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.

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Phearless – On The Third Week Of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour

942411_10151477068446290_461141722_nRemember way back on July 2nd when all those pictures popped up on Twitter of the rain that had consumed central Maine?

This wasn’t the way to kick of summer tour, we all thought at the time. Surely mother nature would realize the imminent onset of Phish’s 30th Anniversary 2013 Summer Tour and act accordingly, right?

Right?

Wrong.

In a fortuitous twist, the rain clouds that greeted everyone in Bangor, ME three weeks ago have yet to recede from Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour. From SPAC to the postponed show in Toronto, from Jones Beach’s torrential Set I downpour to 07/14’s Set II storm, from the rain that engulfed the Alpharetta pavilion to the mayhem in Chicago that resulted in 07/19’s cancellation, 07/20’s three-setter, and 07/21’s perfectly executed Set II, rain has defined the 2013 Summer Tour as much as the music itself.

For a band that has played its fair-share of weather-affected concerts – Coventry anyone? – Summer 2013 may take the cake as THE tour where the weather has affected Phish more than any other.

And yet, through all the rain, through all the on-again/off-again shows played, that Phish has continued to evolve this tour with the kind of energy, passion, and foresight as they have is more than anyone could ask for considering the circumstances.

The key? Phearless-ness and Energy. Like no tour since 1.0, here in the 2013 Summer Tour the band is attacking their shows with a sustained combination of focused precision and egoless exploration, resulting in fully-realized jams, flawless segues, and unyielding energy throughout each of their shows.

Below are another collection of thoughts and questions I’ve compiled about the last week of the tour.

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Energy (As THE Song Of, And The Keyword For, Phish 2013)

Certain songs appear in Phish’s rotation at just the right time.

Think “Maze” in 1992, “Down With Disease” in 1994, “Ghost” in 1997, “Seven Below” in 2003, and “Light” in 2009.

When the band debuted The Apples In Stereo 2007 song “Energy” to kick off 07/05’s second set it immediately felt like a Phish song and fit the initial mood of the tour. A bouncy melody combined with populist lyrics, it carried the tone and communicable message that has consumed so many of Trey Anastasio’s original songs for the last ten-odd years.

And then, with little effort or force, the song moved into Type II territory resulting in a moody, psychedelically-infused jam that bled seamlessly into “Light.” Eleven days later the band revisited the song midway through Alpharetta’s final set, expanding further on the jam that – in many of the same ways as “Light” has for the last four years – just builds outwards from the song at will.

When Trey walked on stage for the final set of the Chicago run wearing his “Phearless” shirt, (two t-shirt Sunday’s in a row!) following what must have been one of the most frustrating weekends the band has experienced in years, there was really only one song that the band could open with that would both fit the mood of the show while simultaneously altering the course of the tour going forward: “Energy.”

Resulting in one of the most patient, contemplative, and overall hooked-up moments of the tour thus far, the 07/21 “Energy” moved through various untapped musical terrains without any of the restraints that have, at times, held many 3.0 jams back. The performance was a statement on the musical peak the band is experiencing this summer, and on the overt role energy has played in Phish’s now-30-year career.

Think back to Trey’s rant in the hotel room in Europe in the middle of Bittersweet Motel. Angered that Brad Sands would slag off a show he clearly thought rocked, Trey spoke directly to the camera saying: “I couldn’t fucking care less if we missed a change, or a number of changes. Doesn’t have anything to do with how we’re playing. It’s all about energy.”

A concept that has always driven many of the band’s best shows, energy as an idea, and “Energy” the song are starting to define 2013 in a retrospective, yet forward-driven way, perfectly aligned as the band simultaneously celebrates their 30th year of existence. A song that speaks to the communal power of what Phish has created, while musically opening itself up to the untapped potential of the band’s improvisational journey’s, “Energy” is clearly THE song of Phish 2013.

One more thought on this, listening back to the “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards” segment one can literally hear the musical journey that Phish has embarked on over the past three decades in 35 uninterrupted minutes. From the sprawling, patient endlessness of “Energy” to the seedy minimalism of “Ghost,” which then evolves without effort into a bright, rhythmically-laced jam, before segueing seamlessly into “The Lizards,” the song that ushers us into Gamehendge, it’s a musical journey that takes us through the evolution of Phish both musically, emotionally, and thematically. It’s, no question, the jam segment of the summer so far.

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Alpharetta: Combining Gimmickry With Dick’s-esque Jamming

After everything that went on in Chicago this last weekend, it’s hard to remember that mid-last-week, Phish threw down two barnburner’s in the pristine suburban purgatory of Alpharetta, GA. Caught between their absolutely masterful two-night run at Merriweather Post, and the survival experience of Chicago that clearly had so much more to do with than just the music, Alpharetta’s at risk of being both overlooked and underrated.

While neither of the shows offer complete packages due to their underwhelming first sets, something clearly happened in Alpharetta that both altered the overall contour of this tour, and injected it with some fresh ideas that’s worth noting.

Whereas the run from 07/10 – 07/14 featured an exploratory-driven, top-of-their-game band that simply could do no wrong, the Alpharetta shows saw Phish truly tinker with their approach for the first time since SPAC. Eschewing the overtly old-school approach that saw the band reach their biggest peaks of the tour thus far in the aforementioned shows, Phish dedicated their two second set’s in Alpharetta to a combination of playful gimmickry, and Dick’s-esque jamming, resulting in a boost in energy and variety, while still consciously evolving their jams forward.

Summed up most perfectly in the 07/16 “Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning> Birds Of A Feather” segment that consumed the first hour of the set, the band blended Type-II jamming while threading the “Heartbreaker” theme throughout, resulting in a run of must-hear music. What makes this block of music ultimately so rewarding, so memorable, and so impacting is, whereas the band has attempted this type of set throughout 3.0 – 10/30/2010, 08/17/2011, 06/16/2012, and 07/07/2012 immediately come to mind – never before has it worked quite as well as it did in Alpharetta. By dedicating 35min of the segment to improvisational jams out of “Rock & Roll,” “Chalk Dust,” and “Tweezer” the band avoided the sloppy, and often awkward pitfalls that tend to plague sets such as this. Displaying an effortlessness in opening “Chalk Dust” up for the first time since 08/31/2012, while also experimenting with their Dick’s-esque melodic-driven jams in “Rock & Roll” and “Tweezer” gave the set far more depth than most gimmick-laced-tease sets of 3.0 have carried.

On the next night the band centered experimentation in two under-11min jams that proved once again how irrelevant song length is in 3.0. Rather than anchoring the set under one massive jam, “Energy” and “Piper” were featured as bookends to the return of “Fluffhead” in the middle part of the set, offering both abstract and thematic jamming which gave diversity to the set and their improv. A set – and an overall run – that carries far more weight than would be initially assumed by simply glancing at the setlist, Alpharetta combined energy, playfulness, and innovative jamming to play the role of celebratory cap to the east coast leg of the tour, while also helping to thematically push the band forward towards the west.

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What’s The Deal With All The Repeats?

For anyone following Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour, there’s one thing glaringly obvious about each setlist: repeats. I addressed this topic in my last essay, yet feel it needs revisiting due to the unending communal discussions surrounding it.

Fourteen shows into the tour, we already have two songs played in nearly half the shows – “Chalk Dust Torture,” and “Backwards Down The Number Line.” In addition to that, from run-to-run, and show-to-show, songs are being repeated night after night with a frequency that harkens back to the early-90’s; back when the band had a song catalogue half the size it is now.

As expected, many are openly complaining and lambasting the band for their apparent inability (or desire) to diverge from a strict rotation. Cause, no matter how well the band’s playing, you’ve gotta bitch about something, right?

Coming off a year that saw the band bust out song after song at literally every show – a tour in which they set out with the goal of playing 200 different songs – there is certainly something a bit jarring about the frequency with which the band is playing just their core classics here in 2013. Not to mention the fact that on paper, some of their shows tend to look a bit blasé at first glance.

Yet, when one removes themselves from the dreaded zone of personal expectations, when one allows themselves a shift in perception, it’s actually stunningly clear why the band would focus on such a small rotation.

So clear, it actually makes perfect fucking sense.

To me there are two reasons why the band is focusing on a tighter rotation in 2013:

1. Coming into 2012 it was apparent the band needed some sense of outward motivation to keep their relative high of August 2010 – September 2011 going strong. While they’d rediscovered their sea legs at the Greek Theatre in 2010, there’d been so many bouts with inconsistency strung throughout the 18months leading up to Worcester 2012 that it was clear the band still needed exercises to keep them fresh. (Think of this in the same way as the improvisational exercises the band relied on from Summer 1993 – Summer 1995, and parts of Fall 1996.) Throughout 2012 though, the band once again became completely comfortable and inherently confident with their ability to craft complete shows and innovative jams, that their need for bust-outs and rarities simply to spice up their shows became less and less necessary. (ala the peak music of December 1995 and Fall 1997 that was a result of said musical exercises, and thus just sounds like a band effortlessly playing, rather than attempting any specific style.)

While sure, thrilling as it may be to hear a song for the first time in 5-10 years, the bust out exercise is more telling of a band seeking inspiration in their past, rather than discovering it in their present and future.

Point being, something was clearly discovered at Dick’s that showed the band how truly powerful their music was right now, in the moment. They tapped into something in the “Carini,” “Undermind,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” “Light,” and “Sand” that they hadn’t experienced with that kind of consistency or ease in years. As a result, they grew beyond the need to center shows around a one-time rarity, hence the reason 2013 shows are now centered around jams, such as the 07/05 second set, 07/06 “SOAM,” “Carini,” 07/10 “Crosseyed,” 07/12 “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge,” 07/13 “Simple,” 07/14 “Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman,” 07/21 “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards,” and 07/22 “DWD,” rather than unique song choices.

2. 2013 marks the band’s 30th anniversary. A monumental achievement for a band that just nine years ago was essentially left for dead by its creators. Throughout 3.0 there’s been a clear focus on systematically rebuilding what made Phish Phish. From 2009 and early-2010’s foundation setting, late-2010 and 2011’s experimental excursions, and 2012’s fully-realized jamming, bust outs, and shift towards a new era in Phish history, the band has essentially rebuilt themselves using the tried-and-true method that saw them rise throughout the early/mid-90’s on way to their initial musical peak period of 1994 – 1998.

Yet, through it all, regardless of whatever process the band is engaged in, one thing has always remained, and will forever define them as musicians: their songs. Specifically, their classics.

In light of their anniversary, and their ability to now focus on a totally new musical era of Phish, it makes sense that in 2013 the band would want to highlight the songs that, more than anything else, got them to the veritable summit of the musical mountain first.

If you made a mix-tape of all the songs that just sound like Phish to you, chances are they’d all be receiving heavy airplay here in 2013. And that’s the point. 2013 is both a year of celebration and a year for the band to take another leap forward musically. And what better way to both celebrate the legacy they’ve built, and take their next evolutionary step forward musically than through the songs that got them here in the first place?

Far from a sign that the band is unpracticed, lacking creativity, or just disinterested, the tightened setlists are instead a clear message from the band of how much they respect and value the songs that will ultimately live on long after they do.

We all got into Phish, and continue listening to Phish for various reasons. Yet one thing will always be true: it was their songs that we heard first, and their songs that we will always return to. Instead of focusing on what they’re not playing in 2013, let’s instead focus on why they are playing what they are playing.

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What Do We Make Of 07/20/2013?

I’ll come right out with a disclamer: I wasn’t in Chicago. In many ways I realize I have no business writing about the experience as I wasn’t there to live through everything that came with the weekend. All’s I can base my perceptions from the ground on are the texts I received from my friends at the show, the tweets I followed throughout the weekend, and the reaction of the writers and thinkers in the community who were there.

That said, how could I possible write anything about the last week of tour without addressing something about the Chicago Run, specifically the three-setter on Saturday?

With a specific focus on the music created, here are my thoughts:

Following the first show that was cut short due to weather since – I believe – 07/01/2000, a wave of negativity permeated through the Phish scene. Thanks in large part to the inexperience of the Northerly Island staff and crew, along with the fact that across town Pearl Jam was able to resume their concert around midnight – ultimately playing until 2am – many felt the band had made a bushleague move in canceling the show.

The next day however the band informed their fans that, in response to 07/19’s cancellation, they’d be performing a three-set show, their first non-holiday/festival three-set show since 07/12/1996 in Amsterdam, and their first state-side one since Amy’s Farm back on 08/03/1991. In many ways it was the ultimate sign of communal understanding, and band-oriented sentiment about the regret felt over the debacle on Friday.

In addition to the good-vibes that now suddenly stretched far-and-wide throughout the Phish scene, many began making additional requests and predictions for the show in effort to make it somehow even more epic and even more important than it already stood to be.

The band’s response: An opening quartet that read “Prince Caspian -> Twist, Ha Ha Ha> Possum,” or: PT Hahaha Possum. The first dose of band-led criticism of their fans own backseat driving of the weekend, the message was either completely lost on the fanbase in its initial moments, or bitterly soaked up.

The remainder of the show was modeled in many ways like the Saturday Night Rockers that are littered throughout 3.0, featuring an energetic song-based approach, devoid almost entirely of deep improv. Avoiding rarities of any sort, many felt the band simply wasn’t up to the challenge of both making up for the previous night’s cancellation, and the headiness of a rare three-set show.

Once again, I wasn’t at the show. I’ve just listened to it a few times, and these are my thoughts.

I believe the weather impacted the weekend in Chicago in ways that the weather leading up to Coventry wasn’t even capable of. The mindset the band must put themselves in prior to performing has to be one of a meditative freeing of all outside expectations and challenges. To then be taken so completely out of it by real life weather warnings and safety precautions, must be jarring, unnerving, and frustrating in the highest sense. Add this to the fact that the band had been dealing with torrid weather all tour, and I’ve got to assume that by the time they were told they had to cancel the Friday show, they experienced combined exhaustion and negative energy.

In many ways, the 07/20/2013 show sounds like a band trying to fit a massive show into a confined space.

The middle show of a three-night run – typically a Saturday night – is always the most popular showing, featuring many fans who either don’t see Phish very often, or may just be checking them out out of curiosity. A result of all these outside forces the band had to juggle, I feel like the band was trying to appease everyone involved by consciously playing a lot of their biggest “hits,” while also maintaining energy and flow, all the while dipping a bit into experimentation.

To that point, the show lacks nothing for energy and flow. Particularly in the final two stanza’s, the band weaves thematic sets that never relinquish energy, nor musical connectivity. The second set especially is one I will revisit throughout the year for it boasts some of the smoothest segues, and emotive music the band has played thus far this tour.

What the show does lack however is a clear attempt by the band to truly reward all invested in the event with a moment of sheer unique Phishy-ness, (i.e. bust out/gag) nor a period of freely-improvisational-exploration.

Would the two above qualities have made the show an all-timer?

I have no idea.

Should the show be lambasted based upon its inherent inability to satisfy so many people’s unattainable expectations?

You’d have to ask someone who was there experiencing it all.

To me, the show sounds like a band willing themselves out of an un-winnable situation. Essentially residing with one-foot in a creative world, while another is trying to both live up to the shared expectations of everyone involved, and deal with the logistical barriers that were venue/weather-related, and had to have been wearing them down.

In the end, that they were capable of such musical ambience in Set II, and in the third set’s “Light -> Harry Hood” should in many ways say all that needs to be said about just how trying the experience was, yet how much this band clearly cares about their fans and their music.

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The Brilliance Of The “Harpua” Gag & The Role Of Conflict In Phish’s Music

James Kaminsky over at the One Phish Two Phish blog already addressed the “Harpua” Gag in a really excellent piece earlier this week, so I’ll spare you a massive recap. Seriously, you should just check out his essay, for it breaks down perfectly the band’s message through the elongated gag.

What I’ll say is this: Since their choice of opening up with “Garden Party” to close out their best year of 3.0 and 12/31/2012 – and most successful year overall in over ten years, no less – the band has been sending out a clear message to their fans that, ‘while we respect your passion and enthusiasm for the band, don’t forget why you’re here in the first place.’

Essentially: Quit telling us how we should play our music for you.

This is both the right message for the band to deliver, and one their fanbase should heed at all costs.

As fans of a band as diverse, and willfully experimental as Phish – a band that has reached far more musical peaks than most bands could ever conceive of – it’s understandable we each have our own stylistic aspects and songs from the band we want to hear over others. For me, the peak of Phish will always be the unyielding experimental jams of 1995, 1997, and 1999. Being at Dick’s last year was an absolutely peak moment in my life because I felt as though the band was playing right to me. After witnessing numerous 3.0 shows that featured an array of aborted jams and uneven setlists, to see the band play with the kind of freedom they did last Labor Day was the best experience I’ve ever had with Phish on a personal level.

While this kind of passion towards one aspect of Phish is important because of the eventual reward it offers fans who travel to numerous shows, it becomes problematic within the scene when fans force their expectations and individual desires on the band. As a writer of Phish, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

Yet, as I sat there watching the band seemingly fall on their faces through an awkward gag with the Second City Comedy Troupe, (I specifically say ‘seemingly’ because in hindsight it became blatantly obvious that the band did not in fact fall on their faces, rather nailed their gag…) I realized all over again why I see and listen to Phish in the first place. It’s not because of my expectations, or my wishes, it’s because of the communal force, and metaphysical connections in play when those four guys walk on stage without any idea where there show might take them. Watching them weave through a horrible rap about how “Harpua” should really be told, into the first Mike’s-narrated “Harpua” since 10/31/1995, and all the jokes and snide remarks that emitted from the stage throughout, I was transformed back to the halcyon days when I was 16, hearing Phish for the first time, and felt as though I’d unearthed a world I never knew existed, yet so desperately wanted to be a part of.

That this came in the midst of the bands best tour in fifteen years, and in the most perfectly placed “Harpua” since 07/29/2003 only made the message that much more relevant.

In addition to “Harpua’s” brilliance as a message to their fans, the song also shed a larger light on the role of conflict in the band’s music.

For a band that espouses such philosophies as “surrender to the flow,” one would think at face value that conflict has little place in Phish’s history. Yet, the truth is, much of the best music the band has ever made came directly out of conflict.

In 1994 and 1995, the band was searching for way to expand their songs in effort to find passageways to linear musical communication, resulting in the abstract musical storm of Summer 1995, and the effortless tidal wave of connectivity in December 1995.

In 1996, minimalism was a musical obstacle to overcome which resulted in the shedding of their skin in 1997.

On a more personal level, the internal conflicts, addictions, and uncertainties that littered the band’s immediate community in 2.0 directly correlated to the stew of dark and seedy jams that defined that era.

Here in 3.0, conflict has been missing in many ways from the Phish scene, due in large part to the positivity and health of each of the band members. Where they have found conflict though, has been in their own evolutionary steps forward, addressing moments of stagnation and writer’s block with the aforementioned exercises such as “The Storage Jam,” and the bust-outs of 2012.

In a lot of ways, the weather that has followed the band throughout the East Coast Leg of the Summer 2013 Tour has provided the band their first dose of external conflict in years. Resulting in the postponement of 07/09’s Toronto show, the cancellation of 07/19’s show, and an aborted “Run Like An Antelope” to close out Set I of 07/21, when the band finally emerged on stage for that night’s second set, they had literally weathered the storm, responding with their most relaxed and freeing set of the year. From the brilliant musical explorations of “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards,” to the shared comedic energy of the “Harpua” gag, to the rage of the completed “Antelope,” the conflicts that had been brewing within and around the Phish community finally gave way to a set for the ages.

“Look, the storm’s finally gone! Thank God!” The line has never felt so appropriate on so many levels than it did when Trey exclaimed it in the latter stages of 07/21/2013.

Proving that the “right way” for Phish to both play and evolve is always centered upon their way, 07/21’s second set displayed a band at their peak: jamming with ease and conviction, while goofing on their fans like they have been throughout their entire career.

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The Toronto “Down With Disease”: The Phearless Moment Of Tour & The Great Transition West

Coming on the heels of Chicago’s weather-impacted weekend was the make-up show in Toronto that was originally scheduled for July 9th. A Monday make-up-show following a massively hyped weekend in The Second City? Toronto had sleeper show written all over it.

And while the show didn’t really live up to its sleeper potential, it did result in yet another monumental exploratory step forward for the tour, this time in “Down With Disease.”

Akin to the 07/13 “Down With Disease” and 07/10 “Crosseyed & Painless” in many ways, the Toronto jam explored a litany of musical terrains all while remaining somewhat connected to the “DWD” theme. Building towards a plain of melodic blissfulness, Trey emphasized chordal jamming, locking in with Page for a five-minute segment of music that’s among the most connected of the summer in a tour growing thick with them. Progressing from 10:22 onwards, and ultimately resolving itself in a glorified peak around 15ish minutes, the jam is in many ways the polar opposite to Chicago’s spacious exploration in “Energy.” Displaying an elevated sense of musical diversity in back-to-back jams, the Toronto “DWD” expresses the phearless vibe currently permeating through Phish, and provides a notable transition point as the band moves westward.

After reaching an initial peak in the tour from 07/10 – 07/14, then fusing energy and gimmickry into their Alpharetta and Chicago shows, (all the while dealing with the external impact of weather) the Chicago “Energy,” and the Toronto “Down With Disease” appear to represent a conscious shift back towards exploration, something which has suited the band well out west in 3.0.

Entering the west coast leg of their tour like no tour since Summer 1997, (in a structural sense) the band will now emerge at The Gorge with three weeks of consistent shows under their belt, rather than following a five-week break which has been the norm in this era. Building upon an established foundation, rather than having to start anew, one has to assume, that for all the incredible music crafted over the past three weeks, the best of the tour is still to come. Just listen to the effortless jamming, and intrinsic connection on display in the 07/21 “Energy -> Ghost,” and the 07/22 “Down With Disease,” and imagine how much more relaxed, how much more free, how much more phearless the band is going to sound once they hit the open soundscapes of The Gorge and Tahoe, and the urbane hotspots of BGCA and the Hollywood Bowl!

All of this without mentioning the brilliant “David Bowie” that closed out the Toronto show! It sure is a good time to be a Phish fan!

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Favorite Shows/Jams Thus Far

Like I said last week, I’ll be updating this list as the tour evolves. Take these with a grain of salt, for their just one man’s thoughts. As we move deeper into the tour, I’ll only be highlighting the shows that have really captivated me as whole-show entities as opposed to listing the entire tour. Rather than ranking the shows, they’ll now just be listed in chronological order, ala the jams.

Favorite Shows

– SPAC 1 – At the time I wondered (wrongly) if we’d even be talking about 07/05’s Set II two weeks from now. Even after three weeks of monumental second sets, there’s still something about the fully-flowing nature of 07/05’s second frame that has me constantly revisiting it. From the debut of “Energy,” to “Light’s” effortless segue into “Mango,” to the late-nite swank of “46 Days,” and the raw power of “Steam,” to the set concluding mastery of “Drowned” and “Slave,” the set is one we’ll be talking about all year long. Throw in the “MFMF> Cities -> Bowie” cap to Set I, and you’ve got a top show of the year.

– SPAC 3 – Perhaps the quintessential Phish show of 2013. 07/07 combines energy, an old-school setlist, and thematic jamming all packed tightly into a show that is far better than the sum of any of its parts. One of those shows you just toss on and leave it playing, knowing you’re gonna be happy the whole time it’s on. 07/07 is one of those special shows that immediately provides a tour with its barometer for greatness.

– PNC – Upstaged by MPP 1 & 2 as my favorite show of the summer, PNC is still an all-around classic that reflects the musical high the band found themselves on in the second week of tour. Featuring an old school first set, a jam of the year contender in “Crosseyed & Painless,” along with top-notch versions of “Hood,” “Light,” and “Slave,” PNC was one of the strongest shows of the tour while it was happening, and will surely continue to be regarded as such for the remainder of the year.

– Jones Beach – Caught between the PNC and MPP firestorm of tour’s second week, and featuring an elongated – and, frankly, weather inappropriate – first set, 07/12 has become something of an underrated gem in 2013. Yet with the lone “Reba” of the year, another masterful “Bowie,” great mini-jams in “CTB,” “Ocelot,” “ASIHTOS,” and “46 Days,” not to mention the relentless, and fluid 50min “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” that opened Set II, it’s still one of the best offerings of the year.

– MPP 1 – A prelude to the following night’s mastery, 07/13 features one of the most engaging setlists of the year, while boasting top notch versions of “Maze,” “SOAM,” “Hood,” and the best “Mike’s Groove” in over a decade. For me, it’s all about Trey’s rhythmic playing in “Hood” and “Simple” that puts this night over the top. Talk about blissful innovation at its best. What a high they were on during this run of the East Coast Leg!

– MPP 2 – IMO, the best show of the tour thus far. A tightly wound peak experience featuring two fully formed sets without a single misplaced moment. Energy, innovative jams, perfectly placed classics, this show has it all. The seminal show thus far of the musical style and aesthetic structure Phish has been pushing all summer long. Highlight’s abound, but definitely check out “Stash,” “SOAMule,” “It’s Ice,” “Light -> Boogie On,” and “You Enjoy Myself” to hear the band at the peak of their powers here in 2013.

– Chicago 2 – The much maligned three-setter from Chicago, this show resonates with me based on many of the aspects I wrote about above. While perhaps an underwhelming show barring the circumstances and expectations throughout the community, the second set flows with precision and ease, and the “Light -> Hood” in Set III is up there as one of the better musical pairings of the summer. A show that I believe will outlast all the initial criticism it’s received, it’s one of those special shows that has more to do with the energy surrounding it rather than just the music played within it.

– Chicago 3 – Many are calling this the show of summer. Wherever I’d rank this show, it’s definitely one of the best offerings from the band thus far in 2013. Following a high-energy and well-played Set I that featured a show opening “Dinner And A Movie,” a torrid “Bag -> Maze,” an energized “Gin,” and a silly “Boogie On” that preceded a monumental rain storm, the band emerged for Set II and played the set of the year thus far. Reading: “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards, Harpua> Run Like An Antelope,” it’s the kind of set words simply won’t do justice for. If you haven’t heard it, get on it. If you have, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

– Toronto – While not the sleeper show everyone was expecting, Toronto was still an above-average and fun show, packed tight with great song selections, a three-song encore, and a jam out of “Down With Disease” that sets up a perfect transition to the Western leg of the tour. Check out “Undermind,” “Twist,” “Stash,” and “Ocelot” in Set I, and don’t miss the “DWD” or “Bowie” in Set II. A killer show for fans who’ve been waiting 13 years to see Phish again, Toronto caps of three weeks of tour in about as great a way as anyone could hope.

Favorite Jams 

– 07/05/2013: “46 Days -> Steam> Drowned -> Slave” – My favorite moment of SPAC 1 when it happened, and still my favorite today. How they figured a way from the seedy barroom stomp of “46 Days” to the ethereal bliss of “Slave” is beyond me. Perfectly fluid, leaving no music on the table, it’s a segment that proves the band has been on from the moment they hit the road.

– 07/06/2013: “Split Open & Melt” – Without coming off as too much a hypocrite, I sure would love to hear the band mess around with this kind demented melodic jamming more in the first set. Heard here and in the 07/14 “Stash,” there’s something about when the band opens themselves up with such freedom and pure musical communication – particularly in Set I –  that’s unrivaled in my mind. One of the most special moments of the first weekend of tour.

– 07/06/2013: “Carini -> Architect” – One of my absolutely favorite moments of summer thus far, I’m still in awe over how the band fit SO much music into 12 minutes. A beautiful, fluid, relentless jam, this one carried the torch from Dick’s and MSG and planted it firmly in 2013. Cannot wait to hear how the band approaches “Carini” when they take it out for a spin out west.

– 07/10/2013: “Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood” – The peak jam of the second week of tour, this one stylistically impacted the tour in ways few others were capable of. Hinting at the 02/16/2003 “Piper” theme, the jam built to an absolutely stunning peak made only the more special by Trey’s rhythmic interplay. Heard in the 07/13 “Hood” and “Simple,” the 07/21 “Ghost” and 07/22 “DWD,” the 07/10 “C&P>Hood” is one of those peak moments that happen throughout every tour and affect literally all the music around them.

– 07/12/2013: “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” – Like a jam segment right out of Summer 1998, this seguefest that opened JB’s second set is a must hear for any fan of open-ended improv and groove. Spring-boarding from “Rock & Roll” by way of a take on the 08/08/2009 theme of the same song, the jam weaved through melodic plains before building into “2001.” In “Tweezer” the band locks into a relentless groove that just bleeds into “Cities,” before it segues flawlessly into “The Wedge.” Battling the elements out on the Long Island Sound, the band unquestionably struck musical gold with this jam on this night.

– 07/13/2013: “Mike’s Song> Simple> Weekapaug Groove” – While I was probably wrong to predict that this “Mike’s” would in fact lead the band into their first Type-II “Mike’s” since February 2003, (expectations and predictions are a bitch) there’s no denying the ferocity and tenacity of this version that still holds up some two weeks later. For me though, this jam segment is all about “Simple.” A gorgeous version that sees Trey focusing on rhythmic interplay, teasing at the “DWD” theme throughout the jam, it’s stunningly beautiful, and absolutely perfect. It will be great to hear how the band approaches “Simple” whenever they revisit it next.

– 07/14/2013: “Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman” – A clinic in Phish crack, the MPP “Light” is as enthralling as it is experimental as it is utterly rewarding. Featuring start/stop groove, noise-based themes, and a fluid segue into “Boogie On,” it’s just one more version in a seemingly endless list of top tier “Light’s.”

– 07/16/2013: “Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning> Birds Of A Feather” – One of the most locked-in moments of summer thus far, this 55min segment of music from Alpharetta 1 combines energized and fluid segues, Dick’s-esque jamming, choice song selection, and thematically repeated teasing’s of Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” all resulting in a massive tour highlight from the band’s lone southern stop. Particularly in the “Rock & Roll,” “Chalk Dust,” and “Tweezer,” the jams proves how irrelevant song length is in 3.0. Like the 07/06 “Carini,” it’s mind-blowing how the band is capable of covering such musical terrain in such a short amount of time.

– 07/21/2013: “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards” – Perhaps the most important segment of music played all year, this trio both spiritually freed the band from the burdens of the weather-related and logistical forces plaguing their Chicago run, while also helping to point the way forward for the tour. Tracking the musical lineage of Phish’s history, this segment’s one of the most innovative and forward thinking of 2013. On par with the best jams in the band’s history, we’re gonna be talking about this trio for a LONG time to come.

– 07/22/2013: “Down With Disease -> 2001” – And this is how you point the way westward. Building off of Chicago’s brilliant second set, the band played the “DWD” of the year thus far, residing wholly in a zone of sublime melodic blissfulness before choicely guiding it towards the ominous grooves of “2001.” A patient and effortless jam, this bodes great things for the tour moving forward. As a band, Phish has typically played their most refined, relaxed, and exploratory music on the West Coast throughout 3.0. Based upon the sustained peak of 07/10 – 07/14, and the explorations in Chicago and Toronto, one can only imagine this trend will continue this weekend.

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Thus concludes tackle & lines 3rd week tour recap. Gonna be traveling to Japan next week, so will probably do a big West Coast wrap-up following the Hollywood Bowl show. Feel free to leave any comments or thoughts to the post. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for all of us as Phish heads out west!

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 Structure Of A Show – Set I Closer

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

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

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

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

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

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I. The Classics

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

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

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

II. The Raging Cap

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

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

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

III. The Expected Send-Off’s

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

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

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

IV. The Composed Conclusion

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

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

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

V. The Jams

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

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

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

VI. The Subdued Pause

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

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

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

VII. The A Cappella’s

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

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

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

VIII. The Head Scratchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

X. The Absurdly Good Surprises

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

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

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

XI. The One-Off’s

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

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

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

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

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

The Structure Of A Show – Set I

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Once the immediate anticipation and surprise of the show’s opener has passed, it’s time for the band to get down to the business of crafting a set’s worth of music. Splitting their shows into two individual sets allows for the band to focus all their energy on 60 – 90 minutes of music (or, generally between 8 – 14 songs) at a time. Whereas most band’s concerts are structured in one elongated performance – ranging anywhere from 70 minutes to 3 hrs – Phish benefits from this two set model – pioneered in the rock world, by, The Grateful Dead. Granting them a pause for reflection, sometimes a shift in direction, and always two structural mediums by which to bounce various musical ideas around in, the two set-show is one of Phish’s most uniquely brilliant aspects. In laymen’s terms: a shitty first set can often lead to a mindblowing Set II, while a raucous first set can inspire the band to take unpracticed risks, or even burn out, when they return from set break. Many times an absolutely devastating, fully flowing, and energized Set I spills right over into the second set, by which the band crafts an absolute classic show. While ultimately, the overall performance is up to the band’s energy, their immediate drive, not to mention a number of intangibles, the essential structure in place works to formulate the results in a number of ways.

Generally speaking, first sets have historically been opportunities for the band to settle into a show, test out any new/rare songs, and play with a bit more discipline than in the second set. Here, the focus is generally on energy, presentation, and the songs; a recital of sorts. While the formula has certainly shifted throughout the years, the view of a first set is that it’s typically devoid of the experimentation that’s seen in Set II. Fans rarely expect a first set jam. Rather, are hankering for evidence of tight playing, solid song selection, and an emphasis on flow that will translate itself to a looser, and engaging Set II. Granted, there are always exceptions to the rule: during the 1997 – 2004 period, the band routinely jammed during first sets, shrinking them to as few as five songs at times; essentially they played two second sets on certain nights. Yet, for the purpose of this introduction, it’s best to consider the first set as a separate and different medium from set two, though we’ll certainly get into those which blur the lines below.

Whereas the Show Opener’s could be numerically and mathematically broken down into a formulaic study, analyzing full sets are a bit trickier. With so many different and unique combinations of songs, segues, one-timers played during an 8 – 12 song set, it’s far more difficult to quantify what makes a classic set, versus a mundane one in the same way you can with an opener. Say the band has played 1300 two set shows. Say the average number of songs played in every first set is 9 songs. That’s 11,700 different song combinations that could have been played throughout those shows. Far from the scientific breakdown of 206 openers out of 750 unique songs, analyzing whole sets is a far more subjective endeavor.

As a result, the following posts on the sets will rely less on numbers, and more on the author’s ear, and overall knowledge of Phish. While still keenly focused on organizing various sets into categories, readers will note not only the increase in examples, but also the overlapping of certain shows in various categories. A major reason for this is the band’s evolution of the First Set since their onset. A meandering, story time hour in the 80’s and early 90’s, it became a tightly wound machine from 1993 – 1996. Reinventing itself as a comparable improv-heavy medium in 1997 and 1998, it became a mix of jams and a recital by 1999. A casualty at times during the sloppy and experimental 2.0 era, in 3.0 the First Set has returned to it’s origins as a recital medium, emphasizing the band’s songs, while fusing together the energy of the mid-1990’s.

I can assure you, I’ve deliberated and weighed over these choices with significant energy, and somewhat torturous patience. This post proved to be far more of a research-heavy endeavor than the Show Opener‘s post could have ever dreamed to be.

What follows is Part II of VIII in tackle & lines series on The Structure Of A Show. Each category contains a write-up, examples, video clips (when available), and full-show streams (thanks phishtracks.com) for better understanding. As with the article on Openers, the goal of this is not to come to some sort of a conclusions about what a specific Phish show is, but rather explore the various directions the band chooses to go with their shows – here in the medium of the first set. This is not a means to rank the best sets versus the weakest – though negative habits will be discussed – instead is trying to find points of connection across various eras – and within each – while also pointing out their differences. Hope you guys enjoy the piece, we’re now a few weeks closer to 03 July!

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I. The Classical Assaults

If you’re like most diehard Phish fans, there are those songs you love hearing at a Phish show, no matter how many times you’ve heard them. ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Wilson,’ ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself,’ ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ these songs just never lose their luster, or their power. They’re the classics for a reason. On their own they’re always a welcome occasion. But when combined in set’s worth of music, they help to craft some of the most powerful, and memorable First Set’s. Akin to the Show Opener‘s classic’s segment, these First Set’s are the kind anyone would kill to experience live. Combining energy, musical might, and the essential ingredient of the band’s most cherished classic’s, these sets pack a punch, and have in many cases, stood the test of time. While obviously a more regular affair during the band’s early years when they had a smaller song catalogue to play with, these set’s still make an appearance today, and are sure to garner the tag “show of the tour” based on the sentiments and nostalgia they exhume. Yet as is proven time and again, it matter’s little when these set’s were played, for no matter their era, they’ll hold up no matter what.

Examples: 08/26/1989, 08/03/1991, 11/02/1990, 03/20/1992, 06/18/1994, 07/13/1994, 11/30/1995, 12/15/1995, 08/14/2009, 11/24/2009, 10/30/2010

Spanning 21 years, what the above sets all have in common is the greatest hit’s quality that accompanies the song selections, and the forcible energy that resonates throughout. These are the sets everyone has heard. Just scanning their setlist’s is like a rough guide into the Phish world; a Phish 101, if you will. Rarities, jams, bustouts are not typical of the above sets – though they do certainly occur. What’s a constant theme in the classical assault’s is the powerful onslaught of what the idea of Phish is. Celebratory affairs, these are the set’s we were all introduced to Phish to, and they’re the set’s that bring us back to that which initially drew us to the band, be it at the show, or listening at home.

Philadelphia, PA – 12/15/1995

II. The Show Sealers

There are those nights when by setbreak, the whole room is abuzz, and everyone just knows, this is a killer show. Picking these shows in advance is a fruitless endeavor, for the best nights of Phish are a result of a multitude of factors. It could be the night before an overhyped show, a return to a venue/city the band just loves, the mid-tour energy taking over the band, or just a random night, in a random city where the band is just feeling it. One thing’s certain, whenever the band plays a monumental show, the writing’s on the wall midway through a torrential First Set.

Examples: 12/30/1993, 06/11/1994, 10/21/1995, 12/07/1997, 12/11/1999, 02/28/2003, 07/29/2003, 12/30/2009, 10/20/2010, 07/03/2011, 08/31/2012

While the First Set’s played in any of the above eleven shows range in styles from classical ragers, to bustout-laden celebrations, to the surreal and the jam-heavy, what they all have in common is their connective force that made their show a virtual lock by setbreak. A “David Bowie” opener; a note-for-note-perfect sequence; a “Tweezer Reprise” bookend; jams abound in “AC/DC Bag -> Psycho Killer,” and “Tube”; the first “Hood” opener in years; the return of “Destiny Unbound”; an iPod shuffle set that perfectly matched it’s era; a determined tour de force that summed up everything that makes 30 December so damn special; “Guyutica”; the after-effects of the “Storage Jam”; and a not-so-subtle “FUCK YOU” to their fans; these are the kinds of sets that have led thousands to hit the road, following the band from state to state in anticipation of the next “hadtobethere(!!!)” show. What’s interesting as well about the above, is that out of the eleven, only four featured Second Sets that matched or surpassed the first. While certainly not bad follow-ups – those are featured later in the essay – the stat is more than anything a testament to the power of these set I’s. Much like the section that preceded, whenever you witness a set with the power of the above, you just know it.

III. The Bustout Specials

Nothing quite lights up the eyes of a fellow fan like the prospect of a set full of bustouts. A rare breed, that they are. Yet few shows/sets have the ability to capture both an arena, and the internet community, with such in-the-moment fervor and excitement, as they can. A product of the band’s tightening of their song catalogue between 1992 and 1995, bustouts became a fun way for the band to add a bit of history into their shows. With a further slimming in 1997, and an overall decline in the amount of shows they played in the years to follow, more and more songs were lost in the shuffle. Separations of a couple hundred shows, all the way upwards into the thousands, meant that every so often the band would dig deep into their history and present a rare, forgotten song. Often just a one-off song, there are the even rarer instances where the band has dedicated a whole set – or a portion – to an array of bustouts and rarities. Typically a mix between oft-requested songs, and hidden gems, one’s reaction to a bustout show is what separates the fans from the novices. Usually sealing a show up as a classic by setbreak, just for the nature of the songs played, these shows tend to overlap with the above section at times.

Examples: 02/26/1997, 12/07/1997, 11/21/1998, 09/30/2000, 07/29/2003, 12/30/2003, 12/30/2009, 10/26/2010, 06/22/2010

Now, I know the definition of bustout and bustout shows can get a bit hazy with every PT-noob calling a song not seen in 36 shows a bustout. So, here’s my criteria for a set to be a bustout special: there has to be at least one song in the set exceeding 100 (and potentially 200) shows since it was last seen, and there have to be multiple other songs within the set that haven’t been played in at least 50 shows. Beyond this, the set should carry a feeling of what happens when you hit play on your ipod shuffle. Devoid of these essential characteristics, and it’s just not a bustout set. Full of songs that people have either completely forgotten about, or have been pining for without restraint, the bustout sets are a mix of masterful playing – 02/26/1997, 12/07/1997, 06/22/2012 – or scattered applause and an overt lack of flow – 12/30/2009. Regardless of their delivery, the simple fact that the band is dedicating their First Set to an assortment of rarities is enough to get people psyched.

Dayton, OH – 12/07/1997

IV. The Recitals

In their original format Phish’s First Set’s were essentially recitals where the band would showcase a large percentage of their catalogue. As opposed to today where most of us tend to think of songs in terms of First Set and Second Set material, pretty much their entire catalogue was fair game in set I through 1991. Since then however, the band evolved their First Set’s into a sleek, energy-packed machine, to an anything-goes jam session that tended to resembled set II’s, to an unpredictable mix between jams and soldiering rotation songs, to once again a more recital-based approach here in 3.0. Emerging a changed band in 2009, the band approached their second re-birth in a structural way, seeking to rebuild the foundation of their live shows from the ground-up before engaging in any experimentation. Thus the recital sets returned to both the gripe and adoration of all sorts of fans. Regardless of your sentiments to the recital approach, one thing’s certain: if you’re looking to clean up on a plethora of Phish songs, the recital set’s are the one’s to catch/listen to.

Examples: 07/23/1988, 08/04/1988, 10/01/1989, 03/16/1991, 06/24/1994, 07/08/1994, 12/01/1996, 09/12/1999, 03/06/2009, 03/07/2009, 03/08/2009, 06/21/2009, 06/24/2010, 08/14/2010, 10/15/2010, 10/26/2010, 06/08/2011, 07/02/2011, 06/28/2012, 06/30/2012, 07/03/2012, 07/04/2012, 07/06/2012

From festival sets, to Gamehendge performances, to 3.0 stand-by’s, the recital’s have popped up throughout the band’s career. While many fan’s today lament the over-wrought First Set’s of 3.0, one can’t deny that when the band is on, their recital set’s are fantastic to witness live. Who could seriously complain of a Gamehendge set, or the raucous nature of 08/14/2010, the bustout quality to 10/26/2010, the unending festival-spirit of 07/02/2011, or the old-school throw-down of 07/06/2012, regardless of the number of song’s played? While sure, flow often suffers during the recital sets – paging 12/01/1996, 10/15/2010, 06/08/2011 – and yes, the nature of the sets prevents any authentic experimentation from occurring, but who really has time to think about any of that when witnessing, or listening to the band kill one song after another. In the end, the recital’s will probably always be a contentious debate within the Phish community, as some love their old-school, jukebox feel, and other’s wish they’d remain a product of the past. Your own personal feelings regarding them probably reflects your overall tastes in music, than the band’s performance anyway.

V. The Simmering Gems

There are those sets that, for whatever reason, take some time, perspective, and re-listens to be fully appreciated. There are also those sets that, for whatever reason, the band needs a song or two to ease into. These next two sections are dedicated to a mixture of the two. The first, is more the former than the later. While, sure, there are a few sets within that some would claim to be immediate classics, what each of these sets has in common is both their diversity and their depth. Possibly not appreciated – be it at all, or fully – upon their initial performance, the following sets are like a properly made stock – they’re all the better if given time. These sets may never leap out at a setlist whore, they may not be all the rage the next day – or they just may. In the end, time has graced each of them, offering capsules into some of the best – if not, underrated – performances in the band’s history.

Examples: 04/21/1992, 12/14/1995, 12/29/1995, 08/13/1996, 08/02/1997, 11/23/1997, 02/28/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/07/2009, 06/27/2010, 08/13/2010, 05/28/2011, 08/16/2011, 06/15/2012

One commonality in the above sets, is that many of them are compiled with a collection of songs that most fans would simply shrug off if compiled in a PT rotation thread. Yet, in the context of their performance, and the overall quality of the performance, they remain some of the strongest sets of their respective tours. From the zaniness of 04/21, to the idyllic, easy summer-sentiment of 08/13/1996. From the spectacular jamming in 02/28 and 07/30, to the balanced approach of 05/28, 08/16 and 06/15, each of these sets is a reflection of a band on the ball, regardless of the style of set they’re playing. A prelude to a latter section, the thing that unites these sets is their – mostly – under the radar quality, yet hidden gems that have made them hold up far more than some of their overhyped brethren.

VI. The Slow Builders

Similar to the previous section in that the slow builders are likely to be sets that aged with grace, rather than stunning anyone out the gates, what ultimately separates them is the fact that many of the following sets took a few songs to really get going. These are the nights where the band needed a bit of time easing into the show. These are the sets that more-often-than not, opened with predictable classics, laid-back easers, and even crowd groaners, yet ultimately are remembered because of energy caught later in the set, or a monumental First Set  jam. We’ve all been to a Phish show like this. The nights where the energy just isn’t totally there from the onset, but by setbreak, everyone’s stoked for the possibilities in set II. Yet once hindsight is granted, many of the keener listeners are willing to forgive such moments of uncertainty, knowing that it was all a part of the band figuring themselves out on that particular night. While, yes, sometimes the shows that begin like this prove to be ominous – something that will be addressed in two sections – this particular section is dedicated wholly to those which recovered fully, erasing any sense of jitters when the lights dropped.

Examples: 06/15/1995, 12/30/1995, 07/01/1998, 07/16/1998, 09/12/1999, 12/07/1999, 06/15/2000, 02/20/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/08/2009, 12/29/2009, 06/27/2010, 08/05/2011, 08/09/2011, 06/20/2012, 07/06/2012, 08/19/2012

From the predictability of 06/15/1995’s First Set that ultimately led to the blissful “Stash -> I Didn’t Know,” to the easing of “The Squirming Coil, NICU” on 07/16/1998, that preluded the perfectly timed “Reba> Fast Enough For You> When The Circus Comes.” From 09/12/1999 and 12/07/1999’s early-set jitters that were all but forgotten by their monster mid-set jam’s out of “Bathtub Gin,” and “Halley’s Comet,” to the awkward song selections of 02/20/2003 and 07/30/2003 that masked the jams out of “Simple> Gotta Jibboo,” and “Scents & Subtle Sounds” that their sets would ultimately be remembered for. In each of these cases, any stumbles, or easing out the gate, was later overshadowed, and ultimately overlooked as a result of the greatness achieved later in the set. Proof that the show opener doesn’t make a set, and that some night’s, all the band needs is a few songs to get settled in.

VII. The Sets Where It Doesn’t Matter What They Play Because Whatever They Play They’re Gonna Crush

We’ve all seen these shows. Often times they’re the best shows of all. These are the shows where whatever song(s) you’re chasing takes a backseat to the masterful performance at hand. These are the shows where it doesn’t matter what song the band plays, because they’re so on, cruising on so much energy, reveling in the moment with such assured esteem, that whatever songs they play, they’re inevitably going to crush. Quite possibly the most inexplicable, unexplainable section in this entire essay, these shows are notable for they simply rely on that intangible feeling in the air that finds itself hovering at a Phish show every so often. Akin to the show sealers’s section, these sets can occur just about anywhere, and at any time, so it’s incredibly difficult to predict when they’re about to happen, until they’re happening. You know when you’re at a show like this because every song just seems to flow perfectly from the previous one, regardless if it’s the song you wanted to hear. These sets are, in my opinion, the closest thing Phish has come to to crafting a superb album. They’re tangible evidence of the power Phish has over a crowd and a moment, something that has nothing to do with jamming, drugs, or hippies. Proof of their cultural zeitgeist, these sets display the band’s dexterity, and the sheer brilliance of their approach to each of their completely unique shows.

Examples: 02/20/1993, 12/31/1993, 06/11/1994, 07/13/1994, 06/30/1995, 11/11/1995, 12/17/1995 , 08/14/1996, 11/21/1997, 04/03/1998, 08/03/1998, 08/12/1998, 07/13/1999, 07/25/1999, 06/14/2000, 02/22/2003, 06/07/2009, 08/14/2010, 10/20/2010, 05/28/2011, 07/03/2011, 08/15/2011, 09/04/2011, 07/01/2012, 08/28/2012, 09/01/2012, 12/30/2012

United in their energy, composition, and raw power, these sets define what it’s like to be at a Phish show for so many of us. They contain that spirit of the unknown that graces the best Phish shows. These are the set’s that have people giddy at setbreak. They’re the set’s that unite upwards of 20,000 people in blusterous applause as if their favorite team just won the World Series. They rise above much of the rest of the tour, and are constantly called upon by fan’s looking to dish out a show rec. A mix of essentially ever section we’ve covered thus far, these set’s just might be my absolute favorite to listen to.

VIII. The Flow?

And then, there are those first sets where by set break everyone’s collectively looking around wondering, huh? Something seems off. Not necessarily a bad set – though it certainly sometimes is – more a set where the band seemed to compromise thematic flow, energy, continuity in favor of a random assortment of songs that never really seemed to mesh. We’ve all been to these kinds of shows. The nights where the band has it, and then they don’t. Then they get it back, and then they lose it. An up and down affair, it’s a product of human nature; sometimes, even those with the capabilities to astound regularly, stumble. They’re the sets and shows that fill out the entirety of tours. After all, not every set/show can be epic. (And as seen here, even some regarded as epic feature dreadfully unbalanced flow.) Sometimes you just have to witness an uneven affair to truly appreciate the moments where the band is killing it. What’s more is that typically within even these inconsistent nights, are moments of brilliance that tend to spill over to whole-show masterpieces just a few nights later.

Examples: 11/26/1994, 10/22/1996, 11/09/1996, 11/30/1996, 07/26/1997, 08/16/1997, 07/09/1999, 09/12/1999, 09/22/1999, 12/12/1999, 07/18/2003, 12/02/2003, 08/15/2004, 05/31/2009, 07/31/2009, 11/20/2009, 11/27/2009, 12/04/2009, 12/30/2009, 06/17/2010, 06/19/2011, 08/10/2011, 07/03/2012, 12/29/2012

While prevalent throughout their career, there is certainly a larger amount of 3.0 shows that contain these kinds of First Sets. Though, for the most part it appears the band has started to iron out their First Sets – as evident by a number of monumental ones in 2012 – through much of their first three years back from the grave, the band stubbornly dedicated many of their set I’s to a random assortment of songs, many of which had little purpose being united. Sometimes for the sole purpose of trying out a few new songs, others, just a reflection of a random night on tour where the band’s just trying to get a sense of the evening. Often times similar to the slow builders sets, particularly if they result in mastery later, a set I lacking flow, certainly does not deter the potential of a monumental set II. For as 08/16/1997, 07/31/2009, 11/20/2009, and 07/03/2012 display, an uneven First Set, can often times lead to a barnburner in set II. It’s a crapshoot in the end. Sometimes you’re gonna witness the perfectly crafted masterpiece, and sometimes you’re gonna see a glorified soundcheck. Either way, the fact that the band is willing to present the process – warts and all – to their fans over the course of a tour, is reason alone to continue seeing them.

Charlotte, NC – 07/07/1999

IX. Too-Much-Too-Soon(s)

You know those shows where the band comes out on an absolute tear, just blows the lid off the joint with a fiery, masterful set I, and then reemerges after setbreak with an absolute dud? The nights where they just seem to blow their load in the first 90 minutes, and just can’t quite summon the energy for set II. I’ll never forget 06/19/2010 for this very reason. Coming on the heels of 06/18’s stunning display of flow, energy, and collective zaniness, the band delivered an engaging, and old school First Set at SPAC. Following the catatonic explosion of “Suzy Greenberg,” one could only assume set II was going to raise the bar of the tour once more. Then they came out and played one of the most forgettable sets I’ve ever witnessed. It happens. Sometimes an incredibly strong set I is just too powerful to top. Sometimes they’ve only got energy for one solid set. Sometimes setbreak just kills whatever energy they had going in. Whatever the case is, we’ve all seen/heard these shows. While the overall show may be a forgotten affair, we should still all give their First Set’s their proper due.

Examples: 08/26/1989, 03/20/1992, 06/11/1994, 11/17/1994, 12/15/1995, 08/03/1998, 07/09/2003, 08/10/2004, 06/19/2010, 10/30/2010, 07/03/2011, 08/17/2011, 07/01/2012

Each of the above set I’s are more than worth your time and listening capabilities. For each is a display of a band fully connected, and simply on. While some of them contain solid set II’s – 08/26/1989, 06/11/1994, 08/03/1998, 07/03/2011 – the quality that unites each is that the bar was potentially set too high by a torrid First Set. Perhaps there’s a certain cap of energy that can be released at a Phish show on a given night? Maybe the band purposely follows certain spectacular set I’s with less-than-stellar set II’s in effort to use the energy explosion a means to turn inwards? Whatever the case, while so many shows are made or broken on the quality of play in set II, the above – and certainly many others – will always be remember for the mastery of their First Sets, regardless of their entirety.

Morrison, CO – 06/11/1994

Chicago, IL – 08/17/2011

X. The First Set Jammers

As I stated in the intro, it’s best to typically think of First Set’s as a completely separate entity from set II’s. While both held numerous similarities throughout the band’s first 8 – 10 years, by the time their peak years of 1993 – 1998 came around, the two had been sequestered as individual platforms for artistic expression. Generally speaking, the First Set is for the songs, and the Second Set is for the jams. However, this is not always the case. Part of the beauty of Phish is their unpredictability, and the sheer pleasure they seem to gain out of fucking with their fans. What started in 1993 with a few divergent, Type-II jams tossed into a set I here and there, led to an all-out revolution by 1997, when First Set’s were just as susceptible to exploration and jamming as their counterpart. By 1999, they’d reigned in this experiment, fusing their historically structured set I’s, with a few scattered jams. 2.0 allowed a mix of the two approaches to flourish – to sometimes brilliant, and other times, half-assed results. And while the initial stages of 3.0 saw a complete reversal back towards the recital approach of the band’s earliest years, since August 2010, they’ve shown a keen interest in opening set I back up to jamming. While we’ll cover the full-on, set II-esque First Sets in the next section, the following sets are a few examples of bursts and moments of improv within a First Set, rather than a complete improv approach. Most everyone can agree that a First Set jam can only help to raise the level of energy in the venue. These are the sets that more than benefited from said First Set experimentation.

Examples: 12/30/1993, 06/15/1995, 08/14/1996, 12/06/1996, 07/01/1997, 07/21/1997, 07/27/1997, 08/02/1997, 11/14/1997, 11/21/1997, 11/22/1997, 12/05/1997, 12/07/1997, 12/12/1997, 04/03/1998, 07/01/1998, 07/06/1998, 07/29/1998, 08/03/1998, 11/29/1998, 12/31/1998, 07/10/1999, 07/24/1999, 12/07/1999, 06/28/2000, 07/11/2000, 09/14/2000, 02/20/2003, 02/26/2003, 02/28/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/10/2004, 06/04/2009, 08/07/2009, 08/06/2010, 05/28/2011, 07/03/2011, 07/01/2012, 09/01/2012

As with the recitals and questionable flow segments being heavily represented by 3.0 , it’s no wonder that 1997 and 1998 assumes a large percentage of this section’s sets. However, what’s interesting – and intriguing for any fans of improv – is the fact that their are increasingly more set I’s in 3.0 that contain notable jams within. A sign that the band has fully overcome their initial rust of 2009 and 2010, and have reached that point again where they can communicate with ease on stage, and are able to jam effortlessly at will. Historically that’s what their First Set jams have been evident of – an overt level of comfort and communication – while displaying the various styles of the band’s evolution. From the “Dream On Bowie” of 12/30/1993, to the playful jamming of 12/06/1996. From 07/21/1997’s onslaught of funk, to the ambient weaves of 07/01/1998’s “Down With Disease -> Dog Faced Boy -> Piper.” From the meandering grooves that spilled out of 07/24/1999’s “Fluffhead,” to the dark and seedy “Scent’s And Subtle Sounds” on 07/30/2003. From the “Ghost> Antelope” that surprisingly closed out 06/04/2009, to the blissful “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” from 07/03/2011’s masterful set. Each of these jams more than raised the bar of their set’s, while proving that First Set’s can be far more than a simple recital.

Atlanta, GA – 06/15/1995

Bethel, NY – 05/28/2011

XI. The Set II’s?

You know those jams where, either at the show, or listening at home, you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘wait, what song is this again?’ That’s kind of what these sets are like. As the last section displayed, from 1997 – 2004, and again since mid-2010, Phish has had a penchant for fucking with the structure of the First Set, thus muddling the original differences between it and it’s counterpart. Whereas First Set’s have historically been opportunities to showcase songs, rather than improv, these distinctions tend to blur from time to time. Sometimes so much so, that one can forget what set they’re actually witnessing.

An example. Following the “FUCKYOU” set on 08/31/2012, my wife and I headed up to grab a beer. Awash in celebratory sentiments, we were about as happy as two people could be at that point. Married just a week earlier, this was the kick off of a four month honeymoon. Stoked to just see a Phish show, nothing could have prepared us for what the band actually had in store. While waiting in line a girl turned to us, and said, “I can’t believe the beer tent’s are still open.” We laughed this off, but when she turned again saying, “that was the best show I’ve ever seen!” we kindly informed her that there was still another set to be had. “WHAT?!?! YOU MEAN THAT WAS JUST THE FIRST SET!?!?! HOLY CRAP!!!!”

Now, one could certainly argue that this sentiment was chalked up to being a noob, on drugs, or just a dumb girl at a show. However, as the following show’s prove, sometimes the lines are so blurred between set I and set II, that it twists one’s mind. This is the ultimate goal of a Phish show after all: to alter your perspective so, that you step out of your everyday self-conciousness and expectations, wholly accepting the unexpected. We’re all familiar with these shows. When we’re there, they’re somewhat unexplainable for the grasp they have over a crowd. When we listen at home, they continuously display the dexterity and command that Phish can summon.

Examples: 12/06/1996, 07/10/1997, 11/17/1997, 11/22/1997, 04/05/1998, 07/13/1999, 12/15/1999, 07/23/2003, 06/19/2004, 08/12/2004, 10/16/2010, 08/31/2012

Jams abound in the above sets, what unites them is their ability to muddle the historic lines between the First and Second Sets. Be it 07/10/1997’s fully-flowing Euro-funk-fest, or the five-song clinic on 11/17/1997. The sublime, drug-induced jamming from “Halley’s -> Roses -> NO2,” and “Reba> Carini” on 07/13/1999, or the ambient-laced “Walls Of The Cave -> David Bowie” that capped off a jam-heavy 06/19/2004 set. In 3.0, 10/16/2010 set the standard for an innovative set I, before igniting a firestorm in Fall 2010, while 08/31/2012 has only gotten better with age, as heard in the “Carini” and “Undermind” that provided the cornerstones of the “FUCKYOU” set. They are the sets that once more prove why we seek out hundreds of Phish tapes, why we travel across the country to see the band, why we sit through two and three bad Phish shows in a row, why we spend tens of thousands of dollars for a simple three-hour concert. They prove to us, if nothing else, why to always expect the unexpected with Phish, and why that which is unexpected is always worth witnessing.

Marseilles, France – 07/10/1997

Washington DC, USA – 12/15/1999

——–

An evolving medium of their live shows, the First Set was once simply thought of as a platform for various songs. Later it became an avenue for jamming and experimentation. Throughout it’s been a diverse collection of possibilities for the band to ignite a show. One half of what makes up an entire Phish show, the First Set – while generally thought of as the tamer side of a show – have proven to be unexpected, dexterous, and mind-blowing at various times throughout history. While there are certainly a plethora of other styles of First Sets, the eleven covered above are the most common one is expected to experience at a show. Thus concludes the second part of an eight part series, breaking down Phish’s live show. Up next is the First Set Closer.

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

The Best Of Phish – 2009 – Part II

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– With Summer 2013 Dates just announced, I felt it appropriate to give 2009 it’s proper due. Here follows is a recap of the first year of 3.0, including picks for Best Jams and Best Shows. Part II today is the Show, click here for Part I. Enjoy! –

The Best Of Phish 2009

Honorable Shows

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Susquehanna Bank Center – Camden, NJ – 06/07/2009

Set I: Chalk Dust Torture, Fee+, Wolfman’s Brother, Guyute, My Sweet One> 46 Days, The Lizards, The Wedge, Strange Design, Tube, First Tube

Set II: Sand, Suzy Greenberg, Limb By Limb, The Horse -> Silent In The Morning, Sugar Shack^, Character Zero> Tweezer

Encore: Joy^, Bouncing Around The Room> Run Like An Antelope> Tweezer Reprise

+ Trey forgot the lyrics halfway through “Fee”

^ “Sugar Shack” and “Joy” made their Phish debuts

Eight shows into their 3.0 comeback, Phish returned to one of their favorite venues, and put on a show still revered today, proving they could transcend the initial limitations set upon themselves. On the last night of the NE-Run of Summer’s First Leg, Phish settled in, played a masterful first set, a contemplative second set – bookended by two of the best jams of the year – and an extended encore, all for some of the most devoted fans they have. Personified by the ambient jam that emerged out of “Fee,” the old-school/new-school combo of “My Sweet One> 46 Days,” and the antics that ended the set with “Tube,” and “First Tube,” the first set was a relaxed affair, devoid of the recital approach that had plagued many of the tour’s other first sets. In Set II, the band opened with a monster jam off of “Sand,” before treating the crowd to a string of old school classics, and blissful numbers, with “Suzy” and “Silent In The Morning,” along with the debut of Mike’s bubbly “Sugar Shack.” The best moment though, might have been the powerful “Tweezer” that ended the set. Coming as a surprise out of the expected “Zero” set closer, the jam built into a monstrous storm led entirely by Trey’s endemic licks. Ending the set on a high note, all’s the band had to do was the standard “Bouncing> Tweeprise” and people would have gone home  happy. Though opting to toss in the debut of “Joy,” along with a raging “Run Like An Antelope,” the encore took on the feel of a third set, reminding everyone just how much the band cherished their home turf. The show of the year to many-a-fan, Camden ’09 is significant in many ways. Perhaps most lasting is the fact that it was the first show since their return in March that could be argued as “show of the year.”

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Red Rocks Amphitheater – Morrison, CO – 08/01/2009

Set I: AC/DC Bag, The Curtain With*, Mound**, Gotta Jibboo, Guyute, Punch You In The Eye, Tube, Alaska> Run Like An Antelope+

Set II: Rock & Roll -> Down With Disease#& -> Free, Esther***, Dirt, Harry Hood##

Encore: Sleeping Monkey, First Tube

* First “The Curtain With” since 15 August 2004

** First “Mound” since 31 December 2002

** First “Esther” since 30 September 2000

+ “Run Like An Antelope” contained the lyrics ‘Been you to have any slush’

# “Down With Disease contained “LA Woman” and “Taste” teases

## “Harry Hood” contained “Dirt” and “Free” teases

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

A night after playing their best show of 3.0 to that point, Phish returned for the third night of their unprecedented four-night run (by 3.0 standards) at Red Rocks, and put of a nostalgic performance, thus complimenting the innovative playing of the previous show. A nailed and emotive “The Curtain With,” played for the first time since Coventry, was really all anyone needed to know how the band felt about their return, some five months in. Following it with the first “Mound” since 31 December 2002, was icing on the cake, as the band nailed the clearly practice Rift-era rarity. The rest of the first set was a classic mix of summery, first set tunes, highlighted by a pungent jam out of “Tube.” In the second set, the band took “Rock & Roll” and “DWD” on extended journeys, a jam segment that made one of the final cuts for the jams of the year list. Continuing the bust-out theme, “Esther” was played for the first time since Vegas ’00, before closing things out with the introspective “Dirt,” and a notable version of “Harry Hood.” Long revered by fans, the six-song second set became something of an oddity following this show, as the band routinely abandoned multiple jams, in favor of bursts of energy throughout Set II’s. A solid show through and through, 08/01 was the perfect follow-up to 07/31’s torrential onslaught, and reassured fans that their best performances in 3.0 weren’t necessarily one-off affairs. More than anything, this show put an indelible stamp on the ’09 Red Rocks Run that won’t be removed until they decide to revisit the Colorado gem.

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Cumberland County Civic Center – Portland, ME – 11/29/2009

Set I: Possum> Down With Disease, Nellie Kane*, Weigh, When The Circus Comes, Kill Devil Falls, Water In The Sky, Stash, Meat+, Undermind, Mike’s Song -> I Am Hydrogen> Weekapaug Groove

Set II: The Moma Dance> Rock & Roll> Light -> Crimes Of The Mind**> Pebbles & Marbles> 2001> Golgi Apparatus> Cavern> Run Like An Antelope

Encore: Free Bird***, Carini> Waste

* First “Nellie Kane” since 01 July 2000

** First “Crimes Of The Mind” since 28 November 2003

*** First “Free Bird” Since 22 June 2000; First a capella version since 28 December 1998

+ Prior to “Meat” Mike was introduced as “The Artist Formerly Known As Cactus, now The Artist Currently Known As Prince”

Closing out their strongest weekend of the Fall 2009 Tour, Phish threw down a two-set affair, highlighted by a fun-loving first set, and a fully-flowing, jam heavy Set II. Coming out the gates with the one-two-punch of “Possum> DWD,” the band held little back on this night in Maine, gracing the first set with a “Nellie Kane” bustout, and notable versions of “Meat” and “Undermind.” But the second set is where the real magic is at, as the band didn’t take a single break throughout, crafting a particularly memorable jam segment in “Rock & Roll> Light -> Crimes Of The Mind.” The latter – the only time to be played without The Dude of Life on vocals – was not only a massive surprise, but built into a powerful jam before fading into “Pebbles & Marbles.” Closing things out with an energized “2001> Golgi> Antelope” closing trio, the set was a complete thought, devoid of miscalculated ballads, or misplaced fillers. In the encore, the band treated their fans to two rarities in “Free Bird” and “Carini,” and an emotive “Waste,” sending everyone out into a chilly post-Thanksgiving week, and onwards to their MSG return. One of the strongest performances of the Fall Tour, Portland came on the heels of the tour’s most memorable stretch, when the band just destroyed Philly and Albany, proving they still had something in the tank after so many memorable shows.

The Top Ten Shows Of 2009

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Alpine Valley Music Theater – East Troy, WI – 06/21/2009

Set I: Brother+, Wolfman’s Brother, Funky Bitch> The Divided Sky, Joy, Back On The Train, Taste> Poor Heart, The Horse -> Silent In The Morning, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday* -> Avenu Malkenu*> The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday*> Time Turns Elastic

Set II: Crosseyed & Painless# -> Down With Disease##&> Bug> Piper### -> Wading In The Velvet Sea, Boogie On Reggae Woman, Slave To The Traffic Light

Encore: Grind, Frankenstein++

+ During “Brother” each of the band members kids’ came on stage and climbed in a giant bathtub

++ “Frankenstein” feature Trey on a five-neck Guitar, Mike on an Inferno Bass, and Page on a Keytar

* First “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday -> Avenu Malkenu> TMWSIY” since 07 July 2003

# “Crosseyed & Painless” contained a “Let It Grow” tease

## “Down With Disease” contained a “Taste” tease

### “Piper” contained a “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” tease

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

On the final night of the First Leg of Phish’s 2009 Summer Tour, the band graced their fans with a memorable show highlighted by the first annual – until 2013, that is – Father’s Day gimmick, a lengthy Set I, and a fully-flowing second set, anchored by two excellent jams. When a crew member brought a bathtub out to center stage about five minutes before show time, a roar generated throughout the crowd, in anticipation of whatever the band had up their sleeves. Opening with the first “Brother” since IT, the band invited each of their kids on stage to climb into the tub, ala the song’s lyrics. Initiating a Father’s Day tradition, the gag sent a joyful message as to just how important sharing their family with the Phish experience was to the band members’ throughout this 3.0 run, while at the same time sent a shout-out to their life-long fans who’ve become father’s of their own in the years since Coventry. The revelry spilled over into a thick “Wolfman’s” a “Funky Bitch,” per request, and a poignant “Divided Sky.” Forty minutes in, it was already the show of the tour. Closing the set out with the notable and old-school combo of “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday -> Avenu Malkenu> TMWSIY,” followed by their most recent composition, “Time Turns Elastic” was as symbolic a pairing as any, displaying the compositional roots that the band had been built on. That it was also the most memorable, and powerful version of “TTE” to date, says something as well. In Set II the band simply threw down. Busting out “Crosseyed” for the first time since Deer Creek ’04, they built a peaking jam off the theme that, coupled with the thousands of glowsticks battling about on the lawn, nearly tore the lid off the old shed. Bleeding into “DWD” by way of an ambient jam, the set moved forward with an emotive “Bug,” a percussive “Piper,” and a gorgeous “Slave” to close things out. Encoring with the 3.0 barbershop staple “Grind,” and a raunchy “Frankenstein,” wherein which Trey, Mike, and Page donned gimmicky instruments, the show sent everyone off to Summer 2009’s halftime, bellies full, yet ravenously anticipating Leg II.

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Red Rocks Amphitheater – Morrison, CO – 07/31/2009

Set I: Runaway Jim> Chalk Dust Torture, Bathtub Gin, Time Turns Elastic, Lawn Boy, Water In The Sky, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Split Open & Melt

Set II: Drowned -> Crosseyed & Painless -> Joy, Tweezer> Backwards Down The Number Line> Fluffhead#& -> Piper -> A Day In The Life

Encore: Suzy Greenberg##> Tweezer Reprise

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

## “Suzy Greenberg” contained “Drowned,” “Crosseyed & Painless,” and “AC/DC Bag” teases

& “Fluffhead” was unfinished

After spending much of their First Leg awkwardly adjusting to life back on the road, Phish reappeared at Red Rocks – for the first time since 1996, no less – on a mission to reclaim what was theirs. No better is this spirit shown than by the viscerally powerful second set that blew up on the run’s second night. Following a solid first set that included a muddling, yet incendiary “Split Open & Melt,” which battled the torrential downpour, the band reemerged for Set II, and played hands down, their best set of 3.0 – up to that point. Flowing throughout, the set was anchored by a seamless segue from “Drowned -> Crosseyed,” a bubbling and constantly shifting “Tweezer,” a celebratory “Fluffhead,” and a “Piper” that bled right into “A Day In The Life,” by way of Mr. McConnell’s keys. Each jam carried fresh ideas, each song was a welcome surprise, and by the time they reemerged for the encore, they had quieted literally all who were skeptical of their 3.0 abilities – at least for a night. Immediately setting the 3.0 bar a notch higher, 31 July 2009 will forever be remember as the show that inspired the transcendent music created throughout August 2009. Completely themselves again, no show would impact a tour, or the band’s overall sound, quite like it until a year later, on the second night of the equally legendary Greek Run.

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The Gorge Amphitheater – George, WA – 08/07/2009

Set I: Down With Disease, Ocelot, Pebbles & Marbles, Possum, Sleep, Destiny Unbound, Stash, Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> Cavern

Set II: The Moma Dance> Light -> Taste, Fluffhead, Joy, Bathtub Gin&> Harry Hood

Encore: Slave To The Traffic Light

& “Bathtub Gin” was unfinished

It was the best show of 2009 at the time; and it still is, to this day. Even more, some four years on, it’s still ranks as one of the best overall shows in 3.0 Highlighted by a classic set one, which concluded with one of the jams of the year in “Sneakin’ Sally,” and a top notch set two, that offered two unique jams to this list, it was a monumental show through and through. Kicking things off with a raging, Type-I “DWD,” set I was notable for the 3.0 debut of “Pebbles & Marbles,” and for only the third “Destiny Unbound” since 1991. But it was the “Sneakin’ Sally” jam that concluded the set with a segue into “Cavern” that has hung in the minds of most listeners; to this day it is still one of the most innovative jams of 3.0. Set II is akin to 07/31’s masterpiece in it’s flowing nature, diversity of jams, and re-listenability all these years later. The “Light” and “Gin” jump out as the clear highlights, but the “Fluffhead,” and, the always welcome Gorge version of “Harry Hood,” fill out the set perfectly. Encoring with a patient, Trey-led “Slave” sent everyone out into the Pac-NW night, eagerly anticipating the following night, which would ultimately be a top-to-bottom barn-burner, thus cementing The Gorge as THE run of 2009.

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The Gorge Amphitheater – George, WA – 08/08/2009

Set I: The Mango Song> Chalk Dust Torture, Middle Of The Road^, Tweezer, Driver, Twenty Years Later, Ya Mar, It’s Ice, Wolfman’s Brother> Character Zero> Run Like An Antelope

Set II: Rock & Roll -> Makisupa Policeman+, Alaska, The Wedge, You Enjoy Myself#, Backwards Down The Number Line&> Piper##, Grind

Encore: Good Times Bad Times, Tweezer Reprise

^ “Middle Of The Road” made it’s Phish debut

+ “Makisupa Policeman” featured Mike and Trey switching instruments and contained the keyword: “Did like Bobby Brown. I ate my breakfast, and I laid back down.”

# “You Enjoy Myself” contained a “Hedwig’s Theme” tease

## “Piper” contained “Llama” teases from Fishman

& “Backwards Down The Number Line” was unfinished

After playing their best show of 2009 the night before, Phish wasted no time getting down to business on their second night at the vast and expansive Gorge Amphitheater. Opening with the back-to-back Nectar classics, “The Mango Song> Chalk Dust Torture” set the tone immediately. The First Set was further highlighted midway through by a slowly building “Tweezer,” which picked up many of the Red Rock’s version’s influences, before transferring them into a more rock-based, peaking jam. Closing the set out with the blistering trio of “Wolfman’s Brother> Character Zero> Run Like An Antelope” nearly blew the stage into the Columbia River behind them; you can clearly hear the crowd let out an emphatic, and massive roar of ecstatic approval when “Zero” faded into “Antelope.” A bonus set closer of sorts, it proved to be a thankful nod from the band to their fans for their first three sets of excellent music at The Gorge. In the second set, the band threw down one of their jams of the year in the 23-min, “Rock & Roll.” It built through twenty minutes on improv based almost entirely on the The Velvet Underground theme, before returning to the song proper, and then segueing into a playful “Makisupa.” A punctual “You Enjoy Myself” found itself in the middle of a set for one of the few times in 2009 – quite a rare treat at the time – a sure sign the band was feeling loose. Concluding things with the first hint of experimentation in “Backwards Down The Number Line,” a “Piper” that plowed ahead into the unknown with furious precision before fading away into a “Llama” jam from Fishman, and “Grind,” the set ended in one of the most unique ways of any in 2009. Closing the show and The Run out with “Good Times Bad Times” and “Tweezer Reprise” was really the only way one could, as the two capitalized on the massive energy explosion that’d occurred in the middle of Washington State that weekend. Easily the best weekend of Phish 2009, The Gorge is still talked about with awe by all in attendance, and with envy by all who’ve only heard it on tape.

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The Comcast Theater – Hartford, CT – 08/14/2009

Set I: Punch You In The Eye, AC/DC Bag> NICU, Col. Forbin’s Ascent* -> Fly Famous Mockingbird*, Birds Of A Feather, Lawn Boy, Stash, I Didn’t Know, Middle Of The Road> Character Zero

Set II: Down With Disease%&> Wilson -> Slave To The Traffic Light, Piper## -> Water In The Sky, Ghost -> Psycho Killer** -> Catapult+ -> Icculus***+> You Enjoy Myself%%

Encore: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

* First “Col Forbin’s Ascent” and “Fly Famous Mockingbird” since 30 September 2000

** First “Psycho Killer” since 07 December 1997

*** First “Icculus” since 18 July 1999

% “Down With Disease” contained a jam based on “Reba”

%% “You Enjoy Myself” contained the “Pong” jam from “Catapult”

## “Piper” contained a “Spill The Wine” tease

+ “Catapult” featured a jam inspired by the Atari game, Pong

++ “Icculus” featured narration about technology and kids “reading a fucking book!”

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

What can you say sometimes? There are those shows where the band’s just feeling it. After making the 30-hr trek from The Gorge to Chicago, where they threw down a lackluster effort, the band played an old-school show in Darien – the last show to be cut from this list, btw – to kick off their four-night run of the NE. The next night, in Hartford, the band waited till well past 8:30 to emerge for a two-set affair, shrouded in darkness, one that would be revered immediately upon conclusion, and long after it was all said and done. Opening with a string of classics, “PYITE, AC/DC Bag> NICU” sent the initial message that the band was feeling it here back on their home turf. But it was the reemergence of “Forbin’s -> Mockingbird,” after almost ten years in hiding, that pushed the show to another level. Without a narration to break the momentum, the band went the old school rout, and let the two Gamehendge rarities speak for themselves. It mattered little what was played the rest of the set, for this bustout was enough to satiate most fans, but it helped for historical purposes – and for those who truly enjoy listening to full shows – that they followed with a scorching “Birds,” a punctual “Stash,” and a raging “Zero” to send everyone into setbreak. In the second set, the band used the first half to craft two indelible jam segments in “DWD> Wilson -> Slave” and “Piper -> Water In The Sky,” the first of which contained a gorgeous “Reba” jam, and the latter which featured the same type of percussive jamming as was seen in the Alpine version, but ended with a fluttering of Page that spilled fluidly into “Water In The Sky.” When they kicked off “Ghost,” one wouldn’t have been too misguided to think we were simply in for another monster jam. But the band had different ideas up their sleeves. Latching onto the gimmickry of Set I’s bustout, they directed “Ghost” into the first “Psycho Killer” in twelve years, before letting it fade into the first “Catapult” of 3.0. Based around a prickly, note-based jam that sounded oddly like the Atari game, Pong, Trey got a bit nostalgic and started strumming a few minored chords. What emerged was the first “Icculus” in ten years, a song based heavily on narration, to which, Trey preached to all the young Phish fans about the pleasures of books, and the evils of iphones and hand-held technology, finally quipping, “When was the last time one of you picked up a fucking book?!?!” Closing out the set with the only appropriate song, the band played an inspired “You Enjoy Myself,” before encoring simply with The Beatles, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” One of the best shows of the year. And one of the best shows of 3.0 for that matter. It’d be a long while – until 10/20/2010 to be exact – before the band would play a show steeped in this much humor, gimmickry, and old-fashioned Phish zaniness.

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Empire Polo Club – Indio, CA – 10/31/2009

Set I: Sample In A Jar, The Divided Sky, Lawn Boy, Kill Devil Falls, Bathtub Gin, The Squirming Coil> Runaway Jim> Possum, Run Like An Antelope+

Set II$: Rocks Off*%> Rip This Joint*%, Shake Your Hips*%, Casino Boogie*, Tumbling Dice*%%, Sweet Virginia%%, Torn & Frayed*, Sweet Black Angel*%, Loving Cup%%, Happy*%%, Turd On The Run*%%, Ventilator Blues*%% -> I Just Want To See His Face*%%% -> Let It Loose*%%, All Down The Line*%%, Stop Breaking Down*%%, Shine A Light*%%, Soul Survivor*%%

Set III: Backwards Down The Number Line> Fluffhead, Ghost> When The Circus Comes, You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Suzy Greenberg%%

+ The lyrics in “Run Like An Antelope” were changed to “Been You To Have Any Coil?”

$ The Rolling Stone’s Exile On Main St was the band’s Second Set Musical Costume

* All songs in Set II, with the exception of “Sweet Virginia” and “Loving Cup” made their Phish debut

% Featuring Dave Guy on Trumpet, David Smith on Trombone, and Tony Jarvis on Saxophone

%% Featuring Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams on Backup Vocals; Dave Guy on Trumpet, David Smith on Trombone, and Tony Jarvis on Saxophone

%%% Featuring Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams on Backup Vocals

Their first Halloween show since 1998, and their first festival since the Coventry debacle, Festival 8 peaked on it’s second night with a three-set masterpiece, bookended by classic Phish, and filled out by one of the best cover album’s the band has ever performed. In the first set, the band threw down a string of old-school classics, honoring the magnitude of the event, while matching the near-perfect conditions the California desert provided. Highlighted by a gorgeous “Divided Sky,” a soaring “Bathtub Gin,” a combo right out of the 80’s in “Coil> Jim> Possum,” and a raging “Antelope” to close, it was the kind of set that – “KDF” aside – one could have easily imagined being played in front of about 1000 friends back in Vermont. In Set II they masterfully covered The Rolling Stone’s 1972 classic, Exile On Main Street. Highlights abound, the set, more than anything, sent a clear message about how far the band had come since their low-point in 2004, and how genuinely happy they were to be healthy, playing live music again. At the end of the day, the “Torn & Frayed,” “Ventilator Blues -> I Just Want To See His Face,” “Let It Loose,” “Shine A Light,” and perhaps the greatest “Loving Cup” ever, take the cake as the peak moments of the set. Proving as poignant moment as any in a Phish show, “Shine A Light” felt written for Trey, detailing the struggles of a drug addict overcoming his demons. A song that’s birthed life into 3.0, it’s appearance as an encore always feels like a nod from the heavens for sparing Trey in his darkest days, and giving him a second chance. Set III was akin to the first set, except for it’s emphasis on improv. “Number Line” and “Ghost” both went deep, and “You Enjoy Myself” proved to be the best version of the oft-played song in 2009. Not to mention, one of the top tier versions in all of 3.0. Inviting their back-up band on stage for the “Suzy Greenberg,” they stretched the classic into a 12-min jam that featured funk breakdowns, horn solos, and Sharon Jones’s soulful wails throughout. A celebratory moment for all involved, 10/31/2009 was key to the band’s development throughout 3.0, and a show we can all look back on and simply be thankful was able to occur.

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Wachovia Center – Philadelphia, PA – 11/24/2009

Set I: Chalk Dust Torture, Bathtub Gin, Cities> Camel Walk, The Curtain With, The Wedge, The Moma Dance, Reba, Golgi Apparatus, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan

Set II: Possum> Down With Disease& -> Twenty Years Later> Harry Hood> The Mango Song> Mike’s Song -> Simple> Slave To The Traffic Light> Weekapaug Groove+

Encore: A Day In The Life

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

+ Much of the “Weekapaug Groove” jam was played at a slower pace

Easily the best show of the band’s 2009 Fall Tour, the first night of Philly featured a celebratory, holiday-tinged feel, with an old-school setlist and some top notch playing taboot. Akin to 10/31’s First Set, the First Set in Philly reads like something out of the band’s bygone years – sans “Moma” and “Stealing Time.” With a tight, fully loaded jam out of “Gin,” and  blissful and contemplative jams in “The Curtain With” and “Reba,” the set was ripe with highlights, many of the extended variety. Sparked with humor in the Thanksgiving-quoted “Cities,” along with the rare funk of “Camel Walk,” it was as well-rounded as any First Fet during the tour, keeping everyone on their toes in anticipation of set II. Fully flowing throughout, the Second Set was an early masterpiece in the 3.0 era. Featuring a sublime, laid-back jam out of “DWD,” the band got to business early, winding the jam through various passages of musical bliss before landing in “Twenty Years Later.” Bridging the “DWD” and the spectacular “Mike’s Groove” with “Harry Hood> The Mango Song” kept things flowing with ease, and continued the old school feel that had graced the show thus far. In the “Mike’s Groove,” the band combined “Simple” with “Slave” by way of an ambient jam, injecting “Mike’s Groove” with “Slave” for the first time since Alpine ’97. Heading into “Weekapaug” at a torrential pace, the band made humor out of the mistake, referentially shouting throughout, before slowing things down and infusing the jam with some funk grooves. A conceptual set without a moment wasted, it was one of the few totally unified moments throughout the Fall Tour, one that, while surpassed many times over in 3.0, has lived on for the fact that it was just one of those nights in back 2009, where everything felt right again.

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Times Union Center – Albany, NY – 11/27/2009

Set I: AC/DC Bag -> Maze, Driver, My Mind’s Got A Mind Of Its Own, Gumbo, Bouncing Around The Room, It’s Ice, Two Versions Of Me, Timber> Limb By Limb, Cavern -> Light

Set II: My Friend, My Friend* -> Golden Age^> On Your Way Down, Fluffhead> Piper -> Tomorrow’s Song^^, Prince Caspian&> Harry Hood> Suzy Greenberg> The Squirming Coil, I Been Around

Encore: Fire

* First “My Friend, My Friend” Set II Opener since 10 April 1994

^ “Golden Age” (TV On The Radio) made it’s Phish debut

^^ “Tommorow’s Song” made it’s Phish debut

& “Prince Caspian” was unfinished

After throwing down their best show of the tour two nights before Thanksgiving, Phish returned to the road the night after and crafted an all-around excellent show, highlighted by two surprise debuts, and a high-octane set II. Opening with an “AC/DC Bag -> Maze” segment got the show off right, as the two age-old classics fit together with ease, immediately putting the uneventful second night in Philly far in the recesses of every fan’s minds. After dusting a few songs off the shelves for the first time this tour – “Driver,” “My Mind’s Got A Mind of It’s Own,” “Gumbo,” “Timber” – they closed the set with a menacing surprise as “Cavern” faded into the only First Set “Light” they’ve ever played. Pushing the song into the ether, it touched on beat-less ambient themes, dissolving into a noise-based jam that faded as the lights came on for setbreak. Set II brought the first “My Friend” opener since Spring 1994, and the debut of the TV On The Radio hit “Golden Age,” which has gone on to be one of the most revered – and at times frustrating – songs of 3.0. Fading into only the fifth “On Your Way Down” since 1989, the set just kept elevating itself, as the band was clearly feeling it being back in the Northeast corner of the US. After the obligatory “Fluffhead,” they dropped the jam of the night in an explosive “Piper” which turned melodic, before segueing perfectly into the debut of the Undermind-ditty, “Tomorrow’s Song.” Rounding out the set with “Hood> Suzy> Coil,” was a clear message about how much fun the band had on the first night of their quasi-hometown run. Encoring with “Fire” – the third time they’ve played Hendrix on his birthday – was welcomely expected by all fans, as the nod not only honored the guitar-legend, but also bridged the two nights in Albany in ways no other cover could.

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American Airlines Arena – Miami, FL – 12/29/2009

Set I: Golgi Apparatus, Maze, Driver, The Connection, Wolfman’s Brother, Ocelot, Reba, Access Me, The Divided Sky, Cavern

Set II: Kill Devil Falls> Tweezer# -> Prince Caspian> Gotta Jibboo -> Wilson -> Gotta Jibboo -> Heavy Things -> 2001> Slave To The Traffic Light

Encore: Sleeping Monkey> Tweezer Reprise

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

On paper this show looked like complete and utter shite. A first set comprised of a few classics surrounded by a string of fillers, and a second set that looked like another awkward clunker, defined by a “Jibboo -> Wilson -> Jibboo,” that couldn’t have looked worse on paper. Yet listening to this show for the first time back in 2009, it was clear beyond any questionable doubt that the band was feeling it. Probably the best overall show of the Miami NYE Run, it’s a prime example of the kind of show where what songs the band plays matters little, for they’d crush it all regardless. While those kinds of shows have become commonplace here in 2011 and 2012 – 06/04/2011, 06/11/2011, 08/16/2011, 09/03/2011, 06/08/2012, 06/23/2012, 07/03/2012, 08/28/2012 – back in 2009, they had to play to a killer setlist if they were going to play a killer show. 29 December 2009 broke this mold and then some. Highlighted by a torrid “Maze,” a laid back, funk jam in “Wolfman’s,” and the always welcome pair of classics, “Reba” and “Divided Sky,” the show felt much like the last 12/29 show prior to this one, sans the Miami “Piper,” of course. In set II the band focused on intertwined jamming and segues, taking “Tweezer” to some truly spectacular planes of blissful ambient nothingness, somehow making the “Jibboo -> Wilson -> Jibboo” work, and producing perhaps the best “Heavy Things” we’ve ever heard. The latter’s near-four minute ambient jam that bled right into “2001” was the defining point of the night, proving the band would nail anything they played. An all-around remarkable show, the second night in Miami ignored all the misconceptions about 3.0, shut the setlist nazi’s up – at least for one night – and produced perhaps the single greatest review by a certain Phish writer – the one where he had nothing to say.

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American Airlines Arena – Miami, FL – 12/30/2009

Set I: Soul Shakedown Party*, Runaway Jim, Jesus Just Left Chicago**, Dixie Cannonball^, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Corinna***, What’s The Use?****, Tela*****, Gone^^, Rocky Top******, Chalk Dust Torture, David Bowie

Set II: Sand, The Curtain With> Lifeboy, Back On The Train -> Wading In The Velvet Sea, Hold Your Head Up> Love You%> Hold Your Head Up, Free> Boogie On Reggae Woman -> Run Like An Antelope#%%

Encore: Frankenstein+

* First “Soul Shakedown Party” since 17 April 2004

** First “Jesus Just Left Chicago” since 13 July 2003

*** First “Corinna” since 24 February 2003

**** First “What’s The Use?” since 28 November 2003

***** First “Tela” since 24 November 1998

****** First “Rocky Top” since 19 July 2003

^ “Dixie Cannonball” (Hank Williams) made it’s Phish debut

^^ “Gone” made it’s Phish debut

% “Love You” featured audience member, Rich on stage playing the vacuum cleaner

%% “Run Like An Antelope” contained alternate lyrics

# “Run Like An Antelope” contained multiple “Boogie On Reggae Woman” teases

+ “Frankenstein” featured Page on the Keytar

Ahhhhhh, the bustout show. A thing of legend in Phish circles. Rarely does the band drop an entire show/set comprised of bustouts. In the ten years since 07/29/2003, the show is still revered as one of the best of 2.0, in many ways, thanks to the ipod shuffle feel that accompanied the entire first set. On 12/30/2009, the band brought six unique songs out of seeming retirement – while debuting two others – giving credence to the 12/30 legend, while also gifting their fans with a number of oft-requested tunes. Perhaps none of these was more boisterously received than “Tela.” The sweet and longing Gamehendge ballad, it had been requested with near fanaticism throughout the Summer and Fall Tours, finally brought back to life after eleven years. In the Second Set, the band fused jams and gimmickry, crafting one of the most well-rounded sets of the year, with one of the best jams of the year as it’s centerpiece. Kicking off with the first “Sand” since Camden, they remained a bit more confined before initiating a top-notch “The Curtain With.” Producing the jam of the night in “Back On The Train -> Wading,” the band let humor dominate the latter half of the set. Using “HYHU” to throw another hint out about their NYE gag, they invited an audience member – Rich – on stage to celebrate the last vacuum solo of the decade. Closing out the set with what can only be described as “Boogie On Reggae Antelope” the band displayed on-stage communication fused with humor that just wouldn’t have been possible nine months earlier. A staple performance of gimmickry, improv, humor, and that intangible feeling that can only be found at a Phish show, there’s never been any doubt about it’s place in Phish 3.0.

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A celebratory year that saw Phish return from the darkness of their past. While they fought through numerous ups and downs, by years end, they’d unquestionably succeeded in all the goals laid out for them. As we await the start of the 2013 Summer Tour, it’s no better time to revisit the first year of 3.0, and see just how far the band has come.

Please send me your thoughts about the list.

Here’s to another four years that are just as good as the last four!

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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 – 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Jams –

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

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

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

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

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

– Shows –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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