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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking a leap forward within the confines of a single show in a way they hadn’t since the mid-80’s, Phish fused the tight and explosive sound they’d crafted over the previous four years with the exploratory origins they’d been founded in. Wielding a set of segues, teases and jams in and out of Tweezer and Mike’s Groove, a porthole opened.

Phish would never be the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Best Of Phish – 2009 – Part I

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

Walking out of Coventry was a dark and dismal scene. Like the days immediately following a horrendous battle, everyone had the same shell-shocked look on their faces. Nobody had won. Everyone was a casualty in some way. That churning, grinding feeling inside — WTF just happened? Phish was done. That’s all we knew. Trey looked like he was a few hits away from the grave. Page was in tatters after the one-two punch of his marriage and band ending. Mike and Fishman handled it the best, but in the end, looked like ghosts, unable to fully explain to the legions of fans how grateful, yet sorry they truly were.

The mud became the focal point for everyone almost immediately. Somewhat forgotten with the onset of music some 36 hrs earlier, now, following a disastrous “final show” all fans could think about was “how the fuck am I going to dig my car and all my shit out of this mud and get the fuck away from this farm!!!!!” Moving through the aching crowd, I walked with my two best friends to Newport. Six miles away, we hoofed it for a couple hours, figuring it to be the better option than to try and hitch a ride. We’d ridden in with two guys we’d met on PT. Not much for fans, they were going up there based on a one-show experience in 1999, figuring they ought to see what the fuss really was all about. After 24 hrs of traffic, a day spent stewing in the rain, and an unquestionably sloppy 08/14/2004 set III, they packed up and high-tailed out.

As it was, here we were, at 19, walking with everything we had on our backs, through the night, past hordes of strung-out wooks, angry vets, crying fairy’s, screaming babies, custy-ass NEsterners, and cynical PTers vocally chiding over the faux-Gamehenge, the debauched “Glide,” the fucking “Walls Of The Cave” opener (?!?!), the sexy bump, and numerous other faux pas the band had committed over the course of the weekend. We arrived at the Newport bus station around 5am, bought tickets to Albany, and slept.

Not even 20, my favorite band gone. Eight shows – not one on the epic level I’d heard on tapes, one festival – an asterisk, a footnote to the band’s glorious history – it was all I’d ever have to hang my hat on phishdom. Even worse was the way they went out; it was a completely different band from what they’d been ten years earlier. Totally unrecognizable in every regard. They’d allowed themselves to be succumbed by the scene. They’d been the cause of their own demise. They’d given up the dream. It would be up to their fans to pick up the pieces.

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On 1 October 2008 Phish announced what everyone had been anticipating for months: they would reunite on 6 March 2009 at the hallowed halls of Hampton Coliseum. In the year prior, much of the aggression towards Phish had cooled. Following Trey’s DWI in December 2006, many had given up hope that the band would ever reunite. And as Trey began a 14-month drug rehabilitation stint, the band became somewhat shrouded in shadows for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Emerging a completely changed man, Trey sought out rebuilding his life. A poem from Tom Marshall on his 43rd birthday – the first in years, and the eventual lyrics to “Backwards Down The Number Line” – spawned his first post-rehab song. From there, Trey got back to the grind of writing songs, now focused, driven, and sober. 2008 brought a reunion of sorts as the band appeared on stage together for the first time since Coventry, while accepting their Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jammy’s – an award show they essentially created a niche for. During the Rothbury festival that summer, Mike invited Fish and Trey on stage to play “She Said, She Said.” And a quote made it’s way around the internet by which Trey claimed willing to forgo one of his testicles for the chance to play “You Enjoy Myself” all day every day. Rumors swirled, and by fall Phish was back, at least in part.

When the finally hit the stage the following spring, they ushered in a new era of Phish by paying homage to the past. Both with the original linear stage set-up, and the “Fluffhead>Divided Sky” opener, they sent a clear message that the 3.0 incarnation would be about reacquainting themselves with their historical greatness. The Hampton weekend took on a feeling of a recital. Nearly 100 songs were played. First sets stretched on far past 90 minutes, and few moments of improv were even attempted. The message was clear: after 5 years apart, Phish would need some time honing their chops in the live atmosphere. Add to this an ethereal joy that emanated from the stage and the crowd, the sound of 3.0 Phish took on a far happier sound than the era that immediately preceded it. Phish was back, and that was all that mattered. For a while at least.

When Summer Tour came around, many were expecting the cobwebs that had accompanied many parts of Hampton to be a thing of the past, and for Phish to get down to the business of jamming again. To many-a-fan’s dismay though, the band was still not fully comfortable with themselves, each other, nor the massive crowds that adorned them, to let loose in ways many had expected. As a result, the June leg of the tour reflected much of the Hampton shows, in both containment and rust. In hindsight, it made complete sense. As this blog has written about at length, it took years of playing together for the band to attain the liner musical communication needed to jam effortlessly, and completely united, as they did in the best parts of 1995 and 1997. Five years apart, with little communication, one member in drug rehab, and another who reportedly sold his drum set, moved to the woods and didn’t think about music for a year, rust, and caution were bound to dominate Phish’s first year back on the stage.

Returning in late-July to Red Rocks for the first time since 1996, the band, for the first time in 3.0, looked like themselves again. Standout shows on 07/31 and 08/01 gave way to the groundbreaking Gorge shows, and the 08/14 Hartford show that still lives in infamy to this day. The summer also gave the band their first chance in years to toy with the minds of their fans. By uploading a map of the US to the Internet, they spent a month eliminating state-by-state in anticipation of a three-day Halloween Festival in Indio, California. Festival 8 combined two storied aspects of the band’s past in one glorious weekend as the band not only continued to push their improv further, but also played their first-ever acoustic set, and covered Exile On Main St taboot. The Fall Tour that followed was, while a step-back in parts musically, nonetheless, one more enthusiastic stamp on the band’s return, as they toured their NE home-turf to raucous crowds, culminating with a three-night return to the world’s most famous arena – Madison Square Garden.

Closing out the year with a four-night run in Miami, the band peaked on the 29th and 30th, displaying both dexterity and a comfort on the stage that had been missing throughout much of the year. Setting their sights on 2010, Phish ended 2009 on a high note. The multitude of inconsistencies of the early part of the year behind them, they were ready to embark on a year in which the music they created would be the sole focus. While 2010 would bring it’s own share of issues, the greatness attained in the latter part of the year would not have been possible without the groundwork laid throughout 2009. Up and down, sure, but 2009 is, more than anything, a unique peak into a band trying to both regain their footing, and crafting raw, untested, and wholly original music all at the same time.

As with the 2010, 2011, and 2012 recaps, I’ve assembled a list of ten shows and ten jams that standout as the best of the year. Along with these selections, there are three honorable mentions to each. These are not simply jams/shows 11-13, but rather foundational jams and shows with which the band grew, yet didn’t crack my top ten. The lists are comprised chronologically like the last few years, thus reserving the title “Best Ever” as subjective accolade. Here’s to the original year of 3.0 Phish!

The Best Of Phish 2009

Honorable Jams

Phish Concert

“Sand” – Camden, NJ – 06/07/2009

The first show and the first jam where everything felt right again. After a week of subpar shows, and questionable jams, Phish opened up the second set of their return to the ghetto of Philly with a proper jam off a song that had gone virtually unplayed since 2000. Wading through the “Sand” theme for the first nine minutes, Trey initiated a shift from the minor the major at 9:20, and off they went. Building the jam into a more rock-oriented space, the band transformed the ever-present groove of the song into a peaking monster. A far cry from the thematically redundant jams that had come to defined it in the latter 1.0 era. Passing through a groove-ladend, rhythmic segment from 13:30 – 16:25 the band – Page and Trey especially – proved they still could specialize in the kind of dance-heavy melodies that had become like musical crack to many fans. Concluding with a near-5-minute peak, the jam was a celebratory revival of all things Phish: diverse, surprising, explosive, and communal, the “Camden Sand” – as it’s come be to known – was all fans needed to know the band was back, and, in time, would fully reclaim their title of “The Best Damn Band In The World.”

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“Bathtub Gin” – George, WA – 08/07/2009

Deep in the heart of the best show of 2009, Phish dropped a rare – for 3.0 at least – second set “Bathtub Gin.” Had we known at the time it’d be – thus far – the last truly extended “Gin” of 3.0 it might have been savored a bit more. Yet, four years on, this jam remains buried as one of the underrated gems of 2009. Flowing lackadaisically from the song proper, the jam takes on the laid-back feel of many-a second set “Gin’s.” As opposed to their set I, type-I ragers, which rely on peaks more than exploration, typically when “Gin” appears in a second set, the possibilities are limitless. Coming on the heels of an ambient-laced “Sneakin’ Sally,” and a calypso-infused “Light,” the “Gin” was the third major jam of the night. Flowing with ease from the aforementioned slinky trot to a minor-keyed groove fest at 10:05, the jam took on a Summer ’98 feel as it emphasized sonic quality, and glossy rhythm, over notes and shred. In stark contrast to much of the Summer 2009 tour, it is Anastasio who shines through, constantly infusing the jam with fresh riffs and ideas, complimenting the prodding bass of Mike, and the swirling clav from Page. A foreshadow of the following evening’s massive “Rock & Roll” is probably its lasting purpose. Yet, when Trey signals yet another downshift at 13:46, calling upon a thick, Mike-heavy rhythm section to close the jam out, it cements itself as one of the loosest, organic and redeeming jams of the year. Deliberate without being forceful, fluid without being lost, the Gorge “Gin” is one of the many signs of 2009 that Phish still had it, even through the ups and downs.

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“Wolfman’s Brother -> Piper -> Joy” – Indio, CA – 10/30/2009

After a first set that was essentially used to clear the cobwebs after two months off, Phish got down to business at Festival 8 with a psychedelic combo of “Wolfman’s Brother” and “Piper,” the latter of which bled effortlessly into the contemplative resolution of “Joy.” Uniting the two jam vehicles for only the second time since 10/31/1998, the jam gave fans their first peak into the band’s evolving jam style – heard in the Festival’s soundcheck – since the monumental August Run. Following a similar funk/rock pattern it’s been pigeonholed into throughout 3.0, “Wolfman’s” took all altogether different course at 7:33 when Trey began building walls of sound, rather than push the dance rhythms further. Evolving into an ambient soundscape, the jam was highlighted by Trey and Page’s conflicting musical ideas; the battle of melody v. noise. While 2009 was chock full of ambient fades from one potential jam to another, the 8 Wolfman’s was one of the only one’s to truly feel like an organic jam, rather than a thoughtless segue. Eventually, Page’s ideas pushed through to fruition as Trey signaled “Piper,” and Page keyed in the “Piper” melody on his synths before moving to the baby grand. Like “Wolfman’s,” “Piper” initially took a more traditional approach in it’s jam, focusing on splintering guitar work from Trey, and heavy, rhythm breaks from Mike and Fish. At 7:39 though, Trey and Page moved the jam into a more lighthearted, melodic realm, bringing back memories of the calypso-infused “Light” from the Gorge. Injecting vocals into the jam, it felt at once as the calm from “Wolfman’s” storm, as it allowed fans their first breath after an absolutely rollicking start to the second set. Flowing into the nuevo-Phish ballad, “Joy,” the jam resolved in organically beautiful fashion, capping off one of the most memorable segments of music from the weekend, and the year overall.

The Top Ten Jams Of 2009

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“Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> Cavern” – George, WA – 08/07/2009

Dropped for the first time since 08/12/2004, and only the third time since 2000, the mere sight of “Sneakin’ Sally” towards the end of the first set of the 08/07 Gorge show was significant in and of itself. Yet when the band emerged from the song’s vocal jam they embarked on an eleven minute jam that pushed aside the notion that their jams lacked creativity in 3.0, sculpting one of the most memorable jams of the era. Initiating a refined approach, Trey compressed his tone and began playing melodic notes in a scattered fashion. Mike soon followed suit, and they were off on a whirlwind of back-and-forth melodies before Trey signaled a complete thought at 7:01. The jam appeared to be it it’s limit when it began the fade into ambience, but the band was keen to explore at the Gorge, and in their first jam of the weekend, they displayed how far they were willing to go to create a lasting jam. Akin to the “Light” jams of 08/07/2010 and 07/08/2012, once the band found themselves in a melodic beatless territory the jam became an unstoppable force. Perfectly complimenting the setting sun behind the stage, the jam wove through ascending and descending melodic lines, guided wholly by Trey. Switching to the baby grand, Page followed Trey through his winding  and lyrical playing bringing the jam to a resounding peak before fading into the set closing “Cavern.” Far more intuitive and creative than many of their jams in their first six months back, the Gorge “Sally” stands the test of time, and is still generally regarded as one of the best jams produced in 3.0.

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“Light -> Taste” – George, WA – 08/07/2009

After debuting the song out of a segue from a resounding “Tweezer” in Boston, “Light” only made one other appearance on 2009’s Summer Leg I, again as a segue, this time, from “Rock & Roll.” Hinting at the song’s improv potential, it descended into a menacing swirl of noise before fading into “46 Days.” After five shows on leg two it had yet to make an appearance forcing many to think if the song had been shelved for tinkering. When it reemerged in the second slot of 07 August’s set II, it’s course in Phish history was about to be altered forever. Passing through it’s structured post-song jam, the song averted it’s previous noise-induced destiny, and instead, made way for a more melodic take on the song. Initiated by Page and Trey at 8:07, the song wove through a splintered thematic journey, moving with ease through various passages and melodies. Settling on a path at 10:06, the band moved into a jam laced with a Caribbean feel, transforming the mountain surroundings into a idyllic beachside island party. Using the same type of lyrical musicianship that defined the Festival 8 “Piper,” the “Light” became contemplative, while also proving impossible to sit still through. Bleeding right into “Taste” the performance and segue put a stamp on the song as one of the most impressive of the summer and bore new life into the band’s jamming. A song that has grown to be regarded as THE standard-bearer of all 3.0 jams, the Gorge “Light” gave us the initial glimpse of all the potential the song possessed.

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“Rock & Roll -> Makisupa Policeman” – George, WA – 08/08/2009

Up until 2011, one could predict with a fair amount of accuracy what songs would be jammed each night. Throughout most of 2009 and 2010, Phish remained in the box with much of their catalogue, only routinely allowing a fairly strict rotation of “Down With Disease,” “Drowned,” “Tweezer,” “Light,” “Piper,” “Ghost,” “Crosseyed & Painless,” and “Rock & Roll” to be their vehicles for major exploration. Eliminating much of the spontaneity that had been their name-stay throughout the 1993 – 2004 period, moments of pure, unadulterated exploration typically came in expected pieces. Yet when they did truly hook up – regardless of the song used to catapult them into the unknown – the results were typically sublime. Case in point: the 2009 Gorge “Rock & Roll.” A melodic beast, led in large part by Trey and Page, the jam spends much of it’s 23minutes locked into a loosely-based “Rock & Roll” theme. Highlighted by a brilliant section of interplay by Trey and Page from 10:53 – 18:27, in which the two ride an unshakable foundation from Mike and Page, trading licks and ideas in ways that can only result from close to thirty years of partnership. Building into a rising peak, the jam returns to the “Rock & Roll” chorus proper, before seguing into a bubbly “Makisupa,” that featured Trey and Mike trading instruments. Unique from essentially all other ’09 jams in its clear avoidance of the doctored rhythmic breakdowns and ambient fades that plagued one too many jams throughout the year. The Gorge “Rock & Roll” displayed a keen musicianship and communication in it’s ability to build a lengthy jam off the song’s melody, and sustain it for close to 25min.

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“46 Days” – Columbia, MD – 08/15/2009

Perhaps the most underrated piece of music the band has played in all of 3.0? Overshadowed by the dreadful Merriweather Post show it appeared at, “46 Days” emerged in the middle of set II to little-to-no fanfare. A throwaway show just took an awkward turn….Here comes another 5 minute filler….Why play “46 Days” right now????….were all thoughts from fans at the show, listening to the stream, and following the setlist online. Little-to-no attention was paid to it, the show got shat on the next day on PT, and most forgot about the jam by the time Fishman covered Katy Perry the next night at SPAC. Yet going back, it’s clearly one of the top tier jams of the year, and still, one of the lasting moments of 3.0. Wasting no time, Trey initiates a dive into the unknown at 4:38 with an ominous riff, latched onto immediately by his bandmates. Abandoning “46 Days” completely, the jam straddles darkness and light like few jams at the time were capable. Latching onto new ideas with ease, the guys followed each other in a veritable musical dialogue, wasting little time, and not allowing any idea to become stale. A foreshadow of many of the jams that would become commonplace in 2011 and especially 2012, the “46 Days” was one of those rare moments during the early parts of 3.0 where the band showed clear signs of their former selves. Building to a resounding peak from 9:35 – 11:13, Trey directed the jam even further into a beat-driven territory, that peaked again before fading away. A fully realized jam that moved beyond the thematic realm of “46 Days” with little effort, and displayed an innate communication, it was a shining moment in an otherwise forgotten show, and a hidden gem in the 3.0 era.

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“Light -> Slave To The Traffic Light” – Indio, CA – 11/01/2009

Just when it seemed Festival 8 would go down as the first Phish festival since The Clifford Ball without a massive foray into the netherworld, Phish busted out “Light” for the first time since the Gorge, taking the song deep into uncharted territory. Initiate by Page’s switch from the baby grand and organs to his synths at 6:49, the band moved away from the loose melody of the jam, and into more spacious, noise-based territory. Where in many of the jams of the summer Trey would fade immediately upon Page’s cue, thus signaling another song, here he layered above Page with staccotoed notes, while Fishman moved into more beatless territory. By 9:46 they’d all jumped onto the noise jam, culminating in a five minute segment of improvisation based around ambient washes and atypical soundscapes. Like a peek into the Phish of old, the 8 “Light” harkened memories of the IT “Waves” in it’s emphasis on nothingness. Hinting at “What’s The Use?” the jam ultimately bled seamlessly into “Slave To The Traffic Light,” capping off an incredible holiday weekend, and sending everyone off to Fall Tour with high expectations. Though the song wouldn’t be fully realized until nearly a year later in Berkely, CA, the 8 “Light,” like the Gorge version before it, displayed the near-limitless possibilities for the song, and proved the band still knew how to throw down at a fest.

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“Seven Below -> Ghost” – Albany, NY – 11/28/2009

It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. The moment when Phish would cut the shit, quit trying to be a tight rock band, and just fucking jam. Eight shows into a Fall Tour that felt more like a step back than the great leap forward everyone expected it would be, the band stepped on stage for the last set of their Albany Run, and threw down 50 minutes of uninterrupted improv. While the jam segment has been surpassed time and again in the years since, the “Seven Below -> Ghost” is still regarded as one of the most cherished moments of 3.0 for the ubiquitous celebration that emitted from the arena, and on the message boards in the days following it. Sparked by the band’s refusal to follow Trey back into “Seven Below,” Trey finally relented at 8:06, and the band was off. Stumbling a bit out the gates, the band sounds stubbornly determined to actually jam until 12:10 when the ideas start coming with ease. Reminiscent in ways to their ’94-’95 jams, by which they’d throw ideas at a proverbial wall to see which stuck, once they latched onto a strutting rhythm, garnished by a bubbly melody, they jammed without restraint straight through “Ghost.” From the moment Trey initiated a thematic riff at 16:17, the band built to a massive peak, culminating from 20:33 – 21:03 before shifting into a loose and ominous fade into “Ghost.” If “Seven Below” had taken a few minutes to sort itself out before discovering greatness, the band was so loose upon entering “Ghost,” that they went straight for the jugular. Coming out the gates with a thick groove, the jam initially resembled “Cool It Down,” before teasing “Seven Below,” and then moving into a strikingly melodic jam. Beginning an initial ascent, the theme peaked at 9:43, before turning sinister and grungy. After spending a few minutes wandering from various themes, the jam settled in it’s most thrilling segment, a seven-minute jam off the theme of “Maze.” Peaking repeatedly, it became one of the most raucous, hectic, and powerful “Ghost’s” we’ve ever heard. Fading into an ambient section, the jam concluded to a standing ovation, as fans everywhere let the band know how appreciative they were of them throwing everything on the line. Unsurpassed in many ways until August 2010, the Albany “Seven Below -> Ghost” is still regarded by many as one of the top jams of 3.0.

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“Down With Disease -> Piper” – New York City, NY – 12/03/2009

Cueing up the best set of Phish’s 3.0 return to MSG, the band threw down a classic combination of two of their best jam vehicles, resulting in one of the more enamored segments of the year. Riding out a ferocious Type I onslaught off the “DWD” theme, Trey directed the jam into open territory at 9:31. Weaving with fluid motion, and full-band-connectivity, the jam straddled rhythmic grooves and Trey-led builds in ways many jams during the Fall Tour simply couldn’t. Seriously, it is some of the best lead work Trey did all year long. At 14:48 Trey cues a descent from the jam’s surging pace, resulting in five minutes of gorgeous ambient interplay. Highlighted by Page’s choice synth work, and Trey’s blissful interjections, the jam is a shining example of the less-is-more approach, as the band clearly let the jam take hold of their playing, rather than try to force ideas. Flowing with ease into “Piper,” the jam took on a more focused approach, opting for a full-on rhythmic assault, less exploratory in nature, yet still quite compelling. Like a refined version of many of the attempted percussive jams of the tour, the “Piper” concluded near-30 minutes of improv in raging fashion. After a lackluster night one at MSG, the “Down With Disease -> Piper” was the kind of moment many had been expecting Phish’s return to The World’s Most Famous Arena to be full of. Kicking off a monumental set of music, it was yet another transformative moment for the band in 2009.

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“Tweezer -> Prince Caspian” – Miami, FL – 12/29/2009

For as talented as each member of Phish is, their best jams almost always come from a place of innate musical simplicity. Case in point: The Miami “Tweezer.” One of the best jams of 2009, yet another step forward for the band in terms of communication, flow, and patience, and a jam that displays little of the bells and whistles that comes with each member’s abilities. Flowing out of the “Tweezer” theme into a sultry funk groove, vocal harmonics are incorporated, a “Manteca” tease is tossed out, Gordo is given a proper spotlight, and a bit of start/stop jamming is implemented, all in the first 13 minutes. 2009 “Tweezer’s” were good. So good that no less than six were considered for this list. What separates this “Tweezer” from the rest of the pack however, is the near-five minute ambient jam that concludes the piece – hinting at “I Am Hydrogen” – before segueing beautifully into “Prince Caspian.” Devoid of the Trey-ADD moments that cut short so many promising ambient jams in 2009 and 2010, the “Tweezer” is given room to breathe, resulting in a contemplative, and fully realized jam. The “Caspian” that follows is akin to many of the revitalized performances throughout 3.0 of the once-hated buzz-kill. Prominently featuring Trey front-and-center, it’s granted the patience of the “Tweezer” with the distinctly arena rock flair it was written for. Though not as esoteric, nor shape-shifting as many of 2010 “Caspains” would turn out to be, the Miami version proved a proper cap to the year’s iconic “Tweezer,” as the overall segment properly sums up the band’s comfort and pleasure with playing together, as could be heard throughout their Miami Run.

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“Back On The Train -> Wading In The Velvet Sea” – Miami, FL – 12/30/2009

Props to the most random union ever to be found on one of these lists. The transcendent 17-minute “Back On The Train” would not have been possible were it not for a mistake by Trey at 6:18. Upon returning to the song after the solo, he riffed the “BOTT” rhythm, but with minored chords. Forging ahead the band diverted their return and directed the jam into uncharted waters. While “Back On The Train” had been extended twice prior – 06/14/2000 and 02/28/2003 – never had it left it’s structure with such ease, yet determination. Moving into an ambient terrain, the jam initially felt like more of an extended outro, until Trey latched onto Fishman’s rising drums at 10:49. Building into a rock-based climb, the band embraced the unknown with open arms, recalling the 1997-esque Hendrix-style guitar attacks that once defined their jams. Flowing through a number of segments of sonic interplay the jam eventually came to rest before segueing into “Wading In The Velvet Sea.” Though not as rewarding in it’s peak as it could have been, the jam is notable for both the absolute rarity of a near-20 minute jam off “BOTT,” and for it’s clear display of the comfort and zealousness the band was enriched with throughout the Miami Run. A run that proved to band and fans alike just how far they’d come, jams like the 12/30 “BOTT” were essential is displaying how successful they could be when they unleashed into the unknown. It’s no surprise either, that, following this performance, nearly every “Back On The Train” in 2010 is a must hear.

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“Ghost -> N02” – Miami, FL – 12/31/2009

My pick for The Jam of 2009, the Miami “Ghost” is fully connected piece of Phish that completely displayed how far the band had come in just nine months, and gave everyone reason to look towards 2010 with high expectations. From the moment the song ends, Gordo flipped on his envelope filter, crafting a bubbly counter-melody to “Ghost’s” groove, pushing the song into a dance-based territory. Sustaining the trance-yness of Gordeaux’s bass lines, Trey stuck to the background, refraining from injecting too much, rather allowing the jam to build organically. It was a telling sign of his improvement throughout the year, in that Phish’s best jams in 2009 typically came from moments when he installed a less-is-more philosophy. Since their return, not coincidentally, nearly every failed jam has resulted from Trey trying to do too much. At 6:09 Trey cues a switch to a more rock-based jam, yet Mike stays within the realm of the bouncy, dance melody he’d constructed. Resulting in a strangely organic segment where in which Trey and Page were clearly building towards a traditional peak, while Mike was bouncing from thought to though, and Fishman – much improved from his mid-2009  low point – was sustaining both the rock build-up, along with the dance beats. Pushing into a more melodic segment at 8:20, the band continues the tension & release build, while directing the jam into it’s most rewarding part. Trey takes the lead with some really stunning and gorgeous riffs, all the while layering his thoughts under his immediate licks. While it sounds at 10:56 like they’re going to break down and fade the jam out without any true peak, Trey uses the strutting groove to his advantage, continuing his masterful and melodic onslaught. Some of his most creative playing of 2009 ensues, as he directs the jam into a dream-like territory before teasing “Auld Lang Syne.” Driving the theme into a demented realm, Trey signals the sirens and the band cues up “N02” for the first time since 07/13/1999. A perfect counter to a “Ghost” that had everything, featured each member with equal clarity, and displayed an innate communication that had been gaining steam throughout their return. While certain jams were longer, some raged harder, and a few went deeper into the unknown, the Miami “Ghost” reigns as the jam of 2009 for it’s simple display of the four members abilities and the linear musical communication required for them to reach that place. A jam that still holds up some four years later, it’s a testament to how far they’d come in such a short time.

Click Here For Part II – The Best Shows of 2009

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!