The Best Of Phish – 2013 – Part I

1376985_10151642180686290_587081184_nOn 31 December 2012 Phish opened their final show of the year with a cover of Ricky Nelson’s 1972 hit “Garden Party.” A song Nelson had originally written after being booed off that same Madison Square Garden stage during the 1971 Rock ‘n Roll Revival Show, it was a fitting nod to the place Phish found themselves in both musically, artistically, and personally at the onset of their 30th year. Highlighted by the line, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself,” the song would not only serve as a tongue-in-cheek jab at some of the more impatient members of Phish’s sprawling fan base, but would become something of a rallying cry for the band as they embarked upon their 30th year together as a collective unit.

Throughout 2013, the message of “Garden Party” felt ever-present, as the band sought to craft a six-month-long celebration of everything that had come to define Phish since 1983. In the summer, they emerged from hibernation with an overtly old school, foundational-setting run of shows from 07/03 – 07/21. Beaming with confidence, they went on to poke fun at their more obsessive fans in Chicago’s, ‘Poster Nutbag, the right way’“Harpua,” before crafting one of their seminal pieces of extended improve in the “Tahoe Tweezer” just ten days later. Friday night at Dick’s was once again devoted to gimmickry, this time as the band informed us that Most Shows Spell Something (Backwards). The Fall Tour that followed was a non-stop dance party with a signature throwback feel. And on Halloween the band debuted their new album – tentatively titled Wingsuit – in a move that has had the entire Phish community buzzing with thoughts and analysis ever since. Closing out the year with one more celebratory gag, Phish played an entirely coverless NYE Run, honoring the songs that had brought them so much acclaim throughout the years. Without question, 2013 was defined in large part by Phish’s desire to “please themselves” – without any regrets – in commemoration of everything they’d built (and rebuilt) since their college days.

What’s more though, was how “Garden Party” worked as a premonition for a band seeking to do more than simply garnish their 30th year with a nostalgic hue. Rather, 2013 saw Phish acutely pivot towards the next phase of their career. For, as much as 2013 was indeed about celebrating the essence of Phish – and their legacy – it was in many ways, more so about what’s next for a band that has systematically rebuilt itself from near-death, and now, at the onset of their 31st year, is in the midst of their most substantial peak period since the halcyon days of 1993-1998.

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Let’s pause for a moment, and take a step back to July 2010. At that point Phish had been back together for 17 months. Throughout they’d compiled four 10-15 show tours, alongside three, smaller, holiday-based/reunion runs. There’d been nights where they’d felt like Phish again. Nights where everything clicked: where they told jokes, where they pulled oft-forgotten songs out of nowhere, where their setlists flowed with precision, determination, and ease, and where they hooked up for extended pieces of forward-thinking, emotive, and ultimately revealing improv. But for all of the positivity that surrounded the 70 shows that had thus far made up Phish 3.0, there was a prevailing fear throughout much of their fan base that, perhaps, the band simply didn’t have it anymore. Too often they’d follow a breakthrough show with a run of unfocused and disconnected duds. Too many jams either followed a strict formula of assaulting rock -> rhythmic breakdown -> ambient fade, or would be cut off prematurely by Trey’s insistence on keeping the show moving. Too many shows featured a band that, simply put, appeared a shell of its former self. During the month-long break in Summer 2010, many openly wondered what would become of Phish 3.0?

Would they follow the same trajectory of their haunting and ultimately unsustainable 2.0 era; fading unfulfilled, full of regret, bemused with far more questions than answers?

Had Phish become (gasp) a nostalgia act?

Could they reestablish the unspoken communication that had led them to so many musical and artistic heights throughout their heyday?

Would they ever again evolve with the kind of abstract precision and focused experimentation that saw them transform from a psychedelically-infused speed-jazz quartet in 1993 to a spacious, patient, rhythmic juggernaut just five years later?

Could they do it again?

From the vantage point of January 2014 we know what happened. Barring a few setbacks along the way – parts of June 2011 and NYE 2011, most notably – when Phish reemerged for the second leg of their 2010 Summer Tour, they were a fundamentally different band. Since then they’ve been on a consistent upward trajectory, evolving with patient determination, overcoming many of the challenges set in front of them in 2009, and undoubtably blowing away even the headiest expectations any of us could have had for them when they announced their reunion back on 1 October 2008.

Beginning in earnest with the infusion of Trey’s Ocedoc – a move that systematically rounded-out his tone, resulting in him taking a more deliberate approach to building simple melodic lines, while also focusing more on rhythm – Phish has evolved with stunning speed over these past four years. Stylistically morphing – from the melodic jams of late-2010 to August 2011’s dive into the storage shed, to the cubist approach of 2012 – and further deepening their communication, they have consistently driven forward from the moment the Greek “Cities” dropped into its infectious whole-band groove-jam. A reflection of their own musical maturity and craftsmanship – and also the experience they’d gained from 25-years of friendship and collaboration – from August 2010 onwards, each tour has provided crucial reference points to Phish’s current peak. Be it the improvisational boon of August 2010; the self-referential gimmickry and humor of Fall 2010; June 2011’s experimentation & embrace of potential failure over conservatism; “The Storage Jam” and the darkness that engulfed many of their subsequent jams throughout August and September 2011; the 200-song challenge of June 2012; the fully-realized, multi-layered jams of August 2012; or the masterful run of creativity and exploration that was Dick’s and MSG 2012; there’s no denying the fact that following their initial – and necessary – 18-month rebuilding project, the Phish of late-2010-2013 in many ways mirrors the same band that rose from irrelevancy in the early-1990’s to become one of the largest, and most influential, creative forces in the country.

The only difference now: they are clearly wizened by their years. Trials & errors, fights, audits, drugs, failures, fuck-ups, youthful bliss, et al, behind them, the Phish of today is both healthy, happy, and inspired. Whereas in 2009 many wondered if such a “family-friendly” version Phish could muster up the kind of psychedelic expansionism and unadulterated experimentation that had drawn so many to them in the first place, it’s clear now that this version of Phish may not only match the creative ingenuity of their initial peak, but could in fact surpass their former selves in both musical discovery, and artistic sustainability.

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All of which brings us to 2013.

Beginning the year with a three-week foundational setting period, Phish toured the East Coast, fairing off torrential rains, all the while focusing on a tight rotation of songs which emphasized the original artistic statements of their career. Determined to perfect the whole-show-craftsmanship that had reemerged in Fall 2010, Phish used their first night at SPAC to send a message that 2013 would be more about patiently crafting complete shows rather than simply expanding upon big jams. Resulting in thematic concert experiences, the tour required noticeably more patience, reflection, and insight from their fans than the overtly jam-heavy August 2011, or bustout-driven June 2012 tours had. From 07/10’s “Maria” set, to 07/12’s “practicing safe music,” to Merriweather Post’s old-school affair, to 07/16’s “Heartbreaker” set to the existential masterpiece of 07/21’s second set, this first leg of the tour saw the band further advance their artistic intentions, while still infusing more than enough highlights to satisfy everyone in their fan base.

Following a five-day break, they reemerged at the Gorge intent on celebrating every aspect of their musical past, while systematically using each previous peak as a building block towards their next era. The rain behind them, comfortable enough to expand upond the strict rotation that had marked their entire East Coast run, rarities returned, jams popped, and the band played with an ease that could only result from the kind of foundational setting they’d initiated. From 07/26’s explosion of howlin’ energy, to 07/27’s album-like fluidity, to 07/30’s dance-party, to the methodical brilliance of the Tahoe “Tweezer,” to 08/02 and 08/04’s schizophrenic mind-fuck, by summer’s end Phish left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they’d not only coursed out their 30th year exactly as they’d intended to, but that they knew the “right way” forward for their creative evolution.

At Dick’s they keyed us in once more to their goals for the year by noting on 08/30 that “Most Shows Spell Something.” That they unveiled the gag backwards only lent itself more to their playful spirit and the multitude of angles with which one could approach understanding their music.

And then, as with 2010, Phish scheduled a two-week Fall Tour through some of the most historic – and smallest – venues within their home base of the Northeast. Needing no time to reacquire their bearings, it was clear from the jubilant jam that emerged from “Carini” on the tour’s opening night, that Phish had, once again, reached yet another level of unspoken communication and refined musicianship. Be it jams – “Carini,” “Ghost,” “Tweezer,” “Golden Age,” “Down With Disease,” “Twenty Years Later,” “Drowned,” “Light,” “Twist,” each built into fully-formed, innovative, and memorable excursions – or shows – 10/20, 10/23, 10/25, 10/26, 10/27, and 11/01 are some of the strongest complete shows the band has played since the 90’s – the band was completely locked-in throughout the Fall, and consistently able to tap into an vast wealth of creativity. At times one wished the band would simply have an off night to give fans re-listening, and avidly discussing, a chance to catch-up and breathe.

On Halloween the band once again repelled against expectations. Whereas traditionally they’d used the holiday to don a musical costume of one of their forbearers, here, in their 30th year, they instead used the moment to debut 12 new originals. Loosely dubbed Wingsuit, the second set of 10/31 represented yet another leap forward for this 3.0 incarnation of Phish. Like the Greek Run in 2010, the Storage Jam, and FUCK YOUR FACE before it, Wingsuit is a clear break between one era and another. Cultivated from various jams over the past two years, and containing some of the most advanced and deeply personal lyrics of the band’s career, the songs – and the symbolic nature behind their unveiling – provide the band with the necessary material and inspiration to enter the next phase of their remarkable career.

Closing out the year, once again, with four shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City the band honored their 30th Anniversary by focusing on the singular element that birthed their existence: their songs. Opting to only play originals, the four shows took on much of the same vibe that had marked the entire year. Nostalgically rich, yet full of forward-thinking jams in “Steam,” “Down With Disease -> Carini,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” and “Light,” the 2013 NYE Run both celebrated everything that has made Phish such a unique force in modern pop culture, and pointed the way towards their next thirty years.

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As with 2009 (Part I & Part II), 2010, 2011, & 2012 I’ve assembled a list of ten shows and jams that standout as the best of the year. Along with these selections, there are three honorable mentions to each. These are not simply shows/jams 11-13, but rather foundational jams and shows with which the band grew, yet didn’t crack my top ten. The lists are assembled chronologically, thus reserving the title “Best Ever” as a subjective accolade. Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season! Happy New Year! Can’t wait to see what 2014 brings to the world of Phish!

The Best Of Phish 2013

Honorable Jams

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“Down With Disease -> 2001” – Toronto, ON – 07/22/2013

After kicking off the summer with three fairly contained versions of one of their most cherished Set II Openers, Phish finally broke through in Toronto with a jam that built off of their pivotal second set on 07/21,  thus pointing the way westward. Featuring patiently built melodic and rhythmic riffs from Trey throughout, the jam ultimately settled on a remarkably pleasant platitude, which felt entirely composed. A direct prelude to jams like the 10/23 “Twist,” 10/26 “Drowned,” 10/27 “Tweezer,” and 11/01 “Twist,” this “DWD” is not only one of the key, foundational jams of 2013, but it is also the kind of jam one could listen to on repeat without ever growing tired.

In short, this is simply one of the most enjoyable, and pleasing jams of the entire year. A section of wholly deliberate, rising melodic playing followed the Trey/Page melodic peak, ultimately giving way to a full-on tease of “Sea Of Love” from The National. Further proof of how much musical insight Trey has gained from his time spent listening to – and playing with – those in the indie rock world. Building towards a truly patient segue into “2001” rounded off one of the most subtly diverse jams of the year, one that clearly helped to initiate the band’s massive peak over the next four months. While this jam has become significantly overshadowed in the past four months, its influence on the stylistic evolution of 2013 cannot go unnoticed.

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“Harry Hood” – Hollywood, CA – 08/05/2013

There’s that moment in every single jam where everyone – band and audience alike – collectively realizes we’re suddenly in wide open, untapped, and unknown terrain. It may come via a reliable Set II opening vehicle, or in a totally unexpected song/slot in the show. Wherever and whenever it comes, the moment is ultimately defined by an immediate percolating of the senses, and a rush of euphoria, as the stakes of a show suddenly take upon unknown – in many ways, indefinable – potential. This moment is, for many, the entire reason why we see Phish. When that moment happens to come in a song steeped in as much historical lore as “Harry Hood” is, however, it raises a show to an entirely different level of excitement, sentiment, and lasting resonance.

While it’s clear here that Trey’s dedicating much of his energy to painting a backdrop of sound throughout the initial post-“Thank you, Mr. Hood…” section, we’re essentially still in typical “Hood-ville” until 9:37. From that point on, however, the jam enters completely unknown territory like it hadn’t since 07/31/03. A rock-based jam ensues, sounding in many ways like a leftover from the previous night’s “Runaway Jim,” before building into a full-on call-and-respond woo segment. Then, when it seems as though the band could momentarily snake back into “Hood,” they instead move into a more rhythmically-oriented realm, crafting a mosaic, where one member’s leads are effortlessly supplanted by another’s. Ambient-based jamming enters the fray, and suddenly the jam has become blissful. Abstract-cubism is the order, and, for a while, between 15ish and 17ish minutes, it feels as though we’re back in Dick’s 2012. Connecting on a dreamlike, plinko-esque jam that sounds like the denouement of a soon-to-be-unfinished jam, Trey plucks the “Hood” theme out of thin air, and the band rebuilds back to a subdued peak.

A creative palette of themes and varying musical passages, this jam harkened back to the band’s most prolific exploration within “Hood” from 07/25/03. A clear statement to the band’s M.O. moving forward in 2013, this “Harry Hood” opened the doors even further to what was possible in the coming Fall, here, coming on the last night of Summer Tour proper.

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“Carini” – Hampton, VA – 10/18/2013

On the opening night of Fall Tour, in the midst of a risky & self-conscious show, in their first performance back in the mothership since their reunion weekend in March 2009, “Carini” emerged mid-way through the second set and ultimately set the course of the entire tour. Rooted in the kind of bluesy, melodic, and celebratory rhythmic jams that had defined the best parts of the summer, what separated this “Carini” from the jams that had preceded it, was how simple and how overtly groove-oriented it was.

A bulbous and infectious dive into a rock-based, dance foray, this was the kind of jamming that would ultimately define Phish’s two-week Fall Tour. A fusion between the sparse, rhythmic jams of their 1997 peak with the rootsy, rock-oriented jamming that emerged in 2009 and 2010, further shaped by the cubist approach of 2012, and finished with the celebratory rhythmic style of the summer, this “Carini” felt like an ode to the nostalgically-rich, yet forward-thinking engine that was Phish 2013. Fading into their 3.0 hymnal, “Backwards Down The Number Line” was an entirely appropriate move for a band that had just shouted from the mountaintop their intentions for the proceeding Fall Tour.

The Top Ten Jams Of 2013

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“Split Open & Melt” – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/06/2013

Wow. What a statement. What a glorified mess. A conscious experimental push into the unknown as anything heard from Phish 3.0. This jam covers so much terrain in its 18-minutes, it’s really quite exhausting.

Abstract, gorgeous, uneven, risqué, unpolished, raw, emotive, completely human; an absolute pure example of a band seeking out the elusive hook-up. It’s also perhaps the loosest, and unfocused Phish has allowed itself to be throughout the past five years.

For every jam that has either foreshadowed or reflected the various thematic terrains of 2013, there’s really no other jam produced this year that sounds anything like this “Split Open & Melt.” This might be the most important pre-Tahoe “Tweezer” jam played in the entire summer. One just has to hear the vocal inflection and laugh from Page at the end when he says, “We’ll be right back…” following their sloppy re-entry to “Melt” to understand how unexpectedly deep the band went, and how gloriously lost they became. If any jam in 2013 could symbolize a much-needed trust-fall for Phish, it’s this. Just, wow.

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“Carini -> Architect” – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/06/2013

The first of four versions for Señor Lumpy Head on this list, this one pops immediately with an incredibly focused, highly expansive, delicate, interwoven and intricate piece of music that has continually resided in the upper echelons of Phish’s 2013 output since the moment it concluded. Reminiscent of the 08/31/12 “Undermind” and “Chalk Dust,” this is one of those democratic/full-band conversations we’ve now come to expect in 2012-2013 Phish.

In many ways though, this jam is all about Trey, as he plays with a determined and deliberate precision that would go on to define many of Phish’s best moments in 2013. An example of foundational setting leading to deliberate playing from Trey, this jam sounds like a direct prelude to Fall Tour more than most of the jams played throughout the summer.

Oh, and this jam also segues flawlessly into a debut. So much so, that, for a moment, “Architect” felt like it was simply just another part of the “Carini” jam.

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“Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood” – Holmdel, NJ – 07/10/2013

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

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

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

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

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“Tweezer” – Stateline, NV – 07/31/2013

A moment of profound unity between both band and audience, as each rediscovered once again what was truly possible in the medium of a Phish show.

Listening back, there are just so many raw moments that harken back to the halcyon days of 1993 – 1998 when the band and audience engaged in the kinds of extended, abstract, absurdist, and inside-joke experiments that were both only possible at a Phish show, and made this whole cultural experiment feel that much smaller, and that much more unified and connected, even as it simultaneously widened as the word of the circus spread throughout upper-middle-class, white America.

A Few Examples:

10:20 – 13:30 — when Trey and Mike are both clearly so desperate to extend what, at this point, is just a standard 3.0, “Tweezer-themed-Tweezer-jam”, that they push atmospheric melodies outwards, building towards Trey’s rhythmic in-and-out fades, which – once Page catches on – leads to the hard-rock segment that defines the 13:42 – 16:06 section of the entire jam.

22:29 – 26:18 — Trey latches onto a deliberate riff which builds towards a gorgeous hose segment that would have single-handedly made this one of the elite jams of the year had it ended right then and there. No woo’s. No 30-minute barrier broken. No matter. This section of Trey-led riffing is among his most impressive playing of the entire year – in fact it’s a direct predecessor of that gorgeous, Allmans-esque jam that concludes the 10/29 “Down With Disease” – and would have been the single reason why – had the jam ended immediately after, as so many have throughout 3.0 – the “Tahoe Tweezer” would have still, at that point, been the longest jam of 3.0.

26:18 – 26:23 — This is, for all intents and purposes, the moment when the “Tahoe Tweezer” becomes THE Tahoe Tweezer. It’s all thanks to Page McConnell. He’s been following Trey’s lead for the past four minutes, and sensing – correctly – that the current theme is about to wind down, inserts the celebratory melody which, once Trey latches on at 26:24, becomes THE Tahoe Tweezer.

27:29 — The first WOO!

27:53 – 28:19 — Trey plays a riff that’s so driven, so celebratory, so deliberate, yet so thoughtless at the same time, so rooted in his purest feelings and emotions – from so deep in his heart – you can literally feel the shit-eating-grin spilling out across his face through your headphones. You can hear him realize right then and there just how big a deal this jam is. It’s not just the fact that it’s a great “Tweezer” to open a set. It’s not just the fact that this is the new longest jam of 3.0. It’s not just the fact that the band has allowed all their fears of playing deep into the unknown wash away. It’s not just the fact that the band is proving both to themselves and all their fans that they’re so locked in once again that they can play with an unending, limitless abandon, and still produce totally focused, driven, and unquestionably listenable, compositionally-sound music. It’s the fact that all these things were happening at once AND they’d latched onto a melody so contagious, so infectious, so rooted in the essential nature that has made music a communal and spiritual force for the entirety of human existence, that they’d spurred a wholly original conversation with their fans in the process. It’s the fact that if the entire goal of Phish’s entire existence – spontaneous moments of shared energy and musical brilliance resulting from carefully crafted compositions allowed to run wild – were boiled down to one moment in time, this moment would be it. That they discovered this through the peak in a “Tweezer” jam is all the more fitting.

32:46 – 35:07 — The Victory Lap. As if they even needed to keep playing following the woo’s. This is all Rock-Star-Trey here. Based loosely off the jam from “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” the band built towards one more massive peak – complete with Woo’s, because, why the fuck not at this point (???) – before coyly snaking back into “Tweezer.”

35:48 – 35:50 — Woo’s within the “Tweezer-riff” comedown. Fuck. This section is a lot like that loose and sloppy “Psycho Killer” that emerged from “AC/DC Bag: on 12/07/1997 as the denouement commenced upon Fall 1997. It’s so unserious, so ridiculous, so clear that whatever the band’s intentions were as they stepped on the stage for that night’s second set, they weren’t prepared for this. As Wax Banks said, “bag>psycho killer to open, seriously? they’re just dorking around at that point…”

36:09 – 36:47 — The final note. The final Woo. The fade. The band holds out this last note, systematically dementing it and burying it in the ground. It’s as if they don’t want to let it go. And why would they? If they only knew at that moment what this would ultimately build to…

Is it the best jam they’ve ever played? No. But it is the most important piece of music the band has played since the 07/29/1997 “Gumbo” or the 11/17/1997 “Ghost.”

It’s that revolutionary moment where the band is clearly searching for some ambiguous sound, some indefinable goal, and unquestionably uncovers something totally new about themselves in the process. Say what you will about the after-effects of the ‘woo’s,’ what’s clear to everyone involved is that without the “Tahoe Tweezer, “none of the brilliance that emerged with such stunning ease and consistency throughout the Fall would have been possible.

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“Chalk Dust Torture” – Commerce City, Co – 08/31/2013

Just listen to the segment from 10:02 – 12:36 and try – seriously try – to resist boogieing your ass off wherever you may be. Of all the moments of musical connectivity the band found themselves in throughout the entire 2013 Summer Tour, perhaps none felt as effortless, as mechanical, as choreographed, or as pre-planned as the immediate peak jam segment out of the Set II Opening “Chalk Dust Torture” from 08/31. A year to the date after their revolutionary FUCK YOUR FACE show, a night after informing their fans that MOST SHOWS SPELL SOMETHING, Phish connected on an aggressive, set opening jam, that systematically pointed the way towards the Fall.

Listen to the aforementioned segment again. Within it you can hear the first hints of what will become known as “Fuego.” What’s more is how deftly the band is able to hook up through rhythmically induced passages of deliberate playing, the very kind that would come to define all the highs of the looming Fall Tour.

Perhaps we couldn’t fully understand it at the time. Perhaps we weren’t aware that the band really just wanted to use Dick’s 2013 as a weekend-long celebration. But it’s clear now that this “Chalk Dust” was an essential moment that separated summer from fall in the same way the Toronto “Down With Disease” separated the East Coast Run from the West. A supremely confident statement from a band at the height of their powers once again, this “Chalk Dust” proved that all the foundational setting of early Summer were more than worth the patience required. And, just like in 2012, it was “Chalk Dust” that left perhaps the most lasting legacy on another memorable weekend at Dick’s.

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“Tweezer -> Golden Age” – Hampton, VA – 10/20/2013

In 2003 and 2004, Phish regularly dove wildly into the deepest and darkest holes of the musical underworld, drumming up some of the most baroque and macabre jams of their entire career. A result of the personal crises faced by Trey and Page at the time, these jams are, in many ways, singular to perhaps the most harrowing era in the band’s history. Rarely has Phish allowed themselves to even glimpse these seedy and hopeless terrains throughout their overtly-joyful period of rebirth since 2009.

On the final night of their Fall Tour-opening Hampton Run, Phish – and especially Trey – granted themselves a dip back into their darkside, resulting in their most inspired, and passionate improvisational excursion of 2013.

Channeling the guitar-wizardry of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Trey incorporates his effects with caustic shreds of his guitar, cultivating a demented soundscape. There’s a stark nakedness to his playing throughout this jam, a peeling back the layers to his soul, a revealing insight into the darkness that still resides within.

This is the Yin to the “Tahoe Tweezer’s” Yang.

Yet, perhaps what makes this jam so rewarding, and ultimately so influential, is the segment of music that emerges at 19:57. Distantly related to the ethos of “Wingsuit” – a song that would debut some eleven days later, this denouement to the preceding jam segment offered a window into exactly what was possible when the band gave a seemingly fading jam one more look. Reminiscent of comments Page made in the IT DVD regarding the type of music that’s only possible after 18…19…32-minutes of jamming, this final segment would help push the band further, to the moments found in the latter parts of the 10/26 “Drowned,” 10/29 “Down With Disease,” 11/01 “Twist,” and 12/29 “Down With Disease -> Carini.”

In “Golden Age” Phish finally capitalized on the most profound excursions they’d thus far embarked on with the song – 07/02/2011, 07/03/2012, 07/03/2013, 07/30/2013 – pushing it further than it’d ever been before. A fully-realized, groove-based conversation between all four members, this version – along with its accompanying 10/27 version – finally unlocked the code on a song that had evolved in fits and spurts for the band.

A forty-minute segment of music that ultimately transcended everything else the band was capable of accomplishing throughout their brilliant 30th year, one can only imagine how much deeper Phish will now be willing to push their music in 2014.

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“Tweezer” – Hartford, CT – 10/27/2013

If the “Tahoe Tweezer” represented a moment of critical mass in Phish’s grand experiment, and the “Hampton Tweezer” was a marked dive back into the netherworld of their musical souls, then the “Hartford Tweezer” was a pronouncement of the celebratory rhythmic/melodic jamming the band had been busily perfecting all year on an extremely meta level.

We’ve long known that the ultimate key to Phish’s improvisational success is simplicity. A concept that’s often far easier said than done – especially when you factor in each member’s exceptional skill level, and the pressures associated with playing live, improvisational music – this version of “Tweezer” immediately gets to the point of itself, and then patiently rides itself out to its proper conclusion. Proof that less is more. Touching distinctly on the theme from “Weekapaug Groove,” this jam feels deeply rooted in the historical lexicon of Phish. It’s the kind of jam that fundamentally fit the conceptual goals of 2013.

Throughout 2013 Phish’s best moment came when they seemed to stop trying. Akin to 1997’s peak based around minimalist funk grooves, the diversity of their stylistic peaks in 2013 are only matched by the effortlessness it took the band to reach them. A moment when each member latched onto a singular idea and ran with it, the “Hartford Tweezer” is equally one of the most pleasurable, and important pieces of music played all year.

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“Down With Disease -> Taste” – Reading, PA – 10/29/2013

If one were to try and summarize the reasons for Phish’s two-week-long peak tour during October 2013, one could hypothesize over the bulbous and rhythmic interplay of Mike and Fish. Perhaps one would reference the archaic and personally historic venues the band toured through within their home turf. One might look to the impending performance of Wingsuit as inspiration. In their fifth year back following a five-year break-up, the overall health and friendship within the band has certainly led to a lot of possibilities as to why now, in their 30th year of existence, Phish has reached one of the highest peaks they’ve ever been on artistically. Yet, to me, one aspect of Phish’s playing sticks out as the most profound reason why this past Fall Tour was one of the greatest Phish has ever had: Trey’s deliberate approach to playing his guitar.

Nowhere is this approach more fruitful, nor more rewarding, than in the stunning jam that flowed out of “Down With Disease” on 10/29.

What was initially a funk-laced stroll through familiar “DWD” jam-terrain changed at 13:10 when Page began infusing melodic themes into the mix. Immediately latching onto his ideas, and toying with them before copying them, Trey built this initial foundation into an Allman-laced jam that harkened back to his heavily-lauded Hose-era-playing. Akin to the 12/30/1995 “Hood,” the “Went Gin,” the “IT Ghost,” and the “Tahoe Tweezer,” the melodic and spiritually uplifting notes that emanated from Trey’s guitar with such ease, passion, and deliberateness felt like a step back into an earlier time.

Beyond it’s musical brilliance, the “Reading DWD” provided one final twist for the thousands of fans trying to decipher any and all clues from the band about their upcoming Halloween performance. Immediately following this show, and continuing until the Playbills were dispersed two night’s later, the entire community was convinced we were getting Eat A Peach on Halloween. A fusion of Phish gimmickry, with musical ingenuity, along with the emotive thrill that’s associated with their best improvisational moments, the “Reading DWD” is one of those rare jams that repeatedly delivers on the hype.

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“Ghost> Carini” – Atlantic City, NJ – 10/31/2013

On 08/15/2004, following the whole-band collapse in “Glide,” and the emotional breakdown in “Wading In The Velvet Sea,” Trey told the crowd that the band needed to just “blow off some fucking steam…” They then proceeded to dive into a 50-minute firestorm of noise-ladened abstract improv within the limitless confines of “Split Open & Melt” and “Ghost.”

Just over nine years later, following a Halloween set where they debuted twelve completely new originals, Phish responded with this 35-minute segment of blissfully exuberant, and wholly-connected music within the limitless confines of “Ghost” and “Carini.” Without notifying their fans, the symbolic gesture was in many ways related to the necessary move to blow off some emotional steam at Coventry. The difference being the fact that in August 2004 they were a band grasping for their last breaths, whereas in October 2013, they were on the verge of rebirth once more.

The 10/31 “Ghost> Carini” is the sound of a massive weight being lifted off of Phish. For much of 2013 – no one knows exactly how long – the band carried around a secret waiting to be unveiled, live, in front of their fan base: Wingsuit. A burden that must have caused an incredible amount of artistic stress on the band, this jam segment was all the band needed to display how grateful they were for the open-mindedness of their fans to allow them such artistic freedom. Throughout the “Ghost” a sultry and sinister groove builds. The kind of deliberate and simple musical concept that had tracked their best improv of the year, this jam is the confident strut than can only follow a nailed risk. This is DiCaprio dropping the mic after one of his megalomaniacal speeches in “Wolf Of Wall Street.” This is Jordan shrugging after his 6th 3-pointer in the first half of Game 1 of the ’92 Finals. This is Trey’s prowling stomp around the stage during the surprise “Tweezer Reprise” encore on 04/03/1998.

It is, however, the “Carini” that gets all the glory in this segment. A 19-minute excursion that touches on literally all the moments of profound communication throughout the past two years, this jam is up there with the best improv the band has offered throughout the entirety of their career. Led by Trey’s celebratory rhythmic playing, this “Carini” reaches a full-band peak that would be further explored in the following night’s “Twist.” Stylistically reminiscent of the 08/31/2012 “Undermind” and “Chalk Dust,” the 09/01/2012 “Light,” 09/02/2012 “Sand,” 12/28/2012 “Tweezer,” 07/06/2013 “Carini,” and 07/31/2013 “Tweezer,” this is one of those Phish jams that moves effortlessly from one musical passage to another without giving the listener time to lament the conclusion of one before rewarding them with a fully-realized segment of music in the next.

Two songs that just scream All Hallow’s Eve in their musical origins and lyrics, “Ghost> Carini” was a fitting centerpiece for the band to blow-off some steam on a night when they confidently catapulted themselves into their next era.

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“Down With Disease -> Carini” – New York City, NY – 12/29/2013

“Thank you, we wrote that…”

By the end of 2013 Phish was on such an artistic peak, and on such a creative roll, that it became second-nature for them to hook-up and explore passages of musical brilliance. Fully-formed ideas seemed to simply emit from their instruments, and questions over if they’d produce another transcendent jam disappeared. Because of this, there are numerous jams from their recent Fall Tour and NYE Run that were painstakingly left off this list: 10/23 “Twist,” 10/25 “Waves -> Carini,” 10/27 “Drowned> Light,” 10/27 “Golden Age,” 10/29 “Twenty Years Later -> Piper,” 11/01 “Twist,” 12/30 “Chalk Dust Torture,” most notably.

When they stepped to the stage on 12/29, following their most fluid first set of the NYE Run, they unveiled yet another masterpiece of improvisation through two of their most reliable vehicles for musical discovery: “Down With Disease” and “Carini.” Two songs that have been featured extensively on this list, for whatever reason, both of these songs consistently allow the band an ideal passage into the unknown. In “DWD” Phish explored the melodic underbelly of the song’s origins – highlighted by Mike & Trey’s interplay as much as the soundscape crafted by Page – before rebuilding itself into a full-on “DWD Reprise.” A moment of euphoric magic for both band and audience alike, the blissful conclusion that rose naturally from the depths of improv was the kind of unexplainable point of connection that has so often marked the best moments of Phish’s 30-year career. Many claim you could feel the walls of the Garden shaking as the band reached a peak of a musical theme that is the composed sound of euphoric joy within the confines of Phishdom.

A yin to the “AC Carini’s” yang, the 16-minute “MSG Carini” was a demonic beast of minimalist groove. Deliberate, haunting, demented, abstract, insane, unified… the “MSG Carini” built from the Yo La Tengo-esque jam in the “Hampton Tweezer” into a hulking beast all its own. A sure sign that the seedy, under-worldly jams, which defined Phish 2.0, are at least back in part here in 3.0, this “Carini” felt like the unification of two eras. The fact that Phish can so willingly dive deep into the darkness again – during an era of such renowned health and personal well-being, no less – is as clear a sign as any of the artistic peak Phish is on right now.

Just as “Down With Disease” and “Carini” provided both the musical peak of the 2012 NYE Run, while simultaneously pointing the way towards the band’s improvisational future, the two songs once again served this symbolic purpose here in 2013. Who knows exactly what direction(s) the band will take their improv in 2014? One thing however, is certain: if they can in anyway build upon, and expand within the musical accomplishments of their 30th year, we’re all in for an absolutely mind-blowing 31st year of Phish.

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Part II coming this week!

Photo Cred: 1 – 10/20 Hampton, VA – Dave Vann; 2 – 07/17 Alpharetta, GA – Dave Vann; 3 – 08/05 Hollywood, CA – Brantley Gutierrez; 4 – 10/18 Hampton, VA – Dave Vann; 5 & 6 – 07/06 Saratoga Springs, NY – Dave Vann; 7 – 07/10 Holmdel, NJ – Dave Vann; 8 – 07/31 Stateline, NV – Dave Vann; 9 – 08/30 Commerce City, CO – Dave Vann; 10 – 10/20 Hampton, VA – Dave Vann; 11 & 12 – 10/29 Reading, PA – Dave Vann; 13 – 11/01 Atlantic City, NJ – Brantley Gutierrez; 14 – 12/29 New York City, NY – Rene Huemer

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The Three Decembers – 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Jams – 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Shows –

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

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

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

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

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