The Structure Of A Show – Set I


Once the immediate anticipation and surprise of the show’s opener has passed, it’s time for the band to get down to the business of crafting a set’s worth of music. Splitting their shows into two individual sets allows for the band to focus all their energy on 60 – 90 minutes of music (or, generally between 8 – 14 songs) at a time. Whereas most band’s concerts are structured in one elongated performance – ranging anywhere from 70 minutes to 3 hrs – Phish benefits from this two set model – pioneered in the rock world, by, The Grateful Dead. Granting them a pause for reflection, sometimes a shift in direction, and always two structural mediums by which to bounce various musical ideas around in, the two set-show is one of Phish’s most uniquely brilliant aspects. In laymen’s terms: a shitty first set can often lead to a mindblowing Set II, while a raucous first set can inspire the band to take unpracticed risks, or even burn out, when they return from set break. Many times an absolutely devastating, fully flowing, and energized Set I spills right over into the second set, by which the band crafts an absolute classic show. While ultimately, the overall performance is up to the band’s energy, their immediate drive, not to mention a number of intangibles, the essential structure in place works to formulate the results in a number of ways.

Generally speaking, first sets have historically been opportunities for the band to settle into a show, test out any new/rare songs, and play with a bit more discipline than in the second set. Here, the focus is generally on energy, presentation, and the songs; a recital of sorts. While the formula has certainly shifted throughout the years, the view of a first set is that it’s typically devoid of the experimentation that’s seen in Set II. Fans rarely expect a first set jam. Rather, are hankering for evidence of tight playing, solid song selection, and an emphasis on flow that will translate itself to a looser, and engaging Set II. Granted, there are always exceptions to the rule: during the 1997 – 2004 period, the band routinely jammed during first sets, shrinking them to as few as five songs at times; essentially they played two second sets on certain nights. Yet, for the purpose of this introduction, it’s best to consider the first set as a separate and different medium from set two, though we’ll certainly get into those which blur the lines below.

Whereas the Show Opener’s could be numerically and mathematically broken down into a formulaic study, analyzing full sets are a bit trickier. With so many different and unique combinations of songs, segues, one-timers played during an 8 – 12 song set, it’s far more difficult to quantify what makes a classic set, versus a mundane one in the same way you can with an opener. Say the band has played 1300 two set shows. Say the average number of songs played in every first set is 9 songs. That’s 11,700 different song combinations that could have been played throughout those shows. Far from the scientific breakdown of 206 openers out of 750 unique songs, analyzing whole sets is a far more subjective endeavor.

As a result, the following posts on the sets will rely less on numbers, and more on the author’s ear, and overall knowledge of Phish. While still keenly focused on organizing various sets into categories, readers will note not only the increase in examples, but also the overlapping of certain shows in various categories. A major reason for this is the band’s evolution of the First Set since their onset. A meandering, story time hour in the 80’s and early 90’s, it became a tightly wound machine from 1993 – 1996. Reinventing itself as a comparable improv-heavy medium in 1997 and 1998, it became a mix of jams and a recital by 1999. A casualty at times during the sloppy and experimental 2.0 era, in 3.0 the First Set has returned to it’s origins as a recital medium, emphasizing the band’s songs, while fusing together the energy of the mid-1990’s.

I can assure you, I’ve deliberated and weighed over these choices with significant energy, and somewhat torturous patience. This post proved to be far more of a research-heavy endeavor than the Show Opener‘s post could have ever dreamed to be.

What follows is Part II of VIII in tackle & lines series on The Structure Of A Show. Each category contains a write-up, examples, video clips (when available), and full-show streams (thanks for better understanding. As with the article on Openers, the goal of this is not to come to some sort of a conclusions about what a specific Phish show is, but rather explore the various directions the band chooses to go with their shows – here in the medium of the first set. This is not a means to rank the best sets versus the weakest – though negative habits will be discussed – instead is trying to find points of connection across various eras – and within each – while also pointing out their differences. Hope you guys enjoy the piece, we’re now a few weeks closer to 03 July!


I. The Classical Assaults

If you’re like most diehard Phish fans, there are those songs you love hearing at a Phish show, no matter how many times you’ve heard them. ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Wilson,’ ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself,’ ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ these songs just never lose their luster, or their power. They’re the classics for a reason. On their own they’re always a welcome occasion. But when combined in set’s worth of music, they help to craft some of the most powerful, and memorable First Set’s. Akin to the Show Opener‘s classic’s segment, these First Set’s are the kind anyone would kill to experience live. Combining energy, musical might, and the essential ingredient of the band’s most cherished classic’s, these sets pack a punch, and have in many cases, stood the test of time. While obviously a more regular affair during the band’s early years when they had a smaller song catalogue to play with, these set’s still make an appearance today, and are sure to garner the tag “show of the tour” based on the sentiments and nostalgia they exhume. Yet as is proven time and again, it matter’s little when these set’s were played, for no matter their era, they’ll hold up no matter what.

Examples: 08/26/1989, 08/03/1991, 11/02/1990, 03/20/1992, 06/18/1994, 07/13/1994, 11/30/1995, 12/15/1995, 08/14/2009, 11/24/2009, 10/30/2010

Spanning 21 years, what the above sets all have in common is the greatest hit’s quality that accompanies the song selections, and the forcible energy that resonates throughout. These are the sets everyone has heard. Just scanning their setlist’s is like a rough guide into the Phish world; a Phish 101, if you will. Rarities, jams, bustouts are not typical of the above sets – though they do certainly occur. What’s a constant theme in the classical assault’s is the powerful onslaught of what the idea of Phish is. Celebratory affairs, these are the set’s we were all introduced to Phish to, and they’re the set’s that bring us back to that which initially drew us to the band, be it at the show, or listening at home.

Philadelphia, PA – 12/15/1995

II. The Show Sealers

There are those nights when by setbreak, the whole room is abuzz, and everyone just knows, this is a killer show. Picking these shows in advance is a fruitless endeavor, for the best nights of Phish are a result of a multitude of factors. It could be the night before an overhyped show, a return to a venue/city the band just loves, the mid-tour energy taking over the band, or just a random night, in a random city where the band is just feeling it. One thing’s certain, whenever the band plays a monumental show, the writing’s on the wall midway through a torrential First Set.

Examples: 12/30/1993, 06/11/1994, 10/21/1995, 12/07/1997, 12/11/1999, 02/28/2003, 07/29/2003, 12/30/2009, 10/20/2010, 07/03/2011, 08/31/2012

While the First Set’s played in any of the above eleven shows range in styles from classical ragers, to bustout-laden celebrations, to the surreal and the jam-heavy, what they all have in common is their connective force that made their show a virtual lock by setbreak. A “David Bowie” opener; a note-for-note-perfect sequence; a “Tweezer Reprise” bookend; jams abound in “AC/DC Bag -> Psycho Killer,” and “Tube”; the first “Hood” opener in years; the return of “Destiny Unbound”; an iPod shuffle set that perfectly matched it’s era; a determined tour de force that summed up everything that makes 30 December so damn special; “Guyutica”; the after-effects of the “Storage Jam”; and a not-so-subtle “FUCK YOU” to their fans; these are the kinds of sets that have led thousands to hit the road, following the band from state to state in anticipation of the next “hadtobethere(!!!)” show. What’s interesting as well about the above, is that out of the eleven, only four featured Second Sets that matched or surpassed the first. While certainly not bad follow-ups – those are featured later in the essay – the stat is more than anything a testament to the power of these set I’s. Much like the section that preceded, whenever you witness a set with the power of the above, you just know it.

III. The Bustout Specials

Nothing quite lights up the eyes of a fellow fan like the prospect of a set full of bustouts. A rare breed, that they are. Yet few shows/sets have the ability to capture both an arena, and the internet community, with such in-the-moment fervor and excitement, as they can. A product of the band’s tightening of their song catalogue between 1992 and 1995, bustouts became a fun way for the band to add a bit of history into their shows. With a further slimming in 1997, and an overall decline in the amount of shows they played in the years to follow, more and more songs were lost in the shuffle. Separations of a couple hundred shows, all the way upwards into the thousands, meant that every so often the band would dig deep into their history and present a rare, forgotten song. Often just a one-off song, there are the even rarer instances where the band has dedicated a whole set – or a portion – to an array of bustouts and rarities. Typically a mix between oft-requested songs, and hidden gems, one’s reaction to a bustout show is what separates the fans from the novices. Usually sealing a show up as a classic by setbreak, just for the nature of the songs played, these shows tend to overlap with the above section at times.

Examples: 02/26/1997, 12/07/1997, 11/21/1998, 09/30/2000, 07/29/2003, 12/30/2003, 12/30/2009, 10/26/2010, 06/22/2010

Now, I know the definition of bustout and bustout shows can get a bit hazy with every PT-noob calling a song not seen in 36 shows a bustout. So, here’s my criteria for a set to be a bustout special: there has to be at least one song in the set exceeding 100 (and potentially 200) shows since it was last seen, and there have to be multiple other songs within the set that haven’t been played in at least 50 shows. Beyond this, the set should carry a feeling of what happens when you hit play on your ipod shuffle. Devoid of these essential characteristics, and it’s just not a bustout set. Full of songs that people have either completely forgotten about, or have been pining for without restraint, the bustout sets are a mix of masterful playing – 02/26/1997, 12/07/1997, 06/22/2012 – or scattered applause and an overt lack of flow – 12/30/2009. Regardless of their delivery, the simple fact that the band is dedicating their First Set to an assortment of rarities is enough to get people psyched.

Dayton, OH – 12/07/1997

IV. The Recitals

In their original format Phish’s First Set’s were essentially recitals where the band would showcase a large percentage of their catalogue. As opposed to today where most of us tend to think of songs in terms of First Set and Second Set material, pretty much their entire catalogue was fair game in set I through 1991. Since then however, the band evolved their First Set’s into a sleek, energy-packed machine, to an anything-goes jam session that tended to resembled set II’s, to an unpredictable mix between jams and soldiering rotation songs, to once again a more recital-based approach here in 3.0. Emerging a changed band in 2009, the band approached their second re-birth in a structural way, seeking to rebuild the foundation of their live shows from the ground-up before engaging in any experimentation. Thus the recital sets returned to both the gripe and adoration of all sorts of fans. Regardless of your sentiments to the recital approach, one thing’s certain: if you’re looking to clean up on a plethora of Phish songs, the recital set’s are the one’s to catch/listen to.

Examples: 07/23/1988, 08/04/1988, 10/01/1989, 03/16/1991, 06/24/1994, 07/08/1994, 12/01/1996, 09/12/1999, 03/06/2009, 03/07/2009, 03/08/2009, 06/21/2009, 06/24/2010, 08/14/2010, 10/15/2010, 10/26/2010, 06/08/2011, 07/02/2011, 06/28/2012, 06/30/2012, 07/03/2012, 07/04/2012, 07/06/2012

From festival sets, to Gamehendge performances, to 3.0 stand-by’s, the recital’s have popped up throughout the band’s career. While many fan’s today lament the over-wrought First Set’s of 3.0, one can’t deny that when the band is on, their recital set’s are fantastic to witness live. Who could seriously complain of a Gamehendge set, or the raucous nature of 08/14/2010, the bustout quality to 10/26/2010, the unending festival-spirit of 07/02/2011, or the old-school throw-down of 07/06/2012, regardless of the number of song’s played? While sure, flow often suffers during the recital sets – paging 12/01/1996, 10/15/2010, 06/08/2011 – and yes, the nature of the sets prevents any authentic experimentation from occurring, but who really has time to think about any of that when witnessing, or listening to the band kill one song after another. In the end, the recital’s will probably always be a contentious debate within the Phish community, as some love their old-school, jukebox feel, and other’s wish they’d remain a product of the past. Your own personal feelings regarding them probably reflects your overall tastes in music, than the band’s performance anyway.

V. The Simmering Gems

There are those sets that, for whatever reason, take some time, perspective, and re-listens to be fully appreciated. There are also those sets that, for whatever reason, the band needs a song or two to ease into. These next two sections are dedicated to a mixture of the two. The first, is more the former than the later. While, sure, there are a few sets within that some would claim to be immediate classics, what each of these sets has in common is both their diversity and their depth. Possibly not appreciated – be it at all, or fully – upon their initial performance, the following sets are like a properly made stock – they’re all the better if given time. These sets may never leap out at a setlist whore, they may not be all the rage the next day – or they just may. In the end, time has graced each of them, offering capsules into some of the best – if not, underrated – performances in the band’s history.

Examples: 04/21/1992, 12/14/1995, 12/29/1995, 08/13/1996, 08/02/1997, 11/23/1997, 02/28/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/07/2009, 06/27/2010, 08/13/2010, 05/28/2011, 08/16/2011, 06/15/2012

One commonality in the above sets, is that many of them are compiled with a collection of songs that most fans would simply shrug off if compiled in a PT rotation thread. Yet, in the context of their performance, and the overall quality of the performance, they remain some of the strongest sets of their respective tours. From the zaniness of 04/21, to the idyllic, easy summer-sentiment of 08/13/1996. From the spectacular jamming in 02/28 and 07/30, to the balanced approach of 05/28, 08/16 and 06/15, each of these sets is a reflection of a band on the ball, regardless of the style of set they’re playing. A prelude to a latter section, the thing that unites these sets is their – mostly – under the radar quality, yet hidden gems that have made them hold up far more than some of their overhyped brethren.

VI. The Slow Builders

Similar to the previous section in that the slow builders are likely to be sets that aged with grace, rather than stunning anyone out the gates, what ultimately separates them is the fact that many of the following sets took a few songs to really get going. These are the nights where the band needed a bit of time easing into the show. These are the sets that more-often-than not, opened with predictable classics, laid-back easers, and even crowd groaners, yet ultimately are remembered because of energy caught later in the set, or a monumental First Set  jam. We’ve all been to a Phish show like this. The nights where the energy just isn’t totally there from the onset, but by setbreak, everyone’s stoked for the possibilities in set II. Yet once hindsight is granted, many of the keener listeners are willing to forgive such moments of uncertainty, knowing that it was all a part of the band figuring themselves out on that particular night. While, yes, sometimes the shows that begin like this prove to be ominous – something that will be addressed in two sections – this particular section is dedicated wholly to those which recovered fully, erasing any sense of jitters when the lights dropped.

Examples: 06/15/1995, 12/30/1995, 07/01/1998, 07/16/1998, 09/12/1999, 12/07/1999, 06/15/2000, 02/20/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/08/2009, 12/29/2009, 06/27/2010, 08/05/2011, 08/09/2011, 06/20/2012, 07/06/2012, 08/19/2012

From the predictability of 06/15/1995’s First Set that ultimately led to the blissful “Stash -> I Didn’t Know,” to the easing of “The Squirming Coil, NICU” on 07/16/1998, that preluded the perfectly timed “Reba> Fast Enough For You> When The Circus Comes.” From 09/12/1999 and 12/07/1999’s early-set jitters that were all but forgotten by their monster mid-set jam’s out of “Bathtub Gin,” and “Halley’s Comet,” to the awkward song selections of 02/20/2003 and 07/30/2003 that masked the jams out of “Simple> Gotta Jibboo,” and “Scents & Subtle Sounds” that their sets would ultimately be remembered for. In each of these cases, any stumbles, or easing out the gate, was later overshadowed, and ultimately overlooked as a result of the greatness achieved later in the set. Proof that the show opener doesn’t make a set, and that some night’s, all the band needs is a few songs to get settled in.

VII. The Sets Where It Doesn’t Matter What They Play Because Whatever They Play They’re Gonna Crush

We’ve all seen these shows. Often times they’re the best shows of all. These are the shows where whatever song(s) you’re chasing takes a backseat to the masterful performance at hand. These are the shows where it doesn’t matter what song the band plays, because they’re so on, cruising on so much energy, reveling in the moment with such assured esteem, that whatever songs they play, they’re inevitably going to crush. Quite possibly the most inexplicable, unexplainable section in this entire essay, these shows are notable for they simply rely on that intangible feeling in the air that finds itself hovering at a Phish show every so often. Akin to the show sealers’s section, these sets can occur just about anywhere, and at any time, so it’s incredibly difficult to predict when they’re about to happen, until they’re happening. You know when you’re at a show like this because every song just seems to flow perfectly from the previous one, regardless if it’s the song you wanted to hear. These sets are, in my opinion, the closest thing Phish has come to to crafting a superb album. They’re tangible evidence of the power Phish has over a crowd and a moment, something that has nothing to do with jamming, drugs, or hippies. Proof of their cultural zeitgeist, these sets display the band’s dexterity, and the sheer brilliance of their approach to each of their completely unique shows.

Examples: 02/20/1993, 12/31/1993, 06/11/1994, 07/13/1994, 06/30/1995, 11/11/1995, 12/17/1995 , 08/14/1996, 11/21/1997, 04/03/1998, 08/03/1998, 08/12/1998, 07/13/1999, 07/25/1999, 06/14/2000, 02/22/2003, 06/07/2009, 08/14/2010, 10/20/2010, 05/28/2011, 07/03/2011, 08/15/2011, 09/04/2011, 07/01/2012, 08/28/2012, 09/01/2012, 12/30/2012

United in their energy, composition, and raw power, these sets define what it’s like to be at a Phish show for so many of us. They contain that spirit of the unknown that graces the best Phish shows. These are the set’s that have people giddy at setbreak. They’re the set’s that unite upwards of 20,000 people in blusterous applause as if their favorite team just won the World Series. They rise above much of the rest of the tour, and are constantly called upon by fan’s looking to dish out a show rec. A mix of essentially ever section we’ve covered thus far, these set’s just might be my absolute favorite to listen to.

VIII. The Flow?

And then, there are those first sets where by set break everyone’s collectively looking around wondering, huh? Something seems off. Not necessarily a bad set – though it certainly sometimes is – more a set where the band seemed to compromise thematic flow, energy, continuity in favor of a random assortment of songs that never really seemed to mesh. We’ve all been to these kinds of shows. The nights where the band has it, and then they don’t. Then they get it back, and then they lose it. An up and down affair, it’s a product of human nature; sometimes, even those with the capabilities to astound regularly, stumble. They’re the sets and shows that fill out the entirety of tours. After all, not every set/show can be epic. (And as seen here, even some regarded as epic feature dreadfully unbalanced flow.) Sometimes you just have to witness an uneven affair to truly appreciate the moments where the band is killing it. What’s more is that typically within even these inconsistent nights, are moments of brilliance that tend to spill over to whole-show masterpieces just a few nights later.

Examples: 11/26/1994, 10/22/1996, 11/09/1996, 11/30/1996, 07/26/1997, 08/16/1997, 07/09/1999, 09/12/1999, 09/22/1999, 12/12/1999, 07/18/2003, 12/02/2003, 08/15/2004, 05/31/2009, 07/31/2009, 11/20/2009, 11/27/2009, 12/04/2009, 12/30/2009, 06/17/2010, 06/19/2011, 08/10/2011, 07/03/2012, 12/29/2012

While prevalent throughout their career, there is certainly a larger amount of 3.0 shows that contain these kinds of First Sets. Though, for the most part it appears the band has started to iron out their First Sets – as evident by a number of monumental ones in 2012 – through much of their first three years back from the grave, the band stubbornly dedicated many of their set I’s to a random assortment of songs, many of which had little purpose being united. Sometimes for the sole purpose of trying out a few new songs, others, just a reflection of a random night on tour where the band’s just trying to get a sense of the evening. Often times similar to the slow builders sets, particularly if they result in mastery later, a set I lacking flow, certainly does not deter the potential of a monumental set II. For as 08/16/1997, 07/31/2009, 11/20/2009, and 07/03/2012 display, an uneven First Set, can often times lead to a barnburner in set II. It’s a crapshoot in the end. Sometimes you’re gonna witness the perfectly crafted masterpiece, and sometimes you’re gonna see a glorified soundcheck. Either way, the fact that the band is willing to present the process – warts and all – to their fans over the course of a tour, is reason alone to continue seeing them.

Charlotte, NC – 07/07/1999

IX. Too-Much-Too-Soon(s)

You know those shows where the band comes out on an absolute tear, just blows the lid off the joint with a fiery, masterful set I, and then reemerges after setbreak with an absolute dud? The nights where they just seem to blow their load in the first 90 minutes, and just can’t quite summon the energy for set II. I’ll never forget 06/19/2010 for this very reason. Coming on the heels of 06/18’s stunning display of flow, energy, and collective zaniness, the band delivered an engaging, and old school First Set at SPAC. Following the catatonic explosion of “Suzy Greenberg,” one could only assume set II was going to raise the bar of the tour once more. Then they came out and played one of the most forgettable sets I’ve ever witnessed. It happens. Sometimes an incredibly strong set I is just too powerful to top. Sometimes they’ve only got energy for one solid set. Sometimes setbreak just kills whatever energy they had going in. Whatever the case is, we’ve all seen/heard these shows. While the overall show may be a forgotten affair, we should still all give their First Set’s their proper due.

Examples: 08/26/1989, 03/20/1992, 06/11/1994, 11/17/1994, 12/15/1995, 08/03/1998, 07/09/2003, 08/10/2004, 06/19/2010, 10/30/2010, 07/03/2011, 08/17/2011, 07/01/2012

Each of the above set I’s are more than worth your time and listening capabilities. For each is a display of a band fully connected, and simply on. While some of them contain solid set II’s – 08/26/1989, 06/11/1994, 08/03/1998, 07/03/2011 – the quality that unites each is that the bar was potentially set too high by a torrid First Set. Perhaps there’s a certain cap of energy that can be released at a Phish show on a given night? Maybe the band purposely follows certain spectacular set I’s with less-than-stellar set II’s in effort to use the energy explosion a means to turn inwards? Whatever the case, while so many shows are made or broken on the quality of play in set II, the above – and certainly many others – will always be remember for the mastery of their First Sets, regardless of their entirety.

Morrison, CO – 06/11/1994

Chicago, IL – 08/17/2011

X. The First Set Jammers

As I stated in the intro, it’s best to typically think of First Set’s as a completely separate entity from set II’s. While both held numerous similarities throughout the band’s first 8 – 10 years, by the time their peak years of 1993 – 1998 came around, the two had been sequestered as individual platforms for artistic expression. Generally speaking, the First Set is for the songs, and the Second Set is for the jams. However, this is not always the case. Part of the beauty of Phish is their unpredictability, and the sheer pleasure they seem to gain out of fucking with their fans. What started in 1993 with a few divergent, Type-II jams tossed into a set I here and there, led to an all-out revolution by 1997, when First Set’s were just as susceptible to exploration and jamming as their counterpart. By 1999, they’d reigned in this experiment, fusing their historically structured set I’s, with a few scattered jams. 2.0 allowed a mix of the two approaches to flourish – to sometimes brilliant, and other times, half-assed results. And while the initial stages of 3.0 saw a complete reversal back towards the recital approach of the band’s earliest years, since August 2010, they’ve shown a keen interest in opening set I back up to jamming. While we’ll cover the full-on, set II-esque First Sets in the next section, the following sets are a few examples of bursts and moments of improv within a First Set, rather than a complete improv approach. Most everyone can agree that a First Set jam can only help to raise the level of energy in the venue. These are the sets that more than benefited from said First Set experimentation.

Examples: 12/30/1993, 06/15/1995, 08/14/1996, 12/06/1996, 07/01/1997, 07/21/1997, 07/27/1997, 08/02/1997, 11/14/1997, 11/21/1997, 11/22/1997, 12/05/1997, 12/07/1997, 12/12/1997, 04/03/1998, 07/01/1998, 07/06/1998, 07/29/1998, 08/03/1998, 11/29/1998, 12/31/1998, 07/10/1999, 07/24/1999, 12/07/1999, 06/28/2000, 07/11/2000, 09/14/2000, 02/20/2003, 02/26/2003, 02/28/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/10/2004, 06/04/2009, 08/07/2009, 08/06/2010, 05/28/2011, 07/03/2011, 07/01/2012, 09/01/2012

As with the recitals and questionable flow segments being heavily represented by 3.0 , it’s no wonder that 1997 and 1998 assumes a large percentage of this section’s sets. However, what’s interesting – and intriguing for any fans of improv – is the fact that their are increasingly more set I’s in 3.0 that contain notable jams within. A sign that the band has fully overcome their initial rust of 2009 and 2010, and have reached that point again where they can communicate with ease on stage, and are able to jam effortlessly at will. Historically that’s what their First Set jams have been evident of – an overt level of comfort and communication – while displaying the various styles of the band’s evolution. From the “Dream On Bowie” of 12/30/1993, to the playful jamming of 12/06/1996. From 07/21/1997’s onslaught of funk, to the ambient weaves of 07/01/1998’s “Down With Disease -> Dog Faced Boy -> Piper.” From the meandering grooves that spilled out of 07/24/1999’s “Fluffhead,” to the dark and seedy “Scent’s And Subtle Sounds” on 07/30/2003. From the “Ghost> Antelope” that surprisingly closed out 06/04/2009, to the blissful “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” from 07/03/2011’s masterful set. Each of these jams more than raised the bar of their set’s, while proving that First Set’s can be far more than a simple recital.

Atlanta, GA – 06/15/1995

Bethel, NY – 05/28/2011

XI. The Set II’s?

You know those jams where, either at the show, or listening at home, you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘wait, what song is this again?’ That’s kind of what these sets are like. As the last section displayed, from 1997 – 2004, and again since mid-2010, Phish has had a penchant for fucking with the structure of the First Set, thus muddling the original differences between it and it’s counterpart. Whereas First Set’s have historically been opportunities to showcase songs, rather than improv, these distinctions tend to blur from time to time. Sometimes so much so, that one can forget what set they’re actually witnessing.

An example. Following the “FUCKYOU” set on 08/31/2012, my wife and I headed up to grab a beer. Awash in celebratory sentiments, we were about as happy as two people could be at that point. Married just a week earlier, this was the kick off of a four month honeymoon. Stoked to just see a Phish show, nothing could have prepared us for what the band actually had in store. While waiting in line a girl turned to us, and said, “I can’t believe the beer tent’s are still open.” We laughed this off, but when she turned again saying, “that was the best show I’ve ever seen!” we kindly informed her that there was still another set to be had. “WHAT?!?! YOU MEAN THAT WAS JUST THE FIRST SET!?!?! HOLY CRAP!!!!”

Now, one could certainly argue that this sentiment was chalked up to being a noob, on drugs, or just a dumb girl at a show. However, as the following show’s prove, sometimes the lines are so blurred between set I and set II, that it twists one’s mind. This is the ultimate goal of a Phish show after all: to alter your perspective so, that you step out of your everyday self-conciousness and expectations, wholly accepting the unexpected. We’re all familiar with these shows. When we’re there, they’re somewhat unexplainable for the grasp they have over a crowd. When we listen at home, they continuously display the dexterity and command that Phish can summon.

Examples: 12/06/1996, 07/10/1997, 11/17/1997, 11/22/1997, 04/05/1998, 07/13/1999, 12/15/1999, 07/23/2003, 06/19/2004, 08/12/2004, 10/16/2010, 08/31/2012

Jams abound in the above sets, what unites them is their ability to muddle the historic lines between the First and Second Sets. Be it 07/10/1997’s fully-flowing Euro-funk-fest, or the five-song clinic on 11/17/1997. The sublime, drug-induced jamming from “Halley’s -> Roses -> NO2,” and “Reba> Carini” on 07/13/1999, or the ambient-laced “Walls Of The Cave -> David Bowie” that capped off a jam-heavy 06/19/2004 set. In 3.0, 10/16/2010 set the standard for an innovative set I, before igniting a firestorm in Fall 2010, while 08/31/2012 has only gotten better with age, as heard in the “Carini” and “Undermind” that provided the cornerstones of the “FUCKYOU” set. They are the sets that once more prove why we seek out hundreds of Phish tapes, why we travel across the country to see the band, why we sit through two and three bad Phish shows in a row, why we spend tens of thousands of dollars for a simple three-hour concert. They prove to us, if nothing else, why to always expect the unexpected with Phish, and why that which is unexpected is always worth witnessing.

Marseilles, France – 07/10/1997

Washington DC, USA – 12/15/1999


An evolving medium of their live shows, the First Set was once simply thought of as a platform for various songs. Later it became an avenue for jamming and experimentation. Throughout it’s been a diverse collection of possibilities for the band to ignite a show. One half of what makes up an entire Phish show, the First Set – while generally thought of as the tamer side of a show – have proven to be unexpected, dexterous, and mind-blowing at various times throughout history. While there are certainly a plethora of other styles of First Sets, the eleven covered above are the most common one is expected to experience at a show. Thus concludes the second part of an eight part series, breaking down Phish’s live show. Up next is the First Set Closer.

Hope everyone enjoyed the post! Feel free to leave your thoughts, comments, suggestions, rants, etc!

The Structure Of A Show – Openers


For anyone who’s ever experienced it, few moments can compare with that when the lights suddenly drop at a Phish show. As any enthusiast will tell you, the day of a Phish concert is a series of build-ups, all leading to the moment when, out of nowhere, the stadium’s lights fade, and anywhere between 5,000, and upwards of 80,000, people rejoice in a collective roar as the band strolls onto stage. At that moment, however far you travelled to get to the show, however shitty your day at work was, however much you had to pay for you ticket last minute, however hard it was to evade security and hop down to the pavilion, means nothing. All that matters is the singular question that’s been burning a hole in every fan’s mind all day: what will they open with?

Being that each Phish concert is a completely unique, in-the-moment creation, the opener is often a divisive moment in the show; not only in its immediate separation between your day-to-day life and a Phish show, but in many ways, in determining much of what will come of the show at hand. In most cases, the opener is the first sign anyone has of how the band is feeling that night. The opener thus may be a reaction to an underwhelming show the night before. It might conversely be an effort to top the previous night’s high points. It might be a sign that they’re looking to delve deep into their catalogue. It may be an excuse to toss a random cover at us. Whatever it is, the opener is often the most debated, hotly anticipated part of the entire show, in the months, and hours leading up to it. This is for good reason. For, while every Phish show is inherently unique in it’s setlist construction, it’s moments of improvisational foray, and it’s level of playing, there are certain patterns that help to determine the quality, memorability, and ultimate aura surrounding each show. Being the first moment we have to experience/listen to a Phish show, the opener – while not always the case – is generally the first clue we have as to what direction the show will go.

There is another reason to examine the impact/importance of the opener – for the purpose of this blog, at least. Before tackle & lines goes any further in delving into the history of the band, it’s important to step back and breakdown the essential medium with which we all experience Phish: attending, and listening to their live shows. When all’s said and done for Phish – be that in 2013 or 2034 – the thing they will be remembered for most will be their live shows. Their shows are where they’ve communicated with the most people, found their greatest successes, and pushed their music to places they never thought possible. Their live shows are must-see events that, at their best, result in a communal celebration with thousands of different people. They are also historical accounts of the various periods in the band’s history, various moments of experimentation, and documentation of a band willing themselves towards the unknown; a kind of free-form, in-the-moment catharsis that contradicts so much of the by-the-book regulations in modern American culture.

What follows is a eight part series on The Structure Of A Phish Show. Over the next eight posts, tackle & lines will breakdown the Show Opener, Set I, First Set Closer, Set II Opener, Set II, Second Set Closer, Encore, and a bonus post on the band’s rare Third Sets, in effort to understand better what comprises a Phish show. We’ll look at some of the various patterns that can be found within each of these segments of a show, and try to organize these patterns as best we can. The goal is not to come to some sort of conclusion about what a specific Phish show is, but rather to explore the various directions the band chooses to go with each of their shows. This is not a means to rank the best shows versus the weakest, instead it is trying to find the points of connection in all of their shows, while also pointing out the multitude of differences that comprise them. Hope you guys enjoy these posts as we continue the long slog towards 03 July.


As of 01 January 2013, Phish has played 1650 shows. Within those shows they have played 750 unique songs (98% of their total catalogue). On average they’ve played roughly 22 songs a night. Yet out of these 750 unique songs, 22 songs/show, and 1650 individual shows, they have only used 206 of them as openers – just 27% of their total catalogue. Of these 1650 shows, 750 songs, and 206 openers, two songs have far-and-away reigned supreme as the band’s chosen openers: “Chalk Dust Torture” with 89 appearances, and “Runaway Jim” with 87 appearances. The two classics just teem with the feeling of a Phish show. From the raucous angst, and pent-up adrenaline of “Chalk Dust,” to the dreamy and bouncy, summertime gem, “Jim.” These two songs head our first subsection of openers known simply, as, “The Classics.”

I. The Classics

The following songs are those that were meant to open a Phish show. No one is ever surprised to hear any of the following songs open a Phish show. Yet no one is ever perturbed when any of them opens their show. (Well, except for “Sample,” of course) It’s as if these songs were written to open every single show the band played. They’re there to send a shot of energy into the show through a referential moment of nostalgia and sentimentality. If anyone ever wanted to pass on the music of Phish to an isolated tribal society, there’s a strong chance, they’d play a show that started with one of the following songs. Combined, the following eleven songs have opened 546 different Phish shows. If you go on a ten-show run, you’ll likely see three shows that open with one of these songs.

Examples: ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ ‘Runaway Jim,’ ‘Buried Alive,’ ‘Golgi Apparatus,’ ‘Llama,’ ‘AC/DC Bag,’ ‘Wilson,’ ‘My Friend, My Friend,’ ‘Possum,’ ‘Sample In A Jar,’ ‘Punch You In The Eye’

These songs are so ubiquitous as Phish show openers, that crafting any list of classic shows that stemmed from these openers is useless. 12/31/1991, 03/20/1992, 02/20/1993, 08/14/1993, 12/31/1993, 07/13/1994, 12/29/1994, 06/22/1995, 06/26/1995, 12/31/1995, and 12/07/1997, are just a few classic shows that have been graced by these openers. If you’ve been to multiple shows, chances are you’ve seen these songs open at least one of your shows. Most of these songs are a part of the core staple of songs that people are introduced to Phish through. Also, what further separates these songs from almost every category that follows, is that they’ve held strong throughout the band’s evolving career, through various styles, regularly opening shows in every era. They simply are the classics for a reason.

II. The Compositional Surprises

Phish’s origins reside in the classical, the compositional, the theatrical, the thematic. Having been raised in a vibrant musical home that featured a children’s songwriter in his mother, Trey was raised to love Broadway musicals. Further schooling from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s Administrator, Ernie Stires, opened Trey’s mind into the possibilities of blending rock music with classical structures. What resulted was a plethora of structured songs that have come to be regarded with near-unanimous praise by Phish fans. Spanning their entire career, the following songs are some of the best that Phish has ever performed. Yet many of the songs have rarely found their way into the opening slot at a Phish show. The song with the most appearances leading things off is “The Divided Sky,” with only 18 appearances. Thus the title of their section: these songs are always a welcome surprise whenever the band chooses to use them as a show opener.

Examples: ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘The Curtain,’ ‘David Bowie,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself,’ ‘Reba,’ ‘Stash,’ ‘Guyute’

Like the section that preceded, these songs just sound like Phish. From the sublime and organic melodies of “Divided Sky,” to the harmonic dissonance, and ultimate peak of “Bowie.” Each of them comprises the multiple influences and ambitions of the band’s music. Yet, each is received with a breadth of enthusiasm from a crowd when they’re selected to open a show. Each feels somewhat out-of-place in the regular opening slot, thus raising the stakes of their performance, and thus the overall show, simply from their appearance there. Just think of 08/13/1996, 12/30/1993, 02/26/2003, 06/19/2004, for examples of shows whose bar was immediately raised by one of these songs opening. Yet even if the show proves to be forgettable following one of these songs opening, the mere appearance of them leading off, is a highlight in and of itself.

III. The Predictable Classics

Like the previous two sections, the following songs are Phish classics through and through. They ultimately define Phish, whatever way you cut it – even if a couple of them are covers. Yet what differentiates them from the first section, is that these songs are greeted with an almost expected applause when played, rather than collectively unite or surprise a crowd. They usher in a Phish show in a predictable fashion, and are generally called upon midway through tours, when the band is in rhythm.

Examples: ‘Suzy Greenberg,’ ‘Funky Bitch,’ ‘Rift,’ ‘My Soul’

While certainly not songs that anyone openly complains about, nor actively hopes not to hear, they are not necessarily songs everyone’s angling for the band to open with. When it happens, it’s simply the sign you’re at a Phish show. Nothing more, and nothing less. And while 12/14/1995, 11/27/1998, 02/20/2003, and 01/01/2011 certainly turned out to be classics in their own right, their opener neither stole the show, nor made it what it was. They’re the kind of pattern-less songs that give nothing away about the show you’re about to see. It could be an all-time classic, it could be a throwaway. Either way, the song opening things up has little-to-nothing to do with the overall show’s make-up.

IV. The Ragers Out The Gates

There’s something about this next group of openers that just adds an extra dose of energy to any show, right off the bat. Any time these songs open, everything outside of the venue fades away, and for 5 – 10 electrifying minutes, the crowd is collective whipped up in a storm of dancing and yelling that kicks the show off just right. There’s something about being at a show where they open with one of these songs, for they take the already amped up atmosphere surrounding a Phish show, and immediately raise it a level higher.

Examples: ‘Down With Disease,’ ‘First Tube,’ ‘The Sloth,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Maze,’ ‘Carini,’ ‘Birds Of A Feather’

Capitalizing on the initial wave of applause from the crowd, the band wastes little time with these openers, seizing the collective adrenaline in the room, building to an initial peak that, by song’s end, makes it all-too clear: tonight, the band means fucking business. 08/07/2009, 08/31/2012, 02/22/2003, 10/31/1998, 12/09/1995, 06/14/2000, and 02/28/2003 were all beneficiaries of such openers. About the only thing one could say negative about said openers is that their show may suffer from a “too much – too soon” burst of energy. Yet, this is a rare case, for more often than not, when the band wants to greet the crowd with a song of this magnitude, chances are they’re feeling it that night.

V. The Immediate Jams

Most openers serve the simple purpose of ushering us from the state of pre-show, to that of the show. As has been seen in the previous four examples, the band has an arsenal of songs simply for this purpose. Yet, there are those nights, where the band has no use for bridging the gap between these two existential mediums. Nights when they’re feeling it to such a level that they just want to jump in deep from the get-go. On these nights – sadly they’ve become essentially non-existent here in 3.0 – there are no fillers, for the band is ready to jam from soundcheck. Seen most notably in their 1997 – 2004 improv-heavy period, on some nights the band is so keen on pushing their music into the unknown, that they simply can’t be bothered with a stereotypical opener.

Examples: ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Tweezer,’ ‘Wolfman’s Brother,’ ‘Ghost,’ ‘Piper’

A short list of songs that have been used to launch shows into the immediate unknown, of these five songs, only “Wolfman’s” is used as a semi-regularly opener any more, and even it fails to truly launch into the stratosphere. Still, 07/29/1998, 11/17/1997, 06/22/2012, 07/21/1997, and 12/29/2003 would have never been the same without their monumental jams that opened their shows. In 3.0, only 08/15/2010, 05/27/2011, and 06/22/2012 have experienced the sensation of a jam dominating the leadoff slot, only to be resigned to the fact that the band keenly aware of what position they played the song in. A legendary thing of the past, or a potentially mind-blowing surprise in the future? Only time will tell. Though with the way 3.0 has evolved over the past two years in particular, one wouldn’t be surprised if the band busted out a jam to open a show one of these days.

VI. The Laid-Back Easers

Sometimes, you just need to ease into a Phish show. Perhaps on a summer day when the weather is far to hot for raging, or maybe when the setting of the show is simply too idyllic not to, or even when stuck inside a concrete arena, wishfully dreaming of warm weather and sunshine. Certain shows just call for a mellow entrance. On these special evenings, when the band is more concerned with inside jokes that precision playing, are just feeling damn comfortable on tour, or feeling a bit fat and lazy after a barn-burner the night before, they’ll ease into a show, mellowing the crowd a tad, while displaying their dexterity in setlist craftsmanship. Working in the opposite manner of Section IV., the easers offer an opportunity to smoke a joint with your neighbor, and reflect on the simple joy of being at a Phish show. Far from bumming anyone out, or even killing any potential energy. The easers are almost as welcome a surprise as the ragers and the immediate jammers. While at times, they foreshadow an overall laid back affair, often times, they’re just a prelude to certain heat down the road. For when the band kicks things off with something downtempo, you can bet they’re in a great mood, and ready for a fun-filled show.

Examples: ‘Ya Mar,’ ‘Fee,’ ‘NICU,’ ‘Makisupa Policeman,’ ‘Limb By Limb,’ ‘The Squirming Coil,’ ‘Taste’

Substituting raw energy in favor of melodies, simple beats, and a focus on their musical capabilities, little can beat a summer night at a shed kicked off by one of the aforementioned songs. So long as you have good people around you, a decent amount of headies, and a full beer in hand, you’re good to roll. Extra points if you are rolling when they open with one of these gems. Just think of 07/11/2000, 06/18/2010, 12/29/1997, 07/17/1998, 07/26/1997, 07/16/1998, and 07/12/2003. Each of those shows was complimented by their mellow opener, as anyone in attendance will note. In the same way that some classic albums are best suited by a slower opening song, so certain Phish shows just deserve to be eased into.

VII. The Crowd Groaners

Up to this point in the essay, each section has been about various types of crowd-pleasing openers. From the absolute classics that just immediately make you feel like you’re at a Phish show, to the elongated jams that say fuck it to introductions, and just get down to business. All of the songs that preceded this segment are generally received with resounding applause, and communal joy from all in the building. Yet, there are those openers that the band goes with from time-to-time, that, while they certainly work as openers, are rarely, if ever, met with the kind of fervent enthusiasm, one attends a Phish show for. Far from being bad songs, they’re just kind of meh. They do little to spark the flame at a show, and rarely if ever do they impact a show for the positive. If the show sucks, so the attitude goes: “well, they were just off from the get-go.” If the show happens to rule, ala 10/16/2010, “Kill Devil Falls” is remembered for being particularly hot out the gates. Often overlooked, and rarely memorable, these songs just usher in a Phish show because, well, one song has to.

Examples: ‘Julius,’ ‘Poor Heart,’ ‘Kill Devil Falls,’ ‘Bouncing Around The Room,’ ‘Heavy Things,’ ‘Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan,’ ‘Dogs Stole Things,’ ‘Farmhouse,’ ‘Crowd Control’

Now, as 07/23/1997, 12/02/1994, 10/16/2010, 06/16/1994, 12/04/2009, 12/28/2012, 07/10/1997, 12/07/1999, and 08/19/2012 will tell you, these songs are rarely if ever deal breakers on shows. They’re more than anything, a sign that the band is either trying to push a new album, or is unsure about the way they’re feeling about the show. Some shows take some time easing into. Sometimes, they just need to play a song, see how they’re feeling, test the mood of the crowd, see how the arena sounds, etc, before they can get to business. Still other times, these openers can be omens that a 06/06/2009, 08/10/2011, 08/15/2009, 07/26/1999 is about to be played. Either way, these songs mean little in terms of energy, and most fans would simply prefer not to hear them open any show they’re at.

VIII. The Rare Gems

The next two sections are, without question, most fan’s favorite – and most preferred – ways to kick off a Phish show. Sure, an age-old classic, a compositional legend, a jam, even a downtempo easer is a great way to start a show. No one would ever complain about any of those types of songs initiating the separation between real life and a new Phish show. Yet, there is something about these next two sections. Whenever these songs are called upon, you just know the band’s got something bigger up their sleeve this evening. This section – The Rare Gems – are the kind of songs the band pulls out when they’re in one of their favorite venues, when they sense something special in the air, when they’ve been anxious for the show since the morning. While each of these songs has opened their fair share of shows, and thus doesn’t warrant any “WTF?!?!?” from the crowd, they’re still not your typical openers and are always greeted with great approval.

Examples: ‘Mike’s Song,’ ‘Dinner And A Movie,’ ‘Tube,’ ‘Cities,’ ‘Loving Cup,’ ‘Brother,’ ‘Free,’ ‘Meat,’ ‘The Mango Song,’ ‘Soul Shakedown Party,’ ‘The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony’

From 11/22/1997, to 08/16/2011, and 08/14/2010, 03/01/1997, to 06/24/2004, 06/21/2009, and 06/08/2012, 07/25/1999, to 08/08/2009, 07/03/2011, and 04/05/1998, all classic shows, all kicked off by the above songs. Adding an extra dose of energy, history and, aura to each show, the rare gems are the kinds of songs that one cannot expect to hear open their show. When they do open a show however, they immediately conjure up excitement and energy in the same way the ragers do, yet here, without using up energy on hose. They are some of the most effective openers the band has in their arsenal, in that they can guarantee to ignite a crowd in a quick frenzy over their simple presence and placement. Regardless of the rest of the show, one should feel lucky whenever they’re fortunate enough to attend a show where this is how the band makes their entrance.

IX. The ‘Holy Fuck’ Immediate Classics

Nothing else sums up the sensation of, and the element of surprise that’s ever present at a Phish show quite like these songs. They’re the songs you’d never dare hope to hear open a show, for the mere suggestion will forever display you as an outsider, a noob. These are the songs, that, when, and if, you’re lucky enough to hear them open a show, you should rejoice immediately, put your fucking cell phone away, get off PT, and just enjoy the damn show for what it is. Almost always ushering in an immediate classic, their appearances in the leadoff slot is so rare, that when they’re graced to the front of the lineup, you just know the band is in the mood to get zany, and dig deep. They’re the kinds of songs that result in loss of self control, brazen hugging with your neighbor, and a collective liftoff for all in attendance. They’re the kinds of songs that just make you scream, ‘Holy FUCK!!!!’ upon their appearance. They’re the immediate classics, no other way around it.

Examples: ‘Alumni Blues -> Letter To Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues,’ ‘Fluffhead,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Harry Hood,’ ‘LaGrange,’ ‘Col. Forbin’s Ascent -> Fly Famous Mockingbird,’ ‘Emotional Rescue,’ ‘Harpua,’ ‘Run Like An Antelope,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise,’ ‘Ha Ha Ha,’ ‘Sanity’

Ask anyone in attendance at 06/25/2010, 03/06/2009, 09/22/1999, 12/11/1999, 08/12/1998, 08/17/2011, 11/21/1997, 06/19/2011, 09/01/2012, 10/21/1995, 06/30/2000, and 03/08/2009, and they’re sure to tell you the same thing: they were blown away, made speechless, by the opener the band chose. Few could have, let alone, would have, ever predicted that when the band walked on stage they were going to play one of the above songs. So rare, they have combined to open just 51 Phish shows – less that 3% of all the shows ever played. They are the immediate classics for a reason. What more can you say? If you’ve caught one, you just know.

X. Gone By The Way Of Time

Sometimes you’ve just gotta shake things up. As things evolve, certain habits, certain routines, certain fallbacks have to fade away. Same goes for music. The music that worked for you five years ago, may not work for you today. Just won’t get you to that same place it once did. As Phish evolved from a group of college-pranksters playing bars, to post-punk, neo-psychadelic jammers in theaters, to rock stars dominating some of the nation’s most prestigious arenas, so their setlists evolved to reflect their current interests/passions/direction. As a result, many of the songs that were once considered reliable openers, just don’t fill that slot anymore. This isn’t to say that the following songs won’t ever open a show again, for they certainly could in the anything-goes, 3.0 era. Yet, it is telling that not a single of the following songs has opened a show since the 10/17/1998 Bridge School Benefit Show. While each of these songs was once known as an opener, their time has come and gone. Though few would ever complain if they were ever called up to the leadoff spot in the near future.

Examples: ‘The Landlady,’ ‘I Didn’t Know,’ ‘Carolina,’ ‘Split Open And Melt,’ ‘Cavern,’ ‘Sweet Adeline,’ ‘Slave To The Traffic Light,’ ‘Take The ‘A’ Train,’ ‘The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday -> Avenu Malkenu> The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,’ ‘Don’t You Wanna Go?’

Each of the above songs has opened at least three Phish shows, proving their worth in the opening slot, yet each found their own death: passed over by newer songs, the band’s jamming instincts, and the classic openers that have always seemed right for the spot. 04/25/1994, 10/28/1994, 10/17/1998, 06/24/1997, 04/23/1992, 03/16/1993, 11/05/1988, 06/01/1990, 04/06/1991, and 06/14/1995 respectively, served as the final show for each of these openers. While one couldn’t argue about the power a “Split Open And Melt,” “Cavern,” or “Slave” opener would posses, nor the sublime beauty of “TMWSIY” initiating a show, or even the gimmicky brilliance of bringing “The Landlady” out for one last dance, sans-“PYITE.” Yet, for whatever reason, the band has chosen to move on without these in the lead spot. Perhaps one day, they’ll unveil a “Slave” to open a half-empty show in Detroit and everyone will lose their shit. Until then…

XI. The One-Off’s

Each of the previous ten sections of openers featured songs that had opened at least two – and most times, at least three – Phish shows. However, there is a very special list of songs that have only opened one Phish show, only to then be forever cast to the middle/end of the line-up, or forgotten about entirely. Eighty songs total – 38% of all total songs used as openers – these songs share a special bond as the one-off wonders that both made us scratch our head, and sent us into euphoria at their very presence. From the oddball covers – ‘1999,’ ‘Amoreena,’ ‘C’mon Baby Let’s Go Downtown’ – to the out-of-place rotation standards – ‘Character Zero,’ ‘I Am Hydrogen,’ ‘It’s Ice,’ ‘Meatstick’ – the songs were thrown out as the opening to a show, and then, either never played again, or immediately moved back to their rotational slot. Comprised of songs that perhaps feel out of place opening a show, one can’t escape the notion, that the majority of these songs would send fans into a frenzy if they were ever at a show that opened with one of them.

Examples: ‘A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,’ ‘After Midnight,’ ‘Big Black Furry Creature From Mars,’ ‘Catapult,’ ‘Character Zero,’ ‘Foreplay/Longtime,’ ‘Garden Party,’ ‘Horn,’ ‘Meatstick,’ ‘Ramble On,’ ‘Seven Below,’ ‘The Birdwatcher,’ ‘Trenchtown Rock’

Thanks to the fact that just under half the total songs the band has used as openers have been one-off’s, combined with the fact that most Phish fans have seen more than 10 shows, chances are, most fans have caught at least one of these songs at one of their shows. Chances are they didn’t even know it was a one-off opener when it happened. Some of the songs are shrouded in mystery – I simply assumed “Gotta Jibboo” must have opened a show or two in 2000 when it opened 06/13/2010. Yet, more often then not, it’s clear the band is playing a one-off – especially when it’s a cover – in celebration, or recognition of a specific event surrounding the show – typically a holiday/anniversary. Regardless, 06/17/2004, 10/26/2010, 08/08/1993, 05/12/1994, 07/03/2010, 07/12/1999, 12/31/2012, 12/05/1995, 10/23/2010, 08/01/1998, 04/16/2004, 06/28/2012, and 08/11/1998, were all granted an extra dose of the good stuff right off the bat. Armed with more regularity than one might imagine, the one-off’s are a clear example of the sheer pleasure and enthusiasm Phish has had through the years in keeping their fanbase on it’s toes night in and night out. While some of the openers work, and some fall flat on their face, what matters is the sense of surprise that the band approaches the majority of their shows with. Few places is this seen clearer than the one-off openers.


The bridge between our real lives and a Phish show, the opener is a sometimes precarious medium by which the band ushers us into a collective world of energy, happiness, and a seemingly limitless supply of the unknown. With a vast collection of original material, the band has only used 27% of said songs throughout 30 years to open their 1650 unique live shows. Yet each song opens each show in such a way that it strikes different feelings, and sets the tone of a show in it’s own unique way. Thus concludes our first of an eight part series, breaking down Phish’s live shows. Next up is the First Set.

Thanks everyone for reading! Hope y’all enjoyed the write-up! Please leave a few thoughts about the essay!