Phish — Charlotte Coliseum — Charlotte, NC 10.26.1996
I Julius, CTB, Wolfman’s Brother, Reba, Train Song, Zero, Ice, Theme, Sample
II Disease>YEM, Sparkle>Simple->McGrupp, Waste, Lope
Following their one night stop in Hampton Phish continued to live the words of The Curtain by, you know, following the lines going south to play a Saturday night affair in Charlotte, NC. Well, perhaps it is more accurate to say they followed the lines going west by southwest but that’s just picking nits, amiright? Anyone?
Tough crowd. Okay, I’ll try to stick to the music here a bit more. So the band returned to Charlotte, a city that has seen its share of high quality Phish over the years. Actually, the whole state of North Carolina has been a boon for the band. No, that wasn’t a finger-to-the-nose punny nod to the town of Boone, but they have played there, wise guy, and I was there and it was a helluva fun time. Check out the Reba if you haven’t ever heard it. Collectively, the band has played 40 shows in the Tarheel State with 11 of those happening in Charlotte. At the time of this show in 1996 they had played Charlotte venues five times starting with a pair of 1990 shows both at The Pterodactyl Club (a now-closed but one time staple of the live music scene in Charlotte) with one on the Spring Tour and the other coming in the Fall. The next visits would be be to the Grady Cole Center, a smallish multi-use venue that is part of the country parks system. The 07.28.1993 show is most notable as being the first time Dr. Jack McConnell joined the band for his now-signature take on Bill Bailey (they have never played the song without him there) and the piano duet he and Page had which preceded it in the encore. They returned about nine months later on 04.24.1994 for a show full of awesome including Gin->Jump Monk->Gin (727 show bustout for Jump Monk which some may recognize more for its influence on Stash than in its original form), a beaut of a Slave, and ho-hum just another one of those mind blowing ’94 Bowies. 1995 saw the first visit to the larger Charlotte Coliseum for the debut of Slow Heart and big time Tweezer amongst other gems. This was Fall ’95 after all…
The next visit to Charlotte would be for our show up there, again at the Charlotte Coliseum for what would be the last time to date. Since then Phish has continued to come back to the Queen City (and North Carolina in general), playing another six shows that have all been at the Pavilion of Changing Names currently known as PNC Pavilion. Now nine shows into the tour and in the third show of a four night run (the second such run already this tour) the band is in full operational mode and seems poised to take things to another level from the consistent if somewhat reserved performances of the past several shows. Getting the dance vibe going from the start, the band opens with a spirited Julius with that raging Trey you know to be the case for Julius in this era. After that solid opener we get a vibrant Cars Trucks Buses where Page takes the forefront and then we have a nice if somewhat pedestrian Wolfman’s Brother. I know we all recognize the jam potential of that song these days but back then before the landmark Markethalle version from the show that would beget Slip Stitch and Pass. Here though, only four plus months prior to that date, the song is about as close to the album version as you could get.
But fear not! Next up we have our gal Reba and after running through the composed section we are treated to a thrill ride version where Trey and Fish shine brightly in a jam that flows along quite swimmingly before Trey reaches for the stars and brings down a white hot peak on the unsuspecting gazers in the crowd. I find this version to be quite undervalued in comparison to some of the top notch Rebas out there so I’d recommend you go ahead and spin it. You will not be disappointed. They come up for air for a nice Train Song interlude and then crank into another straight forward and rocking version of Character Zero (our fifth already this tour). I still find it odd to see all of these mid-set Zeros popping up here as we now know it to be a set closer primarily. From here we get dropped into the murk of It’s Ice with Trey setting some atmospheric sound as Page takes a run for a ranging piano solo. This gives way to a satisfying Theme From The Bottom before Sample comes in and squats on our fine little set. In my revisionist dreams I would have nudged Trey to keep that Theme going for another five minutes to cap the set instead of giving way to Sample but he’s the guy making the choices so oh well.
During the break you have to have been thinking that this is one of the best first sets of the tour so far and here today I’d be agreeing with you. The clear highlight is the Reba but all throughout we get crisp playing and a real sense of band connectivity. This raises the hopes and expectations headed into the second frame where Phish usually keeps the good stuff. Tonight that maxim holds true as from the get go this second set brings a higher level of Phish than what we have been experiencing over the past several outings. Things get started with yet another fiery Down With Disease (a song that has open 95 sets in its 251 appearances…). While still a firmly ‘type I’ jam, there are a lot of great ideas being thrown out here from all involved but Trey in particular. This is a white hot chugger of a Disease that just begs to escape its structure but instead they take us directly into You Enjoy Myself. Always a quality pick, this one has a lovely pre-nirvana section and they nail all of the composed bits before Trey finally unleashes a ripping solo in his part of the jam. It almost feels like he still had a lot to say in that Disease and carried over that energy here. Mike and Fish back this up with a great D&B section before we get the obligatory VJ. A fast run through a (sadly) FMS-less Sparkle brings us to our next vehicle Simple. Considering how this has been the most consistent vehicle of the tour so far it is no surprise that they again take this one out for a bit of a ride. Things progress as they do and then once Trey hops on the mini-kit we are in weird land. Page is putting up varied effects and organ fills as the rest of the band drives the pocket in this full band jam. Trey eventually moves back to the guitar and we get a bit more to chew on before they drop into some transitional space with Page almost hinting at Keyboard Cavalry. They opt for the first McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters (the first tour debut of the night) instead, having gotten there quite organically it would seem.
McGrupp — always a song I love to hear — provides the opportunity to collect oneself a bit in the wake of that Simple and has a perfectly fine end build as it typically does. You may note here that we have another Page-heavy show on our hands but with Trey also showing his chops and Mike&Fish doing their typically awesome thing this one feels more like the whole band is on top of their game tonight. Our breather song tonight is Waste and Trey gives yet another solid solo at the end, inducing the full crowd sway and smilefest that this song seems to always bring with it. Trey take a moment following Waste to give a shout out to Fish’s cousin (in attendance) who recently won a guitar competition, noting that he played a Hendrix tune in the winning. This precedes the set closing Run Like an Antelope where along with the typical psych shred madness of the jam Trey throws in a Star Spangled banner tease along with a Voodoo Child (Slight Return) tease to nod to the Fish cousin thing. They rock this one out as they tend to do and then for the encore they bring more Jimi with our first Fire of the young tour.
I really think this show is a bit of a tipping point for the band along the Fall ’96 path (…he says with the large benefit of hindsight). Outside of a couple of song choices that I personally do not prefer there is nothing to complain about in this show and the playing throughout is quite high level. There are multiple takeaway jams — Reba, Ice, Simple, and Disease (yes, I know we have highlighted every one so far but c’mon, they are all quite good for this type of DWD) and YEM for the second tier add-ins — and a vibrant energy reflected by both band and crowd. Just listen to Trey for one. Maybe he was just warming up before this or distracted by NYC or something but it all clicks here. And we still haven’t had much of a hint at the massive thing coming only three shows from now! At this stage in the tour, I’d put this one at the top of the list as a great example of the BRiL (Before Remain in Light) sound. They forego the long form, open psych jams of ’95 for tight versions heavy on the quick exchange of ideas (pretty much like the ‘jam density’ thing that became a part of the 3.0 discussions). While this tour still lacks a major, epcot-level type jam all the signs point to that being an impending inevitability. So go ahead and spin this one with the knowledge that it is but a swell in advance of the tsunami about to crash on the masses and enjoy it for the snapshot it provides into life in the days before the Phish world was forever changed.