What Can We Reasonably Expect From Phish In 2013?

228575_10151002926501290_1761768171_nWith just over two weeks to go until the start of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour, the Phish community is abuzz with plans, predictions, and expectations for the coming year. After a peak year in 2012, the expectations for Phish 3.0 have never been higher. Whereas each year since 1999 has ended with a litany of questions about the band’s health, focus, direction, etc, 2012 concluded on a unanimous high note. And, while their NYE Run didn’t quite stack up as a whole to the entirety of their brilliant summer tour, it was still a far cry from the puzzling no-show that plagued the end of 2011.

So, the question begs asking, what can we reasonably expect from Phish in 2013? I emphasize “reasonably” because, more often than not, these types of columns result in writers predicting everything from 30min jams to guaranteed-Gamehendge performances. Here at tackle & lines we try to view Phish’s career and music with as much of an even-handed approach as possible, and this column will be no different.

Before we get to the predictions, however, we must take a quick retrospective look back at how we got to where we are now.

In the five years since Phish emerged from an extended hiatus in Hampton, VA the band has far exceeded the expectations that any fan could have had when they announced their return in October 2008. While during much of June 2009 they appeared to be a band lost within themselves, by the time Leg Two of their tour started out west, they immediately rediscovered what made Phish Phish. Jams returned, gimmicks became something of a norm, and Phish shows became re-listenable once more. With their eighth festival, and an incredibly apropos Halloween cover of Exile On Main Street under their belt, the band toured their East Coast stronghold’s, before celebrating their first NYE in six years in Miami. Featuring two dynamically different sides of Phish, their Fall Tour showed them tightening up and adding a bit more energy into their shows, while their NYE Run resulted in some of the more interesting jams of 2009.

Six months later the band’s second Summer Tour of 3.0 began in Chicago. What started with a string of uneven shows eventually proved to be the band’s weakest tour of 3.0. Dominated by Trey’s overuse of the Whale Call effect, jams lost steam midway through, shows lacked flow and energy, and, by July 5th, the band looked totally lost. While the 06/27/2010 Merriweather Post Pavilion show is still highly regarded among fans, it proved to be little more than an anomaly, as the band entered the second leg of their tour with more pressure to deliver than anytime since 2004.

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In typical Phish fashion however, the band came out the gates on a mission. Armed with a new guitar that gave more overall body to his sound, Trey moved away from the atmospheric sirens of the June Tour, incorporating more notes and rhythm into his playing. The results were immediate with jams off of “Cities,” “Simple,” and “Light” from the Greek Theatre displaying how much more dexterity they had when their sound was opened up to more communal playing. The August Run proved to be the point where everything changed in 3.0. A massive step forward for the band, they followed it up with an even more groundbreaking Fall Tour. Clearly in control of the direction of their music once again, Phish used the Fall Tour to revert back to age-old gimmicks, and an overt playfulness that bled throughout their shows. Shows like 10/16/2010, 10/19/2010, 10/20/2010, 10/26/2010 and 10/30/2010 carried the same energy, element of surprise, and aggressive playing that harkened back to their glory days in the 90’s.

Closing out the year with a five show NYE Run through Worcester and MSG, all was right in the Phish community. While there were still questions about certain aspects of their playing – their jamming was still not totally consistent, their shows still had the capability of becoming tedious recitals at Trey’s initiation, and their fluidity seemed to come and go at will – overall, 2010 ended on an incredibly positive note, in much the same way as 2012.

When Phish kicked off 2011 with a string of shows from Bethel, NY – Cincinnati, OH that ranked as some of the most consistent and transcendent they’d played in all of 3.0, it immediately seemed that all the trepidation and uncertainties of the first two years of their comeback were all but behind them. And yet, while 2011 featured some of the biggest breakthrough’s of 3.0, it was still marred at times by the inconsistency that continued to define Phish’s return. Losing steam midway through the tour when most would have assumed they’d have kicked it up a notch, the band treated their home turf to some of the shakiest shows in recent memory.

However, at their SuperBall IX Festival over Fourth Of July the band engaged in their biggest musical risk in years: locking themselves in a storage unit on the night of July 2nd and performing an abstract, noise-based jam for all who were still awake. On the next night they played their best concert since reforming, weaving the Storage Jam into the first narrated “Col Forbin’s” in eleven years within a first set that saw the band compliment expert song selection with adventurous playing. A show for the ages, they returned to the road a month later with essentially all the baggage of year’s past off of them. Over the course of August and early-September the band infused many of their jams with the seedy and industrial noises of the “Storage Jam,” embracing full-on experimentation in ways they simply hadn’t since 2004.

Concluding with two incredible three-night-stand’s in Chicago and Denver, the band took the Fall off at essentially the highest they’d been in all of 3.0. For whatever reason – rust, lack of inspiration, lack of communication, side-project distractions – their 2011 NYE was one enormous dud. Save for a surprisingly fun 12/28/2011 show, and a scintillating “Piper” jam on 12/30, Phish simply couldn’t muster the ability to play up to the standards they’d created on three of their biggest night’s of the year. As a result, the good vibes that resonated thanks to the breakthrough’s in the summer were overshadowed by the questions that lingered as a result of the NYE Run. Rumors of problems within the band persisted all winter and spring, and Phish entered 2012 with more questions hanging over their head than any time since July 2010. After all their hard work to reinvent themselves in 3.0, it felt to many that the band was back to square one all over again.

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For whatever reason, 2012 was without question the band’s best year since 2000. Armed with a goal of playing over 200 unique songs throughout the Summer, the band injected fresh songs into their setlists, creating an immediate element of surprise at each of their shows. Also, from night one in Worcester, it was clear that a focus on improvisation had been pushed to the forefront. For the first time in 3.0, the band played a better June Tour than an August Tour, as June was filled with humor, bustouts, and a genuine sense of fun from both band and audience. Gone were the clunkers that could dominate whole runs. Phish shows’ felt like Phish shows again. As shows like 06/15/2012, 06/22/2012, 06/23/2012, 06/28/2012, 07/03/2012, 07/06/2012 displayed, the band could now really play any style of show and nail it.

In the Second Leg they battled their first bout with inconsistency in San Francisco and throughout the SE, yet whereas in the past this would have resulted in complete duds for shows, here, in 2012 there are still plenty of moments of inspiration that can be found within each. More to the point, shows like 08/19/2012, 08/28/2012, 08/31/2012 and 09/01/2012 displayed a total command the band had over their sound and sonic direction.

The tour concluded with the best three-night-run of 3.0 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, CO. A venue they’d closed their 2011 Tour with to rave results, Dick’s featured the band as probably the best they’ve been since 1.0. Taking hold of the “FUCK YOUR FACE” gimmick on 08/31, Phish jammed with dexterity and ambition in ways we simply hadn’t heard throughout 3.0. It was an affirmation of sorts for all who’ve stood by Phish since their return. A Summer Tour that had started with so many questions and uncertainty concluded with the best show they’d played in over a decade.

Following another four-month break before their NYE Run, the band proved far more prepared this time around, assaulting MSG at times with jams on the level of those we’d heard at Dick’s, while closing out a banner year with their best NYE gimmick in years. While it was clear that they could have used a few buffer shows between Dick’s and MSG, overall the run was a success, and has us standing on the brink of the band’s 30th Anniversary with more anticipation than anytime throughout 3.0.

Below are a list of things I think we can reasonably expect from Phish in 2013. Aware of the fact that the overall point of listening to Phish is to embrace the unexpected, these are presented as more of a preview of what’s to come in 2013. As always in 3.0, we’re simply lucky to have the band back, the fact that they’ve reinvented themselves is such a powerful way is simply icing on the cake.

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I. Further Development In The Three Dominant Styles Of Jamming

Everyone can agree that 2012 was the year the jams fully returned to the forefront of Phish. Whereas in the formative years of 3.0 the band would go multiple shows in a row without a single exploratory jam, in 2012 nearly every show contains at least one example of genuine improve. Even more encouraging to fans of their exploratory excursions is the fact that by year’s end Phish had settled on three defined styles of jamming that displayed communication, diversity and regularly produced standout jams.

First, you had the Dick’s “Light,” and “Sand,” and the MSG “Tweezer,” three jams which spent upwards of ten minutes exploring the unknown, before becoming focused and building towards an old-school tension & release peak.

You also had more abstract jams such as the Cincy “Twist,” Alpine “Fee,” Long Beach “Rock & Roll,” San Francisco “Crosseyed,” Dick’s “Carini,” and “Runaway Jim>Farmhouse,” and the MSG “Down With Disease,” and “Carini,” which meandered like many of the late-90’s and 2.0 vehicles, contemplatively covering a plethora of ground with little focus or tension.

Finally, you had, perhaps the most intriguing of all, the melodic-driven jams, that are purely a product of 3.0. From the AC “Birds Of A Feather,” and Burgettstown “Light,” to the Dick’s “Undermind,” and “Chalk Dust Torture,” the band used a melodic approach with each of these jams resulting in whole-band communication, along with a multitude of terrains explored, solidifying them as some of the most innovative and memorable jams of the era. One can only expect that, as 2012 built off the improvisational advancements of 2010 and 2011, that 2013 will display even further the potential each of these styles of jamming have.

II. Bustouts……Even More Bustouts

Entering 2012 with the ambitious goal of playing 200 different songs throughout their Summer Tour helped to infuse the tour with fresh songs, and ultimately resulted in an anything-goes feeling throughout he tour, and overall year. Since the onset, 3.0 has been chock-full of bustouts like no period in Phish’s history before. Partially due to the fact that the band simply played less shows between 1997 – 2004 than they had in the previous eight years, and thus focused more on rotational songs than rarities. Yet, perhaps even more so, thanks to their emphasis on celebrating their own musical history, Phish has brought many once-forgotten songs like “Fuck Your Face,” “Skin It Back,” “Tela,” “Sparks,” and “Alumni Blues” back from the dead over the past five years. Based upon this trend, and the fact that this is the band’s 30th year of existence, one wouldn’t be too out of place to suggest we can expect more of the same in 2013. Could songs like “Acoustic Army,” “Ain’t Love Funny,” “All Things Reconsidered,” “Amazing Grace,” “Axilla (Part II),” “Bye Bye Foot,” “Chalk Dust Torture Reprise,” “Crossroads,” “Dave’s Energy Guide,” “Dear Mrs. Reagan,” “Don’t You Wanna Go,” “Fourplay/Long Time,” “Izabella,” “The Landlady,” “Lushington,” “Spock’s Brain,” and “Prep School Hippie” be far behind?

III. “Harpua,” “Col. Forbin’s Ascent -> Fly Famous Mockingbird,” and “Icculus”

Believe it or not, but 2012 was the lone year of 3.0 that didn’t feature any of the above songs. Lost in the mix of the band’s musical renaissance were three classics that focus more on the theatrical side of Phish than their musical. While one certainly can’t complain about their exclusion from a year that featured so many highlights across the board, one has to assume they’ll be back this year. A year that’s poised to feature a number of surprises, and referential moments towards the band’s legacy, each of these three songs would fit perfectly with the overall vibe of the year. Be it in Toronto or Alpharetta, or even in Chicago, each of these songs are welcome at any show, for they immediately raise the bar in terms of energy and historical significance.

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IV. A Substantial Fall Tour That Builds Off The Achievements Of Summer

For as boundary pushing as the last two Summer Tour’s have been, the only thing they’ve clearly suffered from is a lack of Fall Tour to continue pushing their sound further. Just imagine for a second what would have happened to the sounds of Summer ’95, Summer ’97, and Summer 2010 if they hadn’t had a Fall Tour to be fully realized. Then think about how much more consistency the band could have played with, and how much further they could have pushed their music had they spent the last two Fall’s on the road.

By all accounts a Fall Tour is happening this year. The sheer fact of it is nothing to predict. This is Phish’s 30th Anniversary, the rumors are all across the web. What we can predict however, is that, unlike Fall 2009, the Fall 2013 will better resemble Fall 2010 in the way it will push Phish’s sound even further. Rumors of a Halloween show being tossed in there only raise the bar even further, for we know what positive effects practicing and covering full albums have historically had on the band. With a summer set to hit up some of the most storied shed’s in Phish history, we can only imagine how much music they’ll have to build upon with a short break before Fall.

V. A 30th Anniversary Run That Actually Celebrates The Band’s Legacy

If there’s any takeaway from the 2003 Turkey Run it’s the fact that it really couldn’t have honored the band’s twentieth anniversary any less than it did. After a four-month gap following their IT Festival, the Run featured a band in an awkward state of denial over their current health and dismal future. Sure they brought The Dude of Life and Tom Marshall out. Hell, they even brought out Jeff Holdsworth for the first time since 1986. And, yes, there are some intriguing moments throughout, see: “Ghost -> WTU,” “Twist -> Simple,” 12/01, “Piper,” and the “Rock & Roll -> Weekapaug -> Tweezer Reprise -> FranKungstein”. But the historical legacy of the run is more of failure, and foreshadowing, and less of a band fully embracing their historical significance.

Here, however, in the healthy and joyful era of 3.0, you can be certain the band is going to go to great measures to celebrate the fact that after 30 years, they’re still alive, and going strong once again.

VI. More First Set “You Enjoy Myself’s”

Played only seven times in the last two calendar years, “You Enjoy Myself,” has in three of those instances, been played out of it’s normal slot, and in the first set. Expect this to continue. It appears the band really likes its ability to inject fresh energy and intrigue into a show through a first set performance. It’s also proven to help expand Set I’s from what were strictly song-based affairs, into more fluid and jammable mediums.

A noticeable trend throughout 2012 was the band’s re-embracing of the first set. From 06/15 and 06/22 to 07/06, 08/19, and 08/31, Phish attacked their first set’s with energy and a focus on exploration like they hadn’t since 1.0. Further appearances from the band’s seminal song will only solidify their dedication to explore within Set I.

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VII. A Dick’s Run That Will Fail To Live Up To The Hype

With a two week gap between their UIC run and their initial Dick’s Run in 2011, many wondered if Phish would lost steam from their August Tour and play a rusty set of shows to close out the tour. At the time, Dick’s looked more or less like bonus Phish. As it turned out however, Dick’s 2011 turned out to be the run of the year, solidifying 2011 as the year of the three-night-stand’s, and gracing us with some pretty monumental music to keep our faith alive throughout the winter and spring of 2012.

Last year Phish timed everything perfectly, with their whole tour leading up to Dick’s. Easing themselves throughout the tour, they picked their spot’s perfectly, allowing them to be energized and fresh by the time Dick’s came around. As a result, they absolutely tore the soccer stadium to pieces, playing the best show they’ve played in almost a decade, while littering three nights with monumental jams.

This year, there’s a twenty-five-day gap separating their tour finale at the Hollywood Bowl and Dick’s. Many surmised that this break would allow them to have a storied, mid-August NE Festival akin to 1996 – 1998. This, however, has proven to be little more than baseless rumors. Either way, seeing how the band has crushed Dick’s in year’s past, along with the fact that their going to have close to four weeks between their last show and Dick’s, I’ve got to imagine that this is the year Dick’s fails to live up to the hype. This doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be memorable moments throughout, or even a solid show tossed in the mix. Just simply based on the fact that like how Phish can’t crush MSG every single year – nor any other legendary venue – odds are one year is going to be an off year at Dick’s. My gut tells me this year is that year.

My heart on the other hand, has me hoping they come through once again. Anyone who’s been there know’s, there’s a damn good reason they keep coming back to Commerce City.

VIII. A Banner Year For “Harry Hood”

“Harry Hood” has been something of a wandering classic for the last ten-odd years. In 2.0 the band chose to explore it in ways they’d rarely done in the past. In 3.0 it’s shifted between performances that have completely fallen flat, and those that have just almost reached that place. In 2013, one has to imagine that all the time back, the vastly improved chops of Trey, and the inert communication that’s been brewing for five years will lead to a glorious return of one of Phish’s true masterpieces.

Listen closely, and it’s clear, from 09/04/2011 to 08/15/2012, 09/02/2012 to 12/30/2012, slowly but surely the band has been rebuilding “Hood” back to its former glory heard clearest from 1993 – 1996. While still scattered with versions that were either rushed, forced, or just couldn’t quite get there, 2012 was the best year we’ve had for “Hood’s” since the 90’s. In 2013, expect the majority of Hood’s to be the kind of emotive and connective forces that made us fan’s of it so long ago. No better way to celebrate 30 years of Phish than with a transcendent “Hood” after all.

IX. SPAC, Chicago & San Francisco…

Within the first twenty-two shows of the tour are three individual three-night runs. In 2011, Bethel, SuperBall IX, Chicago, and Dick’s reigned as the runs of the year. While 2012 still faired pretty well with AC, SPAC, San Francisco and Dick’s, only SPAC and Dick’s truly mastered the three-show run. Here in 2013, one has got to imagine the SPAC is going to explode with the energy of the band out the gates, the mid-tour stop at Chicago’s Lakefront will produce some particularly inspired music, and their comfort on the road after a month will lead to a three-night romp in San Francisco. With only Dick’s coming at an awkward time within the tour, these three three-night runs are sure to be the most memorable stops of tour. A unique medium, and one that can either bring out the best in the band, or prove how off they are, the three-night run, when played accordingly, usually result’s in some of the most transcendent moments of a tour. With enough time to get settled into a venue, and ideas that build from one show to the next, there’s simply no way they won’t destroy the above runs.

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X. Even More Six & Seven Song Set II’s

Hand-in-hand with the inspired jamming of 2012 came a plethora of six and seven song second set’s. A simple product of mathematics – when you play longer songs, you have to play less of them – the band filled much of the last part of 2012 with a number of inspired sets focused more on their playing, rather than what songs they were playing. Look no further than 08/15/2012, 08/31/2012, 09/02/2012, 12/28/2012, and 12/30/2012 for some of the best examples.

While, in the same sense that longer jams don’t necessarily mean better, there are also examples to the counter, of 10+song second sets that were fantastic – 06/22/2012, 06/28/2012, 07/08/2012, 08/19/2012, and 09/01/2012 per example.

What makes the six and seven song Set II so special is the fact that it offers the band the unique opportunity to fully incorporate flow and thematic music into a cohesive set. These set’s listen more like albums, rather than a simple conglomeration of songs. With an increased focus on improv, expect these types of second sets to become something of a norm in the summer of 2013.

XI. A NYE Show That Totally Delivers

It’s strange to consider, but, for however good as Phish’s NYE Runs typically are, the band has yet to deliver on a monster 12/31 show since 1999. Sure, 12/31/2012 was an all-around fun show to be at, complete with a fully-flowing Set II and a classic gag to ring in 2013, but more often than not, since the 90’s, NYE shows have often felt more like after-parties to the mayhem of 12/29 and 12/30. One’s got to imagine that coming into this NYE Run the band is going to be so amped up from their 30th Anniversary celebrations, along with a complete Fall Tour, that they’re going to finally put everything together to craft a NYE show of lore.

In the past, their best 12/31 shows have revolved around three factors: classic song selections, monumental jamming, and ideal gag’s that fit perfectly with the music. Look back at 12/31/1993, 12/31/1995, 12/31/1998, and 12/31/1999 for the best examples. It’s bound to happen one of these years, and it just makes perfect sense that the combination of playing, gimmickry and song selection will come through this year. If you’re on the fence about NYE 2013, man-up and make the commitment. This year has classic NYE Run written all over it.

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That does it for tackle & lines 2013 Phish Predictions. As with all these types of columns, the key is to read them for pleasure, and take them with a grain of salt. At this time last year few could have ever predicted the year of Phish we were in for.

Hope everyone’s looking forward to tour as much as we are! Please feel free to leave comments, thoughts, suggestions and rants to the column as we will respond to any and all questions.

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The Three Decembers – 1999

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Minimalist music got its start in the underground art-rock scenes of New York and San Francisco in the early-mid 1960’s. Pioneered by such composers as Philip Glass, John Adams, Steven Reich and Terry Riley, the music was created in effort to communicate the banality of the modern world, specifically, in an urbanized Post-War-West. Characterized by an almost stationary and repetitive melody, Minimalist music shifts between great lengths and ephemeral ideas. It is usually accompanied by a slow modulation, is generally marked by moments of elongated silence, and, is notable for its lack of overall direction. The Velvet Underground might be the first pop group to bring Minimalism to the masses, experimenting with the style in their attempts to describe Lou Reed’s experiences with electroshock therapy, and the band members well-documented substance abuse problems. In the 70’s Brian Eno’s Ambient Series focused entirely on minimalist music as he sought to regenerate his feelings of being stuck in airports, and being on solid ground, through motionless melodies. Perhaps no one has had more of an impact on minimalism than Brian Eno, whose career as both a solo artist and producer has helped to influence countless pop and rock acts to incorporate minimalism and ambient music in their own catalogue. From U2 to Radiohead, David Bowie to Coldplay, David Byrne to Paul Simon, Eno has infused the sound of modern pop music with a simplicity, cogitation, and subtly overt description of the world we live in.

When electronic and dance music rose to prominence in the mid-90’s, minimalism found its proper place in the lexicon, heard seemingly everywhere – most notably in Britain – from Radiohead to the Aphex Twin. Just as Baroque properly described the artistic, scientific, architectural, and literature advancements of 17th Century Italy, Minimalism’s stark, motionless melodies, washes of noise, and overall structure-less ideas are a reflection of the burdened existence of humans in this age of globalized commerce, overpopulated dreams, and decaying empires. While it has been compared to fascism for it’s repetitive thoughts, claimed as proof that American audiences are uneducated, and criticized by British music critic, Ian MacDonald, as the “passionless, sexless, and (the) emotionally blank soundtrack of the machine age,” Minimalism is, for better or worse, the music of our time. Whether or not one enjoys it is another topic entirely, but in order to truly understand and appreciate the era in history we currently reside in, one must grasp the role that minimalist music plays within this period. In this same regard, the artists – the communicators of an era – must embrace the concept to stay relevant, lest a revolutionary style emerges to document our era in a more contextual way.

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To many Phish fans, the end of 1997 felt like the end of 1993 or 1994 did. Having just concluded one of the standout tours of their career – not to mention a holiday run for the ages – 1998 loomed as yet another potential peak year, ala 1995. Reinforced by the surprise “Island Tour” during the first week of April, the band was rejuvenated, confident and stirring with 0402bandexcitement to push the sound they’d explored throughout 1997 even further through linear musical communication. Citing boredom after a three-month break, the band announced four shows on Long Island and Rhode Island in effort to keep the musical successes of 1997 fresh. A historic run that’s discussed with near-unanimous admiration and awe to this day, the Island Tour is perhaps the rawest Phish anyone’s been granted access to since the late-80’s. Each show is full of standout performances and transcendent jams, and features a Phish teetering on the edge of a musical cliff multiple times. And yet, no matter how risky, how far-flung, how abstract the band decided to push a jam, a set, or even a full show, the results completely speak for themselves. ‘Stash’, ‘Twist’, ‘Mike’s’, ‘Weekapaug’, ‘Roses Are Free’, ‘Piper’, ‘Tweezer’, ‘Birds Of A Feather’, ‘2001’, ‘Brother’, ‘Ghost’, ‘You Enjoy Myself’, ‘Bathtub Gin -> Cities’, ‘Prince Caspain -> Maze -> Shafty -> Possum -> Funk Jam -> Cavern.’ All top tier jams, all unique in their own right, all display a band in one of the peak moments of their career, connecting with such ease that it’s almost unrecognizable to the discombobulated quartet that would regularly stumble through shows just six years later.

In particular, the “Twist” from 04/02/1998 and the “Roses Are Free” from 04/03/1998 stand out as two of the most innovative, original, and jaw-dropping moments in Phish history. The “Twist” built through a Gordo-led dance-beat and swirling guitar riffs from Trey, (matched by Kuroda’s instinctive lighting skills) into an atmospheric jam that rivaled Spielberg and Dreyfuss for musical Close Encounters. A song that has been known to consistently push Phish into more demented, spacious and inter-stellar dimensions than practically all others, their performance on 2 April is famous for the integrated relationship between the music and the lights, creating a true aural and visual sense that the band was on the verge of lifting the venue off into outer space. Kicking off Set II of the 3 April show, “Roses Are Free” made its 3rd appearance in the band’s history. Opening into an unyielding soundscape it featured one of the most connected planes the band has ever reached, whereby Trey emphasized singular note dance beats over a thick layer of a Mike and Fish groove from 13:20 – 17:35, before stretching on into the unknown for another ten minutes. Separate from the overt funk jams of 1997, the Island Tour proved the grasp Phish held on linear musical communication. Completely locked into a simple musical language with which the band could connect, their jams in 1998 diverted from the Hendrix-esque onslaughts, the four-part James Brown breakdowns, and the disco-spaciousness of 1997. In their place were more fluid, glossy passages, Mike-led slow-strutting bass jams, blissful washes of noise and space, and an overall emphasis on the Ambient music that Brian Eno had perfected in the ’70’s.

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From the musical highs of the Island Tour, Phish returned to Bearsville Studios, heads full of ideas and inspiration, and recorded a number of songs that would ultimately become The Story Of The Ghost. As with 1997, they began their summer in Europe. Armed with an arsenal of new songs, they focused on pushing their jams into more simplistic, groove-oriented, and ambient realms. A quick 10-day tour of Copenhagen, Prague and Barcelona allowed the band to stretch their musical minds much like the previous summer, and eased them into what would become their last consistently brilliant summer tour until the 2012 run. A notable point in the band’s history, they were not only big enough to play pretty much wherever they wanted, but had just emerged from a year in which they’d overcome their first batch of improvisational writer’s block and had conquered their 14-year-long goal of crafting music that highlighted each member equally. They were essentially a 1997-version of Jordan: reinvented, dominating, perfecting their craft in such a way that few of their peers were capable of. And like Jordan, after a 72-Win season in 1996, another set of MVP’s in the regular season and Finals, and a commanding Championship over the Seattle Supersonics, Phish followed up their victorious 1997 with a year that, while incredibly successful and memorable in its own right, was the first sign of a band who was regressing.

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As a quick side note: what might be most interesting about the period between 1998 – 2004 is that literally nothing substantial has ever been written about it. And yet, it is the most clear-cut era of Phish that features a band in conflict with each other, struggling with why they’re still playing together, attempting to reinvent themselves once again, failing to surpass the highs of 1995 and 1997, and battling against the internal and external forces that substance abuse has on people. Biographers have written at length about the band’s improbable rise from the mountains of Vermont to Madison Square Garden. Bloggers – such as this one – have relentlessly praised the band’s musical heights in 1995 and 1997. The 3.0 era is littered with reviews, insights, interviews and articles about the happy state of Phish, and the clear redemption story that they’ve come to be considered. Yet no one has comprehensively written about, nor sought to truly understand, the darkest, most confusing, and most misunderstood period of Phish. In his 2009 book, Phish: A Biography, Parke Puterbaugh essentially wrote off the entire six-year-era, claiming it to be little more than a drug-addled voyage into the unknown.

While we can all agree that these years featured loads of mistakes, shows where the band simply didn’t show up, questionable energy, and cringeworthy moments, there’s also an untapped amount of brilliance that emanates from the conflict, and provides an intriguing view into the world of the band. Yet, it’s almost as if no one wants to go there with Phish. It’s almost as if the majority of their fanbase, the writers tasked with articulating their history, and the band members themselves, wants nothing to do with the reality that the scene overtook them at the height of their powers and popularity, and directly impacted the music they made. The sum of Phish’s entire history – some 30-years in – has thus been reduced to: happy hippy drug band makes it big, happy hippy drug band jams, happy hippies dance, everyone has fun, happy hippy drug band breaks up (twice), happy hippy drug band returns a bit older and wiser, happy hippy drug band rediscovers their happy hippy selves, happy hippy drug band becomes the elder statesmen of the jamband scene all while infusing good ole’ fashion rock n’ roll into their happy hippy repertoire. While it’s an endearing tale, it’s not honest. It does not serve any of their fans – nor any casual observers – any benefit by providing a lighter version of the band’s history. Conflict and confusion are a part of life whether we like it or not. And one of the most intriguing aspects of Phish has always been their diametric relationship with darkness and light. At no time was this relationship clearer than during the tumultuous period of 1998 – 2004.

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Drugs had begun to seep into the lives of Phish and their road crew in ways they simply hadn’t before 1998. While, sure, obviously Phish’s music wouldn’t have been produced in the way it was without the aid of a few psychedelics and a bit of weed, and yes, their energy and drive couldn’t have been sustained over four month tours without a bit of yay to keep them going, drugs have been a part of the modern musical lifestyle, since at least the Honky-Tonk and Jazz age. But up until 1998, drugs had taken a back seat to the omnipresent goal of hooking-up in a unified and fully connected way. In 1998 however, we see, for the first time, the negative effects of a life lived on the road, and the addictions that can stem from casual drug usage and partying. The introduction of pharmaceutical drugs and MDMA were probably what turned the tide in the late-90’s. The latter – which is thought to have entered the Phish scene in 1997 – is known for both its ethereal highs, and the lack of disturbance to cognitive behavior. Yet taken regularly, it leads to increased paranoia, chronic depression and liver damage.

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Prescription drug abuse isn’t thought to have become an issue within the band until around 1999. Overwhelmed by the tidal wave of fandom that followed the band’s every step, in need of a substance to effectively cut their anxiety, it’s no wonder the band and their crew – each with various connections to fans and dealers – latched onto drugs that have increased in their prescriptions in America from 5 million to close to 45 million between 1991 and 2010. Essentially a heroin addiction, prescription drug abuse takes a viscous grip on the addict, resulting in an unrelenting need to satisfy their urge to get high, while impacting their cognitive awareness, personal relationships, and increasing the addict’s anxiety and paranoia. Trey and Page, most notably, would be overtaken by the unrivaled force of drug addictions. Affecting both their own individual lives, the addictions eventually led to Page’s 2004 divorce and Trey’s bottoming out in 2006 which all but killed him.

Musically they had become even looser than 1997 leading many of the band’s oldest fans to accuse them of laziness – a claim backed up in part by the increasing amount of flubs that accompanied many shows. While yes, a stronger focus on jams seeped into their live repertoire in 1997 and 1998, and while yes, one can certainly claim that this was a stylistic result of the linear musical communication they’d unearthed, there is unfortunately a laundry list of examples where the band used jamming as a crutch to overshadow their lack of tightness from 1998 – 2004, particularly when it came to performing their compositionally complex classics. Just listen to the 04/02 ‘Sloth,’ 04/03 ‘Reba’, the 04/05 ‘You Enjoy Myself’, the 07/02 ‘Fluffhead’, much of 07/05, 07/15 ‘Guyute’, the 08/02 ‘David Bowie’, 08/09 ‘Esther’, 11/04 ‘Guyute’, 11/11 ‘Punch You In The Eye’, and the  11/15 ‘My Friend, My Friend’, among others for clear examples of the band’s performance and discipline slipping. What’s more is that each of the above shows contain jams that have, over time, come to overshadow moments where it’s clear the band had lost a step when it came to performing their compositions. While not nearly as mistake-prone, or even careless as they would become in the coming years, 1998 is the first time where we see a clear shift from practice and dedication to the songs they’d written, to the band who would eventually all-but omit their songs entirely in favor of extended jamming.

All said, 1998 is still retained as one of the better years of Phish. The Europe tour, while not as monumental as 1997’s absolute destruction of the old world, still produced moments of brilliance throughout, and pushed the band forward in their experiments with the sublime and ambient blissfulness. The Copenhagen ‘Down With Disease -> Dog Faced Boy> Piper’, ‘Tweezer -> 2001’, and 07/02/1998 Set II, Prague ‘s’Fee -> Water In The Sky’, ‘Buried Alive> AC/DC Bag -> Ghost -> Cities’, and ‘Piper -> Makisupa Policeman’, and the Barcelona ‘Ghost -> Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Tweezer’, and ‘Drowned -> Theme From The Bottom’ all stood out as moments when the band hooked-up and embarked on extended journeys, defined by stunningly beautiful, and wholly simple, fully connected music. When they returned to the States in mid-July, Phish trekked from Portland, OR to Limestone, ME over the course of a month, igniting the tour with two gimmicks that would reap insurmountable payoffs.

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Throughout their entire career Phish has always emphasized cover songs as a way to celebrate their influences, embark on extended journeys of classics, and inject their overall sound with fresh ideas. In the mid-80’s The Grateful Dead dominated the band’s cover arsenal, so much so that Trey swore off listening to the band in 1986. Almost overnight, The phish1dDead’s songs disappeared from their live catalogue, as Phish moved swiftly in their own unique direction. Frank Zappa, The Talking Heads, Jazz Standards and under-the-radar rock groups like Traffic, Robert Palmer, and Little Feat took precedence in the late-80’s. In the early-90’s there was a noticeable shift away from covers and towards the band’s own catalogue, as original songs began to dominate their shows. With a goal to “tighten the ship” from 1989 – 1992, the band spent much of their shows focused on their own burgeoning song collection, reserving many of their covers for the Fishman “HYHU” gag. By late-1993/early-1994 however, Phish was so ripe with confidence in their catalogue and overall show, that they began re-introducing covers back into their sets. While still, many were of the “Freebird,” “Great Gig In The Sky” variety – honoring the cover as somewhat of a joke performance – legitimate takes on The Who’s “Sparks,” Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and Joe Walsh’s “Walk Away” injected new life into Phish sets, and would help to shape the band’s sound in the coming years.

An idea was thus born in the Summer of 1994 to cover an entire album of another band, immersing themselves in the style and sound of a group, in effort to both capture the snapshot of a band, and see what affect it had on their own music. On 31 October 1994 Phish spent the show’s entire second set performing The Beatles’ The White Album, an exercise that would be repeated six more times – including one 11/02 cover – and each offering would impact the band’s style and sound in various ways, such as songwriting, and stylistic jamming. In 1995, covers began bleeding into Phish’s live repertoire like they hadn’t since the mid-80’s. A new tradition was born, by which the band would select one song from the year’s covered album to remain within their rotation, so as to always remind fans of the original performance, and to keep the sound born out of it, relevant. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Drowned’, ‘Crosseyed & Painless’, ‘Rock & Roll’, and ‘Shine A Light’ are each revered songs for this very reason.

Flash forward to 1998. Now a band that had twice peaked – once in December 1995 with the defining sound of their entire career, and then in November/December 1997 with a wholly reinvented style – they were, in the Summer 1998, seemingly out there with nothing left to prove. Hence the overt-looseness of the tour, Summer 1998, while chock-full of stunning improv, sounds in many ways like the most pure fun the band’s had in years. Calling upon the inspirational source of covers, Phish infused the entire summer with one-off covers that added an anything-goes dynamic to nearly every show, and ultimately led to one of the most emotive, personal, and honorable gags of all time. ‘California Love’, ‘She Caught The Katy And Left Me A Mule To Ride’, ‘Albuquerque’, ‘Ramble On’, ‘Rhinoceros’, ‘Runnin With The Devil’, ‘Sabatoge’ – all out of nowhere covers – all proved the versatility of Phish’s musicianship, and all gave the tour a defining sense of humor that has stayed with the band some 15 years later. All led to Virginia Beach when, for the first time in twelve years, Phish covered The Grateful Dead. Honoring the band and their leader on the third anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death, Phish shocked their unassuming crowd with a stunning and beautiful encore performance of The Dead’s composed tale, “Terrapin Station.” A moment that linked the two bands forever, it marked a sense of unity and equality, and a shared goal the two bands embraced, regardless of the often lazy comparisons tossed around about them. It represented, in many ways, a growing-up moment for Phish. They’d conquered the goals they’d set out for themselves over the previous 30 months, and were now, just a band again, playing for the sheer sense of joy they got out of playing together. It was clear at this point in their career that The Dead had provided a road map for their success, and that there was a shared lineage between the two. It was okay after 1995 and 1997 to embrace their similarities, and to honor the band . After twelve years of forging their own path, they no longer sounded like a kid trying to emulate Dad. They now sounded like the Dad, fully established, with a sound all their own, honoring those who’d come before them.

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All summer long, the posters that accompanied each show proclaimed Phish would play in a ring of fire by tour’s end. Used to senseless gimmicks and jokes from the band, many fans brushed this advertisement off in the same way they had Fall ’97’s Phish Destroys America posters. As far as anyone was concerned, they were there as one more proof of the absolute brilliance with which Phish had been playing over the last five years. Musically a dedication to Ambient music had overtaken the band. From the onset of the tour, the band infused their sound not with the thick and meticulous funk grooves of 1997, but with a more refined, minimalist, spaciousness and overtly Ambient style. Heard in the jam that emitted from the end of ‘Horn’ on 07/15, Ambient influences popped up in the 07/17 ‘Mike’s Song’, 07/19 ‘McGrupp’, 08/01 ‘Tweezer’, 08/03 ‘Halley’s’, 08/08 ‘Piper’, 08/09 ‘Bathtub Gin’, 08/12 ‘Ramble On -> Slave’, and the 08/15 ‘David Bowie’, among others. Combining both the “ring of fire” gag with the style that was creeping into their jams, Phish emerged after three sets of music on the first night of the Lemonwheel Festival and played an hour-long set of music totally in the Brian Eno Ambient style, lit only by a ring of handmade candles provided by their audience. Bridging their festival tradition of the late-night, instrumental set with the musical style they were infusing into their sound, the “Ambient Jam” is the most successful of their late-night sets, not only for its sheer listenability, but also for the impact it had on the band over the course of the next two years.

When the band returned to the road in late-October, their jams took on a patient, wholly-ambient soundscape, as they further built upon their linear musical communication. All but phish_DSOTMeliminating individual notes from their jams, they took on the sound of one unified instrument, more so than any period in their career. The 10/29 ‘Reba’, 10/30 ‘NICU -> Prince Caspian’, the terrifying ‘Wolfman’s’ from Halloween, UIC ‘AC/DC Bag’ and ‘Bathtub Gin’, Hampton ‘Simple’, and the Worcester ‘Weekapaug’ and ‘Simple’ were far less reliant on beats and dance breakdowns as their jams had been in 1997 and early 1998. Trey stepped further into the background, all but omitting the Hendrix-style guitar onslaughts from his repertoire, favoring instead, patient washes with his effects, allowing Mike and Page to rise to prominence in their most innovative jams. While the style aggravated many who only saw it as a continued downward spiral away from the youthfully crazed jams of 1993-1995, and others who viewed it as nothing more than a distraction from the grip the band was losing on playing their actual songs, one cannot ignore the fact that here was a band, fifteen years into their career, not even a year removed from one of their peak musical achievements, attempting to reinvent themselves once again.

It’s a point Tackle & Lines has been pushing since its onset: Where most bands would have cashed in on the successes of 1993, 1994, and 1995, and either broken up, or reverted to an easier method of playing, Phish has never remained still. Keenly aware that if they keep pushing their music further, if they stay dedicated to the process of improvisational change, the musical payoff will come, and, they will gain even more knowledge about each other as people. This knowledge not only serves them as friends, but as musicians trying to unearth the secrets of linear musical communication.

The Holiday Run of 1998 was unique for two reasons. First, it was the band’s first four-night NYE run in the same venue – that being, “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” Madison Square Garden. Second, it is generally referred to as the most consistent, and overall most on-point NYE Run they’ve ever embarked on. While there were certainly more highs in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1997, no one would ever call the 28th in any of those years a standout show. A path that would be followed in their 2003, 2009, 2011 and 2012 NYE runs, the 1998 NYE run in no way suffered from a rusty opening night, nor a weak show throughout, probably due to the consistency of the venue. Ambient jams dominated the run with ‘Carini> Wolfman’s’, ‘2001’, ‘Frankie Says’, ‘The Squirming Coil -> Slave’, ‘Mike’s Song’ and ‘Simple -> Harry Hood’ all standing out as the best moments of integration. Concluding the year with the best all-around NYE show since 12/31/1995, the band looked to 1999 as a year of change. Few probably realized at the time just how different things would be when the band finally reemerged as a singular unit six months later. Combining the stylistic changes that had been occurring within their sound over the past two years with the impact drugs and the burgeoning scene were having on the band, 1999 was to prove to be the most tumultuous and confusing year of the band’s career – save 2004, of course. And yet, with the awesome world-wide event of the Millennium occurring just one year later, Phish would prove once more their ability to rise above the darkness, and in part, accomplish one more of the distinctive goals they’d set as a band.

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While Phish’s 1997-1998 foray into linear musical communication produced exceptional results in terms of whole-band unified jamming, and led to a musical peak in 1997, there were a few casualties of the controversial era. The band’s dedication to precision playing, particularly with their composed pieces, took a back seat to their nightly dives into the unknown. The tension & release jams which had been their bread & butter for twelve years nearly faded from existence, as the band opted for mellower, less peaky jams with which they could communicate on an even plane. Being as the music they were making had to be  completely egoless to work, Phish’s guitar-extroidinaire stepped behind the shadows, and many of the jams which in the past had lived and died with him, became far less reliant on his output. Sure, no one could have replaced him, but it was necessary – by Trey’s own admission – that he reduce his role in leading Phish, thus giving Mike and Page a chance to step up and lead the band. This diminished time in the spotlight took its toll on the natural born star, Trey, and in the winter of 1999 he embarked on his first solo tour, in effort to not only get his kicks as a front-man again, but also to test out potential future Phish songs in a live setting.

His decision in early-1999 to pursue a solo-tour in his free time was a monumental shift for the band. No longer would all the band members’ time be dedicated to pushing Phish forward. For the first time, it appeared the band might need a vacation from itself. Phish suddenly became a part of Trey’s life, not his whole life. This new world for both Phish and their fans has become the norm some fourteen years later, as fans have come to expect that Phish will play only when they’re recording or in the immediacy of a tour, and the rest of the time will either be dedicated to family or side projects. Yet, in 1999 it was just another in a long line of reasons, that displayed the band was on rocky ground and was, in a lot of ways, adrift for perhaps the first time since Trey’s suspension from UVM in 1984.

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When fans strolled into Sandstone Amphitheater, just west of Kansas City, on 30 June 1999, the first thing that must have caught their eye, was the stage set-up which was drastically altered from the way it had been since the mid-80’s. Whereas for the first 15 years of their history the band had been arranged on stage in a horizontal line – Page, Trey, Mike, Fish, from left to right, respectively – which spoke of their goals of linear musical communication. In 1999 Mike and Trey switched places, and Fishman moved behind Trey and Gordo. A clear sign that the band wanted to sonically emphasize the rhythm within their music, the shift would have a direct impact on the music they made over the following two years, while at the same time, symbolically represented the growing divisions that would ultimately tear the band apart. When looking at pictures of the 1999 – 2000 stage set-up, what’s most interesting is that Fishman is not located directly behind Mike, ala a generic rock band. Positioned slightly ajar, with an opening towards Trey, the band appears to be a trio, with Page off to the side. The new set-up would have its effects on a growing division between Trey and Page, with Trey conferring with Mike and Fish about song selections, directions of jams, and Page being left in the dark for much of each show.

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Wasting no time displaying the affect their new stage set-up had on their sound, Phish opened 1999 with a twenty-minute “Bathtub Gin” which heralded in a tour, and a year that would see them move even further from a regimented playing of their songs, while consistently favoring improv and the unknown. Prior to the start of the Summer Tour, Phish released The Siket Disc. A compilation of instrumental song concepts from The Story Of The Ghost sessions, The Siket Disc was the product of Phish toying with ideas out of extended jams, rather than composing any songs proper. These songs debuted throughout the summer, adding a new element to the shows, as many fans who either hadn’t heard the record, or weren’t following the band on the road, simply thought they were extensions of jams. “My Left Toe,” “The Happy Whip & Dung Song” and “What’s The Use?” received the most play, each of which added to the loose style with which the band was playing, where any song could catch a groove and set off on a twenty-minute excursion. What’s more is that the songs further emphasized the minimalist and ambient style the band had been experimenting with throughout 1998, pushing the band to continue developing their sound through a more noise-based approach.

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Much like three of their last four Summer Tours, Summer 1999 lives and dies on its improvisational jams. What’s truly incredible about the tour – and really, the year overall – is that through all of the unknowns, through any of the conflict, through any of the slop, the band is still capable of crafting unique, mind-altering improvisational music. Retaining the groove-based nature of the 1997 revolution, the sound of Phish in 1999 is even more spacious, even more focused on the abstract. Their best jams emanate from simple grooves set by Mike and Fish and allow Trey and Page even more freedom in painting melodies over the tops of a rhythm section that has essentially been training for this moment for three years. Increasing his arsenal of effect pedals, Trey continued to remain in the background of many Phish jams, though by year-end, the best jams would have built upon linear musical communication, only to be fully realized through colorful melodic riffs from The Bad Lieutenant. What’s most unique about the Summer 1999 tour, is that it’s the one tour where the band’s drug problems really showed – just listen to 07/24/1999 – AND were a good thing. The whole summer sounds like a band that’s over the crest, and is just playing on pure instinct. First sets were mostly compiled of songs that couldn’t have matched in any other year – 07/08/1999, 07/13/1999, 07/24/1999, 07/25/1999 – and yet due to jams and segues, work somehow in an effortless way. Second sets, much like the last four years, are full of stunning excursions into the unknown. Only this tour, with a more spacey and contemplative approach, emphasize the space between notes, and the mellow moments in between the rage, creating a dream-like affect throughout the entire tour.

Standout shows are found in Camden, where the band embarked on one of the first extended jams out of “Chalk Dust Torture -> Roggae” with stunningly blissful results in the first set, before taking “Tweezer” and “Birds” of a feather to ambient, groove-based realms in the second. The second night of Great Woods is remembered for the sublime “The Curtain> Halley’s Comet -> Roses Are Free -> NO2” segment in Set I, a monster “Wolfman’s> Piper” in Set II, and a fitting one-time performance of “Tuesday’s Gone” in the encore, concluding their first two shows at Great Woods since 1994, the latter of which stretched into Wednesday morning. Holmdel, NJ’s two-nights featured the closest shows the band had played to Trey’s hometown of Princeton, and Page’s Basking Ridge, in five years. The first night contained a jam sequence in Set II that has lived on as one of the lasting soundscapes of the era. Reading “Meatstick -> Split Open & Melt -> Kung -> Jam -> Bouncing Around The Room,” the jam is nearly 55-minutes of unabridged improv. The fifteen minute jam out of “Meatstick,” and the post-“Kung” jam prove to be two of the most equally sublime and unnerving moments of the entire tour. The Oswego Festival granted fans a third set on 07/18 which read “My Soul> Piper> Prince Caspain> Wilson -> Catapult -> Icculus> Quinn The Eskimo> Fluffhead,” thus bridging stunning improv with their age-old gimmicks. As the tour wound into the midwest towards its conclusion, Columbus’s second set of “Ghost -> Free> Birds Of A Feather -> Meatstick> Fire” provided one of the most fluid sets of the entire tour, displaying the band’s grasp on groove-oriented, spacious jamming, regardless of the fact that Trey clearly stumbled through the lyrical section of “Birds.” For as controversial a show it is among the legion of Phish’s dedicated fans, 07/24/1999 at Alpine Valley still retains some of the most surreal moments of the tour. The 18-minute jam that unfolded from the second song “Fluffhead” is a completely unprecedented moment in the band’s history, resulting in a blissful jam in the least likely of places. The Second Set’s 18-minute “Mango Song ->The Happy Whip & Dung Song” provides yet another completely atypical jam of the show, and the encore of “Glide> Camel Walk, Alumni Blues> Tweezer Reprise” will set the standard for years to come in terms of what an incredible encore is. The following night at Deer Creek is probably the best show of the entire tour, and is on the short list for show of the year. With an absolutely classic first set that opened with a six song segment “Meat> My Friend, My Friend -> My Left Toe -> Whipping Post> Makisupa Policeman -> Happy Birthday Chris Kuroda” that was as out of place as it was stunning, the show is a microcosm of 1999. Loose, jammy, a bit strung-out, the music crafted is the kind you’d expect a band to craft in the wee-hours of the morning.

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After six months apart from each other in early-1999, the band dedicated the last six months of the year to Phish. Thus, only a month and a half after the conclusion of the Summer Tour, the band embarked on a month-long Fall Tour that saw them spend more time on the West Coast since Summer 1997. Inherently understanding that their songs had gotten away from them over the course of the last two years, First Sets began to resemble the recital type sets that would become commonplace over the next fourteen years. While there’d still be jams regularly contained within for at least the next five years, a clear structure was being implemented, whereby the band would play themselves into shape over the course of a tour, through essentially rehearsal-esque First Sets, and then use Set II as a platform for exploration. Fans of Phish’s extended-improv have more than their fair share of choices in 1999, as the Fall Tour is littered with standout jams that feature even darker themes, deeper spacious exploration, and an emphasis on electronic beats that would come to define their sound over the next year-and-a-half. The Portland ‘Ghost’, Boise ‘AC/DC Bag -> Gumbo’, Chula Vista ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’, Memphis ‘2001 -> Down With Disease’ and ‘Mike’s -> Catapult -> Mike’s -> Kung -> Mike’s -> I Didn’t Know’, Minneapolis ‘Piper’, and Albany ‘Limb By Limb -> 2001’ all stood out as the top-tier jams of the tour. The 09/14 “AC/DC Bag -> Gumbo” resides in its own separate category. A jam that displayed the interwoven communication 16-years as a band creates, the “Bag” wove through blissful ambience, beat-driven electro-funk, and noise-laden soundscapes over 27-minutes, crafting a jam for the ages, fusing sounds of 1995, 1997 and 1998 in a compartmental vehicle that could have only been created in 1999.

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Along with their career-long goal of establishing a sound that allowed them to play as one unified instrument, Phish had long talked of a desire to play what they called “The Long Gig.” In their ideal world, the band would surprise their fans by locking the doors prior to show time, give everyone in attendance one phone call, and then play for as long as they desired, be it overnight, or over the course of multiple days. The idea was part experiment to see how their fans would react to not only an onslaught of Phish, but also the psychological effects of being locked in a room for an extended period of time with no clear ending. Musically, the band had always wanted to see what kind of music they would be creating some 10-20-30-hours in, if they embarked on an unyielding journey of exploration. Unfortunately, with the age of modernity that birthed us cell phones, frivolous laws that prevent trapping people, and the monetary needs of a venue which relies on turnover at the gate on a regular basis, the idealized Long Gig would have to be altered to be plausible.

With the millennium celebrations fast approaching, Phish realized that by combining their New Year’s show with their festivals, they’d have the opportunity to fulfill their Long Gig, at least in part. A massive Phish-blowout was in the works. Located in the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, the show would allow the band to emulate their summer festivals, while celebrating the literal, once-in-a-millennium event. Phish would play three-sets on the 30th, an afternoon set on the 31st, and then emerge just before midnight and play through the night, a seven-hour, unending set, one that would go down in infamy as perhaps the most unique, special, and incredible gag/show of Phish’s entire career.

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phish_9_16_99_1The December 1999 tour was announced as a run-up to The Big Cypress Festival. Just three-weeks in length, it gave the band a chance to tour their home turf, seeing as 1999 would be their first ever NYE run outside of the Northeast. Building upon the improvisational accomplishments of the summer and fall, the December 1999 tour is probably the best example – aside from their June 2000 tour of Japan – of Phish fully realizing the groove-based-ambient jams they’d been working towards over the past year. Maybe it was the cold weather, maybe the anticipation of an entire night of live music, maybe the cement structures which always seem to bring out a darker side of Phish’s music, maybe it was the sheer fact that they’d been playing almost continuously for six months, whatever it was, the improvisational music crafted in December 1999 resides in a category with that of December 1995 and 1997 as some of the most original they have ever crafted. This is not to suggest that the greatness of December 1999 is somehow comparable or equal to the greatness of 1995 and 1997. It’s not. For starters, many of the overall shows in December 1999 are shit, and in many ways, complete throwaways. As with much of 1999 (and 2000, and 2003, and certainly 2004) the jams are what make or break a show. Overall the energy of shows was certainly lacking, most likely due to song selection and performance. Unlike December 1995 and December 1997, December 1999 is not a peak month in Phish’s history. What it is – for all of the negativity brewing within the band and for all of the ominous darkness hovering over the scene – is a shining example of the band immersing themselves in their music, crafting jams that are original, and completely true to themselves, using a minimalist style to further push linear musical communication.

– Jams –

In a month so reliant on its jams, selecting three to sum up the overall sound is a bit daunting. Each show contains at least one exploratory excursion that would be worthy of selection, be it the 12/02 ‘Bathtub Gin -> 2001’, the Cincinnati ‘Limb By Limb’ and ‘Split Open And Melt’, Portland ‘Halley’s Comet’, 12/10 ‘David Bowie -> Have Mercy -> HYHU’, 12/11 ‘Ghost -> 2001’, the 12/13 and 12/16 ‘Sand’, the Hampton ‘2001> Sand’, or the Big Cypress ‘Mike’s’, ‘DWD’,  ‘Rock & Roll’, ‘Crosseyed’, ‘Drowned.’ Yet for as remarkable as each of those jams was in both their musical merits and their ability to embrace the sound the band was seeking to emulate, there are three jams which just capture the entire era of Phish with more ease and authenticity. The Hartford “Drowned,” and the Big Cypress “Sand -> Quadrophonic Toppling,” and “Roses Are Free” standout as The jams of December 1999.

On the day after Trey’s Grandfather passed away, Phish took the stage in Hartford, CT, and unleashed a Second Set jam out of “Drowned” that turned the tide of The Who classic in a shape-shifting manner, that altered all versions played up to now. Leaving the song proper, guns a blazing, Trey absolutely dominates the torrential jam like few of 1999 right up to 14:28. From there, the band embarks on a beat-driven, dance-heavy jam that builds off a rock-solid foundation from Mike and Fish, and features interwoven licks from Page on the clav, and Trey alternating between guitar and his own keyboard.

Moving through various rising themes, the jam pushes into its own realm, away from the arena-rock jam in which it originated, as each member trimmed the fat and moved into more simplistic rhythms. At 20:19 the band crosses a plane, leaving the dance-heavy mid-section of the jam, as Trey hits the sirens and they move into more abstract territory. It’s here that we 17445967week0hear the massive influence of Mike, who emerges from his back-up bassist world and directs the jam around pseuedo-dance-beats that emphasize space over notes. Trey follows suit, while Page moves to his synths to cultivate a wall of sound, and Fishman keeps the jam afloat atop a subdued, electronic beat. The last six minutes of the jam are spent in atmospheric space, as Trey allows the layered loops he’s established to continue, and his guitar becomes more of a destructive force, in conflict with the beat. Concluding with an ominous tone before fading into “Prince Caspain,” the Hartford “Drowned” embodies literally everything about 1999. Combining blissful Hose with dance-heavy breakdowns, atmospheric noise, and minimalist influences, the jam is a stark image of where Phish was in this latter era of 1.0.

Three hours into their all-night set at Big Cypress, Phish kicked into the song that had come to define December 1999, “Sand.” Born out of Trey’s solo band, “Sand” was built on a incessant beat from Mike and Fish, staccato dance melodies from Trey, and ambient washes from Page. While it jammed consistently, it rarely diverted from its theme. It thus provided both a sustained groove-based dance party for their audience, and further ample reason for their longest-surving fans to continue criticizing them for laziness. All this changed on 12/31/1999 (well, 3am 01/01/2000, to be technically correct) when the band followed a straight-up fiery peak of the song’s theme with one of the most unique jams they’ve ever embarked on. At 17:41 Trey stays locked in to the fatty and distorted tone he’d used to emphasize the jam’s tension & release segment. Only here he follows Mike and Fish by pushing their poppy rhythms forward, diverting the expected return to “Sand”. Moving into a melodically demented realm, the band locks up rhythmically in a jam that sounds like a combination between an early-morning dream, and the last few hours of an acid trip. As the jam flows into a more twisted and melodic soundscape, the recorded voice of Mike Gordon appears, repeating the phrase “Quadrophonic Toppling.” A short sample on The Siket Disc, the song’s title is repeated, much like it is on the recording, though here, over far different music. A jam, a tease, it’s unknown really what inspired the band to inject the snippet into the “Sand” jam, other than to just fuck with the crowd, three hours into a mind-bending set. Emerging from the demented jam Mike and Page take the lead as an organic dual ensues with Page on the grand piano and Mike twisting bass lines around his “Squirming Coil”-esque patterns. Trey and Fish are thus left to enrich the jam with ambient washes through effects and cymbals, crafting yet another dream-like state, only this time, far more at peace.

Three hours later, just after 6am on New Year’s Day, Phish kicked into the fan-favorite Ween cover “Roses Are Free.” Since the “Sand -> Quadrophonic Toppling”, the set had struggled to remain fluent. While there were certainly some memorable moments within – “Reba”, “David Bowie”, “Drowned”, “Piper”, each of these jams popped up in between filler songs, compromising the structure of the set in favor of continuity. A song that had only been extended twice before, many expected “Roses Are Free” to follow the route of the last couple hours. A welcome surprise then when Trey held out the final chords of the chorus, the band followed suit, and they embarked on a totally unprecedented 35-minute jam that brought the sun up on the new millennium. Initially dominated by blistering Trey riffs juxtaposed against Page’s experimental jazz diversions, when Trey backed off at 8:30, the jam opened up, allowing Mike to join the fray. Over the course of the next nine minutes the band embarked on a loose and weaving, subdued psychedelic jam that featured Page in the spotlight, while Trey and Mike backed him up with minimalist noise. All this changed at 17:54 when Trey, who had begun searching for a melody to build off of, began looping a lilting riff that would see him take control of the jam, littering over the top of the base set by Fishman’s traversing drums, Mike’s equally bouncy bass, and Page who began incorporating ambient washes into the jam. Around 20:04 Page started forcing an ominous tone onto the jam, increasing his atmospheric noises pushing the jam into more abstract territory. The excursion resided in a conflicting zone over the next six minutes as Mike and Page underwrote the jam with intensifying noise, while Trey continued his blissful and sublime riffs. A sound that at first listen could have been accused as being offensively out-of-synch, when put into the context of the performance, it’s an incredibly fitting jam, displaying the interwoven musical relationship of Phish, crafting the experience of dawn through music. The final nine minutes are akin to a prayer of thanks, as they play out like a direct mental projection of the band’s state of mind after six-and-a-half-hours of near-continuous playing. Building to a driving force, the jam ends with little fanfare, simply concluding seemingly mid-jam, it shows the finite nature of improv, and displays the organic style with which Phish sought to embody in their 1997 – 2000 period.

– Shows –

If anyone were to compile a list of the best shows of December 1999 it would read like this: 12/02/1999, 12/03/1999, 12/08/1999, 12/11/1999, 12/15/1999, 12/18/1999, 12/30/1999, and, of course, 12/31/1999. Each of these eight shows reigns supreme over the rest of the month, and provide a snapshot of the best full shows the band played during one of their most unique months. Yet, if one were to select two shows that summed up the overall sound, the overall goals, and the overall mood of December 1999, those two shows would be 12/03/1999 and 12/31/1999. Providing a diametric perspective on one of the most controversial and misunderstood month’s of the band’s career, these two shows embody the improvisational sound, the lost sensation and the heralded place in their career December 1999 ultimately was.

On the second night of the tour, Phish crafted a full show in the minimalist style they’d spent the previous year pining at, displaying the sheer brilliance of it in the context of their music, while also proving its negative effects on their overall performance and relationship. The entire show was thus blanketed under the style that had overtaken their improv, altering the band’s approach in typically guitar-slinging songs like “Wolfman’s Brother,” “AC/DC Bag” and “Possum.” The shift is most successful in a second set that reads: “Sand> Limb By Limb, Bug> Piper, Harry Hood.”

Opening with one of the theme songs of the 99-00 Phish era, “First Tube” relies on a forward pressing, simple beat from Fishman and Gordo, while Trey and Page flitter over the top with walls of sound, and layered melodies, creating an electronic/dance feel. It’s a song that would become a commonplace opener over the next year, adding a burst of energy right out the gates, here, ushering in a show that would seek to emulate it’s musical philosophy. In the first set, “Wolfman’s,” “Bag>Possum,” and “Slave” were transformed and built like “First Tube.” Each relying on extremely simple, repeated riffs from Trey, accented by washes from Page, all over a steady beat from Mike and Fish, they fully emulated the minimalist approach the band was undertaking in 1999. Was this method good for a live concert? That’s in part up to the listener to decide. Many of the band’s oldest fans have long complained about the simplistic, lazy style Phish engulfed themselves in in the late-90’s, something which drained energy from what was once the most high octane, energized show out there. From this blog’s perspective, they’re right to a certain degree, and wrong to another. While it is apparent that the band’s performance on 12/03/1999 does lack some of the energy one might find in 1993 or 1995, but that’s the thing, it was 1999, not 1993 or 1995. Phish’s sound has always evolved, and the fact that they evolved from such an individually isolated zone of music to emulate the music of the time really goes to show the musical prowess of Phish. The fact that “AC/DC Bag” and “Possum” can be reinvented, in the moment, from a guitar-driven, straight forward rock song, to a patiently building minimalist dance number reveals more about Phish’s diversity than their laziness, regardless of the influence drugs and alcohol had on the band at the time.

The second set is without question one of the premiere examples of the 1999 sound fully working for the band. Flowing with ease, jamming with purpose, the “Sand”, “Limb By Limb” and “Harry Hood” all stand out as moments where the band fully hooked up under the guise of the minimalist style they were seeking. “Limb By Limb” in particular, which leaves its theme at 7:50, entering a rhythmic and melodic dual between Trey and Page before journeying off into the unknown. It’s the kind of solemn and peaceful jam that could only have occurred in the 1998 – 2000 era of Phish, where the conflicts of the time mixed with the linear musical communication they’d established, crafting music that was as simplistic as it was advanced.

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At this point, really the only thing left to say about 12/31/1999 should be said by the band in a series of interviews, be it for a book, or for the – hopefully – expected DVD to come about their Millennium blowout. Every fan has said their piece, as has every blogger. All that can be said about it really, is that it is without question the peak event in Phish’s 30 year history. Now, this is not to say it is their peak musical moment, for that came in 1995. What it is though, is the event where Phish realized all that was possible with their music, and with the culture they’d created, and played a concert that was totally their own. Afterwards, all Trey and Fishman could do, was look at each other and say, “We should quit.” After musically reaching their peak four years earlier, then shedding their skin and completely reinventing themselves in 1997, they’d finally discovered a moment that they knew they simply couldn’t top. Nothing Phish does in the future can, or will ever top it, even if they try to do it once more. Big Cypress was, and is, the greatest concert Phish has ever conducted. Not because of the music they created, but because of how they fully realized the power their music conducted.

From a musical perspective, the most fitting thing about the show is that the 1999 style fully matched with the band’s goal of playing all night long. Whereas their 1993-1995 sound would have been too intense for an all-night gig, and their 1997 sound would have been too reliant on Trey’s Hendrix-esque onslaughts, and four-part funk breakdowns, their sound in 1999 was so mellow, so patient, so melodic that it created a dream-like state for everyone in attendance, and everyone listening over the past thirteen years. Crafting a completely surreal feel to the entire show, ‘Down With Disease’, ‘Twist’, ‘Crosseyed & Painless’, ‘Rock & Roll’, ‘Sand -> Quadrophonic Toppling’, ‘Piper’, ‘David Bowie’, ‘Drowned’, ‘Roses Are Free’, ‘2001’ are all pushed forward with an effortlessness that could only emerge from a band so intuitively aware of each other as Phish was in 1999. The exhausted sensation, the “we made it” feeling that emanated through the concert field by daybreak sums up Phish in 1999 like no other could. While they played together for another eight months before taking an indefinite hiatus, Big Cypress was the top of the mountain for the 1.0 era of Phish. And is still, the peak of everything they have ever created.

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A year completely built on conflict, 1999 shows Phish producing some of the simplest, most connected, most linear music of their entire career, all while struggling with some of the more complex issues they would have to confront as individuals. A scene that had ballooned to proportions they could have never imagined. The negative effects of drugs and partying seeping in to their lives disagreements among each other that had always remained below the surface began billowing out. Confusions over the band’s overall direction became paramount issues. Through it all, the band continued musically evolving with ease. While there were certainly glaring issues due to their lack of practice and the personal conflicts that began to dominate the band, the fact that Phish was able to craft profoundly new music that both pushed their songs in a new direction, and reflected the current times, is an accomplishment that should rank with their 1989-1992 tightening-of-the-ship, 2003’s deep and prodding return from hiatus, and 2012’s overcoming of 3.0’s rediscovery period. Proving that their best music doesn’t always come from periods of sustained happiness. Sometimes, conflict and uncertainty are the best mediums by which to produce music. While in hindsight, one could certainly argue that Phish should have figured out their personal issues and should have practiced more in 1999, the music speaks for itself in its rawness, nakedness, and stark simplicity that is completely unique in comparison to all other eras of Phish.

The Three Decembers – 1995

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In the world of Phish, there are certain months held in a higher regard than all others. Months where the band seemed to tap into an intangible energy bigger than themselves, reach and sustain mediums of connection, and where, simply put, everything clicked. During these months, Phish wasn’t so much playing their music as they were existing within it. Featuring lengthy runs of wildly engaging shows, setlists that read as though they were plucked out of a fan’s notebook, and jams where Phish engaged in a lengthy, unending and fully flowing conversation. These months have come to define the style and sound of the multiple eras of Phish.

April 1992’s west coast tour is probably the first example of a sound being defined within a month, when the band allowed the wide open landscape and desolate valley’s to influence their developing musical experimentation, while highlighting their zany spirit, unyielding energy and psychedelically twisted humor. The breakout month of August 1993’s couldn’t have happened without the band’s mastery the “Hey Hole” jamming technique. 1994 featured dual gems in June and November, the former of which was an absolute apex of the fire and energy of the youthful Phish, and may represent the purest example of the sound Phish was trying to attain throughout their first eleven years of existence, and the latter which displayed a band that had summited the peak of their goals, and instead of plateauing, experimented with their sound, and, for the first time since the mid-80’s, explored what was possible beyond the confines of the structures they’d built and mastered. In this same regard, 1995 gave us two distinct months of brilliance: June which built upon the experimentations of the previous November, and then took the jams to a realm of no-man’s-land that they’ve only been brave enough to explore a handful of times since, and December, which we’ll get to later.

Since 1995, it’s been harder for Phish to produce this kind of consistent brilliance for a variety of reasons. They’ve toured and practiced less which means they’ve had less time to hone in on a new style and develop it, their tours have been shorter, meaning they’ve had brilliant weeks and brilliant shows rather than months, and at times their overall motivation and dedication has come into question. Even still, 1997 gave us the full realization of the funk/minimalist style they’d been searching for since 1995 in the Europe run during June, and the entire fall tour featured a band playing with as little effort yet as much intuitive communication as we’ve ever heard from them. December 1999 was an epiphany in the late 90’s/2.0 era, as the band fused beat-driven jams with minimalism, and combined it with a contagious energy that engulfed the entire fanbase as their millennium shows at Big Cypress approached. Add to it the right amount of darkness fueled by their growing desire to take a break, drug addictions that had taken ahold of two of their members, and a self consciousness that had begun to creep into their songwriting probably due to the previous two factors, and it’s one of the more puzzling, yet intriguing periods of success in their career.

The 3.0 era has produced two more months of unheralded prowess. phish10October 2010 was the first month where Phish seemed to fully shake off the rust of a five year break, and embrace what it meant to be Phish again. Particularly from the second night in Charleston, SC on, the combination of small East Coast towns, intimate venues and a resulting youthful energy, the tour was set ablaze with shows chock full of segues, teases, rarities, and some of the most concise, yet expansive jams since the early 90’s. Finally, June 2012 may take the crown as the best month of Phish since December 1997. With a stated goal of playing 200 different songs throughout their summer tour, Phish not only infused each show with fresh songs and setlists, but with some of the most diverse jamming we’ve ever heard out of them.

And yet here’s the thing, as great as all of the above months were in Phish’s near-thirty year history, December 1995 still ranks as the best month of them all, without question. Coming on the heels of 186 shows in 21 months, with essentially three albums worth of new material, December 1995 is the most polished, confident, and driven Phish there’s ever been. Totally focused on improving with each show, Phish still retained the youthful enthusiasm that had pulled them from obscurity as a college bar band, to theaters and open-air amphitheaters, to kings of the arena rock circuit in just six short years. With an unyielding conviction in the power of their locked-in, total connection concerts, a picture-perfect memory of their complex songs, and a refined approach to the vast exploratory jams of the last year, every show carried the potential to be the best show of the tour and year. As a result, there are no less than ten shows in the month that would find themselves ranked quite high in any list of the best shows the band has ever played.

Turn on any bootleg from December 1995 and the first thing you’ll notice is the torrid energy bursting from your speakers. Featuring 17 shows (including NYE) in their comfort zone of the Northeast, the crowds that came out to their shows were some of the most dedicated, diehard, and loyal fans that Phish has ever had. These were the fans that had seen Phish when they were the quirky yet irrelevant bar band in the 80’s. These were the fans that had traveled throughout New York State, up and down the Atlantic coast, in small towns throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, all in effort to support the band and spread word of their greatness. These were the fans who’d watched Phish take the seemingly hopeless risk of driving 2,000 miles to Telluride, CO for a month long stand in a boycotted bar, and then become a national sensation within four short years. These were the fans who packed into Boston’s Exhibition Hall at the World Trade Center to witness their 1990 New Year’s Eve show, only to now await the band’s headlining NYE performance at the most famous arena in the world: Madison Square Garden. These were the fans who’d been there from the beginning, and now were being treated to an entire month of Phish, a Phish that had reached their apex and was using their homecoming tour to throw a month long party.

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Just for a minute step back and consider the multitude of events that had to go right to create a scenario for a month like December 1995 to occur for Phish, or for any band for that matter. First and foremost, Phish had to form, which means its four members – all from a variety of parts of the overpopulated Northeastern United States – had to meet each other, and see enough potential in their relationships to spend the time playing music together. Then they had to want to continue playing music together. Not want in the way of casually enjoying hanging out with someone, but fully believe that their other three counterparts were talented enough, passionate enough and driven enough to continue working – keyword: working – toward some obscure, intangible, somewhat undefinable goal. No matter what direction they would decide to take their music, they had to keep working at it to move forward. Working at it when all looked hopeless and they had graduated from college – burdened with the added pressures of adulthood and careers, mortgages and marriage, blah blah blah – and were still overjoyed when just 2000 people came out to see them play. One Time. Working at it when their hard work began to pay off, when they began to make money, and began to develop some sense of a national following, rather than allow the success to get to their heads. Working at it even when they surpassed probably their own wildest imaginations of what they could be, in April 1992, in August 1993 and again in June 1994. Working at it day in and day out in the way an elite basketball team works on defensive schemes long after practice was scheduled to end. Working at a craft in a focused and driven manner all in the name of creating the music that played in their heads in a live, improvisational setting.

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What’s more is that the decisions they made along the way, in the years and months leading up to December 1995, had to match both their practical needs as a band, and push them further along the path they’d traversed. Decisions such as Trey’s acceptance of Page into Phish in 1985, when, after stating that Phish was a “two-guitar band,” he realized that Page’s keys offered a different dynamic to his melodies, and would provide him with a partner to create multi-layered textures, intertwined conversation pieces, and rousing, anthemic jams over the rock-hard rhythms produced by Mike and Fish. Trey’s decision to halt his devotion to, and covering of, The Grateful Dead in 1986, a move that forced Phish to focus more on crafting their own sound. Their five performances of their mini-opus, Gamehendge in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1994, along with their never-ending gags centered around songs that Fishman despised, and their insistence on including their fans as much as possible in their New Years and Halloween extravaganzas created a sense of unity, of brotherhood, an unbreakable bond between them and their fans.

Musically, their expansive sounds and jams of 1987 and 1988 gave way to a refined approach in 1989 through 1992 wherein which they wrote three albums worth of music – and then some – and focused on tightening their live sound. Demanding perfect communication, skillful agility, airtight segues, relentless energy, a heaping dose of tongue-in-cheek humor, and stop-on-a-dime precision, Phish transformed their sound to that of a well-oiled machine, crafting shows full of musical peaks, professional acumen and nonsensical gags. By 1992 one was more than guaranteed to be blown away walking out of a Phish show. A far more engaging experience than the lonerism spirit of the grunge scene, far less expensive and far more technically impressive than the big name rock and pop groups that catered to the masses. Phish wore their irrelevancy and isolation at the time like a badge of honor. And by the winter of 1993, their dedication paid off in full, as can be heard most notably in their February 20th show at the Roxy Theatre in Atlanta, GA. Taking a leap forward in the confines of a single show in a way they hadn’t ever before, Phish fused the tight and explosive sound they’d crafted over the previous four years with the exploratory origins they’d been founded in. Wielding a set of segues, teases and jams in and out of “Tweezer” and “Mike’s Groove,” a porthole opened. Phish would never be the same.

From there the band would only continue to build upon their sound in an obsessive search to craft music that displayed the band as not four individuals playing music, but as a unified force playing as one. It is this goal which could only be realized after shedding their improvisation roots in 1989 and building themselves back up as a tight and edgy rock band, but wouldn’t be actualized in part until December 1995, and then in full in 1997. August 1993 gave the band their first headlining summer tour of the nation’s concrete, open air amphitheaters which in turn gave them the space to stretch their music in ways they hadn’t before. Moreover, their fanbase had more or less been solidified by now, allowing them the comfort and confidence that they’d have a passionate and loyal crowd awaiting their every show. From here they sought out new fans, infusing their shows with an array of popular covers, exploring the endless musical diversions their songs could traverse, and including everyone in the poignant and intriguing myths they’d crafted in their college years – from Col. Forbin climbing up the mountain to save Gamehendge, to Poster Nutbag and Jimmy’s unending battles against Harpua. Their shows were transformed from simply high-energy workouts to events that meant something, where anything-could-and-would-go. A single song that had been played with a similar enthusiasm for five years, say, “Bathtub Gin,” became, on nights like August 13th 1993, an unending journey into the unknown, opening up vast cavernous vaults of potential for exploration and mind-bending music.

And yet, they still kept growing. From the wide-eyed musical successes of phish_aquarium_set1993 came the renaissance of 1994. After taking the Fall and Winter of 1993 off – spare the historic NYE run that also served as a veritable THANK YOU!!! to the entire Northeast – to record Hoist, they booked themselves 123 shows, criss-crossing the country not once, not twice, but three separate times in effort to spread their collective energy, planned a Halloween show in which they would don a musical costume, crafted the blueprint for their eventual multi-show festivals, built upon the exploratory journeys unleashed the previous summer, played their first of now 27 shows in the world’s most famous arena, and ultimately compiled a year that would be considered far and away the best of any other band’s career.

One of the most important decisions the band made in 1994 was not a musical or stylistic one, instead it was a logistical decision that would help to alter the course of their music and career forever. In the previous ten years of their existence, they’d always used the Fall tour as a homecoming tour of sorts. After spending the majority of the year on the road spreading their sound, their tours would always wrap back to the confines of the Northeast – the 1992 Fall tour is the lone black sheep in this category, it concluded in Montreal, not exactly their home turf, but still, close enough to the Vermont border – a supercharged homecoming celebration of sorts. However, in 1994, following their monumental Halloween show in Glens Falls, NY Phish began a journey westward that would conclude over a month later in Santa Monica, CA, and wouldn’t bring them back for a show on the east coast until December 28th. The decision was reminiscent of their college-era practice sessions where they would lock themselves in a room for hours, jamming non-stop in effort to understand the musical tendencies of each other and the patterns they could create. By separating themselves from their home base, and traversing into the wide, expansive West, they released themselves from all expectations, and dove headfirst into a musical experiment they’d been training for since 1989. Using the open-ended structures written into some of their best known songs – most notably, “David Bowie” and “Tweezer” – they allowed themselves to be taken over by the possibilities that lay within vast portholes of their songs. A decision made, consciously or not when they wrote their earliest classics, pockets of space were left open within their complex structures that years later – after the band had reached a point of mastery within their songs – were suddenly thrust open and used to dive deeper into the unknown than they may have thought possible. The tour was a revelation into how far they could take their music, how lost they could get within the medium of a live concert, how far away from themselves, their own personal wants and needs, their own self consciousness they could go.

When they returned to the stage in June of 1995, Phish built upon this exploratory revolution to their sound, infusing the entire tour with an array of jams that stretched out further, wider, into deeper and darker realms than they ever had before, all in the name of a linear musical communication. Entire sets were sometimes engulfed in this singular goal, nearly every show contains a massive 25+ minute foray into the unknown, and for perhaps the first time ever, Phish played without a sense of care of anyone watching them. Most likely turning away a number of fans, the band believed that the decision to take such extreme risks each night would pay off in the future. Putting everything on the line every single night, Phish bared their souls to their audience in ways they never had before. No longer locked in a room together, no longer in search of musical perfection, no longer worried about sustaining themselves financially through their creativity, no longer worried about building a national following, Phish was completely free to use their shows Phish in Concert 1995 - Mountain View CAas an opportunity to dive head first into the unknown, fuck all the consequences. In the end the tour is one of the most divisive and controversial in their history. Some fans can’t stand the sound of the band 30-odd minutes into a “Tweezer”. Some can’t grasp the fact that their second sets started featuring less songs than fingers on a hand. Some fans wither in terror at the self-indulgent experiments, much of which produced music that many consider to be unlistenable. Yet others view it in reverence, the one moment where Phish was clearly at the top of their game in terms of musical chops, and blended it with a divine and twisted hurdle into the unknown. Whatever way you look at it, the decision to continue and expand upon the explorations of 1994 had a profound impact on the history of the band. This was Phish deconstructing themselves once again in front of our eyes. Yet where 1989’s house cleaning was conducted in effort to sharpen their catalogue and inject a massive supplement of energy into their shows, the purpose of June 1995 was to move past the music they’d written, and try to simply understand music from a basic level. The goal in all of this was the aforementioned search for a style and a sound that allowed Phish to play as a unified instrument of linear communication.

Tragically, the death of one of Phish’s greatest influences, and one of the most significant figures in the music they’d dedicated more than ten years to – Jerry Garcia – did more to bring Phish into the mainstream than anything they’d done themselves throughout their career. Suddenly there was a surge of fans who’d never cared much about Phish’s punky, aggressive and ironic approach to music that jumped on tour in search of the next party bus. With this onslaught came a need for larger venues, and their shows began to take on a larger than life feel. The fall tour that followed essentially featured two Phish’s. The first, in their October journey from California to Chicago, found them toning down the experimental diversions of the summer in favor of a sound that blended of the torrential energy of their ’89 – Summer ’94 shows, with a dose of psychedelia that overtook Summer 1995. They became a band in search of something once again, reaching it inconsistently, yet ultimately hinting at the brilliance that was just around the corner. In many of the same ways that Fall 1996 would hint at the organic cow funk that would fully bloom in 1997, October 1995 gave glimpses of how powerful Phish would be once they got rolling. Taking a ten-day break after their explosive Halloween show in which they flawlessly played The Who’s Quadrophenia was a key move to rest and prepare for the two month trek ahead of them.

Where Fall 1994 was a journey of westward expansion, Fall 1995 was a marathon from Atlanta to Lake Placid. Five weeks, 15 States, 29 shows, all concluding with a 13 show run through their New England homebase. It was the culmination of 13 years of practice, travel, more practice, unending energy, drive, commitment, friendship, trials, heartaches, weddings, shows in front of no one, more hungover drives across two states in one day than anyone wanted to remember, more practice, shitty food, a singular belief that what you were doing was right, loans, more practice, all leading up to a month in which the band played the best music they’ve ever played at the highest level they’d been at to that point, in front of the people who’d been there from the start: their friends, family and fans who’d given everything to hear the intoxicating, uplifting and uncompromising music of Phish.

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Tearing through the southeast and up the Atlantic coast throughout November, every show, every week Phish was on the road seemed better than the last. To claim that December is superior than November is somewhat unfair when discussing the Fall 1995 tour. November is the overlooked calm before the storm. By all accounts, if the tour had ended on November 30th 1995 in Dayton, OH, it would have been heralded as a unanimous success. From the torrential energy of 11/11/1995, to Orlando’s second set dive into the unknown in “Stash” on November 14th – a jam which built into a take on “Manteca” that just might be the first example of the cow funk entering Phish’s repertoire – to the Carolina’s brilliant “You Enjoy Myself” and “Tweezer” on back-to-back nights, to the 30+ minute “Free” that took over the second set in Landover, MD on the 22nd, to their first show at the hallowed Hampton Coliseum in Hampton,VA during Thanksgiving week, to Bela Fleck’s memorable sit-in in Knoxville, TN on the 29th, to the 30th’s manic first set that spilled over into the masterful “Tweezer -> Makisupa Policeman -> Run Like An Antelope” in set II, there were more than enough memories and monumental performances throughout November to end 1995 on a high note.

Yet, this is what makes December 1995 so special: they just kept going. They’d harnessed the fire, and as they’ve proven so many different times, in jams, in tours, in shows, if they just keep going, if they just keep focused, if they keep searching for the next plane of creative bliss, sooner or later they’ll reach it, and when they do, look out. From the moment they stepped on stage in Hershey Park Arena on December 1st, to the last note of “Runaway Jim” seventeen days later in Lake Placid, from the first roll of the signature drum pop of “Split Open & Melt” in Worcester, MA on the 28th, through “Johnny B. Goode” in the early hours of 1996, everything Phish played carried a sense of grandeur, a greater collection of energy, a more meaningful purpose than most anything they’d played up until that point. Nearly every show is a classic. You can’t call any show a bad gig, you struggle to be overly critical of any show at all. Throughout the entire month, it mattered little what songs they actually played, every song, be it “Down With Disease,” “Tweezer,” “Scent Of A Mule,” “NICU,” even “Poor Heart” contained a burst of energy and an opportunity to be explored like never before. For seventeen glorious nights, Phish resided at the summit of the mountain, made even sweeter by the fact that they were performing nightly in front of the people who had supported them throughout their entire rise. There’s simply no parallel to the month in any other period of their career. Even December 1997 – a blissful return to the summit, which we’ll dive into in the next post – lacked the certain something that made December 1995 what it was. While the sound they’d worked so hard to build until 1992 – a sound that they would spend the next three years toying with, constantly one-upping themselves – would linger in some form through The Clifford Ball the next summer, it never quite sounded so rich, so powerful, so expansive and so tight as it did throughout December 1995.

– Jams – 

If one were to sum December 1995 up into a singular jam, one might suggest the 12/02/1995 “Tweezer” which builds in Type-1 tension & release fashion to a masterful explosion of guitar hose, or the 12/07/1995 rhythmic and soaring melodies “Mike’s Song -> Weekapaug Groove,” or perhaps the 35 minute “You Enjoy Myself” that engulfed the second set of the 9th’s show at Albany and featured such lock-tight connection that they were able to incorporate almost two minutes of silent jamming before reawakening the jam, or even the 31 minute “Down With Disease,” only the second time the song had been played since June, and the last exploratory version until the European Winter tour of 1997. And yet, for as remarkable, mind-bending, and infectious as those jams were, they are not Binghamton’s “Halley’s Comet -> NICU -> Slave To The Traffic Light” fromphish-02-big December 14th.

Playing a tiny minor league hockey arena where they’d played one of their best shows of 1992 – 03/20/1992 – the show carried that extra something that lingers in the air at all classic Phish shows. The frigid temperatures outside, the college crowd/forgotten rust belt vibe of the town, it’s geographic location: 90miles south of Syracuse and the 1-90 corridor, SE of the fabled Fingerlakes, the cramped, archaic and swampy conditions inside the venue, it was all a part of the culture that made Phish.

On paper the triumvirate doesn’t look that out of place – save for the direct segue into “Slave” – it appears as the kind of sequence one would envision happening without much fanfare at any number of shows. The burst into “NICU” out of a :30sec guitar build in “Halley’s” is none too uncommon during the 3.0 era. However, from the moment the lyrics in “Halley’s” conclude it’s clear the band is on a mission as Trey swiftly directs them away from the bubbly pop of the song into a high-octane charge into the unknown. Traversing through various speed-jazz phrases, Mike takes a step back and opens the space up considerably, before Trey reinvigorates the jams with an infectious and insatiably catchy riff to which each member hooks onto, thus shifting the jam into a rousing display of unity and communication. This riff, and the resulting jam – just over two minutes in length – represents everything about December 1995 that was so special. In the midst of a jam on a song that is normally treated as a quick punch for energy, the band embraces the unknown fully, allows one jam to develop but then cuts it off abruptly.  On a dime they are following each other, waiting patiently, and then, when they know Trey’s struck musical gold, jump on his new idea, building a segment of music out of it that features total engagement and sounds as though it were composed over a lengthy period of editing and rewriting. Were it prewritten would take away very little of it’s greatness, yet the fact that it’s a completely spontaneous event makes it all the more surreal to listen to and contemplate.

From there, Trey directs the band into “NICU,” a song that was notable for being something of a rarity at the time, yet one that few would expect to find buried deep in a second set. Receiving the same treatment as “Halley’s” as soon as the lyrics end, “NICU” goes on a wild adventure from 4:25 to it’s fade into “Slave.” Jumping on the exact same theme from “Halley’s,” Trey builds the song in much the same way as he did in it’s predecessor, though this time, instead of following his every note, Page, Mike and Fish add an atmospheric background to his melody, maturing the theme on the spot, and giving it a more well-rounded, structural feel. Deconstructing it after reaching its maximum potential, Page take’s the reins on the baby grand and guides the band out of fuzz-rock and into more refined and regal territory before Trey and Mike return with ambient phrasings, fading into a stirring, patient and ultimately fulfilling “Slave” to end the sequence and the set.

If the “Halley’s -> NICU -> Slave” trio is the undisputed jam of December 1995, then the “Bathtub Gin -> The Real Me -> Bathtub Gin” from December 29th is at worst, the undisputed jam 1a. After coming alive in the Murat Theater in Indianapolis back in August 1993, “Bathtub Gin” had cooled considerably, returning to it’s role as mid-first set Type I clinic is HOSE. Save for the rousing version sandwiched around the bust out of Mingus’s “Jump Monk” on 04/24/1994, the song remained quite contained for over two years. Yet as the band returned to the road on November 9th in Atlanta, they brought “Gin” back into the realm of improv as well. Both the 11/09 and the 12/05 version from Amherst left the “Gin” theme completely, engaging in, first, an anthemic hose section before stripping away excess noise and focusing on the infectious rhythms contained within the songs origins. The December 5th version then built upon the uncharted terrain, guiding the jam into an obscure, noise-ladened territory, allowing each member to explore the bottom ends of their instruments, while dissonant washes hung overhead.

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Following a similar dance-heavy pattern of the previous two versions, “The Real Gin” pushed through various segments of high-octane hose before Trey discovered a tight riff that each of his counterparts jumped on, dedicated to building the theme ala the Binghamton “Halley’s.” The riff serves ultimately as a transition into a cover of The Who’s “The Real Me,” yet what makes the segment so special is the fact that the transition emerged out of a collective search for communication, and wasn’t until everyone jumped on the idea that Trey was trying to communicate that the segue unveiled itself to them. The perfect match for a “Bathtub Gin” jam, the energy within the room – both onstage and off – reaches almost unsustainable levels of pure joy and ecstasy. The band harnesses a power only previously reserved for the arena rock bands of lore, and for a moment epitomizes the entire sound they’d been searching for to accompany their transitional state from clubs to arenas. It’s the kind of music they could have never played in a small theater in 1992. It’s the kind of music they could never have played at the Gorge in the summer of 1998. It’s the kind of music they could never have played during the winter of 2003. It’s the kind of music they could never have played in August 2011. It’s wholly original and unique to where the band was in December 1995, and it represents the kind of elation and sustained energy that had overtaken Phish throughout the month. In the industrial heartland of Massachusetts, in the venue – The Centrum – that had housed one of the greatest shows of their first ten years – 12/31/1993 – two nights before maybe their best show of all time – 12/31/1995 – at the peak of their power, fully locked into their goals, with a purpose that you just don’t see out of a lot of bands once they’ve “made it,” “The Real Gin” represented yet another one of those moments where the band was simply a vessel for tapping into a higher power. Just listen to the way Trey screams “Can you see the real me?! Doctor?!! Whooooa DOCTOR!!” to a wave of continual cheers from the crowd before the band turns on a dime, breaks the song down to Fish and Trey and perfectly pivots into the second verse. A song they’d only played once before – two months earlier – a song that had probably not even been considered for the setlist, a song that emerged from a jam that wouldn’t have even happened had Trey not gone forward with a brief idea of his, and had his bandmates not latched onto his idea fully, thus building the “Gin” into “The Real Me.”

Then, as if the powerful segue, and surprise performance were not enough, the band took The Who on a wild ride through a torrential guitar solo, arena rock excess, before deconstructing it into a funk-laced jam that emphasized linear communication in its greatest sense. Finally, in the same way that “The Real Me” found it’s origins in the “Gin” jam, Trey directs the band into a rhythmic territory based off of a riff of his that bleeds patiently, yet flawlessly back into “Bathtub Gin.” A masterful moment in composition, it is as professional an assertion on the power and command of Phish in December 1995, of both their arsenal and knowledge of each other. A monumental excursion, a clear victory for both the band, and for the world of improvisational music. Proof that what they’re doing isn’t so much “jamming” as it is conducting into the unknown. A jam that has lived on in infamy, known simply as “The Real Gin” to fans, it’s yet another example of the power and supremacy that was Phish in December 1995.

– Shows –

As was stated above, there’s really no such thing as a bad show in December 1995. Even the weakest shows by most people’s standards – 12/04/1995, 12/08/1995, 12/16/1995, 12/28/1995 – are still really really good shows by any other month’s standards. More than anything, these four shows have the misfortune of being included in the conversation with December 1995. This embarrassment of riches creates a problem when attempting to sum the month up in a single show. There are simply too many good shows to discuss when talking about December 1995. You could talk about the 12/01 explosion of energy, full of incredible jams in “Mike’s” and “Bowie,” and the right dose of Phish mythology in “Col. “Forbin’s,” or the rarities scattered throughout 12/07, combined with a unique setlist and timeless jams in “Split Open & Melt,” and the “Mike’s -> Weekapaug” sequence. You could talk about 12/11’s return to Portland, ME, where a gag on “Dog Log” took over the first set, while the second set was dominated by a scintillating and electrifying “Bowie,” or the jam-packed tour finale in Lake Placid which opened with the absolutely torrid segment of “My Friend>Poor Heart>A Day In The Life>Antelope” and closed with a 20 minute jam out of “Tweezer” and led, for only the third time ever, directly into “Tweezer Reprise.” You could also talk about 12/29’s old school, celebratory explosion – a show that defines the ultimate feeling of a Phish holiday run, and continued the lore surrounding the 12/29 and 12/30 shows on a NYE run – or you could talk, however obviously, about the pure greatness of 12/31, from the fact that it was their first NYE show at MSG, to the near-flawless performance of some of their classics, to the diversity and multitude of jams in “Drowned,” “Runaway Jim,” “Mike’s Song,” “Weekapaug Groove” and “You Enjoy Myself.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet, to really sum up the entire month of December in one Phish, one should look no further than the insatiable command, and frantic explosions that emit from their one-night-stand in Philadelphia, inside the legendary Spectrum, on December 15th. Opening with “Chalk Dust>Hood>Wilson” is enough to straight blow the lid off the old bitch. But to then build the first set through a series of some of Phish’s most raucous songs, refusing to let enough time pass between the conclusion of one song and the start of another, so that the crowd only has an opportunity to react once the next song’s started, cultivated a live test in the amount of energy, pressure and elation one could unleash on a crowd before they would explode. “Maze>Ha Ha Ha> Suspicious Minds>Hold Your Head Up>Cars Trucks Buses>Bouncing Around The Room, Free>Possum” concluded a set that, like much of the rest of the month, mattered little for song choices, and instead relied totally on the ferocious output by the band. Opening the second set with “Tweezer Reprise” carried much of the celebratory vibe from set one to part two, and was sustained through a twisted take on “It’s Ice,” and a spirited “Bathtub Gin” that evolved into a beautiful “Rotation Jam” before seguing into the only known version of the Fishman ballad “Mallory.” Concluding with the classic combo of “2001>Bowie” – the latter of which exemplified the contained, yet exploratory nature of the composition – the show is full of literally everything that makes December 1995 the month it is.

If only to add to the musical mastery of the show was the locale. Born and raised in Princeton, NJ, Trey was a die-hard Philadelphia Flyers fan from a young age. No doubt won over by their back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and 1975 – the first of which featured the first victory of an expansion-era NHL team over an Original Six franchise, when they beat the Rangers in seven to advance to the Finals before beating the Bruins in six to claim Lord Stanley – he grew up playing hockey and made the hour-long drive to Philly frequently to cheer on the great Flyers teams of the 70’s. What’s more is that Trey’s first live show was a Jethro Tull show at the Spectrum. A venue that was held in the highest regard until it’s closure and demolition in 2010, it was a favorite of many of the arena rock groups of the last forty years, and was the kind of venue one showed-up to whenever they’d booked a gig there. Legends were made there, and one did not look lightly upon a performance at a venue like this. Combine this personal history with the fact that the show was their 180th since April 1994,  near the end of their greatest tour ever, and it’s no wonder such magic was unleashed in Philly this night. It’s yet another example of the intangible power and energy that is unleashed during a Phish show. It’s a perfect microcosm to essentially sum up what made December 1995 so unique in their history.

Certain venues and cities bring out different qualities within Phish. The Gorge allows for them to be overtaken by the vastness of the surroundings and usually results in shows heavy in experimentation, Deer Creek is their inheritance from The Dead – an intimate amphitheater in the heartland of America – MSG is the pinnacle of their rock star personalities, used to punctuate another year gone by and remind all other bands of that untapped power of Phish. Philly’s Spectrum however is what Phish would be if they were a venue. Located in an often overlooked city – Philadelphia – under appreciated by the masses, unpreserved by those in care of it, understood and adored by those who take the time to truly appreciate its intricate nature, and lovable flaws. When they stepped inside of it for each of the nine show they would play there, the spirit and the energy of the venue overtook them, and – aside from two horrendously weak shows in 2003 – resulted in one of the best shows from its respected tours.

Fusing the telepathic communication of the members of Phish with the absolute mastery of their technique, the home stretch of their Fall 1995 tour with their location, their first performance in a venue of their dreams with the holiday season in full swing, and it’s no wonder that 12/15/1995 produced one of the most memorable shows of the tour and month. What’s more though is how it represents literally every aspect of Phish in December 1995 that made that era so special and so unique. Never before and never since has the formula added up in quite the same way as it did in December 1995. This is not to say that they haven’t produced music over stretches before or since that demand listening, but there is something to be said about the fact that December 1995 displayed a Phish at the absolute apex of their talents, yet still in search of a larger goal. In the region that bore them and raised them up, it all combined to create the best month Phish has ever played.