[We would like to thank user Josh Martin for recapping last night's show.]
Seasons greetings, everyone, from Charleston, where your favorite band kicked off the first of three nights of music. There are a lot of memorable tours in the Phish catalog, but there are only a handful of historic ones. Right at the top of the list are Falls ‘95, ‘97, and ‘13, and with some distance ‘18 may make the list as well. There’s something about this time of year that lends itself to scorching shows. Heck man, tonight was the 22nd anniversary of one of the greatest shows EVAR.
One of the biggest questions coming into this run was whether or not Phish was going to attempt a mini-Bakers Dozen by ripping off eight shows with no repeats (not including “Plasma” or “Tweezer” because BD fans clearly didn’t count "Lawn Boy"). That they could do such a thing is undoubtable for thirteen obvious reasons. That they should attempt such a thing is much more debatable.
For one thing, we know now with the benefit of the conversations in "Between Me and My Mind" that successfully executing the Dozen took a lot of planning and practice, neither of which was particularly evident during the Island portion of fall tour, sufficient segments of which were dispatched with such flubbery (11/30 “Punch You In the Eye”) and at such a glacial pace (11/29 “Sand”) as to force the discriminating phish listener to speculate exactly how much rehearsal there was prior to November 29th.
And then there was the Met, the exclusivity and corporate sponsorship of which was enough to cause a heretofore-untold amount of hand wringing and teeth gnashing on the discussion boards of this very website. To suggest that Charleston DESERVED that “Mike’s Groove” or that “2001” or that (those) “Tweezer(s)” is as open an invitation to self-inflicted misery as has ever been issued. And yet, even if one doesn’t begrudge Phish for dropping so many classics at one show on a potentially no-repeat tour, the greater sin was probably not playing them all that well (2001 excepted).
Such was the state of Phish’s 2019 fall tour, at least according to your reviewer. There certainly were plenty of glowing reports to the contrary, and if the activity on CoT or the secondary markets were any indication, plenty of anticipation surrounding Charleston. Which Phish would prevail? Time to find out.
Given the GA status of the show, shakedown was basically dead by 7:15, and things got started at (Phish) promptly 8:05 with an a capella bust out of “Carolina.” The set started in earnest with “Party Time,” which featured a nice organ solo from Page. Congratulations if you called “Strawberry Letter 23” in your pool. One of the favorite pastimes of Phish fans is conjecturing if there’s any hidden meaning behind certain song selections. One can’t help but wonder if this song was an indirect allusion to the BD run . Trey worked through the instrumental break quite confidently before puddling into “Undermind,” which was given a fairly perfunctory reading.
To catch “Divided Sky,” “The Sloth,” “Destiny Unbound,” “My Friend, My Friend,” and “David Bowie,” all in the same set and each of which has some very demanding instrumental sections, just seems unfair to everyone not in attendance. Bowie was notable for almost immediately morphing into a major key at the start of the jam before returning to the classic rip.
A digression: “Make Phish Evil Again” was a popular mantra for fall 2018, and one that was certainly easy to support. For so long, songs like “Carini,” “Ghost,”and Bowie were prime psyche shredders. But for the past handful of years, those songs and many others seemed to at some point almost inevitably modulate into a happier space. Why?
Think on the life arc of Trey Anastasio for a minute: From a music dork with almost impossibly large dreams, to actually realizing those dreams and along the way becoming the unofficial Jedi sensi for the entire latter day hippie movement, the frontman of a band with whom so many people were (and still are) so seriously obsessed, to the point that those people honestly thought that they knew him on some fundamental level and tried so hard to get a piece of his magic. It’s like tweener chicks in the 60’s trying to grab a piece of the Beatles’ clothes, only instead it was an army of dusty men and women in their 20’s trying to stake their individual claim to a piece of his soul. That level of idolatry and scrutiny could not have been easy to bear every day, and, in retrospect, we should really be shocked that they kept together as long as they did.
To have reached such incredible musical heights must have made it all the more galling to the man to watch himself slowly annihilate it all over the course of the five years ending in 2006, hitting such a low that his loved ones feared for his life. And, in classic Trey style, to mount the strength to face and then embrace sobriety, to reunite this band that we have loved so much for so long.
That’s quite a journey for one person, and it must have been very, very scary playing Phish music again on a certain level, that level being the almost symbiotic relationship between Phish music and mind-altering substances. Consider these words from the man himself, taken from the New York Times Magazine profile published earlier this year:
“We were flying high on the wave. Nothing was ever going to stop. Then you wake up in the jail cell. It was a shock to realize how tenuous the whole thing was. And it took until 2013 to find out how to play with risk. Before then I’d been thinking, How do I play music in a risky way when the experience that I went through made me a cautious person?”
So, after all of that, while it may strip some of the dynamism from the music, one can hardly blame Trey for trying to embrace the positivity of a life regained. If the music a musician makes is the truest reading of his soul, positivity certainly seems to be the place in which Trey most often dwells, and that is truly admirable. What’s also admirable is the breadth and density of the music attempted in the first set, which claimed the title of best set of the tour for about twenty-five minutes.
Put “Axilla” in the same category of “First Tube” and “Punch You In the Eye”: great set openers that usually don’t jam, but certainly set an electric energy level. What followed that was a “Scents and Subtle Sounds” (with intro!!!) that featured the jam of the night: shifting mid-tempo jam segments propelled by Fish’s hi hat and snare, turning down different alleyways seemingly at will. Like a ouji board, no one was leading but something was most definitely happening. Page and Mike hooked up for some of the most interesting interplay of the night right around 7 minutes. This was the Phish jam you always hope you catch, where they truly become untethered from the song and no one in the building knows what’s going to happen next, when people finally stop chomping and zone in completely. This one deserves to be heard right now and is so good you won’t even get sad over the few WOOs tucked in there.
“Mercury” has set the bar so high for itself since its debut, it’s a little deflating to write that this one never really took off the way one has come to expect. Trey did find an interesting slink funk riff about 11 minutes in, before a > into “Saw it Again.” If one were to again engage in tin foil hat-level speculation regarding song nods, this was as on the nose as it could possibly get: there will be no repeats on this fall tour. Guaranteed.
If one has come to expect dark jams from some songs, one has come to expect very melodic, joyful jams from “Limb By Limb.” So much for expecting, folks. This "Limb" went to shardy dissonance that would be well placed as the backdrop to a nightmare before puddling out, unfinished, into gooey space and reforming as “The Lizards.” What an exceptional call. What exceptional execution. The crowd was on the band all night and really showed the love here. A short “Suzy Greenberg” ended the best set of this tour, 100%
“Bittersweet Motel” became an obvious not to Charleston and a not-so-obvious nod to the hell hole accomodations booked by your old pal (whose new bride was a pretty good sport about the whole thing). By the end of “Loving Cup,” the whole band was visibly gassed, and for good reason. At almost four hours end to end, this was one of the longest Phish shows in recent memory. For those keeping score, CHS1 got some classic 1.0 gems, several minor bust outs, two great 2.0 tunes, the best song of 3.0 in "Mercury," music from Kasvat Vaxt, Chilling Thrilling, Ghosts of the Forest, AND four cover songs, all played quite well. What more could a Phish head ask for?
The lesson here is this: stop even trying to expect what’s going to happen. Don’t even try to expect the unexpected. Just go and be there. After a sluggish start to tour, Phish truly “threw it down a while” tonight. Listen and enjoy. We’ll see it again tomorrow.
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