Phish kicked-off the final weekend of the first leg of their summer tour in Charlotte, a venue that has been host to notable past gigs, including the stellar 7/25/03 performance with an epic “Harry Hood,” and the “Fuck Your Face” mega-bustout last summer (7/2/10). Following a two-night run of shows in Georgia that included spectacular highs (6/14 “Bathtub Gin,” “Light Up and Leave Me Alone”) and a perplexing, flat performance in the face of a dramatic thunderstorm on 6/15 that provoked a deluge of commentary, how would the band respond? Roll tape!
The first “Mike’s Song” show opener since Coventry got things started in fine fashion (after Trey recalled the song’s proper key) and instead of getting fancy, we are offered a crisp “Mike’s Groove” with “I Am Hydrogen” > “Weekapaug.” The set then settles into an uneventful yet fine groove with standard renditions of “Bouncing,” “NICU” (“Leo’s House!” instead of “Play it, Leo!”) and “Sample.” The first major treat of the night is up next: “Colonel Forbin’s” > “Fly Famous Mockingbird!” Settling in to a once-a-year appearance schedule, Trey said that “I’m not going to give it away, when I’m in this part of the country, but I think you all know who this is … it’s the Famous Mockingbird!” referencing the shirts that both Trey and Mike were wearing with the image of local musician David Mayfield. Trey and Mike had apparently utilized the off-night on Thursday to visit The Evening Muse in Charlotte’s NoDa arts district, where David was performing. More on David, later.
The always enthusiastic “Axilla” is next, followed by the improvisational highlight of the first set, an excellent “Wolfman’s Brother” with classic type-I jamming featuring Trey riding the wave and crushing the solos, great stuff! The set is rounded out by a spirited “Scent of a Mule” and the increasingly frequent set closer “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan.” The greatest first set of the tour to date? Not likely, as there is some stiff competition (Bethel2 jumps to mind), but there is a lot to love here. A “Mike’s Groove” opener, solid performances of classic tunes in this lineup of all-Phish originals, the always-hoped-for but infrequently-played “Forbin’s” > “Mockingbird” and a tight improvisational excursion in “Wolman’s,” this first set has something for even the most discriminating Phish fan. Awesome. We’ll be back in exactly fifteen minutes.
After the short break (not the mythical fifteen minutes, but not too much longer) a bright, clean “Backwards Down the Number Line” opens the second set. This song has in three short years ensconced itself into the pantheon of classic Phish songs and, repeats be damned, they could play this song almost every night and leave fans still wanting more. What is shaping up to be the improvisational king of this tour – don’t miss the versions from Great Woods and MPP1 – “Rock and Roll” follows. At the six-minute mark we are led on a melodious journey into pure type-II, and in a manner entirely removed from any of the three previous performances on this tour. In a brilliant setlist call we are next treated to the 100th performance of “Ghost.” By no means an “all-time jam,” this offering was nevertheless miles ahead of the truncated PNC version, providing a clear path to the heart of Phish’s improvisational greatness. This three-song opening sequence is, in a nutshell, why so many of us keep coming back, show after show, year after year. Bravo! “Free” is next, a choice that keeps the energy and spirits high, followed by yet another sublime, standout “Reba,” its first appearance in a second set since Festival 8.
Then... the bomb drops. “Icculus.” Trey launched into the narration: “There is something about playing in this venue. Last night, Mike and I went to NoDa. And let me tell you, we met a lot of nice people. But, the thing is, as nice as these people were, there was sort of something missing. So, before we leave, I just want to remind everyone, to read the fucking book! The book! That’s right, that’s right, I really don’t know what else to say other than that. Except that, this book, this particular book, was written by an amazing man, let’s see if we can get him up on the screen here, can we get the amazing guy up on the screen?” (a photo of the David Mayfield shirt both Trey and Mike were wearing hovered ominously on the venue’s big screens) “Ah, yes! This man, this man has the answers. Some of you are probably having problems in your life. Life can be tough, you know? But this man, this man has all the answers. So someday, when you’re ready to step up into the next realm of living, the higher realm, when you are ready to live in peace and tranquility, when you are ready to leave all your worldly problems behind.. this man, that man right there, the rest of your problems, he will take you to the promised land. All you gotta do is read the book! Read the book! Pick up the book! Open the book! Open it, open it, open it, it’s by that guy, right there, he wrote it for you people, but you won’t read it! Open it for God’s sake! That book is written by, is written by, is written by the great and knowledgeable.. the Helping Friendly Book is written by the great and knowledgeable... Icculus!” Must have been some night out! Afterward Trey noted that “I love that song.” Us, too, Trey. Us, too.
The fun continues as the band launches into “Hold Your Head Up” and the entrance of another man of both great and questionable knowledge, Fishman, assumes center stage and starts into an introduction-exchange with Page before opening up Syd Barrett’s classic “Bike.” “What the fuck were the words?” Who cares?! Good times, Fish! The set then settles back into more standard but still excellent fare with an “extra mustard” “Chalk Dust Torture” and a “YEM” that stuck to the 3.0 script but is always welcome by fans of all ages. A lively and fun “Wilson” > “Loving Cup” encore rounds out this exciting, fun-filled performance that beams enthusiasm and vitality.
What a great show! Even Hall of Fame hitters go through minor slumps, so it is heartwarming to see our lovable heroes go out and absolutely slay a show after the mini-funk of the Camden -> Alpharetta run. “Nostalgia Act?” Not on this night. This gig will not threaten any of the band’s all-time epic performances due to the lack of a single signature improvisation, but it has basically everything else you could want and clearly stands alongside Bethel2, Pine Knob and Blossom as a candidate for best show of the tour – personally, I think you have to give this one the nod – and one that is likely to find a place in many “top 10” lists of the post-comeback era. Raleigh is up next, an old-school shed and the home of one of those all-time Phish performances (7/22/97). Let’s hope they keep pushing the rock uphill!