The Structure Of A Show – Set I Closer

4171325972_5aa4573fb4_zFrom the thrill of the unknown that is the show opener, to the constructed unit that is the first set, we come to the third part in our series on The Structure Of A Show: the Set I Closer. A different beast than the opener, and even more so than any of the songs that precede it. What defines the Set I Closer is both a collective release of energy that can only come from the shared experience of having been at a Phish show for now 90 minutes, and the shared anticipation of the unknown. A full set into a show now, a Set I closer can often give hints to how the band feels about the set just played, how energized a crowd is, and can often be the determining factor between an amped-up setbreak, and a monotonous slog to the bathrooms. While rarely a moment that will make or break a show, the Set I Closer derives it’s power from a source of energy that explodes in the most visceral ways: when both band and crowd are keenly aware of the singularity of the moment.

There’s always that point deep into a first set where one checks their internal setlist, and says to themselves, “I wonder what they’re gonna close with?” Rarely a surprise – though sometimes it certainly is – the Set I Closer is typically an understood moment that combines timing, and a high-energy number. While there are certainly classic closers, akin to classic openers, there are also those that are far less expected and produce a similarly uneasy and bizarre sensation to their rare opener counterparts. Essentially, there are Set I closers that feel like the closer from the moment they begin, while there are others that either a) become a closer by default due to the energy they conduct, or b) take fans into setbreak scratching their heads – for both good, and sometimes, bad reasons.

The essential quality that separates the majority of Set I closers from the rest of the songs in a set is their dedication to an explosion of energy that either raises the bar from a throwdown Set I, or proves to be too little too late after a less-than-stellar affair. From time to time, however, a Set I closer will be a confounding moment whereby, the band exits without conducting a massive explosion, rather, concluding with a whisper, sending everyone off into setbreak in a bit of a hushed tone. Regardless of how the band chooses to move into setbreak, there is typically a sense of finality that comes with either the song selection, or music that emerges, capping off the connected idea of the set.

Beyond this explosion of energy, one other aspect of first set closers that separates it from the entirety of Phish’s song catalogue is that throughout their career, the role of the closer has essentially remained unchanged. With only 171 of their 750 unique songs being used as Set I Closers, only 23% of the catalogue has been given access to this placement. Beyond this, two songs – “Run Like An Antelope,” and “David Bowie” – have combined for a staggering 291 performances in the Set I Closer role. With 1650 shows under their belt, this means that 18% of all Phish shows ever performed have featured either “Bowie” or “Antelope” as the first set closer. An astounding figure, it displays the band’s overt lack of experimentation with the role of the Set I Closer. Thus, as we’ll see as we examine it, the Set I Closer is a far more entrenched, established, and formulated aspect of a Phish show than essentially all other parts. Not without it’s own surprises and thrills, the Set I Closer is quite possibly the most expected aspect of this entire series.

What follows is Part III of VIII in tackle & lines series on The Structure Of A Show. Each category contains a write-up, examples, and video clips for better understanding. As with the article on Openers and Set I, the goal of this is not to come to some sort of a conclusion about what a specific Phish show is, but rather to explore the various directions the band chooses to go with their shows – here in the medium of the Set I closer. This is not a means to rank the best closers, or the best shows, versus the weakest – though negative habits and instances will be discussed – instead it is seeking to find points of connection across various era – and within each – while pointing out their differences. Hope you guys enjoy the piece, we’re now less than two months from 03 July!

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I. The Classics

Akin to the Openers segment, there are certain Phish songs that simply were meant to close a set. In both structure, energy, and sonic quality, the following six songs define the idea of a Set I closer. Indeed, they have combined to close 533 first sets, or 32% of all first sets ever played. Providing little surprise with their placement, these songs are still consistently captivating for their ability to conclude first sets with a combined grace, power, and certainty. Hear any of these songs, either at a show or on your stereo, and they just feel like the conclusion of a set. Like the classic Openers, these are the classics for a reason, what more can you say?

Examples: ‘Run Like An Antelope,’ David Bowie,’ ‘Cavern,’ ‘Golgi Apparatus,’ ‘Good Times Bad Times,’ ‘The Squirming Coil’

We’ve all been at these shows. The band’s been on stage for little over an hour, and out of nowhere, the bouncy trill of “Antelope” kicks off, or the haunting hi-hat for “Bowie” emerges, or the drums slam in a bombastic roar, signaling “Cavern,” and you just know, this is gonna close the set. These six songs are the classic Set I closers for a reason. They each act as a barometer for the impending setbreak, they each have come to be considered a bookend to the concept of an overall set. Outside of their set closing role, they appear a bit out of place. Beyond their overall sound, they’ve appeared in some of the best Phish shows in the closing role. From 12/29/1997, 08/09/1998, and 08/14/1997, to 06/22/1994, 12/13/1997, and 10/30/2010, these songs have capped off dozens of classic sets and shows. What’s more is, regardless the overall power of the show they’re appearing in they always just seem to fit when they appear as the Set I closer.

II. The Raging Cap

Similar in a sense to the classics, these songs have each seen their fair share of the Set I closing role. What separates them from the previous section is their ability to just rock the fuck out of a venue prior to setbreak every single time. Without fail, the following nine songs shake a crowd to it’s core. Best displaying Phish’s ability to coalesce energy in a massive group, these song’s send everyone off to setbreak with a thrilling rock-out. When placed anywhere else in a set these songs surely still raise the energy level to yet-unattained levels, yet it’s when they’re ushered in to close a set that they each seem to have that much more umph. Not surprising bustouts, nor exploratory jams, what these songs do instead is prove the immense power Phish’s song catalogue possesses, particularly when certain songs are placed in the right part of a show.

Examples: ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ ‘Suzy Greenberg,’ ‘Llama,’ ‘Julius,’ ‘Fire,’ ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise,’ ‘Wilson,’ ’46 Days’

Ask anyone in attendance at 11/11/1995, 09/14/2000, 05/21/1994, 07/19/2003, 11/30/1995, 11/16/1996, 12/28/2003, 09/25/1999, and 10/12/2010, and they’re certain to tell you the same thing: no matter the energy levels prior to their appearance, each of these Set I closers amped up the energy within the venue ten-fold. Like a smack in the face, these songs billow out of nowhere, capture immediate energy, build on it, and continue building to a certain peak that results in a euphoric applause from the crowd. Uniting both band and crowd in an aura of lights, glowsticks, confetti, raised arms, and that tension-filled sense in the air, these songs send everyone off to set break with shit-eating grins plastered across their face. Yours truly’s preferred way to exit a first set, these songs more than raise the bar on set one towards the unknown potential of the second set.

III. The Expected Send-Off’s

With only 23% of their catalogue used thus far to close a first set, it’s understandable there are going to be some predictable songs capping off set’s from time to time. While these are rarely songs that anyone will complain about in this slot. And they’re certainly songs that do their part of closing the set off with a bang. The following songs are the kind no one will rave about all things considered the next day. They’re akin to a serviceable Center in Basketball. You need them to fill a role, and they do their part, albeit without the fanfare, and ecstatic buzz that other more notable songs will. They’re the songs called in when the set has either reached that point where it just needs a closer, or if the band has been playing an assortment of well-known “hits” that night. They deliver the bang, and allow the band to exit the stage to an energized applause heading into setbreak. Nothing more, nothing less.

Examples: ‘Possum,’ ‘Character Zero,’ ‘Sample In A Jar,’ ‘Loving Cup,’ ‘Taste,’ ‘Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan’

Now, just because they’re expected, doesn’t mean they can’t be great, nor accompany excellent shows. For as 08/13/2010, 08/03/1998, 11/09/1995, 10/02/1999, 07/22/1997, and 09/01/2012 all display, these are sometimes the perfect songs to accompany their sets. Never outlandish, never a surprise, sometimes the best shows just need a dose of predictable Phishdom to round themselves out. Offering energy, a massive Trey solo, and that big bang that is Phish’s Rock ‘n Roll meal ticket, they play the role of set closer to a T. The kinds of songs that routinely get lambasted on PT for their regularity in the rotation, they prove time and again when called upon to close a set, just why they kick around so much.

IV. The Composed Conclusion

Rooted in stylistically structured, and classical compositions, it’s no wonder that their most beloved songs have found their way into the Set I Closer role over the years. Concluding a first set in one of the most powerful and sublime ways there is, these following songs both serve as reminders for the band’s origins, while also providing a pretty potent energy kick to the end of their respective sets. While their roles have shifted throughout the years, most of these have closed out at least five first sets, meaning at one point they were all thought of as potential Set I closers. Separate from their appearances in Set II, their appearance here in the first set allows all to take a step back from the initial reality of being at a psychedelic rock show, and instead simply enjoy the musical chops of the boys.

Examples: ‘You Enjoy Myself,’ ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘The Curtain With,’ ‘Stash,’ ‘Fluffhead,’ ‘Foam,’ ‘Time Turns Elastic’

Aside from the final selection on in this group, these songs are ubiquitous with the concept of Phish, and unanimously loved by literally every Phish fan. Thus their appearance anywhere in a show is welcome, regardless of their placement. However, when any of the above songs are chosen to close out a first set, it’s certainly a celebrated moment by all in attendance. Just think of 12/03/1997, 07/08/1994, 06/10/2011, 06/11/1994, 08/06/2011, and 03/14/1989, for clear examples of the positive impact these compositional classics had in closing out the first sets of said shows. Even “Time Turns Elastic,” a song both misunderstood, and hated equally by Phish fans everywhere, has played a role in closing out the first sets of a few solid shows, 06/21/2009 and 08/12/2010 immediately come to mind. This is a section that, overall, produces, more than anything, wide smiles, emotive peaks, and an overly satisfied crowd thanks to their appearance.

V. The Jams

And then, there are those nights where the band just wants to jam. So much so, that they’re sometimes forced to abandon a typical big bang closer in favor of a jam that naturally built to a climax. Some of the best Phish shows happen when the band throws caution to the wind and just unleashes a series of exploratory jams. Compounding these shows are the times when the band dives deep mid-Set I, and realizes they’ve extended a jam so far out there, they’re forced to simply end the set on that note. An exhilarating, unique, all-inclusive experience, whenever the band removes their instruments after just throwing down a jam, everyone in the venue knows something special just went down. Some of the following songs are simply programmed as jamming closers, while others have been used on occasion, typically when the band stumbles into a jam late into the first set and thus has no option but to conclude with it – be it for time constraints, or in honor of proper flow. Regardless what they are, they’re continual reminders of the unexpected at a Phish show, making each show better for their placement and their unpredictability.

Examples: ‘Split Open & Melt,’ ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Walls Of The Cave,’ ‘Gotta Jibboo,’ ‘Undermind,’ ‘Wolfman’s Brother,’ ‘Drowned,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Tweezer’

Mention to any fan 06/16/1995, 05/28/2011, 02/28/2003, 02/20/2003, 08/31/2012, 12/28/2012, 06/20/2004, 11/27/2009, and 06/18/2004, and without question, one of the first things they’ll talk about is the incredible jam that ended Set I. A wholly unique moment when everything clicks for the band prior to setbreak, a Set I closing jam is a good of proof as one needs that the band is on. Whereas much of their improvisation has historically occurred in the second set, the Set I Closer is often a bridge from Set I to II, allowing the band the looseness to explore after 70+ minutes of typically tight music. When they go off on an extended journey, it’s typically the stuff of legends, and usually signifies big things for set II. In fact, each of the above songs directly led to massive second sets, whereby the band dedicated a large portion of the set to improve. While not the kind of Set I Closer one should be heading to any show expecting, when they emerge, you know you’re witnessing a classic.

VI. The Subdued Pause

We’re entering into a bit of strange territory for these next three sections. The following are the closers one wouldn’t immediately request, nor consider when compiling a setlist in their head. Some of them work, some of them don’t, but they’re all united in the fact that each of the following sections defies the stereotypical idea of what a Set I closer is. For this section, we’ll cover the more subdued, softer songs that are called upon from time to time to close out a first set. Often catching many fans off-guard, these songs end the set with more of a whisper than a roar. While not the type of song that initially comes to ones mind when they think of the emotional release expected to end a set, in many of their instances said songs work. While yes, they often give off a strange vibe heading into setbreak, in many of the cases, their subdued nature creates a more relaxed feeling surrounding a show, and results in a creative, and exploratory Set II. Other times they force one to scratch their heads – an issue we’ll discuss further in two sections. Here, we have seven songs that, for whatever reason, work as set closers, regardless of their subdued nature.

Examples: ‘Prince Caspian,’ ‘Bittersweet Motel,’ ‘If I Could,’ ‘Let It Loose,’ ‘Reba,’ ‘The Wedge,’ ‘Waste’

For whatever reason, on 11/21/1997, 07/21/1999, 06/28/2000, 08/16/2011, 12/30/1998, 06/03/2011, and 09/22/1999 the band felt like closing the first half of their show out with a mellow song. Whether a planned affair, or a spur of the moment idea, in these cases, the choice to conclude Set I with a more subdued number worked. Easing everyone into setbreak, rather than leaving them with a massive roar, these songs allow both band and audience the opportunity to reflect on the set that was, and prepare for Set II. Coincidentally or not, each of the above songs led to massive jams in Set II. More than anything, these songs proved that even in going against the stereotypical concept of a Set I Closer, the band was still capable of crafting a genuine closing statement. A bit mellow, a bit subdued at times, often quite unexpected, in these cases, the choice worked ten-fold.

VII. The A Cappella’s

Throughout their history, one of Phish’s trademark’s has been the diverse styles and genres they’ve continually meddled with. From classical to funk to jazz to dance, the band has spent the majority of their 30 years together tinkering with their own sound, and inviting various aspects of American and World Music into their own individual style. Starting in the early-90’s the band decided to focus attention on Barbershop, in effort to improve their much-ailed vocal chops. Offering a new avenue for their sets, the Barbershop songs quickly became stand-in set closers and encores. Typically following an expected – read: big bang – closer, the band would remove their instruments and meet mid-stage to grace the crowd with an old-timey number, thus concluding the set/show. Just another unique aspect of what you can expect at a Phish show, the Barbershop set closers never failed to rile up the crowd on the band’s attempts at recreating the gay nineties.

Examples: ‘Sweet Adeline,’ ‘Carolina,’ ‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘Free Bird’

Filling out literally every kind of first set, the above numbers are rarely expected, nor requested, though are typically always appreciated. Never too long to bore any fans, and always offering a thrilling moment witnessing the band’s widespread talent, they conclude sets in a way that allows everyone to celebrate the secret of Phish. Whereas most on the outside assume all that happens at a Phish show is senseless drugs, and guitar-noodling, these songs conclude a set like a wink and a smile, reminding all in some way, why we fell in love with Phish in the first place.

VIII. The Head Scratchers

There’s always gotta be at least one of these. Proof that Phish is far from perfect, these sections help illuminate the risks the band takes with each show to produce magic out of the unknown. Rather than being bad songs, the following selections just seem odd when placed in the Set I Closer role. None produce that massive bang that everyone expects with a closer. None are either mellow enough to fit in that section. Some of the choices are better suited as openers, while others have proven to be best fit midway through a set. Either way, the band has thought enough of each of these to use them as a Set I Closer at least three times.

Examples: ‘Runaway Jim,’ ‘Funky Bitch,’ ‘AC/DC Bag,’ ‘My Soul,’ ‘Farmhouse,’ ‘Backwards Down The Number Line,’ ‘Lawn Boy,’ ‘Meatstick’

While they’ve each close out sets in often solid shows – 10/31/1991, 12/31/1994, 07/25/1997, 04/03/1998, 06/15/2000, 11/28/2009, 04/28/1990, and 07/03/1999 – they’ve often made each of their sets feel a tad unfinished. At it’s best, a set closer offers a book-end to the idea of a set, and none of these songs are truly built to do that. Often leaving fans scratching their heads when the lights come on, they’re simply not your first choice, nor really, even your last choice, to concluded a set. Proof that even the band stumbles in crafting a fully flowing set, the above songs just don’t fit the bill of a Set I closer, no matter how many times the band tries to prove otherwise.

IX. The Why Don’t They Close Out More First Sets?

While they’ve only used just over 20% of their song catalogue for Set I Closer’s, there have ostensibly been those songs they have used, that wholly work as closers, yet for whatever reason are only played on increasingly rare occasions. The kinds of songs that send everyone into setbreak on a high, just on their appearance alone. They’re the songs that seem to raise the level of the show just another notch, typically confirming the brilliance of the set their concluding. Catching the entire crowd by surprise, these songs both define the sense of the unknown that permeates every Phish show, and the ultimate surge of energy that everyone in attendance – band and fans alike – is seeking upon arrival. Perhaps a beneficiary of their scarcity, these songs nevertheless, force all fans to wonder aloud why the band doesn’t opt for them on more occasions.

Examples: ‘Slave To The Traffic Light,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise,’ ‘Down With Disease,’ ‘Harry Hood,’ ‘Birds Of A Feather,’ ‘First Tube,’ ‘Rock & Roll,’ ‘A Day In The Life,’ ‘ Maze,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Alumni Blues -> Letter To Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues’

Associated with some of the most highly touted first sets of the band’s career, these songs span the various eras of the band in their appearance as a Set I Closer. Yet they all find commonality in the fact that they both unquestionably work as a closer, and make far too few appearances in said role. Just listen to 08/13/1996, 10/21/1995, 11/17/1994, 08/10/1997, 08/10/2004, 12/04/2009, 06/29/2000, 12/30/1997, 02/26/2003, 07/30/1999, and 08/15/2011, and try to contemplate those masterful first sets ending with any other song. A simple ‘Cavern,’ or ‘Character Zero’ wouldn’t have fit. Neither would even something on the level of ‘Fluffhead,’ or ‘Chalk Dust Torture.’ No, what those sets deserved was the kind of rare gem that riles an audience up on appearance alone, and then delivers on a top-notch performance. Something each of the above songs has done brilliantly when asked to, they nevertheless require the crowd to wonder why they’re not called upon more often to deliver the same punch.

X. The Absurdly Good Surprises

Similar in ways to the above section – even featuring a few crossovers – these Set I Closers are unique for the fact that literally no one could have predicted they’d close out their respective set. Yet when they did, they not only fit like a glove, but proved to be nothing short of brilliant. Full of energy, completely unpredictable, immediately satiating a crowd, these are the kinds of closers one would never think to request, they just have to be experience to completely enjoy. Incredibly rare moments where the band capitalizes on the energy and mood of a set and comes as close as possible to perfection.

Examples: ‘Highway To Hell,’ ‘Big Black Furry Creature From Mars,’ ‘After Midnight,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Drowned,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Undermind,’ ‘Monkey Man,’ ‘Harry Hood,’ ‘Alumni Blues -> Letter To Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself’

You know when you’re witnessing one of the above selections by the fact that the energy within the venue becomes a tangible thing – effervescent, emanating from the audience, lingering throughout. It’s an example of the moments where a simple rock concert turns into something that feels like it means something. These songs don’t just summon applause and cheering, they literally make people lose their collective shit. Elevating the show from whatever it was to something truly memorable, one would never argue that 12/31/1989, 10/31/1987, 12/31/1999, 12/30/2003, 06/20/2004, 11/27/2009, 08/31/2012, 07/02/2011, 09/28/1999, 08/15/2011, and 06/23/2012 were not immensely blessed and advanced by the inclusion of these songs at the Set I Closer.

XI. The One-Off’s

One of the greatest aspects of listening to, and following Phish, is their penchant for the one-time thrills that essentially serve as snooze-you-lose reminders to those who don’t keep up. Seen in their random openers, covers, and bustouts, another way Phish has found to work the ultimate element of surprise into their shows is through random, one-time performances of songs in the Set I Closer role. Adding another level to the lore of their constantly shifting live shows, these songs have all appeared once as the Set I Closer, never to be seen in that position again. For whatever reason, be it they realized they were running late, the song developed into a particularly impressive jam, or it just fit the mood of the set, these songs were chosen to close, never since being used.

Examples: ‘After Midnight,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Crossroads,’ ‘Ghost,’ ‘Glide,’ ‘Harpua,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Monkey Man,’ ‘Mound, ‘Reba,’ ‘Sweet Jane,’ ‘The Curtain With,’ ‘Tweezer,’ ‘Ya Mar’

Many of the above worked well as closers when they were played, leading many to wonder why they only saw one appearance in the role. For whatever the reason, 12/31/1999, 12/30/2003, 07/30/1999, 08/09/1997, 06/22/1997, 10/31/1995, 11/27/2009, 07/02/2011, 06/15/2011, 12/30/1998, 08/08/1998, 06/10/2011, and 06/18/2004 were befitted special status with these one-off closers, adding a bit of lore to each of the shows. Perhaps one day they’ll resurface as Set I closers, thus eliminating them from this list. Until then, they’re a part of a unique group with 71 other songs, having been used to close out Set I only once.

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Akin to their Set I Openers, the Set I Closer is an opportunity for the band to use one singular song to generate energy and fully connect with an audience. With a full set behind them, it’s their parting message before the break, often times thematically capping off the set that was. A maze of classics that just fit the part, jams that came out of nowhere, a cappella and composed original songs that allow the band to display their musical dexterity, and one-off rarities that add a bit of lore to their shows, the Set I Closers are further proof of the diversity of Phish on a night to night basis. Thus concludes the third part in an eight-part series breaking down Phish’s live show. Up next is the Second Set Opener.

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

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