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.

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

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

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

Right?

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alpharetta: Combining Gimmickry With Dick’s-esque Jamming

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s The Deal With All The Repeats?

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

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

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

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

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

So clear, it actually makes perfect fucking sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Do We Make Of 07/20/2013?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have no idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Favorite Shows/Jams Thus Far

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

Favorite Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Jams 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Can’t They Take Golden Age Out There?

2012_12_30_04Perhaps the most appropriate cover Phish has played in all of 3.0, the infectious TV On The Radio quasi-indie-hit “Golden Age” is at something of a creative crossroads as we head into 2013.

Long before the June 2010 tour that featured seemingly one new – and totally obscure – cover every night, there was the 11/27/2009 Set II, way-out-of-left-field debut of “Golden Age.” A performance which shocked the fanbase at the time, it immediately appeared to have granted the band their most jam-happy cover since “Crosseyed & Painless” and “Rock & Roll” entered the rotation more than a decade before. Bubbling with syncopated grooves, a communicable melody, and lyrics that spoke directly to Phish’s current state, it seemed a no brainer that the ten-minute version that highlighted the first night of Albany would quickly grow to join “Light,” “Down With Disease,” “Rock & Roll,” and “Drowned” as the reliable jam vehicles of 3.0.

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Nearly a year would go by however before we’d hear the song again, when, on 10/11/2010 it opened the second set of the middle show of the largely forgettable Broomfield, CO run. Eight months later it returned, once again, out of nowhere, opening up the second set on an inconsistent Wednesday night in Darien Lakes. For whatever reason, from there on it firmly entered a 5 – 10 show rotation for Phish.

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While up until this point, the “jam” had remained largely contained, the song’s next performance – opening the third set of the 07/02/2011 Super Ball IX show – would display, for the first time, “Golden Age’s” improvisational potential. Seamlessly building off the dance-heavy beats of the song’s origin, the band moved it swiftly away from melody, into something of a Mike-Trey staccatoed duel. Menacing, deranged, invigorating, and constantly moving, the jam spent it’s first four-ish minutes figuring out if it was going to self-implode or not, before Mike and Fish discovered a more structured type of foundation to push forward, thus allowing Trey and Page to enrich the song with plinko’d scales.

The key here was a distinct focus on the song’s rhythm, rather than on the soaring melody that accompanied it’s populist chorus. Taking a cue from the band’s plinko jams of the last two years, and the schizophrenic “Boogie On Reggae Woman” from 05/27/2011, the jam ultimately resembled something totally un-Phish like, at least in their current state. At times it sounds like a totally different band, like, perhaps what a looser incarnation of Atoms For Peace would sound like.

And yet, while there are certainly moments of brilliance throughout – check out the segment from 11:21 – 12:05 in particular – overall, the emphasis placed on the beat appears to be a barrier that the band keeps running into, rather than an opening to further exploration. After about seven minutes of jamming, it ends abruptly with a Trey-led segue into “Prince Caspian.” While one can hardly fault the band for not figuring out how to “properly jam” a song the first time they attempt to, the inability to get past the initial segment of beat-driven discorse can tell us a lot about why Phish has struggled up until this point to truly break “Golden Age” open.

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Since it’s performance on 07/02/2011, the song has been played 14 more times. Out of that, only 3 of those versions have been truly memorable, or worth revisiting. That is, unless of course you happened to be at a show it was played at, and have a particular emotional tie to a specific version. While one can’t argue the fact that it’s just a damn fun song to hear live, to this point, only the 07/03/2012, 09/01/2012, and 12/29/2012 versions have truly pushed the song beyond it’s structural limits into some sense of transcendence. And of these, 07/03/2012 truly stands out as the only version where the band has capably navigated into the ether, displaying the infinite possibilities of the song.

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Still, though, each of these performances has fallen short of totally pushing the song past an initial jam segment, and into the complete vastness of exploratory jamming. Each, falling under 15 minutes, has come to resemble the multitude of jams from 2009 and 2010 that, while yes, they’d traversed beyond the confines of “Rock and Roll,” “Drowned,” and “Down With Disease,” couldn’t quite turn that corner into open space, instead opting for ambient washes and a fade into the next song.

So, the question bears asking at this point: what’s the deal with “Golden Age”? Why can’t the band seem to figure out how to take a song that lyrically speaks directly to the sentiments of 3.0, and musically caters to each of their individual musical specialties out past the structural barriers of the song, and into the unknown potential it clearly has?

I have a theory that the current problem with the song as a jam vehicle rests in the fact that the band is simply focusing too much energy on jamming based on the frenetic beats of the song, and less on developing space to jam within. As has been argued at length here on tackle & lines, Phish is at their best musically when they step back and allow the music to develop itself. Rarely are they successful when they try to force ideas.

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While, yes, much of their brilliance in the early-90’s was due in large part to this exact form of forced inspiration through their speed-jazz jams, the “Include Your Own Hey” exercise, and many of the abstract, shape-shifting jams of 1994, it was, in reality, an altogether different time, and, they an altogether different band. They toured relentlessly, and practiced even more so, thus catering to said freneticism in their music. Since their peak musical month of December 1995 however, and the evolution to sparser, more ambient-driven jams, the majority of the band’s success has occurred when they step back from the music, and accept their role as conduits to a larger musical force, rather than drivers.

In 3.0, this hurdle of allowing the music to guide them, rather than the other way around, took much of their first 18-months back together to totally accept and integrate within. Even then, Phish spent much of the latter part of 2010 and 2011 still fighting off the habitual tendencies to take control of their music. 2012 was far and away the best year Phish has had in the past decade, much of it due to their acceptance that if they just kept playing, innovative ideas were right around the corner. It makes sense then, that three of the four best versions of “Golden Age” have come in the past year. And yet, for all the improvisational success they were finding at Dick’s and MSG – I mean, they found a way to substantially jam “Farmhouse” and “Prince Caspian,” after all – “Golden Age” still remained that confusing outlier that displayed a band somewhat incapable of letting go and allowing the music to dictate their path.

While both the 09/01/2012 and 12/29/2012 have moments of connection, each suffer from this overt focus on the beat, which in turn adds far more noise and activity to the jam than is productive for a jam to flourish. In many ways, “Golden Age,” at this point in it’s existence, is reminiscent of “Light” prior to the 08/07/2010 version. While yes, we’d had the 08/07/2009 calypso jam, and the 11/01/2009 descent into Hell, overall, “Light” had become something of an inconsistent mess of whale call’s, disjointed rhythms, and an total lack of communication that prevented the song from realizing it’s full potential. Then, out of nowhere came the Greek “Light”: a patient, gorgeous version that built off a simple melody and displayed how far the song could traverse.

If the key to any substantial jamming is to be found in “Golden Age,” one need to look no further than the Trey and Page interwoven melodies from 8:17 – 8:46 on the 07/03/2012 version, which directly led to Trey deliberately opening up his playing, allowing more sound to grow within the notes. As Page follows suit – injecting the jam with a hushed, contemplative, and yet, somewhat errie piano line – Mike and Fish noticeably tone down their aggressive beats. Still rooted in electronica, their playing becomes muted as the jam shifts into another dimension. Touching on ambient themes, and a brief foray into soft rock, the jam ultimately fades away into nothing. It’s short, for sure, but it gives a hint as to where the song could go if the band allowed it the opportunity to breathe in the future.

As Phish has displayed time and again in their 3.0 evolution, the key to jamming at this point in their career is with a less-is-more approach. From the 12/31/2009 “Ghost,” and 08/07/2010 “Light,” to the 07/03/2011 “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” and 06/22/2012 “Twist,” when they get out of the way of the music they’re far more apt to discover untapped melodies, and vast open space that lead to groundbreaking jams. For a song that speaks to Phish’s current state like few others, and one that is so clearly being given the platform to dominate a show, one can only hope that Phish can figure out how to take “Golden Age” out there. Based on the evolutionary steps forward of the last few years, one wouldn’t be too surprised if this were the summer that finally featured an array of creative, boundary-pushing, and exploratory jams based off of “Golden Age.”

The Three Decembers – 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Jams –

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

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

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

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

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

– Shows –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

The Three Decembers – 1995

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In the world of Phish, there are certain months held in a higher regard than all others. Months where the band seemed to tap into an intangible energy bigger than themselves, reach and sustain mediums of connection, and where, simply put, everything clicked. During these months, Phish wasn’t so much playing their music as they were existing within it. Featuring lengthy runs of wildly engaging shows, setlists that read as though they were plucked out of a fan’s notebook, and jams where Phish engaged in a lengthy, unending and fully flowing conversation. These months have come to define the style and sound of the multiple eras of Phish.

April 1992’s west coast tour is probably the first example of a sound being defined within a month, when the band allowed the wide open landscape and desolate valley’s to influence their developing musical experimentation, while highlighting their zany spirit, unyielding energy and psychedelically twisted humor. The breakout month of August 1993’s couldn’t have happened without the band’s mastery the “Hey Hole” jamming technique. 1994 featured dual gems in June and November, the former of which was an absolute apex of the fire and energy of the youthful Phish, and may represent the purest example of the sound Phish was trying to attain throughout their first eleven years of existence, and the latter which displayed a band that had summited the peak of their goals, and instead of plateauing, experimented with their sound, and, for the first time since the mid-80’s, explored what was possible beyond the confines of the structures they’d built and mastered. In this same regard, 1995 gave us two distinct months of brilliance: June which built upon the experimentations of the previous November, and then took the jams to a realm of no-man’s-land that they’ve only been brave enough to explore a handful of times since, and December, which we’ll get to later.

Since 1995, it’s been harder for Phish to produce this kind of consistent brilliance for a variety of reasons. They’ve toured and practiced less which means they’ve had less time to hone in on a new style and develop it, their tours have been shorter, meaning they’ve had brilliant weeks and brilliant shows rather than months, and at times their overall motivation and dedication has come into question. Even still, 1997 gave us the full realization of the funk/minimalist style they’d been searching for since 1995 in the Europe run during June, and the entire fall tour featured a band playing with as little effort yet as much intuitive communication as we’ve ever heard from them. December 1999 was an epiphany in the late 90’s/2.0 era, as the band fused beat-driven jams with minimalism, and combined it with a contagious energy that engulfed the entire fanbase as their millennium shows at Big Cypress approached. Add to it the right amount of darkness fueled by their growing desire to take a break, drug addictions that had taken ahold of two of their members, and a self consciousness that had begun to creep into their songwriting probably due to the previous two factors, and it’s one of the more puzzling, yet intriguing periods of success in their career.

The 3.0 era has produced two more months of unheralded prowess. phish10October 2010 was the first month where Phish seemed to fully shake off the rust of a five year break, and embrace what it meant to be Phish again. Particularly from the second night in Charleston, SC on, the combination of small East Coast towns, intimate venues and a resulting youthful energy, the tour was set ablaze with shows chock full of segues, teases, rarities, and some of the most concise, yet expansive jams since the early 90’s. Finally, June 2012 may take the crown as the best month of Phish since December 1997. With a stated goal of playing 200 different songs throughout their summer tour, Phish not only infused each show with fresh songs and setlists, but with some of the most diverse jamming we’ve ever heard out of them.

And yet here’s the thing, as great as all of the above months were in Phish’s near-thirty year history, December 1995 still ranks as the best month of them all, without question. Coming on the heels of 186 shows in 21 months, with essentially three albums worth of new material, December 1995 is the most polished, confident, and driven Phish there’s ever been. Totally focused on improving with each show, Phish still retained the youthful enthusiasm that had pulled them from obscurity as a college bar band, to theaters and open-air amphitheaters, to kings of the arena rock circuit in just six short years. With an unyielding conviction in the power of their locked-in, total connection concerts, a picture-perfect memory of their complex songs, and a refined approach to the vast exploratory jams of the last year, every show carried the potential to be the best show of the tour and year. As a result, there are no less than ten shows in the month that would find themselves ranked quite high in any list of the best shows the band has ever played.

Turn on any bootleg from December 1995 and the first thing you’ll notice is the torrid energy bursting from your speakers. Featuring 17 shows (including NYE) in their comfort zone of the Northeast, the crowds that came out to their shows were some of the most dedicated, diehard, and loyal fans that Phish has ever had. These were the fans that had seen Phish when they were the quirky yet irrelevant bar band in the 80’s. These were the fans that had traveled throughout New York State, up and down the Atlantic coast, in small towns throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, all in effort to support the band and spread word of their greatness. These were the fans who’d watched Phish take the seemingly hopeless risk of driving 2,000 miles to Telluride, CO for a month long stand in a boycotted bar, and then become a national sensation within four short years. These were the fans who packed into Boston’s Exhibition Hall at the World Trade Center to witness their 1990 New Year’s Eve show, only to now await the band’s headlining NYE performance at the most famous arena in the world: Madison Square Garden. These were the fans who’d been there from the beginning, and now were being treated to an entire month of Phish, a Phish that had reached their apex and was using their homecoming tour to throw a month long party.

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Just for a minute step back and consider the multitude of events that had to go right to create a scenario for a month like December 1995 to occur for Phish, or for any band for that matter. First and foremost, Phish had to form, which means its four members – all from a variety of parts of the overpopulated Northeastern United States – had to meet each other, and see enough potential in their relationships to spend the time playing music together. Then they had to want to continue playing music together. Not want in the way of casually enjoying hanging out with someone, but fully believe that their other three counterparts were talented enough, passionate enough and driven enough to continue working – keyword: working – toward some obscure, intangible, somewhat undefinable goal. No matter what direction they would decide to take their music, they had to keep working at it to move forward. Working at it when all looked hopeless and they had graduated from college – burdened with the added pressures of adulthood and careers, mortgages and marriage, blah blah blah – and were still overjoyed when just 2000 people came out to see them play. One Time. Working at it when their hard work began to pay off, when they began to make money, and began to develop some sense of a national following, rather than allow the success to get to their heads. Working at it even when they surpassed probably their own wildest imaginations of what they could be, in April 1992, in August 1993 and again in June 1994. Working at it day in and day out in the way an elite basketball team works on defensive schemes long after practice was scheduled to end. Working at a craft in a focused and driven manner all in the name of creating the music that played in their heads in a live, improvisational setting.

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What’s more is that the decisions they made along the way, in the years and months leading up to December 1995, had to match both their practical needs as a band, and push them further along the path they’d traversed. Decisions such as Trey’s acceptance of Page into Phish in 1985, when, after stating that Phish was a “two-guitar band,” he realized that Page’s keys offered a different dynamic to his melodies, and would provide him with a partner to create multi-layered textures, intertwined conversation pieces, and rousing, anthemic jams over the rock-hard rhythms produced by Mike and Fish. Trey’s decision to halt his devotion to, and covering of, The Grateful Dead in 1986, a move that forced Phish to focus more on crafting their own sound. Their five performances of their mini-opus, Gamehendge in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1994, along with their never-ending gags centered around songs that Fishman despised, and their insistence on including their fans as much as possible in their New Years and Halloween extravaganzas created a sense of unity, of brotherhood, an unbreakable bond between them and their fans.

Musically, their expansive sounds and jams of 1987 and 1988 gave way to a refined approach in 1989 through 1992 wherein which they wrote three albums worth of music – and then some – and focused on tightening their live sound. Demanding perfect communication, skillful agility, airtight segues, relentless energy, a heaping dose of tongue-in-cheek humor, and stop-on-a-dime precision, Phish transformed their sound to that of a well-oiled machine, crafting shows full of musical peaks, professional acumen and nonsensical gags. By 1992 one was more than guaranteed to be blown away walking out of a Phish show. A far more engaging experience than the lonerism spirit of the grunge scene, far less expensive and far more technically impressive than the big name rock and pop groups that catered to the masses. Phish wore their irrelevancy and isolation at the time like a badge of honor. And by the winter of 1993, their dedication paid off in full, as can be heard most notably in their February 20th show at the Roxy Theatre in Atlanta, GA. Taking a leap forward in the confines of a single show in a way they hadn’t ever before, Phish fused the tight and explosive sound they’d crafted over the previous four years with the exploratory origins they’d been founded in. Wielding a set of segues, teases and jams in and out of “Tweezer” and “Mike’s Groove,” a porthole opened. Phish would never be the same.

From there the band would only continue to build upon their sound in an obsessive search to craft music that displayed the band as not four individuals playing music, but as a unified force playing as one. It is this goal which could only be realized after shedding their improvisation roots in 1989 and building themselves back up as a tight and edgy rock band, but wouldn’t be actualized in part until December 1995, and then in full in 1997. August 1993 gave the band their first headlining summer tour of the nation’s concrete, open air amphitheaters which in turn gave them the space to stretch their music in ways they hadn’t before. Moreover, their fanbase had more or less been solidified by now, allowing them the comfort and confidence that they’d have a passionate and loyal crowd awaiting their every show. From here they sought out new fans, infusing their shows with an array of popular covers, exploring the endless musical diversions their songs could traverse, and including everyone in the poignant and intriguing myths they’d crafted in their college years – from Col. Forbin climbing up the mountain to save Gamehendge, to Poster Nutbag and Jimmy’s unending battles against Harpua. Their shows were transformed from simply high-energy workouts to events that meant something, where anything-could-and-would-go. A single song that had been played with a similar enthusiasm for five years, say, “Bathtub Gin,” became, on nights like August 13th 1993, an unending journey into the unknown, opening up vast cavernous vaults of potential for exploration and mind-bending music.

And yet, they still kept growing. From the wide-eyed musical successes of phish_aquarium_set1993 came the renaissance of 1994. After taking the Fall and Winter of 1993 off – spare the historic NYE run that also served as a veritable THANK YOU!!! to the entire Northeast – to record Hoist, they booked themselves 123 shows, criss-crossing the country not once, not twice, but three separate times in effort to spread their collective energy, planned a Halloween show in which they would don a musical costume, crafted the blueprint for their eventual multi-show festivals, built upon the exploratory journeys unleashed the previous summer, played their first of now 27 shows in the world’s most famous arena, and ultimately compiled a year that would be considered far and away the best of any other band’s career.

One of the most important decisions the band made in 1994 was not a musical or stylistic one, instead it was a logistical decision that would help to alter the course of their music and career forever. In the previous ten years of their existence, they’d always used the Fall tour as a homecoming tour of sorts. After spending the majority of the year on the road spreading their sound, their tours would always wrap back to the confines of the Northeast – the 1992 Fall tour is the lone black sheep in this category, it concluded in Montreal, not exactly their home turf, but still, close enough to the Vermont border – a supercharged homecoming celebration of sorts. However, in 1994, following their monumental Halloween show in Glens Falls, NY Phish began a journey westward that would conclude over a month later in Santa Monica, CA, and wouldn’t bring them back for a show on the east coast until December 28th. The decision was reminiscent of their college-era practice sessions where they would lock themselves in a room for hours, jamming non-stop in effort to understand the musical tendencies of each other and the patterns they could create. By separating themselves from their home base, and traversing into the wide, expansive West, they released themselves from all expectations, and dove headfirst into a musical experiment they’d been training for since 1989. Using the open-ended structures written into some of their best known songs – most notably, “David Bowie” and “Tweezer” – they allowed themselves to be taken over by the possibilities that lay within vast portholes of their songs. A decision made, consciously or not when they wrote their earliest classics, pockets of space were left open within their complex structures that years later – after the band had reached a point of mastery within their songs – were suddenly thrust open and used to dive deeper into the unknown than they may have thought possible. The tour was a revelation into how far they could take their music, how lost they could get within the medium of a live concert, how far away from themselves, their own personal wants and needs, their own self consciousness they could go.

When they returned to the stage in June of 1995, Phish built upon this exploratory revolution to their sound, infusing the entire tour with an array of jams that stretched out further, wider, into deeper and darker realms than they ever had before, all in the name of a linear musical communication. Entire sets were sometimes engulfed in this singular goal, nearly every show contains a massive 25+ minute foray into the unknown, and for perhaps the first time ever, Phish played without a sense of care of anyone watching them. Most likely turning away a number of fans, the band believed that the decision to take such extreme risks each night would pay off in the future. Putting everything on the line every single night, Phish bared their souls to their audience in ways they never had before. No longer locked in a room together, no longer in search of musical perfection, no longer worried about sustaining themselves financially through their creativity, no longer worried about building a national following, Phish was completely free to use their shows Phish in Concert 1995 - Mountain View CAas an opportunity to dive head first into the unknown, fuck all the consequences. In the end the tour is one of the most divisive and controversial in their history. Some fans can’t stand the sound of the band 30-odd minutes into a “Tweezer”. Some can’t grasp the fact that their second sets started featuring less songs than fingers on a hand. Some fans wither in terror at the self-indulgent experiments, much of which produced music that many consider to be unlistenable. Yet others view it in reverence, the one moment where Phish was clearly at the top of their game in terms of musical chops, and blended it with a divine and twisted hurdle into the unknown. Whatever way you look at it, the decision to continue and expand upon the explorations of 1994 had a profound impact on the history of the band. This was Phish deconstructing themselves once again in front of our eyes. Yet where 1989’s house cleaning was conducted in effort to sharpen their catalogue and inject a massive supplement of energy into their shows, the purpose of June 1995 was to move past the music they’d written, and try to simply understand music from a basic level. The goal in all of this was the aforementioned search for a style and a sound that allowed Phish to play as a unified instrument of linear communication.

Tragically, the death of one of Phish’s greatest influences, and one of the most significant figures in the music they’d dedicated more than ten years to – Jerry Garcia – did more to bring Phish into the mainstream than anything they’d done themselves throughout their career. Suddenly there was a surge of fans who’d never cared much about Phish’s punky, aggressive and ironic approach to music that jumped on tour in search of the next party bus. With this onslaught came a need for larger venues, and their shows began to take on a larger than life feel. The fall tour that followed essentially featured two Phish’s. The first, in their October journey from California to Chicago, found them toning down the experimental diversions of the summer in favor of a sound that blended of the torrential energy of their ’89 – Summer ’94 shows, with a dose of psychedelia that overtook Summer 1995. They became a band in search of something once again, reaching it inconsistently, yet ultimately hinting at the brilliance that was just around the corner. In many of the same ways that Fall 1996 would hint at the organic cow funk that would fully bloom in 1997, October 1995 gave glimpses of how powerful Phish would be once they got rolling. Taking a ten-day break after their explosive Halloween show in which they flawlessly played The Who’s Quadrophenia was a key move to rest and prepare for the two month trek ahead of them.

Where Fall 1994 was a journey of westward expansion, Fall 1995 was a marathon from Atlanta to Lake Placid. Five weeks, 15 States, 29 shows, all concluding with a 13 show run through their New England homebase. It was the culmination of 13 years of practice, travel, more practice, unending energy, drive, commitment, friendship, trials, heartaches, weddings, shows in front of no one, more hungover drives across two states in one day than anyone wanted to remember, more practice, shitty food, a singular belief that what you were doing was right, loans, more practice, all leading up to a month in which the band played the best music they’ve ever played at the highest level they’d been at to that point, in front of the people who’d been there from the start: their friends, family and fans who’d given everything to hear the intoxicating, uplifting and uncompromising music of Phish.

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Tearing through the southeast and up the Atlantic coast throughout November, every show, every week Phish was on the road seemed better than the last. To claim that December is superior than November is somewhat unfair when discussing the Fall 1995 tour. November is the overlooked calm before the storm. By all accounts, if the tour had ended on November 30th 1995 in Dayton, OH, it would have been heralded as a unanimous success. From the torrential energy of 11/11/1995, to Orlando’s second set dive into the unknown in “Stash” on November 14th – a jam which built into a take on “Manteca” that just might be the first example of the cow funk entering Phish’s repertoire – to the Carolina’s brilliant “You Enjoy Myself” and “Tweezer” on back-to-back nights, to the 30+ minute “Free” that took over the second set in Landover, MD on the 22nd, to their first show at the hallowed Hampton Coliseum in Hampton,VA during Thanksgiving week, to Bela Fleck’s memorable sit-in in Knoxville, TN on the 29th, to the 30th’s manic first set that spilled over into the masterful “Tweezer -> Makisupa Policeman -> Run Like An Antelope” in set II, there were more than enough memories and monumental performances throughout November to end 1995 on a high note.

Yet, this is what makes December 1995 so special: they just kept going. They’d harnessed the fire, and as they’ve proven so many different times, in jams, in tours, in shows, if they just keep going, if they just keep focused, if they keep searching for the next plane of creative bliss, sooner or later they’ll reach it, and when they do, look out. From the moment they stepped on stage in Hershey Park Arena on December 1st, to the last note of “Runaway Jim” seventeen days later in Lake Placid, from the first roll of the signature drum pop of “Split Open & Melt” in Worcester, MA on the 28th, through “Johnny B. Goode” in the early hours of 1996, everything Phish played carried a sense of grandeur, a greater collection of energy, a more meaningful purpose than most anything they’d played up until that point. Nearly every show is a classic. You can’t call any show a bad gig, you struggle to be overly critical of any show at all. Throughout the entire month, it mattered little what songs they actually played, every song, be it “Down With Disease,” “Tweezer,” “Scent Of A Mule,” “NICU,” even “Poor Heart” contained a burst of energy and an opportunity to be explored like never before. For seventeen glorious nights, Phish resided at the summit of the mountain, made even sweeter by the fact that they were performing nightly in front of the people who had supported them throughout their entire rise. There’s simply no parallel to the month in any other period of their career. Even December 1997 – a blissful return to the summit, which we’ll dive into in the next post – lacked the certain something that made December 1995 what it was. While the sound they’d worked so hard to build until 1992 – a sound that they would spend the next three years toying with, constantly one-upping themselves – would linger in some form through The Clifford Ball the next summer, it never quite sounded so rich, so powerful, so expansive and so tight as it did throughout December 1995.

– Jams – 

If one were to sum December 1995 up into a singular jam, one might suggest the 12/02/1995 “Tweezer” which builds in Type-1 tension & release fashion to a masterful explosion of guitar hose, or the 12/07/1995 rhythmic and soaring melodies “Mike’s Song -> Weekapaug Groove,” or perhaps the 35 minute “You Enjoy Myself” that engulfed the second set of the 9th’s show at Albany and featured such lock-tight connection that they were able to incorporate almost two minutes of silent jamming before reawakening the jam, or even the 31 minute “Down With Disease,” only the second time the song had been played since June, and the last exploratory version until the European Winter tour of 1997. And yet, for as remarkable, mind-bending, and infectious as those jams were, they are not Binghamton’s “Halley’s Comet -> NICU -> Slave To The Traffic Light” fromphish-02-big December 14th.

Playing a tiny minor league hockey arena where they’d played one of their best shows of 1992 – 03/20/1992 – the show carried that extra something that lingers in the air at all classic Phish shows. The frigid temperatures outside, the college crowd/forgotten rust belt vibe of the town, it’s geographic location: 90miles south of Syracuse and the 1-90 corridor, SE of the fabled Fingerlakes, the cramped, archaic and swampy conditions inside the venue, it was all a part of the culture that made Phish.

On paper the triumvirate doesn’t look that out of place – save for the direct segue into “Slave” – it appears as the kind of sequence one would envision happening without much fanfare at any number of shows. The burst into “NICU” out of a :30sec guitar build in “Halley’s” is none too uncommon during the 3.0 era. However, from the moment the lyrics in “Halley’s” conclude it’s clear the band is on a mission as Trey swiftly directs them away from the bubbly pop of the song into a high-octane charge into the unknown. Traversing through various speed-jazz phrases, Mike takes a step back and opens the space up considerably, before Trey reinvigorates the jams with an infectious and insatiably catchy riff to which each member hooks onto, thus shifting the jam into a rousing display of unity and communication. This riff, and the resulting jam – just over two minutes in length – represents everything about December 1995 that was so special. In the midst of a jam on a song that is normally treated as a quick punch for energy, the band embraces the unknown fully, allows one jam to develop but then cuts it off abruptly.  On a dime they are following each other, waiting patiently, and then, when they know Trey’s struck musical gold, jump on his new idea, building a segment of music out of it that features total engagement and sounds as though it were composed over a lengthy period of editing and rewriting. Were it prewritten would take away very little of it’s greatness, yet the fact that it’s a completely spontaneous event makes it all the more surreal to listen to and contemplate.

From there, Trey directs the band into “NICU,” a song that was notable for being something of a rarity at the time, yet one that few would expect to find buried deep in a second set. Receiving the same treatment as “Halley’s” as soon as the lyrics end, “NICU” goes on a wild adventure from 4:25 to it’s fade into “Slave.” Jumping on the exact same theme from “Halley’s,” Trey builds the song in much the same way as he did in it’s predecessor, though this time, instead of following his every note, Page, Mike and Fish add an atmospheric background to his melody, maturing the theme on the spot, and giving it a more well-rounded, structural feel. Deconstructing it after reaching its maximum potential, Page take’s the reins on the baby grand and guides the band out of fuzz-rock and into more refined and regal territory before Trey and Mike return with ambient phrasings, fading into a stirring, patient and ultimately fulfilling “Slave” to end the sequence and the set.

If the “Halley’s -> NICU -> Slave” trio is the undisputed jam of December 1995, then the “Bathtub Gin -> The Real Me -> Bathtub Gin” from December 29th is at worst, the undisputed jam 1a. After coming alive in the Murat Theater in Indianapolis back in August 1993, “Bathtub Gin” had cooled considerably, returning to it’s role as mid-first set Type I clinic is HOSE. Save for the rousing version sandwiched around the bust out of Mingus’s “Jump Monk” on 04/24/1994, the song remained quite contained for over two years. Yet as the band returned to the road on November 9th in Atlanta, they brought “Gin” back into the realm of improv as well. Both the 11/09 and the 12/05 version from Amherst left the “Gin” theme completely, engaging in, first, an anthemic hose section before stripping away excess noise and focusing on the infectious rhythms contained within the songs origins. The December 5th version then built upon the uncharted terrain, guiding the jam into an obscure, noise-ladened territory, allowing each member to explore the bottom ends of their instruments, while dissonant washes hung overhead.

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Following a similar dance-heavy pattern of the previous two versions, “The Real Gin” pushed through various segments of high-octane hose before Trey discovered a tight riff that each of his counterparts jumped on, dedicated to building the theme ala the Binghamton “Halley’s.” The riff serves ultimately as a transition into a cover of The Who’s “The Real Me,” yet what makes the segment so special is the fact that the transition emerged out of a collective search for communication, and wasn’t until everyone jumped on the idea that Trey was trying to communicate that the segue unveiled itself to them. The perfect match for a “Bathtub Gin” jam, the energy within the room – both onstage and off – reaches almost unsustainable levels of pure joy and ecstasy. The band harnesses a power only previously reserved for the arena rock bands of lore, and for a moment epitomizes the entire sound they’d been searching for to accompany their transitional state from clubs to arenas. It’s the kind of music they could have never played in a small theater in 1992. It’s the kind of music they could never have played at the Gorge in the summer of 1998. It’s the kind of music they could never have played during the winter of 2003. It’s the kind of music they could never have played in August 2011. It’s wholly original and unique to where the band was in December 1995, and it represents the kind of elation and sustained energy that had overtaken Phish throughout the month. In the industrial heartland of Massachusetts, in the venue – The Centrum – that had housed one of the greatest shows of their first ten years – 12/31/1993 – two nights before maybe their best show of all time – 12/31/1995 – at the peak of their power, fully locked into their goals, with a purpose that you just don’t see out of a lot of bands once they’ve “made it,” “The Real Gin” represented yet another one of those moments where the band was simply a vessel for tapping into a higher power. Just listen to the way Trey screams “Can you see the real me?! Doctor?!! Whooooa DOCTOR!!” to a wave of continual cheers from the crowd before the band turns on a dime, breaks the song down to Fish and Trey and perfectly pivots into the second verse. A song they’d only played once before – two months earlier – a song that had probably not even been considered for the setlist, a song that emerged from a jam that wouldn’t have even happened had Trey not gone forward with a brief idea of his, and had his bandmates not latched onto his idea fully, thus building the “Gin” into “The Real Me.”

Then, as if the powerful segue, and surprise performance were not enough, the band took The Who on a wild ride through a torrential guitar solo, arena rock excess, before deconstructing it into a funk-laced jam that emphasized linear communication in its greatest sense. Finally, in the same way that “The Real Me” found it’s origins in the “Gin” jam, Trey directs the band into a rhythmic territory based off of a riff of his that bleeds patiently, yet flawlessly back into “Bathtub Gin.” A masterful moment in composition, it is as professional an assertion on the power and command of Phish in December 1995, of both their arsenal and knowledge of each other. A monumental excursion, a clear victory for both the band, and for the world of improvisational music. Proof that what they’re doing isn’t so much “jamming” as it is conducting into the unknown. A jam that has lived on in infamy, known simply as “The Real Gin” to fans, it’s yet another example of the power and supremacy that was Phish in December 1995.

– Shows –

As was stated above, there’s really no such thing as a bad show in December 1995. Even the weakest shows by most people’s standards – 12/04/1995, 12/08/1995, 12/16/1995, 12/28/1995 – are still really really good shows by any other month’s standards. More than anything, these four shows have the misfortune of being included in the conversation with December 1995. This embarrassment of riches creates a problem when attempting to sum the month up in a single show. There are simply too many good shows to discuss when talking about December 1995. You could talk about the 12/01 explosion of energy, full of incredible jams in “Mike’s” and “Bowie,” and the right dose of Phish mythology in “Col. “Forbin’s,” or the rarities scattered throughout 12/07, combined with a unique setlist and timeless jams in “Split Open & Melt,” and the “Mike’s -> Weekapaug” sequence. You could talk about 12/11’s return to Portland, ME, where a gag on “Dog Log” took over the first set, while the second set was dominated by a scintillating and electrifying “Bowie,” or the jam-packed tour finale in Lake Placid which opened with the absolutely torrid segment of “My Friend>Poor Heart>A Day In The Life>Antelope” and closed with a 20 minute jam out of “Tweezer” and led, for only the third time ever, directly into “Tweezer Reprise.” You could also talk about 12/29’s old school, celebratory explosion – a show that defines the ultimate feeling of a Phish holiday run, and continued the lore surrounding the 12/29 and 12/30 shows on a NYE run – or you could talk, however obviously, about the pure greatness of 12/31, from the fact that it was their first NYE show at MSG, to the near-flawless performance of some of their classics, to the diversity and multitude of jams in “Drowned,” “Runaway Jim,” “Mike’s Song,” “Weekapaug Groove” and “You Enjoy Myself.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet, to really sum up the entire month of December in one Phish, one should look no further than the insatiable command, and frantic explosions that emit from their one-night-stand in Philadelphia, inside the legendary Spectrum, on December 15th. Opening with “Chalk Dust>Hood>Wilson” is enough to straight blow the lid off the old bitch. But to then build the first set through a series of some of Phish’s most raucous songs, refusing to let enough time pass between the conclusion of one song and the start of another, so that the crowd only has an opportunity to react once the next song’s started, cultivated a live test in the amount of energy, pressure and elation one could unleash on a crowd before they would explode. “Maze>Ha Ha Ha> Suspicious Minds>Hold Your Head Up>Cars Trucks Buses>Bouncing Around The Room, Free>Possum” concluded a set that, like much of the rest of the month, mattered little for song choices, and instead relied totally on the ferocious output by the band. Opening the second set with “Tweezer Reprise” carried much of the celebratory vibe from set one to part two, and was sustained through a twisted take on “It’s Ice,” and a spirited “Bathtub Gin” that evolved into a beautiful “Rotation Jam” before seguing into the only known version of the Fishman ballad “Mallory.” Concluding with the classic combo of “2001>Bowie” – the latter of which exemplified the contained, yet exploratory nature of the composition – the show is full of literally everything that makes December 1995 the month it is.

If only to add to the musical mastery of the show was the locale. Born and raised in Princeton, NJ, Trey was a die-hard Philadelphia Flyers fan from a young age. No doubt won over by their back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and 1975 – the first of which featured the first victory of an expansion-era NHL team over an Original Six franchise, when they beat the Rangers in seven to advance to the Finals before beating the Bruins in six to claim Lord Stanley – he grew up playing hockey and made the hour-long drive to Philly frequently to cheer on the great Flyers teams of the 70’s. What’s more is that Trey’s first live show was a Jethro Tull show at the Spectrum. A venue that was held in the highest regard until it’s closure and demolition in 2010, it was a favorite of many of the arena rock groups of the last forty years, and was the kind of venue one showed-up to whenever they’d booked a gig there. Legends were made there, and one did not look lightly upon a performance at a venue like this. Combine this personal history with the fact that the show was their 180th since April 1994,  near the end of their greatest tour ever, and it’s no wonder such magic was unleashed in Philly this night. It’s yet another example of the intangible power and energy that is unleashed during a Phish show. It’s a perfect microcosm to essentially sum up what made December 1995 so unique in their history.

Certain venues and cities bring out different qualities within Phish. The Gorge allows for them to be overtaken by the vastness of the surroundings and usually results in shows heavy in experimentation, Deer Creek is their inheritance from The Dead – an intimate amphitheater in the heartland of America – MSG is the pinnacle of their rock star personalities, used to punctuate another year gone by and remind all other bands of that untapped power of Phish. Philly’s Spectrum however is what Phish would be if they were a venue. Located in an often overlooked city – Philadelphia – under appreciated by the masses, unpreserved by those in care of it, understood and adored by those who take the time to truly appreciate its intricate nature, and lovable flaws. When they stepped inside of it for each of the nine show they would play there, the spirit and the energy of the venue overtook them, and – aside from two horrendously weak shows in 2003 – resulted in one of the best shows from its respected tours.

Fusing the telepathic communication of the members of Phish with the absolute mastery of their technique, the home stretch of their Fall 1995 tour with their location, their first performance in a venue of their dreams with the holiday season in full swing, and it’s no wonder that 12/15/1995 produced one of the most memorable shows of the tour and month. What’s more though is how it represents literally every aspect of Phish in December 1995 that made that era so special and so unique. Never before and never since has the formula added up in quite the same way as it did in December 1995. This is not to say that they haven’t produced music over stretches before or since that demand listening, but there is something to be said about the fact that December 1995 displayed a Phish at the absolute apex of their talents, yet still in search of a larger goal. In the region that bore them and raised them up, it all combined to create the best month Phish has ever played.