Phish 2013 – Through The Jams / Part I: Bangor – Toronto

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With just four shows remaining in 2013, weeks removed from a peak-level Fall Tour, and just three months since the conclusion of a Summer Tour that is increasingly becoming an underrated gem, it’s high time we take stock of where we are musically with Phish in their 30th year.

Since the onset of 3.0, I’ve compiled year-end ‘Best Of’[1] lists for each successive year. Check them out here: 2009 Part I and Part II20102011, and 2012. In each of those essays I narrowed my selections to the bare essentials: Ten Jams, Ten Shows, and Three Honorable Mentions for each section. Detailing the evolutionary steps forward in each of the past five years of Phish’s history, these lists have focused on the overall diversity of Phish’s improv, rather than any singular style. Song length is never an issue taken seriously. Popular opinion or communal preference is never taken into account. Many of my own personal favorite jams have even been omitted from each of these lists. Essentially, these lists are to be viewed as historical guides, or, musical stepping stones, which tell the story of how Phish got from Hampton ’09 to Atlantic City ’13.

2013 however, presents a new challenge altogether, particularly on the jamming front.

Following their creative renaissance at Dick’s 2012, Phish entered 2013 on a mission to once again break through their own artistic mold by infusing the musical and communicative skills of their past with a more democratic model that would shape their future. After reestablishing their communication and connectivity throughout 2009 – 2012, their 30th year was poised to be one of both self-referential celebration, and the symbolic onset of a new era. Furthermore, after informing their fanbase on 12/31/2012 that “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself,” it was clear that 2013 would be a whole-band peak on Phish’s terms – and at their own pace – not based on the desires of any sector of their fanbase. As a result, Phish took their time, setting the foundation within the early part of their summer tour, which lead to skepticism, impatience, and uncertainty from many corners of their fanbase. While it was clear by the time Fall Tour rolled around that Phish had known exactly what they were doing all along, the debates over what “The Right Way” was for Phish still raged ever onwards.

In hindsight it’s clear there are three distinct periods of 2013:

1.) Bangor – Toronto, when Phish laid the foundation for the musical peaks to come, and the eventual unveiling of Wingsuit, through a series of shows focused heavily on their own musical history. Celebrating their thirty-year legacy, the band centered much of their attention on the most revered songs in their catalogue, while constructing setlists that felt plucked from their past. Controlling many of their shows with a noticeably tight rotation, and keeping a short leash on each of their jams, this early period of 2013 displayed the unyielding potential of Phish at this stage in their career, while emphasizing a focused insistence on building tension and inter-band-communication.

2.) The Gorge – Dicks, when Phish – fully removed from the torrential weather of the East Coast and completely confident in their abilities and direction – moved beyond foundational setting, and began to consistently play high quality shows with ease. After informing their fanbase that only Phish knew “The Right Way” for Phish during the Chicago Harpua, they now unveiled their longest piece of improv since 2003, and connected for three of the most diverse jams of the entire year in the Tahoe Tweezer, Hollywood Hood and Dick’s Chalk Dust. Further, at Dick’s, the band continued to zag against the expectations (and desires) of many of their fanbase by declaring MOST SHOWS SPELL SOMETHING (Backwards). Subtly pointing out the many variables that determine the content and goals of any singular Phish show, the band clarified for those who had been reading between the lines, just what their intentions throughout 2013 had been. Finally, they continued to set the stage for the peak month of October, and the ultimate unveiling of their new album Wingsuit on Halloween night, through a series of self-conscious shows and jams that only further displayed their advanced level of play in their 30th year.

3.) Hampton – Atlantic City, when everything Phish has been working towards since 03/06/2009 came together in one hyperbole-filled two week tour. Full of top-level shows, standout jams, unyielding energy, effortless musical connectivity, and a Halloween show that will undoubtedly alter the entire direction of the band over the coming years, this was the tour we had all (band included) been waiting for over the past five – even fifteen – years.

As a result, there is so much creativity packed into each show in 2013, that it becomes incredibly challenging to trim the fat down to a list of 13 standout jams[2]. With this in mind, and keenly aware of the fact that the New Year’s Run is sure to produce at least 2 – 3 MORE top-level jams (it always does…) I’m using this space in time as a way to hash over the entirety of what I believe to be the very best of Phish in 2013. With a heavy focus on the diversity and sheer quantity of excellent improvisational interplay within Phish in 2013, think of this list as both one giant rough draft and a potential playlist for anyone seeking to absorb the best of Phish in 2013 in one sitting[3].

This list will appear in three parts so as to focus on the three aforementioned periods in 2013:

I. Bangor – Toronto

II. The Gorge – Dicks

III. Hampton – Atlantic City.

Please feel free to send me your comments on which essential jams I may have overlooked, which I’m giving (far) too much credit to, and, if you agree or disagree in any way with how I’ve interpreted this really diverse, and really incredible, year in Phish’s history. Without further adieu, the list[4]:

The Best Jams Of 2013 – Part I

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07/05

Light -> The Mango Song

Following the focused and game-changing Dick’s Light of 2012, it’s only appropriate than any ‘Best Of’ 2013 list begins with the most reliable jam vehicle of 3.0. A song that, lyrically, speaks so directly to Trey’s rehabilitation and awakening following his 2006 arrest, and musically caters itself to the kind of open-ended exploration that had become something of a rarity throughout much of 2009-2011[5], everyone knew the first Light of 2013 was going be a seminal moment. Expanding outwards on an ambient plane much like the 12/02/09 and 08/07/10 versions, before evolving into a rhythmic jaunt, the jam turns on a dime at 11:11 with a sinister, groove-ladened riff from Trey. Foreshadowing the clarity and deliberateness he’d continue to iron out in his playing over the course of the summer – ultimately peaking in Fall – the band fuses this segment into an blissful melodic jam that finally resolves itself in The Mango Song. The SPAC Light is, while certainly not the rawest, nor the most accomplished jam of 2013, if nothing else, the moment when we all collectively realized the revolutionary steps forward of late-2012 were not all for naught.

07/06

Tube

For everyone lamenting the death of the extended Tube, please direct your ears to this version[6]. For whatever may be missing from an 8 – 12-minute Tube jam of 97-04 lore, the band more than makes up for the lack of quantity with focused, groove-heavy, linear, funk-based-jamming these days. Perhaps the best modern example of what’s always possible with Tube, this version pops immediately from a somewhat awkward first set, crafting an absolutely infectious dance number. What’s more is this is one of the first moments of 2013 where it’s clear to anyone listening that song length has ultimately become moot. As anyone at SPAC – or even those web-casting – could attest, this jam felt like 10+ minutes, regardless its 6:48 length. Check out the crowd’s reaction when it’s clear Trey’s pushing the song past the unofficial coda to be reminded once again of the beauty of the intercommunication between band and audience in this whole Live Phish thing.

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Split Open & Melt

Wow. What a statement. What a glorified mess[7]. A conscious experimental push into the unknown as anything I’ve 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.

Carini -> Architect

The first of four versions for Señor Lumpy Head on this overall 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 2013. 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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07/10

Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood

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[8].

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 there 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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07/12

Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge

Like a snapshot right out of Summer ‘98, this fully-flowing chunk of the second set – in one of the more polarizing shows of summer[9] – is both the least-challenging and least groundbreaking piece of exploratory music from the entire tour[10]. And yet, it’s unquestionably some of the most infectiously pleasurable, which is exactly why it finds itself on this list. Rock & Roll moves into a modulated jam based on its origins and theme, ultimately reminding one of the great 08/08/2009 jam from The Gorge. Tweezer is the crown jewel of this sequence as Trey, who just sounds so playful throughout, jumps on a bouncy groove, drives it skywards and then patiently segues it right into Cities. Forget about listening critically here. Just fucking throw this on and boogie.

07/13

Harry Hood

A banner year for Hood. A. Banner. Fucking. Year. Right smack in the middle of one of the most overtly old-school shows of 2013[11] comes this overtly old-school Hood that does literally everything anyone could ever want from Harry Hood. Trey’s in command throughout in the purest, peakiest Hood in a year full of standout versions. Just soak this one in and be grateful the band has spent so much time rededicating themselves to this classic.

Mike’s Song> Simple> Weekapaug Groove

Early on this summer it appeared as though the band was coaxing a big jam out of Mike’s Song. While they ultimately never did, this version from the first night at Merriweather Post is the closest they came, and the best version of the entire year thus far. For me, however, this Groove is all about the Simple. Only one of two versions played all year, this Simple loosely locks onto the theme from Down With Disease, building a subtle, warm, full-bodied, wholly-united jam out of the band that’s among my favorite musical moments of the entire year. Proof of the musical progressions made by Trey’s insistence on focusing on his rhythmic playing, this jam just goes to show how little Phish actually has to play within a jam to craft brilliance.

07/14

Stash

They took their time prior to starting up perhaps their most innocuous first set composition[12]. They knew where they wanted to go. This version was to be different. They wanted to see how far they could push Stash while still remaining within Stash. It was – or at least, it sounds as though it was – an experiment in controlled democratic fusion. It showed Phish what they could do within even the most structured of their songs. It ultimately helped to loosen them up as they pushed their most time-honored classics far beyond the limits they’d set for them back in 2009. Trey’s wha funk spills into major-keyed bliss on a dime. This is effortless Phish. This is 2013 in a jam.

Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman

Following that masterful first set Stash: the payoff. In perhaps the best show of the tour to that point, Phish let loose on their modern classic, fusing start/stop jams with rapid key changes, creating a disoriented dance-fest that shook Merriweather Post to its core. A prelude to the “woo’s” comes as the band peaks the jam in hysterically controlled chaos; this jam is the sound of a band fully realizing their interconnectivity, and yet still unwilling to let it all hang out at once. This is like one of those great Summer ’97 jams, when the band knew they were onto something, but weren’t quite ready to simply walk out on stage and totally strut their stuff like they’d do throughout the Fall. Few times has Boogie On sounded this anticipated, nor this perfect all at once.

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07/16

Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning

Within the confines of 2013, there were seven fully-flowing sets of music[13]. Of them, the segment from the first night of a two-night stand in Alpharetta, GA is neither the most accomplished[14], the most diverse[15], nor even the most jam-happy[16]. What it is however is a quasi-throw-back to the early days of 3.0 when humor and song selection were of the utmost importance in a Phish show, and jams rarely veered too far off into the unknown. Fusing this approach (as heard in the endless Heartbreaker teases, and the first of two Makisupa Policeman of 2013) with two jams that thematically sound plucked right out of Dick’s 2012[17], Phish crafted an indelible segment of music on a Tuesday in the Atlanta ‘burbs. For another example of how little time Phish needs to reach plains of musical bliss, look no further than the sublime Chalk Dust, a jam that feels like it covers 15-20 min of music in just under 10.

07/17

Piper -> Fast Enough For You

In a year in which the band spent so much time reviving their classics[18], while also pushing many of their newer songs into the unknown[19], less time was devoted to many of their turn-of-the-century vehicles than at any point in the past 15 years. Nowhere is this clearer than with Piper. A song that drove many of the best jams of 2003-2012, Piper appears to have adopted the role once held by Twist, as the mid-set recharge. Rather than explore the vociferous terrain Piper so seamlessly caters to, Phish instead employed it as a bridge between jams, and between the two halves of a second set, allowing its driving groove to maintain energy, rather than explore the unknown. Of these versions, perhaps none is as diverse as this one from Georgia. Touching on the baroque, haunted, underworldliness of many of its 2.0 peak versions, this Piper goes deep in a flash. Teasing the refrain from Energy, Trey immediately begins to impose darkness through the use of his tremelo effect, thus harkening back to the sprawling 07/19/2003 version. Emerging to a more blissful and melodic zone of music before fading softly into the ever-rare Fast Enough For You, perhaps it was all a subtle wink from Trey towards all those clamoring for a return of the slow-build intro?

07/21

Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards

“Thank you for sticking around….” With those five words, the band systematically lifted the imposing weight of three weeks full of torrential weather throughout their east coast run, and thus pivoted from the foundational setting of the first half of their summer tour, before moving earnestly into one of the strongest peaks of their entire career[20]. Energy, the song of summer, builds upon its 07/17 version, with Trey invoking funk rhythms that bleed into a gorgeous melodic space – ala the 11/22/1997 Halley’s Comet. Ghost is employed once again as something of a bridge, but it’s worth hearing all the same, as it quickly finds its way into a lilting jam – by way of a distinct Seven Below tease – that fades idyllically into The Lizards. A brilliant segment of music, which makes up the meat of one of the strongest sets of summer – and perhaps the most critical moment of the entire year[21] – these uninterrupted 35 minutes have held up long since the band moved westwards from the sodden and abandoned airport on the shores of Lake Michigan.

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07/22

Down With Disease -> 2001

After kicking off the summer with three fairly contained versions[22] of one of their most cherished Set II Openers, Phish finally broke through with a jam that built off of their pivotal second set on 07/21, and pointed the way westward. Featuring melodic and rhythmic riffs from Trey throughout, the jam ultimately settled on a remarkably pleasant platitude, which felt entirely composed, and is 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 summer. A section of wholly deliberate, rising melodic playing followed, ultimately giving way to a full-on tease of Sea Of Love from The National. Further proof of how much Trey has gained from his time spent listening to – and playing with – those in the indie rock world. Following this all up with a truly patient build towards 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.

David Bowie

Perhaps no Phish classic has struggled to regain its unknown potential since the onset of 3.0 as one David Bowie[23]. With only a few glimmers of hope stuck in there, things changed with drastic earnestness on 12/28/12 when the band began exploring within the frame of Bowie like they hadn’t since 2003. Powerful versions on 07/05 and 07/20 paved the way for a revivalist rendition to end the second set in Toronto. A jam I highlighted in August as one of the underrated gems of the whole tour, this version leans more towards the demented explorations from 12/28/12, while further emphasizing Trey’s rhythmic explorations. Fusing the playful old-school nature of Phish with their modern and more subtle communicativeness, this Bowie is a reference point for anyone searching for the moments when Phish was fully capable of abandoning the foundational setting of the first half of summer tour, and got down to the business of properly (and consistently) breaking through their own artistic mold.

*A huge THANK YOU to Mike Hamad of @phishmaps and @MikeHamad for allowing me to use his jam maps for a few of the jams of this list. His work is phenomenal, and it really helps those listening understand better what’s happening in Phish’s music. Please give him a follow on Twitter if you don’t already. And check out his site: Setlist Schematics for even more jam maps.


[1] ‘Best’ is obviously a tricky term when it comes to a subjective essay such as this. Seeing as so many different people love Phish for so many different reasons, it’s impossible to capture an entire community’s preferences, and moments of unified elation, within a singular list. Believe me, I’m aware.

And yet, these lists are more than simply a reflection of my own subjectivities and favorite jams/shows. These lists are a result of an extensive amount of time spent listening, reading, writing and thinking – all the while parsing through the historical layers of Phish – in search of moments that stand out, and seem to both unify and exemplify the sound of an entire year. Be certain, many of my “favorite” jams and shows from the past five years have been omitted from each of my lists. Be certain that some of my favorite jams from this past year were omitted in the initial whittling process.

[2] NB, this list originally began with more than 130 individual songs, and something like 75 single jam entities. It’s now at 76/39 respectively. Progress.

[3] Anyone in need of any of these jams, or of the full playlist, feel free to hit me up @sufferingjuke and I’ll happily send em your way.

[4] This list will be delivered chronologically as all my ‘Best Of’ Lists are. Some may be fond of ranking, but I find that to be both an insolent and irrelevant endeavor when discussing and documenting Phish. This is art, not sports for Christ sake’s.

[5] A topic for another essay and another time, when you actually go back and chart the actual occurrences of improv from 03/06/09 – 12/31/11, it’s clear the band jammed with far more regularity than many wanted (or were willing (in many ways, still are willing)) to give Phish credit for. Like I said, another essay, another time.

[6] For that matter, don’t skip on the 06/15/12, 07/06/12 (w/Psycho Killer jam!!!), 07/26/13, or 11/01/13 versions.

[7] In much the same spirit of the 12/30/09 Back On The Train, 06/25/10 Chalk Dust, 10/20/10 SOAM, 08/15/11 Undermind, and 08/31/12 Runaway Jim, this SOAM feels like a leftover of the unguarded, throw-the-paint-at-the-wall-&-see-what-happens, unfiltered, macabre-style jamming that so defined the band’s 2003-2004 period, otherwise known as 2.0.

[8] There are loads of examples of groundwork being laid throughout the first three weeks of tour, a period wherein which many in the fan base were melting on Twitter, PT, Phish.net & in Mr. Miner’s comments section about how Phish wasn’t living up to the lofty heights established in 2012, or weren’t busting-out enough songs, or jamming with enough frequency, etc. Among them: Bangor’s Golden Age – specifically Trey’s insistent use of his wha-wha pedal – 2001, Antelope, and Hood; SPAC’s Cities -> Bowie, 46 Days -> Steam and Slave; the defiantly old school setlist and playing on 07/07, 07/13 and 07/14; and the funk escapade of It’s Ice that gave the band an insane amount of confidence to let their hair down and just groove.

[9] In all seriousness I loved this entire show. Set I is one of the most unique of the entire summer, featuring excellent versions of CTB and 46 Days, a loping stride through Ocelot, and an old-school pairing of Reba and David Bowie to close things out. Then again, I didn’t have to brave the cold, steely rain that reportedly blew sideways through the open-air venue that night. From my cozy apartment though, things sounded quite lovely, tbh.

[10] Yeah, I just know there’s some dude on PT right now spewing his coffee over this statement. It’s not exploratory at all. Get over it. This 60-min segment of uninterrupted music has far more in common with the late-1.0 era than anything else really played at all throughout 2013. It’s all groove. Groove for the sake of groove. It’s essentially all extended Type I jams, (with the great exception of the melodic jam that emerges from Tweezer prior to its segue into Cities) it’s essentially one big excuse for the band to simply hook-up. None of this, btw, is said to insinuate that it’s not a huge evolutionary step forward for the band within the confines of 2013, nor worth your time, or your ears.

[11] It’s right in line with 07/07, 07/10, 07/14, 10/23, and 10/25 as shows the band played throughout 2013 that felt plucked right out of 1992-1995.

[12] You could make the same argument for Bowie and Reba, but there’s something about Stash that – particularly in 3.0 – just screams “live soundcheck.”

[13] 07/05, 07/12, 07/16, 07/27, 07/30, 10/20, 10/25

[14] 10/20

[15] 07/05

[16] 07/12, 07/30

[17] The Set Opening Rock & Roll and the mid set Chalk Dust Torture are also two of the best examples of what Mr. Miner calls “Musical Density” that we have in 3.0

[18] Harry Hood, Tweezer, David Bowie, Stash

[19] Energy, Light, Golden Age, Steam, Twenty Years Later

[20] You can make a strong case that from 07/21 – 11/02 the band played 15 instant classic shows – an incredible 60% of the shows during that period – something they haven’t accomplished with such ease – nor such consistency – since probably 1997.

[21] There’s no denying how profoundly well the band was playing throughout much of the first three weeks of tour, but it was clear they were in need of something of a moment of truth to push them beyond the spurts (and the horrendous weather that dogged them) that had somewhat defined their east coast run. From the final set of their weekend in Chicago onwards, 2013 has been nothing short of a masterpiece. Without the interconnectivity and phearlessness displayed here, who knows what would have become of the band’s 30th year…

[22] This isn’t to say in any way that the other versions were bad, per se. Both the 07/07 and 07/13 versions contained some phenomenal interplay from Trey and Page in particular. Just that, well this is Down With Disease. It’s kind of one of those ‘when in doubt songs’ for Phish. The kind they can always rely on to jump-start a set/show, or immediately build upon the energy of a hooked-up Set I.

[23] Seriously, take out the 06/19/10, 10/20/10, 06/03/11, 07/03/11, and 12/28/12 versions and what you’re left with are essentially a massive amount of skeletal imitations of what Bowie once was. Of all the Phish classics that have suffered – necessarily and unnecessarily – at the hands of Phish’s full-on rebuilding project of the last five years, none have been as tragic as that of Bowie.

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.

 

The Three Decembers – Intro

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Of all the months of the year, December holds the status as the best month of Phish. While one could easily make arguments for the great shows throughout summer, the phenomenal November’s and even the March and April shows of years past that blew the minds of fans throughout the northeast. Yet when all’s said and done, December has to rank as the best of them all.

Combining the culmination of a years worth of touring with the frigid temperatures that seem to amp a crowd cramped into a stadium just a bit more than in an open-air amphitheater, with the collective energy that resonates during the Holiday Season, Phish has always seemed to take their music to another level when the calendar turns to the last month of the year. Add to it their nearly annual four-night New Years Eve run that leads up to a three-set celebration, and there’s more than enough evidence of why December is always the Phish month to remember.

Over the next three posts, Tackle & Lines is going to explore three December runs in particular – 1995, 1997 and 1999 – to both highlight the innovative and celebratory moments of each month, but more so, to try and understand further what made these months so special in their respective years, and throughout Phish’s career. We’ll analyze full shows, deconstruct jams and repeated themes, analyze the styles explored and developed, and try to better understand what pushed the band to the musical heights reached in each of these Decembers.

Before we begin, below are three examples of the energy, exploration and raw power that have defined December Phish.