Phish loves to tease. Not only do you have the endless inside jokes, musical quotes and jams that hint at a song you can’t quite place, the live experience itself is kind of a tease. When I’m at a show and really tuned in, I get fully absorbed and objectivity is dissolved in the magic of being there. I’m still unapologetically awed by being at a show, and will walk out of the venue spewing effusive and hyperbolic praise. I also leave wondering what the music will sound like in the morning, hoping that I’ll hear the same epic moments I enjoyed at the show. So in the interest of full disclosure, please know that when the lights came up last night I was blown away and shamelessly fluffing despite any flaws. Now, with my show ears off any my recap ears on, I’m still reconciling what I heard last night with what I’m hearing in the car on the way home through North Carolina. My impression of Charlotte is of a Phish tease in both the good and frustrating sense; songs that continue to flirt with their potential, a first set with tremendous flow but flawed execution, a Mike’s Groove with both amazing and head-scratching song selection, and a “Tweezer” that on tape can only hint at the experience I had first hearing it.
“AC/DC Bag” gets the last show of this three day Southern run on the road, and is followed by a feisty, fight-belled “Moma Dance.” “Heavy Things” eases in, rather than starting with a punch, and this three song warm-up concludes with a joyful waterfall lick from Trey repeated several times. From here, the first set boasts a superb flow and selection of songs not often found in 2012 opening frames. “Ocelot” slinks in and prowls around, showing its teeth and seeming to say “I’m a dangerous animal, I’m a natural killer.” It doesn’t go for the throat of an audience waiting to be slayed, but it’s no pussycat, either. “Ocelot” works well as a team with the nasty attitude of the following “Funky Bitch,” both menacing and delighting the audience. “Bathtub Gin” keeps the energy high, but like most versions of late does not launch into the improvisational stratosphere, opting instead for a danceable cruising altitude.
“Fluffhead,” even with its flubs, is a great, crowd-pleasing chaser for “Gin,” with Fishman encouraging the fans to sing along during “Bundle of Joy.” The final chord of “Fluffhead” is then replaced with the opening riff of “Alumni Blues,” an old-school combo not heard since 5/5/89. “Alumni” then falls apart spectacularly when Trey throws the vocals to Fish and Fish drops them flat on the floor. Trey responds by butchering “Letter to Jimmy Page,” and returning to “Alumni” too soon, and the debacle culminates in Fishman proclaiming that he doesn’t have a degree. This sequence is amusing though sloppy, like many messy Phish moments, and leads to some great banter as well as teasing at Fish’s expense. Trey explains that Fish does have a degree, but also the record for lowest GPA among non-fraternity attendees of the University of Vermont, though not as amazingly low as Trey first claims. After more reminiscing about Page recruiting Trey and Fish to Godard College, we are treated to a song from the notebook and “mind of Jon Fishman, ‘Tube.’” This “Tube” sticks to the script, allowing MC Neon Cellgap a short time to practice his diabolical craft before wrapping up without much of a jam. More banter ensues, ending only when Fish starts “My Sweet One” under the threat of further mockery. Set one ends with the first appearance of “David Bowie” since it stepped out of its 3.0 cage at BGCA3, but “Bowie’s” freedom may have been short lived as this version stays tightly locked up.
With “Bowie” closing the first set of this show as well as 8/19/12, it’s hard not to have Bill Graham-sized expectations when the second set opens with “Crosseyed and Painless,” just as it did in San Francisco. This “Crosseyed” does not feature type-II jamming, but does segue sweetly into “McGrupp and The Watchful Hosemasters.” “McGrupp” is bookended by rough moments but flirts briefly with an unusual, up-tempo jam that fans of the song will want to add to their collection. As “McGrupp” drifts away, “Mike’s Song” bursts through the doorway. Even when it stays well within the box and lacks the sought-after second jam, “Mike’s Song” gets the feet moving and the glowsticks flying. It also teases the mind with possibilities. What will make up the meat of the “Mike’s Groove” sandwich? The tried and true “I Am Hydrogen?” A potentially beautiful “Simple?” Or something completely off the beaten path? I unfortunately have to admit that the answer to this question, “Bouncing Around the Room,” hits me like a punch in the gut. I don’t hate “Bouncin’,” but I think it pulls the rug out from under a set when deployed in this spot. Fortunately, Trey picks things back up by tearing into “Axilla,” and just when you think you’ve got things figured out, he throws you a curve ball in the form of the first “Tweezer” ever to appear within “Mike’s Groove.”
This “Tweezer” evolves into an ambient groove which is admittedly less mesmerizing when listened to in the sober light of day than it was in the Chris Kuroda-painted amphitheater. It is pretty and perhaps still the musical highlight of the evening, but it is brief and not particularly risky. Concluding with whale song and space, “Tweezer” is followed by a version of “Harry Hood” which, while not poorly played, is more noteworthy for its placement than for its improvisation. Finishing “Hood,” Trey next delves into “The Horse” > “Silent in the Morning,” completing the slow song/jam song sandwich before “Weekapaug” completes the “Mike’s Groove.” The always happy-to-tease “Suzy Greenberg” contains several call backs to “Crosseyed and Painless” and closes the set on a high note, while the “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars,” “Tweezer Reprise” combo, complete with wild Trey antics, is a suitably crazy, throwback encore.
Sometimes you can’t fully appreciate how great the music is when you’re standing in a crowd of thousands, and sometimes the transcendent aspects of Phish overwhelm your ability to be critical. Charlotte probably will prove to be an example of the latter, in my case, once the 48 hour rule has expired. My recommendation, though, is to listen to the “Ocelot” and ponder where it might go in the future, check out the “Gin,” “Bowie,” and “Hood” and wonder what might have been, and experience the “Tweezer” to see if it moves you in the same way it first moved me. Above all, though, let it please you with a teaser of what comes next.