[On December 31, 2022, on stage at Madison Square Garden, a certain rodent broke the Phish time machine, causing many participants in New Years' gags and other events from the past 40 years of the band’s history to temporarily make their way to the present. When the Time Machine broke, it also inadvertently sent a number of fans back in time, Quantum Leap style, to experience Phish shows from their younger days. Those fans include Jonah user @LizardwithaZ, whose recap of July 7, 1999, at the Blockbuster Pavilion in Charlotte, NC, appears below. If you are also one of the fans transported back in time and would like to recap your time-traveling show, please send an email to charlie at phish dot net.]
The feeling that prickles through my skin as the clock approaches midnight on December 31, 2022 causes me to sit straight up on the couch, goosebumps rippling across my skin. One moment I am here, awaiting the incoming New Year, the next, I have somehow been thrust back into 17-year-old me, riding in the back seat of a sedan.
That’s right: the Phish Time Machine has sent me back to July 7, 1999 to recap the 2nd show I ever attended.
Charlotte, North Carolina.
(What’s a Blockbuster, you ask? Sorry, I’ll just be sitting in the corner crying about how old I’ve gotten.)
On July 7, just 8 days from my 18th birthday, having just graduated from high school, I am on my way to my second Phish show in less than a week. I had gone to the July 1st show in Tennessee, and was hooked. Ahead of me would be Big Cypress, a single 2000 show, an 18-year gap, and a growing number of 3.0/4.0 shows, but back then, all I knew was there was this band that did incredible things live, and I wanted more.
My friends, a married couple I met from working with the husband at a local toy store, are filling me in on some of the details of Phish that I don’t yet know. They played “Possum” for me, and then “Cars Trucks Buses.”
“That one’s kind of a rarity,” my friend tells me.
We get there in time to make our way into the shed, having dealt with some awful traffic, and make our way to the seats. We’re Page side, probably about halfway back. My previous show I had a lawn ticket, and it poured rain. Now, I can just enjoy the show regardless of weather.
The lights go down and the band takes the stage. There they are, still a young band, their greatest achievement just a few months ahead of them, but none of us know it yet.
There are no wombats, no ghosts of the forest, no Kazvots, no Sci-Fi Soldiers. Page doesn’t have his samples yet. Nobody is being awfully hard on the beaver. So much to come, but in that moment, it is all about what is about to unfold on that particular stage on that particular day at that particular moment.
A pretty good way to view any Phish show.
My friend, who would eventually move on from our toy store jobs and become an incredible calligrapher, holds a small notepad so that he can document the setlist. During the show, I occasionally glance over to see the names of songs I didn’t know written out in his small but immaculate handwriting.
Set 1 starts off with a standard “Back on the Train,” which was still nearly a year from getting an official studio release. Following that was a hint at where this show would be going, as they dropped into “What’s the Use?” This version was soaring and tender in spots, a masterful version, as Trey brings in a looping whale call and gives the entire song time to breathe. The first-set feels continue with “Billy Breathes.” A gorgeous example of what this song can do, Trey shows his ability to emote through his solos.
There’s a long history of Phish playing bluegrass in the South. Just a week earlier, I had seen a first set chock full of it, as Phish took advantage of proximity to Nashville to jam with some serious bluegrass heavyweights. For this show, they play a quick version of “My Mind’s Got A Mind Of Its Own,” before launching into the highlight of set 1, an absolutely incredible version of “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.”
This “Sally” doesn’t sneak so much as it struts. After some great type 1, the jam moves into type 2 territory with a slinky jam that makes me bob my head. Mike sounds fantastic, really pushing the jam forward, as Trey seems content to work the rhythm for a while, before bringing the loops back in. This is the absolute highlight of set 1, without a doubt.
A fiery and short “Axilla” follows, and the “Axilla Part 2” outro butts its way onto the end of the song. The set ends with high energy takes on “Rift,” “Wolfman’s Brother, “Maze,” and “Loving Cup,” leaving us to wait on set break to see what’s coming next.
As good as the 1st set is, I’m not sure anyone saw what the second set would bring.
The band starts off with a sonically atmospheric river of sound, 8 minutes of loops and contemplation for the drop into “2001” gets us suddenly massively energized. The build to that drop is about as patient as Phish gets. The “2001” itself is a masterclass in tension and release up to the first official “2001” riff from Trey. Each time I think he’s going to go into it as the tension rises, he holds off one more time, to the point where when he finally does, it feels incredible.
As the "2001" winds down, it sounds almost like it could go into “NO2,” but instead, Mike hits the opening bassline on “Down With Disease,” and we’re off on a short but energetic type 1 journey. The “Disease” winds up, coming back to the song proper for a completed version, and then melts into “My Left Toe.” The jam on this is a beautiful and calming ambient work of art that eventually segues brilliantly into a perfectly placed “Wading in the Velvet Sea.” Trey’s guitar work is immaculate for this emotional version, which ends by sliding back into the “My Left Toe” jam. It may or may not actually be “MLT” but for the purposes of the setlist, it certainly seems to be.
If a 2023 Phish show had “Wading” and “Bug” in the same set, separated only by a slight ambient jam, a lot of people would hate it. Here, it works perfectly. I love “Bug,” and this one is wonderful.
The final piece of this set starts up, as Trey guides the band through a fantastic “You Enjoy Myself.” The opening is fast and frenetic and all the pieces are good or better, but the true shining point of this version is the drums and bass section, which is unbelievably good. Mike is on point while Trey stays in the background letting him shine. The vocal jam is fun, with a return to a technique used a week earlier involving the VJ matching up with the spinning lights, as CK5 takes a starring role. An awesome end to an awesome set.
At this point, the band has earned a victory lap for the encore, but instead they bring a young Derek Trucks to sit in for mustardy versions of “Possum” and “Funky Bitch.” If you’re a Derek fan, this has to be near the top of best encores.
The band leaves the stage, the lights come up, and the goosebumps return. The world fades out, and then fades back in. I’m back on my couch. Did I ever really leave? The only way I’ll know is if more intrepid time travelers come forth with their own accounts.
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