Phish — BI-LO Center — Greenville, SC 11.18.1998
I BATCS, BOAF, Farmhouse>My Soul, Guyute, Lawn Boy, Love Me, Bowie, Carolina
II Wolfman’s->Lizards, Moma>Albuquerque, Slave, Fluffhead>Zero
E B&R, Sleep, DFB, Coil
After a couple of nights off to navigate in a generally easterly direction through the Blue Ridge Mountains Phish found themselves back in the Upcountry of South Carolina for the first time since a quite spectacular show in Spartanburg that preceded the legendary Glens Falls Halloween show. They had played other shows in the Palmetto State in the years between but those were down state at the North Charleston Coliseum (11.18.1995 and 10.26.1996) some 200 miles away. Incidentally, the show this night would take place three years to the day from that first stop at the Coliseum, a venue they have now played four times in total as they again visited for a pair of shows during the Fall 2010 tour. But for Greenville this show stands as the only time the band has played here and it is one that has some very high highs.
Things start out well with the second ever cover of Back At The Chicken Shack as the band warms up and lets Page take center focus on the Jimmy Smith classic. This may have been a sign about where the show is headed as we will see but no matter what it is a fresh tune to slot there and comes off as well received. Next up is BOAF and while this stays firmly within the confines of the song structure it straight rocks and cranks the energy level in the room up several notches. Close to the peak of the jam Trey hits a note/chord on his guitar that almost sounds like a train horn blast which only furthers that high energy feel. Solid version here aaaaaaand then we get Farmhouse. While well played this serves to sap the room of energy for a bit until they head right into My Soul, rocking the rafters once more. And then when they start up Guyute to follow it becomes plain that this set will be a high energy rocking affair that stays pretty close to the script. And that’s a pretty fun thing to have for a first set sometimes. Guyute peaks well and then they belie that sentence I just wrote by playing two ‘crooner’ numbers in Lawn Boy (with Gordeaux solo) and the final (to date) version of Elvis’ Love Me. Following this interlude they set out into Bowie and your fears of the rock set being derailed are put aside once again. As with most Bowies of this era the song is largely a showcase in tension and release, staying pretty close to the song itself while elevating to a big peak. There’s a lot of shred and big time playing from Page on display over the 19+ minutes of this version and fans of the big arena rock sound of Phish will be happy with this one. Then the band comes out front to do a little a cappella with Carolina being the fitting geographical choice for the evening. Page manages to mess up the cue so they restart it but otherwise it offers up a nice cap to a rocking set.
Sometimes it is difficult to gauge what you might get following a set like that first one. It could be more of the same which is perfectly fine unless you came to hear them stretch outside of their norms. Other times they go an entirely different direction, be it a segue-filled set full of numerous head fakes, teases, and other fun. And then there are the times where that second set feels like it is plucked from a different show because it just all comes together so fittingly. Tonight is one of those. The set kicks off with Wolfman’s Brother and if we are going off of the past several of performances of the tune you have to be excited about what might happen. Keep in mind that Wolfman’s was arguably at its peak in 97/98 so they seemed to hit on a stellar version of the tune almost every time out but in particular the last six times the song was performed included the MLB jam in Cleveland, THE Vegas Wolfman’s (accept no substitutes), a funky contained one from that “secret” show at the Fillmore in San Francisco, a pretty swell one from Star Lake on 08.11.1998, an ambient groove monster from Lakewood Amphitheater on 08.06.1998, and a 22+ minute epic from The Woodlands on 07.24.1998. I didn’t skip a single performance there. That’s six straight top notch versions and then if you keep going back you eventually get to even more heavy hitters in early 1998 and throughout 1997. Look, let’s just say that they really knew what to do with the song in this era, okay?
So when they start up Wolfman’s to kick off the 2nd set here in Greenville you have to have high hopes (even though we all know what happens with high expectations and all that) particularly since there have only been 14 times that the song has graced that slot. Ever. The song itself is fine enough but as soon as they drop into the jam they mean business, first punching out the funk and obligating you to move with it or get trampled. After only a couple of minutes they leave the song entirely with all four sharing ideas freely. Trey adds in an atmospheric loop as the groove gets more and more ambient even while Fish continues to push the funk with a clever line of attack. Pretty soon it is clear they have caught on to a theme and by about the 11:00 mark we are on our way up into an exuberant, melodic, yet still ambient build of straight awesome bliss playing. They are very patient in working this motif and bring it up to the peak in that way that makes you cock your head and wonder if it was planned the whole time. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t; they are just that good.
As if to just leave you laughing and shaking your head (a reaction I love to have to their jams) they then execute a flawless transition into The Lizards for a spot on take on the Gamehendge tune. Moma Dance is up next and here we are treated to another loose yet contained bit of this gooey funk. This serves to set us up nicely for the mid set cool down which tonight is Albuquerque (yet another of those late 90s ballads I really appreciate). Rather than heading right into a big number to amp things back up they opt to slowly bring the energy back with a patient Slave to the Traffic Light that fits the mood of the set perfectly. Now we are about ready to explode with pent up energy and they provide it by playing the double closer pairing of Fluffhead>Character Zero. The Fluffhead is played well and blows up in that wonderful way that the old school song does before they finish up the set with another strong version of Zero. And before you think it is time to head out to get that lot burrito we are treated to a four song encore featuring three quieter numbers in Brian and Robert, Sleep, and a mini-bustout (49 shows) of Dog Faced Boy (the latter two songs featuring Trey on acoustic) before Page sends us into the night with the deservedly loved Squirming Coil. For some reason this provides just the right form of punctuation on a show that offers up two very different types of Phish sets and adds to the notion that this (and many if not all shows in South Carolina) are big time Page shows. I didn’t really mention it too much above but he is on top of his game throughout this one, adding color and flourish to pretty well everything while being a major part of that Wolfman’s jam as well. We often talk about how much the impact of Trey’s playing has on the show but often it is one of the other guys stepping up above their norm that really takes things next level. This is a quality example of one of those times where it is Page’s turn to hold the mantle.
Perhaps I am overselling this one a bit but this is a show that really seems to hold up as one that is greater than its parts. Looking only at the setlist you may think it looks okay, perhaps solid but nothing really sticks out as a harbinger of great things to come. And realistically, outside of that Wolfman’s nothing is truly “great” top level stuff here but as we all know you don’t know if you don’t go. So listen if you can and tell me if I just was hearing the imaginary orchestra more than normal or if you are catching any of what I did with this one. Your takeaways tonight are the Bowie, Wolfman’s->Lizards, and perhaps the Slave with additions being the BOAF, Moma, and Fluffhead>Zero if you want to bring the rawk. This was our first of four nights in a row so strap in as we head to Winston-Salem and Hampton for a reverse ordered run of the three nights in those venues just one year prior. That run in 1997 produced some pretty okay music, right?