James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Review (Live Music): PHISH Returns to Charlotte

The snooze-you-lose show: no mere mythical creature, Phish has often dropped mind-quakingly offbeat or unique shows at undersold venues, at tour stops off the beaten track, perhaps most famously epitomized by the storied 11-2-98 Utah stopover in the wake of the huge Vegas Halloween run; the four thousand phans in the cavernous basketball arena that night were treated to a ‘Harpua’ sandwich that included an entire performance of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. This mad echo of the Halloween costume that year remains one of those moments that makes a longtime follower of the band sigh and wish, aye, would that it’d been possible for me to’ve been there.

What the hell does this have to with Charlotte, a major market, big shed tour stop in high summer on a Friday night?


7/25/2014 PNC Music Pavilion, Charlotte, NC. Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2014

The theorizing perpetuated by the chattering class going into this undersold perf—the band, coming off a mid-tour hiatus of several planet revolutions, the precession of the earth’s axis four wobbles closer to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius (or, wait, are we already in that now after 12-21-12?)—held that with the this stop representing a long drive for the northeastern fanbase to make right before going BACK up to MPP, down to Portsmouth, and all the way to Alabama next weekend, maybe this first turn back in Charlotte since 2012’s solid leaning to memorable appearance morph into a genuine SYL, legendary Phish frame. One song could do it; a memorable jam sequence.

Precedent, too, for possible Charlotte shenanigans: who’ll ever forget Fuck Your Face? Or the monster Rock & Roll > Charlotte Jam (hahaha, nobody misses that stuff) > Ghost? Or the Derek Trucks, late 1.0 era sit-in? Trey said it from the stage a couple of years ago: Phish may love dicks, but they also love Charlotte, for whatever unspecified reason.


Maybe it’s this: As a friend said today, I like that venue. It’s chill. It’s roomy. It’s got a lot of green around (huh huh), as in, trees and grass and stuff. Who knows what reasons the musicians may hold for their stated affection for Charlotte, but in any case, take in all these factors and you’ve got the recipe for stippled arm hair as you speculate about how Phish is gonna drop ‘Spock’s Brain’ or some other rarity. A ‘Harpua’ featuring an entire note-for-note performance of Eat a Peach. At the very least, perhaps the return of Henrietta, or maybe Norton Charlton Heston. Fish in a tux, singing ‘Bye Bye Foot.’ That type-deal.

Charlotte 2014 live up to any of that? Eh, maybe not so much. But still a solid show, worthy of a listen, certainly a fun enough Friday night dance party.

Coming out with the same opener as in 2011, ‘Mike’s Song,’ Phish faced down the setting sun with a 7:30 sharp onstage appearance, the sure sign of a strict venue curfew. If the magic would be happening tonight, you could bet it was going to be over by 11. Make the show end right at 11:11 and 11 seconds, and then you might have something. Making them stop playing for some reason of ‘time,’ which is but an illusion—it’s all Right Now—feels particularly egregious in light of the fact that this is much more than a rock concert, it’s a revival, it’s a gathering of the tribes, it’s the last vestiges of a dying subculture, heroic or pathetic depending on your political leanings and personal philosophy, and because of this it’s worth not only anthropological study but perhaps a revised critical scrutiny of the band’s recorded corpus, which on initial release met with a critical reception that ranged from indifferent to dismissive.

Wait . . . never mind. That’s the Grateful Dead.

Phish 2014 doesn’t have that much of a caravan of old school buses full of acid heads and vagabond wanderers who look lost only to sets of eyes still unscaled by any of their own similar journeys through the desert, so to speak, of spirituality in which much of the current culture wallows, spiritual eyeballs occluded by the grunting and slopping at troughs of empty political rhetoric, unrealistic body and social images, and a nonstop celebration of the dark arts in the form of violent conflict solved by more violent conflict. Entertainments featuring children’s cartoon characters—superheroes—engaged in the wanton destruction of entire cityscapes, and the promoting of corporate icons like magicking sigils designed to sway and condition minds not simply to believe particular realities, but to remain fixated on the possibility of OUTCOME and FUTURE to the point that the only true emotion a human may feel is fear.

MoS 5

Speaking of fear: Street preachers with signs, waving at the phans driving into the venue read



and I’m like, nah, man. I thought, actually, as I wanted to say to them but didn’t (my days of confronting anyone over their thoughts they’ve practiced so long they’ve mutated into these ugly untenable slimy-tentacled, ego-driven notions called ‘beliefs’), you guys ought to know that it’s another four letter word having something to do with God or the Tao or the Universe or whatever metaphor you’re comfortable using, and that’s L-O-V-E, not that sad epithet. It’s a profanity much worse than the F-word. Fear is the mind-killer. The spirit-eater. Fear consumes the soul. Doesn’t get you closer to anybody’s god, only the notion that you don’t have what you need and that the world is an unfriendly place, and everything’s against me, and god is fraud, god is a fraud, god is a colored queen in a kimono with bad teeth screaming at the top of the landing (Edward Albee reference), and I’m separate from it all. I am afraid. I am FEAR. Fuck everything and run, that’s what I wanted to tell the red word on their sorry placards stood for.

But I didn’t tell them any of that. I was on my way to the shakedown up the hill, on the hunt for Portsmouth PTBMs. I don’t miss a Portsmouth show, as this expressive review from a number of years ago should demonstrate why.

Not actually the Charlotte 2014 lot, these individuals are engaging in LOVE not FEAR. Try it. Photo borrowed from phishthoughts.com, check out his reviews too.

Not actually the Charlotte 2014 lot. Photo borrowed from phishthoughts.com, check out his reviews too.

But anyway, this, a much more diverse crowd than the old hippie wagon train traipsing around after Jerry and his band of road-encrusted, working magicians and minstrels. No, this reflected more the demographics of Charlotte, a financial center and Southern mecca that, like my hometown of Columbia, SC, struggles to define a particular, or perhaps more accurately particularly interesting, urban and demographic persona for itself.

With this in mind, on a Friday night at a venue like this in a town like that, we find plenty of Phish fans, plenty of hippy types yet few old school dirt surfers or crust muffins with feet blacker than printer’s ink who looked like they came climbing down out of the trees somewhere to pick nits out of each other’s dreads, but also tons and tons of what Harry Dead Stanton in Repo Man called ‘ordinary fucking people’: in the reserved seats we find any number of middle aged, monied (financial center; $60 a pop ticket; no duh), curiosity seekers, music fans who might have heard of Phish’s rep as a good time, who knows. Frat kids playing beer pong. You don’t have to be a longtime fan to enjoy the music. There is no litmus test . . . you bunch of NOOBS and TOURISTS; the writer, ashamed, beating this poor attitude back down like Dr. Strangelove and his recalcitrant, heil-hitlering metal arm).

But it’s this part that spins the mind. Otherwise reasonable people putting down $11 a pop—wait; is that 11 again? was there sales tax that made it 11.11 a beer? I’ll take one, one, one, one)—for a cup of cold corporate camel piss masquerading as lager and then missing a song or two to go piss it out and get in another line to grab another couple, a cold one for the walk back up to the lawn, then another for the walk back down to piss out the first one and then start the process over, an Oroborourian cycle of foolishness designed not to enlighten the mind (Have You Learned How to Decalcify and Activate Your Fluoride-Encrusted Pineal Gland a/k/a Third Eye? ASK ME HOW) but to suppress the higher function. Enough to make a person miss everything from Wingsuit through Winterqueen.


But that ‘Beauty of a Broken Heart’. Man, I tell ya.

You go into a show and say, look, out of all the new songs the band has been playing, they’ve been playing Halfway to the Moon the longest of them all, you’ve had more chances to see it than the others (though you had the good fortune to be at Halloween for the big unveiling, documented here), but damn if that other Page tune Beauty of a Broken Heart, done maybe twice a year, doesn’t tickle your fancy, and you dance and twirl, your eyes skirting and glazing across the sea of faces watching you, their bodies bobbing and swaying, their wrists bending and hands cupping and heads nodding, and It Is Good. It Is Real. It Is Phish. The Phish.

As in other tunes, Trey was a little clammy at first, looking for that particular whammy bar thing or whatever it is he does in this one. Trey can be clammy these days. The dexterity’s there, but ya know, he’s trying to keep a lotta stuff in his head at any given time. They all are. I’m almost fifty as well. I can still type FAST AS SHIT with impressive ACCURACY and FEW ERRROS ERRORS, with very VERY VERY few clams, er, typos. Just sayin’.

Nah, nah, I’m only bustin’ balls, Big Red. You’re fine.

7/25/2014 PNC Music Pavilion, Charlotte, NC. Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2014

7/25/2014 PNC Music Pavilion, Charlotte, NC. Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2014

Time to end this set. We’re all sweat-soaked grunge monkeys ready to sit down from getting our dervish-devil freak on all up and down the hard concrete of the aisle between Section 5 and 6, the royal blue 2012 tour shirt with the Creature from the Black Lagon logo soaked through like you’re in a wet T-shirt contest in Myrtle Beach c. 1981.

Bowie: Desireable, solid perf. But wait, there’s more. It felt like a Golgi drop coming, and it was. Is. Whatever the tense of this piece has become.

Boy, I tell ya, redux: Being in the zone as I was in my trance-dance during the set, stirring up energies and spinning around and being in the flow (as I am in my life in every way these days) offered much insight and precog throughout show, allowing me to call more than a couple of tunes. My escort accused me of trickery, of being an adept or perhaps an initiate of some sort. Nah. Just seen a lotta 3.0 shows. Listen to every one of them, live if possible. Listen to this crap all day every day, sometimes, but when you’re writing literary novels and lengthy reviews, you go into a trance and most of the time more feel than hear the music blasting out of your little computer station Altec Lansings, the subwoofer with one corner rubbed down to the particleboard below by the whiskers and gland secretions of cats, the speaker you knock off every time you slide the laptop too far and knock over the stapler or the stack of manuscript pages that sit on the desk.

Second set. Now, this starts out a bit plodding with ‘555,’ which is a strong enough number, but this one takes a minute to get the energy of the room up from the break, modest and over before one knows it when hanging out with peeps and getting caught up, the fellowship and friendship and phamily vibe that’s part and parcel of the Phish experience. We got a subculture here, a network, a literal dot-net of likeminded folks. Hard not to hit that last ph in folks. Draw the line somewhere. Listen to something else today. Maybe classical or jazz. You don’t hear that either. Only the music of the words.

The words, running through your head during a sweet if unspectacular ‘Chalkdust Torture.’ In fact, this interesting sequence of segued tunes, quirky enough on paper, plays out like a fascinating experiment rather than one of those X Factor sets (Randall’s 3, Dick’s 2012 1, 2, 3) you’re willing to drive way out of the way on this crazy tour—all the way to Charlotte and then back to MPP, let’s say—just to be able to catch. Nah. The playing is reasonably solid, but the segues aren’t so much ‘magic’ as interestingly executed in the case of Fuego>Twist>Circus, not so much Piper>Rift, which sounds great but was a bear for the band to sync into as a group. Trey just about had to bluegrass his picking hand off waiting for the rest of them to FUCKING GET IT. (Fishman, this one on you, keeping on pounding on through when you COULD HEAR TREY PLAYING RIFT JUST AS WELL AS I COULD. Um. Or maybe better since YOU ARE SITTING RIGHT BEHIND HIM.)

7/25/2014 PNC Music Pavilion, Charlotte, NC. Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2014

7/25/2014 PNC Music Pavilion, Charlotte, NC. Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2014

Another Wingsuit, er Fuego, tune, Waiting All Night—the hit single, the big hit single, the big JEMP Records hit single, the big JEMP Records hit single with a bullet, with a bullet, with a bullet; no, they’re just playing it so much it feels that way—really slays the momentum built up by the Rift-er-rific energy once they got the tune onto its feet. Followed by . . . Reba? Fascinating choice, but this one probably requires another, more introspective listen to appreciate. At the show, the energy across the lawn continued at a low ebb throughout the tune. Character Zero appears next and it’s like, holy crap, what time is it? They walk off and it’s 10:50.

A yuppie with a Rolling Stones tongue on his damp T-shirt comes up beside me, asks if this was a ‘good’ show, because he hadn’t seen Phish in 20 years. Didn’t much care for it. I told him it was interesting, but probably average. That average these days was pretty good. So he got a decent show. Nothing legendary.

He seemed a little bummed. “It was okay, I guess.”

10:52, according to my phone. “Hey—maybe they’ll come out and do a Stones song for you.”

Scoffing. “Aw, no way.”

Next thing you know, it’s Loving Cup, and the guy’s face has lit up like a weathergirl in front of her green screen, all smiles and sunny skies ahead. Nobody much cares for Loving Cup these days, a throwaway encore for a venue with a curfew, but it was that guy’s favorite song of the night. It was a nice way to walk out of the show, which was good enough, nothing special, really. Good enough for this nearly fifty year-old novelist and old Deadhead to spin and twirl his ass off for three hours. Come home and decide, like he might once have in the old days, to take off for some more Phish shows. The sleeper show, the SYL gem, was sure to come. The merry-go-round, spinning in a circle, the brass ring always there, the possibility always in reach, the chance waiting only to be taken.

About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

3 Replies

  1. Hey Don, I would like to have my email address updated to [email protected]. When I go to manage settings, I don’t see a way to do that. Can you help me out?

    Thank you, Cathy

    Sent from my iPad


    1. I don’t know, I’ve never changed my address of record.

Leave a Reply