The Structure Of A Show – Set I

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Once the immediate anticipation and surprise of the show’s opener has passed, it’s time for the band to get down to the business of crafting a set’s worth of music. Splitting their shows into two individual sets allows for the band to focus all their energy on 60 – 90 minutes of music (or, generally between 8 – 14 songs) at a time. Whereas most band’s concerts are structured in one elongated performance – ranging anywhere from 70 minutes to 3 hrs – Phish benefits from this two set model – pioneered in the rock world, by, The Grateful Dead. Granting them a pause for reflection, sometimes a shift in direction, and always two structural mediums by which to bounce various musical ideas around in, the two set-show is one of Phish’s most uniquely brilliant aspects. In laymen’s terms: a shitty first set can often lead to a mindblowing Set II, while a raucous first set can inspire the band to take unpracticed risks, or even burn out, when they return from set break. Many times an absolutely devastating, fully flowing, and energized Set I spills right over into the second set, by which the band crafts an absolute classic show. While ultimately, the overall performance is up to the band’s energy, their immediate drive, not to mention a number of intangibles, the essential structure in place works to formulate the results in a number of ways.

Generally speaking, first sets have historically been opportunities for the band to settle into a show, test out any new/rare songs, and play with a bit more discipline than in the second set. Here, the focus is generally on energy, presentation, and the songs; a recital of sorts. While the formula has certainly shifted throughout the years, the view of a first set is that it’s typically devoid of the experimentation that’s seen in Set II. Fans rarely expect a first set jam. Rather, are hankering for evidence of tight playing, solid song selection, and an emphasis on flow that will translate itself to a looser, and engaging Set II. Granted, there are always exceptions to the rule: during the 1997 – 2004 period, the band routinely jammed during first sets, shrinking them to as few as five songs at times; essentially they played two second sets on certain nights. Yet, for the purpose of this introduction, it’s best to consider the first set as a separate and different medium from set two, though we’ll certainly get into those which blur the lines below.

Whereas the Show Opener’s could be numerically and mathematically broken down into a formulaic study, analyzing full sets are a bit trickier. With so many different and unique combinations of songs, segues, one-timers played during an 8 – 12 song set, it’s far more difficult to quantify what makes a classic set, versus a mundane one in the same way you can with an opener. Say the band has played 1300 two set shows. Say the average number of songs played in every first set is 9 songs. That’s 11,700 different song combinations that could have been played throughout those shows. Far from the scientific breakdown of 206 openers out of 750 unique songs, analyzing whole sets is a far more subjective endeavor.

As a result, the following posts on the sets will rely less on numbers, and more on the author’s ear, and overall knowledge of Phish. While still keenly focused on organizing various sets into categories, readers will note not only the increase in examples, but also the overlapping of certain shows in various categories. A major reason for this is the band’s evolution of the First Set since their onset. A meandering, story time hour in the 80’s and early 90’s, it became a tightly wound machine from 1993 – 1996. Reinventing itself as a comparable improv-heavy medium in 1997 and 1998, it became a mix of jams and a recital by 1999. A casualty at times during the sloppy and experimental 2.0 era, in 3.0 the First Set has returned to it’s origins as a recital medium, emphasizing the band’s songs, while fusing together the energy of the mid-1990’s.

I can assure you, I’ve deliberated and weighed over these choices with significant energy, and somewhat torturous patience. This post proved to be far more of a research-heavy endeavor than the Show Opener‘s post could have ever dreamed to be.

What follows is Part II of VIII in tackle & lines series on The Structure Of A Show. Each category contains a write-up, examples, video clips (when available), and full-show streams (thanks phishtracks.com) for better understanding. As with the article on Openers, the goal of this is not to come to some sort of a conclusions about what a specific Phish show is, but rather explore the various directions the band chooses to go with their shows – here in the medium of the first set. This is not a means to rank the best sets versus the weakest – though negative habits will be discussed – instead is trying to find points of connection across various eras – and within each – while also pointing out their differences. Hope you guys enjoy the piece, we’re now a few weeks closer to 03 July!

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I. The Classical Assaults

If you’re like most diehard Phish fans, there are those songs you love hearing at a Phish show, no matter how many times you’ve heard them. ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Wilson,’ ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself,’ ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ these songs just never lose their luster, or their power. They’re the classics for a reason. On their own they’re always a welcome occasion. But when combined in set’s worth of music, they help to craft some of the most powerful, and memorable First Set’s. Akin to the Show Opener‘s classic’s segment, these First Set’s are the kind anyone would kill to experience live. Combining energy, musical might, and the essential ingredient of the band’s most cherished classic’s, these sets pack a punch, and have in many cases, stood the test of time. While obviously a more regular affair during the band’s early years when they had a smaller song catalogue to play with, these set’s still make an appearance today, and are sure to garner the tag “show of the tour” based on the sentiments and nostalgia they exhume. Yet as is proven time and again, it matter’s little when these set’s were played, for no matter their era, they’ll hold up no matter what.

Examples: 08/26/1989, 08/03/1991, 11/02/1990, 03/20/1992, 06/18/1994, 07/13/1994, 11/30/1995, 12/15/1995, 08/14/2009, 11/24/2009, 10/30/2010

Spanning 21 years, what the above sets all have in common is the greatest hit’s quality that accompanies the song selections, and the forcible energy that resonates throughout. These are the sets everyone has heard. Just scanning their setlist’s is like a rough guide into the Phish world; a Phish 101, if you will. Rarities, jams, bustouts are not typical of the above sets – though they do certainly occur. What’s a constant theme in the classical assault’s is the powerful onslaught of what the idea of Phish is. Celebratory affairs, these are the set’s we were all introduced to Phish to, and they’re the set’s that bring us back to that which initially drew us to the band, be it at the show, or listening at home.

Philadelphia, PA – 12/15/1995

II. The Show Sealers

There are those nights when by setbreak, the whole room is abuzz, and everyone just knows, this is a killer show. Picking these shows in advance is a fruitless endeavor, for the best nights of Phish are a result of a multitude of factors. It could be the night before an overhyped show, a return to a venue/city the band just loves, the mid-tour energy taking over the band, or just a random night, in a random city where the band is just feeling it. One thing’s certain, whenever the band plays a monumental show, the writing’s on the wall midway through a torrential First Set.

Examples: 12/30/1993, 06/11/1994, 10/21/1995, 12/07/1997, 12/11/1999, 02/28/2003, 07/29/2003, 12/30/2009, 10/20/2010, 07/03/2011, 08/31/2012

While the First Set’s played in any of the above eleven shows range in styles from classical ragers, to bustout-laden celebrations, to the surreal and the jam-heavy, what they all have in common is their connective force that made their show a virtual lock by setbreak. A “David Bowie” opener; a note-for-note-perfect sequence; a “Tweezer Reprise” bookend; jams abound in “AC/DC Bag -> Psycho Killer,” and “Tube”; the first “Hood” opener in years; the return of “Destiny Unbound”; an iPod shuffle set that perfectly matched it’s era; a determined tour de force that summed up everything that makes 30 December so damn special; “Guyutica”; the after-effects of the “Storage Jam”; and a not-so-subtle “FUCK YOU” to their fans; these are the kinds of sets that have led thousands to hit the road, following the band from state to state in anticipation of the next “hadtobethere(!!!)” show. What’s interesting as well about the above, is that out of the eleven, only four featured Second Sets that matched or surpassed the first. While certainly not bad follow-ups – those are featured later in the essay – the stat is more than anything a testament to the power of these set I’s. Much like the section that preceded, whenever you witness a set with the power of the above, you just know it.

III. The Bustout Specials

Nothing quite lights up the eyes of a fellow fan like the prospect of a set full of bustouts. A rare breed, that they are. Yet few shows/sets have the ability to capture both an arena, and the internet community, with such in-the-moment fervor and excitement, as they can. A product of the band’s tightening of their song catalogue between 1992 and 1995, bustouts became a fun way for the band to add a bit of history into their shows. With a further slimming in 1997, and an overall decline in the amount of shows they played in the years to follow, more and more songs were lost in the shuffle. Separations of a couple hundred shows, all the way upwards into the thousands, meant that every so often the band would dig deep into their history and present a rare, forgotten song. Often just a one-off song, there are the even rarer instances where the band has dedicated a whole set – or a portion – to an array of bustouts and rarities. Typically a mix between oft-requested songs, and hidden gems, one’s reaction to a bustout show is what separates the fans from the novices. Usually sealing a show up as a classic by setbreak, just for the nature of the songs played, these shows tend to overlap with the above section at times.

Examples: 02/26/1997, 12/07/1997, 11/21/1998, 09/30/2000, 07/29/2003, 12/30/2003, 12/30/2009, 10/26/2010, 06/22/2010

Now, I know the definition of bustout and bustout shows can get a bit hazy with every PT-noob calling a song not seen in 36 shows a bustout. So, here’s my criteria for a set to be a bustout special: there has to be at least one song in the set exceeding 100 (and potentially 200) shows since it was last seen, and there have to be multiple other songs within the set that haven’t been played in at least 50 shows. Beyond this, the set should carry a feeling of what happens when you hit play on your ipod shuffle. Devoid of these essential characteristics, and it’s just not a bustout set. Full of songs that people have either completely forgotten about, or have been pining for without restraint, the bustout sets are a mix of masterful playing – 02/26/1997, 12/07/1997, 06/22/2012 – or scattered applause and an overt lack of flow – 12/30/2009. Regardless of their delivery, the simple fact that the band is dedicating their First Set to an assortment of rarities is enough to get people psyched.

Dayton, OH – 12/07/1997

IV. The Recitals

In their original format Phish’s First Set’s were essentially recitals where the band would showcase a large percentage of their catalogue. As opposed to today where most of us tend to think of songs in terms of First Set and Second Set material, pretty much their entire catalogue was fair game in set I through 1991. Since then however, the band evolved their First Set’s into a sleek, energy-packed machine, to an anything-goes jam session that tended to resembled set II’s, to an unpredictable mix between jams and soldiering rotation songs, to once again a more recital-based approach here in 3.0. Emerging a changed band in 2009, the band approached their second re-birth in a structural way, seeking to rebuild the foundation of their live shows from the ground-up before engaging in any experimentation. Thus the recital sets returned to both the gripe and adoration of all sorts of fans. Regardless of your sentiments to the recital approach, one thing’s certain: if you’re looking to clean up on a plethora of Phish songs, the recital set’s are the one’s to catch/listen to.

Examples: 07/23/1988, 08/04/1988, 10/01/1989, 03/16/1991, 06/24/1994, 07/08/1994, 12/01/1996, 09/12/1999, 03/06/2009, 03/07/2009, 03/08/2009, 06/21/2009, 06/24/2010, 08/14/2010, 10/15/2010, 10/26/2010, 06/08/2011, 07/02/2011, 06/28/2012, 06/30/2012, 07/03/2012, 07/04/2012, 07/06/2012

From festival sets, to Gamehendge performances, to 3.0 stand-by’s, the recital’s have popped up throughout the band’s career. While many fan’s today lament the over-wrought First Set’s of 3.0, one can’t deny that when the band is on, their recital set’s are fantastic to witness live. Who could seriously complain of a Gamehendge set, or the raucous nature of 08/14/2010, the bustout quality to 10/26/2010, the unending festival-spirit of 07/02/2011, or the old-school throw-down of 07/06/2012, regardless of the number of song’s played? While sure, flow often suffers during the recital sets – paging 12/01/1996, 10/15/2010, 06/08/2011 – and yes, the nature of the sets prevents any authentic experimentation from occurring, but who really has time to think about any of that when witnessing, or listening to the band kill one song after another. In the end, the recital’s will probably always be a contentious debate within the Phish community, as some love their old-school, jukebox feel, and other’s wish they’d remain a product of the past. Your own personal feelings regarding them probably reflects your overall tastes in music, than the band’s performance anyway.

V. The Simmering Gems

There are those sets that, for whatever reason, take some time, perspective, and re-listens to be fully appreciated. There are also those sets that, for whatever reason, the band needs a song or two to ease into. These next two sections are dedicated to a mixture of the two. The first, is more the former than the later. While, sure, there are a few sets within that some would claim to be immediate classics, what each of these sets has in common is both their diversity and their depth. Possibly not appreciated – be it at all, or fully – upon their initial performance, the following sets are like a properly made stock – they’re all the better if given time. These sets may never leap out at a setlist whore, they may not be all the rage the next day – or they just may. In the end, time has graced each of them, offering capsules into some of the best – if not, underrated – performances in the band’s history.

Examples: 04/21/1992, 12/14/1995, 12/29/1995, 08/13/1996, 08/02/1997, 11/23/1997, 02/28/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/07/2009, 06/27/2010, 08/13/2010, 05/28/2011, 08/16/2011, 06/15/2012

One commonality in the above sets, is that many of them are compiled with a collection of songs that most fans would simply shrug off if compiled in a PT rotation thread. Yet, in the context of their performance, and the overall quality of the performance, they remain some of the strongest sets of their respective tours. From the zaniness of 04/21, to the idyllic, easy summer-sentiment of 08/13/1996. From the spectacular jamming in 02/28 and 07/30, to the balanced approach of 05/28, 08/16 and 06/15, each of these sets is a reflection of a band on the ball, regardless of the style of set they’re playing. A prelude to a latter section, the thing that unites these sets is their – mostly – under the radar quality, yet hidden gems that have made them hold up far more than some of their overhyped brethren.

VI. The Slow Builders

Similar to the previous section in that the slow builders are likely to be sets that aged with grace, rather than stunning anyone out the gates, what ultimately separates them is the fact that many of the following sets took a few songs to really get going. These are the nights where the band needed a bit of time easing into the show. These are the sets that more-often-than not, opened with predictable classics, laid-back easers, and even crowd groaners, yet ultimately are remembered because of energy caught later in the set, or a monumental First Set  jam. We’ve all been to a Phish show like this. The nights where the energy just isn’t totally there from the onset, but by setbreak, everyone’s stoked for the possibilities in set II. Yet once hindsight is granted, many of the keener listeners are willing to forgive such moments of uncertainty, knowing that it was all a part of the band figuring themselves out on that particular night. While, yes, sometimes the shows that begin like this prove to be ominous – something that will be addressed in two sections – this particular section is dedicated wholly to those which recovered fully, erasing any sense of jitters when the lights dropped.

Examples: 06/15/1995, 12/30/1995, 07/01/1998, 07/16/1998, 09/12/1999, 12/07/1999, 06/15/2000, 02/20/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/08/2009, 12/29/2009, 06/27/2010, 08/05/2011, 08/09/2011, 06/20/2012, 07/06/2012, 08/19/2012

From the predictability of 06/15/1995’s First Set that ultimately led to the blissful “Stash -> I Didn’t Know,” to the easing of “The Squirming Coil, NICU” on 07/16/1998, that preluded the perfectly timed “Reba> Fast Enough For You> When The Circus Comes.” From 09/12/1999 and 12/07/1999’s early-set jitters that were all but forgotten by their monster mid-set jam’s out of “Bathtub Gin,” and “Halley’s Comet,” to the awkward song selections of 02/20/2003 and 07/30/2003 that masked the jams out of “Simple> Gotta Jibboo,” and “Scents & Subtle Sounds” that their sets would ultimately be remembered for. In each of these cases, any stumbles, or easing out the gate, was later overshadowed, and ultimately overlooked as a result of the greatness achieved later in the set. Proof that the show opener doesn’t make a set, and that some night’s, all the band needs is a few songs to get settled in.

VII. The Sets Where It Doesn’t Matter What They Play Because Whatever They Play They’re Gonna Crush

We’ve all seen these shows. Often times they’re the best shows of all. These are the shows where whatever song(s) you’re chasing takes a backseat to the masterful performance at hand. These are the shows where it doesn’t matter what song the band plays, because they’re so on, cruising on so much energy, reveling in the moment with such assured esteem, that whatever songs they play, they’re inevitably going to crush. Quite possibly the most inexplicable, unexplainable section in this entire essay, these shows are notable for they simply rely on that intangible feeling in the air that finds itself hovering at a Phish show every so often. Akin to the show sealers’s section, these sets can occur just about anywhere, and at any time, so it’s incredibly difficult to predict when they’re about to happen, until they’re happening. You know when you’re at a show like this because every song just seems to flow perfectly from the previous one, regardless if it’s the song you wanted to hear. These sets are, in my opinion, the closest thing Phish has come to to crafting a superb album. They’re tangible evidence of the power Phish has over a crowd and a moment, something that has nothing to do with jamming, drugs, or hippies. Proof of their cultural zeitgeist, these sets display the band’s dexterity, and the sheer brilliance of their approach to each of their completely unique shows.

Examples: 02/20/1993, 12/31/1993, 06/11/1994, 07/13/1994, 06/30/1995, 11/11/1995, 12/17/1995 , 08/14/1996, 11/21/1997, 04/03/1998, 08/03/1998, 08/12/1998, 07/13/1999, 07/25/1999, 06/14/2000, 02/22/2003, 06/07/2009, 08/14/2010, 10/20/2010, 05/28/2011, 07/03/2011, 08/15/2011, 09/04/2011, 07/01/2012, 08/28/2012, 09/01/2012, 12/30/2012

United in their energy, composition, and raw power, these sets define what it’s like to be at a Phish show for so many of us. They contain that spirit of the unknown that graces the best Phish shows. These are the set’s that have people giddy at setbreak. They’re the set’s that unite upwards of 20,000 people in blusterous applause as if their favorite team just won the World Series. They rise above much of the rest of the tour, and are constantly called upon by fan’s looking to dish out a show rec. A mix of essentially ever section we’ve covered thus far, these set’s just might be my absolute favorite to listen to.

VIII. The Flow?

And then, there are those first sets where by set break everyone’s collectively looking around wondering, huh? Something seems off. Not necessarily a bad set – though it certainly sometimes is – more a set where the band seemed to compromise thematic flow, energy, continuity in favor of a random assortment of songs that never really seemed to mesh. We’ve all been to these kinds of shows. The nights where the band has it, and then they don’t. Then they get it back, and then they lose it. An up and down affair, it’s a product of human nature; sometimes, even those with the capabilities to astound regularly, stumble. They’re the sets and shows that fill out the entirety of tours. After all, not every set/show can be epic. (And as seen here, even some regarded as epic feature dreadfully unbalanced flow.) Sometimes you just have to witness an uneven affair to truly appreciate the moments where the band is killing it. What’s more is that typically within even these inconsistent nights, are moments of brilliance that tend to spill over to whole-show masterpieces just a few nights later.

Examples: 11/26/1994, 10/22/1996, 11/09/1996, 11/30/1996, 07/26/1997, 08/16/1997, 07/09/1999, 09/12/1999, 09/22/1999, 12/12/1999, 07/18/2003, 12/02/2003, 08/15/2004, 05/31/2009, 07/31/2009, 11/20/2009, 11/27/2009, 12/04/2009, 12/30/2009, 06/17/2010, 06/19/2011, 08/10/2011, 07/03/2012, 12/29/2012

While prevalent throughout their career, there is certainly a larger amount of 3.0 shows that contain these kinds of First Sets. Though, for the most part it appears the band has started to iron out their First Sets – as evident by a number of monumental ones in 2012 – through much of their first three years back from the grave, the band stubbornly dedicated many of their set I’s to a random assortment of songs, many of which had little purpose being united. Sometimes for the sole purpose of trying out a few new songs, others, just a reflection of a random night on tour where the band’s just trying to get a sense of the evening. Often times similar to the slow builders sets, particularly if they result in mastery later, a set I lacking flow, certainly does not deter the potential of a monumental set II. For as 08/16/1997, 07/31/2009, 11/20/2009, and 07/03/2012 display, an uneven First Set, can often times lead to a barnburner in set II. It’s a crapshoot in the end. Sometimes you’re gonna witness the perfectly crafted masterpiece, and sometimes you’re gonna see a glorified soundcheck. Either way, the fact that the band is willing to present the process – warts and all – to their fans over the course of a tour, is reason alone to continue seeing them.

Charlotte, NC – 07/07/1999

IX. Too-Much-Too-Soon(s)

You know those shows where the band comes out on an absolute tear, just blows the lid off the joint with a fiery, masterful set I, and then reemerges after setbreak with an absolute dud? The nights where they just seem to blow their load in the first 90 minutes, and just can’t quite summon the energy for set II. I’ll never forget 06/19/2010 for this very reason. Coming on the heels of 06/18’s stunning display of flow, energy, and collective zaniness, the band delivered an engaging, and old school First Set at SPAC. Following the catatonic explosion of “Suzy Greenberg,” one could only assume set II was going to raise the bar of the tour once more. Then they came out and played one of the most forgettable sets I’ve ever witnessed. It happens. Sometimes an incredibly strong set I is just too powerful to top. Sometimes they’ve only got energy for one solid set. Sometimes setbreak just kills whatever energy they had going in. Whatever the case is, we’ve all seen/heard these shows. While the overall show may be a forgotten affair, we should still all give their First Set’s their proper due.

Examples: 08/26/1989, 03/20/1992, 06/11/1994, 11/17/1994, 12/15/1995, 08/03/1998, 07/09/2003, 08/10/2004, 06/19/2010, 10/30/2010, 07/03/2011, 08/17/2011, 07/01/2012

Each of the above set I’s are more than worth your time and listening capabilities. For each is a display of a band fully connected, and simply on. While some of them contain solid set II’s – 08/26/1989, 06/11/1994, 08/03/1998, 07/03/2011 – the quality that unites each is that the bar was potentially set too high by a torrid First Set. Perhaps there’s a certain cap of energy that can be released at a Phish show on a given night? Maybe the band purposely follows certain spectacular set I’s with less-than-stellar set II’s in effort to use the energy explosion a means to turn inwards? Whatever the case, while so many shows are made or broken on the quality of play in set II, the above – and certainly many others – will always be remember for the mastery of their First Sets, regardless of their entirety.

Morrison, CO – 06/11/1994

Chicago, IL – 08/17/2011

X. The First Set Jammers

As I stated in the intro, it’s best to typically think of First Set’s as a completely separate entity from set II’s. While both held numerous similarities throughout the band’s first 8 – 10 years, by the time their peak years of 1993 – 1998 came around, the two had been sequestered as individual platforms for artistic expression. Generally speaking, the First Set is for the songs, and the Second Set is for the jams. However, this is not always the case. Part of the beauty of Phish is their unpredictability, and the sheer pleasure they seem to gain out of fucking with their fans. What started in 1993 with a few divergent, Type-II jams tossed into a set I here and there, led to an all-out revolution by 1997, when First Set’s were just as susceptible to exploration and jamming as their counterpart. By 1999, they’d reigned in this experiment, fusing their historically structured set I’s, with a few scattered jams. 2.0 allowed a mix of the two approaches to flourish – to sometimes brilliant, and other times, half-assed results. And while the initial stages of 3.0 saw a complete reversal back towards the recital approach of the band’s earliest years, since August 2010, they’ve shown a keen interest in opening set I back up to jamming. While we’ll cover the full-on, set II-esque First Sets in the next section, the following sets are a few examples of bursts and moments of improv within a First Set, rather than a complete improv approach. Most everyone can agree that a First Set jam can only help to raise the level of energy in the venue. These are the sets that more than benefited from said First Set experimentation.

Examples: 12/30/1993, 06/15/1995, 08/14/1996, 12/06/1996, 07/01/1997, 07/21/1997, 07/27/1997, 08/02/1997, 11/14/1997, 11/21/1997, 11/22/1997, 12/05/1997, 12/07/1997, 12/12/1997, 04/03/1998, 07/01/1998, 07/06/1998, 07/29/1998, 08/03/1998, 11/29/1998, 12/31/1998, 07/10/1999, 07/24/1999, 12/07/1999, 06/28/2000, 07/11/2000, 09/14/2000, 02/20/2003, 02/26/2003, 02/28/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/10/2004, 06/04/2009, 08/07/2009, 08/06/2010, 05/28/2011, 07/03/2011, 07/01/2012, 09/01/2012

As with the recitals and questionable flow segments being heavily represented by 3.0 , it’s no wonder that 1997 and 1998 assumes a large percentage of this section’s sets. However, what’s interesting – and intriguing for any fans of improv – is the fact that their are increasingly more set I’s in 3.0 that contain notable jams within. A sign that the band has fully overcome their initial rust of 2009 and 2010, and have reached that point again where they can communicate with ease on stage, and are able to jam effortlessly at will. Historically that’s what their First Set jams have been evident of – an overt level of comfort and communication – while displaying the various styles of the band’s evolution. From the “Dream On Bowie” of 12/30/1993, to the playful jamming of 12/06/1996. From 07/21/1997’s onslaught of funk, to the ambient weaves of 07/01/1998’s “Down With Disease -> Dog Faced Boy -> Piper.” From the meandering grooves that spilled out of 07/24/1999’s “Fluffhead,” to the dark and seedy “Scent’s And Subtle Sounds” on 07/30/2003. From the “Ghost> Antelope” that surprisingly closed out 06/04/2009, to the blissful “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” from 07/03/2011’s masterful set. Each of these jams more than raised the bar of their set’s, while proving that First Set’s can be far more than a simple recital.

Atlanta, GA – 06/15/1995

Bethel, NY – 05/28/2011

XI. The Set II’s?

You know those jams where, either at the show, or listening at home, you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘wait, what song is this again?’ That’s kind of what these sets are like. As the last section displayed, from 1997 – 2004, and again since mid-2010, Phish has had a penchant for fucking with the structure of the First Set, thus muddling the original differences between it and it’s counterpart. Whereas First Set’s have historically been opportunities to showcase songs, rather than improv, these distinctions tend to blur from time to time. Sometimes so much so, that one can forget what set they’re actually witnessing.

An example. Following the “FUCKYOU” set on 08/31/2012, my wife and I headed up to grab a beer. Awash in celebratory sentiments, we were about as happy as two people could be at that point. Married just a week earlier, this was the kick off of a four month honeymoon. Stoked to just see a Phish show, nothing could have prepared us for what the band actually had in store. While waiting in line a girl turned to us, and said, “I can’t believe the beer tent’s are still open.” We laughed this off, but when she turned again saying, “that was the best show I’ve ever seen!” we kindly informed her that there was still another set to be had. “WHAT?!?! YOU MEAN THAT WAS JUST THE FIRST SET!?!?! HOLY CRAP!!!!”

Now, one could certainly argue that this sentiment was chalked up to being a noob, on drugs, or just a dumb girl at a show. However, as the following show’s prove, sometimes the lines are so blurred between set I and set II, that it twists one’s mind. This is the ultimate goal of a Phish show after all: to alter your perspective so, that you step out of your everyday self-conciousness and expectations, wholly accepting the unexpected. We’re all familiar with these shows. When we’re there, they’re somewhat unexplainable for the grasp they have over a crowd. When we listen at home, they continuously display the dexterity and command that Phish can summon.

Examples: 12/06/1996, 07/10/1997, 11/17/1997, 11/22/1997, 04/05/1998, 07/13/1999, 12/15/1999, 07/23/2003, 06/19/2004, 08/12/2004, 10/16/2010, 08/31/2012

Jams abound in the above sets, what unites them is their ability to muddle the historic lines between the First and Second Sets. Be it 07/10/1997’s fully-flowing Euro-funk-fest, or the five-song clinic on 11/17/1997. The sublime, drug-induced jamming from “Halley’s -> Roses -> NO2,” and “Reba> Carini” on 07/13/1999, or the ambient-laced “Walls Of The Cave -> David Bowie” that capped off a jam-heavy 06/19/2004 set. In 3.0, 10/16/2010 set the standard for an innovative set I, before igniting a firestorm in Fall 2010, while 08/31/2012 has only gotten better with age, as heard in the “Carini” and “Undermind” that provided the cornerstones of the “FUCKYOU” set. They are the sets that once more prove why we seek out hundreds of Phish tapes, why we travel across the country to see the band, why we sit through two and three bad Phish shows in a row, why we spend tens of thousands of dollars for a simple three-hour concert. They prove to us, if nothing else, why to always expect the unexpected with Phish, and why that which is unexpected is always worth witnessing.

Marseilles, France – 07/10/1997

Washington DC, USA – 12/15/1999

——–

An evolving medium of their live shows, the First Set was once simply thought of as a platform for various songs. Later it became an avenue for jamming and experimentation. Throughout it’s been a diverse collection of possibilities for the band to ignite a show. One half of what makes up an entire Phish show, the First Set – while generally thought of as the tamer side of a show – have proven to be unexpected, dexterous, and mind-blowing at various times throughout history. While there are certainly a plethora of other styles of First Sets, the eleven covered above are the most common one is expected to experience at a show. Thus concludes the second part of an eight part series, breaking down Phish’s live show. Up next is the First Set Closer.

Hope everyone enjoyed the post! Feel free to leave your thoughts, comments, suggestions, rants, etc!

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The Best Of Phish – 2009 – Part II

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– With Summer 2013 Dates just announced, I felt it appropriate to give 2009 it’s proper due. Here follows is a recap of the first year of 3.0, including picks for Best Jams and Best Shows. Part II today is the Show, click here for Part I. Enjoy! –

The Best Of Phish 2009

Honorable Shows

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Susquehanna Bank Center – Camden, NJ – 06/07/2009

Set I: Chalk Dust Torture, Fee+, Wolfman’s Brother, Guyute, My Sweet One> 46 Days, The Lizards, The Wedge, Strange Design, Tube, First Tube

Set II: Sand, Suzy Greenberg, Limb By Limb, The Horse -> Silent In The Morning, Sugar Shack^, Character Zero> Tweezer

Encore: Joy^, Bouncing Around The Room> Run Like An Antelope> Tweezer Reprise

+ Trey forgot the lyrics halfway through “Fee”

^ “Sugar Shack” and “Joy” made their Phish debuts

Eight shows into their 3.0 comeback, Phish returned to one of their favorite venues, and put on a show still revered today, proving they could transcend the initial limitations set upon themselves. On the last night of the NE-Run of Summer’s First Leg, Phish settled in, played a masterful first set, a contemplative second set – bookended by two of the best jams of the year – and an extended encore, all for some of the most devoted fans they have. Personified by the ambient jam that emerged out of “Fee,” the old-school/new-school combo of “My Sweet One> 46 Days,” and the antics that ended the set with “Tube,” and “First Tube,” the first set was a relaxed affair, devoid of the recital approach that had plagued many of the tour’s other first sets. In Set II, the band opened with a monster jam off of “Sand,” before treating the crowd to a string of old school classics, and blissful numbers, with “Suzy” and “Silent In The Morning,” along with the debut of Mike’s bubbly “Sugar Shack.” The best moment though, might have been the powerful “Tweezer” that ended the set. Coming as a surprise out of the expected “Zero” set closer, the jam built into a monstrous storm led entirely by Trey’s endemic licks. Ending the set on a high note, all’s the band had to do was the standard “Bouncing> Tweeprise” and people would have gone home  happy. Though opting to toss in the debut of “Joy,” along with a raging “Run Like An Antelope,” the encore took on the feel of a third set, reminding everyone just how much the band cherished their home turf. The show of the year to many-a-fan, Camden ’09 is significant in many ways. Perhaps most lasting is the fact that it was the first show since their return in March that could be argued as “show of the year.”

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Red Rocks Amphitheater – Morrison, CO – 08/01/2009

Set I: AC/DC Bag, The Curtain With*, Mound**, Gotta Jibboo, Guyute, Punch You In The Eye, Tube, Alaska> Run Like An Antelope+

Set II: Rock & Roll -> Down With Disease#& -> Free, Esther***, Dirt, Harry Hood##

Encore: Sleeping Monkey, First Tube

* First “The Curtain With” since 15 August 2004

** First “Mound” since 31 December 2002

** First “Esther” since 30 September 2000

+ “Run Like An Antelope” contained the lyrics ‘Been you to have any slush’

# “Down With Disease contained “LA Woman” and “Taste” teases

## “Harry Hood” contained “Dirt” and “Free” teases

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

A night after playing their best show of 3.0 to that point, Phish returned for the third night of their unprecedented four-night run (by 3.0 standards) at Red Rocks, and put of a nostalgic performance, thus complimenting the innovative playing of the previous show. A nailed and emotive “The Curtain With,” played for the first time since Coventry, was really all anyone needed to know how the band felt about their return, some five months in. Following it with the first “Mound” since 31 December 2002, was icing on the cake, as the band nailed the clearly practice Rift-era rarity. The rest of the first set was a classic mix of summery, first set tunes, highlighted by a pungent jam out of “Tube.” In the second set, the band took “Rock & Roll” and “DWD” on extended journeys, a jam segment that made one of the final cuts for the jams of the year list. Continuing the bust-out theme, “Esther” was played for the first time since Vegas ’00, before closing things out with the introspective “Dirt,” and a notable version of “Harry Hood.” Long revered by fans, the six-song second set became something of an oddity following this show, as the band routinely abandoned multiple jams, in favor of bursts of energy throughout Set II’s. A solid show through and through, 08/01 was the perfect follow-up to 07/31’s torrential onslaught, and reassured fans that their best performances in 3.0 weren’t necessarily one-off affairs. More than anything, this show put an indelible stamp on the ’09 Red Rocks Run that won’t be removed until they decide to revisit the Colorado gem.

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Cumberland County Civic Center – Portland, ME – 11/29/2009

Set I: Possum> Down With Disease, Nellie Kane*, Weigh, When The Circus Comes, Kill Devil Falls, Water In The Sky, Stash, Meat+, Undermind, Mike’s Song -> I Am Hydrogen> Weekapaug Groove

Set II: The Moma Dance> Rock & Roll> Light -> Crimes Of The Mind**> Pebbles & Marbles> 2001> Golgi Apparatus> Cavern> Run Like An Antelope

Encore: Free Bird***, Carini> Waste

* First “Nellie Kane” since 01 July 2000

** First “Crimes Of The Mind” since 28 November 2003

*** First “Free Bird” Since 22 June 2000; First a capella version since 28 December 1998

+ Prior to “Meat” Mike was introduced as “The Artist Formerly Known As Cactus, now The Artist Currently Known As Prince”

Closing out their strongest weekend of the Fall 2009 Tour, Phish threw down a two-set affair, highlighted by a fun-loving first set, and a fully-flowing, jam heavy Set II. Coming out the gates with the one-two-punch of “Possum> DWD,” the band held little back on this night in Maine, gracing the first set with a “Nellie Kane” bustout, and notable versions of “Meat” and “Undermind.” But the second set is where the real magic is at, as the band didn’t take a single break throughout, crafting a particularly memorable jam segment in “Rock & Roll> Light -> Crimes Of The Mind.” The latter – the only time to be played without The Dude of Life on vocals – was not only a massive surprise, but built into a powerful jam before fading into “Pebbles & Marbles.” Closing things out with an energized “2001> Golgi> Antelope” closing trio, the set was a complete thought, devoid of miscalculated ballads, or misplaced fillers. In the encore, the band treated their fans to two rarities in “Free Bird” and “Carini,” and an emotive “Waste,” sending everyone out into a chilly post-Thanksgiving week, and onwards to their MSG return. One of the strongest performances of the Fall Tour, Portland came on the heels of the tour’s most memorable stretch, when the band just destroyed Philly and Albany, proving they still had something in the tank after so many memorable shows.

The Top Ten Shows Of 2009

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Alpine Valley Music Theater – East Troy, WI – 06/21/2009

Set I: Brother+, Wolfman’s Brother, Funky Bitch> The Divided Sky, Joy, Back On The Train, Taste> Poor Heart, The Horse -> Silent In The Morning, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday* -> Avenu Malkenu*> The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday*> Time Turns Elastic

Set II: Crosseyed & Painless# -> Down With Disease##&> Bug> Piper### -> Wading In The Velvet Sea, Boogie On Reggae Woman, Slave To The Traffic Light

Encore: Grind, Frankenstein++

+ During “Brother” each of the band members kids’ came on stage and climbed in a giant bathtub

++ “Frankenstein” feature Trey on a five-neck Guitar, Mike on an Inferno Bass, and Page on a Keytar

* First “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday -> Avenu Malkenu> TMWSIY” since 07 July 2003

# “Crosseyed & Painless” contained a “Let It Grow” tease

## “Down With Disease” contained a “Taste” tease

### “Piper” contained a “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” tease

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

On the final night of the First Leg of Phish’s 2009 Summer Tour, the band graced their fans with a memorable show highlighted by the first annual – until 2013, that is – Father’s Day gimmick, a lengthy Set I, and a fully-flowing second set, anchored by two excellent jams. When a crew member brought a bathtub out to center stage about five minutes before show time, a roar generated throughout the crowd, in anticipation of whatever the band had up their sleeves. Opening with the first “Brother” since IT, the band invited each of their kids on stage to climb into the tub, ala the song’s lyrics. Initiating a Father’s Day tradition, the gag sent a joyful message as to just how important sharing their family with the Phish experience was to the band members’ throughout this 3.0 run, while at the same time sent a shout-out to their life-long fans who’ve become father’s of their own in the years since Coventry. The revelry spilled over into a thick “Wolfman’s” a “Funky Bitch,” per request, and a poignant “Divided Sky.” Forty minutes in, it was already the show of the tour. Closing the set out with the notable and old-school combo of “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday -> Avenu Malkenu> TMWSIY,” followed by their most recent composition, “Time Turns Elastic” was as symbolic a pairing as any, displaying the compositional roots that the band had been built on. That it was also the most memorable, and powerful version of “TTE” to date, says something as well. In Set II the band simply threw down. Busting out “Crosseyed” for the first time since Deer Creek ’04, they built a peaking jam off the theme that, coupled with the thousands of glowsticks battling about on the lawn, nearly tore the lid off the old shed. Bleeding into “DWD” by way of an ambient jam, the set moved forward with an emotive “Bug,” a percussive “Piper,” and a gorgeous “Slave” to close things out. Encoring with the 3.0 barbershop staple “Grind,” and a raunchy “Frankenstein,” wherein which Trey, Mike, and Page donned gimmicky instruments, the show sent everyone off to Summer 2009’s halftime, bellies full, yet ravenously anticipating Leg II.

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Red Rocks Amphitheater – Morrison, CO – 07/31/2009

Set I: Runaway Jim> Chalk Dust Torture, Bathtub Gin, Time Turns Elastic, Lawn Boy, Water In The Sky, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Split Open & Melt

Set II: Drowned -> Crosseyed & Painless -> Joy, Tweezer> Backwards Down The Number Line> Fluffhead#& -> Piper -> A Day In The Life

Encore: Suzy Greenberg##> Tweezer Reprise

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

## “Suzy Greenberg” contained “Drowned,” “Crosseyed & Painless,” and “AC/DC Bag” teases

& “Fluffhead” was unfinished

After spending much of their First Leg awkwardly adjusting to life back on the road, Phish reappeared at Red Rocks – for the first time since 1996, no less – on a mission to reclaim what was theirs. No better is this spirit shown than by the viscerally powerful second set that blew up on the run’s second night. Following a solid first set that included a muddling, yet incendiary “Split Open & Melt,” which battled the torrential downpour, the band reemerged for Set II, and played hands down, their best set of 3.0 – up to that point. Flowing throughout, the set was anchored by a seamless segue from “Drowned -> Crosseyed,” a bubbling and constantly shifting “Tweezer,” a celebratory “Fluffhead,” and a “Piper” that bled right into “A Day In The Life,” by way of Mr. McConnell’s keys. Each jam carried fresh ideas, each song was a welcome surprise, and by the time they reemerged for the encore, they had quieted literally all who were skeptical of their 3.0 abilities – at least for a night. Immediately setting the 3.0 bar a notch higher, 31 July 2009 will forever be remember as the show that inspired the transcendent music created throughout August 2009. Completely themselves again, no show would impact a tour, or the band’s overall sound, quite like it until a year later, on the second night of the equally legendary Greek Run.

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The Gorge Amphitheater – George, WA – 08/07/2009

Set I: Down With Disease, Ocelot, Pebbles & Marbles, Possum, Sleep, Destiny Unbound, Stash, Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> Cavern

Set II: The Moma Dance> Light -> Taste, Fluffhead, Joy, Bathtub Gin&> Harry Hood

Encore: Slave To The Traffic Light

& “Bathtub Gin” was unfinished

It was the best show of 2009 at the time; and it still is, to this day. Even more, some four years on, it’s still ranks as one of the best overall shows in 3.0 Highlighted by a classic set one, which concluded with one of the jams of the year in “Sneakin’ Sally,” and a top notch set two, that offered two unique jams to this list, it was a monumental show through and through. Kicking things off with a raging, Type-I “DWD,” set I was notable for the 3.0 debut of “Pebbles & Marbles,” and for only the third “Destiny Unbound” since 1991. But it was the “Sneakin’ Sally” jam that concluded the set with a segue into “Cavern” that has hung in the minds of most listeners; to this day it is still one of the most innovative jams of 3.0. Set II is akin to 07/31’s masterpiece in it’s flowing nature, diversity of jams, and re-listenability all these years later. The “Light” and “Gin” jump out as the clear highlights, but the “Fluffhead,” and, the always welcome Gorge version of “Harry Hood,” fill out the set perfectly. Encoring with a patient, Trey-led “Slave” sent everyone out into the Pac-NW night, eagerly anticipating the following night, which would ultimately be a top-to-bottom barn-burner, thus cementing The Gorge as THE run of 2009.

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The Gorge Amphitheater – George, WA – 08/08/2009

Set I: The Mango Song> Chalk Dust Torture, Middle Of The Road^, Tweezer, Driver, Twenty Years Later, Ya Mar, It’s Ice, Wolfman’s Brother> Character Zero> Run Like An Antelope

Set II: Rock & Roll -> Makisupa Policeman+, Alaska, The Wedge, You Enjoy Myself#, Backwards Down The Number Line&> Piper##, Grind

Encore: Good Times Bad Times, Tweezer Reprise

^ “Middle Of The Road” made it’s Phish debut

+ “Makisupa Policeman” featured Mike and Trey switching instruments and contained the keyword: “Did like Bobby Brown. I ate my breakfast, and I laid back down.”

# “You Enjoy Myself” contained a “Hedwig’s Theme” tease

## “Piper” contained “Llama” teases from Fishman

& “Backwards Down The Number Line” was unfinished

After playing their best show of 2009 the night before, Phish wasted no time getting down to business on their second night at the vast and expansive Gorge Amphitheater. Opening with the back-to-back Nectar classics, “The Mango Song> Chalk Dust Torture” set the tone immediately. The First Set was further highlighted midway through by a slowly building “Tweezer,” which picked up many of the Red Rock’s version’s influences, before transferring them into a more rock-based, peaking jam. Closing the set out with the blistering trio of “Wolfman’s Brother> Character Zero> Run Like An Antelope” nearly blew the stage into the Columbia River behind them; you can clearly hear the crowd let out an emphatic, and massive roar of ecstatic approval when “Zero” faded into “Antelope.” A bonus set closer of sorts, it proved to be a thankful nod from the band to their fans for their first three sets of excellent music at The Gorge. In the second set, the band threw down one of their jams of the year in the 23-min, “Rock & Roll.” It built through twenty minutes on improv based almost entirely on the The Velvet Underground theme, before returning to the song proper, and then segueing into a playful “Makisupa.” A punctual “You Enjoy Myself” found itself in the middle of a set for one of the few times in 2009 – quite a rare treat at the time – a sure sign the band was feeling loose. Concluding things with the first hint of experimentation in “Backwards Down The Number Line,” a “Piper” that plowed ahead into the unknown with furious precision before fading away into a “Llama” jam from Fishman, and “Grind,” the set ended in one of the most unique ways of any in 2009. Closing the show and The Run out with “Good Times Bad Times” and “Tweezer Reprise” was really the only way one could, as the two capitalized on the massive energy explosion that’d occurred in the middle of Washington State that weekend. Easily the best weekend of Phish 2009, The Gorge is still talked about with awe by all in attendance, and with envy by all who’ve only heard it on tape.

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The Comcast Theater – Hartford, CT – 08/14/2009

Set I: Punch You In The Eye, AC/DC Bag> NICU, Col. Forbin’s Ascent* -> Fly Famous Mockingbird*, Birds Of A Feather, Lawn Boy, Stash, I Didn’t Know, Middle Of The Road> Character Zero

Set II: Down With Disease%&> Wilson -> Slave To The Traffic Light, Piper## -> Water In The Sky, Ghost -> Psycho Killer** -> Catapult+ -> Icculus***+> You Enjoy Myself%%

Encore: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

* First “Col Forbin’s Ascent” and “Fly Famous Mockingbird” since 30 September 2000

** First “Psycho Killer” since 07 December 1997

*** First “Icculus” since 18 July 1999

% “Down With Disease” contained a jam based on “Reba”

%% “You Enjoy Myself” contained the “Pong” jam from “Catapult”

## “Piper” contained a “Spill The Wine” tease

+ “Catapult” featured a jam inspired by the Atari game, Pong

++ “Icculus” featured narration about technology and kids “reading a fucking book!”

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

What can you say sometimes? There are those shows where the band’s just feeling it. After making the 30-hr trek from The Gorge to Chicago, where they threw down a lackluster effort, the band played an old-school show in Darien – the last show to be cut from this list, btw – to kick off their four-night run of the NE. The next night, in Hartford, the band waited till well past 8:30 to emerge for a two-set affair, shrouded in darkness, one that would be revered immediately upon conclusion, and long after it was all said and done. Opening with a string of classics, “PYITE, AC/DC Bag> NICU” sent the initial message that the band was feeling it here back on their home turf. But it was the reemergence of “Forbin’s -> Mockingbird,” after almost ten years in hiding, that pushed the show to another level. Without a narration to break the momentum, the band went the old school rout, and let the two Gamehendge rarities speak for themselves. It mattered little what was played the rest of the set, for this bustout was enough to satiate most fans, but it helped for historical purposes – and for those who truly enjoy listening to full shows – that they followed with a scorching “Birds,” a punctual “Stash,” and a raging “Zero” to send everyone into setbreak. In the second set, the band used the first half to craft two indelible jam segments in “DWD> Wilson -> Slave” and “Piper -> Water In The Sky,” the first of which contained a gorgeous “Reba” jam, and the latter which featured the same type of percussive jamming as was seen in the Alpine version, but ended with a fluttering of Page that spilled fluidly into “Water In The Sky.” When they kicked off “Ghost,” one wouldn’t have been too misguided to think we were simply in for another monster jam. But the band had different ideas up their sleeves. Latching onto the gimmickry of Set I’s bustout, they directed “Ghost” into the first “Psycho Killer” in twelve years, before letting it fade into the first “Catapult” of 3.0. Based around a prickly, note-based jam that sounded oddly like the Atari game, Pong, Trey got a bit nostalgic and started strumming a few minored chords. What emerged was the first “Icculus” in ten years, a song based heavily on narration, to which, Trey preached to all the young Phish fans about the pleasures of books, and the evils of iphones and hand-held technology, finally quipping, “When was the last time one of you picked up a fucking book?!?!” Closing out the set with the only appropriate song, the band played an inspired “You Enjoy Myself,” before encoring simply with The Beatles, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” One of the best shows of the year. And one of the best shows of 3.0 for that matter. It’d be a long while – until 10/20/2010 to be exact – before the band would play a show steeped in this much humor, gimmickry, and old-fashioned Phish zaniness.

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Empire Polo Club – Indio, CA – 10/31/2009

Set I: Sample In A Jar, The Divided Sky, Lawn Boy, Kill Devil Falls, Bathtub Gin, The Squirming Coil> Runaway Jim> Possum, Run Like An Antelope+

Set II$: Rocks Off*%> Rip This Joint*%, Shake Your Hips*%, Casino Boogie*, Tumbling Dice*%%, Sweet Virginia%%, Torn & Frayed*, Sweet Black Angel*%, Loving Cup%%, Happy*%%, Turd On The Run*%%, Ventilator Blues*%% -> I Just Want To See His Face*%%% -> Let It Loose*%%, All Down The Line*%%, Stop Breaking Down*%%, Shine A Light*%%, Soul Survivor*%%

Set III: Backwards Down The Number Line> Fluffhead, Ghost> When The Circus Comes, You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Suzy Greenberg%%

+ The lyrics in “Run Like An Antelope” were changed to “Been You To Have Any Coil?”

$ The Rolling Stone’s Exile On Main St was the band’s Second Set Musical Costume

* All songs in Set II, with the exception of “Sweet Virginia” and “Loving Cup” made their Phish debut

% Featuring Dave Guy on Trumpet, David Smith on Trombone, and Tony Jarvis on Saxophone

%% Featuring Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams on Backup Vocals; Dave Guy on Trumpet, David Smith on Trombone, and Tony Jarvis on Saxophone

%%% Featuring Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams on Backup Vocals

Their first Halloween show since 1998, and their first festival since the Coventry debacle, Festival 8 peaked on it’s second night with a three-set masterpiece, bookended by classic Phish, and filled out by one of the best cover album’s the band has ever performed. In the first set, the band threw down a string of old-school classics, honoring the magnitude of the event, while matching the near-perfect conditions the California desert provided. Highlighted by a gorgeous “Divided Sky,” a soaring “Bathtub Gin,” a combo right out of the 80’s in “Coil> Jim> Possum,” and a raging “Antelope” to close, it was the kind of set that – “KDF” aside – one could have easily imagined being played in front of about 1000 friends back in Vermont. In Set II they masterfully covered The Rolling Stone’s 1972 classic, Exile On Main Street. Highlights abound, the set, more than anything, sent a clear message about how far the band had come since their low-point in 2004, and how genuinely happy they were to be healthy, playing live music again. At the end of the day, the “Torn & Frayed,” “Ventilator Blues -> I Just Want To See His Face,” “Let It Loose,” “Shine A Light,” and perhaps the greatest “Loving Cup” ever, take the cake as the peak moments of the set. Proving as poignant moment as any in a Phish show, “Shine A Light” felt written for Trey, detailing the struggles of a drug addict overcoming his demons. A song that’s birthed life into 3.0, it’s appearance as an encore always feels like a nod from the heavens for sparing Trey in his darkest days, and giving him a second chance. Set III was akin to the first set, except for it’s emphasis on improv. “Number Line” and “Ghost” both went deep, and “You Enjoy Myself” proved to be the best version of the oft-played song in 2009. Not to mention, one of the top tier versions in all of 3.0. Inviting their back-up band on stage for the “Suzy Greenberg,” they stretched the classic into a 12-min jam that featured funk breakdowns, horn solos, and Sharon Jones’s soulful wails throughout. A celebratory moment for all involved, 10/31/2009 was key to the band’s development throughout 3.0, and a show we can all look back on and simply be thankful was able to occur.

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Wachovia Center – Philadelphia, PA – 11/24/2009

Set I: Chalk Dust Torture, Bathtub Gin, Cities> Camel Walk, The Curtain With, The Wedge, The Moma Dance, Reba, Golgi Apparatus, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan

Set II: Possum> Down With Disease& -> Twenty Years Later> Harry Hood> The Mango Song> Mike’s Song -> Simple> Slave To The Traffic Light> Weekapaug Groove+

Encore: A Day In The Life

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

+ Much of the “Weekapaug Groove” jam was played at a slower pace

Easily the best show of the band’s 2009 Fall Tour, the first night of Philly featured a celebratory, holiday-tinged feel, with an old-school setlist and some top notch playing taboot. Akin to 10/31’s First Set, the First Set in Philly reads like something out of the band’s bygone years – sans “Moma” and “Stealing Time.” With a tight, fully loaded jam out of “Gin,” and  blissful and contemplative jams in “The Curtain With” and “Reba,” the set was ripe with highlights, many of the extended variety. Sparked with humor in the Thanksgiving-quoted “Cities,” along with the rare funk of “Camel Walk,” it was as well-rounded as any First Fet during the tour, keeping everyone on their toes in anticipation of set II. Fully flowing throughout, the Second Set was an early masterpiece in the 3.0 era. Featuring a sublime, laid-back jam out of “DWD,” the band got to business early, winding the jam through various passages of musical bliss before landing in “Twenty Years Later.” Bridging the “DWD” and the spectacular “Mike’s Groove” with “Harry Hood> The Mango Song” kept things flowing with ease, and continued the old school feel that had graced the show thus far. In the “Mike’s Groove,” the band combined “Simple” with “Slave” by way of an ambient jam, injecting “Mike’s Groove” with “Slave” for the first time since Alpine ’97. Heading into “Weekapaug” at a torrential pace, the band made humor out of the mistake, referentially shouting throughout, before slowing things down and infusing the jam with some funk grooves. A conceptual set without a moment wasted, it was one of the few totally unified moments throughout the Fall Tour, one that, while surpassed many times over in 3.0, has lived on for the fact that it was just one of those nights in back 2009, where everything felt right again.

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Times Union Center – Albany, NY – 11/27/2009

Set I: AC/DC Bag -> Maze, Driver, My Mind’s Got A Mind Of Its Own, Gumbo, Bouncing Around The Room, It’s Ice, Two Versions Of Me, Timber> Limb By Limb, Cavern -> Light

Set II: My Friend, My Friend* -> Golden Age^> On Your Way Down, Fluffhead> Piper -> Tomorrow’s Song^^, Prince Caspian&> Harry Hood> Suzy Greenberg> The Squirming Coil, I Been Around

Encore: Fire

* First “My Friend, My Friend” Set II Opener since 10 April 1994

^ “Golden Age” (TV On The Radio) made it’s Phish debut

^^ “Tommorow’s Song” made it’s Phish debut

& “Prince Caspian” was unfinished

After throwing down their best show of the tour two nights before Thanksgiving, Phish returned to the road the night after and crafted an all-around excellent show, highlighted by two surprise debuts, and a high-octane set II. Opening with an “AC/DC Bag -> Maze” segment got the show off right, as the two age-old classics fit together with ease, immediately putting the uneventful second night in Philly far in the recesses of every fan’s minds. After dusting a few songs off the shelves for the first time this tour – “Driver,” “My Mind’s Got A Mind of It’s Own,” “Gumbo,” “Timber” – they closed the set with a menacing surprise as “Cavern” faded into the only First Set “Light” they’ve ever played. Pushing the song into the ether, it touched on beat-less ambient themes, dissolving into a noise-based jam that faded as the lights came on for setbreak. Set II brought the first “My Friend” opener since Spring 1994, and the debut of the TV On The Radio hit “Golden Age,” which has gone on to be one of the most revered – and at times frustrating – songs of 3.0. Fading into only the fifth “On Your Way Down” since 1989, the set just kept elevating itself, as the band was clearly feeling it being back in the Northeast corner of the US. After the obligatory “Fluffhead,” they dropped the jam of the night in an explosive “Piper” which turned melodic, before segueing perfectly into the debut of the Undermind-ditty, “Tomorrow’s Song.” Rounding out the set with “Hood> Suzy> Coil,” was a clear message about how much fun the band had on the first night of their quasi-hometown run. Encoring with “Fire” – the third time they’ve played Hendrix on his birthday – was welcomely expected by all fans, as the nod not only honored the guitar-legend, but also bridged the two nights in Albany in ways no other cover could.

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American Airlines Arena – Miami, FL – 12/29/2009

Set I: Golgi Apparatus, Maze, Driver, The Connection, Wolfman’s Brother, Ocelot, Reba, Access Me, The Divided Sky, Cavern

Set II: Kill Devil Falls> Tweezer# -> Prince Caspian> Gotta Jibboo -> Wilson -> Gotta Jibboo -> Heavy Things -> 2001> Slave To The Traffic Light

Encore: Sleeping Monkey> Tweezer Reprise

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

On paper this show looked like complete and utter shite. A first set comprised of a few classics surrounded by a string of fillers, and a second set that looked like another awkward clunker, defined by a “Jibboo -> Wilson -> Jibboo,” that couldn’t have looked worse on paper. Yet listening to this show for the first time back in 2009, it was clear beyond any questionable doubt that the band was feeling it. Probably the best overall show of the Miami NYE Run, it’s a prime example of the kind of show where what songs the band plays matters little, for they’d crush it all regardless. While those kinds of shows have become commonplace here in 2011 and 2012 – 06/04/2011, 06/11/2011, 08/16/2011, 09/03/2011, 06/08/2012, 06/23/2012, 07/03/2012, 08/28/2012 – back in 2009, they had to play to a killer setlist if they were going to play a killer show. 29 December 2009 broke this mold and then some. Highlighted by a torrid “Maze,” a laid back, funk jam in “Wolfman’s,” and the always welcome pair of classics, “Reba” and “Divided Sky,” the show felt much like the last 12/29 show prior to this one, sans the Miami “Piper,” of course. In set II the band focused on intertwined jamming and segues, taking “Tweezer” to some truly spectacular planes of blissful ambient nothingness, somehow making the “Jibboo -> Wilson -> Jibboo” work, and producing perhaps the best “Heavy Things” we’ve ever heard. The latter’s near-four minute ambient jam that bled right into “2001” was the defining point of the night, proving the band would nail anything they played. An all-around remarkable show, the second night in Miami ignored all the misconceptions about 3.0, shut the setlist nazi’s up – at least for one night – and produced perhaps the single greatest review by a certain Phish writer – the one where he had nothing to say.

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American Airlines Arena – Miami, FL – 12/30/2009

Set I: Soul Shakedown Party*, Runaway Jim, Jesus Just Left Chicago**, Dixie Cannonball^, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Corinna***, What’s The Use?****, Tela*****, Gone^^, Rocky Top******, Chalk Dust Torture, David Bowie

Set II: Sand, The Curtain With> Lifeboy, Back On The Train -> Wading In The Velvet Sea, Hold Your Head Up> Love You%> Hold Your Head Up, Free> Boogie On Reggae Woman -> Run Like An Antelope#%%

Encore: Frankenstein+

* First “Soul Shakedown Party” since 17 April 2004

** First “Jesus Just Left Chicago” since 13 July 2003

*** First “Corinna” since 24 February 2003

**** First “What’s The Use?” since 28 November 2003

***** First “Tela” since 24 November 1998

****** First “Rocky Top” since 19 July 2003

^ “Dixie Cannonball” (Hank Williams) made it’s Phish debut

^^ “Gone” made it’s Phish debut

% “Love You” featured audience member, Rich on stage playing the vacuum cleaner

%% “Run Like An Antelope” contained alternate lyrics

# “Run Like An Antelope” contained multiple “Boogie On Reggae Woman” teases

+ “Frankenstein” featured Page on the Keytar

Ahhhhhh, the bustout show. A thing of legend in Phish circles. Rarely does the band drop an entire show/set comprised of bustouts. In the ten years since 07/29/2003, the show is still revered as one of the best of 2.0, in many ways, thanks to the ipod shuffle feel that accompanied the entire first set. On 12/30/2009, the band brought six unique songs out of seeming retirement – while debuting two others – giving credence to the 12/30 legend, while also gifting their fans with a number of oft-requested tunes. Perhaps none of these was more boisterously received than “Tela.” The sweet and longing Gamehendge ballad, it had been requested with near fanaticism throughout the Summer and Fall Tours, finally brought back to life after eleven years. In the Second Set, the band fused jams and gimmickry, crafting one of the most well-rounded sets of the year, with one of the best jams of the year as it’s centerpiece. Kicking off with the first “Sand” since Camden, they remained a bit more confined before initiating a top-notch “The Curtain With.” Producing the jam of the night in “Back On The Train -> Wading,” the band let humor dominate the latter half of the set. Using “HYHU” to throw another hint out about their NYE gag, they invited an audience member – Rich – on stage to celebrate the last vacuum solo of the decade. Closing out the set with what can only be described as “Boogie On Reggae Antelope” the band displayed on-stage communication fused with humor that just wouldn’t have been possible nine months earlier. A staple performance of gimmickry, improv, humor, and that intangible feeling that can only be found at a Phish show, there’s never been any doubt about it’s place in Phish 3.0.

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A celebratory year that saw Phish return from the darkness of their past. While they fought through numerous ups and downs, by years end, they’d unquestionably succeeded in all the goals laid out for them. As we await the start of the 2013 Summer Tour, it’s no better time to revisit the first year of 3.0, and see just how far the band has come.

Please send me your thoughts about the list.

Here’s to another four years that are just as good as the last four!

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

The Three Decembers – 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.