Light on the setlist shenanigans of the previous week of shows but heavy on energy and enthusiasm, the Charlottesville show was pure Saturday night adrenaline. Nary a ballad saw the light of stage, and a rip-roaring first set teemed with some of the band’s most voracious material. A torrid opening threesome of AC/DC Bag, Chalk Dust Torture, and the snarling Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan begat a standout version of The Divided Sky. The Divided Sky reached a dizzying peak that is likely to best any other version from 2009, but the real highlights of the first set came later, after the now-ubiquitous naked guy’s intrusion during Ya Mar.
Surprisingly, Ya Mar only suffered during the interloper’s brief appearance. The celebratory song finished with a stellar organ flourish from keyboardist Page McConnell and a jazzy guitar solo from Anastasio, while bassist Mike Gordon made it clear that he was going to be the MVP of the evening. The subsequent Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley afforded Gordon a chance to tinker with a highly malleable rhythm, and his somersaulting bass lines helped nurture a brief, unusual vocal jam. The Sneakin’ Sally climax oozed with the burbling funk and bluesy swagger that has come to define the song as part of Phish’s repertoire.
After a brief, appropriate bluegrass ode to Charlottesville in the form of Old Home Place (last played during the April 2004 Las Vegas stand), the band increased the energy of the set exponentially through a five-song closing run. Any of the chosen songs could have ended the set, but instead, the energy of each was harnessed and matriculated into the next song. Cavern, one of Phish’s ultimate set-closers, unfurled a bit sloppily and could have been left out completely in favor of the fiery Funky Bitch that followed. While this particular version wasn’t exceptional, the set as a whole benefited from its inclusion, and the impressive song selection continued with David Bowie.
There had been no breathers up to this point of the set, and the band wasn’t about to let anyone off easy. They plunged into Bowie with abandon and masterfully executed the song’s brutal composed section before stretching out among an expansive, familiar chord progression. McConnell added bold, sparkling piano ideas to Anastasio, Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman’s busy motif, and the quartet quickly found themselves speeding perhaps a bit too zealously toward the song’s caterwauling climax. A touch of restraint from Fishman helped the rest of the band settle in for a few minutes of frenetic improvisation, and one of the year’s most flawless versions of the classic song concluded with welcome bravado.
If any part of the set could be construed as a “break,” it was during The Wedge – hardly an easy out for the band, but still the set’s least intense moment. The Wedge’s sublime, bobbing rhythm allowed time for some folks to gather their brains from the arena floor before the set was wrapped in the regal bow of Jimi Hendrix’s Bold As Love.
Phish shows in 2009 have been relatively straightforward affairs. Exploratory jams, seamless transitions, and musical “teases” were few and far between for most of the year, but business picked up for the Fall tour. While the crowd in Charlottesville witnessed nothing as remarkable as say, Albany’s lengthy Seven Below, the second set further proved that the band is ready to get back to their death-defying ways and fly without a net.
Tweezer opened the set and included appropriate lyrics for nature’s snowy setting that night – “It’s gonna be cold” indeed. Anastasio took control of a Tweezer jam so open-ended and textural, the resulting transition into Light was almost cringe-inducing. It’s obvious that Anastasio, in particular, is a fan of Light. His apparent fixation with coaxing the band into the oddly constructed song after lengthy jams has nipped a number of promising moments in the bud this year. In Charlottesville, the Tweezer jam was needlessly truncated by a rickety attempt at merging the two songs. But to their credit, the band kept the freewheeling energy of Tweezer going by setting themselves adrift once again, twisting the restless, pulsating rhythm of Light into one of the evening’s finest instrumental sojourns.
The ambient space that Phish so often used to explore materialized for a few minutes as Light wound its way into Piper, giving the unique piece of music a pronounced feeling of spontaneity. The fleeting lyrics of Piper merely served as a milepost along the highway of the second set, as the band spit out the song’s lyrics and quickly got back to exploring more uncharted instrumental territory. Gordon and Anastasio played melodic footsie with one another while steering the tone of the music in a darker direction, and McConnell obliged with droning synthesizer swells and enlightening piano contributions.
The band’s individual ideas met in a fertile, open-ended musical space that could have stretched for miles but instead resulted in the night’s best segue, as Free materialized out of the murk. This version of Free was as average as they come, but its placement was perfect. It brought 40 minutes of non-stop music to a wonderful close and opened the door for the band’s show-closing assault. Phish calmed things down with a certifiably countrified version of The Rolling Stones’ Sweet Virginia – the second of two location-centric selections – and attempted to blow the roof off the place with an old-school quartet of songs.
Harry Hood’s playful opening section and foreboding transitional breakdown were performed with a vigor and inventiveness not typical of this year’s versions, and the resulting jam was a warm, glimmering, patient reflection of the band’s resurgent cohesiveness. As the song began to wind down, Anastasio hit on an inspiring three-note pattern that sent the rest of the band surging toward the triumphant final notes. This standout reading of Harry Hood ignited a typically explosive version of Suzy Greenberg, in which Fishman alluded to the campus setting. “I was studying to be a neurologist,” he offered during his traditional neurology-related vocal part.
Sensing the imminent end of their best tour of 2009, the band took extra care in making the rest of the show a delight for all involved. McConnell and Gordon, specifically, stepped up and made the most of every moment during Suzy, and a problem with the bass rig during Golgi Apparatus actually wound up inspiring one of the most enjoyable versions of the song yet. With no bass present, Anastasio dubbed this Golgi the “trio version” before telling Gordon to “sing the bass line.” Gordon obliged with a few hearty stabs at acapella bass before re-entering the fray with a monstrous electric thud.
Stringing together a group of “closer” songs once again, Anastasio left no space between Golgi and the set-ending Run Like An Antelope. Like David Bowie, Harry Hood, and The Divided Sky before it, Antelope turned out to be a well-above-average pass at an essential Phish classic – pretty much all you can ask for these days. The resounding riffs that kick the song into gear came out perfectly, and while the jam meandered for a bit, the band soon found a comfortable space to play around in.
With Fishman anchoring the rest of the band’s harmonic exploits, Antelope soon evolved into a barely contained torrent of notes before landing flawlessly. The “Rye Rye Rocco” section featured an extra bass solo from Gordon, “(to) make up for the bass he missed in Golgi,” as Anastasio put it. “Been you to have any naked guy, man?” he continued, and all of a sudden a new meme for the Phish nation was born. “You’ve got to run like a naked guy, out of control!” has already become a catchphrase among fans, and it’s just another example of Anastasio’s quick wit at work. Phish faithful should be glad he’s still got it after all the tribulations he’s endured.
The show peaked several times, but the rush of Run Like An Antelope may have exhausted the band’s reserves. An encore of Loving Cup and the requisite Tweezer Reprise was only an “okay” ending to one of the year’s finest Phish shows. If the Hampton shows in March served as a “welcome back” party, and summer tour represented the band’s musical reconstruction, then Fall Tour and Charlottesville might have been the sound of Phish getting back to their best work.