12/30/1993 & The Significance Of The-Night-Before-The-Night

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By most accounts 12/30/1993 should never have happened.

With a torrential blizzard encompassing the Northeastern United States, most fans traveling from New Haven, CT to Portland, ME were either caught in virtual whiteouts or forced to wait until the very last minute to travel.

For those who were in Portland in the hours preceding the show most had to brave sub-zero temperatures outside while waiting for the venue to shuffle everyone in. As had become a staple of Phish fandom over the past 10 years however, Phish fans would prove more than willing, & more than capable of overcoming seemingly any/all odds, any distance & any weather in the unyielding hunt towards the next Phish show. Be it Dec 1995’s NE Run; Fall 1997’s Denver –> Central Illinois –> Hampton Quest; the long march across Alligator Alley to Big Cypress; the rain-soaked hell-slog to Coventry; or the overnight cross-country hauls throughout 3.0, Phish fans were always ready to hit the road – no matter the conditions – in search of the musical highs Phish provided.

More often than not, Phish would repay their efforts in full.

On such nights when it took an extra effort just to get to a show, there’d often be a palpable energy in the air – tension one could reach out and clutch onto – where band & audience engaged in a back & forth exchange of riotous celebration & shared camaraderie brought upon by years of shared musical unity. With each Phish show being a wholly new & unique experience, with each crowd being compiled of dedicated fans who’d seen the band countless times & discussed them as one would their favorite baseball team, with each venue & city providing its own historical backdrop to the band’s performance, & with the potential always there for a historical, boundary-pushing jam, &/or unexpected bustout, &/or tongue-in-cheek inside joke from their Burlington days, it’s no wonder nights like 30 December 1993 resulted in some of the most significant shows the band ever played.

And yet, for all of the immediate table-setting that logistics played in making 12/30/1993 one of the best shows of that crucial year – not to mention one of the most enduring performances of Phish’s overall career – perhaps what most sets it apart from other shows is its significance as one of the ever-special “Night-Before-The-Night” shows.

The concept of the Night-Before-The-Night is as uniquely Phish as any.

In the same vein as their ever-changing, unpredictable setlists, their surprise Halloween covers of Full Albums, their litany of bustous & special guests & gimmicks that dot their live catalogue, the Night-Before-The-Night is a singular way for the band to catch their crowd on their heels and deliver a memorable – if not wholly unexpected – concert experience. Like the sheer childish thrill of a surprise gift on Christmas Eve, or the rehearsal dinner for your best friend’s wedding that parties deep into the night, the Night-Before-The-Night is a celebratory result of pent-up energy, anticipation, & a shared history that bursts uncontrollably ahead of schedule.

It’s a sensuous feeling rooted deep in youthful excitement and unbridled anticipation.

It’s the party the night before finals. It’s the unrivaled sense of freedom that comes with clocking out the night before your flight to someplace warm & very far away. It’s walking into your apartment the night before your birthday to find 20 of your best friends cloaked in darkness, exalting their love and friendship for you.

It’s all of these moments of unexpected celebration and tensional release; only here it’s shared with 20,000 people, hosted by your favorite band, whose entire career has been built on capitalizing on these very moments.

If there’s any Phish show you ever need to be at, it’s The-Night-Before-The-Night.

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For a show like The-Night-Before-The-Night to even occur there has to be “The Night” for there to properly be a “Night Before.”

This often comes in the form of holiday shows – 4th of July, Halloween, NYE – festivals, tour finales, & any otherwise overly-hyped show due to venue locale, date, et al. Such shows are often the ones wherein which the band feels such an overwhelming amount of pressure to deliver that often times their nerves are released one show prior as a means of lessening the expectations for the highly anticipated performance. In some cases this unexpected and unexplainable release tends to water down the originally hyped show as a result.

In the same vein as the Wild Card rounds of the MLB & NFL playoffs, and the first round of the NBA Playoffs tend to be more electric and bombastic than the more prodding later rounds, there’s something about the anticipation of a BIG night that lends itself to the shows preceding it.

Some of the most revered Phish shows in history are a direct result of this alchemic composition. Beyond 12/30/1993, many fans look to 10/29/1995, 08/14/1996, 12/30/1997, 08/12/1998, 07/25/1999, 02/28/2003, 07/29/2003, 12/01/2003, 12/30/2009, 10/30/2010, 08/28/2012 & 10/29/2013, among others, as further examples of legendary nbTn’s.

In person these are some of the most exciting and unforgettable shows one could catch. They cultivate the sense of Phish being your own personal secret while also making one feel as if they’re in on some spectacular joke few others will ever quite understand.

On tape these shows reverberate with electricity & a pop that separates them from all others. It’s not so much that they’re “better,” per se, than other shows, more so that they contain within them the same cognizance of dangerously tampering with larger forces that comes with sneaking out of your parents house at 3am, or skipping class to smoke pot with your best friends.

Senses elevated, each song tends to carry more weight, each jam more significance, each ovation more reverberation.

From the tension in Trey’s voice as he delivers the Forbin’s Narration on 12/30, or the maniacal outburst that results from the nearly-900 show bustout of Sneakin’ Sally four years later, to the unparalleled appearance of Jeff Holdsworth on 01 December 2003, to the Tweezeppelin madness that overtook the second set on 10/30/2010, there’s often no match for the energy output that comes from the pure shock value that occurs on the nbTn.

It’s unsurprising that on these nights the band tends to pull out all the stops. For a band that’s built its entire career on a devoted partnership with their crowd, the awareness of, and emotional reaction to such a show could never be lost on the performers.

These are the nights where storytelling is most likely to occur. Jams are typically extended to surreal & ethereal heights. And a selection of choice rarities & bustouts are dropped seemingly at will. These are the nights when you review a setlist in the hours following the show’s conclusion & find you have to pick your jaw up off the floor. These are the nights when it feels like Phish won the NCAA Title as an 8th Seed.

They are as shocking as they are monumental & as rewarding as they are unexpected.

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With a New Year’s Eve show planned for the following night at the Worcester Centrum – a venue the band had been working towards playing at for five years – 12/30/1993 was in many ways the first every Night-Before-The-Night show in Phish’s history. And while the NYE show would more than satisfy diehard fans with its Greatest Hits-esque setlist, unified “we’re all in this together” vibe that permeated throughout, and the all-time version of Harry Hood that capped off the 3rd Set, many overlooked 12/30 as little more than an appetizer for 12/31 in the days and weeks leading up to it.

Just four years earlier Phish had packed The Paradise in Boston through word of mouth – and the help of Greyhound Buses – as their very first headlining gig in Beantown. A city that feels in many ways like the capitol of the Northeastern Kingdom, it’s always been like a second home for Phish. Its summer shed, Great Woods, hosted the final Gamehendge performance in 1994, the Fleet Center hosted their 20th Anniversary show in 2003, it was the site of two emotional sendoff shows in 2004, in 2009 the band chose Fenway Park to usher in their first proper tour in five years, and in 2013 the revamped Centrum (now the DCU Center) hosted two shows in October that felt as close to a 30th Anniversary Celebration as any.

To close out a year as monumental as 1993 in The Centrum would be yet another step forward for a band that had yet to relinquish their foot from the gas in nearly ten years of growth and development.

As Phish would show on 30 December 1993 however, there’s rarely a time when you can assume they’ll simply mail a performance in. Regardless how amped they & their fanbase was for the NYE show in Worcester, there was simply no way 1993 Phish was going to allow the gig in Portland to be forgotten.

As this show would prove for years to come, the shows where Phish is least expected to deliver are often times the most memorable ones of them all.

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By the end of 1993 Phish was a serious musical and artistic force to be reckoned with. A national touring act that had continuously pushed themselves both creatively and artistically, they’d spent the past two years touring without restraint in effort to evolve beyond the tight-shipped machine they’d spent the better part of 1989 – 1991 becoming.

The Spring of 1992 had seen them expand their setlist and their improvisational abilities, while their time spent opening for Santana that summer had given them the chance to witness first hand the immense possibilities of band/audience connection through live improvisation. No longer the lackadaisical, wide-eyed college students jamming at house parties and in dorm cafeterias, they were ready to push their music deep into the unknown in a professional, and an artistic manner.

In early 1993 Phish spent five months on the road. In a tour that saw them cross the nation twice in just over 3 months, the band consistently tinkered and experimented towards further improvisational expansion. They carried themselves with a swagger that could only result from having played nearly 400 shows in the previous four years. Their sound fuller, their shows more fluid, their crew stable, they now began a process of outward expansion that would eventually lead them to the abstract explorations of November 1994 and June 1995.

David Bowie became a prominent opener, while Tweezer continued its evolutionary expansionism towards its eventual status as the ultimate Phish jam. The Big Ball Jam, one of a number of examples of band/audience interplay – introduced in late 1992 – was played nightly, allowing the band the opportunity to shed their artistic self-consciousness while the audience directed their music. For whatever shortcomings it had in terms of listenable music, it was yet another example in a line of band-initiated exercises that would help to bridge the gap between them and their audience, while also broadening their perspective on what was possible with live music.

Shows such as 02/23, 03/16, 03/30, 04/14, 04/18, 04/30, 05/03, & 05/08, among others, displayed a Phish far more relaxed in terms of setlist construction than they’d been in years past. During many of the aforementioned second sets, songs like Tweezer, Stash, David Bowie, Weekapaug Groove and Mike’s Song could expand far beyond the previously understood frames of musical construction. Direct, fully-flowing, organic segues became a far more typical aspect of second sets. And while their jamming was still rooted in a frenetic dissonance that bordered on shock value at times, it was clear by tour’s end – as heard in the 05/03 Tweezer -> Manteca -> Tweezer, and the 05/08 David Bowie -> Jessica -> David Bowie -> Have Mercy -> David Bowie – that the band’s expansionist efforts were beginning to blossom in melodic terrains of improvisational music.

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Early on in the year they played a show in Atlanta, GA that would stand as one of the most important of their entire career. To this day 20 February 1993 is still revered as one of the critical moments in Phish history.

Taking a leap forward within the confines of a single show in a way they hadn’t since the mid-80’s, 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.

No longer would gimmicks & stories & Fishman joke-songs & secret languages & pure energy be enough to make a show. To move forward as artists in pursuit of their goal of producing linear, equal, & completely unified music through live, improvisational jamming, the band would begin a process of shedding their own egos and exploring the various musical avenues their songs could take them.

Later that year, during the fateful month of August 1993, the band continued to tinker with the formula they’d established throughout the previous four years, here using the “Hey Hole” jamming exercise to cultivate new lines of communication and new avenues for improvisation and linear musical communication. While the month of August is revered as one of the most impressive of their entire career – along with June/November 1994, December 1995 and November/December 1997 – the entire Summer Tour proved to be a massive breakthrough for the band. Shows like 07/16, 07/17, 07/24, 08/02, 08/07, 08/09, 08/11, 08/13, 08/14, 08/20, & 08/28 stretched the confines of what a concert could be in theory, and provided Phish with further proof that their energy & precision wasn’t at risk with a refined emphasis on experimentation. To the contrary, Phish discovered that by emphasizing improv, the energy of their concerts, and their trust within each other as artists, only solidified their original product. Oftentimes they’d find themselves writing new songs and themes within jams as can be heard in the 08/11 Mikes, 08/13 Gin, & 08/14 Antelope, among others.

The sets and shows that produced these groundbreaking musical experiments were thusly enhanced by their existence.

That Fall Phish would take a break from touring to record their most accessible and taught record to date: Hoist. An album recorded with a keen eye on an altogether different type of musical expansion – here popular exposure – was a reflection of the halcyon year 1993 was for Phish. Still young enough to devote all their waking hours to their craft, devoid of the responsibilities to family, crew and a burgeoning fanbase, fixated on an abstract goal to produce completely egoless music in a live setting, they had seemingly all the time in the world to push their own artistic goals forward while still spreading their name.

It was the kind of period of artistic fruition and popular expansion that any musician would kill for some ten years into their career. It’d been a long road to this point, but now here, Phish intended to make the most of the opportunities before them.

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The Cumberland County Civic Center is a 9500 multi-purpose arena in downtown Portland, ME. Home to the AHL Portland Pirates it’s like many of the 60’s & 70’s era concrete sheds that have witnessed some of the best shows throughout Phish’s career. Encased in cement, graced by neon-lit corporate sponsorship, ripe with stale beer and the lingering scent of processed foods, acoustically unreliable, employed by the least abled-bodied workers in the American workforce; these are the venues that marked the arrival of Phish as a national touring act, and that they have called home on Fall Tours, Winter Tours & New Years Eve Runs ever since.

A venue that was ushered into live-music-existence with a ZZ Top performance in 1977 – and is ultimately famous for the fact that it was to have been the site of an Elvis concert were he to not have died the morning of 16 August 1977 at his home in Memphis – it’s one of the industrial and pop-cultural pinpoints that’s put Portland on the map. Located in the heart of downtown Portland, a town known for outdoor enthusiasts, green energy, and the fact that it’s home to the most restaurants per capita in America, the venue and the city are the kind of Northeastern haunts that have always felt like home for Phish.

The original capitol of Maine, the Portland of the East, is the state’s most populous city; it’s a city that’s known its own fair share of hardship, resiliency, & ultimately, recovery.

Hit hard by the British trade embargo of 1807, the city grew in both size and stature following the War of 1812. It was the site of the Portland Rum Riots in response to Maine being the first state prohibiting the sale of Alcohol, and in 1863 its harbor was the site of one of the northernmost battles of the Civil War. Nearly destroyed in 1866 due to a fire that resulted from Fourth of July celebrations gone awry. It’s a town that’s played as distinctive a part in its region’s history as it has in reveling in the fruits of Americanization.

An early 20th-Century rail hub, it faced marked economic decline during the mid-century due to the invention of icebreaker ships which allowed freight ships to reach Montreal without having to transport goods through Portland. In the mid-70’s the construction of the Maine Mall severely impacted downtown Portland’s economy, a trend that would only finally be reversed in the 1990’s as businesses began opening and revitalizing the Old Port.

Like many midsized American cities it’s experienced a cultural and economic revitalization over the past two decades as more and more Americans have realized the aesthetic importance of local production & authentic business centers.

Home now to a bustling service industry, the main financial services of Maine, and some of the most dedicated urban farmers in the US, it’s a city that resembles in many ways the remarkable career Phish has cultivated these last 30 years. Resilient in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, adaptable to changing tides and bursts of inspiration, amicable to keep people coming back for more, Portland was the fitting town to play host to one of the most memorable shows in Phish history.

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phish_aquarium_setStepping to the stage in front of an eager and packed house, Phish opened with one of their storied, compositional masterpieces: David Bowie. A song known for its eerie kinetic energy as much as it is its open-ended spaciousness, it’s the kind of song that announces a BIG show simply in its presence alone. Containing only two lyrics: “David Bowie” & “UB40” – both shouted with youthful irreverence and a satirical nod towards their arena rock forbearers – the song is built upon the duality of its maddeningly spinning harmonic interplay, and ultimate release into the musical unknown.

Complete with repeated references to Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” this performance struck the crowd at once. As Trey directed the song back to its musical home through a torrential cacophony of blistering leads, the crowd responded with the kind of electricity that can only be a result of abject surprise and bewilderment over the course the show had taken right out the gates.

A night when many would expect the band to proceed with measured caution and ease – essentially reserving the best for NYE – here they were, immediately in full attack mode, assaulting the crowd right out the gates.

The entire first set is a clinic in structural flow and energy.

From Bowie we’re brought to Weigh’s comedic shrill and musical balefulness. The Curtain retains Bowies composed complexity, reminding those in attendance – and listening years later – that, ultimately, Phish is an artistic project to “please me,” sans all regrets.

Sample In A Jar, Paul & Silas, & Rift are the kind of playful, energized, reductive songs that mark time and flow within a first set. Presented here with an added dose of electricity, the solo from Sample engulfs the arena in the way fans would come to expect from it for years to come.

In Col Forbin’s Trey launches into a sprawling tale that originates within the CCCC wherein which the Pirates ice rink – upon which the crowd is watching the show from – melts away, setting the entire crowd at sea until they drift away into the mythical land of Gamehendge. A song that had become something of a rarity even at that point in their career (It’s only been played 25 times in the 21 years since) it’s – along with its musical partner, The Famous Mockingbird – the kind of song that immediately marks whatever show it appears at as singular and special. One needs only to think of 11/17/1994, 12/01/1995, 08/14/2009, and 07/03/2011 to realize its significance within a setlist. In the same sense as Harpua did on 12/30/1997, Destiny Unbound on 02/28/2003, and Crosseyed on 07/29/2003, the Forbin’s -> Mockingbird on 30 December 1993 immediately gave the show an added dose of mythical lore and historical relevance.

Played only seven times throughout 1993, Bathtub Gin had yet to fully assume the role of a complete rotational song. However, its performance just four-and-a-half months earlier in Indianapolis had been crucial in bursting open the musical confines that Phish was increasingly desperate to move beyond. A jam that moved from vocal-jam-gimmickry to dissonant guitar swells to arena rock grooves to a frenetic peak to a joyous, funky breakdown in the matter of 15 minutes, it was one of many improvisation journeys throughout August 1993 that worked to release Phish from their own self-consciousness and equip them with the confidence needed to run assuredly off the veritable musical cliff. While the version on 12/30 didn’t traverse quite as far from home as the 08/13 Murat Gin did, it still relied on the bottled-up energy and experimental fervency that defined so much of their improvisation throughout 1993.

Closing with an absolutely revolting acapella cover of Skynnard’s Freebrid was the kind of tongue-in-cheek Phish-nonsense needed to close out a set such as this. Energy sustained, they exited for their “15 minute break” having equally stunned and warmed the packed house.

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Perhaps one of the telltale signs of a nbTn show is the explosiveness that often overtakes a crowd during setbreak. A setbreak like this was filled with exclamations in the beer lines, high fives amongst complete strangers, and the unified sense that this was the only place on Earth one would want to be.

In Set II Phish compiled nothing short of a masterpiece in terms of set construction, improvisational experimentation, and overall energy released. Fluid from one song to the next, containing within it one of the critical jams of the era, not to mention an all-too-rare oldie full of Phish lore, and a massive bustout for their East Coast faithful. In short it’s one of those sets any respectable Phish fan has heard at least once, and any diehard knows by heart.

A precursor to the jam-heavy, seguefests that would mark their peak-periods in 1995 and 1997, 12/30/1993 II is the kind of set one presses play on, and never skips a track, nor stops listening until its conclusion.

Opening with their cover of Deodato’s Also Sprach Zarathrustra, otherwise known as 2001 – a song which opened no less than 19 second sets in 1993 – was equal parts anticipated punch and a missionary pronouncement of the set to come. In the same way that its anthemic jam ushered in memorable sets on 08/07, 08/14 and 08/20, here it worked as a precursor to a set that would be as transformational as it would be celebratory.

It was, however, when they dropped into Mike’s Song that everything changed.

One of the most revered and oldest songs in Phish’s catalogue, Mike’s Song moves from the poppy nonsensical lyrics written by an 18-yr-old Mike Gordon into a dark and prodding jam that, at its best, opens to unending musical possibilities. Just that year, during its performances at The Roxy, and in August on 08/11 and 08/13, the song had expanded considerably as the band sought to carve out the underbelly of the F#/B jam. Yet, where those three versions focused firstly on the varied segues that could emerge from the jam, and later on the wacky staccato dissonance the jam catered to, the version on 12/30 was far more melodious than any Mike’s had been before. Swimming through the minor-keyed jam the song produced, Trey built the band towards an anthemic peak that fit both the show’s setting, and the place they found themselves in at this point in their career.

Perhaps though, the most remarkable thing about this jam is its dexterity. As the band quieted down, they brought in a sense of darkness ultimately directing the jam into The Horse by way of a deft segueway.

The jam, rooted in harmonic bliss, capable of evolving with an effortlessness that would define their best jams in the years to come, was a critical turning point for the band in their evolution from prankster aficionados to true artists.

Compiling the middle part of Mike’s Groove with such rarities (for its time) as Punch You In The Eye and McGrupp was the kind of understood nod from the band that colors all great nbTn setlists. From 10/29/1995’s It’s Ice -> Kung -> It’s Ice -> Shaggy Dog and 12/30/1997’s Carini -> Black-Eyed Katy -> Sneakin’ Sally (Reprise)> Frankenstein encore, to 02/28/03’s Soul Shakedown Party and 12/30/2009’s Tela, one of the sure signs that you’re at a nbTn show is the appearance of the rare songs most fans spend years chasing down.

After a spirited jaunt through Weekapaug Groove – a jam that mirrored the Mike’s in both its melodic burst and its foreshadowing of Phish maximalist playing of 1995 – closed out the near 45-minute Mike’s Groove, Fishman’s take on Purple Rain brought the laughs before the last surprise of the night was delivered.

Only seen twice since 1991 – and unseen on the East Coast since 11/15/1990 – Phish closed out the second set with a triumphant version of one of their most beloved songs: Slave To The Traffic Light. Responding to the show-long pleads from their audience; it was one final gift from the band in an evening full of them.

Cementing the show as an all-timer, and a must-hear tape, the appearance of Slave made it essential that nearly every Night-Before-The-Night show include a similarly big bustout. As 10/29/1995’s Shaggy Dog, 12/30/1997’s Sneakin’ Sally, 02/28/2003’s Destiny, 07/29/2003’s entire first set, 12/01/2003’s Long Cool Women In A Black Dress, and 12/30/2009’s first set, would later display, the bustout would play a vital role in raising the bar of a show, especially one as rare as a nbTn.

Closing things out with a frenzied Rocky Top & Good Times Bad Times encore, the band left their giant Aquarium stage and headed south towards Worcester, MA. The New Year’s Eve show would deliver on a level only seen twice more – 1995’s three-set masterpiece & 1999’s millennial all-nighter – and would rightly be regarded as one of the best shows the band’s ever played.

Yet it was 12/30 that created an endless debate amongst Phish fans about which show was supreme – the answer which, spoke volumes towards what kind of music you preferred from Phish – and opened the door into yet another possibility for the band in terms of the live concert experience.

For as the concept of The-Night-Before-The-Night proves, Phish is far more than simply a Rock & Roll Band in the traditional sense.

For them, the live concert is a living-breathing organism, in many ways like a Broadway Play. The idea that there shouldn’t be an element of surprise, nor a reward for those fans who make the extra effort to see even their lesser-hyped shows is something that Phish has always worked to transcend.

As the band would continue to grow in both stature and artistic accomplishment – as more and more shows became hyped in terms of promotion and fanfare – the concept & possibilities & opportunity to unleash unexpected doses of energy always lingered and was always available for the band through the shows that had remained off the radar of many of their fans. Yet another reminder as to why to never miss an upcoming Phish show. More often than not, if the band has a heavily hyped gig on the horizon, the best show to catch is the one most are overlooking.

The Structure Of A Show – Set II Opener

Dick'sAnd then, after a “fifteen minute break,” they’re back.

Whereas when Phish hits the stage prior to Set I there’s a general sense of euphoria surrounding the unknown, and the newness of being at a show again, by the time the band return’s from their setbreak, we’re all well entrenched to the experience of a Phish show. Seen in the rainbow of glowsticks scattered across the stage, there’s a more settled feeling to the onset of Set II than there is to the show’s opener. The cathartic release of Set I behind us, it’s time to get down to business. Upon entrance, the band is of course greeted once again to a rousing applause, yet here the sentiment is more one of focused energy, rather than blissful exultation.

Simply put, Set II is where shows are won and lost. And, increasingly over the last two eras of Phish, the Set II Opener is typically seen as the crux of the entire show. Perhaps the most crucial song played all night, the Set II Opener plays the role of either picking the band up right where they left off in the first set, or redirecting them into uncharted waters. Further, much of what is played in Set II, both stylistically, and song-wise, are determined specifically off their Set II Opener.

In the same way that the second set has evolved in far more dramatic ways over the years than the commonly more song-based first set, the Set II Opener has too evolved substantially. From what was once just another high-energy number out the gates, to, now, a fluid slot that can become a massive Type II jam, Set II Openers can often lead to a rock-based set, lull the crowd with a sleepy and subtle entrance, or, can surprise fans on the level of many of the shocking Show Openers. The two biggest keys that separates the Set II Opener from the Show Opener however, are the simple fact that prior to the Show Opener there’s no single part of the show played yet that can help gauge what song to play, and, the fact that the second set opener often carries a far more sinister, and “anything goes” sentiment with it. Because of this, the second set opener is certainly far more influenced by the music that came before it than the Show Opener. In essence, there are just those shows that feel like “Down With Disease,” or “Tweezer,” or “Axilla,” or “Chalk Dust Torture” need to open their second set’s.

What was once linked closely with the high-energy numbers that opened both Set I and II, the Set II Openers are now, without question, the most common slot to expect a jam from the band. In fact, in the highly unscientific perusing of my iTunes library – where I have upwards of 300 Phish shows stashed away, mind you – I discovered that, no less than 160 Set II Openers since 1995 have been a 10+ minute jam. A trend that began in the psychedelic summer of 1995, one can more or less predict that, if they’re to hear an open-ended jam while walking into a Phish show, chances are it’s gonna come during the Set II Opener.

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

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I. The Classics

As with each of the other write-ups, there are just certain songs that feel like a proper Set II Opener. Be it their ability to jam, the number of times they’ve opened a second set, or just the sound they contain which fits so seamlessly with second sets, the following songs are the classics because they’re simply ubiquitous with the opening of second sets. From a purely numbers standpoint, these songs have each opened no less than 24 Set II’s, and 246 total second sets. Anyone going to a Phish show has a 15% chance of hearing one of the following six songs open a second set, no small feat.

Examples: ‘2001,’ ‘Down With Disease,’ ‘Mike’s Song,’ ‘The Curtain,’ ‘Tweezer,’ ‘Rock & Roll’

While two of the songs on this list relinquished their role as regular Set II Openers around 1996 – “2001” and “The Curtain” – statistically they’ve garnered so many appearances in this slot that to many fans they will always sound like Set II Openers. Aside from that slight technicality, there’s just something about a second set opening with a monster “Down With Disease,” “Tweezer,” “Rock & Roll,” or an old-school “Mike’s” that just feels right. Scanning the lineage of Phish’s career, there are so many classic shows, and classic second sets that opened with these songs. Off the top of my head: 12/30/1993, 03/20/1992, 08/14/1993, 06/11/1994, 06/26/1995, 10/21/1995, 12/11/1995, 12/14/1995, 08/17/1996, 11/27/1996, 08/02/1997, 08/17/1997, 11/17/1997, 11/19/1997, 12/02/1997, 12/06/1997, 12/29/1997, 07/01/1998, 07/17/1998, 08/12/1998, 08/16/1998, 12/30/1998, 07/10/1999, 07/24/1999, 07/31/1999, 10/02/1999, 06/15/2000, 06/28/2000, 07/11/2000, 09/17/2000, 02/16/2003, 02/20/2003, 02/28/2003, 07/18/2003, 07/23/2003, 08/02/2003, 12/02/2003, 12/29/2003, 08/10/2004, 08/15/2004, 03/07/2009, 03/08/2009, 05/31/2003, 08/01/2009, 08/08/2009, 08/14/2009, 12/03/2009, 12/31/2009, 07/03/2010, 07/04/2010, 08/06/2010, 10/22/2010, 10/23/2010, 12/30/2010, 05/28/2011, 06/03/2011, 08/16/2011, 09/03/2011, 09/04/2011, 06/08/2012, 06/20/2012, 06/22/2012, 06/28/2012, 08/15/2012, 08/22/2012, 12/28/2012, and 12/30/2012 all opened their second sets with one of the six above songs. Further proof that these songs are just the classic way for the band to usher in a second set.

II. The Guaranteed Jam

As was pointed out above, if you’re going to hear an open-ended jam at a Phish show, chances are you’re going to hear it in the Set II Opener. The combined released of the energy in Set I and the unknown quality to the onset of Set II lends itself perfectly to a captivating jam out the gates. Whenever the lights drop following setbreak, and the band kicks into one of the following eleven songs one’s almost guaranteed a lengthy, often experimental, wholly unique, and at times game-changing jam to be unveiled in real time.

Examples: ‘Down With Disease,’ ‘Tweezer,’ ‘Rock & Roll,’ ‘Drowned,’ ‘Ghost,’ ‘Piper,’ ‘Sand,’ ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Seven Below,’ ’46 Days,’ ‘Twist’

As anyone in attendance at 08/17/1997, 02/28/2003, 08/08/2009, 09/14/2000, 09/12/1999, 07/19/2003, 09/02/2012, 11/23/1997, 06/25/2004, 06/17/2004, and 07/30/2003 can attest, once they heard one of the above songs start the second set, they knew they were in for a wild ride. While the band has been increasingly prone to cut even some of the above songs short at times here in the 3.0 era, throughout their history they’ve proven to be so ubiquitous with the concept of Phish’s improv, that one has to at least anticipate a jam emerging from them when they do in fact hear them nowadays. Regardless of current tendencies, throw on any show between 1995 and 2003 that opens with one of the above eleven songs and you’re almost guaranteed at least a 15 minute jam, and in many cases, even a 20+. For those of us who love Type II Phish, these songs, in this slot, is just where it’s at.

III. The Sinister Assault

While the role of the Set II Opener has come to represent a guaranteed jam for many-a-fan, it’s original task was similar to the Show Opener, being more of a quick punch to the eventual set. Still used from time to time – increasingly more here in the 3.0 era – the band will opt for a quick burst of energy before getting down to business. A move that initially leaves the possibilities of the set up in the air – these songs can just as easily lead to rock-based Set II’s, and they can more experimental driven ones – they’re used more to rile up a crowd, and, presumably the band, in anticipation for the set to come.

Examples: ‘Wilson,’ ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ ‘Llama,’ ‘Buried Alive,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Maze,’ ‘Carini,’ ‘Split Open & Melt,’ ‘The Sloth’

While some of the above songs have been used from time-to-time as jam vehicles, their most known in this setting for their role as immediate bursts of energy to kick of a second set. Just throw on 08/07/2010, 08/06/2011, 07/13/2003, 11/27/1998, 07/08/2012, 11/14/1995, 12/28/2010, 12/07/1995, and 08/14/2010 and you’ll hear how powerful a way each of the above songs is at opening a second set. While staying more or less contained in their own structures, their energy has an undeniable affect on the set that follows, leading, in each case, to massive throwdowns. Perhaps not the most anticipated approach to a second set, these songs nevertheless prove to raise the energy of a show substantially, something that can never be argued with.

IV. The Composed Approach

In the same sense as this section in the Show Opener’s piece, the following songs are some of the band’s most cherished classics, and most fans would be absolutely thrilled to hear them open a Set II of any show they were at. While rarely featured in this slot ever since the band took on a more improvisational approach with the Set II Opener, their composed classics used to usher in numerous second sets in the band’s early years. All told, the following seven songs have combined to open 79 second sets, with “David Bowie” leading the way with 25 appearances in the slot. A monumental occasion were it to happen today, these songs represent a bygone era where the first and second set shared far more in common than they do now.

Examples: ‘David Bowie,’ ‘The Landlady,’ ‘Reba,’ ‘Stash,’ ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘Fluffhead,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself’

A bona fide rarity in the modern age of Phish, only “Stash” and “David Bowie” remain as plausible rotational options for the Set II Opener, and even that’s a stretch. Still, as anyone who attended, or has heard 12/03/1997, 12/28/1990, 10/25/1995, 12/31/2003, 04/20/1989, 02/08/1988, or 09/21/1987 can tell you, these songs each worked in ideal fashion when thrust into the role. A welcome addition to the band’s 30th anniversary year, tossing a couple of their composed classics into the Set II Opener slot would both make Phish stat geeks go crazy, while adding some historical lore to whatever show they appeared in.

V. The Quick Punch

Akin in some ways to the sinister assault, these following ten songs distinguish themselves for the fact that, while their essential role is to provide a shot of adrenaline to a second set, they each do it with such an immediacy, such a quick burst of energy, that they’re almost forgotten by the time they’re over. Used in many ways to segue into a lengthier jam, these songs have been featured throughout the years to essentially set up a set, and wake the band and crowd back up from their setbreak lull. While a few of them have evolved into legitimate Set II Opening jams, in their origins, they were continually thought of as the quick punch that announced the onset of Set II, before fading into a lengthier jam that would come to dominate the overall set.

Examples: ‘2001,’ ‘Llama,’ ‘Buried Alive,’ ‘The Landlady,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Halley’s Comet,’ ‘Peaches En Regalia,’ ‘The Sloth,’ ‘Party Time,’ ‘Ha Ha Ha’

From 06/22/1994 to 07/19/1998, 02/26/1997 to 12/28/1990, 12/28/1997 to  12/01/1995 to 09/14/1999, 07/15/1992, 06/12/2011, and 12/04/1996, each of these songs have perfectly sprung us out of setbreak and into the second set with an energized kick that simply can’t be matched. Not only pulling everyone out of setbreak, they also segued into a lengthier jam, thus creating a proper bridge between reality, and the anything-goes spirit of a second set. One of the best Set II Opener’s one can hear, they generally display a fun-loving spirit for the band, almost always resulting in memorable sets.

VI. The Laid-Back Easers

Completely opposite to the previous section, these are the openers where the band takes their time easing into a set, allowing any sentiments towards the show breathe, rather than immediately diving into a jam or assaulting the crowd with energy. Often times hinting at a more contemplative mood within the band, these openers often catch a crowd off guard, yet can many times be full of rewards. Leading to potential jams, or segueing directly into a jam, these songs work in similar ways to the quick punches and the sinister assaults, yet with the opposite mood.

Examples: ‘Makisupa Policeman,’ ‘Ya Mar,’ ‘Lengthwise,’ ‘NICU,’ ‘Limb By Limb,’ ‘ ‘Waves,’ ‘The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday’

While most fans typically correlate an opener with a high-energy number, these songs turn that theory on it’s head, while often times proving to be just as emotionally captivating as the band’s more raucous songs. Check out 12/29/1995, 12/30/1995, 08/17/2010, 12/13/1997, 07/15/1998, 02/15/2003, and 10/31/1987 to see how well these songs worked as Set II Openers. As a general rule, the unexpected is always the best approach with Phish. As each of these songs display, when the band is at their most unexpected, it’s often the best opportunity to sit back and just enjoy whatever show you’re witnessing or listening to. While a bit against the grain to their typical Set II Opener approach, the laid-back easers are, nonetheless just as engaging an entrance into the second set as any.

VII. The Old-School Hits

Some sets, and some shows just call for the old-school hits. The old reliables, some of which have been with the band since their inception, they’re the guaranteed crowd pleasers, sometimes just what the band needs to kick off a set. Sure to result in a boon of energy from the audience to the stage, these songs don’t so much create any sense of the unknown when they open a Set II, for the could just as easily open Set I, rather they’re there to trigger the remembered sensation of why we fell in love with Phish in the first place. Many of these songs are the earliest fans hear when being introduced to Phish, and, while they’re rarely the songs anyone would pick to open a second set, they do tend to add an old-school dimension to whatever show they appear in.

Examples: ‘Runaway Jim,’ ‘Suzy Greenberg,’ ‘Golgi Apparatus,’ ‘Possum,’ ‘AC/DC Bag,’ ‘Sample In A Jar’

First ballot tracks on any sort of Phish Greatest Hits, the above six songs are for the most part called upon in their Set II Opener role to remain within structure. Yet, as any fan knows, “AC/DC Bag” and “Runaway Jim” have numerous times displayed the awesome power of the Set II Opener slot, in expanding their structure, and time and again exploring the unknown. Regardless where the band takes one of these songs in this slot, few can argue with their placement on 06/16/1995, 11/02/1990, 04/27/1993, 10/26/2010, 12/30/1997, or 12/15/1999. Similar in many ways to section IX, these songs either work or they dont. When they do, they inject the show with an old-school feel, surely bolstering the show in some way.

VIII. The Unexpected Gems

While many of the songs in this section have opened their fair share of second sets, there’s always an unexpected thrill that comes with them in this slot. Rarely in a Set II Opener rotation, often times many of these are completely out of the band’s rotation all together, thus when they open a set they create a jolt of electricity to run through the venue based solely on their presence alone. Sometimes leading to a monumental jam, in reality, just the fact that many of these songs are being played is enough to up the energy of their set right from the get-go.

Examples: ‘Timber,’ ‘Crosseyed & Painless,’ ‘Tube,’ ‘Punch You In The Eye,’ ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman,’ ‘My Friend, My Friend,’ ‘Loving Cup’

Remove these seven songs from their placement on 11/28/1997, 06/21/2009, 06/24/2004, 07/23/1997, 09/18/1999, 11/27/2009, and 05/07/1994 and insert any standard opener, and you’ve got a totally different sentiment heading into the set. Upping the ante of their set and show simply with their presence, on the occasions that some of the above songs have been jammed into the unknown, they’ve essentially made their shows right then and there. Akin to the often jarring placement of an easer in the opening slot, these songs prove the power of the unexpected when it comes to Phish.

IX. The Hit Or Miss

Until this point in the essay, the songs featured have more or less been guaranteed hit’s whenever performed. Due to a combination of factors – there’s less pressure on the Set II Opener, and many develop into jams out of their song origin – more songs work as Set II Openers than Set I Openers. Here, however, we find ourself in the first section of songs that could potentially kick the set off on the wrong note. For whatever reason, the following songs either work as Set II Openers, or they don’t. And there’s little room in between. Some of the songs are the kind few would request for a second set opener, and others, while a treat to hear, rely in many ways on their ability to transform into an exploratory jam to fit within this role. Either way, whenever these songs are featured in the Set II Opener slot, fans tend to hold out hope that something will come of them, rather than just sink into the immediacy of the performance.

Examples: ‘Runaway Jim,’ ‘Suzy Greenberg,’ ‘Possum,’ ‘Birds Of A Feather,’ ‘Gotta Jibboo,’ ‘Golden Age,’ ‘Back On The Train,’ ‘Theme From The Bottom’

There are two sides to each of these songs. There’s your 08/11/1998 and 11/18/2009 “Jim,” your 10/08/1990 and 03/13/1991 “Suzy,” your 11/24/2009 and 08/02/1998 “Possum,” 06/04/2011 and 06/29/2000 “Birds,” 07/04/2000 and 08/09/2011 “Jibboo,” 06/08/2011 and 12/29/2012 “Golden Age,” 06/07/2011 and 06/14/2000 “GBOTT,” and your 11/19/1995 and 06/22/1995 “Theme.” Some of these work, some of them don’t, it all depends on the way the band is feeling, and if they find any of the magic in their performance that night. If it’s there, these songs can often times develop into a memorable moment of interplay and exploration. If not, they tend to get the set started on a tepid note that rarely transforms itself into any monumental music made later in the set.

X. The Head Scratchers

Whereas the last section at least provided opportunities for the band to redeem their Set II Opener song selection through their performance, the following songs rarely, if ever, prove to overcome the initial moment they open a set, when the venue lets out a collective, “huh?”. Akin to the crowd groan segment in the Set I Openers essay, these songs just don’t seem to have what it takes to open a second set, yet for whatever reason, the band has gone with them from time to time. Seemingly removing all energy from the venue within seconds of starting, these songs rarely offer any opportunity for Type II interplay, and instead, act as a filler, a well-defined bridge from the setbreak into the second set. The problem with them more than anything is the fact that unless they develop into something outside of their structure, they tend to cater heavily to the type of awkward and uneven sets that offer little in terms of memorability.

Examples: ‘Julius,’ ‘Sample In A Jar,’ ‘Backwards Down The Number Line,’ ‘Poor Heart,’ ‘Heavy Things,’ ‘Bouncing Around The Room,’ ‘Cars Trucks Buses,’ ‘All Of These Dreams’

Regardless how much an apologist you are for the band – and trust me, I tend to be one myself – you can’t really argue that the above eight songs are at the bottom of any fan’s wish list to open a second set. Aside from “Number Line,” none of those songs have proven to evolve into the types of unwavering jams that would make them worth hearing in this slot. Instead, as 10/15/1995, 05/19/1994, 08/05/2009, 04/07/1992, 07/08/2000, 12/17/1995, 09/27/1995, and 08/09/2004 have shown, these songs have typically kicked off some of the less “hooked-up” sets the band has played. While no one should ever discount the potential to be surprised with Phish, until this point, the above song’s track record as a Set II Opener, more or less speaks for itself.

XI. The One-Off’s

Due to the unexpected nature of Phish shows, there are those nights where you’ll hear a song in a slot it’s just never been played in before. Whether to test something out, perhaps as an opportunity to play a random cover, or just because of a wild hair the band’s got that night, from time to time the band will drop a totally unexpected song in a specific slot, only to never feature it there again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, more than anything it leads to anything-goes spirt that accompanies Phish in their approach to the second set.

Examples: ‘After Midnight,’ ‘Big Balls,’ ‘Camel Walk,’ ‘Character Zero,’ ‘Farmhouse,’ ‘First Tube,’ ‘Gumbo,’ ‘Harpua,’ ‘I Am Hydrogen,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Nellie Kane,’ ‘Sabotage,’ ‘Saw It Again,’ ‘Scents & Subtle Sounds,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise,’ ‘Uncle Pen’

While a few of the above songs were received with rave results, and others just didn’t seem to work, few can argue that their sheer presence as a one-time Set II Opener didn’t add a bit of variety to each of the shows they appeared in. Check out 05/31/2011, 07/03/2011, 08/04/1988, 11/26/1997, 09/28/1999, 09/20/2000, 08/03/1998, 10/28/1989, 01/21/1987, 06/11/2010, 05/29/1994, 11/21/1998, 12/12/1997, 12/04/2009, 12/15/1995, and 04/26/1991 for examples of each of the above songs being featured as Set II Openers. From the above list, one would be hard-pressed not to hope for another “After Midnight,” “First Tube,” “Gumbo,” “Harpua,” “Light,” “Sabotage,” “Saw It Again,” “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” and “Tweezer Reprise” Set II Opener at some point in the future. Fingers crossed.

XI. The One’s That Should Open More Set II’s

Related in some ways to the above section, the following songs are simply those that, while featured from time-to-time as Set II Opener’s, really deserve to be played in that slot more often. Either because they’re a guaranteed jam, or because their simple appearance in the slot would immediately raise the bar of the show they’re in, there’s just no reason the band shouldn’t try to fit these songs in the Set II Opening rotation a bit more. I guarantee these songs would go a long way to countering whatever complaints certain aspects of the fan community have about Phish’s variety, or lack thereof. Regardless of any fan agitation, these songs are just great examples of what Phish is capable of musically, and deserve more time spotlighted in THE slot of the show.

Examples: ‘Twist,’ ‘Harry Hood,’ ‘Piper,’ ‘The Sloth,’ ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Seven Below,’ ’46 Days,’ ‘Waves,’ ‘A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,’ ‘Cities,’ ‘Col. Forbin’s Ascent,’ ‘Fee,’ ‘First Tube,’ ‘Gumbo,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Saw It Again,’ ‘ Scents & Subtle Sounds,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise’

A list stacked with songs that any fan would kill to hear at any point in any show, one can’t argue that any show would be immediately bolstered by the simple appearance of one of the above eighteen songs. Check out 07/30/2003, 11/10/1989, 07/19/2004, 08/14/2010, 11/23/1997, 06/20/2004, 01/02/2003, 11/28/2003, 06/19/2004, 08/10/1997, 04/22/1988, 10/12/1989, 09/20/2000, 08/03/1998, 06/11/2010, 12/12/1997, 12/04/2009, and 12/15/1995 to hear the immediate impact each of these songs has on their sets. In an era that has proven to be the band’s most diverse and has taken more risks within their setlists that essentially any other period in their history, one wouldn’t be too far off to expect that perhaps one of the above songs would make a return to the Set II Opening slot sometime in 2013.

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Perhaps the most critical song played in a Phish show, the Set II Opener allows the band a veritable tablet of differing options with where to take a show. They can build off the energy in an excellent Set I, or they can redirect the show after a forgettable set. They can launch the set into the unknown, or they can display a band incapable of exploration. Regardless where the band decides to go with their second set opener, it’s clear that many shows live and die in their second sets, and that the opener directly impacts the set that will unfold. Thus concludes the fourth part in an eight-part series breaking down Phish’s live show. Up next is The Second Set.

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

The Best Of Phish – 2012

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“To the victor goes the spoils.” – Sen. William Macy (1832)

When Phish announced their return on 1 October 2008 – four-plus years away from the world of sold-out arena’s, fully connected jams, and everything that comes with the Phish scene – there was both a collective sigh of relief and, resounding celebratory roar from anyone who’d connected with the band, and had hoped the demise of Coventry would not be the last time Phish would grace the stage. Four years of worn out Phish tapes, unfulfilling solo efforts, and quotes from Trey about his willingness to give up a testicle to play “You Enjoy Myself” all-day/every-day had made the fan base hungry, and desperate, for a do-over of the 2004 conclusion of Phish. What few realized, however, was just how long and arduous a process it would be for Phish to retain the sense of who they were when they finally returned to the road in the Spring of 2009. Five years removed from touring – not to mention at least ten years since their last serious practice session – Phish was noticeably rusty upon their return, and used much of 2009 and early 2010 as a back-to-basics campaign to relearn what it meant to be Phish. Determined to rebuild from scratch, the early part of 3.0 featured an inconsistent band who was accused by many of returning simply as a last grasp for a paycheck.

Gone were the unending jams of 1997-2004, gone was the zany spirit that had defined them in their early years, gone was the unpredictability that made every show a must-see, must-listen event. In it’s place was a band that appeared unsure of itself, intimidated by their fan’s expectations, and unable to consistently muster up the energy and magic that had come to be expected with a Phish show. First sets became extended recitals where the band sought to relearn their entire catalogue. Second sets – which had long been an opportunity for the band to dive head first into the unknown – were suddenly predictable. Featuring a handful of rotating “jam vehicles” to kick them off, yet provided little in the way of substantial experimentation, they almost always concluded with a string of high-energy classic standards, that, while certainly were fun to hear live, retained little replay value for anyone interested in listening to their shows. All the more frustrating was the sense that anytime Phish would play a show that was unanimously regarded with praise, they would essentially take two steps backwards by following it up with a dud. The entirety of 2009 and the June 2010 run is littered with shows that many loved, and still love – 06/07/2009, 06/19/2009, 08/01/2009, 08/14/2009,  11/24/2009, 11/29/2009, 06/18/2010, 06/27/2010 – only to be followed by shows that were among the weakest offerings of this or any era of Phish. Worst of all, Trey Anastasio, Phish’s leader – far and away the most talented member of the band during their best years – had seemingly forgotten how to play guitar. It appeared throughout the first 18 months of 3.0 that the Trey, who had so often taken charge in jams – who’s playing had inspired Carlos Stantana to coin the term “Hosing” to describe his style of jamming – had disappeared in a cloud of drug abuse and rehab. Replaced by a fumbling, awkward, mistake-prone guitarist who couldn’t get his tone right, cut jams short, ignored his bandmates, and valued contained energy over exploration, the band felt tame simply because their leader was leading with an emphasis on timidness. When they closed out the first leg of their June 2010 run with a high-energy, yet forced string of shows in Alpharetta, GA, there were more questions surrounding the direction of the band, than at any time in their career, save April 2004.

And yet, throughout all of the ups and downs, throughout all of the just bad shows, throughout all of the “Sand> Horse” moments that seemed to hang over Phish 3.0 in the first year and a half since their return, there were still many fans who held on to the belief that the entire process was a calculated one of rebuilding, one that would reward in droves once the band regained their footing. There had been too many signs of greatness – the “Fluffhead> Divided Sky” to beckon in 3.0, 06/07/2009, the gimmicks and jams that engulfed 06/21/2009, the entire Red Rocks run, the music created at the Gorge, Hartford, Festival 8, “Seven Below -> Ghost,” 12/30/2009, “Tweezer Reprise Reprise,” 06/27/2010, “Fuck Your Face” – for 3.0 to simply be a cash-grab. Phish had always been a band that relied heavily on a tight-looseness (loose-tightness). And this in-the-moment creativity was best delivered through practice, repetition and communication, something that the band hadn’t had in at least five years. Clearly they were aware that their music wasn’t on the level that many had come to expect from them. Clearly they were working towards a bigger goal. Clearly they hadn’t reunited, toured and spent so much time relearning their entire catalogue for nostalgic purposes. Clearly, Phish wasn’t a Greatest Hits band that would return to the stage only to be a stale shell of their former self.

The first sign that those who stood by the band’s 3.0 direction were right came on 08/06/2010. In the intimate Greek Theater Phish took a typically standard First Set “Cities,” latched onto a groove from Mike, and locked into a jam that could have been plucked right out of Summer 1998. The second set featured a blissful take on “Simple,” directing the ambient section of the song into a bubbling melody, resulting in some of the most organic music created in this era. “Light” from 08/07/2010 followed the trend, and from there, the band crafted easily the best tour of 3.0 at that time. Surpassed immediately by the Fall Tour that saw the band traverse throughout the Northeast in some of the most intimate and archaic venues they’d played since the mid-90’s, Phish rediscovered their zany spirit, and infused nearly every show with humor, energy, and intricate jams. Due in large part to the Ocedoc guitar that Trey received from their former sound technician/guitar craftsman, Paul Languedoc, prior to the August 2010 tour, Trey’s tone became much less abrasive overnight, and his playing immediately evolved into a more rhythm-oriented style, emphasizing the lead only when necessary. Concluding the year with a triumphant five-show run through Worcester, MA and New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Phish had clearly turned a corner in 2010, allowing all to look ahead to 2011 with gleeful excitement, rather than cautious optimism.

The overall sense surrounding 2011 is that while Phish made some of the greatest leaps forward in reasserting their brilliance, they still lacked the consistency that had defined them during the peak of their career. While there were moments that were far and away better than anything they’d been capable of during the first two years of 3.0, they were still just as prone to abandon exploration in favor of energy, and at times, could certainly be accused of mailing in performances, such as their incredibly lackluster 2011 NYE Run. Featuring a number of ups and downs, the year started off with a brilliant run in Bethel Woods, NY, and jam for the ages from “Down With Disease -> Fluffhead -> David Bowie,” outside Detroit. Yet, the June tour took the route of the 2009 and ’10 runs, sputtering as it moved along, and featuring a string of forgettable shows that left many questioning where the source of their initial energy had come from. The Super Ball IX Festival over Fourth of July Weekend on the other hand, featured the most important moment in 3.0 – “The Storage Jam” – followed by the best show of 3.0 in 07/03/2011, and helped to reinvigorate the band with a sense of wonder, and an intrigue in the unknown. As Trey said, “it kind of reignited us to open our minds a little bit.”

When they returned in August at the wide-open Gorge amphitheater in Washington, they kick-started a tour that would feature some of the darkest, most exploratory, and surreal jams since 2004, most notably the 08/05/2011 “Rock & Roll -> Meatstick -> Boogie On Reggae Woman,” 08/09 “Light” and 08/15 “Waves -> Undermind.” Closing out the tour with a celebratory, innovative and overall victorious three-day run at the intimate Dick’s Sporting Goods Park just outside of Denver was a send off to a summer that, while it had it’s moments of uncertainty and mistakes, had seen Phish take more risks and reap more rewards than any point during 3.0. All the more bizarre then, their New Year’s Eve Run at Madison Square Garden turned out to be a complete dud aside from the tepidly exploratory and genuinely fun opening show on the 28th. Without a Fall Tour to bridge Summer and the holiday’s, Phish sounded directionless, and for the first time in all of 3.0, truly appeared to be going through the motions. 2011, which had begun with such optimism, with so much joy over the state of the band, ended with a resounding sense of skepticism, backed up by the fact that 2012 was going to be a “lite touring year for the band.”

As the two summer tours were unveiled in the late winter, the offerings left much to be desired for they featured a string of shows in oft-played Northeastern venues, followed by a two-week scattering of one-off shows in August in-between a three-night stand in San Francisco, and the second-annual Labor Day Tour Finale at Dick’s. What’s more was the confirmation in April that the band would not release any more tour dates in 2012, meaning even fewer shows would be played in 2012 than 2011, only further worrying a fan base that the best of 3.0 had come and gone in a flash. Oh, but we were oh so wrong…

In one of the best scene’s in Phish’s 2000 documentary, Bittersweet Motel, Trey responds to a question about their Fall 1997 tour, saying, “Nobody’s paying any attention, and we’re having the best tour we’ve had in years.” This quote could aptly describe the Summer 2012 tour in the same way it did the legendary Fall 1997 outing. While sure, people were excited for the 2012 return of Phish, the sense of anticipation, the unbridled celebration, the endless discussions on what would happen this tour were all but absent from the Phish community in the weeks leading up to 7 June. For the first time Phish would begin a tour in 3.0 without much fanfare, hype or expectations. And in legendary fashion, they responded with easily the best tour they’ve had in years. Putting to rest the myth that their June runs were there to get the kinks out, the band spent a week rehearsing prior to their opening run in Worcester, MA. Resulting in an experimental-heavy tone to the start of tour, a string of rare songs, and standards in unique placements, the tour kicked off with an anything-goes spirit that wouldn’t let up once throughout first leg.

Turning conventional wisdom on it’s head, the tour featured a band excited about it’s music, excited about playing with each other, energized, and using every show as an opportunity to dig deeper than they had in all of 3.0. The growing pains were officially gone, this was finally the Phish we’d been waiting for for four years. To those who had hung around and believed even when the band threw a 06/20/2009, 08/15/2009, 11/25/2009, 06/17/2010, 10/15/2010, 10/24/2010, 06/10/2011, 08/10/2011, 12/30/2011 in our faces, 2012 was a revelation, a year of spoils to both band and fans alike. With a stated goal of playing 200 unique songs throughout June, the run was infused with rarities and a sense that any song could – and would – be played at any show. Add to it, the comfort the band felt with each other again, multiple jams would pop up in various shows, reigniting the band’s sense of exploration, and thus proving “The Storage Jam” was a turning point, rather than a on-off experiment. Combining these two aspects of Phish resulted in a tour for the ages, one that spilled over into August and featured a number of standout shows with a more polished approach to the wildness of June. Culminating with the Dick’s shows, the band once again capped off the tour with a celebratory run that emphasized exploration, delivered the best jams of the year, the best shows of the year, and gave 07/03/2011 a real run for it’s money.

In the same sense as the rest of 2012, Phish returned to MSG for their NYE Run far more prepared than they had a year earlier, resulting in a much better overall run. While it is clear that they do in fact benefit from a Fall tour, the band still managed to infuse their MSG shows with a determined and driven energy, stoked the exploratory fire lit at Dick’s, and gave all in attendance – and all listening at home through the much-refined couch tour – a reason to truly be happy about the state of Phish in 2012. As we look forward to the 30th year of the band’s career, there’s no reason anyone should question the direction, drive or focus of Phish. If it wasn’t clear before, it’s more than obvious now that the trials and errors of 2009 – 2011 have all but been overcome, and that Phish is in a healthier state than they’ve been since 1995.

As with the last two years, I’ve assembled a list of ten shows and jams that standout as the best of the year. Along with these selections, there are three honorable mentions to each. These are not simply shows/jams 11-13, but rather foundational jams and shows with which the band grew, yet didn’t crack my top ten. The lists are assembled chronologically just like the last two years, thus reserving the title “Best Ever” as a subjective accolade. Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season! Happy New Year! Can’t wait to see what 2013 brings to the world of Phish!

The Best Of Phish 2012

Honorable Jams

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“Boogie On Reggae Woman” – Worcester, MA – 06/07/2012

The first night of the 2012 Summer tour brought an array of surprises – from the bookending “Buried Alive” performances, to the quantity of jams in Set II including “Carini,” “Ghost” and “Harry Hood” – perhaps the greatest being the jam that emerged from “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” A song that’s been let out to run only a handful of times, it’s typically been called upon in 3.0 to showcase Mike’s bass talents, and inject a show with a dose of fun and energy. Yet on 7 June, after emerging from a rather demented and atypical “Ghost,” Trey jumped all over the “Boogie On” jam, building a raucous theme, and highlighting his reacquaintance with the “Hose.” All energy, all rock, all Trey, the Worcester “Boogie On” is neither the most exploratory, nor most original number of the night. What it is though, is that moment when everyone in the Phish scene realized the band had really brought out their big guns in 2012, a foreshadowing of the surprises and the overall greatness the band had in store for us fans during the summer of 2012.

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“Limb By Limb” – St. Louis, MO – 08/28/2012

For a song that had grown increasingly stale, and predictably tepid, the “Limb By Limb” from 28 August represented a revolutionary moment for Phish. Appearing deep in one of the best second sets of the year, it seemed initially that it would be used as a breather after the “Chalk Dust Torture -> Frankie Says -> Undermind -> Sand -> Walk Away” jamfest that had opened the set. Yet, once the band broke from the song’s structure, they left the theme completely, as Trey led them down a completely unique and untapped path, totally devoid of “Limb By Limb’s” original concept. At first, dark and rhythmically plodding, the jam built upon a celebratory melody, leading to a full band peak, which ultimately hinted at the jams that would emerge from “Light” and “Sand” at Dick’s the following weekend. Featuring fully realized licks from Trey, structurally supportive bass from Mike, a resounding organ fill from Page and proactive drum riffs from Fish, it was the kind of energized tension and release jam that had been the band’s bread and butter for so many years. Returning here, in type-II fashion to compliment one of their best lyrical songs – at a critical point during the show, and tour – it only further stoked the furnace that was burning within the band in 2012.

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“Runaway Jim > Farmhouse” – Commerce City, CO – 08/31/2012

The first of five jams and two shows from the legendary 2012 Dick’s Run to appear on this list. When Phish left the structure of “Runaway Jim” to open the second set of 08/31/2012 – only the second time they’d done so since 2000 – everyone in the venue, and watching from the comfort of their couches knew it was on. The first set of the show had featured two fully realized jams in “Carini” and “Undermind,” a first set “You Enjoy Myself,” and a setlist that read: F.U.C.K.Y.O.U. Thus when they opted to see how far from home Jim would rome, rather than keep him chained up as he’d been for all of 3.0, it was a clear sign that the Dick’s run wouldn’t follow suit with the various criticisms and assumptions that had plagued much of the last four years of Phish. A jam that moved from it’s theme into a much darker realm, the Dick’s “Jim” might be most notable for it’s recovery from potential miscommunicated disaster from 12:00 – 12:24, resulting in an improvised funk-throwdown, the sorts of you just don’t get this side of 1998. Sveltely flowing into a melodic segment of psychedelia, the band displayed a desire to push jams beyond their typical resting places, a theme which would come to represent the entire run. Landing in “Farmhouse,” it appeared as though the gimmicks from set one were over. Yet, the band had other ideas. Needing to fit R.F.A.C.E. in the second set meant they had to keep the jams rolling, and once the theme of “Farmhouse” ended, they embarked upon a segment of Ambient washes and spacious noise that brought everyone back to the phenomenal “IT Waves” from 2003. An unlikely pairing of jamming partners in 2012, “Jim > Farmhouse” represented the realization at Dick’s that the Phish we thought we’d figured out, had once again duped us. A sense us fans were more than happy to accept.

The Top Ten Jams Of 2012

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“Birds Of A Feather -> Back On The Train -> Heavy Things” – Atlantic City, NJ – 06/15/2012

Born out of Phish’s 1997 linear musical communication renaissance was a song that felt snagged from the discography of The Talking Heads. For it’s first seven years in existence, “Birds Of A Feather” worked a lot like “Chalk Dust Torture” in that it could alternate with ease between an exploratory jam vehicle and a short, punchy, determined rocker. Then 3.0 came around and the song’s edge seemed to be gone for good, as every version followed the same pattern of thematic soloing, high-energy payoff, end. At first it seemed the 15 June version was destined for the same short, unnoticed death, something which would have hailed an immediate end to a promising show. Yet, Trey held the final note of the song’s chorus out just long enough for his band members to latch on and ride the song out into the unknown. What followed was a blissful, weaving jam which displayed full band communication, startlingly gorgeous leads from Trey, and an intricate and patterned melody that sounded as though it had been composed. Building through melody, rather than noise or energy, the jam took on a sound much akin to the “Birds” jams of 1999 and 2000, retaining the song’s theme, and exploring within it. When Trey moved into a minor key the jam took on a harder feel, resulting in a rhythm-based jam that led seamlessly into “Back On The Train.” Remaining totally within the structure of the country-twinged song took nothing away from the segment, for when it bled into “Heavy Things” the triumvirate of the late-90’s songs had flowed so perfectly together, that the concept felt pre-planned. Ushering in the era of musical suites that seemed to defined 2012’s jamming structure, the “BOAF -> GBOTT -> H Things” was one of the early highlights of summer which reminded everyone that the successes of Worcester were not all for naught, regardless of the mediocre Bonnaroo show.

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“Twist” – Cincinnati, OH – 06/22/2012

Emerging out of the murky fade of “Kill Devil Falls,” “Twist” was a welcome addition mid-way through Set II of a show that had produced an absolute classic First Set – full of gimmicks and killer playing – and a Second Set that through “DWD> Guelah, Kill Devil Falls” was in danger of fading into predictability. A song that had been used almost solely as an vehicle for seedy improv in 1.0 and 2.0, “Twist” had become more of a slow-shuffling blues number in recent years, exciting fans more with it’s possibilities, rather than it’s delivery. Keenly aware of this, Page switched from his strutting piano fills to his organ at 6:13, followed immediately by Gordo hovering over an ominous tick-tock bass riff, solidified by Trey’s minored trills which dove the song into the nether world for the first time since Coventry. What followed was perhaps the darkest, seediest and evilest jam Phish had produced since the 08/15/2004 “Split Open & Melt -> Ghost.” If the knock on Phish has been that they can’t get dark in this era of drug-free, happy-Phish, then the Cincinnati “Twist” threw this theory into an abandoned pit and let it rot to the glee of everyone watching and listening. Highlighted by noise-induced guitar washes and a sinister duel between Mike and Trey from 8:54 – 10:20, the jam never rose above the underworld it embodied over fourteen minutes. A moment when Phish proved their ability to summon the demons of the past, the Cinci “Twist” would reemerge at least in theme in a number of other dark jams throughout the year, all of which owe a debt of gratitude to it for breaking the barrier.

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“Mike’s Song -> Simple> Light> Weekapaug Groove -> Seven Below” – Burgettstown, PA – 06/23/2012

Throughout their career there has been a suite of music that has hung around with their constantly evolving styles, and has reflected the current state of the band like few other songs could. “Mike’s Groove” as it’s affectionately referred to by their fan’s is a shape-shifting union of songs which can appear as simply as “Mike’s -> Hydrogren> Groove,” or “Mike’s -> Simple -> Hydrogen> Groove,” or, can morph into a completely separate entity, book-ended by “Mike’s” and “Groove,” but containing ideas within that can only be found within the confines of an era. Notable examples can be found on 12/30/1993, 06/22/1994, 12/01/1995, 12/07/1995, 12/31/1995, 12/02/1997, 08/15/1998, 08/06/2010 and 10/26/2010. The lone show of 2012 in Burgettstown, PA joined this elusive group with a “Groove” in Set II that seemed to sum up everything about the modern era of Phish that makes it special. Following a punctual “Mike’s,” “Simple” faded into the Ambient wonderland it’s become in 3.0 as Mike, Page, and Trey all built a wall of blissful noise, and Fishman continued to prove his worth with off-beat rhythms that kept the music constantly on it’s toes. The undisputed jam-champion of 3.0, “Light” once again was featured as the centerpiece in this suite and show, as Trey and Page guided it from a noise-ladened swamp into a calypso-themed dance-off, and finally a demented, rhythm-based soiree. One of the more connected versions in a year full of them, the “Light” itself is truly one of the top tier pieces of music produced by the band this year. “Weekapaug” picked up right where “Light” left off, diving head-first into staccatoed beats, Moog-induced rhymes, ambient washes, and a deconstructed fade to the 2.0 rare-classic, “Seven Below.” While not the extended journey it is constantly capable of being. “Seven Below” served as a proper conclusion to the suite, with it’s “Weekapaug” inspired jam, hints at the underworld, and contemplative pace that allowed everyone a chance to breath after the music that had just transpired. A fully realized fifty-minute suite of music the “Mike’s -> Simple> Light> Groove -> Seven Below” was one of the best overall moments of an incredible June run, and an incredible year of Phish.

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“Crosseyed & Painless -> Light -> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> Crosseyed & Painless” – San Francisco, CA – 08/19/2012

On the third night of their massively hyped, yet so far underwhelming, run at the intimate Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, Phish not only put on one of the best shows of the year, but clicked for a 45-minute suite of music that rivaled the Burgettestown “Mike’s Groove.” Featuring the first truly extended and experimental “Crosseyed & Painless” since 05/27/2011, the set moved with determined precision, weaving through historical Phish themes, and crafting a fully-realized union of songs that would have highlighted any show in any era. Dedicating the final 7:45 of “Crossyed” to ambience, the band engaged in a jam that flowed with ease from one theme to another, pushing itself seamlessly from its origins. Featuring some of the best Mike, Page and Trey interplay, it was a blissful foreshadowing of the music that would come to dominate Dick’s and the best parts of MSG. “Light” took on a more aggressive role, initially teasing “Crosseyed” before moving into a fully-loaded, rhythm-based groove session. Packed tight with a rock breakdown from Trey and Page, Trey once again took the lead and engulfed the jam with fully-formed lyrical phrasings on the Ocedoc, harkening back to the aforementioned Burgettstown “Light.” Hinting at the “Tweezer Reprise” that was still on the table, Trey directed the torrid jam into “Sneakin’ Sally” crafting the second memorable version of the legendary cover of the Summer. From funk-rock origins the song descended into a groove that resided in the Set’s opener and before one realized it, suddenly they were back in “Crosseyed & Painless,” thus completing a massive sandwich of high-energy and exploratory music that achieved literally all the goals set out for by the band when they returned in 2009. A flawless segment of music, the “Crosseyed -> Light -> Sally -> Crosseyed” highlighted one of the shows of summer, and reignited summer tour as it moved into the Southeast.

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“Undermind” – Commerce City, CO – 08/31/2012

Deep in the best First Set of 3.0 came a top tier jam and immediately solidified the Dick’s run as the best of the last four years; even before it ever really got going. Completing the First Set F.U.C.K.Y.O.U. gag, which would spill over and engulf the entire show, “Undermind” took a wholly unique route the second it left it’s theme. Led entirely by Trey, the jam reflects the massive improvements he made as a guitarist throughout 2012, and is the culmination of the efforts he made all summer, starting with the Worcester “Boogie On.” Flowing through various themes before reaching an ethereal peak that closed out the set, it’s a perfect piece of improv, something Phish simply wasn’t capable of on this level prior to 2012. Whereas in the previous three years, any Trey-led jam would follow the route of predictable rhythm-based breakdowns, followed by ambient washes, the Dick’s “Undermind” has fully-formed ideas based around unique riffs that all sounded composed upon first listen. When it was happening, I was unaware of the gag occurring, simply thinking I was witnessing a totally different band than the one I’d listened to play a contained and predictable show in Oklahoma City two nights earlier. All’s I remember thinking is that this would be the perfect jam to end the set on, that we didn’t need a “Golgi,” “Character Zero,” or “Stealin’ Time” set closer proper. The fact that gag-or-no-gag, the band instinctively knew what they’d accomplished with this jam and decided to close out their phenomenal opening set at Dick’s with it, only goes to show just how important it was to them then. It’s replay value and ability to still surprise, proves it’s importance to all of their fans now.

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“Chalk Dust Torture” – Commerce City, CO – 08/31/2012

The eternal Phish-rebellious-rocker, “Chalk Dust Torture” has been here before. One of the most unique numbers in their repertoire, the song spent the majority of it’s first eight years as a punctual rocker, used to open/close a show, or infuse one with a massive dose of adrenaline. Then, out of nowhere it started randomly being used as a launching pad for exploration. The 07/10/1999 version which spilt into “Roggae,” the 08/03/2003 masterpiece that seemed to fulfill the idea of what it would be like if “Chalk Dust” were originally written as a 25-minute song, and the elongated 08/09/2004 version that’s probably the only memorable part of the Hampton ’04 show. In 3.0 it returned to it’s historical place of a doors-busting rock anthem, used seemingly to open every other show in 2009 and much of 2010. Yet, when it opened Set II of 06/25/2010, something changed, the paradigm shifted, and the exploratory possibilities were renewed. Call it fate, call it destiny, but when the band stretched the 08/25/2012 version into “What’s The Use?” and the 08/28/2012 Set II opener into a spacey jam that ultimately landed in “Frankie Says,” everyone could sense that the version played at Dick’s would fully embrace the unknown. Thus when it was placed in the “C” slot of the F.A.C.E. part of the gag, only forty minutes into the second set, the band jumped all over a version that ranks up there with 07/10/1999 and 08/03/2003 as the best versions of the song ever played. Like the “Undermind,” Trey is in control of the entire jam. Yet what separates the “Chalk Dust” is his willingness to rely on off-beat rhythms in a way he simply couldn’t in years past; to fully communicate with his band members as they shifted through a multitude of themes. Each member shines in this version, and every fan owes it to themselves to watch the performance of it for themselves. You’ve just never seen Phish fully embrace the unknown and exploration in 3.0 in the way they do throughout the “Chalk Dust” jam. Surreal still now to hear it, something about Dick’s just brings whatever it is, out of Phish.

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“Prince Caspian> Light” – Commerce City, CO – 09/01/2012

After playing an impossibly brilliant show to kick off their run at Dick’s over Labor Day weekend, it seemed pretty certain that Phish just wouldn’t be capable of topping their 08/31 performance. Even a “Run Like An Antelope” opener, followed by a “Tweezer -> Fluffhead” in slots 3 and 4 didn’t seem up to the immeasurable task asked of them on this evening. Thus when Trey abandoned a potentially promising “Golden Age” jam for “Prince Caspian” it felt like a confirmation that they just couldn’t quite summon up what was needed to even attempt to push the show into the conversation with the “Fuck Your Face” show. Then, out of nowhere, “Caspian” went where it hasn’t gone in years; or, since at least 1999. Trey hooked onto a Hendrix-esque concept and drove the song far below the waters, infusing it with sinister lead, before breaking it all down, only to re-build the atypical jam with torrential focus and drive, summoning the demons. Brutal, evil, raging, it was the kind of jam that just wasn’t commonplace in Phish 3.0. It felt badass. It felt like the Phish of old where one couldn’t predict where or when their moments of inspiration would emerge. Fading into “Light” – the 3rd version of the song on this list this year – it was clear Phish was going to at least take a stab at competing with the previous night. And compete they did. A performance for the ages, “Light” – which had never crossed the 20-minute mark in it’s storied career as Phish’s go-to 3.0 jam vehicle – built through multiple, fully-conceived themes to a peak that’s honestly difficult to communicate in writing. Stylistically altering the fates of two remaining jams on this list, the Dick’s “Light” combined the exploratory zealousness of 2012, with their high-energy, Tension & Release jams of lore, patiently building over time to a peak that nearly tore the Colorado soccer field down. Sustaining the peak from 20:10 – 22:45, the venue was overwhelmed in the expansive lights, fist pumps, engulfing cheers, and shit-eating-Trey-Grins that have long represented the band’s most memorable moments. Honestly, a jam that needs to be heard to believed, this was Phish fully connected, refusing to abandon an idea when they knew they could sniff greatness, building towards a moment of ethereal bliss that felt like a brilliant cap on the summer, and confirmed that Dick’s was no one-show-pony.

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“Sand -> Ghost -> Piper” – Commerce City, CO – 09/02/2012

On the final night of their 2012 Summer Tour, Phish opened up their second set with a triumvirate of music, featuring three of their most historically brilliant jam vehicles. After playing two of their best shows of the year – and of the era – the band opted to treat the First Set of 09/02 like a Greatest Hits album, throwing down high-energy classics rather than traversing the unknown like the previous two nights. With so many songs still on the table, it seemed a certainty that they’d treat the final set of Summer in the same manner. Yet, when they left the confines of “Sand” seven and a half minutes into the song, they kicked off 50 straight minutes of unabridged music, the likes of which ranked with the best of the previous two days. The “Sand” itself is incredibly notable for the sheer fact that – aside from the adventurousness of 12/13/1999, 12/31/1999 and 06/07/2009 – no version has ever left the structure of “Sand” quite like this. Building from a sublime state of ambient pause, “Sand” went the rout of “Light” as it built into an absolutely epic peak, thus transforming the trance classic into an arena rock anthem, before bookending it with the “Sand” theme. Not to abandon what they’d built over the first 25-minutes of the set, Gordo directed the band from the jam’s conclusion seamlessly into “Ghost,” the first version since Long Beach. Directing “Ghost” in much the same way it’s been used in 3.0, the jam built through high energy exchanges from Trey with Fishman, supported by throttling bass and obedient piano fills from Page. Where it really got interesting was in it’s final 2:30, as it faded into an ambient fade that featured some beautiful and patient interplay between Mike, Trey and Page – fully utilizing the Rhodes – before emerging in “Piper.” Torrentially building the energy back up, “Piper” came out with one of it’s more unique performances of the year highlighted by it’s final 3:30 that featured some of the best Trey and Page interplay this side of the 07/01/2012 “Light.” A trio of modern classics, jammed out to full potential, the “Sand -> Ghost -> Piper” capped off the summer in victorious fashion, ushering everyone out into the Colorado night; bellies full, blissfully stoned, eager for more Phish.

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“Tweezer -> Maze” – New York City, NY – 12/28/2012

The “Tweezer” we’d been waiting for all year from Phish. Fully embracing the style that was mastered over three nights in Central Colorado, “Tweezer” left the funky/bluesy comfort zone it had inhabited for much of 3.0, and for the first time in nearly ten years – including even the classic versions that have appeared on this list in years past – totally left the structure of “Tweezer” and carved out a new path in it’s unrivaled history. Flowing through fully conceived themes, “Tweezer” was the swift kick in the ass the MSG run needed after a painfully predictable first set. More than that, it immediately bridged the ideas of Dick’s with MSG, and proved that in 2012 – while literally everything produced this year was brilliant – there was a clear line between pre-Dick’s and post-Dick’s in terms of what the band was capable of. The final 11:45 are where the magic’s at, for when Page infuses the jam at 9:09 with a lilting piano fill, Trey latches on immediately, and off they go. Effortlessly blissfully, and suave improvisational mastery is one way to describe this new style of Phish; one which relies wholly on the communication they’ve built as a band over the past 30 years, embraces all of their styles, flows from one theme to another with ease, and emphasizes the sublime and ambient. Building to a satisfying peak, the MSG “Tweezer” followed suit with the concept established with the Dick’s “Light” and “Sand,” and forged a bridge between the modern, sub-tempo jams of 1997-2004, with their career-long dedication to Tension & Release. The sound of a band coming full circle, the “Tweezer -> Maze” used two classic Phish songs to open a Second set that helped to elevate MSG 2012 almost immediately from the catastrophic lows of their 2011 run.

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“Down With Disease -> Twenty Years Later> Carini” – New York City, NY – 12/30/2012

The musical peak of the 2012 NYE Run came at the start of the Second Set of the best show of the entire run. “Down With Disease -> Twenty Years Later> Carini” highlighted a forty-minute segment of music to kick off the best set of the run, and infuse the show with some much-welcomed evil Phish. In a year when “Down With Disease” stayed either noticeably contained, or failed to produce transcendent versions, the jam on 12/30 traversed as far from the structure of the song as any since 08/16/2011. Weaving through various segments of down-tempo, ambient bliss, the jam allowed for the band to just play, all to the delight of the MSG alum. While never producing any fully-realized sections of improv, what the “DWD” does better than any jam of the weekend, is display the diversity that Phish plays with now. Their jams are no longer long-winded, failed experiments that occasionally produce greatness, nor are they singular concepts that build through repetition. Instead, they are constantly evolving entities, which value shape-shifting, and melodically crafted music more than any previous era of Phish. Armed with 30 years of experience, there is no wasted space in Phish jams any longer. The one faux-peak of the jam came at 17:15 as Trey and Mike latched onto a simple, yet sinister riff, transforming MSG, for a moment, into a beckoning ground for the devil. A concept which would be fully realized two songs later, in “Carini,” the evil spirits that had invaded Phish so often in the late-’90’s and early-aughts returned with impassioned results. Fading into near silence, the “Carini” relied solely on industrial beats from Fishman, ambient washes from Trey and Page, and an all-engulfing bass from Mike. Summoning up the best noise they’d created this side of “The Storage Jam,” and doing their best Animals-era Pink Floyd impression, the jam goes deeper that the Cinci “Twist,” and is simply the evilest thing Phish has played in years. In an era when “Carini” has really stepped up as one of the premier jam vehicles, the 12/30 performance took the joke-metal song to completely new heights, unimagined when it was first performed back in 1997. A segment that will surely carry Phish fans through the long winter, “Down With Disease -> Twenty Years Later> Carini” will be hard pressed to be topped whenever Phish steps on stage again.

Honorable Shows

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DCU Center – Worcester, MA – 06/08/2012

Set I: Free, Kill Devil Falls, Roses Are Free -> Theme From The Bottom> Axilla I> Julius, Bouncing Around The Room, Maze, Bathtub Gin

Set II: Down With Disease&> Sand -> Nellie Kane, Mike’s Song> Makisupa Policeman+> Weekapaug Groove, Wading In The Velvet Sea, 2001#> Character Zero

Encore: The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony> Suzy Greenberg

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

+ The keyword in “Makisupa Policeman” was “Sour Diesel”

# “2001” contained a “Sand” tease from Fish and “Sex Machine” and “Mike’s Song” teases from Trey

On the second night of Phish’s 2012 Summer tour, the band threw down a solid affair that built upon the brilliance of the opening night of tour. Featuring a high energy First Set, and a fully-flowing, jam-heavy Set II, it was an all-around great show, one which helped to establish a base from which to build upon throughout the tour. Highlighted by a blissful jam out of “Roses Are Free” – the first “Roses” jam since Big Cypress” – Set I featured unique versions of First Set standards, not to mention the second “Free” opener in history. Set II flowed through moments of darkness and light, crafting a complete set that never let up. Featuring a funky, ’97-esque jam out of “DWD,” an all-time segue in “Sand -> Nellie Kane,” a bit of humor in the “Mike’s> Makisupa> Groove,” and a top notch 3.0 version of “2001,” the set left little to be desired by a band that sounded as if they were deep into a tour only two days old. The surprise encore of the classic “Oh Kee Pa> Suzy” pairing topped things off, and finished the run off with an old-school feeling. While Worcester II was forgotten by most by year’s end, when listening back, it provides a clear foundation to the brilliance that would become commonplace just a week later.

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Deer Creek Music Theater – Noblesville, IN – 06/28/2012

Set I: The Birdwatcher, The Curtain With, Fuck Your Face, The Old Home Place, Pebbles And Marbles, Weigh, Chalk Dust Torture, Wolfman’s Brother, Cool It Down, Tweezer#, Tela, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan

Set II: Mike’s Song> McGrupp And The Watchful Horsemasters> Back On The Train## -> Hold Your Head Up> Bike> Hold Your Head Up> Weekapaug Groove$, Prince Caspian& -> Waves, Bug> David Bowie###

Encore: Show Of Life> Tweezer Reprise

# “Tweezer” contained a “Fuck Your Face” tease from Mike

## “Back On The Train” contained a “Psycho Killer” tease

### “David Bowie” contained a “Bug” tease from Trey

$ “Weekapaug Groove” featured Trey & Fish switching instruments, and a drum jam between the two

& “Prince Caspian” was unfinished

By this point in Phish’s June leg of their 2012 Summer Tour, full sets had become so engulfed in the band’s determination to play 200 unique songs, that one had no clue what could or would be played during a single show. Calling upon their recital-type shows from 2009 and 2010, the band focused on songs during many of these shows. Yet, whereas in the past, the shows were full of heavy-rotation songs, in 2012 sets felt like putting Phish on shuffle, where any random song could appear. Probably the most complete, fully formed of these shows was the first night of Deer Creek. Featuring tour debuts tour in the first six songs of the set, plus “Cool It Down” and “Tela,” Set I was both unpredictable and unending, and helped to take the crowd’s mind off the torrid Midwestern heatwave billowing down on Central Indiana. Focusing heavily on songs, the only numbers in Set I to really move outside the box were a dance-heavy “Wolfman’s” and a peaking “Tweezer” that countered the temperatures for brutal heat. Set II is one of the most unique of the summer, featuring an elongated “Mike’s Groove,” an “HYHU” within the groove, and two phenomenal jams out of “Back On The Train” and “Waves,” the former which bled right into “HYHU.” Clearly in a playful mood, the “Weekapaug” featured Trey and Fish switching instruments, inspiring Trey to muse whether or not Phish would be a better band with this set up. The late-set “Waves” takes the medal for song of the night, emerging out of “Caspian,” producing an aggressively atypical jam that came close to making this list. Easily the best show of the Deer Creek-Alpine weekend, 06/28/2012 had just a bit of everything that was Phish 2012 all mixed together.

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Saratoga Performing Arts Center – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/08/2012

Set I: AC/DC Bag> My Soul, Camel Walk, Sample In A Jar, Wilson> Party Time, Gumbo, Nellie Kane, Driver, Foam, If I Could, Split Open And Melt> La Grange*

Set II: Axilla I> Light> Twist#, Kill Devil Falls## -> My Friend, My Friend& -> Swept Away -> Steep, Piper -> Free -> Kung> Harry Hood###> Cavern -> David Bowie

Encore: You Enjoy Myself####

* First “La Grange” since 22 September 1999

# “Twist” contained an “In-A-Gaada-Da-Vida” tease from Trey

## “Kill Devil Falls” contained a “Jeopardy!” tease

### “Harry Hood” contained a “Kung” quote

#### “You Enjoy Myself” contained a “Flashlight” tease from Mike

& “My Friend, My Friend” was unfinished

Closing out the first leg of Summer with a three-night run at SPAC, Phish produced two of the best shows of the year, the final of which produced a massive bustout, and a fully-flowing, jam-heavy Set II. Coming out the gates with a string of standards, Set I got a boost from a high-energy “Wilson> Party Time” pairing, and a surprise twist at the end when everyone who thought they’d be closing things out with a seedy “Split Open & Melt,” were instead treated to the first “La Grange” since 1999. The real magic, however, is in Set II: a high-octane, jamming set which saw both “Light” and “Piper” go deep. In between were masterful segues of unlikely pairings – “Kill Devil Falls -> My Friend -> Swept Away -> Steep,” “Free -> Kung> Harry Hood” – which elevated the possibilities of the set. Never relenting energy, yet never sacrificing exploration for such energy it was a masterfully atypical set that simply couldn’t have occurred with as much success during any other year of 3.0. Concluding with a noise-ladened segue from “Cavern -> Bowie,” it was the kind of set that displayed a band at the top of their game: relentlessly attacking their catalogue with precision and youthful excitement. Capping off the tour with the only appropriate song left, “You Enjoy Myself” closed out Leg I on a classic note, ushering everyone into a month of no Phish with jam-packed must-listen-playlists. After the best June of 3.0, Phish closed it out with a memorable run at SPAC, and a tour finale that foreshadowed the music that was still to come in August.

The Top Ten Shows Of 2012

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Bader Field – Atlantic City, NJ – 06/15/2012

Set I: The Sloth, My Sweet One> 46 Days> Camel Walk, Tube> Cities -> It’s Ice, Ginseng Sullivan, Stash, Simple> The Wedge, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, The Squirming Coil

Set II: My Soul, Birds Of A Feather& -> Back On The Train -> Heavy Things, Twist> Piper# -> Billy Breathes, Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> David Bowie##

Encore: First Tube#

& “Birds Of A Feather” was unfinished

# “Piper” and “First Tube” contained “Twist” teases

## “David Bowie” contained “Stash,” “It’s Ice,” “Birds Of A Feather,” “Simple” and “Ginseng Sullivan” teases

Night one of the quasi 2012 Phish fest (If there’s a Ferris Wheel it’s a festy, right? Right?) produced easily the most complete show of the weekend and immediately raised the bar from the brilliant opening shows in Worcester the previous weekend. Opening with the random trio of “The Sloth,” “My Sweet One” and “46 Days” was really all the indication anyone needed that the night was going to produce the kind of magic one hopes to catch at any Phish show. The First Set enveloped into a lengthy recital of rarities and unique combinations – “Camel Walk,” “Tube,” “Cities -> It’s Ice,” “Simple>The Wedge” – and all around excellent playing, including perhaps the best “Stealing Time” we’ve ever heard from the band. Wholly embracing the 200-song challenge, Set I was both the exact kind of comeback needed after the Bonnaroo show, and the kind of reassurance that the band wasn’t simply going to play 200 different songs throughout the month; they were going to craft wholly unique shows while doing it. Set II was simply perfect. The aforementioned “Birds -> BOTT -> H Things” made way for the late set “Twist> Piper -> Billy Breathes” which kept the Farmhouse-era jams unravelling, and produced a segment of music that barely missed this list. Infusing “Bowie” with various teases of songs played throughout the night only further solidified it’s placement among the top tier of the summer. A show that felt like one of the best shows of summer right when it happened, 06/15/2012 never relented it’s placement among the best, regardless what came after it.

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Riverbend Music Theater – Cincinnati, OH – 06/22/2012

Set I: Wolfman’s Brother> Peaches En Regalia, Shaggy Dog*> Runaway Jim#, Light Up Or Leave Me Alone, Wilson> Alaska, Stash, Llama, Buffalo Bill, Saw It Again -> David Bowie

Set II: Down With Disease&> Guelah Papyrus, Kill Devil Falls -> Twist##> Halley’s Comet> Sand -> Roggae, Carini> Chalk Dust Torture, Golgi Apparatus

Encore: Fluffhead**

* First “Shaggy Dog” since 29 October 1995

** First “Fluffhead” Encore since 3 November 1990

# “Runaway Jim” contained a “When The Saint’s Go Marching” tease

## “Twist” contained a “Eleanor Rigby” tease from Trey and a “Heaven On Their Minds” jam

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

A must-hear, top-tier show of the summer, the band let it all hang out on the third Friday of the June leg, crafting a show full of rarities, segues, gimmicks, and one of the best jams of summer. A “Wolfman’s” opener is always a welcome sign, for it produces a no bullshit intro to a show, bringing the house down before anyone has a chance to catch their breath. Followed by the always welcome Zappa-cover, “Peaches En Regalia” and the first “Shaggy Dog” since October 1995 immediately gave the show an air of superiority over the rest of summer thus far. The rest of the First set contained even more rarities with “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone,” “Llama,” “Buffalo Bill,” and “Saw It Again,” the latter three which were results of a Fishman gaffe when the band tried to go into “Poor Heart” and “The Moma Dance,” leading to Trey joking they apparently needed to play a song that started with drums so their drummer could keep up. The energy spilled over from the “Saw It Again” fade into “David Bowie” resulting in another solid version for the summer. Set II started out with an abandoned jam in “DWD,” a welcomed “Guelah,” and a make or break “Kill Devil Falls,” which was oddly placed in the middle of the second set. Fortunately, Trey extended the end of “KDF” over two minutes, resulting in stunning ambient waves that bled into the best “Twist” of 3.0. A “Sand -> Roggae” crafted the second unique “Sand” segue of Summer, and the “Carini> Chalk Dust” added some extra adrenaline to the end of the set. A unique blend of classics, jams, darkness and light, the show ended with the first “Fluffhead” encore since 1990, a placement that all but confirmed the band’s enjoyment in Cinci. The show of summer until SPAC night one, Cinci kicked off an incredible run of music throughout the midwest, and, reignited Phish with their love of the dark side in one of the best jams of the era.

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First Niagara Pavilion – Burgettstown, PA – 06/23/2012

Set I: Funky Bitch> Backwards Down The Number Line, Gumbo> Maze#, Torn & Frayed, The Moma Dance> Scent Of A Mule+, 46 Days, You Enjoy Myself##

Set II: Gotta Jibboo> Mike’s Song -> Simple> Light> Weekapaug Groove### -> Seven Below, Bouncing Around The Room> Julius> Slave To The Traffic Light

Encore: The Lizards

# “Maze” contained an “Eleanor Rigby” tease

## “You Enjoy Myself” contained a “Scent Of A Mule” tease from Trey

### “Weekapaug Groove” contained a “Divided Sky” tease from Trey

+ The “Mule Duel” featured Page on the Theremin

A night after raising the bar on Summer 2012 with a standout show that focused on bustouts and rarities, Phish played another gem in one of their storied venues, only this time, consisting almost totally of standards, which allowed their playing to totally speak for itself. With a First Set that appeared brutally bland upon initial glance, the band offered top-notch versions of “Maze,” “Scent Of A Mule,” “46 Days,” and the first First Set closing “You Enjoy Myself” since 07/13/2003. Interweaving teases, the theremin, and a fully-connected jam in the set closer, the show lived and died on the band’s performance, something that would come to fruition in the brilliant Second Set. Opening with the always welcome “Gotta Jibboo,” the set can essentially  be summed up in five songs: “Mike’s -> Simple> Light> Weekapaug -> Seven Below.” The aforementioned “Groove” is one of the standout suites of 2012 – a 50-minute sequence of communication, connection, and brilliant playing that joined the echelon of “Mike’s Groove’s” throughout their storied career. Foregoing the 200-song challenge for at least one night, Burgettstown 2012 was all about the performance. With little-to-no breaks in flow throughout, the show is one of the tighter shows of 3.0,  and combined with the standout jamming in Set II, is in a lot of ways modeled after a 1.0 type of show than anything we’ve heard from the band in the last 10 years. Rounding things out with a solid “Julius,” a sublime “Slave To The Traffic Light,” and a “The Lizards” encore which added a bit of humor when Trey forgot the lyrics, the show finished in classic fashion. More than anything, the show was a reminder to all that Phish has reached a point where they don’t need bustouts or rarities to craft a memorable show in 2012.

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Nikon At Jones Beach Theater – Wantagh, NY – 07/03/2012

Set I: Skin It Back*#> Possum##, Tube, Happiness Is A Warm Gun**, Mike’s Song -> I Am Hydrogen> Weekapaug Groove, Halley’s Comet> Axilla I> Ya Mar, Joy, Jesus Just Left Chicago> Backwards Down The Number Line> Golgi Apparatus

Set II: Chalk Dust Torture, Sand### -> Golden Age, Wolfman’s Brother -> Walk Away, Bug> Fluffhead####> The Wedge, Run Like An Antelope

Encore: Character Zero

* First “Skin It Back” since 29 July 1988

* First “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” since 31 October 1994

# “Skin It Back” contained a “Spanish Moon” tease

## “Possum” and “Chalk Dust Torture” contained “Skin It Back” teases

### “Sand” contained an “Izabella” tease

#### “Fluffhead” contained a “Dave’s Energy Guide” tease

Jones Beach has produced some of the standout moments in 3.0. From their 2009 three-night run that allowed the band to settle in to the road, featuring a completely unique take on “Hood,” “Ghost> Antelope,” and a second set that rivaled all in 3.0 before it on 06/05/2009, to their 2010 Leg II closing affair that gave us the first “Fluffhead” opener since Hampton, the best “Backwards Down The Number Line” we’ve seen thus far, to their 2012 Fourth of July Performance, it’s been hallowed grounds in this era of Phish. Fitting then, that they’d use the East Coast hideout to bustout “Skin It Back” for the first time in nearly 24 years, after so many soundcheck jams featured the Little Feat classic. Fully embracing the 200-song challenge in this show, Set I is a full-on recital featuring another massive bustout in “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” plus a solid “Mike’s Groove,” “Axilla I,” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Set II reigns supreme in this show however, with a brilliant jam-combination occurring between “Sand -> Golden Age,” the former which produced hands-down, the best version of the TV On The Radio cover that we’ve ever heard. Dedicating it’s final 4:42 to blissful ambient soundscapes, it’s really the furthest the band has ever let the song traverse, and it’s the most patience they’ve displayed towards expanding it. With another peak in the “Wolfman’s -> Walk Away” combo that literally never gets old, the set finished in strong fashion with top notch versions of “Fluffhead” and one of the most torrential “Run Like An Antelope’s” we’ve heard this side of Utica. In the same realm as 06/15 /2012 and the first night of SPAC, 07/03/2012 used a lengthy, song-based Set I to ease them into a calculated, and professionally driven Set II.

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Saratoga Performing Arts Center – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/06/2012

Set I: Runaway Jim, Ocelot, Heavy Things, Back On The Train, Funky Bitch, Tube -> Psycho Killer -> Tube, Hold Your Head Up#> Craklin’ Rosie> Hold Your Head Up, Stash, Bouncing Around The Room, Paul & Silas> Horn, Corinna, Light Up Or Leave Me Alone

Set II: Chalk Dust Torture> Carini> Sand> Roses Are Free -> Punch You In The Eye> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> Ghost> Suzy Greenberg> Run Like An Antelope##+

Encore: Loving Cup

# “Hold Your Head Up” contained “Psycho Killer” quotes

## “Run Like An Antelope” contained a “Crosseyed & Painless” tease

+ “Run Like An Antelope” featured Tom Marshall and The Dude Of Life on vocals

On the opening night of the final weekend of the First Leg of their 2012 Summer Tour, Phish crafted an absolute masterpiece that still ranks as one of the best shows of the entire year. Once again, the 200-song challenge dominated as they threw down an unprecedented 17-song First Set. Opening initially with a string of standards – all of which carried an extra summer-flair – the set got going in earnest with a nasty “Tube -> Psycho Killer -> Tube,” thus marrying the best moments of 12/07/1997 into one surreal jam. Festivities continued with a humorous take on their “HYHU” gag, including references to the “Tucking” joke that had consumed Summer – by which Fish would tuck his gown into his underwear, and perform whatever song was asked of him; always a willing jester. Concluding with top-notch versions of rarities “Corinna” and “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone,” the set was a marathon 90-minute journey that left all eagerly anticipating how the band would top it in Set II. Focusing on energetic jamming, Set II produced a tight combination of “Carini> Sand,” and a sprawling, forceful and powerful jam between “Sneakin’ Sally -> Ghost.” “Sally” fully left the structure of the song for the first time since 08/07/2009, producing a driven and hard-edged jam, which deviated from many of the traditional funk takes on it. One of the final cuts for this list, the “Sally” displays just how unique and original Phish was willing to go in 2012, how far they were willing to push their jams to discover the unknown. Concluding with a classic pairing of “Suzy Greenberg> Antelope” – the latter which featured Tom Marshall & The Dude Of Life on vocals – the show fit the bill of it’s locale and placement in the tour. Feeling like a true homecoming show, SPAC I was, and is, one of the clear standouts in a year full of them.

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Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – San Francisco, CA – 08/19/2012

Set I: Crowd Control, Party Time, Axilla I, Reba, Free> Mound> Walk Away, NICU, Back On The Train, Gotta Jibboo, Roggae, David Bowie

Set II: Crosseyed & Painless# -> Light## -> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley## -> Crosseyed & Painless -> Theme From The Bottom> Rocky Top> Boogie On Reggae Woman -> Meatstick+, Bug, You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Ride Captain Ride> Tweezer Reprise

# “Crosseyed & Painless” contained a “The Cave” tease

## “Light” and “Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley” contained a “Crosseyed & Painless” tease; “Light” contained an “All The Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” tease

+ “Meatstick” included Japanese lyrics

Night three at the BGCA was a night to remember in 2012 and Phish 3.0. Featuring a classic first set – the kind where it literally did not matter what song was played – and a fully-flowing second set, including one of the best jam segments of the year, it was a standout show in the greatest regards. After two sub-par shows opened the overhyped, three-night stand at the intimate San Francisco theater, Phish clearly came out on the 19th on a mission. Crafting a killer show with apparent ease, listening to this show was without question, one of the most pleasurable experiences any Phish fan had with the band in 2012. Riding a scorching “Back On The Train,” “Gotta Jibboo,” “Roggae,” “David Bowie” segment into set break, the band came out on fire in Set II. With a six-song opening segment that read “Crosseyed & Painless -> Light -> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> Crosseyed & Painless -> Theme From The Bottom> Rocky Top,” there was no let-up over the set’s first hour. Featuring intricate jamming, high-energy transitions, a gorgeous ambient breakdown, a massive “Tweezer Reprise” tease, and fluid song selections, it was a jaw-dropping section of music that left many wondering how the band was capable of putting on a show as discombobulated as 08/18 one night, and one as fully-connected as 08/19 the next. Riding the energy to the end, the show never let up as “Boogie On” and “Meatstick” continued their perfect tandem, and “You Enjoy Myself” closed out the set in strong fashion. Encoring with the second “Ride Captain Ride” of the summer – a song which includes references to San Francisco – it was the kind of rare treat that fit perfectly within the celebratory feel of the show. The “Tweezer Reprise” that followed, and closed out the run, blew the roof off the joint once more, providing the extra oomph that “Tweeprise” is always good for. Immediately launched into the discussion of “Show Of The Year,” 08/19/2012 is literally the exact show that everyone hopes to catch every time they see Phish.

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Chaifetz Arena – St. Louis, MO – 08/28/2012

Set I: Punch You In The Eye> Runaway Jim, Ocelot> Reba, I Didn’t Know+, The Curtain> Peaches En Regalia> Mound> Sample In A Jar, The Sloth, Camel Walk, Possum> Quinn The Eskimo

Set II: Chalk Dust Torture -> Frankie Says -> Undermind -> Sand -> Walk Away, Limb By Limb, Julius> 2001> You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Shine A Light

+ Before the vacuum solo in “I Didn’t Know,” Fish was introduced as The John Coltrane of the Vacuum Cleaner

On a Tuesday night during the last week of their 2012 Summer Tour, everything came together for Phish, crafting yet another classic on par with 06/22/2012, 07/06/2012 and 08/19/2012 for the best shows of the year at the time. With a first set that matched 08/19’s in terms of the irrelevance of songs played, “Reba,” “Peaches> Mound,” and “Possum> Quinn The Eskimo” all stood out as top-notch versions. The “Reba” in particular – the last performance of summer – was a stunning display of the beauty the song encompasses, as Trey crafted sublimed riffs and musical thoughts with the subtle backing on his band. It was the kind of First Set that, once concluded, everyone in the venue just knows will lead to a heated Set II. While on paper, Set II of 08/28 looked admittedly like a crapshoot, once one listened to the intuitive communication displayed by the band throughout it, it was clear we had an immediate classic on our hands. Containing fluid segues from one song to another that no one – not even the most clever PT-vet – could ever conceive of, the first forty minutes of the set were one unending jam. “Chalk Dust -> Frankie Says -> Undermind -> Sand -> Walk Away” all somehow found their way to one another – bridging the gap with masterful playing, where on paper, they appeared to be a choppy mishap. Concluding with a “Limb By Limb” that initially appeared to be a breather, the contemplative Ghost-era track broke ground and wound itself through layers of upbeat, Trey-led percussive jamming, finishing off with a massive peak before rediscovering the “Limb” theme. “2001> You Enjoy Myself” brought things home with a classic pairing of two songs that, while a bit tamed by 3.0, still retain the magic that brings the crowd to full attention and a rousing applause whenever they hit their ecstatic points. One-off encores can be tricky, particularly after a show with so much heat, but no one can argue with the importance of “Shine A Light” to the band in the 3.0 era, and whenever it concludes a show on par with 08/28, it fits perfectly, in the same way “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “A Day In The Life,” and even “Harry Hood” does. A killer show all-around, St. Louis sent everyone off to Central Colorado dreaming of seeing a show on par with it, and the best shows of summer that had come before it. Little did anyone know what they were in for…

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Dick’s Sporting Goods Park – Commerce City, CO – 08/31/2012

Set I: First Tube, Uncle Pen, Carini> Kill Devil Falls, You Enjoy Myself+, Ocelot, Undermind#

Set II: Runaway Jim&> Farmhouse> Alaska, Chalk Dust Torture&, Emotional Rescue> Fuck Your Face##

Encore: Grind, Meatstick++

+ “You Enjoy Myself” contained a “We all love Dick’s!” vocal jam

++ “Meatstick” contained Japanese lyrics

# “Undermind” contained a “Crosseyed & Painless” tease

## “Fuck Your Face” contained “Emotional Resuce” quotes

& “Runaway Jim” and “Chalk Dust Torture” were unfinished

There are certain shows that hold such superiority to the rest of Phish’s live catalogue, that words really do them no justice. They must be heard to be understood. Many of them, must have been seen to fully grasp. They are nights when the band is so on, when everything just comes together, that even Trey, Mike, Fish and Page couldn’t tell you why they were so good. In The Phish Book Trey said, “It’s Strange. There are some shows that crystallize into great experiences for bot us and the audiences, and I usually remember a minute of them.” 08/31/2012 was one of these such nights. In so many ways it resembles no single show that has appeared before it in 3.0, and who knows how long it will take them to reach this level again. With a goal set to play a show that read F.U.C.K.Y.O.U.R.F.A.C.E. the band had to somehow fit 13 songs (plus “Fuck Your Face”) into a three-hour show – something they hadn’t done since SPAC ’04. As the show unraveled from the fan’s perspective, it was clear something was amok. The “First Tube,” “Uncle Pen,” “Carini” – which included a blissful type-II jam – just didn’t fit with the 3.0 model. The fifth song “You Enjoy Myself” only threw people off more, and the glorious, set-closing “Undermind” had everyone celebrating like Phish had just won the World Series. As word spread through the venue that the first set had spelled out F.U.C.K.Y.O.U. the sense was that the band had caught onto the all crap they’d received over the lack of jams in 3.0, and were thus responding with an onslaught of exploration to the unassuming ears. The gag of course, would in fact spill over into set two, and the format would allow the band to reach even more sublimity through jams in “Runaway Jim> Farmhouse,” and “Chalk Dust Torture.” When all was said and done, the show was an instant classic. Regardless of the gimmick – something that’s come to dominate the first night of the Dick’s runs – the band stepped up and responded with a show for the ages. Full of top-notch jams – three of which made this list – a song selection that kept fans on the edge of their seats, and an all-time gag that messed with the crowd all night long, 08/31/2012 is without question the best show of 2012, the best show yours truly has ever seen, and the best show the band has played in 3.0 aside from 07/03/2011.

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Dick’s Sporting Goods Park – Commerce City, CO – 09/01/2012

Set I: Run Like An Antelope*, Backwards Down The Number Line> Tweezer> Fluffhead> Roses Are Free> Funky Bitch> The Moma Dance> When The Circus Comes, Theme From The Bottom> Golgi Apparatus, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan

Set II: Golden Age> Prince Caspian&> Light#, Boogie On Reggae Woman> The Wedge, The Horse -> Silent In The Morning> Mike’s Song -> No Quarter> Weekapaug Groove

Encore: Sleeping Monkey> Tweezer Reprise

* First “Run Like An Antelope” opener since 26 January 1990

& “Prince Caspian” was unfinished

# “Light” contained a “Mercy Mercy Mercy” tease from Page

The night after THE night. After playing their strongest show of 2012, and one of their best of 3.0 overall, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who thought Phish could in fact top the brilliance of 08/31. On it’s own, 09/01/2012 would have been endlessly praised, yet grouped with 08/31 it was unfortunately overshadowed, and has been hopelessly underrated by many in the Phish community. The truth is, 09/01 is one of the best shows of 2012. Opening with the first “Run Like An Antelope” opener since January 1990, and featuring a “Tweezer> Fluffhead” in the 3-4 slot, the show was a keeper just 45 minutes in. Rounding out Set I with a focus on First Set standards offered a nice breath of fresh air after a show-and-a-half of mind-altering music. The Second Set kicked off with a 50-minute sequence of music that read: “Golden Age> Prince Caspian> Light.” Featuring expansive, groove-based jamming in “Golden Age” – on par with the brilliance of 07/03/2012 – a deep, extensive and sinister “Caspian” and one of the the jams of the year in “Light,” the set opened with endless possibilities, assuring the entire crowd that the magic of 08/31 had in fact spilled over into Night II. Filling the middle of the set with crowd pleasers – “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” “The Wedge” – and a quick, contemplative breather in “The Horse -> Silent,” the set ended with a straight up nasty take on “Mike’s Groove,” with the Zeppelin cover “No Quarter” bridging the two classics. A welcome shock to everyone in the venue, the “No Quarter” built upon the rage of the “Mike’s” “jam” section, and fit the bill with the darkness that had engulfed so many of the jams throughout the weekend. Finishing with a raging “Weekapaug,” when the band reemerged for the encore, Trey informed the fans that they’d have to give them a minute, cause Fishman was simply too worn out from rocking out. When they finally did play, the classic pairing of “Sleeping Monkey> Tweezer Reprise” finished the show off right and sent a message to the fans that Phish had thought as highly of the last two nights as we did.

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Madison Square Garden – New York City, NY – 12/30/2012

Set I: Runaway Jim#, Cities> The Divided Sky, Back On The Train, Ride Captain Ride, Ocelot, Ya Mar, Horn, My Friend, My Friend&> Run Like An Antelope

Set II: Down With Disease##& -> Twenty Years Later> Carini> Backwards Down The Number Line> Julius, Slave To The Traffic Light###

Encore: Harry Hood###, Show Of Life

# “Runaway Jim” contained a “Dave’s Energy Guide” tease from Trey

## “Down With Disease” contained a “Woman From Tokyo” tease

### “Slave To The Traffic Light” and “Harry Hood” contained a “Little Drummer Boy” tease

& “My Friend, My Friend” and “Down With Disease” were unfinished

For the first time since 2009, Phish took the stage on a 30 December and played like they fully understood the implications of the date in Phish history. 12/30/1993, 12/30/1995, 12/30/1997, 12/30/1999, 12/30/2003, 12/30/2009; these are shows that are revered across years and eras for the anything-goes atmosphere that engulfs Phish on the night before THE night. After a 12/28 show that featured a fully connected Set II, and a rocking 12/29 show that never quite got off the ground, the energy was palpable in MSG, and Phish responded in classic fashion. A top-notch first set, chock-full of classics was really the definition of fun. It was the kind of set that, like 08/19 and 08/28, matter little what songs were played, for by setbreak everyone was raving about just how good the band had sounded. Whatever good feelings were crafted by the band in Set I, however, would quickly be reversed (for the better) with a three song jam segment that would ultimately be the most memorable aspect of the entire NYE Run. Reading: “Down With Disease -> Twenty Years Later> Carini,” the set started with an ominous dive into the netherworld, featuring some of the most abstract, beatless, egoless music the band has produced throughout 3.0. Akin to the best moments of Dick’s, the thing that separated the “DWD” and “Carini” was that they were devoid of any of the climactic peaks that defined the “Light,” “Sand” and the MSG “Tweezer.” Emerging from the reckoning with a killer version of the 3.0 theme-song, “Backwards Down The Number Line” and “Julius” brought everyone back to life, and kept the show moving, regardless of the song selection. Finishing things off with an emotive “Slave” set closer, and a gorgeous “Hood” encore was the perfect way to end the show of the 2012 NYE run, and veritably end the 2012 playing season. The NYE show the following night was by far their best NYE show since 2003, and a great show in it’s own right. However, 12/30/2012 was the exact kind of show that defined Phish 2012: solid song selection, high-energy, transcendent playing, and an intuitive linear music communication from four solid years of playing together which produced some of the best improvisation music crafted by the band in the last 10-15 years. After such a phenomenal year for Phish – a year that rose to the ranks with best the band has produced in the last 30 years – one can only wonder what the band has in store for us in 2013. A year of with another two-legged Summer tour, 30th anniversary events planned, Festival X, and yet another year-ending NYE Run at MSG, there is a resounding sense of hope surrounding the direction of the band. The ups and downs of 2009, 2010 and 2011 fully behind them, 2012 was without question the best year of 3.0. The year where people stopped wondering if Phish would ever regain their former glory, it was instead when everyone stopped critiquing and fully enjoyed the ride Phish was taken us all on.

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Thanks to Phish.Net (www.phish.net) and The Mockingbird Foundation (www.mbird.org) for organizational assistance and sourcing of setlists!

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.