Review: With Charleston shows, Phish proves the glory days are still here 

I Hope This Happens Once Again

click to enlarge Even after more than three decades, Trey still shreds

Stratton Lawrence

Even after more than three decades, Trey still shreds

Why would anyone go see the same band three nights in a row? Phish easily answered that question this weekend by never repeating a song during their three-night run in Charleston. And they weren't filling space with half-hour jams, either. The band tore through 26 songs on Friday night alone, beginning with an a cappella "Carolina" (nothing could be finer) and a mood-setting funk classic, "Strawberry Letter 23."

Phish made the 13,000-seat North Charleston Coliseum feel intimate, thanks to heavy investment in proprietary light and sound rigs. Dozens of multi-colored spotlights hung from nearly 30 clusters that synchronize behind and around the band, while their speaker system covers 360 degrees around the stage. That attention to detail means that every audience member hears balanced sound, rather than the echo chamber that rooms like the Coliseum can become when a rock band relies on the same setup they'd use in a field. Most importantly, it enables the audience to play the sixth man in the band (Chris Kuroda, manning the lights, is the fifth).

That collective energy was thick and appreciative all night on Friday, peaking early with a flawless "Divided Sky," and a first-set closing stretch that included a gorgeous "Silent in the Morning" round and a "David Bowie" dance party. The first set alone, at 14 songs (including "Destiny Unbound"), felt like a complete show.

But there's a whole 'nother set. "Scents and Subtle Sounds" found the band stretching out, with Trey Anastasio taking lead guitar risks that slowly dead-ended until bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman quickly picked him up with a deep funk groove. After three and a half decades, their musical communication is innate.

When you improvise in a high-pressure setting, it doesn't always come out on top. But, the band doesn't leave each other hanging — they're always ready with a bail-out that gets hips shaking again. Ultimately, it's still just four old friends having fun playing music together. That's especially evident in a cover like Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter." You can rock out and take it seriously — like it's Zeppelin playing it — or enjoy a belly laugh seeing Trey grin as he lays out chunky big chords to set up his pal and keyboardist Page McConnell to belt out the lyrics.

Friday night already felt special by late in the second set, when Phish brought a trio of classics to close: "Limb By Limb," "The Lizards," and "Suzy Greenberg."

"The Lizards" felt fresh and inspired, straight from the dorm room three decades ago. The "Loving Cup" closer — the third of three encores — put a wee hours nightcap cherry on nearly four hours of music.

click to enlarge Phish opened their Charleston run with an a cappella version of "Carolina" - STRATTON LAWRENCE
  • Stratton Lawrence
  • Phish opened their Charleston run with an a cappella version of "Carolina"

The bar was set high, but on Saturday night, Phish seamlessly kept the energy rolling with a rare "Fluffhead" opener that brought memories of their post-breakup return to Hampton Coliseum. Many of the songs they chose for their first set in five years on March 6, 2009 — "Fluffhead," "Divided Sky," "Suzy Greenberg," "The Squirming Coil," "David Bowie" — were saved for the first two nights in Charleston. All weekend, it felt like the North Charleston Coliseum was joining the ranks of Hampton — dubbed "the Mothership" — as a room where Phish magic is likelier than not.

Saturday's first set kept up the old-school energy with the bluegrass "Nellie Kane" and a well-executed "Reba." Trey stumbled to find the lick during "Guyute" — a highlight nonetheless for the celebratory "I hope this happens once again" line sung in unison by the crowd. The set closed strong with "Moonage Daydream," laying out a subtle David Bowie theme for the weekend that was continued with teases of "Little Drummer Boy" through Saturday and Sunday nights.

The Talking Heads' "Crosseyed and Painless" helped get Saturday set two grooving, before "Dirt," the ballad highlight of the weekend. "Split Open and Melt" got perfectly weird and funky during a segue back into "Crosseyed." The set closed with a taste of '94, including thunderous crowd chants of "Wilson" and then McConnell's hug-inducing piano solo to close "The Squirming Coil." The night ended with another laugh-or-rawk-or-both nightcap, Edgar Winter Group's "Frankenstein," featuring McConnell at center stage on keytar.

Would "never miss a Sunday show" hold true? Although night three — the tour closer — had its highlights, the band's decision to play no repeats left the tour's eighth night a bit bare. "Geulah Papyrus" brought an early highlight — including synchronized dancing from Gordon and Anastasio — but even classic rarities like a "Curtain - Mound" segue and a raucous "Alumni Blues" that gave way to "It's Ice," couldn't shake the lower energy feel to the set.

The band seemed to put that to rest by opening set two with Eric Clapton's "After Midnight," a 20-year nod to their all-night Big Cypress set from New Year's Eve 1999, but relying almost entirely on post-breakup originals like "Wingsuit" and "Petrichor" made it difficult to reach the same magic as the previous two nights. "Boogie On Reggae Woman" sparked a short get-down, but it felt like an island among the lullabies with Anastasio.

click to enlarge Custom lights and sound rigs made North Charleston Coliseum feel downright cozy - STRATTON LAWRENCE
  • Stratton Lawrence
  • Custom lights and sound rigs made North Charleston Coliseum feel downright cozy

The encore did bring a mid-era slow-build "Pebbles and Marbles," plus Jimi Hendrix's "Izabella" (a superior alternative to their long-favored "Fire" among Hendrix covers), and a fun but tagged-on "Chalk Dust Torture Reprise" that ensured the weekend ended with fireworks.

So, is three nights of Phish in 2019 worth missing bedtime with the kids, playing catchup at work, and sacrificing sound sleep for a few days? A thousand times yes. Are they worth the $3/minute equivalent folks were paying on StubHub to get in on Saturday? (Last minute tickets reached as high as $700.) Maybe put that money toward a good massage next time, or at least remember to buy tickets when they go on sale.

Tickets that cost more than a home appliance indicate a shift in demographics. The attorneys and accountants bust out their old patchwork vests and witty Phish song T-shirts, doing their best to look like broke college kids, but they're back at their desks on Monday morning. And on Sunday night, it's possible that even the band may be a little tired.

On the drive from Folly Beach to the show on Sunday, a friend called to connect me with his buddy who flew to town for "Phish and the foreclosure auction on Monday." I gave the guy some perspective on neighborhoods and FEMA maps and local construction costs, and wished him a good show. Then I apologized to the folks I was riding with, one of whom is a coworker and SEO wizard improving the websites of Fortune 500 companies. Inside, I met up with some old Folly friends now living in Virginia. They'd flown in on their buddy's Cessna and had a round booked at Patriots Point on Monday. The night before, I'd watched the show with a college buddy and three other lawyers from his firm, all married with kids.

Although there are still teens and younger 20-somethings in the crowd, this isn't the same band or audience from decades ago. Look around, and it's a lot of professionals and mothers and fathers, out feeling young. But they're not chasing a replication of a bygone era — they're here for authenticity. Phish gives us new moments, just as powerful and awe-inspiring and head-splitting as the peaks in summer 1998 when Anastasio's fingers moved at blistering speeds up the guitar neck.

Today, he still shreds, but the spasmic, hilarious reactions from the fans along the rail are as entertaining as the solo. The guitarist wields complete control over the front rows, a power that must be both humbling and fun. And it explains why the group puts emphasis on creating collective grooves over blistering peaks. It's all the evolution of a band that sounds complete and as comfortable as ever in 2019.

Phish allowed us to grow up with them. No matter how much you loved Hootie or the Chili Peppers or Pearl Jam in the '90s, seeing them now is mostly about reliving those moments and hearing those old songs again. At a Phish show, it's still about the new moments, whether those emerge from a song we've loved since before we could drive, or one we've never heard until right now.

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