –

Alpharetta, Georgia – July 3, 2010

 

As the perfect weather held, many folks recalled, not fondly, the oppressively hot Fourth of July stand in Hotlanta in 1999.  This weekend delivery was much more preferable over its former, other than the snarled traffic heading into the smaller amphitheatre nestled deep in the suburbs.  Upon arrival, it was clear that the party was already in full swing outside, and contrary to warnings circulating among the faithful from local heads, security allowed the fans to have their fun, within reason of course.  Inside, the energy and eagerness were through the roof, especially in the general admission pit where the closely packed souls fed off each other’s animation.

After receiving a shirt from a fan in the crowd and sporting it with a shit eating grin, Trey plugged in and gave birth to the anthem “Character Zero,” which came roaring out of the gate. The already amped audience responded with rejoicing screams and frenzied bounding.  This is where Phish is something entirely different than what we were left with at Coventry. The genuine appreciation for the love from their devotees shines as they always enter with smiles abound that are only matched by those who are awaiting the grace of their presence. They have truly set themselves on high as mayors of the community and the society has welcomed their leaders back.

phish4.jpgWith the early momentum building of “Zero,” Phish once again transported us briefly to Gamehenge with one of its original inspirations, “McGrupp and the Watchful Horsemasters.” While some in attendance are not always up for Gamehenge trips, most agree that when taken there, it is a treat in spite of the fact that the tunes are always held tight to their original composition.

The Phish boys obviously understood that there would be some improv fiends in the crowd and they served them up with probably the tastiest first set jam of the Southern run with the communal bathing of “Bathtub Gin.”  Fishman’s unique percussion and Mike’s thumping bass anchored the “Gin” while Page provided swirling Memphis-born piano licks and Trey hosed us down in the tub with his signature fret board runs.

After building the jam steadily and allowing it to summit triumphantly, we were given a cool down from the hot bath with the lyrically strong ballad “Mountains in the Mist” followed by a re-warming with “NICU,” where Trey called Page “Leon” instead of “Leo,” for a reason yet unknown.

The ripping “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan” that Trey owned with blistering and reckless abandon seemed as if it would end the set, but we were treated with the introspective “Strange Design” and the beloved demented psychosis of “Sanity.”  With Anastasio forgetting the words to the second verse, the same fan who had tossed Anastasio the shirt was now being beckoned to help with lyrics. Obviously he was happy to help at Ernie’s request, and those in attendance were still able to lose (their) minds a couple of times before being set free to “Run like an Antelope.” This actual set-closer was more of a short sprint rather than a marathon, but still ripped and allowed all in observation to utilize their high gear before set break.  On par with the previous show’s first half, this set was as equally well-played and cohesive, but with more light-hearted themes and an emphasis heavier on rock than funk.

Alpharetta was prepped to be as first-rate as or even better than Charlotte and what would be in store next had the crowd in anxious bustling delight as they snagged set two beers, waters, bathroom breaks, and other show necessities. After the short break, the band stayed true to the form that they had left the weekend 30004 zip code residents with only 25 minutes earlier with a hearty version of The Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll.”  Page beautifully belted out the lyrics and the jam propelled into the night before coming back down into a somewhat forced landing in the calmer seas of “Prince Caspian.”  While this song was perhaps a little earlier in a set than some would like, the band pushed it out a bit led by Trey’s whaling and seemed to hint that we were about to be afloat towards something immense.

phish6.jpgA brief electronic jam led by Page melted into ambience where Trey began a fierce “Tweezer” wherein Mike would quickly take charge with walloping bass lines while Page provided a spacey and funk infused texture and Jon Fishman kept a lively tempo with ever-changing fills which allowed the groove to evolve before marching up to thrust the multitude over the edge.  The thick and delicious sound washed over the throng with hints of “Meatstick” being in the freezer before the groove lightened and gave way to a cleaner and more melodic palette that flowed splendidly into a perfect and gorgeous “Slave to the Traffic Light.” This submission was stunning in its transcendent beauty and nearly had tears of joy flowing from many in the crowd.

Unfortunately, gears were changed from here and the momentum of the set was misplaced with the divisive “Bouncing Around the Room.”  No matter what opinion of the song one holds, its placement was bizarre at best and things did not improve any with the first and only repeat of the run, another trip “Backwards Down the Number Line.”

All seemed to be well again as “Harry Hood” greeted our collective ears with projected beauty coming from the piano, rhythmic perfection from the drum kit, swelling emotion from the guitar, and a bass that thumped with purpose. It seemed the band would stretch this beautiful “Hood” further out and end the set.

Unfortunately, they did not. Rather, they chose to keep it short and sweet and close with the Stones’ “Loving Cup” and a somewhat predictable double-encore of the hilarious and sexually-tinged “Sleeping Monkey” and the always rowdy and raging “Tweezer Reprise,” which capped off the performance.

The shift in thematic focus and the resulting drop in energy mid-second set kept this from being a great show, but it was still a really good show.  The band sounded mostly solid, on-point, and they were clearly having a blast on stage while the fans lapped it up. The lots were again ablaze with fireworks and all forms of celebration post-show, as the most anticipated and final show of the first-half of summer-tour was upon us.  We had not gotten a first-time cover yet, and many wondered how that would factor in.  Everything would be answered on our nation’s birthday, and the Little Orphan Annie cliché fleeted through the mind… it was only a day away.

 

Verizon Wireless at Encore Park –

Alpharetta, Georgia  – July 4, 2010

 

While the weather was slightly warmer, the energy in the suburban parking-lots was red hot for the Phourth of July.  Mortar-fireworks exploded in the afternoon sun, and exuberant screams were answered with approving yells as folks partied in preparation for the holiday show. Just as in the preceding day, the lots were allowed to manage themselves for the most part. It became clear that Altanta was welcoming The Phish back into their sweet tea sea.

The diverse masses crossed with top-siders and dreadlocks eventually filed in and located their space within the fairly beautiful confines of the venue while the anticipatory buzz swelled.  Howls of excitement met Phish as they took the stage to commence the festivities in celebration of our country’s beginning.  It was show-time, and all hoped for a special night in honor of our nation.  There would be no disappointment on this night.

phish8.jpgThe boys huddled around a lone microphone and led everyone in a rendition of our national anthem. After what has now become standard fare and typical initial crowd interactions where Phish receives gifts and exchanges political eye contact and acknowledgements with the front row, they took up their customary positions and instruments, launching into the consummate show opener, “Punch You in the Eye.”

We stayed in Gamehenge with the much adored combo of “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” and “Fly Famous Mockingbird,” and shouts of glee were sent up again and again as we climbed with Forbin, briefly met Icculus, and soared with the well-known avian in the brilliant arrangements.  Executed splendidly, the tale came to an end without any narration from Trey.  What did that mean, if anything, for later on?

After a quick jaunt “downtown to the disco” with the fun and funky “Camel Walk,” things cooled down mid-set with “Ocelot” and “Heavy Things.” Gearing the set back up, the band delivered classic Phishy contrast with the wonderfully unsettling sonic assault of “My Friend, My Friend” followed by Page serenading us appreciatively with “Lawn Boy.”

The engines then revved into overdrive as Fishman’s high-hat introduced “David Bowie.” This short but powerful take on the song showcased the band’s tension and release approach as all four members built the crescendos over and again before the final peak.  Finally, prior to being sent into set-break, the groove directive was given with a plateful of “Gotta Jibboo” wherein Phish patiently built the jam with Gordon and Fishman content to hold down a solid rhythm, while McConnell and Ernest T. slowly added soundscapes and licks that thickened the texture until it was ready and the place setting had been laid for a hastened pace.

As everyone danced their asses off to the infectious groove, another very solid opening frame set the table for a potential mammoth climax to the show, the run, and the first leg.  Could Phish live up to the rapidly building half-time hype?  Of course they could, and in fact, they did.

Anticipation was abound for the long 20-minute break. One fan would ask another “What do you think will happen?” “It is a mystery,” the other would reply. Taking no prisoners, the boys came out with the almost-always-present-on-special-occasions “Down with Disease.” The crowd went wild, especially on the lawn where all the barefoot children writhed and dropped glow stick bombs for the ages. Mike’s playing seemed to elevate beyond his already high level, and Trey’s trademark licks exploded into the night as the band went to work.

The driving jam suddenly became weird and noisy, and then the red worm “Piper” emerged. This wiggler began life in a comfortably fast, loud, and screaming manner and then fed on out of this world bass-led grooves that fattened up, slowed down, and got funk-licious before giving way to “Ghost.”  This seemed to be the beginning of the huge “Ghost” space-funk disco party that a lot of people had been waiting on.

As the jam reached out into the final frontier, with Mike continuing to kill it on the low-end, it seemed destined for hyper-space, when all of a sudden it was unceremoniously ended.  Trey decided to give us a breather and began “Waste,” but could not quite remember the first verse and offered, “I wanna be something?!?”  While some applauded and yelled encouragement, others wondered if another opportunity had been wasted in regards to a chance at a truly explorative journey into the alien-esque world of the haunting one.

phish7.jpgThen the real madness began.

What would soon be witnessed is the the sort of thing that becomes legend. “Mike’s Song,” which was seemingly innocent at the time, gave birth to the lunacy.  Fishman pounded the skins as Mike and Trey both set fire to the jam with dual flamethrowers before slowing down, not for the typical “Hydrogen,” but for “Tela” which was met with a raucous response from the crowd. Page’s playing and vocals sketched the beautiful sublime story of the ethereal jewel from Gamehenge.  The tranquil love song came to a sweet end, and the oom, pah, pah that followed could only mean one thing:  “Harpua.”

The beginning segment of this much and highly sought after quip tune quieted, and story time began as Trey informed everyone that the history of our country, as told in the books (even the alternative ones), was a lot of “bullshit,” and that Phish had been trying to tell us the real ones all along through the stories of Gamehenge. Shortly he would inform that there was only one other band worth listening to if being bullshitted was not a preferred way of being treated.

That band was of course, Rage Against the Machine, and the band immediately tramped into “Killing in the Name of.”

To say that all hell broke loose would be a gargantuan understatement.  As Trey released the fury of his six-string and Fishman screamed the incendiary lyrics, the once-typical jam pit scene became a proverbial mosh pit in certain spots and people throughout the venue screamed and roared both in excitement and in musically-induced rebellion.

Had the set ended there, there may have been mayhem unleashed on the suburbs that night.  Thankfully for permanent 30004 occupiers, it did not. Instead of riot inducing, the boys  resumed with “Harpua” and the tale of Jimmy, Poster Nutbag, and Jimmy’s new dog was completed before giving way to an absolutely ridiculous “Weekapaug Groove.”

If Mike was killing it before, he was now killing it, resurrecting it, and killing it again.  If his bass literally dropped bombs, instead of just figuratively, there would have been a one-thousand mile radius of complete and utter desolation.  Trey’s guitar swirled and danced around the genius of Mr. Michael Gordon, and potential anarchy was avoided.

The set concluded, and some fans asked their neighbors if what they had just seen and heard had in fact really happened.  Others could only shake their heads and murmur “wow.”

After the obligatory break, a final delivery would be made with the energetically electric encore of “First Tube,” which again sent everyone into one final frenzy as Trey channeled his Jedi-powers, showing off his Languedoc light-saber.

Minds were blown and bodies worn from the blockbuster show, but the party rolled on in the lots of Alpharetta.  Phish had delivered on this much-hyped evening, and the phans rejoiced and reveled in celebration of the experience.  The Icculusian Revolution, nearly brought about by the militant cover, did not materialize on Independence Day, but many folks “raged” the party outside deep into the night.

Though not the free-for-all of Lakewood Amphitheatre in years past, the scene was allowed to do its things in relative peace.  In fact, the staff at the Verizon at Encore Park was among the friendliest and most welcoming many had ever come across. As the throngs exited the venue, the lots were already abound with a firework show to match many city offerings. The testament to community was again solidified and the souls of those within were satisfied.

The Southern run proved to satisfy most expectations with many great songs, several stellar jams, and a simply unbelievable cover song choice for America’s birthday.  One solid show, one good show, and two great shows add up to one hell of a good time. While old veteran’s passions had been reignited, new phans were hooked by the highly addictive yet still uncontrolled substance that is only grown in Vermont but is coming to a town near you.

It is called Phish and it’s no secret.

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