The Structure Of A Show – Set I

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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 phishtracks.com) 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!

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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!

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One thought on “The Structure Of A Show – Set I

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