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!