By all accounts, last night's show should have been the sleeper of tour. It was a Sunday show (Friday is for the fans, Saturday is for the bros, Sunday is for the band), it is early in the tour, Phish is touring new material, and it was Phish's first time playing Jacksonville. Not counting Miami, the last time Phish played in Florida was 1999 for Big Cypress. And the last "normal show" in Florida that wasn't in American Airlines Arena was in Fall 1996, in Gainesville. Twenty years later, Floridians were palpably excited: several of us trekked north and many east, joining untold hordes journeying down from Charleston, awaiting the magic of the one, two punch we were all sure would happen. We certainly had the feeling that you had a good chance of catching "It" or that "It" could happen at any moment.
Alas, Phish turned in a performance that, setting aside a few moments of brilliance, fell mostly between adequate and competent. There were, thankfully, several high points and between them, mostly tightropes, in that they were still highs, but they gained their stability from the peaks to which they were tied. For many, Jacksonville felt like it was just not the show they were hoping to see. Almost 20 years to the day after my first Phish show, filled to the brim with my jaded-vetted-ness, I walked into a crowd whose average age was probably 10 years below mine. But this show was very different for me, personally, in that it was another first: the first show for my daughter Jillian, on her 9th birthday no less. I could step you through the setlist with a few creative adjectives, but on the long drive home last night, I realized the real story was the juxtaposition of the show abutting my twenty year Phishiversary with her first show. Experiencing the show through her eyes was maybe the best thing that could’ve happened to me last night.
We got to Jacksonville right around 6 p.m., which was just what I was aiming for: enough time to explore shakedown street, letting her experience clothing and t-shirts and mysterious glassware while the smell of veggie burritos and Heady Toppers waft by. Dreadlocks and popped collars alike circulating around, pins and patches and purses for purchase, grills and music providing that unmistakable aura of the lot. Unfortunately, we never found any sort of central gathering, as Jacksonville’s Veterans Memorial Arena is situated in the outskirts of downtown "Jax," and the lots are multi-story structures. To add to the complication, a storm had passed by, and it was sprinkling, leading several to abandon the parking lots in case the clouds grew any angrier.
We headed to the doors and camped out, watching people walk by, listening to a solo musician with raspy horn toot tunes from "Gilligan’s Island" to "Superman." People passed by and commented on Jillian’s outfit and gave her five, tickled by the novelty of a precocious little kid dressed to kill at our show. When thunder cracked and the drizzle picked up, we decided to head inside. Overwhelmed by how loud the concourse was, she immediately clasped my hand full-squeeze, and we found our seats. Side-stage, perfect view. It really couldn’t have been better, she could never see over people on the floor.
People stopped by and introduced themselves pre-show, which was a curveball even for me. In a world where we’re taught to fear strangers, strangers approaching you and being nice is surprising. She calmed down as it become more and more obvious that people being nice was the norm. When the lights finally went down, I grabbed her hand and stood her on the seat. Anything could happen; to her, every song was simultaneously part the planned experience and an adventure into the unknown.
The opening notes of "Kill Devil Falls" rang out. I felt my inner-vet groan, but watching her eyes light up, as we went from hearing noise to feeling the beat, I came to life. "KDF" feels like a frequent and predictable opener, but while that was certainly its comfort zone for most of its career, it turns out that it hasn’t opened a show in over two years, opting to sit mid-first set or even as a second set opener. As a rockin’ but standard "KDF" wound down and Trey counted in "Moma" over the final dying notes, the funk that might, on some days elicit an eye-roll instead brought me a proud smile, as I saw Jillian’s knees bend and shoulders sway - she was getting it! As we slid into "Back on the Train," the chugga-chugga beat kept her bouncing. A combo that would, on most nights, serve as the most standard three-fer you could imagine, was instead one of the best three-song combos I can recall because of how it affected her.
"Undermind" was next, and while also mostly run-of-the-mill, it’s such a great song. Sometimes, I think about how much different it is from the studio version, and I remember how road-testing songs can make a big difference in their evolution. "Undermind" has certainly become one of those success stories, where a great seed, thankfully, grew into a tree. "Nellie Kane" was a treat for me, partly because I love the band’s bluegrass catalog, but also because for a first show, you want to demonstrate to someone the genre-hopping that has defined so much of who Phish is for so long. And after that was "Stash," which was not only one of the staples that I had anticipated, but was excited to share. The dark minor key tone shifts of "Stash" created a fantastic vibe, and the jam that followed was more than capable. While you wouldn’t write home from summer camp about it, it was the first deep jam that gave Jillian a taste of a deep Phish jam.
Phish then took "Petrichor" out for its second run. "Petrichor" stirs a number of emotions for me. First, I referenced road-testing new material; it will be interesting to see where "Petrichor" ends up in Phish’s live repertoire over the next few years. I suspect that Fall ’16 will see "Petrichor" fill the role of "Fuego" in Summer '14 - every city will get one. Unlike "Fuego," however, which blossomed into a who-knows-where-it-will-go jam staple, "Petrichor" is far more composed. In that sense, it’s more like the 2016 "Time Turns Elastic," a song I maintain doesn’t get due respect, but admittedly, never really found its footing on stage. I think "Petrichor" will end up being a song performed often until it suddenly becomes a rarity. And like "TTE," there are sections of "Petrichor" that meander a bit and require you to pay attention, or count, or if you choose, zone out. It was hard work for Jillian, who was knee-deep in Crossy Road on my wife’s phone by the end of the song. Alas, this one was not for her; she needed a break anyway. But it was slightly improved over Charleston, and continues to find its comfort zone in a setlist. I loved hearing it, and while it wasn’t perfect, it was a fun digression.
Trey then thanked us for our patience by dropping a first set "Mike’s Song," which was bereft of any “extra mustard.” It was a typical high-energy "Mike’s," beautiful and fun and got Jillian back on her feet. And while I was sure we were headed face first into a deep "Simple," instead, it was "Bouncin’" awaiting us. While I’m not a big fan of "Bouncin’" in my "Mike’s Groove," I was excited for it, because "Bouncin’" is such a great and easily digestible track, one that even the youngest of kids can sing. Its looping layers faded into "Weekapaug," and thus ended the first set. Conclusion: awesome!
As far as the music goes, this was a first set. There really isn’t much more to say about it. "Petrichor" is the track to revisit, "Stash," "Undermind," and "Mike’s" will make for pleasant background listening at work, but ultimately, there was nothing overly exciting about the music. I do have to tip my hat to the fine people in section 102. During the first set, the twenty of so people around us dutifully gathered fallen glow rings and balloons making their landing, and shuttled them to my daughter. The glowrings eruptions, to someone who has never seen them before, were amazing, and each one she got to throw brought a toothy smile to her face. A nice young lady gave her a pin, too; it was clear that we were around good people. Nice work, Phish community.
At set break, I asked Jillian what she liked best, and she told me the lights, but “I wish they’d shut the screens off so I could see the lights.” The LEDs are a fun addition to the stage, but only from the mouths of babes would I realize the truth: they detract from CK5’s true talent, and while it’s nice to change it up, more often than they do, the LEDs should turn off and just let us watch the pretty lights.
Set Two, I was convinced, was where we’d get the musical magic. Opening with "Crosseyed & Painless" is certainly a great sign, and this was no exception. "C&P" was solid and rocking, and even my now-tired kid was compelled to stand and boogie on. It would sit atop the highlight of the evening, along with the next two songs of the second set. It bled into "Steam," which was a ton of fun with its slow-creeping beat, and as "Steam" wound down, an atypical "Piper" intro emerged, sprinkling the opening guitar dance upon us before foregoing the build entirely for the lyrics, and then dropping back to the guitar. "Piper" was a workhorse: slowly chugging along with a constant groove until flirting with moments of greatness. That greatness was only a tease, though, as we were guided into a beautiful "Wingsuit," which was played well enough, but drove Jillian back into her seat and requesting a phone for some mid-show Snapchat distraction. I pulled her back up for "Sparkle" and its fun refrain. Later, she’d confess that "Sparkle" was her personal highlight, with its frenetic ending coda and its hyper-speed closing. During "The Wedge," I got the shirt tug, the one that was followed by “Daddy, I’m getting tired, I’m ready to go.”
Fortunately, she granted me a few last songs, but unfortunately, the next song was "Velvet Sea," which is beautiful, but began with her swaying to the end of "The Wedge" and ended with her in her seat, leaning on my wife with her eyes closed. We closed the set on a high energy "Antelope," one of the quintessential Phish songs, and with the high energy “Set the gearshift!” we danced, shaking our butts to the last few measures as the second set concluded.
With the lights down, I turned to a friend and summed up: second set far better than the first, highlight was "C&P" > "Steam" > "Piper," and "Antelope" was a lot of fun.
I grabbed Jillian's hand, we said our goodbyes, and headed up to take in the encore from the top of the second tier in an attempt to beat the crowd out. Jillian headed to the bathroom for a final potty break, which meant I got to enjoy "Curtis Loew." I love where this song sits in Phishtory, two big gaps in its illustrious history, and now performed about once every 25 shows, on average about twice a year. "Character Zero" was, as expected, a scream rocker. But I confess to you, I heard much of the song for the first time via LivePhish earlier today, as its final refrain occurred as we were guided out of the venue.
In the car, on the way home: “So, Jillian, what did you like best about the show?”
“The lights! And the people. And I liked some of the songs, too.”
Funny thing, it turns out that whether it’s your twentieth Phishiversary or your “zeroth” Phishiversary, it pretty much always boils down to the same three things. Some left Jacksonville thrilled with another killer Phish show, some left Jacksonville disappointed in a lackluster performance, but I left Jacksonville with the biggest smile a dad could have.
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March 27, 1993
25 years ago
Set 2: Buried Alive > Halley's Comet > It's Ice > Bouncing Around the Room, Chalk Dust Torture, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Hold Your Head Up > Cracklin' Rosie > Hold Your Head Up, Poor Heart > Golgi Apparatus
 Beginning featured Trey on acoustic guitar.
 Fish on trombone.
 All Fall Down signal in intro.
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