Phish made landfall on Tuesday in coastal Wilmington, NC for the band’s debut at the Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park. Coming out of an uncharacteristically stellar tour-opening run in Huntsville, AL and going into three straight nights of heaters in Georgia, the stage was set for some midweek magic at the intimate 7,200-capacity riverfront amphitheater. Anticipation was as high as the oppressive temperature, which hovered around 95 degrees by the time gates opened for what was one of the hottest tickets of the band’s summer tour.
Though sweltering, the mood on Tuesday was jovial as fans filed in to see Phish at what was essentially a public park. Greeting the audience, Trey Anastasio gave that energy right back, opening the show with a bust-out of “Happy Birthday to You” (LTP 6/25/16) for the band’s longtime artist Jim Pollock who was among the all-general admission crowd.
That strong energy persisted through a technically two-slot “Simple” that moved past the rudimentary opening-stretch jam once Trey kicked on his low-octave pedal. “Simple” bled into a jaunty “Camel Walk” that was punctuated with a well-placed “Yeah” sample from Jon Fishman and steamrolled into a string of quick hitters with “Steam”, “Poor Heart”, and “Cavern”.
As the smoldering sun began to finally dip over the horizon and a cool breeze wafted in off the Cape Fear River, Phish met the moment with “Divided Sky” . In the twilight hour when day turned into night, bassist Mike Gordon took control of the mic for the third-ever Phish performance of his “Casual Enlightenment”, and the first since 2021. Sucking the energy out of the Live Oak Bank Pavilion, fans were forced to draw on their reserves of joy and anticipation from the start of the show to get through those six minutes, only to be met on the other end with “Shade”. The romantic song was unfortunately placed coming out of “Casual Enlightenment”, with Trey’s lyrics keeping the mood low as Page McConnell‘s grand piano hammered home every heartache you’ve ever felt, threatening to break down even the most stoic of Southern men.
Sensing the mood, Trey—the brilliant tactician—knew exactly how to raise the energy and lighten the vibe: with a song about his best friend dying of cancer, “Drift While You’re Sleeping”, yet another touching song that prompted sentimental reflection about life’s formative relationships while not doing any favors to the late-set lack of upbeat energy.
Coming back for set two, Phish delivered the much-needed adrenaline shot with “Timber (Jerry the Mule)”. The quickm, bouncy romp took a hard cut into what would prove the centerpiece of the evening, a geo-specific “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing”. The buoyant jam bobbed along the waves before taking the deep-water plunge courtesy of Trey’s octave pedal. Deep below the surface, the band hit some chop as Trey and Fishman couldn’t quite track down each other’s rhythmic coordinates. After some brief stumbling, the band found its way thanks as Page lit the way through the scrambled jam, Gordon’s bass fully liquified.
Coming ashore, the band eased back the throttle with “Light”, and its jam portion was all the things that the “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” wasn’t— stable, structurally secure, and even a bit boring—like the kind of steady relationship that makes you look back wistfully on your crazy ex.
Continuing a running theme of questionable song choices, Trey once again bludgeoned the mood with the debut of his new song, “mercy”. While it’s surely a beautiful tune in its own right (one that even mentions the setting sun), it was not perhaps best suited for the middle of the second coming out of a pair of decent jams. However, it checked Phish’s box of debuting a new song every run so far this tour.
“Twenty Years Later” took mercy on the audience and ultimately proved to be the Goldilocks and the Three Jams of set two: ASIHTOS was too uneven, “Light” was too boring, but “Twenty Years Later” was just right. Unfortunately, just as the improvisation was unfolding into a dark and sinister mood—a cinematic yin to “Light”‘s yang—Trey pulled the ripcord in favor of “Backwards Down The Number Line”, a perfect encapsulation of the night’s theme of less-than-popular song selections. Though I’m not one to try and call plays from the back seat, the abrupt end to some of the most exciting improv of the evening was the kind of decision that sends sports fans looking for new team management.
How do you pick the pace back up after a “Number Line” diversion? A late-set “Bug”, however emotional, was not the answer the crowd was looking for. The foursome attempted to salvage any remaining energy with a “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” closer, though not even the Kasvot Vaxt rocker could save them.
Coming back for an encore with nearly 25 minutes to go until the 11 p.m. curfew, it was Sci-Fi Soldier who traveled back in time to save the crowd in Wilmington with “The Howling”. The built-in cow funk groove from Phish’s 2021 Halloween show contained precisely the kind of improv that was needed throughout the second set, and ironically it came during the encore slot often occupied by the Trey’s ballads which on this night dominated the latter half of set two instead. After segueing into a quick “Suzy Greenberg”, Phish ended the Tuesday performance with ten more minutes to spare until curfew, seemingly just as ready to close the book on this uneven performance and look toward the next.
After starting the tour with a run of stellar outings, night one in Wilmington felt like the first stumble of the summer for the Phish, but you can be sure that Trey, Page, Mike, and Fish will come out swinging when they return to Live Oak Bank Pavilion tonight, July 18th, for a shot at redemption.
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Phish – “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” – 7/18/23
[Video: Gregory Marcus]
Phish – “The Howling” – 7/18/23
[Video: Gregory Marcus]
Setlist: Phish | Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park | Wilmington, NC | 7/18/23
SET 1: Happy Birthday to You, Simple > Camel Walk, Gotta Jibboo, Steam, Poor Heart, Cavern, Divided Sky, Casual Enlightenment, Shade, Drift While You’re Sleeping
SET 2: Timber (Jerry the Mule) (Josh White, Sam Gary) > A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing > Light > mercy , Twenty Years Later > Backwards Down the Number Line > Bug > Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.
ENCORE: The Howling > Suzy Greenberg
 Phish debut.
This show featured the Phish debut of mercy. Happy Birthday was performed for the first time since June 25, 2016 (251 shows) and was for Jim Pollock. Trey and Mike teased Timber (Jerry the Mule) in Light. Trey mentioned Jim in Backwards Down the Number Line. Suzy Greenberg contained The 9th Cube teases from Trey and Page and The Howling quotes from Trey.