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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Summer 2003 – Ten Years After

phish100This month marks the tenth anniversary of the 2003 Summer Tour, which saw Phish trek across America – their last to properly span both coasts. A tour that blurred the lines of their overall 2.0 legacy, it also displayed a band – 20 years deep – pushing their music far into the unknown on a nightly basis. A year, and a tour that was unfairly maligned in many ways as it was happening, few tours have aged quite as well as Summer 2003 has. Much of this is due to the band’s relentless exploration throughout its entirety. Much of it is also probably due to the fact that Phish fans tend to come around on every era the band has played. Enough time passes, even 2009 starts to look like the best year of 3.0. Insipid music listening patterns will do that to a lot of people.

After returning from a two-year hiatus with a sub-par reverse-NYE Run in New York City and Hampton, Phish finally rediscovered their form throughout the two-week-long, LA – NC, Winter Tour in February. Hinting at many of the themes that would come to fruition throughout July, they nightly tore down into the rabbit’s hole in search of any light that could guide them through the unknown. That they often found even more darkness only worked to push them even further. Defined in many ways by Trey’s uncompressed, distorted, and gruesomely dirty tone, their jams took on a distinctly bluesy sound, rife with unrefined psychedelia, which bore little resemblance to any music they’d ever made before. For examples and confirmation, direct your ears towards the Chicago “Simple,” Cincinnati “Gin,” Nassau “Tweezer,” and Worcester “Moma Dance” (among, obviously many, many more jams) each of which displayed the untapped musical mine they’d unearthed throughout the tour.

Stylistically, the music they made throughout 2.0 has been called oxyjamming. Whatever that means. While sure, there are stories that Trey was struggling mightily with the on-again/off-again patterns of a hooked narcotics user, by all accounts, the Summer 2003 tour was a totally sober tour. (Whatever that means.) Are these the kinds of jams that would sedate an oxy-addict in withdrawal? Would one recommend steering clear of the pot and LSD and heading right for the pharmies in order to properly understand the musical mess Phish conjured up in 2.0? I have no idea. I guess the name just sounds like these jams in an abused, disoriented, ominous way that certain words just sound like what they’re describing. Oxyjamming has such a sloppy connotation to it, after all.

These were the first jams the band graced me with as a 18-yr-old noob seeing his first shows. To me, they often sound like the literal confusion I was experiencing in the period between high school and college. For the first time, life appeared both full of unknown potential, and increasingly baleful all at once.

At times it sounds like the band is literally fighting to stay afloat. At others, you’d have thought they were on the fringe of a massive breakthrough. It’s all very convoluted and messy.

Some people take issue with the apparent slop that dotted the band’s typically button-tight classical compositions throughout 2003. This is a fair point, to a certain extent. By all accounts the band re-engaged as Phish without participating in a single focused practice session in almost five years. Age and side project obligations played a part as well, as the band had clearly lost the youthful camaraderie – the whole inside-joke part of their performance – that had served them so well in their ascent from outcasted UVM Dead-cover-band, to regularly headlining MSG, and commanding upwards of 100,000 people to make a four-day trek to the upper reaches of Maine. And yet, while you can certainly find moments of slop throughout 2003, it’s not as if you can’t find numerous incidences of slop, and inconsistent dedication to their time-honored approach throughout much of 1997 – 2000 as well. Taken as a whole, 2003 is clearly the tightest they were as a band throughout 2.0. But, then again, I guess that’s not saying much.

The argument people love to make is that in 1995 – the summer tour in particular, which is the closest amorphous musical brethren to Summer 2003 – the band balanced a precision/energy-based approach within their compositions, while regularly spawning maximalist musical adventures into the far reaches of the unknown. To that point, all’s one can say is: true. But, it wasn’t 1995 in 2003, now was it…

The overall point is, that in the isolated Phishdom between October 7, 2000 and March 6, 2009 – a period wherein only 58 shows were played – that the band was able to tap into whatever connective force was driving them, and muster as many memorable shows/sets/jams as they did in 2003, is as true a testament as any to them as a creative engine. That these shows/sets/jams often coincided with the literal breakdown of both the band’s aesthetic, and their own personal lives only further separates the entire era from everything that else Phish has ever done.

People often complained – many times, rightly so – throughout 2009 and early 2010 that we were experiencing an era of Phish Lite. (Some continue to grouse this same point today, but it’s best to just ignore them.) Essentially saying that the music being created by the band was something of a weak imitation of everything they’d been capable of just eleven and twelve years earlier. Granted, in 2009 they had five years separating them from their last tour – ten from their last year of consistent touring – that was all moot in the face of the fact that the jams – THA JAhhhMS brAh (!!!) – were lacking. Yet, for however justifiable the criticism was in 2009, that the band needed essentially no time diving back into the netherworld when they reemerged in 2003 (technically speaking 2002, but…) is, well, the aforementioned testament.

Perhaps the key to all this inspiration can be found in the loose, late-nite-stoned-laziness of The Victor Disc. But, what was the spurt for that? That’s for another post and another time.

This essay is less here to find the historical roots of Summer 2003, as it is to honor and try to understand what happened throughout the tour.

While yes, 2003 initially received a burst in fan support and recognition in mid-2009, once it became clear the jams weren’t immediately coming back in 3.0. In many ways still, 2003 could take the award for ‘most underrated year of Phish’s career.’ Sure, a completely subjective argument – and one probably not really worth anyone’s time trying to quantify – the point is, that for however misunderstood the 2.0 era is in Phish’s overall legacy – I mean, did Parke Puterbaugh dedicate more than two paragraph’s to it in The Phish Bio?? – it’s home to some of the most jaw dropping, innovative, frightening, fall-on-your-face-failure, moody and introspective elations, and simply, unique examples of improvisation the band has ever engaged in throughout their entire career.

As follows is: Summer 2003 – Through The Jams. Ten jams, tracking the entirety of the tour. Each one signifies the various stylistic dimensions the band was willing to toy with, while also displaying the overall unifying elements that gave the tour its signature sound. That each tour has its own distinct sonic quality should come as no great revelation. Perhaps though, aside from Summer 1995, Fall 1995, and Fall 1997, Summer 2003 just sounds like Summer 2003 more so than most other tours in literally every moment of its existence.

Maybe it was a political message about the decade of war, paranoia and instability we were settling into. Maybe it was a response to all the intra-band issues still unresolved. Maybe it was just the right place and the right time. Whatever inspired them throughout the tour, one thing’s for certain: Summer 2003 stood the test of time, and is more than worthy of yours.

Big thanks to the guys over at www.phishtracks.com  for all the links for this piece!

*One quick note about the selected jams — this is neither a “Best Of” nor a “Favorite Jams” piece. These jams were all selected based on my sense of how they display the overall evolution of the 2003 Summer Tour.

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“Bathtub Gin” – 07/09/2003 – Mountain View, CA

Three shows into the tour, Phish dropped their first complete set and show, displaying a musical dexterity only heard in glimpses during the tour’s first two shows. With a five-song first set that opened with a sublime “You Enjoy Myself -> Simple,” and a fluid second set that featured a bizarre and scintillating take on “Piper,” the keystone of the whole night could be found at the end of the first set in “Bathtub Gin.” A song that produced a number of top-notch jams throughout 2003 – see, 02/14/2003, 02/22/2003, 02/28/2003, 07/26/2003, and 12/30/2003 – the version from Shoreline may be the most noteworthy. Less danceable than many of its counterparts. Less obscure that other versions. The 07/09 “Gin” is the sound of Phish 2003, the way one would expect to find them when locked in a studio, or mid-soundcheck.

Emerging from the song’s theme with a rollicking dance-beat from Fish and Mike, Trey intends to keep the jam grounded, employing his over-effect’d tone to explore the spaces between Mike and Fish, rather than command the lead, or try to impact the jam with rhythm. Employing the blues/rock riffs that had become so common throughout the winter, the jam neither meanders, nor stays put, nor necessarily takes off. Sure there’s some climax happening here, and a few moments of tension and release – see, 14ish min – 15:45ish – but it’s clear throughout that the band is far more focused on how far they can push the jam, rather than achieving any defined peak.

To this point, the most compelling aspect of this jam comes from 17:56–on when Trey signals a fade from the lethargic groove. Initiating a stoned, late-night, come-down jam, space opens up, and Page’s ambient washes become the central part of the jam. Hinting at the musical landscape the band would explore with far more earnestness in the IT “Tower Jam” and “Waves,” this is a musical space that’s perilously distorted, and yet soothingly blissful all at once. A unique blend of darkness and light, the Shoreline “Gin” is the first real indication we have in July 2003 of a band eager to dive as deep into their improvisation as possible; in constant search of a musical plane that wouldn’t have been discovered had it not been for the experimental dive that preceded it.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-09/bathtub-gin

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“Piper” – 07/19/2003 – East Troy, WI

In what’s perhaps the best year for the red, red, worm – though 1997 and 1999 certainly have something to say about it – the version played at Alpine Valley on 07/19 is neither the best, nor even the most interesting. In the summer tour alone, there are two versions that are more coherent, and more dynamic than this particular version – 07/09/2003, 07/31/2003. Yet, what separates the Alpine Valley version from the rest of the tour, and what puts it on this list, is the similarly subdued – read: peakless – jam that shares distinct thematic ideas with the 07/09 “Gin.”

Peaklessness was an overall focal point of 2003, as the band sought – deliberately or not – to direct their jams into more abstract, open soundscapes, rather than groove on a few themes while building towards some all-inclusive “big bang.” Many of the best jams of the year flow with seemingly reckless abandonment. Conflicting stews of alternating musical concepts are tossed together, all leading to an often confusing, if not incoherent, period of wading through the ideas tossed at the proverbial wall, before one is loosely latched onto until the next moment of musical amalgamation. Perhaps the jam that most displays 2003’s union with Summer 1995, the 07/19 “Piper” is more about the journey of the jam, than any sense of destination.

If there is any moment of full-band-connectivity, it comes from 12:01 – 14:05 wherein which Trey brilliant employs his Tremelo effect over a sturdy support system from Mike, a top-of-his game, abstractly holding-a-driving-beat, Jon Fishman, and Page littering the entire section with ascending and descending scales of complying melodic and dissonant passages. Yet once they discover this moment of unified jamming, they dive head-long back into the swamp, surrendering the last 10-odd minutes to soupy, psychedelic-driven-mayhem. Akin to a Fall 1997/Island Tour jam gone mad, there are moments where it feels like if the band just willed it, they could hook-up and discover transcendence – see, 20:55 to the end.

And, yet, that’s not the point of the 2003 Summer Tour. Less was the band in search of the simplified moments of ubiquitous groove that defined their 1999-2000 period, which directly preceded the hiatus. Instead here, the whole goal is the depth of music discovered. Often times, in jams such as the 07/19 “Piper,” this search yielded few tangible rewards. And yet, this was a band undeterred by the potential of falling on their faces. Like so many of the jams that needed large swaths of muddingly tedious experimentation to discover bliss, the tour itself needed a host of jams akin to the 07/19 “Piper” to overcome both their fears of the unknown, and prove that even if the band didn’t always come across brilliance, the rewards of simple exploration were more than worth it.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-19/piper

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“Harry Hood” – 07/25/2003 – Charlotte, NC

The much-revered Phish classic – capitol C – for it’s historical legacy, consistently transcendent versions from 1993 – 1996, and emotive peak that is often positioned as cap to whatever show it appears in, in 2003, the band regularly took “Harry Hood” where it had rarely even hinted at going before. While yes there were some truly captivating exploratory versions throughout 1997 – 08/14/1997 and 12/30/1997 immediately come to mind – you’d be hard-pressed to find a single traditional version of the song played on the 2003 Summer Tour. (The lone example comes as the second set closer to a 07/13/2003 Gorge show that, quite frankly, needed the warm and comforting familiarity of “Hood” after the psychologically destructive “Seven Below” that preceded it.) Perhaps out of a need to shake things up, maybe out of bordem, maybe out of an innate desire to fuck with their trusty old friend, 2003 – and to a large extent, 2004 – featured a stunning variety of lengthy, Type-II takes on “Hood.”

The jam in question is, in my humble opinion, the most interesting, and most diverse of the Type-II “Hood’s.” Granted, one could make the argument that the 07/18 version, which sticks closer to the “Hood” theme, while still breaking new ground, or the 07/31 version which is an overall tighter take on the sprawling jam are better representations of the extended “Hood,” there’s just something to the uncompromising endless push of this version that just resonates with me.

A sublime post – “Thank you Mr. Hood…” section is highlighted by particularly gorgeous piano work from Page, until, at 10:16 Trey finds his way out of the theme through at jarring chord, before backing off and allowing the band to shift downwards. Yet it’s at 12:10 where things really move in a totally opposite direction as Trey forcibly imparts an aggressive rock structure into the jam. Note Page throughout the jam, as his response to this somewhat abrasive decision is to paint a wall of keys behind Trey’s impatient lead, creating the ideal cushion for the jam’s immediate shift. That they find a unified moment of connection is a miracle; the segment from 15:54 – 16:53 is some of the most hooked-up Phish you’ll find in all of 2003.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the jam is – music aside – the simple fact that it’s reminiscent of the messages the band sent to their fans with their sprawling jams in June 1995, and their slimmed-down setlists in 1997. Here, in 2003, they’re indicating a willingness to jam any/all of their songs. That their taking such liberties with one of the emotionally coveted songs in their catalogue is all the more bold. I think, in many ways, this was the overall issue many fans had with the band from 2009 – 2011. That lack of aggressive dominance and willfulness over their catalogue had seemingly disappeared.

Ultimately resolving itself in a less-than-satisfying peak off the rock-based jam they’d been toying with through various themes over the past few minutes, the jam spends its last 3ish minutes in a realm of directionless abstract noise before somehow finding the closing peak of the “Hood” jam. (Seriously, listening back, one has to wonder how the fuck did they actually rediscover “Hood”???) A more confounding piece in many ways than even the 07/19 “Piper,” the 07/25 “Hood” shows what happens when a band cares little about the emotional rewards of paying customers, and instead, treats a mid-tour-jam as if they were locked in a room, tossing potentially meaningless ideas at each other. It’s both brilliantly important, and absurdly infuriating all at once.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-25/harry-hood

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“Crosseyed & Painless” – 07/29/2003 – Burgettstown, PA

If one were to rank the best jams of 2003, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more enthralling, resolutely satisfying, or unanimously praised jam than the “Crosseyed & Painless” from Star Lake. After littering Set I with nine-straight bustouts, that Phish would open the second set of their one-night stop in Western, PA with a song that had only been played three times in the previous six calendar years was enough to push the show into untapped territory. That the jam that emerged contained nearly 22-minutes of the most connected, unified, and determined improvisation of the year was the kind of thing that only happens in the historically brilliant moments of Phish’s career.

From essentially the moment they leave the structure of “C&P,” the jam is distinctly more focused than literally anything else played throughout the tour. And, yet, for however determined and hooked-up the band was, they sacrifice none of the exploratory zest that had thus far defined the entire summer. Led by the tour’s MVP – Jon Fishman – the jam turns on a dime at 6:20, leaving the Latino/North African sway of “Crosseyed” for something more electronic and post-modern. Like a cross-breed between the infectious grooves of the Funk Era, with the distorted and grungy hangover-rock of 2.0. With a plethora of ideas coming from each member, there’s none of the meandering psychedelia from the majority of the tour to be found. This is vintage, locked-in Phish. In the pocket; unprecedented in 2.0

So, why include a jam that so clearly deviates from the unified sound of the tour?

Because, this jam in many ways displays the total worth of the band’s relentless exploration throughout July. Were it not for all the moments of wandering experimentation, who knows if the band would have discovered such a stream for the kind of unified dive down into the rabbit’s hole they took with this “Crosseyed.” And yet, perhaps the imagery of them diving into the rabbit hole is purportedly incorrect. There’s something heavenly about this jam that’s just not present throughout the entire tour to this point – save for the 07/22/2003 “Gumbo.” It’s as if all the darkness that’s surrounded the preceding jams has led to a spiritual awakening within the band, thus guiding them away from the underworld they’d been so insistent upon residing in. This impact of the melodic, the positive spirituality, the salvation rather than damnation, is perhaps never clearer than in the moment when they band loses momentum and direction from 10:48 – 10:58, and yet, as if they’d planned it all along, discover a completely new, totally untapped, essentially more rewarding musical landscape to play around in.

This, the same band who two days earlier bickered an entire show away.

That this jam features easily the most assured playing from Trey throughout the entire tour is not for nothing. There’s a clear break from the tour that came before, and the remaining five shows, and there’s no coincidence that the brilliance of the Camden and IT shows are directly correlated to the whole-band exploration within the 07/29 “Crosseyed.” Seriously, in some ways this jam sounds like the prelude to everything achieved in the Dick’s “Undermind” and “Chalk Dust.” It’s the kind of jam that makes you wonder what could have been had the bottom not fallen our for Trey.

The peak that begins in earnest at 12:03 and lasts until 14:39 is easily the most celebratory piece of music they’d played thus far in the tour, and a direct building block to the massive “Ghost” five nights later. That they still had twelve minutes of quality exploration left untapped after the peak just goes to show how hungry they were for the unknown in 2003.

16:21, another instantaneous change. From the aggro-groove-rock that defined the previous five minutes, to a more subdued, melody driven jam. There’s simply no time in this jam for the band to become lost. Even when they meander, as they do throughout the jam’s final ten minutes, none of it feels unnecessary, nor forced. It’s one of those jams where they’re simply playing the music they’re supposed to be playing when they’re supposed to be playing it. One idea emerges and the band follows suit, exploring it to all its worth, until another member comes up with another. It’s musical democracy in its highest form. That it happened within the vaccum of 2003 is difficult to understand.

Finally at 22:40 we enter the final segment of the jam, as Trey signals with a appropriately placed “Wilsonesque” downstroke that the jam has reached its organic lifespan. The stylistic brother of the 07/30 “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” the denouement is akin to the smoldering coals on a fire. A fade to darkness after so much natural light.

Perhaps part of the reason the 2003 Tour took so much flak is that it took the band until the fifth-to-last show of the tour to produce such a naturally unified jam as the 07/29 “Crosseyed.” And yet, that’s part of the overall brilliance of the 2003 Summer Tour, something that’s increasingly become apparent in the 3.0 era: the band is neither capable of, nor willing to participate in Phish with the same relentless time/energy as they did in the late-80’s/early-90’s. As a result, their leaps forward are more gradual, and a result of more publicized failure than they were perhaps risking early on.

Regardless, they got to the 07/29 “Crosseyed.” That’s the key. The rest of the tour was a run for the ages. Also, it’s about damn time they brought back “Tunderhead” as a landing point for jams.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-29/crosseyed-and-painless

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“Scents & Subtle Sounds” – 07/30/2003 – Camden, NJ

A microcosm for the entire 2.0 era, perhaps no show – aside from 02/20/2003 – received more vitriol immediately following it, only to be reborn as a veritable classic in later years. Coming on the heels of the Burgettstown show, which featured numerous bust-outs the fanbase had been clamoring for, a brilliant jam in “Crosseyed & Painless” and the first “Harpua” since 11/02/1998 taboot, it made sense the first night in Camden would underwhelm. Yet, for whatever expectations fans held about the final stand before IT, it’s clear from the moment the band dives into a monstrous third-song jam off “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” that they intend to use the show as an opportunity to push their music even further.

The lone keeper of the new songs unveiled over the course of the tour, “Scents” spent the first half of the tour locked in a 2-show rotation, wherein which the band focused on the melodic bliss of its post-lyrical “Hoodesque” jam. On 07/23 however, they opened the show with it, and, feeling inspired, took it on a 20-minute journey before resolving it in “Theme From The Bottom.” Not seen in seven days, when they initiated the new-agey preach for spiritual enlightenment, the depths of its musical expansion was really all the band could focus on.

A lethargic, yet still beautiful – in the way that only 2003 songs could be – composed segment led to the jam’s initial movement. Though, just watching the YouTube clip of this jam, it’s clear Trey is eager to get the band into the unknown. A signal to both Mike and Page brings an ominous tone of darkness to the jam at 8:15. What’s clear about the jam though, is that, once they fully push beyond the “Scents” theme, they’re as locked in as they were the previous night during “Crosseyed.” The jam ebbs and flows with organic (un)precision, each member offering an idea that fits the puzzle as it constructs itself. Far more seedy than the spiritual awakening of the “Crosseyed,” the “Scents” finds Phish toying with the under-worldly, and brooding concepts that had overtaken their music in 2003, yet doing so without the meandering, soupyness that had so far defined it. This is a band fully focused on their goals, diving deep into the dark matter of their music, and crafting brilliance.

Yet for as focused or democratic as the band is in conducting their jam, up until around 15minutes in, its clear this is not the music you play in a live concert. (Not to mention the music you play three songs into a show.) There’s a late-night sludge to the jam, a stoned-haziness that sounds like a direct-link between The Victor Disc from eight months earlier. It’s as if there’s no one watching, or pressuring the band. The weight has been lifted, and it’s abundantly clear that all the time spent simply pushing their music further and further – for the sheer sake of pushing it – has resulted in a musical clarity, and an organic conversation that couldn’t have come about without said experimentation.

A period of downtempo, contemplative rock highlights the middle part of the jam from 18:23 – 19:59. Then, at 20:01 Trey finally settles on  hazily beautiful tone and theme, building the jam towards a sustained peak that only relents at 24:06.

Dedicating the final five minutes to the same murky, and foreboding music that brought “Crosseyed” to its resting point, the jam dissolves organically; a proper cap on the entire journey. They’d reached a point in the tour where their jams breathed with new life until, there was no more life. That the final five minutes are often as horrifying and jarring as they are, only speaks to the musical outskirts they’d trekked to. Displaying both the full worth of their improvisational exploration, and the command they had over their communication, and their music, the Camden “Scents” is one of those jams that just could only have happened in the Summer of 2003.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-30/scents-and-subtle-sounds

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“Twist” – 07/30/2009 – Camden, NJ

After achieving such musical brilliance in the first set “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” Phish opened the second set with a muddled, tedious, bewildering, and ultimately transgressive jam off a song that’s seen its fair amount of them: “Twist.” Whereas the “Crosseyed” and “Scents” that came before it produced organically-driven music, where untapped landscapes appeared effortlessly, there’s simply nothing subtle about, when, at 7:00 into “Twist,” the band nosedives straight into Hell.

A maddeningly bleak jam ensues, defined more by a unified swamp of noise, than any forward-progressing music. This is a wall of sound being built, rather than a journey being undertaken.

Returning to the core of abstract psychedelia that had defined much of the tour, the “Twist” at times feels like a statement made in opposition to the successes of the “Crosseyed” and “Scents.” It’s as if the band – acutely aware of their tour nearing its end – is actively trying to become uncomfortable once again. The jam becomes a dizzying swirl of noise, and reaches points of chaotic experimentation that has a direct correlation with June 1995.

All of a sudden, at 12:05, an industrialized pattern begins to emerge. The drumming becomes sparse, the piano and guitars take on a more polyrhythmic feel. It’s like nothing that has been played since perhaps the 07/18 version of “Twist.” They’ve broken through again, and in doing so, have found a key in which to push their music even further in the tour’s waning days.

Back to the swirling descent into Hell, the jam becomes the full-band conversation that had been ever-present in the “Crosseyed” and “Scents,” only here, the focus is less on letting the music carry them, as it is they who are actively pushing the music forward. That they’d found such communicable brilliance in the two aforementioned jams resulted directly from the fact that they, as a band, surrendered to wherever the music would take them. It’s so clear though throughout the “Twist,” that it’s them as a unified group who are doing the controlling.

And yet, for however they try to infringe upon the organic nature of improvisational music, they’re powerless to the plane of musical bliss they reach at 18:07. That they find a light at the end of the tunnel of dizzying madness is a remarkable feat. Proof once again of the total value in their experimentation. A concept we’d see put into practice in two more standout jams from the tour, the Camden “Twist” only furthered the musical renaissance of 07/29 – 08/03/2003. That it did so by going so totally against the grain of the two best jams of the tour thus far would help to lead to the unprecedented musical brilliance found at IT.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-30/twist

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“Waves” – 08/02/2003 – Limestone, ME

Few songs appear ready to be jammed as did “Waves” when it first debuted on NYE 2002. Perhaps the most Dead-like song the band has ever written, “Waves” both fit the downtempo feel of the post-hiatus era, and was recorded as an open-ended jam to close out Round Room. Thus when eight months later, it had failed to produce a single version that traversed beyond its structure, many wondered if the band was simply unsure of what to do with it.

In the midst of the most fluid set of the IT Festival, the band finally delivered the “Waves” everyone had been waiting for.

For a song that musically just sounds like standing on a beach in the NW as clouds gather and grey waves swirl in front of your eyes, and lyrically referes to a loss of control, and a sense of peace being found under the water, the jam that ensued on 08/02 combined both of these sentiments in one unified and mesmerizing experience.

I know I’ve tossed around the term unprecedented a lot here in this essay, but, seriously, is there any precedence in the 2003 Summer Tour for the IT “Waves”??? So much of the sound of the summer was based off of a muddled drive forward into the unknown, led by Fishman’s expansive rhythms and Trey’s grungy tone. Yet, this “Waves” is the sound of a band just there. It’s like they’re just residing in space. It’s so ambient. It’s so patient. It’s so unified. It’s so much a peak moment of the band’s entire career.

It’s as if all the sounds, all the jams, all the hours spent wading in unknown perdition have led to this moment of absolute clarity, focus, and presence. You can’t even really say they’re focused though, because it all sounds so effortless. They’re just there, playing, because they’re there playing.

It’s also a moment that’s so bittersweet for any Phish fan. It’s such a clear peak moment for the band – really, the entire IT Festival was one enormous peak for 2.0 – and yet, it was all so unsustainable.

As the IT “Waves” and the three jams that follow each show, no matter how sober, how unified, or how focused the band may have been in the Summer of 2003, the jams that were produced were a clear result of demons surfacing from within. In the context of their history, these jams make complete sense when one accounts for the personal trials of each member.

A singular moment of clarity within the 2003 Summer Tour, the 08/02 “Waves” sounds nothing like the band in Phoenix on July 7th, and exactly like how Phish has always meant to sound all at once.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-08-02/waves-jam

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“The Tower Jam” – 08/02/2003 – Limestone, ME

When Phish followed their 08/15/1998 Lemonwheel show with a candlelit Ambient Jam in the style of Brian Eno, it was both the culmination of the minimalist style they’d been toying with since Halloween 1996, and a self-conscious decision to focus more on Ambient jamming.

When Phish locked themselves in a USA Storage Unit on the night of 07/02/2011 and went on to shock their fans by playing an entire set of uninterrupted space and noise, it was a revolutionary step forward in the 3.0 era.

“The Tower Jam” from IT is somewhere between those two extremes. In many ways it sounds like the culmination of the muddying, hypnotic, everything-in-the-pot-stew that defined the improv of that summer. At other times, its a statement on how much further, how much deeper, how much more the band could take their music. It’s like an amalgamation of everything the band has accomplished up to this point, and how much further they could go. It feels like a rebirth in places.

Aided by the visual effect of the fiery traffic control tower re-awakened after years of inactivity, and the added psychological mind-fuck of the sheer remoteness of Loring Air Force Base, the fact it was the middle of the night, and the history of UFO activity that has dotted Limestone, ME’s past, the jam takes Phish’s music to places it simply can’t go in a standard rock concert environment.

The entire jam is an unravelling work of art which must be listened to in full, and truly, any written breakdown of it would be an injustice. Just know that this is a moment in Phish’s history that deserves your full, unyielding attention. It’s the sound of a band exploring the inner reaches of their mind and soul, and also discovering, after twenty years, just how much more they can do with their music.

That the band would only play 25 more shows between here and 03/06/2009 is an absolute tragedy.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-08-02/tower-jam

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“Ghost” – 08/03/2003 – Limestone, ME

The celebratory roar to the “Tower Jam” and “Waves” deep and expansive masterpieces the IT “Ghost” is home to both the most massive peak throughout the entire 2003 Summer Tour, and the largest glowstick war that’s ever occurred at a Phish show. Seriously, just listen from 8:03 – 13:47 and try to resist dancing.

It’s in many ways the lone gunslinger of the tour. It’s got the arrogance and the balls that the “Crosseyed” did, plus dedicates its final 10 minutes to the kind of murky exploration that defined much of the tour. It’s that unification of styles in such a blatant way that works, even as it doesn’t

You could certainly make the argument for the fact that it’d be far more pleasing if the jam were to only offer its more refined, rock-based, first half. But isn’t there something to be said for just how far, and how out there the band was willing to stretch, and peel back the layers on this jam? Me thinks so, at least.

There’s this point in the jam, 15ish minutes in, where Trey starts looping a swirling riff over a prodding rock base from Mike, Fish and Page. In that instant, the swirl of noise and harmonic dissonance sounds like the love-child of Summer 1995, December 1999 and Summer 2003. It’s these three eras of defined exploration all meeting in one singular jam.

The IT “Ghost” just feels like the kind of jam that could only happen at a festival, hundreds of miles from the rest of America. It’s so big, it’s so bloated, it’s so free. There’d be no way for the walls of an arena, nor the roof of a pavilion to contain it. Just when you think, around 20:05, that it’s finally reached its breaking point, it discovers a whole new landscape to explore for the next 11 minutes.

The final comedown of the jam is neither totally engrossing, nor really captivating. It’s just there. (Don’t get me wrong, for fans of unyielding noise-ladened jams like myself, it’s pure brilliance. But most people tend not to be…) It’s kind of like the hangover to the previous night’s “Tower Jam.” It’s a statement – much like the following jam – for all that was accomplished throughout the summer. Rules – aside from the aforementioned sobriety – were tossed by the wayside. The only goal was exploration, followed by further exploration.

So what if a jam peaked over ten minutes prior? If the band wanted to follow its smoldering leftovers to the edge of the world, so be it. In this context, that the band would proceed to open their final set of summer with a near-40 minute vomit of unabashed noise and sound is quite fitting.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-08-03/ghosterem_Miami-NYE-2003-Behind-the-stage-copy

“46 Days” – 08/03/2003 – Limestone, ME

Is there a single jam in Phish’s extended cannon that both accomplishes essentially everything the band intends it to, and is so resoundingly despised by the overall fan community as the IT “46 Days”?

Following five minutes and thirty-three seconds of toying with the song’s theme, the band dives head-first into the rabbit’s hole, not to emerge for well over 30 minutes. The capstone to an entire summer of relentless exploration, the IT “46 Days” goes further, longer, and deeper than ANY other jam throughout the tour, save, obviously, the “Tower Jam.” Akin to the 11/29/1997 “Runaway Jim,” or the 06/14/1995 “Tweezer,” the IT “46 Days” is a constantly moving organism, wherein which ideas naturally emerge, yet rarely lead to any coherent plane of musical significance. There’s some maddening shit throughout this jam. To experience it live would be to wonder if the band was just fucking with you for the sheer sake of it.

And yet, it’s the fitting denouement to a tour full of unparalleled exploration, the likes of which we simply haven’t seen with as much consistency since. (I guess we did in 2004, but so many of those jams were just excuses to fill time. The 2003 jams had purpose; a goal.) From 11:45 – 16:54 the band resides in a hypnotic, tribal trance that sounds nothing like anything they’ve played before, or certainly since.

Following the systematic destruction of literally everything that had been played since they left the song’s theme, the band discovers one of the most sublime musical passages they’ve ever played. Initiated by Fishman at 22:31, the jam becomes a hazy late-night groove that simply wouldn’t have been discovered without the fifteen minutes of unified chaos that preceded it. It’s like the last five minutes of the 10/31/1998 “Wolfman’s Brother.” After residing in such a nightmarish dimension, the band discovers a seedy and slow blues strut that grooves like nothing else.

The ever present theme of the tour: keep pushing further and further ahead/down, and something is bound to emerge out of all the darkness. The said theme carries the band through to the 30-minute mark whereby it discovers barroom rock before returning to the “46 Days” theme. A segment of music that could only have been produced by a band reeling from a month of heady exploration, not to mention six sets of peak performances, it once again proves the worth of all this seemingly senseless exploration throughout the tour.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-08-03/46-days

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Closing the curtain on the Summer 2003 tour, the IT “46 Days” was the send-off to one of the most successful, combative, controversial, exploratory, and unabashed tours in the band’s history. That 20 years in Phish was still this willing, able, and dedicated to the kind of exploration, and improvisational brilliance that emerged from the “46 Days,” and the overall tour, is something few bands could ever hang their hat on. The fact this all came immediately following a two-year break, and almost immediately before the band “broke up” is a whole different story.

In the end Summer 2003 is what it is: a moment where the band sought to reestablish the creative control of their career, and in doing so, careened their music off into the unknown, in effort to see what the underworld would offer them. To say it was a successful tour would be an understatement, and, in some ways, a misnomer. The tour confounded many, and elated others. In many ways it simply couldn’t be fully appreciated until it was long gone.

The Three Decembers – 1997

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Jams –

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

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

– Shows –

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

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

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

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

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

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