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!

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The Three Decembers – 1997

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In the 1.0 era of Phish there is no year more hotly debated, more controversial, more divisive than 1997. To some it represents a sublime and ethereal peak moment where the band shed their skin and reinvented themselves as a minimalist, groove-oriented band who embraced jamming with open arms, and turned their shows into infectious dance parties, all but devoid of prewritten songs. Others view it with an air of indifference, a sort of boring sidetrack from the more pure origins of Phish; a moment when for the first time, the band showed signs of laziness and, instead of pushing themselves further, relied on simple grooves, and extended jams to get themselves through a tour. Still some see it as the moment when Phish lost track of who they were, allowed drugs, the scene, and the bigness of what they’d become to take precedence over their music, and began the slow downward spiral to the bottoming out of 2004. Whatever way you look at 1997 one thing is certain: the music Phish created throughout the year represented a distinct shift in styles from everything that had come before, and would alter the course of their craft, and the band, in a multitude of ways over the next fifteen years.

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Born in the origins of the band was a goal to create organic music in a live, improvisational setting, which displayed a linear communication between all members, giving them the sound of one unified instrument, rather than four individuals. Harnessed for the first time during the brilliant month of August 1993 when the band embraced their “Hey Hole” practice technique and incorporated it into their live performances. A concept whereby the band locks into a specific groove – be it a riff from Trey or Page, a outspoken beat from Fishman, or a combination of the two from Mike – and then one member alters the groove slightly. Each member follows the leader down the new path, until another member offers up their own idea and the jam rotates. Used for years in practice, it wasn’t until 1993 that the band felt both confident enough in their own mastery of their music, and comfortable enough to step out of the boundaries of their songs without a net. Heard in a multitude of jams throughout the month – from the Cincinnati “You Enjoy Myself” to the August 11th “Mike’s” to the Murat “Gin,” the Tinley Park “Antelope,” and the Louisville “Stash” and “Tweezer” – it was packed to the brim with jams that exceeded the limits of Type-I exploration that had been the band’s cornerstone for the past four years.

1994 only built upon the improvisational achievements of 1993 as the band saw their determination and hard work pay off in droves, resulting in the longest stretch of high-quality, mind-bending music of their entire career from August 1993 through December 1995. The Bomb Factory “Tweezer” on May 7th provides the first of many high water marks throughout 1994 as the band displayed an urgency in exploring the variety of diversions and depths their music could go, devoting whole sets sometimes to exploration. “Tweezer” and “David Bowie” became the go-to vehicles whenever the band yearned to go deep, resulting in a number of experimental excursions throughout the summer. During the Fall tour, when the band opted to traverse the West rather than conclude their tour in the Northeast, they stretched their arms out even further, pushing their jams so far into the unknown that they failed to return to their origins. The Bangor “Tweezer,” Ann Arbor “Simple,” Minneapolis “Bowie,” Bozeman “Tweezer” from November 28th, and the infamous “Bowie” from 12/29 all strode further and deeper than any jam had in the live setting since at least 1988.

10439088-essayContinuing with their exploratory inhibitions in the Summer of 1995, the band threw all caution to the wind, seemingly ignored the fact that they were playing in front of an audience, and spent whole sets engulfed in a search for connection through live improv. The Red Rocks “Mike’s,” Mud Island “Tweezer,” Atlanta “Bowie,” Raleigh “Runaway Jim,” Fingerlake’s “Tweezer,” SPAC “Down With Disease -> Free,” Jones Beach “Tweezer,” Great Woods “Split Open & Melt,” and Sugarbush “Bowie” all exceeded 25 minutes – the “Tweezer’s” took the prize with lengths of 50, 42 and 30 min respectively – and all displayed the lengths Phish was willing to go to achieve their goals. Taken as whole pieces, each jam can seem far too intimidating for casual listeners. Yet, the true power of each is found deep within, after lengthy jams, failed themes, diverted paths; when each member essentially stops thinking, relinquishes their ego, and allows the music to carry them. The 22 – 33min segment of music produced in the “Tweezer” from 06/14, and the 6:45 – 11:50 section of the SPAC “Free,” are preserved as probably the best examples of the sheer beauty and brilliance of Summer ’95, when it mattered little what song was played, just where it went. While this approach was slimmed down during the Fall tour that followed, the external forces explained in the last post, along with the band’s ferocious energy and desire to continue to push their improv resulted in probably the greatest tour and month we’ll ever see out of Phish.

At the end of 1995 however, the band appeared to be lost for the first time in their twelve year career. Simply put, they’d climbed the mountain. While they’d exceeded expectations numerous times before, little could be explained for the fact that they’d just completed their longest and best tour, capped off by a near-flawless performance at the most famous arena in the world on New Years Eve. It was a moment that required some serious reflection about what had just happened and what was next. As a result, the band dispersed for the winter, before reuniting at Trey’s barn/studio in the Spring of 1996 to begin recording a new album. The result, Billy Breathes is of the most patient, contemplative and organic of the band’s fourteen offerings. Entering the studio with only four live-tested songs – “Free,” “Theme From The Bottom,” “Taste” and “Prince Caspian” – forced Phish to develop alternative means to craft new songs. The most notable was “The Blob,” an organic musical experiment by which each member recorded one note on any instrument in rotation until a cohesive idea was formed. It forced them to step outside of their own ego, shell, and creative patterns, and instead gave birth to a linear style of music wholly balanced in full-band communication. While the experiment only materialized in parts of “Swept Away -> Steep,” it buried an idea in the band’s mind, that if they could minimize their musical ideas, they could in fact recreate the best aspects of “The Blob” in a live setting. The Summer and October leg of their Fall tour saw the band struggle between relying on the crutches of their Trey-centric rock shows they were known for, and the experimental, whole-band jamming, they were trying to adapt. While there were certainly moments of greatness throughout the first half of their touring year – the entire Red Rocks run, 08/13/1996, particularly the phenomenal “Mike’s,” Hershey Park’s demented first set, The Clifford Ball, the two night stand at MSG, the Charlotte “Simple,” and the Tallahassee “Mike’s” – the year was certainly lacking the consistent other-worldliness that had defined the band since August 1993.

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All this changed essentially overnight with the band’s Halloween performance in Atlanta of The Talking Head’s Remain In Light. An album rooted in rhythm, infectious groove, minimalism, and funk, Phish discovered the porthole through which they could accomplish their goal of whole band linear musical communication. “Crosseyed & Painless,” “The Great Curve,” “Seen & Not Seen” – all these songs offered a variety of ways for Mike and Fish to take a commanding lead of the rhythm, and for Trey and Page to engage in intricate melodic conversations and atmospheric washes, all blending together to create a sound that was at once wholly original, featured each member equally, and still retained the lively and punctual grooves that had been their calling card. Heard first in the “Simple” from the 10/31 Set III, the band incorporated this revolutionary shift throughout the rest of 1996, from the 11/02 “Crosseyed” to the Rupp “Gin,” from the Gainsville “Tweezer” to the 11/18 “Simple,” Seattle “Down With Disease” and the “Weekapaug” from the phenomenal tour finale in Las Vegas. Awash in a newfound spirit for jamming, the band used the same logistical advantage of the 1994 Fall tour in 1996 as they left the comfort of the Northeast, and spent essentially a month out West.

And yet, as monumental as the musical accomplishments of November 1996 were, nothing could compare to what would happen when the band crossed the Atlantic for their first headlining tour of Europe in February 1997. Playing to tiny clubs in ancient cities, in front of small crowds – a few dedicated Phisheads, but mainly, curious Europeans – with a newfound musical concept to toy with; it all added up to two weeks of some of the most original, experimental and straight up, different music the band had ever made. It was as if someone had hit the reset button on the band’s career, they performed with a curiosity and a dedication to full-band communication in ways they’d never before. Beginning in earnest during the second set of Amsterdam’s 02/17 show – the first of three legendary performances in the city of canals during 1997 – the “Squirming Coil -> Down With Disease -> Carini -> Taste -> Down With Disease” hour-long sandwich represented a new approach for Phish, where any and every song could be transformed at any time into a deep and prodding excursion into the unknown. Wielding a more stripped down and industrial sound, they played with a gritty and ferocious drive all the while allowing more space within their notes. Their jams breathed with new direction and inspiration, and avenues of musical thought that simply couldn’t be traversed before were suddenly being actualized on a nightly basis. Other highlights surfaced in even more unique places throughout the tour, from the Florence “Run Like An Antelope -> Wilson -> Oh Kee Pa> AC/DC Bag> Billy Breathes,” and the entire second set from the phenomenal Stuttgart show on the 26th that mixed jams and bustouts to create an all-around classic show, to the Berlin “Drowned -> Prince Caspian> Frankenstein> David Bowie,” and the “Wolfman’s Brother -> Jesus Just Left Chicago” from Hamburg, which was not only the jam of the tour, but helped to influence the band to continue to give any and all of their songs the chance to jam, something which would help to shape the course of 1997.

Summer brought a return to Europe, except this time the band came totally prepared. Armed with the most new material they’d had in years, along with the knowledge that space, minimalism and the groove were their calling card, they absolutely tore their second European tour apart with focused determination and a looseness that would characterize each show and their sound in 1997. All the rules were tossed away this tour. Jams could appear and Full-Banddisappear and then reappear at any time. First sets were no long reserved for straight renditions of songs, and by the fifth show in the tour, in Prague, they spent the majority of the first set wielding an unending jam that read “Taste -> Cities> Horn -> Ain’t Love Funny -> Limb By Limb -> I Don’t Care> Run Like An Antelope.” The tour is probably the loosest and most relaxed the band has ever sound. Teetering on the edge of sloppy at all times, the thing that characterizes the tour is the fact that songs meant nothing. All that mattered was that the band found a way to segueway into a thick, murky, locked-in groove out of whatever song they happened to be playing. “Down With Disease -> Piper -> Down With Disease -> Meatstick -> McGrupp & The Watchful Horsemasters -> Makisupa Poiceman” // “Jam -> Timber> Bathtub Gin -> Cities -> Jam” // “Stash -> Llama -> Wormtown Jam -> Wading In The Velvet Sea” // “You Enjoy Myself -> Ghost> Poor Heart” // “Bathtub Gin -> Jam -> Bathtub Gin> Llama -> Jam -> Wading In The Velvet Sea> The Lizards Jam” // “Julius -> Magilla> Ya Mar -> Jam -> Ghost -> Take Me To The River,” these were the kind of unending jams that exposed unknown nuggets of gold within their songs that had never been unearthed before. It was a tour filled with artistic success, a tour that reinforced the goals they had in mind and their path to achieve them. It sent them back to the US with a plethora of confidence, the likes of which they hadn’t had since Fall 1995. And with the set up of each tour – both winding around back east for their finales – the logistics were established to support two massively successful and artistically victorious tours.

From literally the first note of their US Summer tour opener in Virginia Beach, it was clear to anyone who hadn’t yet heard the funk transformation over the past seven months, that Phish was a very different band from the one who’d closed out 1996 in Boston. “Ghost” provided the welcome back moment for both bands and fans alike, and the sharp, rhythmic, groove-heavy swagger of the song reintroduced the band in a way they’d never done before. In the same way that “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Good Vibrations,” “Thunder Road,” “Zoo Station,” unapologetically ushered in new eras for The Stones, Beatles, Beach Boys, Springsteen and U2, “Ghost” must have been a shock to any in attendance, particularly those who hadn’t yet heard the musical experiments from Europe. Two nights later, the band would set the standard for all “Ghosts” with a 27-minute, firey onslaught of funk grooves and machine-gun-Trey, summoning in the “Summer of the Ghost” and transforming their funk revival once more to a sound more American in nature: liner musical communication with elements of heroic, anthemic rock.

As the tour wound across the south into the desert, then up the Pacific coast before crossing the plains into the Northeast, the band only got tighter (read: looser), treating each show like a reformation on the proud state of their unified sound. Stretching out jams ala June 1995, the thing that most separates their Summer 1997 jams from previous years is the clear listenability of the music. Where in years past, many of the jams contained large swaths of wholly noise-based experiments, meant to push the band further into the unknown until they reached a sublime plateau, the jams of 1997 accessed these same untapped passages through music that was at once pleasing to the ears while remaining uncompromising in it’s goals. Highlights abound, there were two clear peaks of the tour. The second set during the first night of Deer Creek where “Cities” was unveiled as show-stopping jam vehicle, relying wholly on simple riffs and builds from Trey, moving into a rising arena rock theme before seamlessly exploding into “Good Times Bad Times.” From there the set took the road less traveled, as the band segued the Zeppelin heartbreaker into an egoless space jam, before rotating instruments – further separating themselves from their musical personas – ultimately ending up in the uuber-rare Fishman-penned “Rock-A-William.” Closing the set with an extended and exploratory take on “David Bowie,” it proved the band’s increasing ability to craft a set that relied wholly on improvisation and communication, yet wouldn’t lose the audiences attention. On the second to last set of summer, during the band’s second summer-tour ending festival, The Great Went – this time relocated even further northeast from Plattsburgh, NY to tiny Limestone, ME – they played a set that for the past fifteen years has remained one of the signature peaks of Phish’s storied history. Reading: “Down With Disease -> Jam> Bathtub Gin> Uncle Pen, 2001 -> Harry Hood,” the set features literally every aspect of Phish’s 1997 sound, all of it performed at the highest level. There’s not a single lull throughout, the set essentially flows in two parts, yet is generally viewed as one fully-flowing masterpiece. While the acid-fueled, Band Of Gypsies-esque funk rock of the “Down With Disease,” and open-ended grooves of “2001” certainly stand out as defining pieces of the era, it’s the “Bathtub Gin” that takes the honors not only as the jam of the show, but as one of the most impressive pieces of live, linear communication the band has ever played. Taking the “Gin” thematic solo on a wild ride, the band flows down one unified path, never changing keys, simply building the theme of the “Gin” to an explosive peak of radiance, energy and simply unexplainably beautiful music. Only the introspective rise of the “Hood” to close out the set could begin to rival the simplistic beauty and transcendence of what’s come to be known as “The Went Gin.” Closing out the summer tour with a set and a jam that featured the band on the same page, wholly dedicated to the same musical goals, reinvigorated by two boundary pushing tours of Europe, and a revivalist swing through America, they stepped back into Vermont for their second recording session of the year in preps for what would become a legendary tour, one that  would end up rivaling the peak of December 1995.

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From the second night of tour in Salt Lake City, the band rode eastward on a mission to destroy America through a combination of Hendrix-inspried psychedelic funk/rock jams, a condensed catalogue that forced them to think outside the box with all of their songs, and most importantly, a unified energy and wordless communication that allowed them to create some of the most high-octane, linear music they ever have. Highlights adorn each show of the tour, there are simply too many to list. It’s the only tour – aside from December 1995 – where literally every single show has a moment/jam/segue/song you MUST hear. From the Vegas phish_1997“Stash” to the entire second set of Albany’s tour finale, and everything in between, it’s a tour for the ages, a tour that displayed the converging darkness and light of the entire Phish dichotomy.

Transgressive in nature, the tour certainly created some backlash among some of the band’s diehard fans for it’s seeming abandonment of the “pure” Phish from 1985 – 1996. Complaining that the band had taken a lazy approach in moving away from the complex, high-energy sound that had defined them, the music became unlistenable to some for it’s over-reliance on groove, and suspicion that the music was nothing more than a result of some of the members increasing addictions to drugs. When listening to any of Phish’s music, it’s clear that drug experimentation plays a part in the creative process behind many of their classic songs/jams/shows. In their best moments, the band is a conduit of energy, releasing themselves and the listener from their self-concious place in the here and now, offering a feeling that allows the band members and their fans alike a plane of unified communication and celebration. In their worst, they’re sloppy, unstable, and unable to access the higher planes of music that they’ve spent the last 30 years working towards. While both the best and worst moments of Phish are few and far between – the former being that intangible show or jam that fans spend thousands of dollars, minutes and miles searching for, and the latter being most predominant in the 1999 – 2004 era of Phish – the band has made a career of finding that place in between greatness and failure, and making the best of it. This is not to suggest in the slightest that their entire legacy is one of mediocrity, more so to say that the idea of relying heavily on improvisational music for success means one will fall on their face often, and that the exploration of that feeling of riding the thin line between success and failure is one worth visiting in the wide spectrum of music. It’s why they spent the summer of 1995 traversing as far out to the reaches of music as they could, abandoning sets in favor of live experimentation. It’s why they traveled to Europe for four months to figure out a way to jam as a singular unit. It’s why they spent the Fall of 1997 building on this unified sound, and ultimately perfected it in a way we’d never hear from them again.

In a lot of ways, it’s unfair to categorize December 1997 as predominant to November 1997. Really the entire month in between the 13th of November and the 13th of December is one singular month in Phish history. However, for both the purposes of this blog’s initial posts, and the fact that the New Year’s Eve run that year proved to be on par, if not better overall, than 1995’s, the sole focus of this post is the music created in December. Tho, November 1997, you shall not sleep on. No sir.

Salt Lake City’s “Wolfman’s -> Piper> Twist -> Slave,” Denver’s “Ghost,” and the entire second set, Champaign’s “Wolfman’s -> Makisupa Policeman,” Hampton’s EVERYTHING, Winston-Salem’s EVERYTHING, Hartford’s massive “Character Zero,” Worcester’s hour long “Runaway Jim,” it doesn’t even begin to compile a comprehensive guide to an incredible two-week stretch that wound it’s way from Las Vegas to Worcester, MA. From literally the first show of the tour, the band was on fire and tore the shit out of America. Phish Destroys America is what the tour is known as to their most ardent fans, and really, there’s not much else that needs to be said in regards to it. From Salt Lake on, there isn’t a single show not worth your time. Jams of 20 – 60 mins, with many leaning towards the 30 min category, all featuring a patient, matured, confident, badass motherfucking quartet, on a mission to manifest energy through some of the simplest music ever invented.

In the same way that December 1995 benefitted from a month of consistent music preceding it, December 1997 was the product of what happens when Phish just keeps going. From Philly to Cleveland, Detroit to Dayton, State College to Rochester to the finale in Albany, the nine shows of December 1997 were the coronation of 1997. Add to it the NYE run from Maryland to MSG – particularly the middle two shows – and you have a month of 13 top-tier shows that would stand up to any month in Phish’s history this side of December 1995. With a plethora of memorable jams and shows that rank up with the best in their history, the month is full of literally everything that makes Phish Phish, yet this time, with the added edge provided to them by their stylistic mastery of the funk sound, and their fully locked in, linear musical communication.

– Jams –

Ask any fan what their two favorite jams from December 1997 are, and their answers should be December 6th’s “Tweezer -> Izabella -> Twist -> Piper” sequence, and the “AC/DC Bag” from Madison Square Garden on the night of the 30th. In reality, if you only heard two jams from 1997, these are the two that would best give you an understanding of what the 1997 sound was. Granted, one would still be on the right track with the Philly “Mike’s -> Simple -> Dog Faced Boy -> Ya Mar -> Weekapaug,” “Bowie -> Possum -> Caspian> Frankenstein> Harry Hood,”  Cleveland “Julius” and “Slave,” Dayton “AC/DC Bag -> Psycho Killer -> Jesus Just Left Chicago,” “Tube, Tube Reprise -> Slave,” State College “Simple,” Rochester “Down With Disease,” “Drowned -> Roses Are Free,” 12/12 and 12/29 Set II. Yet, both of the highlighted jams really define Phish in ways their most transcendent jams always do. Featuring full-band interaction and communication, they move past the themes of each of their song bases, into a plane of music that is completely unsupported structurally, aside from the fact that the band keeps playing. From there, both pieces give Trey – the reluctant leader of Phish, and closest thing the band has to a rock icon – the opportunity to unleash his guitar prowess.

415b330ae05bc5f1d29bc09f1e26fa3d51f94d2fThe fascinating thing about 1997 is that the whole reason the band sought to deconstruct their music in the first place was that by 1993, their jams had become too predictably weighted by the expectations of what Trey could do with his guitar. Superior in talent to his bandmates throughout much of the 90’s, in terms of technical wizardry, Trey began the process of stepping into the shadows during their lengthy jams, forcing the other members to step up and take the reins. While the transformation took time, by 1997, the band had found their equal footing, resulting in the overall sound and memorable quality of the year. Yet what’s most intriguing, is that while the sound allowed for a more unified approach from the band, it also gave Trey an outlet to expand on his guitar work, and strut his stuff like he hadn’t in years. No longer burdened with the fear that the band was too reliant on him, instead he relished in the confidence that it was he who had to step back, mainly because he was too good, and that he had helped to push the band to where they were today. Throughout the course of the Fall 1997 tour Trey unleashed a series of mind-melting solos that dominated sections of jams, and paid homage to the guitar legends of his musical past. Like the demented child of Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Robert Fripp, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Trey stepped up as much as he stepped back. From the Denver “Ghost,” to the Champaign “Wolfman’s,” the Hampton “AC/DC Bag,” Winston-Salem “Gin,” Hartford “Character Zero,” Philly “Ya Mar,” and Albany “Caspian -> Izabella,” there’s a massive variety of jams that saw Trey unleash with his guitar in a ways he couldn’t over the previous five years. Nowhere is this clearer than the aformentioned “Tweezer” and “AC/DC Bag.” Both follow similar patterns of tight, rhythmic, equal part jamming that builds into a moment where they all “hook-up” – heard most brilliantly from 12:30 – 14:57 of the “AD/DC Bag” – before spilling into a massive and epic solo from Trey, devoid of any expectations, nor hesitations.

– Shows –

What’s more about the above mentioned jams is that they both came during the defining shows of December 1997. The former was your typical Phish throw-down. Saturday night, in a city that had never really meant anything to Phish, on the heels of probably the weakest overall show of the month, the band came out the gates on a mission. Opening with “Golgi> Antelope” was a sure sign the band was on their game, and when the first set went on to contain a perfect segue from “Bathtub Gin -> Foam,” along with a classic combination of “Fee -> Maze,” it was clear the show was picking up right from the brilliance of Philly earlier in the week. Yet as so often happens, the adrenaline and improvisational confidence displayed in a standout first set, bled to the second set. Only here would be one that would become a legendary moment in the band’s career.

When one reads a setlist and sees that large sections, or the entire set went by without a single break, it’s a good sign the band was just feeling it that night. Pouring the energy and ideas of one song into the next – be it an atmospheric fade, a sudden break, or a perfect segue –  something unexplainable is usually at work. This is the case with the second set of 12/06/1997. Reading: “Tweezer -> Izabella -> Twist -> Piper> Sleeping Monkey> Tweezer Reprise” it’s the kind of set that just begs to be listened to upon viewing. It’s as if the band is channeling their energy and their experimentation through the words on the page in front of you. Six songs. All combined into one unending musical thought. Three of which emerge from each other with such perfect thoughtlessness that it’s as if they were written that way all along. The set is made all the more remarkable by the fact that since December 6th, 1997, only a handful of shows have featured this kind of connective flow and interplay displayed in both the quantity of songs played, and the quality of their performances. Each song contains a number of highlights, with the aforementioned, inter-galactic/Hendrix-swagger of the “Tweezer,” surprise funk-breakdown in “Izabella,” and the “Piper” – which worked in the direct opposite manner of the “Tweezer,” yet was just as scintillating – taking home the glory from a masterful night of Phish. It was a peak show in a tour full of em. Akin to 11/17/1997, 11/19/1997, 11/21/1997, 11/22/1997, 11/28/1997, 12/03/1997, and 12/07/1997, it was a full show in every regard, the kind of show Phish had been working to play since their origins, and now was awash in the ability to.

0The 12/30/1997 show just might be the best Phish show of all time. It’s my favorite, for what it’s worth. Never before, and really never since has the band put on display literally everything that makes them worth listening to in one show. From bustouts to jams, to rarities, to stories, gimmicks, jams in bustouts, the defined feeling of “the night before the night,” and an encore that blew all the others away, the show has everything one could ever want out of a Phish show. Full posts could be dedicated to the show’s entirety, let alone it’s second set. The jam that emerges out the first “Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley” since Ian’s Farm, 920 shows earlier kicks it off in style, weaving the Robert Palmer hit into a funk-laced jam that makes you wonder why it disappeared for so long, before finding a home in a down-tempo, more earthly realm which guided the jam into “Taste.” The “Stash” and “Chalk Dust Torture” contain such rampant energy, that they threaten to wear the crowd out even before the extended second set. The “A Day In The Life” that closes out Set I proves that while Trey is the front man that will guide Phish into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Page McConnell will forever be the member who can capture the raw power of the Arena Rock voice.

In the second set, the band laid it all out on the line, crafting a masterpiece that nearly blew the lid off the Garden, and played for so long that they ended up receiving a hefty fine, thus essentially playing “two New Year’s Eve shows.” A top-tier “AC/DC Bag” jams in the way only ’97 “Bag’s” could, an ultra-rare “McGrupp” followed by an even rarer “Harpua” which features not only a fictional tale on the origins of the band – something about olive loafs, Lost In Space, French Toast and Pentagram’s – but also an appearance by Trey’s best friend and Phish’s longtime songwriter, Tom Marshall for one of their most appropriate covers ever – The Proclaimer’s “Im Gonna Be (500 Miles)” – and that’s just the first three songs. Toss in the “Izabella,” 20-min, unfinished “Harry Hood,” mid-set “Sleeping Monkey,” and set-ending “Guyute” before which Trey famously mocked the band’s impending fine, and you’ve got a set with the perfect combination of song selection, energy, jams, gimmicks, spontaneity and novelty, to go home happy. But as they tend to do on their favorite nights, Phish returned for the encore, already in debt to MSG, and delivered an encore worthy of an entire set. “Carini -> Black-Eyed Katy -> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley (Reprise) -> Frankenstein.” Featuring the first-ever US version of “Carini,” the final “Black-Eyed Katy” before it was reborn as “The Moma Dance” the following summer, a reprise on the jam off “Sally,” and a twelve-minute, noise-ladened “Frankenstein” that might have achieved Best Of status, there’s really nothing left to be asked for at that point. After a show like that, the band would be better advised to just cancel the next show, cause there’re some shows you just can’t top. Phish wouldn’t top their 12/30/1997 performance the next night, and in some people’s eyes, they’ve never topped it since. Just a perfect show that brilliantly sums up everything that made the Fall 1997 tour one of the best the band had ever embarked on.

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After fourteen years together as a band, after so much success, after so much work, Phish reached their peak in December 1995. And yet, whereas so many band’s would coast on their first taste of success, what has always separated Phish is their ongoing quest for authentic musical communication. Had they just decided to turn it off after 12/31/1995, they would still be remembered among clusters of fans as the best band they’d ever seen. Maybe their legacy would have lived on in an even more cultish way. Yet, they knew as artists, as musicians, and as friends that they had yet to achieve their goal of linear musical communication. As a result, the band began a grueling process of searching for inspiration and a key to open the door to a style that would allow them the ability to play as one. They discovered it on Halloween 1996, brewed it throughout the Fall of 1996, built upon it’s recipe throughout their Winter and Summer runs in Europe, adjusted it throughout their US Summer tour, and then relished in it completely throughout the Fall of 1997. Far different from their peak year of 1995, 1997 is important not simply for their successes, but more importantly for how willing the band was to change completely in search of a goal. As we explore the final December in the next post, we’ll seem more of what happens when the band attempts to adjust their sound once more, yet this time, life gets in the way, more struggles begin to emerge, and we see Phish in their most vulnerable state yet.

December 1999, MSG 2012 Reviews and The Best of Phish 2012 Coming Soon!