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.

Phish 2013 – Through The Jams / Part I: Bangor – Toronto

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With just four shows remaining in 2013, weeks removed from a peak-level Fall Tour, and just three months since the conclusion of a Summer Tour that is increasingly becoming an underrated gem, it’s high time we take stock of where we are musically with Phish in their 30th year.

Since the onset of 3.0, I’ve compiled year-end ‘Best Of’[1] lists for each successive year. Check them out here: 2009 Part I and Part II20102011, and 2012. In each of those essays I narrowed my selections to the bare essentials: Ten Jams, Ten Shows, and Three Honorable Mentions for each section. Detailing the evolutionary steps forward in each of the past five years of Phish’s history, these lists have focused on the overall diversity of Phish’s improv, rather than any singular style. Song length is never an issue taken seriously. Popular opinion or communal preference is never taken into account. Many of my own personal favorite jams have even been omitted from each of these lists. Essentially, these lists are to be viewed as historical guides, or, musical stepping stones, which tell the story of how Phish got from Hampton ’09 to Atlantic City ’13.

2013 however, presents a new challenge altogether, particularly on the jamming front.

Following their creative renaissance at Dick’s 2012, Phish entered 2013 on a mission to once again break through their own artistic mold by infusing the musical and communicative skills of their past with a more democratic model that would shape their future. After reestablishing their communication and connectivity throughout 2009 – 2012, their 30th year was poised to be one of both self-referential celebration, and the symbolic onset of a new era. Furthermore, after informing their fanbase on 12/31/2012 that “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself,” it was clear that 2013 would be a whole-band peak on Phish’s terms – and at their own pace – not based on the desires of any sector of their fanbase. As a result, Phish took their time, setting the foundation within the early part of their summer tour, which lead to skepticism, impatience, and uncertainty from many corners of their fanbase. While it was clear by the time Fall Tour rolled around that Phish had known exactly what they were doing all along, the debates over what “The Right Way” was for Phish still raged ever onwards.

In hindsight it’s clear there are three distinct periods of 2013:

1.) Bangor – Toronto, when Phish laid the foundation for the musical peaks to come, and the eventual unveiling of Wingsuit, through a series of shows focused heavily on their own musical history. Celebrating their thirty-year legacy, the band centered much of their attention on the most revered songs in their catalogue, while constructing setlists that felt plucked from their past. Controlling many of their shows with a noticeably tight rotation, and keeping a short leash on each of their jams, this early period of 2013 displayed the unyielding potential of Phish at this stage in their career, while emphasizing a focused insistence on building tension and inter-band-communication.

2.) The Gorge – Dicks, when Phish – fully removed from the torrential weather of the East Coast and completely confident in their abilities and direction – moved beyond foundational setting, and began to consistently play high quality shows with ease. After informing their fanbase that only Phish knew “The Right Way” for Phish during the Chicago Harpua, they now unveiled their longest piece of improv since 2003, and connected for three of the most diverse jams of the entire year in the Tahoe Tweezer, Hollywood Hood and Dick’s Chalk Dust. Further, at Dick’s, the band continued to zag against the expectations (and desires) of many of their fanbase by declaring MOST SHOWS SPELL SOMETHING (Backwards). Subtly pointing out the many variables that determine the content and goals of any singular Phish show, the band clarified for those who had been reading between the lines, just what their intentions throughout 2013 had been. Finally, they continued to set the stage for the peak month of October, and the ultimate unveiling of their new album Wingsuit on Halloween night, through a series of self-conscious shows and jams that only further displayed their advanced level of play in their 30th year.

3.) Hampton – Atlantic City, when everything Phish has been working towards since 03/06/2009 came together in one hyperbole-filled two week tour. Full of top-level shows, standout jams, unyielding energy, effortless musical connectivity, and a Halloween show that will undoubtedly alter the entire direction of the band over the coming years, this was the tour we had all (band included) been waiting for over the past five – even fifteen – years.

As a result, there is so much creativity packed into each show in 2013, that it becomes incredibly challenging to trim the fat down to a list of 13 standout jams[2]. With this in mind, and keenly aware of the fact that the New Year’s Run is sure to produce at least 2 – 3 MORE top-level jams (it always does…) I’m using this space in time as a way to hash over the entirety of what I believe to be the very best of Phish in 2013. With a heavy focus on the diversity and sheer quantity of excellent improvisational interplay within Phish in 2013, think of this list as both one giant rough draft and a potential playlist for anyone seeking to absorb the best of Phish in 2013 in one sitting[3].

This list will appear in three parts so as to focus on the three aforementioned periods in 2013:

I. Bangor – Toronto

II. The Gorge – Dicks

III. Hampton – Atlantic City.

Please feel free to send me your comments on which essential jams I may have overlooked, which I’m giving (far) too much credit to, and, if you agree or disagree in any way with how I’ve interpreted this really diverse, and really incredible, year in Phish’s history. Without further adieu, the list[4]:

The Best Jams Of 2013 – Part I

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07/05

Light -> The Mango Song

Following the focused and game-changing Dick’s Light of 2012, it’s only appropriate than any ‘Best Of’ 2013 list begins with the most reliable jam vehicle of 3.0. A song that, lyrically, speaks so directly to Trey’s rehabilitation and awakening following his 2006 arrest, and musically caters itself to the kind of open-ended exploration that had become something of a rarity throughout much of 2009-2011[5], everyone knew the first Light of 2013 was going be a seminal moment. Expanding outwards on an ambient plane much like the 12/02/09 and 08/07/10 versions, before evolving into a rhythmic jaunt, the jam turns on a dime at 11:11 with a sinister, groove-ladened riff from Trey. Foreshadowing the clarity and deliberateness he’d continue to iron out in his playing over the course of the summer – ultimately peaking in Fall – the band fuses this segment into an blissful melodic jam that finally resolves itself in The Mango Song. The SPAC Light is, while certainly not the rawest, nor the most accomplished jam of 2013, if nothing else, the moment when we all collectively realized the revolutionary steps forward of late-2012 were not all for naught.

07/06

Tube

For everyone lamenting the death of the extended Tube, please direct your ears to this version[6]. For whatever may be missing from an 8 – 12-minute Tube jam of 97-04 lore, the band more than makes up for the lack of quantity with focused, groove-heavy, linear, funk-based-jamming these days. Perhaps the best modern example of what’s always possible with Tube, this version pops immediately from a somewhat awkward first set, crafting an absolutely infectious dance number. What’s more is this is one of the first moments of 2013 where it’s clear to anyone listening that song length has ultimately become moot. As anyone at SPAC – or even those web-casting – could attest, this jam felt like 10+ minutes, regardless its 6:48 length. Check out the crowd’s reaction when it’s clear Trey’s pushing the song past the unofficial coda to be reminded once again of the beauty of the intercommunication between band and audience in this whole Live Phish thing.

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Split Open & Melt

Wow. What a statement. What a glorified mess[7]. A conscious experimental push into the unknown as anything I’ve heard from Phish 3.0, this jam covers so much terrain in its 18-minutes, it’s really quite exhausting. Abstract, gorgeous, uneven, risqué, unpolished, raw, emotive, completely human; an absolute pure example of a band seeking out the elusive hook-up. It’s also perhaps the loosest, and unfocused Phish has allowed itself to be throughout the past five years. For every jam that has either foreshadowed or reflected the various thematic terrains of 2013, there’s really no other jam produced this year that sounds anything like this Split Open & Melt. This might be the most important pre-Tahoe Tweezer jam played in the entire summer. One just has to hear the vocal inflection and laugh from Page at the end when he says, “We’ll be right back…” following their sloppy re-entry to Melt to understand how unexpectedly deep the band went, and how gloriously lost they became.

Carini -> Architect

The first of four versions for Señor Lumpy Head on this overall list, this one pops immediately with an incredibly focused, highly expansive, delicate, interwoven and intricate piece of music that has continually resided in the upper echelons of Phish’s 2013 output since the moment it concluded. Reminiscent of the 08/31/12 Undermind and Chalk Dust, this is one of those democratic/full-band conversations we’ve now come to expect in 2013. In many ways though, this jam is all about Trey, as he plays with a determined and deliberate precision that would go on to define many of Phish’s best moments in 2013. An example of foundational setting leading to deliberate playing from Trey, this jam sounds like a direct prelude to Fall Tour more than most of the jams played throughout the summer. Oh, and this jam also segues flawlessly into a debut. So much so, that, for a moment, Architect felt like it was simply just another part of the Carini jam.

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07/10

Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood

Two crucial things happen from 9:20 – 15:01 in this Crosseyed, which sets the foundation for literally every moment of fully-connected Phish in 2013[8].

1.) First, Mike creates an exorbitant amount of space through his melodic and atmospheric playing – something he’d been incorporating into Phish’s improv since mid-2011 – thus slowing down the jam’s typically galloping pace, and allowing more textural space for each member to communicate with each other.

2.) As a result of this, Trey recedes into the shadows and further incorporates his rhythmic playing that had been so evident during the Bangor Golden Age, building the jam to a unified peak based in large part around the familiar theme from the 02/16/2003 Piper.

Whether or not they were conscious of it, that they were jamming on a specific theme from one of their peak moments in the early stages of 2.0 was yet another of those unexplainable moments of pure musical magic that seem to find there way into the best Phish shows and jams. Fading some two minutes later into Harry Hood, which built upon the beauty of Bangor’s encore, was a clear nod to the brilliance of this Crosseyed.

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07/12

Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge

Like a snapshot right out of Summer ‘98, this fully-flowing chunk of the second set – in one of the more polarizing shows of summer[9] – is both the least-challenging and least groundbreaking piece of exploratory music from the entire tour[10]. And yet, it’s unquestionably some of the most infectiously pleasurable, which is exactly why it finds itself on this list. Rock & Roll moves into a modulated jam based on its origins and theme, ultimately reminding one of the great 08/08/2009 jam from The Gorge. Tweezer is the crown jewel of this sequence as Trey, who just sounds so playful throughout, jumps on a bouncy groove, drives it skywards and then patiently segues it right into Cities. Forget about listening critically here. Just fucking throw this on and boogie.

07/13

Harry Hood

A banner year for Hood. A. Banner. Fucking. Year. Right smack in the middle of one of the most overtly old-school shows of 2013[11] comes this overtly old-school Hood that does literally everything anyone could ever want from Harry Hood. Trey’s in command throughout in the purest, peakiest Hood in a year full of standout versions. Just soak this one in and be grateful the band has spent so much time rededicating themselves to this classic.

Mike’s Song> Simple> Weekapaug Groove

Early on this summer it appeared as though the band was coaxing a big jam out of Mike’s Song. While they ultimately never did, this version from the first night at Merriweather Post is the closest they came, and the best version of the entire year thus far. For me, however, this Groove is all about the Simple. Only one of two versions played all year, this Simple loosely locks onto the theme from Down With Disease, building a subtle, warm, full-bodied, wholly-united jam out of the band that’s among my favorite musical moments of the entire year. Proof of the musical progressions made by Trey’s insistence on focusing on his rhythmic playing, this jam just goes to show how little Phish actually has to play within a jam to craft brilliance.

07/14

Stash

They took their time prior to starting up perhaps their most innocuous first set composition[12]. They knew where they wanted to go. This version was to be different. They wanted to see how far they could push Stash while still remaining within Stash. It was – or at least, it sounds as though it was – an experiment in controlled democratic fusion. It showed Phish what they could do within even the most structured of their songs. It ultimately helped to loosen them up as they pushed their most time-honored classics far beyond the limits they’d set for them back in 2009. Trey’s wha funk spills into major-keyed bliss on a dime. This is effortless Phish. This is 2013 in a jam.

Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman

Following that masterful first set Stash: the payoff. In perhaps the best show of the tour to that point, Phish let loose on their modern classic, fusing start/stop jams with rapid key changes, creating a disoriented dance-fest that shook Merriweather Post to its core. A prelude to the “woo’s” comes as the band peaks the jam in hysterically controlled chaos; this jam is the sound of a band fully realizing their interconnectivity, and yet still unwilling to let it all hang out at once. This is like one of those great Summer ’97 jams, when the band knew they were onto something, but weren’t quite ready to simply walk out on stage and totally strut their stuff like they’d do throughout the Fall. Few times has Boogie On sounded this anticipated, nor this perfect all at once.

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07/16

Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning

Within the confines of 2013, there were seven fully-flowing sets of music[13]. Of them, the segment from the first night of a two-night stand in Alpharetta, GA is neither the most accomplished[14], the most diverse[15], nor even the most jam-happy[16]. What it is however is a quasi-throw-back to the early days of 3.0 when humor and song selection were of the utmost importance in a Phish show, and jams rarely veered too far off into the unknown. Fusing this approach (as heard in the endless Heartbreaker teases, and the first of two Makisupa Policeman of 2013) with two jams that thematically sound plucked right out of Dick’s 2012[17], Phish crafted an indelible segment of music on a Tuesday in the Atlanta ‘burbs. For another example of how little time Phish needs to reach plains of musical bliss, look no further than the sublime Chalk Dust, a jam that feels like it covers 15-20 min of music in just under 10.

07/17

Piper -> Fast Enough For You

In a year in which the band spent so much time reviving their classics[18], while also pushing many of their newer songs into the unknown[19], less time was devoted to many of their turn-of-the-century vehicles than at any point in the past 15 years. Nowhere is this clearer than with Piper. A song that drove many of the best jams of 2003-2012, Piper appears to have adopted the role once held by Twist, as the mid-set recharge. Rather than explore the vociferous terrain Piper so seamlessly caters to, Phish instead employed it as a bridge between jams, and between the two halves of a second set, allowing its driving groove to maintain energy, rather than explore the unknown. Of these versions, perhaps none is as diverse as this one from Georgia. Touching on the baroque, haunted, underworldliness of many of its 2.0 peak versions, this Piper goes deep in a flash. Teasing the refrain from Energy, Trey immediately begins to impose darkness through the use of his tremelo effect, thus harkening back to the sprawling 07/19/2003 version. Emerging to a more blissful and melodic zone of music before fading softly into the ever-rare Fast Enough For You, perhaps it was all a subtle wink from Trey towards all those clamoring for a return of the slow-build intro?

07/21

Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards

“Thank you for sticking around….” With those five words, the band systematically lifted the imposing weight of three weeks full of torrential weather throughout their east coast run, and thus pivoted from the foundational setting of the first half of their summer tour, before moving earnestly into one of the strongest peaks of their entire career[20]. Energy, the song of summer, builds upon its 07/17 version, with Trey invoking funk rhythms that bleed into a gorgeous melodic space – ala the 11/22/1997 Halley’s Comet. Ghost is employed once again as something of a bridge, but it’s worth hearing all the same, as it quickly finds its way into a lilting jam – by way of a distinct Seven Below tease – that fades idyllically into The Lizards. A brilliant segment of music, which makes up the meat of one of the strongest sets of summer – and perhaps the most critical moment of the entire year[21] – these uninterrupted 35 minutes have held up long since the band moved westwards from the sodden and abandoned airport on the shores of Lake Michigan.

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07/22

Down With Disease -> 2001

After kicking off the summer with three fairly contained versions[22] of one of their most cherished Set II Openers, Phish finally broke through with a jam that built off of their pivotal second set on 07/21, and pointed the way westward. Featuring melodic and rhythmic riffs from Trey throughout, the jam ultimately settled on a remarkably pleasant platitude, which felt entirely composed, and is the kind of jam one could listen to on repeat without ever growing tired. In short, this is simply one of the most enjoyable, and pleasing jams of the entire summer. A section of wholly deliberate, rising melodic playing followed, ultimately giving way to a full-on tease of Sea Of Love from The National. Further proof of how much Trey has gained from his time spent listening to – and playing with – those in the indie rock world. Following this all up with a truly patient build towards 2001 rounded off one of the most subtly diverse jams of the year, one that clearly helped to initiate the band’s massive peak over the next four months.

David Bowie

Perhaps no Phish classic has struggled to regain its unknown potential since the onset of 3.0 as one David Bowie[23]. With only a few glimmers of hope stuck in there, things changed with drastic earnestness on 12/28/12 when the band began exploring within the frame of Bowie like they hadn’t since 2003. Powerful versions on 07/05 and 07/20 paved the way for a revivalist rendition to end the second set in Toronto. A jam I highlighted in August as one of the underrated gems of the whole tour, this version leans more towards the demented explorations from 12/28/12, while further emphasizing Trey’s rhythmic explorations. Fusing the playful old-school nature of Phish with their modern and more subtle communicativeness, this Bowie is a reference point for anyone searching for the moments when Phish was fully capable of abandoning the foundational setting of the first half of summer tour, and got down to the business of properly (and consistently) breaking through their own artistic mold.

*A huge THANK YOU to Mike Hamad of @phishmaps and @MikeHamad for allowing me to use his jam maps for a few of the jams of this list. His work is phenomenal, and it really helps those listening understand better what’s happening in Phish’s music. Please give him a follow on Twitter if you don’t already. And check out his site: Setlist Schematics for even more jam maps.


[1] ‘Best’ is obviously a tricky term when it comes to a subjective essay such as this. Seeing as so many different people love Phish for so many different reasons, it’s impossible to capture an entire community’s preferences, and moments of unified elation, within a singular list. Believe me, I’m aware.

And yet, these lists are more than simply a reflection of my own subjectivities and favorite jams/shows. These lists are a result of an extensive amount of time spent listening, reading, writing and thinking – all the while parsing through the historical layers of Phish – in search of moments that stand out, and seem to both unify and exemplify the sound of an entire year. Be certain, many of my “favorite” jams and shows from the past five years have been omitted from each of my lists. Be certain that some of my favorite jams from this past year were omitted in the initial whittling process.

[2] NB, this list originally began with more than 130 individual songs, and something like 75 single jam entities. It’s now at 76/39 respectively. Progress.

[3] Anyone in need of any of these jams, or of the full playlist, feel free to hit me up @sufferingjuke and I’ll happily send em your way.

[4] This list will be delivered chronologically as all my ‘Best Of’ Lists are. Some may be fond of ranking, but I find that to be both an insolent and irrelevant endeavor when discussing and documenting Phish. This is art, not sports for Christ sake’s.

[5] A topic for another essay and another time, when you actually go back and chart the actual occurrences of improv from 03/06/09 – 12/31/11, it’s clear the band jammed with far more regularity than many wanted (or were willing (in many ways, still are willing)) to give Phish credit for. Like I said, another essay, another time.

[6] For that matter, don’t skip on the 06/15/12, 07/06/12 (w/Psycho Killer jam!!!), 07/26/13, or 11/01/13 versions.

[7] In much the same spirit of the 12/30/09 Back On The Train, 06/25/10 Chalk Dust, 10/20/10 SOAM, 08/15/11 Undermind, and 08/31/12 Runaway Jim, this SOAM feels like a leftover of the unguarded, throw-the-paint-at-the-wall-&-see-what-happens, unfiltered, macabre-style jamming that so defined the band’s 2003-2004 period, otherwise known as 2.0.

[8] There are loads of examples of groundwork being laid throughout the first three weeks of tour, a period wherein which many in the fan base were melting on Twitter, PT, Phish.net & in Mr. Miner’s comments section about how Phish wasn’t living up to the lofty heights established in 2012, or weren’t busting-out enough songs, or jamming with enough frequency, etc. Among them: Bangor’s Golden Age – specifically Trey’s insistent use of his wha-wha pedal – 2001, Antelope, and Hood; SPAC’s Cities -> Bowie, 46 Days -> Steam and Slave; the defiantly old school setlist and playing on 07/07, 07/13 and 07/14; and the funk escapade of It’s Ice that gave the band an insane amount of confidence to let their hair down and just groove.

[9] In all seriousness I loved this entire show. Set I is one of the most unique of the entire summer, featuring excellent versions of CTB and 46 Days, a loping stride through Ocelot, and an old-school pairing of Reba and David Bowie to close things out. Then again, I didn’t have to brave the cold, steely rain that reportedly blew sideways through the open-air venue that night. From my cozy apartment though, things sounded quite lovely, tbh.

[10] Yeah, I just know there’s some dude on PT right now spewing his coffee over this statement. It’s not exploratory at all. Get over it. This 60-min segment of uninterrupted music has far more in common with the late-1.0 era than anything else really played at all throughout 2013. It’s all groove. Groove for the sake of groove. It’s essentially all extended Type I jams, (with the great exception of the melodic jam that emerges from Tweezer prior to its segue into Cities) it’s essentially one big excuse for the band to simply hook-up. None of this, btw, is said to insinuate that it’s not a huge evolutionary step forward for the band within the confines of 2013, nor worth your time, or your ears.

[11] It’s right in line with 07/07, 07/10, 07/14, 10/23, and 10/25 as shows the band played throughout 2013 that felt plucked right out of 1992-1995.

[12] You could make the same argument for Bowie and Reba, but there’s something about Stash that – particularly in 3.0 – just screams “live soundcheck.”

[13] 07/05, 07/12, 07/16, 07/27, 07/30, 10/20, 10/25

[14] 10/20

[15] 07/05

[16] 07/12, 07/30

[17] The Set Opening Rock & Roll and the mid set Chalk Dust Torture are also two of the best examples of what Mr. Miner calls “Musical Density” that we have in 3.0

[18] Harry Hood, Tweezer, David Bowie, Stash

[19] Energy, Light, Golden Age, Steam, Twenty Years Later

[20] You can make a strong case that from 07/21 – 11/02 the band played 15 instant classic shows – an incredible 60% of the shows during that period – something they haven’t accomplished with such ease – nor such consistency – since probably 1997.

[21] There’s no denying how profoundly well the band was playing throughout much of the first three weeks of tour, but it was clear they were in need of something of a moment of truth to push them beyond the spurts (and the horrendous weather that dogged them) that had somewhat defined their east coast run. From the final set of their weekend in Chicago onwards, 2013 has been nothing short of a masterpiece. Without the interconnectivity and phearlessness displayed here, who knows what would have become of the band’s 30th year…

[22] This isn’t to say in any way that the other versions were bad, per se. Both the 07/07 and 07/13 versions contained some phenomenal interplay from Trey and Page in particular. Just that, well this is Down With Disease. It’s kind of one of those ‘when in doubt songs’ for Phish. The kind they can always rely on to jump-start a set/show, or immediately build upon the energy of a hooked-up Set I.

[23] Seriously, take out the 06/19/10, 10/20/10, 06/03/11, 07/03/11, and 12/28/12 versions and what you’re left with are essentially a massive amount of skeletal imitations of what Bowie once was. Of all the Phish classics that have suffered – necessarily and unnecessarily – at the hands of Phish’s full-on rebuilding project of the last five years, none have been as tragic as that of Bowie.

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!