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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phish would never be the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Best Of Phish – 2011

After a six month break, Phish returned to the stage over Memorial Day Weekend, in Bethel, NY for their 2011 Summer Tour. At the onset of the third year of Phish 3.0 fans had nothing but optimism about the direction of the band, thanks to incredibly inspired 2010 performances during August, Fall Tour, and a blistering send-off show on New Year’s Day. After overcoming a rocky June tour the previous year, the band reemerged on the west coast in August hell bent on pushing their sound past the tepid, quasi-experimentations of the previous 17 months. Armed with a new guitar for Trey and a stretch of shows the brought the band to some of the most unique venues of the era – The Greek TheaterTelluride Town Park – and some of the most familiar – Deer CreekAlpine Valley – the Phish we all had come to know and love was reborn in front of the entire fanbase. The good vibes spilled over to the band’s three-week October run where they passed over the expected 20,000+ NBA arenas in favor of smaller, more intimate college gymnasiums and the versatile and historic Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall. Slimming down their crowds, the band absolutely destroyed their fall leg – particularly the east coast shows – playing with a fire and adventurism that reminded many of the goofy and zany college pranksters they’d fallen in love with in the late-80’s and early-90’s. Finishing off 2010 with a refined and balanced New Years Run in Worcester, MA and New York City, Phish capped off their best year since 2003 with memorable jams and their first show ever on New Year’s Day that was discussed ad nauseam on the band’s independent message boards. Thus when the band announced a 33-date summer tour, which included a three-day mid-summer festival in Watkins Glen, NY, fans looked to 2011 as the year when the band capitalized on all their growth over the past two, and returned to form as the “best god damn band on Earth,” for reals now.

Kicking off the summer with “Tweezer” – only the most reliable jam vehicle in the band’s history – was a pretty good sign that the creative juices were flowing from the get-go in the world of Phish 2011. When the inspired opener led to a thrilling weekend of shows, Phish fans either at the shows, or listening intently from home, picked their jaws up off the floor and wondered aloud just what in fact we were in for in 2011. Continuing with the exploratory, and unpredictable theme the following weekend in Detroit and Cuyahoga Falls – both shows put on high display the two sides of Phish at their best – it appeared that Phish had completely gotten over their growing pains of 2009 and early 2010, and could literally do no wrong.

However, as the band moved south along the Atlantic coast, the wide-eyed adventurism that had defined the first week and a half of tour faded and was replaced by the nervous, sporadic and inconsistent band that fans had seen far too many times over the past two years. Shows in Camden and Alpharetta, most notably, featured a band unwilling to take risks, craft fully flowing shows, or build upon their past successes. While there were certainly still high points – 06/11/2011, 06/17/2011, 06/19/2011 II – overall, the first leg of the 2011 summer tour, one which had started with such a bang, ended with little more than a whisper forcing many to once again wonder aloud about the direction of the band at the end of another disappointing June.

Returning to the stage less than two weeks later for a 4th of July Festival in Western New York the band appeared for the first five sets of the weekend to have all but abandoned concept of exploration – save for an absolutely sublime “Simple” – and instead, opted for a high octane, energy festival. All of this changed with the band’s late-night secret set – their first since IT’s Tower Jam – when Phish locked themselves in a Storage Unit and spent a hour playing wholly original and organic music, forever altering the paradigm of their 3.0 incarnation. The final show of the festival, occurring a mere 12 hours after “The Storage Jam” is without question the best show the band has played since returning to the stage in March 2009. Comparable to the affect Trey’s new guitar had on their sound a year earlier, “The Storage Jam” breathed new creative life into Phish, and gave their fans the assurance that the stumbling blocks of the last two years was not all for naught.

Spilling over to the west coast run of August, the band once again blew away their June run with a superior August run for the third straight year. Opening with back-to-back barn burners at the spectacular Gorge Amphitheater, Phish crushed their stand at Lake Tahoe, put on an incredibly balanced performance at San Francisco’s Outside Land’s Festival, and just destroyed the intimate UIC Pavilion in Chicago. Finishing off the summer with a three night stand at Denver’s Dick’s Sporting Goods Park over Labor Day, Phish concluded their marathon tour with three killer shows full of gimmicks, rarities, jams, and stellar playing all around.

Two weeks later Phish surprised their fans by announcing a one-night benefit show in Essex Junction, VT. The show was significant for two reasons. First and foremost, the band raised over a million dollars to help flood victims in Vermont, and secondly, it was the band’s first performance in Vermont since their emotional and sloppy exit seven years prior. While the show was light on substance – save for an all-time “Carini” – it was more icing on the cake than anything else for a fan base that had spent the entire summer reveling in the best Phish we’d all heard since 2.0.

With no Fall tour due to the band member’s obligations to their side projects and families, Phish returned to the stage after a four month break for a four-night run at New York’s Madison Square Garden to close out the year. A run that has historically given Phish and their fans an opportunity to both look back upon the year that was, while also offering a sneak peak to their direction in the following year, the vast distance between their final summer show and the NYE run proved to be too much for the band to overcome, as the run proved to be more underwhelming than anything. While the opening show had plenty of the magic fans have come to expect with holiday shows, the band’s energy, their willingness to explore, and, seemingly, their recognition that this was in fact the 2011 NYE Run, diminished with each passing show, leaving many with a bland taste in their mouth. What has usually been used as a guide for what to look forward to the following year, has instead left fans questioning the state of Phish on a level they haven’t since April 2004. With rumors circulating that 2012 will be a “light” touring year for the band, many are wondering if we’ve seen the best of Phish 3.0. As has been proven throughout their entire career, Phish must play regularly to be the band they can be. As we saw in stunning clarity this year, the music created at UIC and Dick’s was only possible after the band spent the entire summer playing together, getting more and more comfortable with each other. If it’s true that we’ll only see a handful of shows next year, and if it’s true that the gap between a significant set of shows will be around 9 or 10 months, then not only will fans yearning for more Phish suffer, but Phish’s music might as well.

Lo, these may well end up being the simple worries of an overly-anxious fan looking for more of the Phish we got this year. With that, let’s get to the countdown of the best shows and jams of 2011. As with last year, I have assembled a list of ten shows and jams that standout as the best of the year. Along with these selections, there are three honorable mentions to each. They are not simply shows/jams 11-13, but rather foundational jams and shows with which the band grew, yet didn’t crack my top ten. The lists are assembled chronologically just like last year, thus reserving the title of “Best Ever” as a subjective accolade. As always download links follow both the entire Jam section, and each individual show’s highlights.

Hope everyone enjoys the list, and hope we get some more awesome Phish in 2012. Happy New Year!

The Best Of Phish 2011

Honorable Jams

“Simple” – Watkins Glen, NY – 07/01/2011

The lone moment of the first two shows of Super Ball IX to really leap out and grab listeners, “Simple” is an ambient masterpiece from the moment it leaves the structure of the song. Building off strong outings for the Gordo-penned tune over the past year – 08/06/2010, 01/01/2011 – the band sits back and just rides the established theme out as far as they can, and then some. Crafting an emotive soundscape similar to the IT “Waves,” the melody simply exists, hanging in thin air as if a stiff breeze will destroy it. In much the same way that Brian Eno crafted the themes on his Ambient series, Phish emphasizes the space within and between notes, rather than trying to wow the crowd with fire. Peaking with a sad, yet and warm riff from Trey that begins around 12 minutes in, the jam is perfect example of what is possible when Phish forgets about all the outside distractions at their shows – curfew, setlist, bustouts, crowd energy – and simply lets the music guide them. Like a piece of music plucked out of summer 1998, the Super Ball IX “Simple” is proof that when Phish wants to conjure up the magic of their past, they’re fully capable of doing so.

“Down With Disease” – Chicago, IL – 08/16/2011

The first of two appearances for “DWD” on this list, their version to open the second set of their second night at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago is still one of the more underrated jams of all of 2011. Probably due in large part to both the epic show played the night before, and the shadow cast by the Pine Knob “DWD” from June, the “UICDWD” simply hasn’t gotten the full respect it deserves. A psychedelic masterpiece in an era where those are hard to come by, Phish leaps from the song’s theme without reprising the jam and dives straight into the unknown, devoting a solid 14 minutes to exploration. A more direct and forceful jam than June’s version, the “UICDWD” is a throwback to the kind of late-60’s/early-70’s era psychedelic jams that would emerge from the song during 1997, rather than the funk or ambient versions that graced it during the latter part of the 90’s, 2.0, and now the majority of 3.0. Unique in it’s direction, the jam is also reflective of the heavy exploration the band engaged in during the previous night’s first set. Moving through subtle funk rhythms, all with a keen eye kept on the disjointed sounds emerging from Page’s moog, Trey works as more of a finisher than leader, offering small ideas within Page and Mike’s theme. All of this peaks around 15 minutes when Trey latches onto a rough, yet danceable melody, and plays around with the melody while it becomes increasingly more and more distorted. Fading into an ambient jam that one would think will simply signal another song, the band instead extends this as well, giving Page and Mike ample time to fill the room with one more dose of psychedelia before choicely moving into “Twist.” A thrilling homage to the Phish of the past, the “UICDWD” is akin to the SBIX “Simple” in it’s ability to show just how much fire Phish still has left.

“Carini -> Tweezer” – New York City, NY – 12/28/2011

In 2010 the joke-metal song “Carini” was reborn. Previously used as simply a shot of adrenaline to either open a show or to throw a crowd off – save for the incredible 12/28/1998 version – on the fall tour of 2010 the band began using the jam as a way to call to the heavens. On three separate occasions – 10/12/2010, 10/22/2010, 10/29/2010 – Trey wove the dark jam into a melodic and uplifting jam. Resulting in stunning beautiful jams in each instance, “Carini” was a part of the Fall Tour transformation that saw the band explore within their songs in ways they simply hadn’t since the mid-1990’s. All of this however, seemed to come to a halt with the onset of 2011 when “Carini” resumed it’s status as a set opening shot of metal. Disappointing fans across the board, the band seemed to turn a corner with the song with it’s performance at Essex Junction on 09/14/2011. The ambient laced jam that emerged in Vermont spilled over to the band’s performance of “Carini” at MSG in December. Sliding easily from the high octane metal jam into a blissful state of sublimity, Trey coated the jam with a bubbly riff that seemed like it was plucked right out of the “Ramble On” from 08/12/1998. Shifting this theme back into the minor key, the band engaged in a full-band segue into “Tweezer” akin to the “Down With Disease” segue into the song during the Dick’s run. Perfectly moving out of “Carini” and into “Tweezer” there is no sign whatsoever of the awkward transitions that have plagued the band throughout much of 3.0. Riding high on their surprise move, the band used the entirety of “Tweezer” to dance around sharp, funk-laced beats, just toying with the crowd they held in the palms of their hands. Moving out of the overt funk theme into a more rock-based, Trey-led jam, the band brought “Tweezer” to a roaring peak before ultimately bringing it in for a soft landing by way of more blissful ambience. Extending the final section of the jam out to its proper conclusion, the band then moves it seamlessly into “My Friend, My Friend,” a subtle nod to how far they’d come since Bethel back in May.

The Top Ten Jams Of 2011

“Boogie On Reggae Woman -> Waves” – Bethel, NY – 05/27/2011

Coming out firing in the first set of the 2011 summer tour with jams in “Tweezer -> My Friend, My Friend,” “Wolfman’s Brother -> Walk Away” and “Kill Devil Falls,” the anything-goes feeling of the opening frame spilled over into set II with the first defining jam segment of the tour. The onset of Mike’s bubbly envelope-filetered bass that led into the band’s classic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” initially gave fans worry that the set was to turn into a song-based affair, all but tossing the first sets creative peaks out the window. Yet as the song ended Trey chose to extend the mini-jam, generally revolving around Gordo’s bass, and instead built a wall of loops that threatened to descend the piece into chaos, but instead, turned out to be one of the experimental highlights of the show. As the loops became more and more disjointed though, Trey deconstructed the jam, opening up the space within the theme, and ultimately paving the way for “Waves.” Unseen since Red Rocks ’09, “Waves” had been soundchecked the previous night, and the ensuing 27-minute jam had been leaked out to the fan base, only exciting fans further for the upcoming tour. Emerging slowly from the decaying “Boogie On” jam, the jam that built out of “Waves” is among the most blissful moments of the entire summer. Inspired directly from Trey’s affinity for the guitar work of Beach House’s Alex Scally, the jam wove through various passages of soft guitar-driven melodies. Delicately playing over the band’s fluttering melodies, the jam ebbed and flowed like a quiet creek, each time it appeared it was finished, a new theme would begin. Finally coming to a rest in “Prince Caspian” some 13 minutes later, the jam set the bar pretty high for the summer tour, on its very first night. No doubt inspiring some of the heavy explorations throughout the summer, in some ways, the Bethel “Waves” was never topped in 2011.

“Down With Disease -> Fluffhead -> David Bowie” – Clarkston, MI – 06/03/2011

On the first night of the band’s second weekend of summer, kicking off the midwest portion of the tour, on Mike Gordon’s 46th birthday, Phish threw down a defining segment of 2011, and of 3.0 as a whole. Weaving together three of the band’s seminal songs in a fully flowing, 58-minute jam, Phish built off of the musical high’s of the first two nights at Bethel, and the first night in Holmdel, NJ with a massive jam off “Down With Disease” and standout versions of “Fluffhead” and “David Bowie.” Opening the set with a distorted tease of “Happy Birthday” by Mike, the band absolutely tore through the Hoist-era classic before blazing into the unknown. Building the jam around staccato rhythms, the band fizzled out around 13 minutes in, giving all the impression that the jam would end without much fanfare. However, coming to play on this night just outside of Detroit, Trey wove a sublime riff around the hanging space of sound. Much like the Bethel “Waves,” the jam was re-built anew by this riff, before turning to darker, more sinister place. Peaking some three minutes later, the band once again brought the theme down, indicating an imminent conclusion. However, before the jam could die, Trey and Page latched onto a familiar theme, a classic riff they hadn’t used in a jam in years: John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Continuing the jam in earnest around the jazzy theme, Phish played around with “ALS” allowing it to push the jam past the omnipresent 20-min barrier for 3.0 jams, and allowing it to build in a fully organic segue into “Fluffhead.” Playing a particularly inspired “Fluffhead,” due in large part to the emotions spilled over from the “DWD,” the legendary composition came to a massive peak, thrilling fans in the amphitheater and streaming the show from their couches. Yet just when fans thought the musical moment was over, Trey looped the final note of “Fluffhead,” distorting it until it became completely unrecognizable, and then segueing it perfectly into “David Bowie.” A song that felt incredibly lackluster and tame for the first year of 3.0, in 2010 “Bowie” was re-born with dark and sinister versions on 06/19/2010, 10/12/2010, and most notably, 10/20/2010. Building off those past highs, the DTE “Bowie” carried over the exploratory sentiments of the “DWD,” though here surging with an eye on the evil. Crafting a masterful version that stands in the top tier of the 3.0 echelon, “David Bowie,” completed the opening hour of 06/03/2011’s set II, a segment that will live on as one of the peaks of not only 2011, not only 3.0, but of Phish’s career when all is said and done.

“The Storage Jam” – Watkins Glen, NY – 07/02/2011

Without question, “The Storage Jam” from Super Ball IX is the single most important event of Phish’s entire 3.0 era to this point. More important than opening 03/06/2009 with “Fluffhead,” more important than the Gorge ’09, even more important that Trey’s Ocedoc. When they played their first festival of 3.0, the Halloween-tinged Festival 8, many fans were up in arms over the lack of secret set. A festival tradition dating back to The Clifford Ball, Phish’s secret sets were opportunities for both the band and their fans to dive completely into the unknown, deep in the night, with the only goal in mind being exploration and pushing their music forward. While many feared that the secret set had gone the way of the 30 minute jam in 3.0, the harsh reality at the time was that the band was simply not comfortable with each other enough again to create any lasting music in an open jam setting. Flash forward to summer 2011 and Phish was primed for some serious exploration, now two years into their return. Fucking with their fans as they love to do, Phish stole away to a makeshift USA Storage unit in the middle of the festival grounds, treating their fans to an hour of completely unwritten improvisational music – save for the loose “Sleeping Monkey” 50 min in – that dove deep into Hades, resurrecting a Phish we hadn’t seen nor heard in over seven years. Implying that they could still jam, the jam’s had just been in storage as they got their feet firmly on the ground over the first two years of 3.0, “The Storage Jam” was unanimously welcomed by Phish fans everywhere as it signified a renewed emphasis on exploration. Spending the majority of it’s first 30 minutes weaving in and out of psychedelic themes, the section from 18 – 22 minutes shines as the most re-listenable music of the jams first half. Full of siren loops, an eerie riff from Trey, repeated over and over, thumping, off-beat Bass from Gordo and Fish, and the first signs of the Theramin in 2011 from Page, it’s the kind of trippy noodling that was at home in Summer 1995, but was more than welcome here in 2011. Around 32 minutes however, everything fucking clicks. As Trey signals a sinister riff, the rest of the band follows suit, building a theme that’s among their most memorable, and could have been plucked right out of a jam rooted in the 06/19/2004 “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing.” Moving through another ambient movement, a nasty funk jam, and ultimately a hysterical and appropriate take on “Sleeping Monkey” – a song that’s most notably used as an encore any time the band plays a particularly inspired show – “The Storage Jam” came to a stunning finish as Trey buildt the final note of “Sleeping Monkey” to a point of menacing distortion, before ultimately laying it down to rest. A culmination of everything the band had been seeking to do since re-emerging in March 2009, “The Storage Jam” pushed Phish in ways they hadn’t been throughout all of 3.0, and as we’ll see with the following jams on this list, inspired them to continue pushing in search of the unknown.

“A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” – Watkins Glen, NY – 07/03/2011

The first jam to fully encapsulate the effect “The Storage Jam” had on Phish, the Undermind rarity, “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” appeared late in the band’s first set on 07/03/2011, taking the ideas realized in the storage shed, and bringing them to light. Moving past the sinister themes of the songs melody and into the blissful and sublime, the jam is akin to the Bethel “Waves” and SBIX “Simple” in its emphasis of space and time over notes. Perfectly matching the mood of the early July evening, the jam contrasts the song’s theme in it’s melodic tone. After slowly bringing the “ASIHTOS” theme to a close, the mood changes dramatically at 6:57 when Gordo begins to play an uplifting melody. The rest of the band latches onto Mike’s lead and they’re immediately off into the land of blissful serendipity. Stretching the theme out, they then begin to incorporate the space that in 2009 only signified an imminent segue into a new song, yet in 2011 serves as notice of a continuing jam. Further seeparating the “ASIHTOS” from any ambient jam in the formidable years of 3.0, Phish brought the jam to a peaceful conclusion rather than pushing it into a new song. A symbolic nod to “The Storage Jam” some 12 hours earlier, the SBIX “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” helped to craft 07/03/2011 as the best show of 3.0

“Rock & Roll -> Meatstick -> Boogie On Reggae Woman” – George, WA – 08/05/2011

Sometimes it just all comes together for Phish. On August 5th, 2011, on the first night of the second leg of their 2011 Summer tour, at the wide open Gorge Amphitheater, Phish threw down a stunning 40 minute jam sequence that without question ranks as the single greatest piece of music they’ve played in a concert since returning in March 2009. Busting the second set wide open with their classic take on The Velvet Underground tune, Phish wasted no time in taking “Rock & Roll” deep into the outer reaches. By seven and a half minutes in, any notion of the song’s them was in the rear view mirror as Trey began weaving minor keyed licks around Gordo and Fishman’s grooves, and choicely implementing his whammy pedal into the jam. Page then began pushing the jam even further into the unknown through a repetitive trance via his keys. After building a wall of loops Trey reentered the jam with an Middle Eastern-esque riff that became more and more distorted with each repeat. Mike and Fish latched onto his idea, creating a heavier foundation to the jam, ultimately drawing some powerful “Moma Dance” – esque teases from Trey. Now fully entrenched in the band’s darkest jam since 2004, Page moved from his keys to the Theremin, unleashing the beast from storage, further building the Hellish theme the band had conjured up. Capped off with Gordo’s demented reprise of the “It’s All right” chorus, the jam had fully departed from anything that resembled Phish 3.0 and was instead residing now in a category all its own. Riding the menacing groove to what appeared to be a proper, fading conclusion, Phish had one more surprise up their sleeves. As Trey stepped back and allowed the loops to build and fade on their own, Gordo stepped up and threw down one of the funkiest and most powerful bass licks of 3.0. The rest of the band jumped on the new direction continuing the jam, this time with a harder, more rock-based movement before it led fluidly into “Meatstick.” A joy to hear at any show, this “Meatstick” worked as a humorous bridge, leading the band out the darkness of “Rock & Roll,” before leading into a bass-led theme that would ultimately bring them to “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” The triumvirate was completed with the Stevie Wonder classic, a song which moved from it’s bubbly theme into staccato beats before filtering off in a wall of loops, and ultimately leading into “Farmhouse.” An absolutely stunning piece of music, Phish proved on the first night at The Gorge that “The Storage Jam” hadn’t been all for naught, and that thanks to that hour locked in the shed, they were a band reborn, ready to explore the ethers like they hadn’t in years.

“Light” – Stateline, NV – 08/09/2011

Along with “Backwards Down The Number Line,” no song has meant more to Phish in 3.0 as “Light.” Emerging from a heroic “Tweezer” at Fenway Park back in the Spring of 2009, “Light” quickly became Phish’s go-to jam vehicle during the Summer and Fall of 2009. Peaking with versions on 08/07/2009, 11/01/2009 and 12/02/2009, the song once-again led the way in 2010 with it’s 08/07/2010, 10/19/2010, and 10/26/2010 journeys. However, after a lackluster version on 12/30/2010, the song seemed plagued by a rushed jam segment leading to an awkward transition into another song for the entirety of June. The speed bumps were completely forgotten by the time the band reached Lake Tahoe in early August and threw down a version that joins not only the other two played nearly a year, and two years to the date prior to this, but also the other peak versions of “Light” played throughout 3.0. Reminiscent of the rhythmic experimentations Phish took the song on the previous fall, the Tahoe “Light” blended plinko jam themes with “Storage Jam” – esque noise and textures, creating one of the more mind altering, and unique jams of the summer. Highlighted by Gordo and Fish throughout, the jam was akin to 1997 jams in that Trey and Page’s main roles were to litter the top of the jam with a flurry of ideas and contributions, rather than full on leads. Combined with the Gorge “Rock & Roll,” the UIC “Waves -> Undermind” and the Dick’s “Piper,” the Tahoe “Light” put on high display the affects of “The Storage Jam,” and proved how innovative Phish could still be when diving deep into the depths of the netherworld.

“Waves -> Undermind” – Chicago, IL – 08/15/2011

Seven years to the day after the dream of Phish seemingly died in a drug-induced muddy field in Northern Vermont, the band played one of their defining shows of the modern era, directly contrasting their farewell festival, yet subtly nodding to the sounds of the bygone era. Midway through the second set of the band’s opening show in the storied UIC Pavilion Phish crafted a 25-minute masterpiece comprised of two of 2.0’s staples. Emerging with the third “Waves” since the transcendent Bethel version, the band looked to build upon that version, though instead of focusing on the blissful melodies that naturally grew out of the song’s theme, this time Trey was dead set on crafting a more rock-based, guitar laden jam. Seamlessly flowing into a percussive beat that hinted at “Undermind” four minutes prior the official segue into the song proper, it was Trey’s jam to dominate before he and Mike finally guided the band into only the 11th version of the 2.0 song. Playing a far looser version of the song than had been heard before, Phish wove in and out of each verse with something of wild abandon, giving the song it’s closest alignment to it’s origins. Yet it was when they fully departed from the song’s theme that the real magic happened, and one of the best jams of the year emerged. By turning the song’s rhythmic nature on it’s head, Trey began interlacing the beats with subtle funk chords, moving the melody further and further away from it’s origins. Yet before anyone could latch onto the funk, the music faded, Page traveled over the Theremin, and Trey began lacing together a melody that was fit for a sleeping child. Using the Theremin to coat the music, rather than dominate, the UIC “Undermind” is the best example of the Theremin being incorporated with the band’s sound since they first brought it out in “The Storage Jam.” Allowing the theme to fade off in the ether, one of the most unique jam sequences of the summer, and of 3.0, disappeared into “Steam,” thus continuing the elements set.

“Tweezer” – Denver, CO – 09/03/2011

After two years in which “Tweezer” dominated the 3.0 jam scene, culminating with one of the best jams of 2010 on 12/30/2010, the legendary jam vehicle fell flat during the early part of 2011. Sure there were some promising versions here and there – 06/05/2011 immediately springs to mind – but more often than not, the song would get “Horse’d” or “Julius’d” before it ever had a chance to really be explored. That is until it emerged seamlessly out of a “Down With Disease” jam on the second night of the band’s final stand of the summer in Denver, CO. Moving rapidly out of the funk-based origins of the song into a more melodic and uplifting theme, the jam took on a unique quality all its own, one that would soon evoke memories of the band’s style from the Fall of 1999. With near perfect precision, Trey built a soulful solo above the powerful drums of Fish and Page’s heroic baby-grand. Much like the phenomenal “Light” from 10/19/2010, it was clear the band loved the musical zone they’d discovered as they spent the entirety of the jam residing in it. Rather than moving swiftly from one theme to another as most 3.0 jams do, Phish opted to play within a singular theme, crafting ideas from within it. The result is one of the most sublime and organic jams of the era, a nod to their patient past, and a hopeful sign of things to come in the future. Dissolving into a gorgeous ambient movement, the jam came in for a soft landing before emerging in “Golden Age.” An emotive piece that summed up the band’s place at the end of their summer tour, the Dick’s “Tweezer” is the kind of jam Phish could only play after months of consistently playing together, and shows the benefit of their time and dedication to the road.

“Piper> Harry Hood” – Denver, CO – 09/04/2011

On the final night of their summer 2011 tour, Phish threw down a jam midway through the second set that hit all the highs that had occurred throughout the tour, and celebrated all they’d accomplished over the previous four months. Playing easily the best “Piper” of the year to that point, the band dove into the raging theme of the song before moving at a blistering clip into a playful and danceable section which featured Trey and Fish singing some unknown rhyme in unison with the beat. Building the jam out of it’s goofy interplay, Page stepped to the Theremin for one more go around of the summer as the band engaged in some serious “Storage Jamming.” The nod towards the seminal moment of the summer allowed Phish to bring the jam to natural conclusion before fading into their legendary piece of music, borne out of Trey’s near-death experience in Italy: “Harry Hood.” A song that, while always welcome in 3.0, has time-after-time struggled to live up to the lofty expectations built by it’s just incredible performances throughout the 90’s, the Dick’s “Hood” finally saw Trey in particular nail the song’s ethereal solo, resulting in the best pure version since certainly 2003, but probably since sometime in the mid-90’s. An absolutely sublime moment that resulted in a full on peak of the song’s emotive theme, the Dick’s “Hood” was a celebratory version of the song, capping off an incredible summer tour, and an incredible finale to the tour.

“Piper” – New York City, NY – 12/30/2011

Midway through the second set of probably the weakest show of the 2011 New Year’s run, Phish threw down a “Piper” that clearly built off the stellar version in Colorado four months early and gave a promising sign to fans that “Piper” would once again be used as a regular jam vehicle. Moving through multiple themes at a breakneck pace, much like the “Down With Disease -> What’s The Use?” from 08/14/2010, this version of “Piper” put on high display how connected the band is after almost three years of playing together again, yet all the more making fans scratch their heads over why the NYE run felt so underwhelming. Dramatically moving from chaotic interplay to a blissful melody at 9:19, the band changed on a dime for the wide open soundscapes that defined many of their best jams of the year. Building through siren exchanges from Trey and Page, Gordo filled out the blossoming jam with a massive tug at his envelope filtered-bass, filling the arena with fuzzy bass. Page then took charge of the jam while Trey opted to sculpt walls of sound, giving the chairman of the boards a fitting moment in the sun after a year in which he absolutely dominated the majority of their best jams. Fading into “Twist” the jam which had covered so much ground over 15 minutes, ended with a whisper, a symbolic reference of sorts to Phish in 2011.

Honorable Shows

Merriweather Post Pavilion – Columbia, MD – 06/11/2011

Set I: Daniel Saw The Stone*, AC/DC Bag>Ocelot, Access Me, Vultures, Wilson>Sand>Roses Are Free -> Reba, On Your Way Down>Run Like An Antelope#

Set II: Birds Of A Feather>Tweezer -> The Horse -> Silent In The Morning>Waves>Chalk Dust Torture##, Rock & Roll>Albuquerque>Piper -> Wading In The Velvet Sea -> 2001>Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan>Suzy Greenberg

Encore: Show Of Life>Tweezer Reprise

* First “Daniel Saw The Stone” since 08/03/2003

# “Run Like An Antelope” contained “On Your Way Down” teases from Trey

## “Chalk Dust Torture” contained “Birds Of A Feather teases

After 2010’s epic “Saw It Again”-laced Set II, expectations were high leading up to Phish’s return weekend at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Honoring the fun-filled 06/27/2010 show, the band opened with the traditional rarity, “Daniel Saw The Stone” for the first time since the 2003 IT festival. Mixing the first set with punctual takes on the band’s classics – “AC/DC Bag,” “Wilson,” Reba,” “Run Like An Antelope” – and inspired versions of other rarities – “Access Me,” “Vultures,” “On Your Way Down” – Phish crafted the ideal summer first set. During a week when they struggled to both consistently play with energy and purpose, the first night of Merriweather Post displayed a band at ease and having fun. Mixing surprises with excellent standards, the set just sounds like a June Phish show. For their second set, the band opted for a song-based movement, mixing some of their best jams vehicles – “Tweezer,” “Rock & Roll,” “Piper” – with a few quieter, more introspective songs – “The Horse -> Silent In The Morning,” “Albuquerque,” “Wading In The Velvet Sea”. On paper it took the appearance of some of their less-loved “recital” shows of 3.0 – Hampton 09, 08/15/2009, 10/15/2010, 12/30/2010 – yet when one listens, it is a set that flows perfectly; the amount of songs keeps the listener engaged, rather than frustrated. Highlighted by a psychedelic and distorted take on “Rock & Roll” – subtly hinting at The Gorge’s epic version later in the summer – which smoothly lands in the always welcome “Albuquerque,” a torrid “Piper”, and an absolutely blazing “2001>Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan>Suzy Greenberg” to end the set, the show’s interwoven dichotomy makes it a keeper in 2011.

 

The Gorge Amphitheater – George, WA – 08/06/2011

Set I: Possum, The Moma Dance>Sample In A Jar, Limb By Limb, Ocelot, Poor Heart, On Your Way Down, Wolfman’s Brother# -> Maze>Wilson>Fluffhead

Set II: Chalk Dust Torture>Tweezer>Prince Caspian>Sand -> Tweezer>Birds Of A Feather, Waste>Golden Age>Reba>Run Like An Antelope##

Encore: Suzy Greenberg>Sanity>Tweezer Reprise

# “Wolfman’s Brother” contained a “Heartbreaker” tease

## “Run Like An Antelope” contained “Reba” whistling, “Tweezer,” “Tweezer Reprise,” “Sand,” “Nellie Kane,” and “Golden Age” teases

The night after blowing apart the minds of their fan base with the masterful “Rock & Roll -> Meatstick -> Boogie On Reggae Woman” jam sequence, Phish returned for their second night at The Gorge and played a far more straight forward, rocking show, yet one which displayed better overall flow, particularly in set II. Opening with a string of tunes that one would have expected to have been played the night before, the first set took a while to get off the ground, regardless of how good the band sounded, particularly in “Limb By Limb” and “Ocelot.” Yet when they dropped the Little Feat rarity “On Your Way Down,” the show started in earnest as the final four songs that followed were not only fan favorites, but top notch versions at that. Highlighted by a phenomenal “Wolfman’s Brother” that touched on Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” before moving on to a disjointed groove, the song was the first genuine experimentation of the night. Seamlessly segueing into “Maze,” the two mid-90’s classic were united in the most random way, yet it worked and set off a firestorm within the crowd. Closing the set with a classic “Wilson>Fluffhead,” the crowd was at a fever pitch heading into setbreak. Opening set II with “Chalk Dust,” it’s first such appearance since it was taken to the netherworld on 06/25/2010, it appeared the band was poised to give their angst-ridden classic the storage treatment. However, the set’s theme was to be tightness, thus when the song came to a roaring end, Trey immediately launched into a “Tweezer” that set off an explosion within the open-air theater. Building the jam around fall-back funk themes the jam held little weight on it’s own, but when it led into a unique and lilting “Prince Caspian,” a shred-fest within “Sand” and ultimately a perfect segue back into “Tweezer,” all was forgiven. The other high point of the set came in the set closing trio of the TV On The Radio jam, “Golden Age” and the contrasting classics, “Reba” and “Run Like An Antelope.” Appearing in the second set for the second time this summer, and only the fifth since 2000, the song gave band and audience alike an opportunity to step back and reflect of the incredible weekend it had been. Finishing the set with an “Antelope” littered with teases of almost every song in the set, the band sent a message of how much fun they’d had at the Gorge, only further emphasized with the “Suzy>Sanity>Tweezer Reprise” encore that almost shook the hill into the Columbia River. Similar to 06/11/2011 in it’s ability to show Phish’s excellence even when they don’t jam, 08/06/2011 is yet another one of those shows that just sounds like Phish in the summer time.

 

Madison Square Garden – New York City, NY – 12/28/2011

Set I: Free*, Glide>Possum, Cities, The Ballad Of Curtis Loew, Stash, Contact>Sample In A Jar, Kill Devil Falls>Bathtub Gin

Set II: Birds Of A Feather, Carini -> Tweezer# -> My Friend, My Friend&>Rock & Roll -> NICU>Bouncing Around The Room, Harry Hood##> Bug

Encore: Tube>Rocky Top>Tweezer Reprise

* First “Free” opener in history

# “Tweezer” contained a “Streets Of Cairo” tease

## “Harry Hood” contained a “Free” tease at the end

& “My Friend, My Friend” was unfinished

The first night of Phish’s 2011 New Year’s Eve run, 12/28/2011 proved to be the most inspired show of the underwhelming end to the year. Opening with “Free” for the first time in the band’s history, followed by the first “Glide” since MSG 2009 – only the second since the Coventry debacle, and only the fourth in eleven years – the stakes were set mighty high as many thought this run would carry over the inspired playing of the summer of 2011. A jam off of “Cities” in the clean-up spot only pushed the crowd to a roaring peak as Mike and Trey locked in for a jam akin to the one of the same Talking Heads cover at The Greek Theater in August 2010. The rest of the first set was full of tour opener set I standards – “Stash,” “Sample In A Jar,” “Kill Devil Falls” – a couple rarities – “The Ballad Of Curtis Loew,” “Contact” – and a stellar type-I jam in “Bathtub Gin” to close out the first frame. The second set proved to be me the most fluid and experimental set of the entire four-show run, highlighted by a perfect segue from “Carini -> Tweezer,” and a rhythmic jaunt through “Rock & Roll” which found an ideal landing in the least likely of places: “NICU.” Closing the set with a “Harry Hood” that matched the sharpness of the Dick’s version followed by the emotive ballad “Bug,” the band walked off the stage triumphant. Encoring with an unexpected trio of “Tube>Rocky Top>Tweezer Reprise” it appeared Phish could do no wrong and would surpass their past two NYE run’s with ease. However, after the following night’s “The Sloth>You Enjoy Myself” opener, nothing, aside from 12/30/2011’s “Piper” would approach both the song selection, experimentation, nor wild abandonment that defined much of 2011, and 12/28/2011 in particular.

 

The Top Ten Shows Of 2011

Bethel Center For The Arts – Bethel, NY – 05/28/2011

Set I: Theme From The Bottom, NICU, Cities>Halley’s Comet -> Runaway Jim, Gumbo>Quinn The Eskimo>Limb By Limb, Horn, Bathtub Gin -> Manteca# -> Bathtub Gin##

Set II: Down With Disease &-> Free>Backwards Down The Number Line###>Makisupa Policeman+ -> Harry Hood>Cavern>David Bowie

Encore: A Day In The Life

# “Manteca” contained “Golden Age” teases

## The ending of “Bathtub Gin” contained a “Manteca” tease

### “Backwards Down The Number Line” contained a “Dave’s Energy Guide” tease from Mike

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

+ “Makisupa Policeman” contained references to the band member’s houses, thus originating the tour-long gag, and referenced Trey’s favorite TV show: “House.”

On the second night of Phish’s 2011 Summer Tour the band played an absolute gem of a show, one in which many would expect to come two weeks into a tour, rather than right off the bat. However, after rehearsing extensively on the hallowed grounds of Woodstock in the week leading up to the tour, the band was primed and ready from the get-go, resulting in two highly inspired, exploratory shows out the gates. Opening with “Theme From The Bottom” the show got off to a unique start as the tour had kicked both night’s off with rare openers. Playing a perfect summer set, Phish dove right into the jams with a thick “Cities,” followed by a dreamlike jam in “Halley’s Comet” that spilled perfectly into “Runaway Jim.” Complimenting the rest of the set with tight versions of “Quinn The Eskimo” and “Limb By Limb” the peak of the set came with the closing jam out of “Bathtub Gin.” Typically a type-I shred-fest in 3.0, Trey in particular locked onto a groove right as it sounded as though the band was reaching the final peak and instead diverted the jam in a mash-up of the rare “Manteca” and the theme to “Golden Age.” Toying with the crowd, they wove in and out of this jam before finally bringing it back into “Gin” for a climaxing conclusion of the first set. Opening the second set with the expected “Down With Disease,” the band went on to craft one of their most connected, fully flowing sets of the summer. Taking “DWD” down a softer, more ambient-based path Trey wove lyrical riffs around a porous foundation before stepping back and allowing it to dissolve in a wall of sound. Taking their time to build out of “DWD” and into “Free” the segue was a far cry from the rushed segues into the song throughout much of 3.0. Dropping into “Backwards Down The Number Line” signaled the second significant jam of the set as Trey spent serious time playing around the comeback anthem’s theme before peaking it in a glorious celebration that is really how the song deserves to be played literally every time. Adding some Phish humor midway through the set by way of the first Phish song, “Makisupa Policeman,” the “House” gag that would follow the band throughout their June leg was born out of a story on Trey getting high at each of the guy’s houses. Closing out the set with a classic “Harry Hood>Cavern>Bowie,” plus an always welcome “A Day In The Life” encore, Phish left the stage at the top of their game. A stunning opening weekend to the Summer 2011 tour, the first two nights in particular would go down as some of the best music the band played all year.

 

DTE Energy Music Theater – Clarkston, MI – 06/03/2011

Set I: Wolfman’s Brother, Funky Bitch, Sample In A Jar, NICU#, Mike’s Song -> I Am Hydrogen>Weekapaug Groove, Tela>Chalk Dust Torture, The Wedge

Set II: Down With Disease#% -> Fluffhead -> David Bowie, Waste>2001##>Cavern

Encore: Good Times, Bad Times

# “NICU” and “Down With Disease” contained “Happy Birthday” teases

## “2001” contained a “Sex Machine” tease

% “Down With Disease” contained a jam centered around “A Love Supreme”

There are certain Phish shows when all involved – band and crowd – know going in it’s going to be a classic. A week into their summer 2011 the band dropped into the Motor City for a birthday show for Gordo and played a fully-flowing show that featured a fun-filled Set I, the longest jam of 3.0 in “Down With Disease” and a classic set II, only six-songs long, reminiscent of the band’s experimental throwdown’s in the 90’s. Opening a show for the first time since 2000, “Wolfman’s Brother” provided insight into the energetic and exploratory show the band was about to embark on. A song that really blossomed the previous Fall after a year and a half run as the most consistent tune of 3.0, the version from Clarkston, while remaining relatively contained to its structure, certainly displayed the band’s willingness this early in the tour to pushing their song’s past their 3.0 limit. Filling the set with powerful takes on first set standards – “Funky Bitch,” “Sample In A Jar,” “NICU,” “Chalk Dust” – along with a notable “Mike’s Groove” and a surprise “Tela,” the set grabbed the crowd, and although it didn’t explore too much new territory, showed how sharp the band was in the early part of summer. It was the second set though, that would be remembered for both the incredibly diverse, blissfully stunning jam out of “Down With Disease,” the segues into the classic’s “Fluffhead” and “David Bowie” that followed, and the overall length of the set, all of which combined to make it the early favorite set of the year. After the nearly hour-long triumvirate, the expected breather in “Waste” felt a whole lot more appreciated by the crowd, stunned by what they’d just witnessed. Yet showing how keenly aware they were of the set they were playing, the band capped off the show with a “2001>Cavern” chock full of James Brown teases, and a raging “Good Times, Bad Times” encore. A special show for both band and crowd, Clarkston provided an early peak for the summer tour, one that would be matched by the following night in Ohio, but one that wouldn’t be surpassed until exactly one month later at Super Ball IX.

 

Blossom Music Center – Cuyahoga Falls, OH – 06/04/2011

Set I: Kill Devil Falls, Guyute, Fuck Your Face>Foam, Ocelot, Rocket In My Pocket, Back On The Train>Guelah Papyrus, Tube+>Run Like An Antelope#++

Set II: Birds Of A Feather, Possum -> Steam^ -> Piper -> The Lizards, Sneaking Sally Through The Alley##>Harry Hood -> Have Mercy -> Harry Hood###>Character Zero####

Encore: Slave To The Traffic Light

+ “Tube” referenced Page’s House

++ Trey mentioned different band members including Toph before the “Marco Esquandolas” section

^ “Steam” made it’s Phish debut

# “Run Like An Antelope” contained a “Streets Of Cairo” tease

## “Sneaking Sally” contained a “Manteca” tease

### The second part of “Harry Hood” contained a “The Lizards” and a “Have Mercy” tease

#### “Character Zero” contained a “Smoke On The Water” tease

A night after playing their most exploratory jam to this point in 3.0, Phish put on a show that, while it was the antithesis to 06/03/2011, proved that when Phish is really feeling it, it doesn’t matter what kind of show they play. With a first set that contained some uneven flow as the band toyed with rockers – “Kill Devil Falls,” “Back On The Train,” “Run Like An Antelope” – compositions – “Guyute,” “Foam” – and rarities – “Fuck Your Face,” “Rocket In My Pocket” “Guelah Papyrus” – it still retained the magic from the previous night, and proved to be one of those puzzling sets that shouldn’t have worked, but somehow did. In a similar manner, the second set was a far more song-based affair that the previous night, though the band used the format to show off their ability to jam within their songs, as was heard in the disjointed climax in “Possum” and the “Harry Hood -> Have Mercy -> Harry Hood” that gave the set it’s emotional peak. However the set’s true highlights came in the debut of the year’s lone new original, “Steam,” the sublime jam that emerged from “Piper’s” rage and spilled smoothly into “The Lizards,” and the contrastingly menacing jam that built from “Sneaking Sally” and segued brilliantly into “Harry Hood.” Closing the show with a stunning take on the classic, “Slave To The Traffic Light,” the show was proof of how dexterous of a band Phish had become throughout 3.0, and along with the previous night made the June midwest run the band’s best until their UIC trifecta over two months later.

 

Verizon Wireless Ampitheater – Charlotte, NC – 06/17/2011

Set I: Mike’s Song -> I Am Hydrogen>Weekapaug Groove, Bouncing Around The Room>NICU+>Sample In A Jar, Col. Forbin’s Ascent -> Fly Famous Mockingbird, Axilla I>Wolfman’s Brother, Scent Of A Mule#, Stealing Time For The Faulty Plan

Set II: Backwards Down The Number Line>Rock & Roll## -> Ghost>Free>Reba, Icculus*, Hold Your Head Up>Bike**###>Hold Your Head Up, Chalk Dust Torture, You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Wilson>Loving Cup

+ “NICU” referenced Leo’s House

# “Scent Of A Mule” contained a “Tra La La” tease from Page

## “Rock & Roll” contained a “A Love Supreme” tease from Mike

### “Bike” contained a “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” tease from Fish

* First “Icculus” sing 08/14/2009

** First “Bike” since 06/18/2009

After ten days worth of mostly forgettable shows, defined by recital setlists, aborted jams, and an overall puzzling disconnect from the band, Phish played a rarity-filled, fully flowing summery show in Charlotte, NC that still remains one of the highlights of June, and of 2011 in whole. Opening with the first “Mike’s Groove” opener since 08/15/2004, the band sent a clear message out the gates that they were stoked and ready to throw down a memorable night. Filling the first set with punctual versions of first set standards – “NICU,” “Sample In A Jar,” “Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan” – alongside a heated jam in “Wolfman’s Brother,” and the first “Col. Forbin’s -> Mockingbird” since 07/04/2010, by the time the band stepped off the stage they had completed one of the top three sets of the summer thus far. In the second set, the same ideas that made Set I so much fun spilled over as the band engaged in one of June’s best improvisational moments in “Rock & Roll -> Ghost,” before throwing down a surprise Set II “Reba” – it’s first appearance in a second set since 09/22/2000 – and then engaging the crowd in the ultra-rare “Icculus” – first since 08/14/2009 – and Fishman sung Syd Barrett tune, “Bike” – only the second since 2000. Closing out the show with a raging “Chalk Dust Torture,” followed by the increasingly rare “You Enjoy Myself,” along with the energized “Wilson>Loving Cup” encore, the band kicked off the final weekend of their June run with a memorable show that far surpassed much of the music played during the meat of the tour, and left many wondering why the band had strayed so far from their focus and energy in the first two weeks of the tour in the first place. In any sense, Charlotte is the kind of show that shows Phish comfortable deep within a tour, simply having fun, loving playing in front of their fans. A great show to sum up the overall sentiments of 3.0.

 

Super Ball IX – Watkins Glen, NY – 07/03/2011

Set I: Soul Shakedown Party>AC/DC Bag>The Curtain*>Col. Forbin’s Ascent -> Fly Famous Mockingbird**+, Destiny Unbound>Big Black Furry Creature From Mars#>Wilson##>Mound, A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing&, Time Loves A Hero, Reba### -> David Bowie

Set II: Big Balls^>Down With Disease&& -> No Quarter>Party Time, Ghost>Gotta Jibboo>Light, Waves -> What’s The Use?>Meatstick>Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, The Star Spangled Banner

Encore: First Tube

* First “The Curtain” without since 09/09/2000

** First “Fly Famous Mockingbird” with narration since 09/30/2000

+ The narration in “Fly Famous Mockingbird” referenced the previous night’s “Storage Jam” and explained how the band got locked in a storage unit on their way to Colorado in 1988, and that everything since, including the entire SBIX weekend had been a mental projection from the band to their fans.

# “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars” contained a tease of “The Twilight Zone” and “Leave It To Beaver” theme’s from Mike

## “Wilson” contained a tease of “Mind Left Body”

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

& “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” was unfinished

&& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

^ “Big Balls” (AC/DC) made it’s Phish debut

Hands down, the single best show Phish has played since their return in March 2009. Sure, you could make an argument for 01/01/2011, or 08/07/2010, or 10/20/2010, or even 08/07/2009, but none of those – while phenomenal shows in their own right – have the combined energy, wackiness, exploratory spirit, and overall anything-goes Phish that has defined so much of their career, all packed into one show, quite like 07/03/2011. The result of the previous night’s secret “Storage Jam,” Phish emerged on the final day of their Super Ball IX festival totally relaxed, completely enthralled with their playing, and ready to throw down a show, the likes of which it’s fan base hadn’t experienced in years. Particularly in the first set, it felt as if the band could do no wrong, any song they played, any direction they took it worked, sculpting a first frame full of unique and inspired versions of classics – “Wilson,” “Reba,” “David Bowie” – and rarities alike – “Destiny Unbound,” “Mound,” “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing.” Starting in earnest with the first “Curtain” without since 1.0, the band dove into “Forbin’s -> Mockingbird” and delivered the first narration for the Gamehendge-era tune since Vegas 2000. Crafting a tale about how the band got locked in a storage unit on their first tour outside of Vermont in 1988, Trey messed with the crowd in classic form, revealing that the band just kept playing music while locked inside, that everything they did between then and 2011 was actually a mental projection from them to their fans. A wholly connected moment for the band and the fan base, the story evoked memories of the wacky stories Trey would tell when the crowd was a mere fraction of the size it’s grown to today. From that point forward the rest of the set was absolute fire, with a best-of-3.0 version – and a few top-10-ever versions thrown in there – that you simply have to hear to believe. Summed up in the “Reba” whistling outro that the band butchered horribly, but used the mistake to distort the gaily music into an eerie “David Bowie,” the set is truly Phish at their finest. Set II was more than anything, the icing on the cake. Opening with the appropriate first time cover of AC/DC’s “Big Balls,” the set featured expansive jams in “Down With Disease,” “Light,” and “Waves,” along with another stellar cover of “No Quarter,” and a deep second-set appearance for “What’s The Use?” Capping off the set with the expected and welcome “Star Spangled Banner,” the boys displayed their incredible musical fortitude by nailing their a cappella cover. A show for the ages, 07/03/2011 took the massive culmination of 2 years as a band that was “The Storage Jam” and showed their fans they were not only keenly aware of the side of Phish they all craved, but that after all these years, and after so much unknown, they were still that band. As would be seen with the August and Dick’s runs, the turning point that was “The Storage Jam,” was not all for naught.

 

Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena At Harvey’s – Stateline, NV – 08/09/2011

Set I: Party Time, The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony>AC/DC Bag>Mellow Mood, Rift>Punch You In The Eye>Meat, David Bowie, Bouncing Around The Room, Horn, Water In The Sky, 46 Days

Set II: Gotta Jibboo>Light#>Chalk Dust Torture##& -> Slave To The Traffic Light>Free, Rocket Man^, Harry Hood>Walls Of The Cave

Encore: Bug>The Squirming Coil

# “Light” contained a tease of “Timber” and “Tweezer”

## “Chalk Dust Torture” contained a tease of “Dixie and Hedwig Theme”

& “Chalk Dust Torture” was unfinished

^ “Rocket Man” (Elton John) made it’s Phish debut

Since the onset of 3.0, two trends have held true: the August run combines the energy and excitement of uneven June shows with a commitment to exploration, and, the West coast produces some of the loosest Phish this side of 1997. Fresh off their transcendent performance at The Gorge – featuring The jam of the era in “Rock & Roll,” along with one of better shows of the year on 08/06/2011 – Phish arrived in the parking lot-turned amphitheater, right in between a casino and Late Tahoe, poised to give their fans a uniquely crafted show that balanced a recital approach in Set I, and a fully flowing, experimental set II. Kicking things off with “Party Time,” “Oh Kee Pa> AC/DC Bag>Mellow Mood,” the show carried the kind of fun-filled summery feel that harkened back to 08/14/2010’s masterful performance. Using the set as a means to highlight some of the band’s best proper songs – “Rift,” “Water In The Sky,” “Horn” – while still saving some time for the funk in “Meat,” diving deep into psychedelia in “David Bowie,” and capping things off with a torrid “46 Days,” it was a diverse outing, one that retained incredible flow. A strange phenomenon in the band’s recital shows, the first set seemed to be eternally connected like an album, regardless of the fact that some of the songs were written more than twenty years apart. Set II was a fully-flowing machine, complete with groundbreaking improv in “Light,” a classic segue for the ages in “Chalk Dust -> Slave,” and a gimmicky first-time rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” a direct response to the loads of hand-held light-up rockets seen amongst the crowd. Capping things off with a blissful take on “Harry Hood,” a song which has once again returned to it’s role as the emotional peak of whatever set it’s played in, followed by a raging “Walls Of The Cave,”  the set was among the more hooked-up moments for Phish in a year full of them. Closing out the night with an emotive “Bug>Coil” encore, Phish walked off the stage having played one of their more diverse, understated shows of the year. A show which let the music speak for itself, the first night of Tahoe was the epitome of west coast Phish.

 

UIC Pavilion – Chicago, IL – 08/15/2011

Set I: Back On The Train>Rift>Guelah Papyrus, Scent Of A Mule, Jesus Just Left Chicago, Wolfman’s Brother, Anything But Me, Babylon Baby^, Reba>Alumni Blues+ -> Letter To Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues

Set II: Sand -> Light -> Dirt>Waves -> Undermind% -> Steam>Fire

Encore: Camel Walk, Guyute, The Horse -> Silent In The Morning, Harry Hood

^ “Babylon Baby” made it’s Phish debut

+ Prior to “Alumni Blues” Trey said, “That green ball came up here just enough times.”

% “Undermind” featured Page on the Theremin

After 27 shows, two and a half months on the road, 18 cities, 12 states, and one festival, Phish arrived at the hallowed UIC Pavilion in Chicago, IL about as well-oiled a machine as they had been in all of 3.0. As a direct result, the six shows played between Chicago and Denver to close out the 2011 summer tour is some of the most memorable, consistent, and on-point Phish any of us had heard in years. Playing without restrain, the term 3.0 need not apply to any of the UIC or Dick’s shows, as each displayed a band on top of their game once again, and each would be a highlight in any year.  Four of the six shows from the run round out this list, the other two, while they didn’t quite make the cut, are still incredibly memorable shows in their own right. Simply put, were I making a top five list of the year, it’d be the following four shows only narrowly edged out by 07/03/2011. The culmination of Phish’s entire two-year re-birth, reformation and reclamation process, UIC and Dick’s is Phish at their most consistent, zaniest, and absolute finest. Kicking things off with a highly energized set featuring explosive type-I jams in “Back On The Train,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” “Reba,” and the surprise set closing classic of “Alumni -> Jimmy Page -> Alumni,” Phish reined in the fever pitch of a crowd gathered in the first indoor shows since 01/01/2011. Rounding things out with a divergent jam out of “Wolfman’s,” plus a heartfelt take the Round Room ballad, “Anything From Me” – only the second since Coventry – the set flew perfectly thanks to it’s rock spirit, yet kept things interesting with both surprise song choices, and inspired moments of variety. Set II however was about as perfect a second set as the band has played since possibly 08/02/2003. Traversing through their Earthly “element” songs, the band kept things tight with a six-song set, allowed the improvisational music that emerged from the songs to craft a tale the band hadn’t flirted with since 2.0. Anchored by a fully hooked-up jam within “Waves -> Undermind,” the set also featured a seedy “Sand,” and the band’s best performance of the 2011 debut, “Steam,” until 12/31/2011’s sinister take. Walking off the stage after “Fire,” many, while incredibly satisfied, were confused at to why the band chose to end the set after only an hour. Yet, fucking with their fans as they may, Phish treated the crowd to a five song encore, featuring the ultra-rare – “Camel Walk,” – the massive composition – “Guyute” – and the most ethereal Phish song of them all – “Harry Hood. A show for the ages, 08/15/2011 kicked off a run of shows that were played in a way we hadn’t seen nor heard since 1.0.

 

UIC Pavilion – Chicago, IL – 08/16/2011

Set I: Dinner And A Movie, Ha Ha Ha>Chalk Dust Torture, Mexican Cousin, Walls Of The Cave>Runaway Jim>Foam, I Didn’t Know, Ocelot, Ginseng Sullivan>The Wedge, Limb By Limb>Let It Loose

Set II: Down With Disease#& -> Twist>Backwards Down The Number Line>Theme From The Bottom>Golden Age -> A Day In The Life>You Enjoy Myself##

Encore: Heavy Things>Slave To The Traffic Light>Rocky Top

# “Down With Disease” contained “Leave It To Beaver” teases from Mike

## “You Enjoy Myself” contained “Walk This Way” teases and Darth Vader quotes in the vocal jam

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

A night after playing one of their most connected, on point improvisational sets in years, Phish returned to the UIC Pavilion and played a much more structured and song-based show, yet one that flowed just as well as it’s predecessor. Cruising out the gates with two gag openers – “Dinner And A Movie,” “Ha Ha Ha” – followed by an atypical take on “Chalk Dust Torture,” it was clear the energy from the previous night hadn’t subsided. Yet, where most of the band’s notable recital shows featured standard takes on standard tunes – just more of them – this set wove through various eras and styles of Phish, keeping listeners on their toes for it’s entirety. Featuring jams in “Walls Of The Cave,” “Runaway Jim” and “Ocelot,” along with humorous breaks in “Mexican Cousin” and “I Didn’t Know,” the boys threw a curveball by ending the set with the emotional, late-in-the-evening styled Stones’ tune, “Let It Loose,” seen for the first time since Indio. Returning to the experimental innovation that carried the second set the previous night, Phish came out blazing with a stunning “Down With Disease,” one that was only surpassed by the 06/03/2011 version this year. Moving seamlessly into “Twist,” it sounded as though the band was going to revive the once-jam monster, however, after an extended take on it’s blues themes, the flow of the overall set took over. Filling out the meat of the set with strong renditions of “Number Line,” “Theme” and “Golden Age,” the latter of which segued effortlessly into the always welcome, “A Day In The Life” – a show with a Beatles and Stones cover is never one to complain about – Phish ended the set with only the sixth “You Enjoy Myself” of the year. A song which had been used to close out literally every run in 2009 and 2010, it’s sudden rare quality made it far more appreciated than it had become in 3.0. Playing yet another extended encore the band treated the crowd to some of Trey’s best guitar work of the night in “Heavy Things” and “Slave,” before saying good night with “Rocky Top.” Carrying over the inspired playing of the previous night, 08/16 proved that at this point in the summer of 2011, it didn’t matter what kind of show they played, for whatever they played, they fucking nailed.

 

Dick’s Sporting Goods Park – Commerce City, CO – 09/03/2011

Set I: Possum, The Moma Dance>The Wedge, Ocelot>The Divided Sky, Funky Bitch, Axilla I>Llama#, Fast Enough For You, Wolfman’s Brother

Set II: Down With Disease& -> Tweezer##>Golden Age>Limb By Limb, Kill Devil Falls -> 2001>Light### -> Down With Disease>Julius>Cavern>Run Like An Antelope####

Encore: Sleeping Monkey>Tweezer Reprise####

# “Llama” contained a “Streets Of Cairo” tease

## “Tweezer” contained “Green-Eyed Lady” teases from Page and a “Golden Age” tease from Fish

### “Light” contained “Dirt” teases from Mike and “Down With Disease” teases from Trey

#### “Run Like An Antelope” and “Tweezer Reprise” contained “Down With Disease” teases

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

The second night of the Labor Day Weekend Finale to the 2011 Summer tour featured a balanced Phish firing on all cylinders. Mixing rock with jams and gimmicks in a fully flowing setlist that displayed the entirety of their catalogue, the band continued the fire which started in Chicago, carried over to 09/02’s “Sssssss” show, and would see them end the summer at the top of their game. Opening with a string of well-played, first set standards, the show popped with an energy one wouldn’t expect with a “Moma,” “Ocelot,” “Funky Bitch” showcase. Yet things really began in earnest once the band dropped the rare “Axilla I,” and followed it with the triumvirate of “Llama,” “Fast Enough For You” and a raging “Wolfman’s Brother” to close things out. Ending on such a high note, it was reminiscent of 08/06/2011’s first set which started in much the same way, and ended just as hot. Opening Set II with the second-ever “Down With Disease -> Tweezer” – the first since 08/02/1997 – was about all the sign anyone needed as to what kind of set we were in for. Developing into an absolutely transcendent jam, “Tweezer” quickly wove from an A-minor funk-fest into a dreamlike Fall-99-esque passage that showed off Trey’s chops and displayed the band’s full-on connection this late in the summer. Peaking numerous times before dissolving into “Golden Age,” the jam continued the Summer 2011 trend of risk and reward with various types of jamming in the world of Phish. Highlighting the middle of the set was a searing “Kill Devil Falls” that warped into a swill of ambient noise before moving with ease into “2001,” the sequence displayed Phish’s career-spaning ability to meld styles that don’t appear to fit at first listen, this time with barroom rock and space-aged funk. Moving into “Light,” the song stopped briefly in a blissful theme before rising back into a full-on “Down With Disease” jam, thus sandwiching the first half of the set. Bringing the show and set to a fiery finish with “Cavern>Antelope,” along with a classic “Sleeping Monkey>Tweezer Reprise” encore, the show ended on a peak, one that would spill over to the following night, the final night of the tour. A mix of jams and energy, 09/03/2011 was reminiscent of the second night of tour way back in May, in it’s fully-flowing spirit, and moments of transcendent improv.

 

Dick’s Sporting Goods Park – Commerce City, CO – 09/04/2011

Set I: Maze*, Back On The Train#>Rift>Bathtub Gin##, The Way It Goes^###, Halfway To The Moon, Gumbo, Halley’s Comet -> Tube####>Timber>Roses Are Free>Chalk Dust Torture

Set II: Rock & Roll -> Come Together**& -> Twist##### -> Piper######%>Harry Hood>Roggae, Ghost####### -> Guy Forget -> Ghost, Walls Of The Cave########

Encore: Backwards Down The Number Line

# “Back On The Train” contained a “Sneaking Sally Through The Alley” tease from Trey

## “Bathtub Gin” contained a “Low Rider” tease from Trey

### “The Way It Goes” contained a “Streets Of Cairo” tease from Page

#### “Tube” contained a “Charlie Chan” tease from Trey

##### “Twist” contained a “Low Rider” jam

###### “Piper” contained a “Roadrunner” tease

####### “Ghost” contained an “Oye Como Va” tease

######## “Walls Of The Cave” contained “Rock & Roll” teases from Page

^ “The Way It Goes” (Gillian Welch) made it’s Phish debut

* First “Maze” opener since 12/09/1995

** First “Come Together” since 12/08/1995

& “Come Together” was unfinished

% “Piper” featured Page on the Theremin

A journey that began on the site of the original Woodstock Festival way back in May, over Memorial Day Weekend, concluded in a soccer stadium, in the industrial offshoot of Denver, CO, over Labor Day Weekend. Thirty-three shows deep, Phish used all the time committed to playing together throughout the summer to throw down one more show that will stand the test of time in 2011. A true two-set affair, Set I was all about the energy, while Set II was a fully flowing beast of jams and gimmicks, rarely stopping, displaying the band’s total connection and ability to go in any direction with their music. Opening with the first “Maze” opener since the legendary 12/09/1995 show that features maybe the greatest “You Enjoy Myself” of all time, the band seized upon the palpable energy of the crowd, and exploited them for all they were worth. Tearing through the Rift-era shot of adrenaline, they moved swiftly into a trio of “Back On The Train>Rift>Bathtub Gin,” the latter of which featured a jam so heated, it brought back memories of the 05/28/2011 “Ginteca” affair. Pausing briefly for a one-time take on Gillian Welch’s “The Way It Goes,” and the Page-penned gem “Halfway To The Moon,” the band revived the energy in earnest with a six song sequence of adrenaline that read: “Gumbo, Halley’s>Tube>Timber>Roses>Chalk Dust.” It was the kind of set that, upon ending, left all in the crowd wondering what had just happened and how in the world the band would top that. As they’d done throughout the entire year though, just when one thinks they’ve reached their peak, Phish has dug deep to wow their fans even more. Set II’s of tour closer’s are generally reserved for the band to revisit the song’s and ideas that brought them the most success throughout the year. Thus, it was incredibly appropriate for the band to open their 2011 tour-ending set with their cover of “Rock & Roll,” after playing such memorable versions on 06/07/2011, 06/11/2011, 06/17/2011, and 08/05/2011. Building the jam to it’s raucous peak, the band brought it down into a wholly groove-based segment before easing into a welcomed surprise of The Beatles “Come Together.” Albeit a sloppy version, the sheer fact the band had discovered this Lennon-gem by way of The Velvet Underground, for the first time since playing it on the fifteen-year anniversary of Lennon’s death, made the sequence of music all the more special. Allowing “Come Together” to bleed right into “Twist,” the band united their music with that of the past, a respectable move, and one they’ve gained the ability to do after so many years. Melding the Ghost-era jam vehicles, “Twist” and “Piper” together as they’ve been so many times before, the band took “Piper” on a ride it hadn’t experienced since 06/27/2010 in Merriweather. Landing in a full-on jam based around The Modern Lovers’ – and one-time Phish cover (09/11/2000) – “Roadrunner,” before launching into a “Storage Jam” centered around Page’s Theremin the jam was insanely diverse and displayed Phish’s uncanny ability in 3.0 to jump from idea to idea without wasting time hooking up. Honoring the style that was discovered in the wee-hours of 07/02/2011, “Piper” concluded a month’s worth of jams that explored the dark side in ways the band simply couldn’t up until now. Fading into “Harry Hood,” Phish played their old reliable emotional peak of sets with a precision, and a drive that they hadn’t in years. Capping off the first part of the set, this “Hood” was the culmination of a journey that began with the first “Hood” with Trey’s Ocedoc back on 08/07/2010. Honoring the simple, building quality of the song, Trey played within the theme like it was 1995, waiting for just the right moment to return with the “You can feel good…” conclusion. “Roggae” followed which gave everyone a chance to step back and breath, before “Ghost” kicked off the final segment of the set. Shifting quickly into a major-keyed jam like so many “Ghost’s” have since 12/31/2010’s peaking gem, the jam built around a thunderous theme, hinting at something within the vast memory bank that is Phish, finally materializing into the second-ever live version of “Guy Forget.” Not played since 10/01/2000, the gimmicky tune about the tennis star, injected the jam with some serious humor, without compromising the musical integrity. Sandwiching the song in “Ghost,” Phish closed out the set with the 2.0 masterpiece, “Walls Of The Cave,” before encoring with the 3.0 anthem, “Backwards Down The Number Line.” The absolutely perfect song to close out the show, run, and tour with, “Number Line” signifies everything Phish in their current state is about: family, friends, and the overall joy of playing music. Closing out the meat of their 2011 touring season with an absolute barnburner, Phish showed how far they’ve come since their humble comeback weekend in Hampton, VA back in March 2009. While the rest of the year featured either no Phish, or less-than-amazing Phish, none of it matter, for 2011 will go down as one of the better years of Phish when all’s said and done. Constantly building since their return, one can only imagine where they’ll go from here once they kick off the 2012 tour.

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Thanks to Phish.Net (www.phish.net) and The Mockingbird Foundation (www.mbird.org) for organizational assistance and sourcing of setlists!

The Three Decembers – 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.

————

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.