[Editor's Note: We welcome Craig Hillwig back for this recap. –CD]
Phish returned to Nashville last night for the first of two shows at the still sparkling-new Ascend Amphitheater, a 6,800 capacity open air venue along the banks of the Cumberland River. That Phish is back in Nashville is wholly unsurprising, given that much of Phish’s 2016 release Big Boat was recorded in several local studios. It also seems to be a popular stop among fans with its combination of authentic southern cuisine and honky tonk night life. Luckily for us, the weather was perfect with ample sunshine, temperatures in the mid-80s, and a comfortable breeze. We settled in at Puckett’s to pre-game with some bourbon, brew and ‘que.
There was no shortage of speculation about a potential guest appearance by Bob Weir, who serendipitously was in town promoting his new collection of cowboy tunes, Blue Mountain, at the legendary Ryman Auditorium. This speculation turned into guarded anticipation following social media reports that Weir had joined the band for a soundcheck of the traditional, “Walkin’ Blues.” I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I heard about the soundcheck. I mean, come on - you have Bob Weir sitting in, and you pick a song that most people skip on playback?
Fortunately, the song selection in Phish’s first set was strong, as the band quickly eliminated several potential set two jam vehicles with straightforward and quality versions of “Chalk Dust Torture,” “Ghost,” “Blaze On,” and “Sand.” The latter half of the set had a decidedly more pedestrian and traditional first set feel, with a mix of new tunes (“Tide Turns,” “Breath and Burning”) and some older favorites (“Halley’s Comet,” “46 Days”). The closing sequence of “Limb By Limb” into “Cavern” was particularly strong, and the tunes pair well together with their signature Marshall/Herman call and response lyrics. While we all thought “Cavern” would end the set, Phish dropped its first surprise of the night with a rare “Also Sprach Zarathustra” set one closer for the first time since 12/30/2003.
Anticipation for the second set was high, with the “special guest” wildcard looming large. The opening sequence of “Julius,” “Fuego,” and “My Friend, My Friend” was somewhat unexpected and not particularly well received. And then Weir came out, to great applause, tuning up with what easily could have been the opening chords of “Walkin’ Blues.” And then something amazing happened—one of the greatest head-fakes in Phish history.
Out of the silence came a familiar drum lead-in. You know the one. The one where you realize that Bobby is taking you to church. Waves of recognition were flowing through the crowd as the realization sets in, until finally Trey launches into that classic Garcia lead line: “Samson and Delilah!” It was pure fire. When Trey followed it up with “Twist” I figured that would probably be it for Weir, but he was just getting started. And. Then. It. Went. Type II. Weir seemed right at home in this environment, proving that he still has the improvisational chops that helped define the Grateful Dead’s signature sound.
The surprises continued with Bobby taking the lead vocals for “Miss You.” Written as a tribute to Trey’s sister, Weir’s take on the song seemed like an emotional paean to Garcia. It was difficult to tell from our seats whether Bob was struggling with the lyrics or just improvising on the meter of the verses, but it came off well nonetheless.
Next came the second Dead tune of the night. “West L.A. Fadeaway.” This version was punchy and angular and very much along the lines of the Fare Thee Well version. It seemed like Trey had to work a little to find the pocket in the solo, but a smattering of MuTron in the effects chain added some authenticity to this modern take on the song.
After “West L.A.,” the band turned to Weir and it was clear that we would get at least one more song. We could just barely make it out from our seats but there it was: the famous Bob Weir ten-count into “Playin’ in the Band!” It was really, really good. Oddly, Trey sang it. The jam was straight up ’73-74 vintage in terms of feel and tempo. And it got dark and weird. I was in heaven there for just a magic moment.
It was Grateful Dead music in all its glory. Confident, convincing, heart felt. This was no gratuitous guest appearance. And not a single soul cared that they didn’t play “Walkin’ Blues.” -Craig
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