Phish cohesively take the South

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Phish
Alpharetta & Charlotte
June 14 & 17, 2011

 

With the wind at its back after what was unequivocally the most sustained run of post-hiatus greatness, Phish made their way into the south for a four night run that began just outside of Atlanta and wound through the Carolinas.

It can safely be said that there is nothing quite like a Phish show. With eye-splitting lights, nuances galore and a language entirely unto itself and its devoted flock, Phish is an institution in the world of improvisational music. But this is not to say that they can do no wrong. In fact, over the past few years, they have had a hard time doing much right in the eyes of fans whose geeky adoration of their beloved foursome is equaled only by their love of stats, dissecting critique and cynicism. Herein lies an easily misunderstood portion of the Phish beauty… love through hate is perfectly acceptable.

But something strange had happened since the opening notes at the summer 2011 tour opener in Bethel some one month earlier; a unification and excitement had begun to swirl past any point since the inception of 3.0 (sans Hampton). “What ultimately united the mass?” one may ask. Well, it was the music of course – well played orchestrations of Phishy complexities. But above and beyond this, Phish was jamming again.

 

Phish
Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park
Alpharetta, GA
June 14, 2011

 

5.jpgAfter two solid performances on its stage last year over Independence Day weekend, signs pleading for various tunes were held high; the Phish faithful were primed for the moment when their darling quartet would (once again) grace the sold-out Encore Park stage.

To uproarious celebration, and after a quirky exchange between guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon and ivory tickler Page McConnell (the content of which one can only guess) and a call out from Anastasio informing that the opener was being played for “that guy over there with the green shirt” – the band surprisingly busted into “Dinner and a Movie.”

There was nothing especially unique about the rarity (which had only been played three previous times during this 3.0 era), one thing that it did do was prove how invested each member of the band is; with drummer Jon Fishman sounding as good as he ever has. There wasn’t even a notion of a miscue. It was hearty, short and sweet; but most of all, it was fun and served as an off-the-bat reminder that our boys were back in town.

As the set reeled, the songs rolled with concise play of various pieces from the extensive catalog.  “Fluffhead,” a song that was virtually untouchable pre-3.0, was definitely worthy of mention. The gem that declared Phish was back at Hampton in early 2009, an event that now seems so long ago, was played on this night with a jazzy element that was primarily infused through the ivory work of a constantly smiling McConnell, but naturally never veered too far off of its heavily composed course.

To close things out for the set, Vermont’s Phinest had a nice little exploratory series of punches consisting of “Bathtub Gin” and Traffic’s “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” >  “Cavern.”

26.jpgOf the three, “Gin” and “Light Up” were the showcase numbers of the run and set on its whole. Both numbers were played with a sense of journey and never lost cohesion. It was improvisation with a purpose and it was as though both crunchy tunes were born from one another and united to provide their listeners with a mental escape that was sonically pleasing through sufficient buildup. It was beyond catch-and-release or bait-and-switch jamming that is standard at any jam show. It was the organic chemistry that made most of us buy the Phish product in the first place.

After the set break and meetings, conversations, and the copious amount of pissing that inevitably ensues, set two immediately got off on the right foot with the ever-engaging “Carini” that brought out the low end Mike-play that has been even more prominent than per usual since Mike’s latest tour on the heels of his solo effort, Moss. But while “Carini” was great (with ample Trey shredding) and served its purpose, it was the post “Sand” portion of the set that would prove to be a highlight on its whole.

Though this is perhaps a solo observation, it is important to look at the 2nd through 10th songs as a collection as opposed to individual numbers.

Beginning with an ominous and equal parts owned “Disease,” the set progressed through a segued “Maze” (in all of its glory) before the trance-driven introspection that these tunes brought about made its way into the manic “Meatstick” that, while lacking in anything spectacular, cemented the notion that 1999 called, Phish answered, said hello and embraced the year with a warm hug.

Though there was the obvious inclusion of the “Meatstick” dance that first appeared on 7/4/99 at the nearby Lakewood Amphitheatre in Atlanta, there was more about the set that screamed turn of the millennium. It was the emotive “Bug,” the ripping “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” and the “Maze” that included the tail-ending ’97 funk, space-noodling and yielded intensity for which 1999 is famous.29.jpg

But with revisiting an era aside, the set’s seemingly deliberate cohesion was what stood out most. It was as though it was designed as a story and it was this aspect that was most inspiring about this night. Further, the guys were all on the same page whether during the portion of the voyage that sailed through “2001” and its inbuilt liftoff or during the subdued “Bug” where all realized that “it doesn’t matter anyway.”

 

Phish
Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre
Charlotte, NC
June 17, 2011

 

The air in and around the Verizon Amphitheater in Charlotte, North Carolina was thick – thick with heat and humidity, and thick with anticipation and excitement. Dark clouds were rolling in, and for those who had also been in attendance for second of night of Alpharetta, this brought back memories of the deluge that soaked us not once, but twice.  As show time drew closer, the venue filled in while the energy and vibe in the pavilion began to match the intensity of the Southern June weather.

With eyes glancing nervously towards the threatening shapes in the sky, folks from all different walks of life swapped stories of terrible show storms throughout the years.  Then the house music cut off, Kuroda’s lights came on, and Phish took the stage to a welcoming roar that seemed to say, “We stuck it out with you through a monsoon on a Wednesday night, and now Friday is finally here and we want to get down.”

The guys from Vermont responded when Trey Anastasio grabbed a “Mike’s House” sign out of the crowd and swiftly launched into a somewhat brief, but ripping “Mike’s Song” that had bodies moving and faces smiling right out of the gate, despite the fact that he started in the wrong key while trying to play with the sign in his mouth.

As sweat began to pour heavily, the rocker dropped into the slow, melodic beauty of “I Am Hydrogen” before winding into, of course, the bass-driven “Weekapaug Groove.” Even though “Weekapaug” did not break any new ground, it was still extremely danceable and fun, and when it reached its conclusion, the crowd responded with yells and nods of approval in response to at the opening trio of song selections.

16.jpgThe heat inside the venue was now suffocating, and a cool-down was in order.  “Bouncing Around the Room” and “Sample In a Jar” bookended “NICU” which, as per usual, showcased bright offerings from Page McConnell after a call for “Page’s House” (a reoccurring theme of the tour) from Trey instead of the normal “Play It Leo.”

Then the show took off once again with the first “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” and “Fly Famous Mockingbird” since the 4th of July show in Alpharetta a year ago.  Similar to the 2010 offering in that there was no narration in between the two songs (though Trey did point out the man’s face on the t-shirts that he and Mike were both wearing), they were both, however, nearly flawlessly performed in sharp contrast to the sloppy versions  of the year before.  The crowd showed its appreciation and Phish shifted gears with the hard rocking “Axilla” before sliding into the funk of “Wolfman’s Brother.”  All four members synched up quickly and moved as one through the super gooey textures as the jubilant crowd grooved.

“Scent of a Mule,” which saw Page absolutely crush the ivories, and the set-closing “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” with extra-spicy licks from Trey, concluded the first-set.  High-fives were exchanged throughout the crowd, and conversations moved from discussing the quality of the opening frame to the inevitable second-set predictions.  We had dodged any potentially severe weather, and Phish had raised expectations and questions.  What would the next frame bring us?  What, if anything, did the lack of narration in “Forbin’s/Mockingbird” foreshadow?  What the hell were those t-shirts about?

After a seemingly shorter than usual set break, Phish opened the second half up with the too often played “Backwards Down the Number Line.”  This version featured none of the experimental or exceptional jamming of most recent appearances, though this truncated offering did allow most fans to get back to their seats after standing in the long bathroom lines that seem to plague this venue even more than most.  Having settled back in, most people were ready when the set then began in earnest with the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll.”21.jpg

Page and Trey jointly crushed the anthem for a minute or two before quickly taking an exploratory turn into a brand new theme wherein Jon Fishman switched to a more groove oriented beat as Mike Gordon, Page and Trey chased each other through multiple measures of pure fun.  Things then got good and spacey as Trey found an uplifting melody that eventually dissolved and turned darker before morphing into only the second “Story of the Ghost” of the tour.

Wasting no time, the band cohesively constructed a playful sketch that nearly broke down before being reborn into a “Bathtub Gin” like jam.  Growing and soaring until it peaked hard, then reloaded and peaked again, this seemed to be the musical highlight of the evening; and as far as experimental jamming goes, it certainly was.  As the second peak subsided, Mike led the charge into yet another section with his fast-paced, popping bass-lines that soon landed us in the former jam-vehicle known as “Free.” Despite the fact that it has not been extended in what seems like forever, “Free” was still a great song and a wonderful way to come back to Earth after the improvisational one-two punch of “Rock and Roll” and “Ghost.”

Phish then dropped the other musical highlight of the second-set, in the form of the always welcome mistress of the night, “Reba.” Sailing through the zany lyrics and the intricate compositions with hardly any miscues, they reached the final, or “jam,” segment exuding the confidence of four musicians completely locked in together, making the quieter section seem more delicate and beautiful than it has in a long time.   Fishman heightened the speed and complexity of his beats, and Mike’s increasingly pronounced bass lines provided the counterpoints to Page’s angelic piano work.  Then Trey came in over top with those lovely guitar leads that tickle your brain and pull at your heart: emotional, thrilling, and beautiful.

30.jpgNow, in the spirit of full disclosure, upon re-listen, there are three or four instances where Trey hits a sour note before quickly sliding into the perfect note.  Yet, for those who were locked in to the soaring, ethereal climax, those “bad” notes seemed to go unregistered by the brain in the moment, overruled by either the heart or the spirit that chose to only acknowledge the transcendental power of “Reba.”

An already great show was then elevated, to howls of pure ecstasy, even further by only the third “Icculus” post-1995.  The t-shirts from earlier in the show were shown on the screens, and the man whose picture graced the front of said shirts (local musician David Mayfield) was purported by Trey to be the man who wrote “The Helping Friendly Book.” Trey did not have much to say other than, of course, “Read the Fucking Book!”  But what else really needs to be said anyway?  The Phishy silliness continued as Trey took a seat at the drum kit so Fishman could come out front and center to sing Syd Barrett’s glorious “Bike” and take a vacuum solo.

Short versions of the rock-anthem “Chalk Dust Torture” and the always fun and funky “You Enjoy Myself” wrapped up the incredible second-frame.  Fireworks, originating from someone in the parking-lot, exploded into the sky towards the end of “Y.E.M.” in an apparent answer to the pyrotechnics that had been emanating from the stage nearly all night.  When the band finished the vocal jam, the crowd responded with well-earned adulation for the night of transformative music, read-icculus humor, and ass-shaking good times.

Coming back out, Phish launched into the first “Wilson” encore since 1998, but cut it very short to make room for the all-too-oft encored, “Loving Cup” (Rolling Stones).  The audience appreciatively erupted once again as the band left the stage for the final time that night, for most knew that they had received a stellar show that contained almost all of the elements that make Phish…Phish.  All questions had been answered in a resounding positive way, at least for one night anyway, and the guys from Vermont sent a message for the second year in a row, do not miss a Friday night show in Charlotte.

Setlists

 

Alpharetta

I:  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
II: Carini > Sand > Down with Disease > Maze, Meatstick > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Bug > A Day in the Life > Run Like an Antelope
Encore: Quinn the Eskimo

Download the audience recording of this show here.

 

Charlotte

I: 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
II: Backwards Down The Number Line > Rock & Roll > Ghost > Free, Reba, Icculus, Hold Your Head Up, Bike > Hold Your Head Up, Chalk Dust Torture, You Enjoy Myself
Encore: Wilson > Loving Cup

Download the audience recording of this show here.

 

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