Phearless – On The Third Week Of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour

942411_10151477068446290_461141722_nRemember way back on July 2nd when all those pictures popped up on Twitter of the rain that had consumed central Maine?

This wasn’t the way to kick of summer tour, we all thought at the time. Surely mother nature would realize the imminent onset of Phish’s 30th Anniversary 2013 Summer Tour and act accordingly, right?

Right?

Wrong.

In a fortuitous twist, the rain clouds that greeted everyone in Bangor, ME three weeks ago have yet to recede from Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour. From SPAC to the postponed show in Toronto, from Jones Beach’s torrential Set I downpour to 07/14’s Set II storm, from the rain that engulfed the Alpharetta pavilion to the mayhem in Chicago that resulted in 07/19’s cancellation, 07/20’s three-setter, and 07/21’s perfectly executed Set II, rain has defined the 2013 Summer Tour as much as the music itself.

For a band that has played its fair-share of weather-affected concerts – Coventry anyone? – Summer 2013 may take the cake as THE tour where the weather has affected Phish more than any other.

And yet, through all the rain, through all the on-again/off-again shows played, that Phish has continued to evolve this tour with the kind of energy, passion, and foresight as they have is more than anyone could ask for considering the circumstances.

The key? Phearless-ness and Energy. Like no tour since 1.0, here in the 2013 Summer Tour the band is attacking their shows with a sustained combination of focused precision and egoless exploration, resulting in fully-realized jams, flawless segues, and unyielding energy throughout each of their shows.

Below are another collection of thoughts and questions I’ve compiled about the last week of the tour.

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Energy (As THE Song Of, And The Keyword For, Phish 2013)

Certain songs appear in Phish’s rotation at just the right time.

Think “Maze” in 1992, “Down With Disease” in 1994, “Ghost” in 1997, “Seven Below” in 2003, and “Light” in 2009.

When the band debuted The Apples In Stereo 2007 song “Energy” to kick off 07/05’s second set it immediately felt like a Phish song and fit the initial mood of the tour. A bouncy melody combined with populist lyrics, it carried the tone and communicable message that has consumed so many of Trey Anastasio’s original songs for the last ten-odd years.

And then, with little effort or force, the song moved into Type II territory resulting in a moody, psychedelically-infused jam that bled seamlessly into “Light.” Eleven days later the band revisited the song midway through Alpharetta’s final set, expanding further on the jam that – in many of the same ways as “Light” has for the last four years – just builds outwards from the song at will.

When Trey walked on stage for the final set of the Chicago run wearing his “Phearless” shirt, (two t-shirt Sunday’s in a row!) following what must have been one of the most frustrating weekends the band has experienced in years, there was really only one song that the band could open with that would both fit the mood of the show while simultaneously altering the course of the tour going forward: “Energy.”

Resulting in one of the most patient, contemplative, and overall hooked-up moments of the tour thus far, the 07/21 “Energy” moved through various untapped musical terrains without any of the restraints that have, at times, held many 3.0 jams back. The performance was a statement on the musical peak the band is experiencing this summer, and on the overt role energy has played in Phish’s now-30-year career.

Think back to Trey’s rant in the hotel room in Europe in the middle of Bittersweet Motel. Angered that Brad Sands would slag off a show he clearly thought rocked, Trey spoke directly to the camera saying: “I couldn’t fucking care less if we missed a change, or a number of changes. Doesn’t have anything to do with how we’re playing. It’s all about energy.”

A concept that has always driven many of the band’s best shows, energy as an idea, and “Energy” the song are starting to define 2013 in a retrospective, yet forward-driven way, perfectly aligned as the band simultaneously celebrates their 30th year of existence. A song that speaks to the communal power of what Phish has created, while musically opening itself up to the untapped potential of the band’s improvisational journey’s, “Energy” is clearly THE song of Phish 2013.

One more thought on this, listening back to the “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards” segment one can literally hear the musical journey that Phish has embarked on over the past three decades in 35 uninterrupted minutes. From the sprawling, patient endlessness of “Energy” to the seedy minimalism of “Ghost,” which then evolves without effort into a bright, rhythmically-laced jam, before segueing seamlessly into “The Lizards,” the song that ushers us into Gamehendge, it’s a musical journey that takes us through the evolution of Phish both musically, emotionally, and thematically. It’s, no question, the jam segment of the summer so far.

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Alpharetta: Combining Gimmickry With Dick’s-esque Jamming

After everything that went on in Chicago this last weekend, it’s hard to remember that mid-last-week, Phish threw down two barnburner’s in the pristine suburban purgatory of Alpharetta, GA. Caught between their absolutely masterful two-night run at Merriweather Post, and the survival experience of Chicago that clearly had so much more to do with than just the music, Alpharetta’s at risk of being both overlooked and underrated.

While neither of the shows offer complete packages due to their underwhelming first sets, something clearly happened in Alpharetta that both altered the overall contour of this tour, and injected it with some fresh ideas that’s worth noting.

Whereas the run from 07/10 – 07/14 featured an exploratory-driven, top-of-their-game band that simply could do no wrong, the Alpharetta shows saw Phish truly tinker with their approach for the first time since SPAC. Eschewing the overtly old-school approach that saw the band reach their biggest peaks of the tour thus far in the aforementioned shows, Phish dedicated their two second set’s in Alpharetta to a combination of playful gimmickry, and Dick’s-esque jamming, resulting in a boost in energy and variety, while still consciously evolving their jams forward.

Summed up most perfectly in the 07/16 “Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning> Birds Of A Feather” segment that consumed the first hour of the set, the band blended Type-II jamming while threading the “Heartbreaker” theme throughout, resulting in a run of must-hear music. What makes this block of music ultimately so rewarding, so memorable, and so impacting is, whereas the band has attempted this type of set throughout 3.0 – 10/30/2010, 08/17/2011, 06/16/2012, and 07/07/2012 immediately come to mind – never before has it worked quite as well as it did in Alpharetta. By dedicating 35min of the segment to improvisational jams out of “Rock & Roll,” “Chalk Dust,” and “Tweezer” the band avoided the sloppy, and often awkward pitfalls that tend to plague sets such as this. Displaying an effortlessness in opening “Chalk Dust” up for the first time since 08/31/2012, while also experimenting with their Dick’s-esque melodic-driven jams in “Rock & Roll” and “Tweezer” gave the set far more depth than most gimmick-laced-tease sets of 3.0 have carried.

On the next night the band centered experimentation in two under-11min jams that proved once again how irrelevant song length is in 3.0. Rather than anchoring the set under one massive jam, “Energy” and “Piper” were featured as bookends to the return of “Fluffhead” in the middle part of the set, offering both abstract and thematic jamming which gave diversity to the set and their improv. A set – and an overall run – that carries far more weight than would be initially assumed by simply glancing at the setlist, Alpharetta combined energy, playfulness, and innovative jamming to play the role of celebratory cap to the east coast leg of the tour, while also helping to thematically push the band forward towards the west.

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What’s The Deal With All The Repeats?

For anyone following Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour, there’s one thing glaringly obvious about each setlist: repeats. I addressed this topic in my last essay, yet feel it needs revisiting due to the unending communal discussions surrounding it.

Fourteen shows into the tour, we already have two songs played in nearly half the shows – “Chalk Dust Torture,” and “Backwards Down The Number Line.” In addition to that, from run-to-run, and show-to-show, songs are being repeated night after night with a frequency that harkens back to the early-90’s; back when the band had a song catalogue half the size it is now.

As expected, many are openly complaining and lambasting the band for their apparent inability (or desire) to diverge from a strict rotation. Cause, no matter how well the band’s playing, you’ve gotta bitch about something, right?

Coming off a year that saw the band bust out song after song at literally every show – a tour in which they set out with the goal of playing 200 different songs – there is certainly something a bit jarring about the frequency with which the band is playing just their core classics here in 2013. Not to mention the fact that on paper, some of their shows tend to look a bit blasé at first glance.

Yet, when one removes themselves from the dreaded zone of personal expectations, when one allows themselves a shift in perception, it’s actually stunningly clear why the band would focus on such a small rotation.

So clear, it actually makes perfect fucking sense.

To me there are two reasons why the band is focusing on a tighter rotation in 2013:

1. Coming into 2012 it was apparent the band needed some sense of outward motivation to keep their relative high of August 2010 – September 2011 going strong. While they’d rediscovered their sea legs at the Greek Theatre in 2010, there’d been so many bouts with inconsistency strung throughout the 18months leading up to Worcester 2012 that it was clear the band still needed exercises to keep them fresh. (Think of this in the same way as the improvisational exercises the band relied on from Summer 1993 – Summer 1995, and parts of Fall 1996.) Throughout 2012 though, the band once again became completely comfortable and inherently confident with their ability to craft complete shows and innovative jams, that their need for bust-outs and rarities simply to spice up their shows became less and less necessary. (ala the peak music of December 1995 and Fall 1997 that was a result of said musical exercises, and thus just sounds like a band effortlessly playing, rather than attempting any specific style.)

While sure, thrilling as it may be to hear a song for the first time in 5-10 years, the bust out exercise is more telling of a band seeking inspiration in their past, rather than discovering it in their present and future.

Point being, something was clearly discovered at Dick’s that showed the band how truly powerful their music was right now, in the moment. They tapped into something in the “Carini,” “Undermind,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” “Light,” and “Sand” that they hadn’t experienced with that kind of consistency or ease in years. As a result, they grew beyond the need to center shows around a one-time rarity, hence the reason 2013 shows are now centered around jams, such as the 07/05 second set, 07/06 “SOAM,” “Carini,” 07/10 “Crosseyed,” 07/12 “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge,” 07/13 “Simple,” 07/14 “Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman,” 07/21 “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards,” and 07/22 “DWD,” rather than unique song choices.

2. 2013 marks the band’s 30th anniversary. A monumental achievement for a band that just nine years ago was essentially left for dead by its creators. Throughout 3.0 there’s been a clear focus on systematically rebuilding what made Phish Phish. From 2009 and early-2010’s foundation setting, late-2010 and 2011’s experimental excursions, and 2012’s fully-realized jamming, bust outs, and shift towards a new era in Phish history, the band has essentially rebuilt themselves using the tried-and-true method that saw them rise throughout the early/mid-90’s on way to their initial musical peak period of 1994 – 1998.

Yet, through it all, regardless of whatever process the band is engaged in, one thing has always remained, and will forever define them as musicians: their songs. Specifically, their classics.

In light of their anniversary, and their ability to now focus on a totally new musical era of Phish, it makes sense that in 2013 the band would want to highlight the songs that, more than anything else, got them to the veritable summit of the musical mountain first.

If you made a mix-tape of all the songs that just sound like Phish to you, chances are they’d all be receiving heavy airplay here in 2013. And that’s the point. 2013 is both a year of celebration and a year for the band to take another leap forward musically. And what better way to both celebrate the legacy they’ve built, and take their next evolutionary step forward musically than through the songs that got them here in the first place?

Far from a sign that the band is unpracticed, lacking creativity, or just disinterested, the tightened setlists are instead a clear message from the band of how much they respect and value the songs that will ultimately live on long after they do.

We all got into Phish, and continue listening to Phish for various reasons. Yet one thing will always be true: it was their songs that we heard first, and their songs that we will always return to. Instead of focusing on what they’re not playing in 2013, let’s instead focus on why they are playing what they are playing.

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What Do We Make Of 07/20/2013?

I’ll come right out with a disclamer: I wasn’t in Chicago. In many ways I realize I have no business writing about the experience as I wasn’t there to live through everything that came with the weekend. All’s I can base my perceptions from the ground on are the texts I received from my friends at the show, the tweets I followed throughout the weekend, and the reaction of the writers and thinkers in the community who were there.

That said, how could I possible write anything about the last week of tour without addressing something about the Chicago Run, specifically the three-setter on Saturday?

With a specific focus on the music created, here are my thoughts:

Following the first show that was cut short due to weather since – I believe – 07/01/2000, a wave of negativity permeated through the Phish scene. Thanks in large part to the inexperience of the Northerly Island staff and crew, along with the fact that across town Pearl Jam was able to resume their concert around midnight – ultimately playing until 2am – many felt the band had made a bushleague move in canceling the show.

The next day however the band informed their fans that, in response to 07/19’s cancellation, they’d be performing a three-set show, their first non-holiday/festival three-set show since 07/12/1996 in Amsterdam, and their first state-side one since Amy’s Farm back on 08/03/1991. In many ways it was the ultimate sign of communal understanding, and band-oriented sentiment about the regret felt over the debacle on Friday.

In addition to the good-vibes that now suddenly stretched far-and-wide throughout the Phish scene, many began making additional requests and predictions for the show in effort to make it somehow even more epic and even more important than it already stood to be.

The band’s response: An opening quartet that read “Prince Caspian -> Twist, Ha Ha Ha> Possum,” or: PT Hahaha Possum. The first dose of band-led criticism of their fans own backseat driving of the weekend, the message was either completely lost on the fanbase in its initial moments, or bitterly soaked up.

The remainder of the show was modeled in many ways like the Saturday Night Rockers that are littered throughout 3.0, featuring an energetic song-based approach, devoid almost entirely of deep improv. Avoiding rarities of any sort, many felt the band simply wasn’t up to the challenge of both making up for the previous night’s cancellation, and the headiness of a rare three-set show.

Once again, I wasn’t at the show. I’ve just listened to it a few times, and these are my thoughts.

I believe the weather impacted the weekend in Chicago in ways that the weather leading up to Coventry wasn’t even capable of. The mindset the band must put themselves in prior to performing has to be one of a meditative freeing of all outside expectations and challenges. To then be taken so completely out of it by real life weather warnings and safety precautions, must be jarring, unnerving, and frustrating in the highest sense. Add this to the fact that the band had been dealing with torrid weather all tour, and I’ve got to assume that by the time they were told they had to cancel the Friday show, they experienced combined exhaustion and negative energy.

In many ways, the 07/20/2013 show sounds like a band trying to fit a massive show into a confined space.

The middle show of a three-night run – typically a Saturday night – is always the most popular showing, featuring many fans who either don’t see Phish very often, or may just be checking them out out of curiosity. A result of all these outside forces the band had to juggle, I feel like the band was trying to appease everyone involved by consciously playing a lot of their biggest “hits,” while also maintaining energy and flow, all the while dipping a bit into experimentation.

To that point, the show lacks nothing for energy and flow. Particularly in the final two stanza’s, the band weaves thematic sets that never relinquish energy, nor musical connectivity. The second set especially is one I will revisit throughout the year for it boasts some of the smoothest segues, and emotive music the band has played thus far this tour.

What the show does lack however is a clear attempt by the band to truly reward all invested in the event with a moment of sheer unique Phishy-ness, (i.e. bust out/gag) nor a period of freely-improvisational-exploration.

Would the two above qualities have made the show an all-timer?

I have no idea.

Should the show be lambasted based upon its inherent inability to satisfy so many people’s unattainable expectations?

You’d have to ask someone who was there experiencing it all.

To me, the show sounds like a band willing themselves out of an un-winnable situation. Essentially residing with one-foot in a creative world, while another is trying to both live up to the shared expectations of everyone involved, and deal with the logistical barriers that were venue/weather-related, and had to have been wearing them down.

In the end, that they were capable of such musical ambience in Set II, and in the third set’s “Light -> Harry Hood” should in many ways say all that needs to be said about just how trying the experience was, yet how much this band clearly cares about their fans and their music.

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The Brilliance Of The “Harpua” Gag & The Role Of Conflict In Phish’s Music

James Kaminsky over at the One Phish Two Phish blog already addressed the “Harpua” Gag in a really excellent piece earlier this week, so I’ll spare you a massive recap. Seriously, you should just check out his essay, for it breaks down perfectly the band’s message through the elongated gag.

What I’ll say is this: Since their choice of opening up with “Garden Party” to close out their best year of 3.0 and 12/31/2012 – and most successful year overall in over ten years, no less – the band has been sending out a clear message to their fans that, ‘while we respect your passion and enthusiasm for the band, don’t forget why you’re here in the first place.’

Essentially: Quit telling us how we should play our music for you.

This is both the right message for the band to deliver, and one their fanbase should heed at all costs.

As fans of a band as diverse, and willfully experimental as Phish – a band that has reached far more musical peaks than most bands could ever conceive of – it’s understandable we each have our own stylistic aspects and songs from the band we want to hear over others. For me, the peak of Phish will always be the unyielding experimental jams of 1995, 1997, and 1999. Being at Dick’s last year was an absolutely peak moment in my life because I felt as though the band was playing right to me. After witnessing numerous 3.0 shows that featured an array of aborted jams and uneven setlists, to see the band play with the kind of freedom they did last Labor Day was the best experience I’ve ever had with Phish on a personal level.

While this kind of passion towards one aspect of Phish is important because of the eventual reward it offers fans who travel to numerous shows, it becomes problematic within the scene when fans force their expectations and individual desires on the band. As a writer of Phish, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

Yet, as I sat there watching the band seemingly fall on their faces through an awkward gag with the Second City Comedy Troupe, (I specifically say ‘seemingly’ because in hindsight it became blatantly obvious that the band did not in fact fall on their faces, rather nailed their gag…) I realized all over again why I see and listen to Phish in the first place. It’s not because of my expectations, or my wishes, it’s because of the communal force, and metaphysical connections in play when those four guys walk on stage without any idea where there show might take them. Watching them weave through a horrible rap about how “Harpua” should really be told, into the first Mike’s-narrated “Harpua” since 10/31/1995, and all the jokes and snide remarks that emitted from the stage throughout, I was transformed back to the halcyon days when I was 16, hearing Phish for the first time, and felt as though I’d unearthed a world I never knew existed, yet so desperately wanted to be a part of.

That this came in the midst of the bands best tour in fifteen years, and in the most perfectly placed “Harpua” since 07/29/2003 only made the message that much more relevant.

In addition to “Harpua’s” brilliance as a message to their fans, the song also shed a larger light on the role of conflict in the band’s music.

For a band that espouses such philosophies as “surrender to the flow,” one would think at face value that conflict has little place in Phish’s history. Yet, the truth is, much of the best music the band has ever made came directly out of conflict.

In 1994 and 1995, the band was searching for way to expand their songs in effort to find passageways to linear musical communication, resulting in the abstract musical storm of Summer 1995, and the effortless tidal wave of connectivity in December 1995.

In 1996, minimalism was a musical obstacle to overcome which resulted in the shedding of their skin in 1997.

On a more personal level, the internal conflicts, addictions, and uncertainties that littered the band’s immediate community in 2.0 directly correlated to the stew of dark and seedy jams that defined that era.

Here in 3.0, conflict has been missing in many ways from the Phish scene, due in large part to the positivity and health of each of the band members. Where they have found conflict though, has been in their own evolutionary steps forward, addressing moments of stagnation and writer’s block with the aforementioned exercises such as “The Storage Jam,” and the bust-outs of 2012.

In a lot of ways, the weather that has followed the band throughout the East Coast Leg of the Summer 2013 Tour has provided the band their first dose of external conflict in years. Resulting in the postponement of 07/09’s Toronto show, the cancellation of 07/19’s show, and an aborted “Run Like An Antelope” to close out Set I of 07/21, when the band finally emerged on stage for that night’s second set, they had literally weathered the storm, responding with their most relaxed and freeing set of the year. From the brilliant musical explorations of “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards,” to the shared comedic energy of the “Harpua” gag, to the rage of the completed “Antelope,” the conflicts that had been brewing within and around the Phish community finally gave way to a set for the ages.

“Look, the storm’s finally gone! Thank God!” The line has never felt so appropriate on so many levels than it did when Trey exclaimed it in the latter stages of 07/21/2013.

Proving that the “right way” for Phish to both play and evolve is always centered upon their way, 07/21’s second set displayed a band at their peak: jamming with ease and conviction, while goofing on their fans like they have been throughout their entire career.

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The Toronto “Down With Disease”: The Phearless Moment Of Tour & The Great Transition West

Coming on the heels of Chicago’s weather-impacted weekend was the make-up show in Toronto that was originally scheduled for July 9th. A Monday make-up-show following a massively hyped weekend in The Second City? Toronto had sleeper show written all over it.

And while the show didn’t really live up to its sleeper potential, it did result in yet another monumental exploratory step forward for the tour, this time in “Down With Disease.”

Akin to the 07/13 “Down With Disease” and 07/10 “Crosseyed & Painless” in many ways, the Toronto jam explored a litany of musical terrains all while remaining somewhat connected to the “DWD” theme. Building towards a plain of melodic blissfulness, Trey emphasized chordal jamming, locking in with Page for a five-minute segment of music that’s among the most connected of the summer in a tour growing thick with them. Progressing from 10:22 onwards, and ultimately resolving itself in a glorified peak around 15ish minutes, the jam is in many ways the polar opposite to Chicago’s spacious exploration in “Energy.” Displaying an elevated sense of musical diversity in back-to-back jams, the Toronto “DWD” expresses the phearless vibe currently permeating through Phish, and provides a notable transition point as the band moves westward.

After reaching an initial peak in the tour from 07/10 – 07/14, then fusing energy and gimmickry into their Alpharetta and Chicago shows, (all the while dealing with the external impact of weather) the Chicago “Energy,” and the Toronto “Down With Disease” appear to represent a conscious shift back towards exploration, something which has suited the band well out west in 3.0.

Entering the west coast leg of their tour like no tour since Summer 1997, (in a structural sense) the band will now emerge at The Gorge with three weeks of consistent shows under their belt, rather than following a five-week break which has been the norm in this era. Building upon an established foundation, rather than having to start anew, one has to assume, that for all the incredible music crafted over the past three weeks, the best of the tour is still to come. Just listen to the effortless jamming, and intrinsic connection on display in the 07/21 “Energy -> Ghost,” and the 07/22 “Down With Disease,” and imagine how much more relaxed, how much more free, how much more phearless the band is going to sound once they hit the open soundscapes of The Gorge and Tahoe, and the urbane hotspots of BGCA and the Hollywood Bowl!

All of this without mentioning the brilliant “David Bowie” that closed out the Toronto show! It sure is a good time to be a Phish fan!

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Favorite Shows/Jams Thus Far

Like I said last week, I’ll be updating this list as the tour evolves. Take these with a grain of salt, for their just one man’s thoughts. As we move deeper into the tour, I’ll only be highlighting the shows that have really captivated me as whole-show entities as opposed to listing the entire tour. Rather than ranking the shows, they’ll now just be listed in chronological order, ala the jams.

Favorite Shows

– SPAC 1 – At the time I wondered (wrongly) if we’d even be talking about 07/05’s Set II two weeks from now. Even after three weeks of monumental second sets, there’s still something about the fully-flowing nature of 07/05’s second frame that has me constantly revisiting it. From the debut of “Energy,” to “Light’s” effortless segue into “Mango,” to the late-nite swank of “46 Days,” and the raw power of “Steam,” to the set concluding mastery of “Drowned” and “Slave,” the set is one we’ll be talking about all year long. Throw in the “MFMF> Cities -> Bowie” cap to Set I, and you’ve got a top show of the year.

– SPAC 3 – Perhaps the quintessential Phish show of 2013. 07/07 combines energy, an old-school setlist, and thematic jamming all packed tightly into a show that is far better than the sum of any of its parts. One of those shows you just toss on and leave it playing, knowing you’re gonna be happy the whole time it’s on. 07/07 is one of those special shows that immediately provides a tour with its barometer for greatness.

– PNC – Upstaged by MPP 1 & 2 as my favorite show of the summer, PNC is still an all-around classic that reflects the musical high the band found themselves on in the second week of tour. Featuring an old school first set, a jam of the year contender in “Crosseyed & Painless,” along with top-notch versions of “Hood,” “Light,” and “Slave,” PNC was one of the strongest shows of the tour while it was happening, and will surely continue to be regarded as such for the remainder of the year.

– Jones Beach – Caught between the PNC and MPP firestorm of tour’s second week, and featuring an elongated – and, frankly, weather inappropriate – first set, 07/12 has become something of an underrated gem in 2013. Yet with the lone “Reba” of the year, another masterful “Bowie,” great mini-jams in “CTB,” “Ocelot,” “ASIHTOS,” and “46 Days,” not to mention the relentless, and fluid 50min “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” that opened Set II, it’s still one of the best offerings of the year.

– MPP 1 – A prelude to the following night’s mastery, 07/13 features one of the most engaging setlists of the year, while boasting top notch versions of “Maze,” “SOAM,” “Hood,” and the best “Mike’s Groove” in over a decade. For me, it’s all about Trey’s rhythmic playing in “Hood” and “Simple” that puts this night over the top. Talk about blissful innovation at its best. What a high they were on during this run of the East Coast Leg!

– MPP 2 – IMO, the best show of the tour thus far. A tightly wound peak experience featuring two fully formed sets without a single misplaced moment. Energy, innovative jams, perfectly placed classics, this show has it all. The seminal show thus far of the musical style and aesthetic structure Phish has been pushing all summer long. Highlight’s abound, but definitely check out “Stash,” “SOAMule,” “It’s Ice,” “Light -> Boogie On,” and “You Enjoy Myself” to hear the band at the peak of their powers here in 2013.

– Chicago 2 – The much maligned three-setter from Chicago, this show resonates with me based on many of the aspects I wrote about above. While perhaps an underwhelming show barring the circumstances and expectations throughout the community, the second set flows with precision and ease, and the “Light -> Hood” in Set III is up there as one of the better musical pairings of the summer. A show that I believe will outlast all the initial criticism it’s received, it’s one of those special shows that has more to do with the energy surrounding it rather than just the music played within it.

– Chicago 3 – Many are calling this the show of summer. Wherever I’d rank this show, it’s definitely one of the best offerings from the band thus far in 2013. Following a high-energy and well-played Set I that featured a show opening “Dinner And A Movie,” a torrid “Bag -> Maze,” an energized “Gin,” and a silly “Boogie On” that preceded a monumental rain storm, the band emerged for Set II and played the set of the year thus far. Reading: “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards, Harpua> Run Like An Antelope,” it’s the kind of set words simply won’t do justice for. If you haven’t heard it, get on it. If you have, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

– Toronto – While not the sleeper show everyone was expecting, Toronto was still an above-average and fun show, packed tight with great song selections, a three-song encore, and a jam out of “Down With Disease” that sets up a perfect transition to the Western leg of the tour. Check out “Undermind,” “Twist,” “Stash,” and “Ocelot” in Set I, and don’t miss the “DWD” or “Bowie” in Set II. A killer show for fans who’ve been waiting 13 years to see Phish again, Toronto caps of three weeks of tour in about as great a way as anyone could hope.

Favorite Jams 

– 07/05/2013: “46 Days -> Steam> Drowned -> Slave” – My favorite moment of SPAC 1 when it happened, and still my favorite today. How they figured a way from the seedy barroom stomp of “46 Days” to the ethereal bliss of “Slave” is beyond me. Perfectly fluid, leaving no music on the table, it’s a segment that proves the band has been on from the moment they hit the road.

– 07/06/2013: “Split Open & Melt” – Without coming off as too much a hypocrite, I sure would love to hear the band mess around with this kind demented melodic jamming more in the first set. Heard here and in the 07/14 “Stash,” there’s something about when the band opens themselves up with such freedom and pure musical communication – particularly in Set I –  that’s unrivaled in my mind. One of the most special moments of the first weekend of tour.

– 07/06/2013: “Carini -> Architect” – One of my absolutely favorite moments of summer thus far, I’m still in awe over how the band fit SO much music into 12 minutes. A beautiful, fluid, relentless jam, this one carried the torch from Dick’s and MSG and planted it firmly in 2013. Cannot wait to hear how the band approaches “Carini” when they take it out for a spin out west.

– 07/10/2013: “Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood” – The peak jam of the second week of tour, this one stylistically impacted the tour in ways few others were capable of. Hinting at the 02/16/2003 “Piper” theme, the jam built to an absolutely stunning peak made only the more special by Trey’s rhythmic interplay. Heard in the 07/13 “Hood” and “Simple,” the 07/21 “Ghost” and 07/22 “DWD,” the 07/10 “C&P>Hood” is one of those peak moments that happen throughout every tour and affect literally all the music around them.

– 07/12/2013: “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” – Like a jam segment right out of Summer 1998, this seguefest that opened JB’s second set is a must hear for any fan of open-ended improv and groove. Spring-boarding from “Rock & Roll” by way of a take on the 08/08/2009 theme of the same song, the jam weaved through melodic plains before building into “2001.” In “Tweezer” the band locks into a relentless groove that just bleeds into “Cities,” before it segues flawlessly into “The Wedge.” Battling the elements out on the Long Island Sound, the band unquestionably struck musical gold with this jam on this night.

– 07/13/2013: “Mike’s Song> Simple> Weekapaug Groove” – While I was probably wrong to predict that this “Mike’s” would in fact lead the band into their first Type-II “Mike’s” since February 2003, (expectations and predictions are a bitch) there’s no denying the ferocity and tenacity of this version that still holds up some two weeks later. For me though, this jam segment is all about “Simple.” A gorgeous version that sees Trey focusing on rhythmic interplay, teasing at the “DWD” theme throughout the jam, it’s stunningly beautiful, and absolutely perfect. It will be great to hear how the band approaches “Simple” whenever they revisit it next.

– 07/14/2013: “Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman” – A clinic in Phish crack, the MPP “Light” is as enthralling as it is experimental as it is utterly rewarding. Featuring start/stop groove, noise-based themes, and a fluid segue into “Boogie On,” it’s just one more version in a seemingly endless list of top tier “Light’s.”

– 07/16/2013: “Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning> Birds Of A Feather” – One of the most locked-in moments of summer thus far, this 55min segment of music from Alpharetta 1 combines energized and fluid segues, Dick’s-esque jamming, choice song selection, and thematically repeated teasing’s of Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” all resulting in a massive tour highlight from the band’s lone southern stop. Particularly in the “Rock & Roll,” “Chalk Dust,” and “Tweezer,” the jams proves how irrelevant song length is in 3.0. Like the 07/06 “Carini,” it’s mind-blowing how the band is capable of covering such musical terrain in such a short amount of time.

– 07/21/2013: “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards” – Perhaps the most important segment of music played all year, this trio both spiritually freed the band from the burdens of the weather-related and logistical forces plaguing their Chicago run, while also helping to point the way forward for the tour. Tracking the musical lineage of Phish’s history, this segment’s one of the most innovative and forward thinking of 2013. On par with the best jams in the band’s history, we’re gonna be talking about this trio for a LONG time to come.

– 07/22/2013: “Down With Disease -> 2001” – And this is how you point the way westward. Building off of Chicago’s brilliant second set, the band played the “DWD” of the year thus far, residing wholly in a zone of sublime melodic blissfulness before choicely guiding it towards the ominous grooves of “2001.” A patient and effortless jam, this bodes great things for the tour moving forward. As a band, Phish has typically played their most refined, relaxed, and exploratory music on the West Coast throughout 3.0. Based upon the sustained peak of 07/10 – 07/14, and the explorations in Chicago and Toronto, one can only imagine this trend will continue this weekend.

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Thus concludes tackle & lines 3rd week tour recap. Gonna be traveling to Japan next week, so will probably do a big West Coast wrap-up following the Hollywood Bowl show. Feel free to leave any comments or thoughts to the post. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for all of us as Phish heads out west!

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Assorted Thoughts & Questions On The Second Week Of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour

1045244_10151456729241290_627350807_nThe second week of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour is in the books, and it’s pretty clear to anyone listening that we’ve got a veritable classic on our hands here.

Torrential weather be damned. Postponed shows no bother. No matter what tries to impede Phish’s path right now, it appears the band simply can’t be halted.

In their 30th year, the band has clearly turned a corner and are showing no signs of slowing down. What was realized in the intimate Greek Theater way back in August 2010, capitalized upon that Fall, busted wide open with the SuperBall IX “Storage Jam” and subsequent experimentally-driven August run, toyed around with throughout a non-stop June 2012 tour, and finally realized in Commerce City, CO, has become the show-in-show-out reality of Phish here in 2013.

The band is just on. No two ways about it.

It’s a damned good time to be a Phish fan right now, both for everyone at the shows, and all of us listening with fervent ears back home. The band is littering shows with segues, jams, tight-knit playing, old school setlists, energy, and increasing humor that can only bode even greater things as the tour moves along.

All this music has gotten me thinking. Below are an assortment of random thoughts and questions I have from the last week of tour.

Hope everyone’s been enjoying this tour as much as I have!

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Is “Mike’s Song” About To Blow Up?

The long-forgotten classic, you’d have to go back to Summer 2000 for the last time the band truly approached “Mike’s Song” with the kind of aggression they are right now. While it’s always been a fan and band favorite, few could deny the overall power that’s been missing from “Mike’s” through the last two eras of the band’s history.

Out of nowhere, on the first night of tour, Phish treated us to a “Mike’s” that carried an extra bit of something – particularly from Trey – and for a minute felt as though it were going to explode into an unrelenting jam. Then, on Saturday night at Merriweather Post, the band again approached the song with a kind of desperation and aggression, once again expanding the limits we thought had been established as law going forward. That it bled into a gorgeously thematic and rhythmic take on “Simple” (more on this later) and a “Weekapaug” that felt slightly elevated, only helped to secure this as, hands down, the best “Mike’s Groove” since 2000.

So the question bears asking: Is Phish ready to blow “Mike’s Song” up again? Are they ready to approach the song with the same kind of fire, energy, and exploratory zealotry that made it one of the MUST-SEE songs throughout the entirety of Phish’s first 17 years?

Historically, one only has to look at the band’s patterns when they’re trying to will a specific song into the unknown. Two recent examples: the 08/16/2009 “Backwards Down The Number Line” and the 08/31/2012 “Chalk Dust Torture” each display that when the band is consciously trying to expand a specific song into a monumental jam, they typically build the song up through a series of versions that gradually push it further into the unknown. For “Number Line,” the 07/31/2009, 08/08/2009 and 08/11/2009 versions paved the way for the 20-minute monster that opened SPAC’s tour closing affair in 2009. For Chalk Dust, the 08/25/2012 and 08/28/2012 jams clearly helped to free the band up for the ethereal Dick’s version.

Beyond these two historical examples, it’s clear the band is focusing more time and attention on their classics throughout this tour. (More on this later) With the recent performances we’ve heard from “Bowie,” “Antelope,” “Hood,” “Reba,” “Stash,” “SOAM,” and “Slave” one wouldn’t be too surprised if one of these upcoming shows featured a “Mike’s” that fused the past and present of Phish in one monumental jam.

Can you even imagine how the crowd would react to a jam off “Mike’s” at this point?

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About The Celebratory Rhythmic Jamming…

If one clear-cut musical pattern is emerging from Phish’s Summer 2013 Tour it’s that the band is spending a large percentage of improvisational time focused on overtly melodic jams that have – in their best moments – resulted in segments of celebratory rhythmic hook-up’s that achieve transcendence on a number of levels. Heard most notably in the 07/10 “Crosseyed & Painless” and 07/13 “Harry Hood” – though elements of it are certainly abound in the 07/06 “SOAM” and “Carini,” the 07/12 “Rock & Roll” and 07/13 “Simple” – it appears the band is reflecting their ecstasy over this Summer Tour directly in their music.

Much like how jams in 2003 and 2004 descended into a dark and twisted underworld without reprieve, many jams in 2013 are the diametric opposite, rising to the heavens in rejoice over the current state of the band.

What’s perhaps most unique about this trend – at least to these ears – is that it’s taken Phish under eight shows to reign in on, and commit to this style. While there have certainly been a plethora of incredible jams that have littered 3.0, each of the past four years have been more notable for the fact that the band has restlessly jumped from style-to-style throughout tours, very rarely committing to one singular style to build through. Granted, August 2011 featured a number of “Storage”-based jams, and Dick’s 2012 highlighted the band’s ability and desire to weave a number of different ideas and themes under one singular piece of improve, those are more exceptions than the rules in the past four years.

Here in 2013, with the band at the top of their game, and an entire tour in front of them to explore the unknown, the band is fully communicating the peak experience their having as a band through their improv. Like how 1995’s abstract excursions spoke directly to the band’s fascination with how far their music could go, 1997 displayed a band in completely seamless communication, 1999-2000 showed how effortless and in many ways, uninspiring Phish had become for its members, and 2003 was the sound of a band dying in front of our very eyes, 2013 jams are full of celebration and revival.

It’s been a long time coming for Phish to return to the place of consistent playing – both within their songs, and outside of them – and to hear them attack their improv with the kind of celebratory zest they are this summer can only make fans feel great about the state of Phish as we continue moving forward.

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The 2013 Setlist Model

A simple perusing of PT or Twitter will display an even-handed amount of opinions on the structural approach the band is pushing forward with their setlist’s in 2013. A complete diversion from the recital sets that dotted much of 2009 – 2011, and a stark change from the rarities and bustouts that colored 2012, 2013 setlists have – thus far – been noticeably trimmed down and sharpened up. Emphasizing a stricter rotation throughout the tour thus far, repeats have been abound, while at the same time, few sets (first sets in particular) haven’t been subjected to the knee-jerk flow and unending feel that marked so many throughout 3.0.

So the question bears asking: is this new setlist model a positive for Phish, a negative, or just a part of the continual evolution of the band?

I see the effects of this evolution in two ways. First of all, to me, the recital approach – while certainly great when it worked; see: 11/29/2009, 12/04/2009, 06/13/2010, 07/03/2010, 08/14/2010, 10/26/2010, 10/30/2010, 06/11/2011, 08/16/2011, 06/15/2012, 06/28/2012, 07/03/2012, 07/06/2012 – had become somewhat stale and outdated by the time 2011 rolled around, when it was clear many of the growing pains of 2009 and early 2010 were behind them. In that sense, I both welcome the consistently trimmed down setlists – they’re tighter and flow better overall – and welcome the sequential emphasis of a stricter rotation.

The second effect of the band’s current approach to crafting setlists is an overt emphasis of their classic songs and jam vehicles. Whereas in 2009 through, even parts of 2012, the band was making a conscious effort to showcase their entire catalogue, here in 2013, there’ve been a number of shows that have specifically featured songs written before 1995. A result of this has been a newfound electricity and energy within their classics. One needs to look no further than the 07/03 and 07/13 “Mike’s,” 07/03 “Antelope,” 07/03, 07/10, and 07/13 “Hood,” 07/05 “Bowie,” 07/05 “Slave,” 07/06 “SOAM,” 07/07 and 07/14 “You Enjoy Myself,” 07/12 “Reba,” 07/12 “Tweezer,” 07/13 “Simple,” 07/13 “Weekapaug Groove,” 07/14 “Stash,” and the 07/14 “It’s Ice,” to see the effect this approach is having on some of Phish’s historically great compositions.

I argued yesterday on PT that while this last weekend’s Merriweather Post highlights were “Destiny Unbound,” “Maze,” “Hood,” “Mike’s Groove,” “Stash,” “Mule,” “Ice,” “Light -> Boogie On,” and “You Enjoy Myself” would have represented a horrendous pair of shows from 2003 – 2012, here, in 2013, suddenly these shows reside in the upper echelon of the tour thus far. This is a sign of a band fully focused on reinventing, and reigniting their classics like they haven’t consistently in years. And this is without mentioning the excellent “Gins,” “Wolfmans,” and “Themes” we’ve heard, nor the one-off performances of song’s like “BOTT,” “Ya Mar,” or “CTB” that have popped with fresh energy and playing.

It’s an amazing reversal on the trend that had dominated much of the last ten years of the band’s existence. For too long their time-honored classics felt forgotten, appearing in shows only because they had to. That the band is rediscovering how to approach so many of these songs, particularly within the structure of more refined setlists, can only bode great things moving forward.

While yes, there’s no doubt something missing from Phish shows due to the lack of surprise that was so associated with the random bustouts and rarities that littered much of 2010 – 2012, but in all reality, I’d personally rather hear Phish crush their classics like they have been over the past two weeks than compile sets that lack flow and energy just to get a one-off glimpse of a long-forgotten song. I definitely argued before the tour that we’d hear more bustouts this year, and so far I’ve been wrong on that prediction. So long as the band keeps playing the way they are, count me as one totally cool with the current approach to setlists, and consequential lack of bustouts in 2013.

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The Impact Of Trey’s Rhythmic Playing

From the first Type-II jam of tour (07/03’s “Golden Age”) one this was immediately different about Phish’s jamming approach in 2013: Trey’s emphasis of his wah-wah pedal like no time since the late-90’s. A stylistic move that’s allowed Mike and Page more space to continue their individual dominance in 3.0, this move has led to some of the most unique and colorful moments of the 2013 tour thus far.

From the 07/06 “Tube,” and 07/12 “Tweezer -> Cities,” to the 07/14 “Stash,” “It’s Ice,” and “Light -> Boogie On,” the wah has been at the center of some of the most unexpected funk clinics that have dotted 2013.

Moreover though is the full impact of Trey’s rhythmic approach. Even when he’s eschewed the wah, he’s still approached jams with a rhythm-centric mindset that’s led to the aforementioned melodic and celebratory jams that have stood out as the best of the year.

Like how 1997 – 2000 benefitted greatly by Trey’s deliberately minimalistic approach, so too is 2013. Playing within the pockets created by Mike and Fish, allowing Page to shine like he has since Hampton ’09, while giving Mike the proper space to lead jams, Trey’s coloring the jams with chords and rhythmic patterns that are leading to full-band-connectivity and linear musical communication with consistency and ease. For examples, look no further than the 07/10 “Crosseyed & Painless,” 07/12 “Rock & Roll -> 2001>Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge,” 07/13 “Harry Hood” and “Simple,” or the 07/14 “Light -> Boogie On,” and “You Enjoy Myself.”

Fusing their past with their current state, Phish is benefitting greatly from 30 years worth of musical experience as they diverge deeper into the unwinding conversation they’ve been sharing together on stage.

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Is This The Best Summer Tour Since 1.0?

Jumping the gun a bit here? Perhaps.

Remember how good 2012 was, kid? Yes, yes I do.

Didn’t you just write a 3000-wd piece praising 2003? Yes, that’s me.

Look, I hate the redundancy of certain Phish writers who review and comment on shows/jams/tours as if THIS is THE BEST ___________ since ____________, only to emerge a week or two later saying the exact same thing.

But we’ve reached a point with this tour, now two weeks in, where the question certainly bears asking.

Is this the best summer tour since 1.0?

My arguments in favor are as follows, in four points:

1. The band is jamming with a consistency and brilliancy the likes of which we simply haven’t seen since 1998.

Yes, I fully realize the absurdity of this statement when one considers how heavy the band jammed from 1999 – 2004, but hear me out.

While so many jams went deep throughout that period, there are unfortunately a litany of jams that simply jammed for the sake of filling space and jamming, rather than pushing forward with consistent purpose. Moments of brilliance and transcendence were often times separated by lengthy wanderings of a band that oftentimes appeared lost, or worst, careless. And yet, for however deep and methodically demonic those jams were – and this is coming from a proud-1999 -2003 fluffer – those jams didn’t really speak to the historical and emotional legacy that is Phish. So moody and ominous so many of them were, they represented a dying band’s last gasp at relevance and sustainability. That they went so deep spoke more to the individual member’s emotional struggles than any true evolutionary step forward. As I said throughout my essay on Summer 2003, (and this point is certainly transferrable to 1999 and 2000, and especially 2004) it’s clear in hindsight that that jamming approach was simply unsustainable. No one can be that lost and hope to persist in any sort of productive and healthy manner. For however monumental, or artistically innovative many of the jams were, they belong to their own era of Phish that’s in many ways separate from the band’s overall historical legacy.

Here in 2013 we’re hearing a band who has climbed the mountain once again, and is jamming with not only conscientious purpose, but also celebratory revival.

2. Phish’s greatest songs are being showcased like they haven’t since the mid-1990’s.

I’ve made this point ad nauseam throughout this piece, so I won’t go too deep into it here. But, the point remains, in 3.0, up until this tour, “Bowie,” “You Enjoy Myself,” “Hood,” “Slave,” “Mike’s,” “Antelope,” “SOAM,” and “Stash,” all felt like dinosaurs in Phish’s catalogue.

Sure, they made their required every two-to-three show appearance.

Sure, they got their resounding cheers from the crowd.

But rarely did they feel like an opportunity for the band.

Instead, they always felt played because, well, they had to be played. Even in 2012 – by-and-away the best year the band has played in full since at least 2000 – these songs always felt like a shell of their former selves, no matter the fact that the band was beginning to focus additional attention on them. Now however, the band is approaching their time-honored classics like this were 1993 or 1995, and they have to explore them for all they’re worth.

3. This is the strongest opening to a tour the band has played since Summer 1998.

Go back through each of the summer tour’s of the band’s history. At this point, I count six shows that are unquestionably keepers – 07/05, 07/07, 07/10, 07/12, 07/13, and 07/14.

SIX, out of EIGHT shows total. This is unprecedented in recent Phish history!

At the end of each year I compile a list of the ten best shows of the year, along with three honorable mentions. I shudder to think how I’m going to widdle this list down to 13 by year’s end.

While Phish has treated the opening legs of 3.0 tours to some of the best overall shows of the year, none of the 3.0 summer tour’s can compare to 2013’s opening two weeks. The only tour that could carry a candle in my mind is 2011, and that tour petered out following an incredible opening week from Bethel – Cincinnati.

Going back to 2.0 – 2004 is disqualified based on the fact that the exceptionally strong June Run was no more than a week’s worth of music – the 2003 Tour sputtered for much of it’s first two weeks before finding consistently solid ground on it’s back end.

In 1.0, both 1999 and 2000 featured some exceptional shows starting a week into their tours, but in both cares, their immediate opening shows are dotted with too many head-scratching moments – 07/07/1999, 06/25/2000, for example – to hold a candle to how consistently great Phish is playing these days. Even in their weakest shows this tour – 07/03 and 07/06 – the band is still infusing each with moments of brilliance that make them worth listening to regardless.

So, is this the best opening to a tour since 1.0? That question’s ultimately up to you and your own standards of “best”. For me, there’s simply no question, 2013 has put itself in a pretty heady category thus far.

4. Each member is thriving individually which is translating to some stunning linear musical communication.

For much of 3.0, the continual argument against Phish (lazy or not) has been of the struggles of one Trey Anastasio. For much of 2009, both he and Fishman simply didn’t have the chops to keep up with Page and Mike, to craft transcendent improvisational music on a consistent basis. While Trey was able to dissuade much of the criticism when in August 2010 he unveiled the Ocedoc guitar that helped to deepen his overall sound, thus making him less reliant on the whammy pedal, and more conducive to full-band jamming, it wasn’t really until 2012 that all his practice since 2008 really started to pay off.

On the other hand, Fishman spent much of the band’s first two years back simply getting reacquainted with playing drums. Admitting to give up drums entirely for a time during the band’s break-up from 2004 – 2009, his technical inabilities left many jams rudderless throughout 2009 and 2010. Like Trey though, Fish has been on a consistent rise since 2011, now capable of playing in a variety of styles, and impacting jams with the kind of tactical precision and spontaneity that made him such a key figure in Phish’s mid-90’s renaissance.

Freed from the burdens of the band’s two weakest links, they’re now playing as one on a far more regular basis. As a result, jams like the 07/06 “Carini,” 07/10 “Crosseyd,” 07/12 “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge,” 07/13 “Simple,” 07/14 “Stash,” “It’s Ice,” “Light -> Boogie On,” and “You Enjoy Myself” are popping up throughout shows with far more consistency and ease than at any other time since certainly 2003, and more realistically since sometime in 1.0.

Is this the best tour since 1.0? Right now, it sure as Hell feels that way!

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So, Where Is This All Going?

I talked with Zachary Cohen of the phenomenal Please Me Have No Regrets blog at length yesterday about the state of Phish 2013. We’re at two interesting places with this tour, seeing as he’s been to most of the shows, and I’m simply absorbing them from 8000 miles away in South Korea. To him, these shows have been a spiritual celebration from the moment 07/05 began, whereas for me, from my perspective, little about the tour made total sense until around PNC. To me, the band was simply laying the groundwork for a the tour from Bangor through 07/06. Yet, in hindsight, while I still believe the first few shows were more or less feeling out how the band would approach this tour, it’s become clear to me that we were essentially immersed in brilliance from the moment “Cities” faded into “Bowie” on 07/05.

The bulk of our conversation however, dealt with where this is going with Phish. How’s Phish going to build on the musical achievements of the last two weeks? Where are these two weeks going to reside in our minds come October, December, next February…?

We’re both absolutely thrilled with the music Phish is currently making, but both of us agree that it’s clear there’s more that the band could be doing. For as incredible as all of these shows have been – and in all sincerity, there isn’t a show played this summer I wouldn’t have wanted to be at – it’s clear the band is somewhat still reigning it in on a nightly basis. From an unwillingness to totally let go with their jams like they were at Dick’s, to the lack of surprise quality often associated with bustouts and rarities, there are a few aspects of Phish’s storied career that could elevate this tour that much more.

Is this all necessary? Probably not. These are phenomenal shows after all.

If Phish cancelled the rest of their tour, we’d still have a massive amount of musical gold to sift through for the rest of the year.

And yet, if you’d ask me my honest opinion I’d say that this tour reminds me in many ways of how the August 2010 run felt like an immense corner turned, yet appeared as an obvious starting point by the time the mastery of Fall 2010 rolled around. This isn’t to compare the quality of music with those two eras, just the structure of them.

My point is, I’ve got a feeling this is all building towards something even bigger, and that by year’s end, these shows – which have been SO great so far – may appear more as building blocks towards some unforeseen goal. Kinda like how NO ONE could have predicted 08/31/2012 was just around the corner on 08/29/2012, regardless how innovative most of Summer 2012 was. Based on all the points I’ve made throughout this essay, the obvious excitement permeating the community based surrounding the band’s 30th anniversary, and impending Fall Tour and Holiday Run, one can’t help but think this whole year is only going to get better.

Be it a fusion of the band’s level of jamming at Dick’s with their emphasis on their storied classics, or gimmicky rarities timely placed throughout standout shows that just elevate them to another level, or a run of shows that musically rivals the true peaks of the band’s career, essentially everything is on the table now in 2013.

On a high like they haven’t been since the mid-90’s, at the top of their game, there’s simply nothing it appears Phish can’t do here in 2013.

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Favorite Shows/Jams Thus Far

I’ll be updating this as we move throughout the tour/year. Take these with a grain of salt, for their just one man’s thoughts on music that’s continuously interpreted by totally different people in totally different ways all at the same time. But here are my favorite shows/jams of the 2013 Summer Tour thus far:

Favorite Shows

1. PNC – First Set is that classic Phish energy set, containing a blistering “Gin,” a rarity in the opener, “Llama,” a full-on funk-fest in another nailed “Wolfman’s,” and great takes on “Ya Mar,” “Stealin’ Time,” “Theme,” and “Suzy. Set II flows with fiery precision, and contains a revolutionary jam in “Crosseyed.”

2. MPP2 – On paper, from 2003 – 2012 this show would look like crap. But groundbreaking performances in “Stash,” “SOAMule,” “Ice,” “Light,” and “You Enjoy Myself,” along with solid flow and all-around killer playing just elevates it to previously unknown heights.

3. MMP1 – Very similar to MPP2 structurally, this show benefits from a fresh setlist, notable playing in “Destiny Unbound,” “Halfway To The Moon,” “Maze” and “SOAM” in Set I, another glorious “Hood” in a year already full of them, and without question, the BEST “Mike’s Groove” since 1.0

4. SPAC 3 – The first show where the band appeared to be fully comfortable and in command from note one of the night. Just an all-around classic Phish show featuring only one cover, and no songs written after 2002. From the moment they descend into a quiet and rhythmic jam off second-song “BOTT” one thing was clear: it’s on.

5. SPAC 1 – Following a first set that failed to get off the ground until a stunning “MFMF> Cities -> Bowie” segment closed it out, the band emerged from setbreak and played without pause. Crafting the most fluid set we’ve heard this entire tour thus far, the jams in “Light,” and particularly “46 Days -> Steam> Drowned -> Slave” will remain on many people’s Best Of lists for the entire year.

6. Jones Beach – A similar first set structurally to 07/05, this one lost a bit of steamin the face of the worst storm the band’s played in since 07/22/1997 before being rescued by a sublime “Reba”/”Bowie” combo to close it out. After the break, the band emerged with a 19-minute “Rock & Roll” that faded into a “2001>Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” seguefest that’s as smooth to the ears as it appears on paper.

7. SPAC 2 – The most inconsistent show of the tour thus far – at least to these ears – perhaps the only aspects I’ll revisit in the future are “Tube,” “SOAM,” and the “Carini -> Architect” jam. A notable show for the fact that it was SO well played regardless of it’s issues with flow, it simply doesn’t carry the mystique the above shows do.

8. Bangor – A solid tour opener that foreshadowed much of the brilliance we’re currently witnessing. However, this one, like SPAC 2 just doesn’t have that IT factor that any of the first six shows on the list do.

Favorite Jams (Listed Chronologically)

– 07/05/2013: “46 Days -> Steam> Drowned -> Slave” – A fully flowing and organically thematic jam segment that anchored the back-half of 07/05’s brilliant Set II, this run of songs is sure to remain as one of my favorite’s of the year by the time we wrap things up at MSG. From the minimalist funk workout of “46 Days,” to the impassioned, and fully realized peak in “Steam,” from “Drowned’s” rhythmic duel between Page and Trey, to the masterful performance of “Slave” that’s unquestionably the best we’ve heard in this entire era, this sequence is a fucking capital ‘K,’ KEEPER.

– 07/06/2013: “Split Open & Melt” – For a song that has endured so much controversy and dysfunctional experimentation in this era, everything was realized in this first set closer from the middle night at SPAC. Leaving the structure of the jam entirely, the band wove this “Melt” into a gorgeous plain of improvisation, connecting for five minutes on some of the most blissful music they’ve ever made. At one point it sounded as though they’d never find their way back home. While the end of the jam ultimately became a forced re-entry to the “Melt” theme, little could taint the brilliance of this jam.

– 07/06/2013: “Carini -> Architect” – My vote for jam of the year thus far, the band simply annihilated “Carini” before perfectly segueing it into Trey’s first Traveler debut with Phish (Save “Let Me Lie”). Diametrically opposite to the descent into Hell version from 12/30/2012, this “Carini” was lilting, it was ethereal, it was sublime, it was complete bliss. There’s a point midway in the jam where it sounds like the band is composing a new song out of thin air. It’s the stuff of legend. I can’t wait to hear how the band approaches “Carini” the next time out.

– 07/10/2013: “Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood” – Following an ambient soundscape that was reminiscent of the 08/19 version, “Crosseyed” built into a celebratory rhythmic jam that touched on the 02/16/2003 “Piper” while crafting one of the most transcendent passages of music Phish has offered in 2013. A thematic jam that has since been adopted in various other jams since then, it’s clear the band discovered something at PNC that had been lurking beneath the surface throughout the tour’s initial week. That they chose another brilliant version of “Hood” to serve as the song’s landing pad of sorts, spoke wonders of how highly the band immediately regarded this jam.

– 07/12/2013: “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” – After stumbling a bit through a song-based first set that seemed to take the life out of their cold and wet fans, the band delivered a blistering 50-minute segment of uninterrupted music to open Set II at Jones Beach. The “Rock & Roll” shares musical qualities with the brilliant 08/08/2009 version before segueing into “2001.” The “Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” is as fluid and masterful a segue as it looks on paper. They fucking earned those -> this night, and sure as Hell earned the “Sleeping Monkey> Tweezer Reprise” that closed things out.

– 07/13/2013: “Harry Hood” – Dropped in the middle of Merriweather Post’s Saturday night Set II, this “Hood” capitalized on the brilliant versions from Bangor and PNC, and then some. Fusing the thematic peak of the PNC “Crosseyed & Painless” into the “Hood” peak created a transcendent version that will be hard to top going forward. It’s clear the band just loves playing “Harry Hood” again, a sentiment that should be praised and rejoiced by all of their fans.

– 07/13/2013: “Mike’s Song> Simple> Weekapaug Groove” – A “Mike’s Groove” tour highlight?!?! What!?!? I’ve been following this band since 2001, and saw my first shows in 2003. “Mike’s Song” was one of those original’s that got me hooked on Phish. But never, I mean NEVER, have I ranked any version of “Mike’s Groove” since that time as a Best Of jam in all my years listening. Until now. A torrential “Mike’s” that nearly pushed itself into the unknown was followed by a gorgeous “Simple” that fused the melodic and rhythmic playing Trey’s been espousing throughout Summer 2013 with the “Down With Disease” theme to brilliant results. Capped off by a funky and sparse “Weekapaug” and you have the first “Mike’s Groove” in ages to push a show into the ether.

– 07/14/2013: “Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman” – Is there anything Phish can’t do with “Light?” Even in the PNC version that left a bit to be desired, the band still managed to infuse it with themes of “Maria” from West Side Story before segueing it fluidly into a perfectly place “Good Times, Bad Times.” Here, deep in Merriweather Post’s Sunday Set II, the band conducted a thrilling funk/rhythmic experiment on the modern jam vehicle, leading it into a start/stop jam that brought back memories of 1997 for everyone involved. Building into dissonance, they ultimately led the jam into a playful “Boogie On” that felt neither forced, nor out of placed. Make that three fluid segues from “Light” in 2013, along with three completely unique jams that have emerged from it. It’s clear 2013 is shaping up to be yet another banner year for “Light.”

– 07/14/2013 – “You Enjoy Myself” – Perhaps the most telling jam on this list, the band’s seminal song has been everything from overplayed, to stale, to underplayed, to rarity, to now, fresh and completely open again here in 3.0 That “You Enjoy Myself” is being attacked in the way it have thus far this tour, is reason alone to believe we’re in for something unprecedented with Phish this year. Building off a top-notch version at SPAC a week before, the Merriweather Post “You Enjoy Myself” featured a seismic funk workout from the band, infusing dissonance and elements of the “Light” jam before peaking and leading to a ferocious vocal jam. Will this be the peak of the band’s experimentation with “YEM” in 2013? I gotta believe this, like with “Mike’s,” “Stash,” “Hood,” and “Bowie,” is only the beginning. How crazy would it be if this excellent version were simply knocked off this list by the next “You Enjoy Myself” played? I wouldn’t doubt anything of the sort here in 2013.

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That’s all I’ve got for this last week of tour. Please feel free to share any comments or thoughts on the essay. Can’t wait to see what the band has in store for us in Alpharetta and Chicago!

Review: Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/05/2013

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Saratoga Performing Arts Center – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/05/2013

Set I: Kill Devil Falls, The Moma Dance, Sample In A Jar, Roses Are Free, Birds Of A Feather, Yarmouth Road^, Bathtub Gin, Nellie Kane, Army Of One> My Friend, My Friend&> Cities -> David Bowie

Set II: Energy^^> Light -> The Mango Song#> 46 Days -> Steam> Drowned## -> Slave To The Traffic Light

Encore: Character Zero###

^ “Yarmouth Road” made its Phish debut

^^ “Energy” (The Apples In Stereo) made its Phish debut

& “My Friend, My Friend” was unfinished

# “The Mango Song” contained a “Light” tease

## “Drowned” contained a “The Divided Sky” tease

### “Character Zero” contained a “Jean Pierre” tease

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Two shows into the 2013 Summer Tour, and there’s a pattern developing. Whereas in 2011 and 2012 Phish emerged from hibernation with a focused determination, and immediate connection, thus assaulting their fanbase with some of their strongest overall shows in each respective year, it appears that in 2013, the band is taking a bit of a more refined approach.

No one in their right mind would say the last two shows have been bad shows. No one would either say they’ve been resoundingly great shows. (Quite frankly I’ve seen both extremes espoused on PT and Twitter, but we’ll just assume those extremes are, well, extremes…) What they’ve been instead are solid overall shows that have featured both patient foundation setting, interspersed with moments of chemistry and hooking up, which if nothing, but foreshadow great things to come as the tour unfolds.

In some senses you could look at 07/03/2013 as Tour Opener A. and 07/05/2013 as Tour Opener B. Like I pointed out yesterday, let’s not go calling either of these the best shows ever, nor the onset of Phish’s demise.

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In many ways Set I of 07/05/2013 played out like the first half of a basketball game. With Trey playing the role of facilitator, he made certain to get each member involved throughout the somewhat uneven frame. Setting the foundation for the tour, Page got his moment with the delicate, contemplative, and (while, yes, a bit mawkish) deeply personal “Army Of One,” Gordo debuted a bubbly, reggae number, that just sounds like summer at a Phish show – “Yarmouth Road” – even Fishman got to stretch his vocal chords with a second song “Moma Dance.”

Kicking things off with the banally standard triumvirate of “Kill Devil Falls,” “The Moma Dance,” and “Sample In A Jar,” each song did what they needed and nothing more, much like the “Possum> Runaway Jim” opening segment from 07/03. “KDF” rollicked in its musty barroom stomp, proving no matter how unsurprising it is to hear, it’s never not fun, “Moma” was graced by the Meatball effect, and “Sample,” well, “Sample” couldn’t quite get to that place that ever justifies its existence.

The middle part of the set took on something of a recital feel to it with the energy combo of “Roses” and “Birds” – the latter of which featured a blistering solo from Trey – a resoundingly boastful peak in “Gin,” the aforementioned debut and Page-number, and the always welcome prettiness of “Nellie Kane.”

(I say none of this with any overt criticism, mind you. And, like I pointed out yesterday, these songs, and their intended effect, was assuredly elevated by the idyllic setting of SPAC, the left-over day-drinking buzz, and the sweet stench of recently puffed marijuana lingering listlessly in the air. If you want my honest opinion, I feel like the band more than deserves the three sets they’ve opened the tour with. They more than proved their improvisational ambitions and abilities in 2012, and, now, coming off a seven-month layoff, in preparation for what’s most likely to be their heaviest touring year since 2009 (and perhaps even longer) have more than earned the right to take their time settling into this tour. If they want to focus on establishing chemistry, confidence, and full-band communication through “Possum,” “Kill Devil Falls,” “The Moma Dance” and the like, more power to them.)

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Closing with a phenomenal “My Friend, My Friend> Cities -> David Bowie” segment was  just the thing the set needed to send it into setbreak. “MFMF” featured some choice theatrics from Trey who used his mic stand as a slide effect; he then looped the noise to be used as part of the fade to “Cities.” I’ve always loved how “My Friend” begins in such pristine territory, but by the song’s end, you’re grasping your skull, wondering what the fuck went so wrong so quickly?!?!

“Cities” initially felt a bit flat only to pick up a groove that then led into an interesting Page-led jam segment. A moment that felt like it could have turned into something had the band stuck with it, instead turned into an effortless fading segue into “Bowie.” No harm/no foul here. An improvisational end to “Cities” would have certainly felt jarring at the end of such a structured set. The “Bowie” built upon the phenomenal 12/28/2012 version without surpassing it. Finding itself in a genuinely beautiful zone of music, Trey led the middle-segment of the jam which featured patient and melodic trills, rather than aggressive chromatic shifts. It’s clear at this point that the band simply loves what’s possible once they’re in the middle part of “Bowie,” something that’s gotta resonate throughout their fan base.

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Is there anything worse than this kind of sideline reporting? Couch tour rehashing of music that was made four hours ago, some 8000 miles from where I sit?

I mean, I can’t even feel the grass of the lawn below my feet. I haven’t paid $14 for a beer since NYE. I haven’t tasted the chemical wonderland of Molly since the night prior.

There’s truly a distinct feeling that comes with being AT a Phish show that can’t be surmised in 2000 words from a couch (ahem, chair) in the middle of the afternoon in Osan, South Korea, right? Right?

I don’t know. That’s in large part why I’m attempting this project to review the entire Summer Tour from where I currently reside. You have to admit that I’m at least right on a few of the points from Set I, no matter that I simply couldn’t have felt the roar – that roar – of the crowd when they peaked “Roses” like they always peak “Roses.” Yet, this was that “Roses” that happened when you found yourself in that perfect pocket of dancing space, and the mix of white and red lights were just fucking perfect in the way they shone on the balcony, even peaking through to the endless hordes of people on the lawn, thus bringing EVERYONE in for one unified roar, and for one second, one moment in time, it felt that everything, I mean EVERYTHING, was going to be okay.

EVERYTHING, for one moment felt solvable. It lasted only a second, but it happened. It’s been recorded. And you were there. It’s why you came to the show, afterall, for that one moment in time.

Did I feel this moment? I know I certainly felt something as I watched this show while simultaneously cooking eggs. I know my wife and I turned and smiled at each other in the way we always do when those moments of communal purity happen at a Phish show.

But could my feelings, which are in so many ways so removed from the feelings of the 20 – 25,000 attendees at the show, yet so connected in the way that technology and music can only allow them to be, could my feelings help to explain what happened musically tonight? Or any night of tour for that matter?

I still don’t know.

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Set II flowed in the kind of way every Set II should. The kind of set you can just put on and let it go, do your own thing, check in from time to time, work out to, mow the lawn to, cook to, read to, write to, etc. When the band creates a fully-flowing album-like set in the live setting, in front of 20,000 people, it’s a remarkable thing.

While it may be forgotten by the end of the weekend – remember, everyone was lauding 06/08/2012 in the break between Worcester and AC, but you hear nothing about it anymore – for the moment, it’s a perfect representation of Phish in the zone. Thematically it ran the gauntlet through an intriguing swath of emotions that retraced many of Trey’s biographical steps in essentially reverse order.

— the ecstatic-preacher (“Energy)> new-agey celestine explorer (“Light”)> momentary bliss -> resident goofy/loopy prankster (“The Mango Song”)> middle-aged drug-fueled disillusionment (“46 Days”) -> secret D&D extraordinaire (“Steam”)> rawk/cawk guitar god (“Drowned”) -> expansionist minimalism -> simple nonsensical beauty for the sheer sake of being nonsensically beautiful (“Slave To The Traffic Light”) —

Could it have been better? (Sure, but that depends on your definition of better…) Could the band have pushed “Light,” “46 Days,” and “Drowned” even further into the unknown in search of the elusive Dick’s/MSG improvisational aura? Of course. But that would have in some ways compromised what they did do so well.

Opening with a cover debut of the Apples In Stereo 2007 song “Energy” felt initially out of place, but ultimately worked with the overall set. Filled with a sung “Awww Yeah,” from Trey, and repeated lines “In The World (!)” from Mike and Page it resonated in the cheesy new-agey way that so many of Phish’s 3.0 songs do. Flirting with dissonance, the song ultimately gave way to “Light,” in all actuality, the song everyone WANTED to hear.

Building off a solid foundation that held true to the 08/19 and 09/01 versions, the jam left “Light” for a more rhythmically-centered terrain before effortlessly (really emphasize the effortlessness here. It’s amazing how fucking easy Phish makes transitioning mid-jam appear these days.) moving into a subdued, Trey-led segment. It then entered an absolutely gorgeous realm highlighted by a Page/Trey interwoven duel (ala 07/01/2012) that represents the best pure moment of the Summer 2013 Tour thus far. A jam that felt destined for greatness (in terms of further evolution and a natural resolve) Trey forced – a bit – a pre-meditated segue into “The Mango Song.” While a bit jarring on re-listen, in all actuality there are worse fucking songs you can segue into than “Mango,” so who can really bitch at this point?

The “46 Days -> Steam” segment just flat out kicked ass. The band just kills “46 Days” every damn time they play it now. They’ve got it down to a science (similar to how they crush every “GBOTT”) and this version simply did not disappoint. From the all-out cawk-rawkiness of the Trey solo, to the hints of dark funk that ultimately led to a reprised, full-on funk workout that hinted at “Manteca,” the song crushed its mid-Set II placement. Following what many presumed would be the closing coda of the song, Trey initiated brilliantly led the funk jam into the first “Steam” in over a year.

Is there anything cheesier than releasing steam in the chorus of a song when the the band says “Steam”???

Is there anything more perfectly Phish-like?

Like the way this song just fits the nerdy/70’s arena rock vibe that constitutes so much of a Phish show, the use of the steam just fits the song and the band’s overall show so perfectly. Placed perfectly in the middle of the set, “Steam” proved to be one of the overt highlights in a set full of them. Reaching a massive peak while flirting with dissonance and infringing melodies, this version is easily the best we’ve heard the band play thus far.

The set ended with an apropos “Drowned” (a nod to the pre-show rain storm) that rocked in the way it should before landing in a gorgeous ambient jam that led seamlessly into easily the best damn “Slave To The Traffic Light” the band has played in all of 3.0. Building off the sublime 12/30/2012 version, this “Slave” was emotive, it was patient, it built to a proper and rewarding peak, it was a beautiful take on a song that’s there simply to provide beauty and release. Similar to the previous show’s “Hood,” it’s clear the band has re-embraced playing their classic emotional rock peak songs with the kind of patience and power that the two require.

A cawk-rawkish “Character Zero” ended things, and in many ways was a fitting send-off to a show that balanced a rock-based, structural approach, with the fluid, and improvisational high points in “Bowie,” “Light,” Drowned,” and “Slave.”

Two shows into the tour and the band is clearly laying the groundwork for some massive music to come, while also interspersing their current shows with some of the most fluid and improvisationaly-strong music they’ve played in all of 3.0. Could they be doing more? Sure. Should they be doing more? I think not. The approach they’re taking as they ease into their 30th year is but a microcosm of the one they’ve taken throughout 3.0. Great things are sure to come.

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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 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

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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!

The Structure Of A Show – Openers

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For anyone who’s ever experienced it, few moments can compare with that when the lights suddenly drop at a Phish show. As any enthusiast will tell you, the day of a Phish concert is a series of build-ups, all leading to the moment when, out of nowhere, the stadium’s lights fade, and anywhere between 5,000, and upwards of 80,000, people rejoice in a collective roar as the band strolls onto stage. At that moment, however far you travelled to get to the show, however shitty your day at work was, however much you had to pay for you ticket last minute, however hard it was to evade security and hop down to the pavilion, means nothing. All that matters is the singular question that’s been burning a hole in every fan’s mind all day: what will they open with?

Being that each Phish concert is a completely unique, in-the-moment creation, the opener is often a divisive moment in the show; not only in its immediate separation between your day-to-day life and a Phish show, but in many ways, in determining much of what will come of the show at hand. In most cases, the opener is the first sign anyone has of how the band is feeling that night. The opener thus may be a reaction to an underwhelming show the night before. It might conversely be an effort to top the previous night’s high points. It might be a sign that they’re looking to delve deep into their catalogue. It may be an excuse to toss a random cover at us. Whatever it is, the opener is often the most debated, hotly anticipated part of the entire show, in the months, and hours leading up to it. This is for good reason. For, while every Phish show is inherently unique in it’s setlist construction, it’s moments of improvisational foray, and it’s level of playing, there are certain patterns that help to determine the quality, memorability, and ultimate aura surrounding each show. Being the first moment we have to experience/listen to a Phish show, the opener – while not always the case – is generally the first clue we have as to what direction the show will go.

There is another reason to examine the impact/importance of the opener – for the purpose of this blog, at least. Before tackle & lines goes any further in delving into the history of the band, it’s important to step back and breakdown the essential medium with which we all experience Phish: attending, and listening to their live shows. When all’s said and done for Phish – be that in 2013 or 2034 – the thing they will be remembered for most will be their live shows. Their shows are where they’ve communicated with the most people, found their greatest successes, and pushed their music to places they never thought possible. Their live shows are must-see events that, at their best, result in a communal celebration with thousands of different people. They are also historical accounts of the various periods in the band’s history, various moments of experimentation, and documentation of a band willing themselves towards the unknown; a kind of free-form, in-the-moment catharsis that contradicts so much of the by-the-book regulations in modern American culture.

What follows is a eight part series on The Structure Of A Phish Show. Over the next eight posts, tackle & lines will breakdown the Show Opener, Set I, First Set Closer, Set II Opener, Set II, Second Set Closer, Encore, and a bonus post on the band’s rare Third Sets, in effort to understand better what comprises a Phish show. We’ll look at some of the various patterns that can be found within each of these segments of a show, and try to organize these patterns as best we can. The goal is not to come to some sort of conclusion about what a specific Phish show is, but rather to explore the various directions the band chooses to go with each of their shows. This is not a means to rank the best shows versus the weakest, instead it is trying to find the points of connection in all of their shows, while also pointing out the multitude of differences that comprise them. Hope you guys enjoy these posts as we continue the long slog towards 03 July.

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As of 01 January 2013, Phish has played 1650 shows. Within those shows they have played 750 unique songs (98% of their total catalogue). On average they’ve played roughly 22 songs a night. Yet out of these 750 unique songs, 22 songs/show, and 1650 individual shows, they have only used 206 of them as openers – just 27% of their total catalogue. Of these 1650 shows, 750 songs, and 206 openers, two songs have far-and-away reigned supreme as the band’s chosen openers: “Chalk Dust Torture” with 89 appearances, and “Runaway Jim” with 87 appearances. The two classics just teem with the feeling of a Phish show. From the raucous angst, and pent-up adrenaline of “Chalk Dust,” to the dreamy and bouncy, summertime gem, “Jim.” These two songs head our first subsection of openers known simply, as, “The Classics.”

I. The Classics

The following songs are those that were meant to open a Phish show. No one is ever surprised to hear any of the following songs open a Phish show. Yet no one is ever perturbed when any of them opens their show. (Well, except for “Sample,” of course) It’s as if these songs were written to open every single show the band played. They’re there to send a shot of energy into the show through a referential moment of nostalgia and sentimentality. If anyone ever wanted to pass on the music of Phish to an isolated tribal society, there’s a strong chance, they’d play a show that started with one of the following songs. Combined, the following eleven songs have opened 546 different Phish shows. If you go on a ten-show run, you’ll likely see three shows that open with one of these songs.

Examples: ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ ‘Runaway Jim,’ ‘Buried Alive,’ ‘Golgi Apparatus,’ ‘Llama,’ ‘AC/DC Bag,’ ‘Wilson,’ ‘My Friend, My Friend,’ ‘Possum,’ ‘Sample In A Jar,’ ‘Punch You In The Eye’

These songs are so ubiquitous as Phish show openers, that crafting any list of classic shows that stemmed from these openers is useless. 12/31/1991, 03/20/1992, 02/20/1993, 08/14/1993, 12/31/1993, 07/13/1994, 12/29/1994, 06/22/1995, 06/26/1995, 12/31/1995, and 12/07/1997, are just a few classic shows that have been graced by these openers. If you’ve been to multiple shows, chances are you’ve seen these songs open at least one of your shows. Most of these songs are a part of the core staple of songs that people are introduced to Phish through. Also, what further separates these songs from almost every category that follows, is that they’ve held strong throughout the band’s evolving career, through various styles, regularly opening shows in every era. They simply are the classics for a reason.

II. The Compositional Surprises

Phish’s origins reside in the classical, the compositional, the theatrical, the thematic. Having been raised in a vibrant musical home that featured a children’s songwriter in his mother, Trey was raised to love Broadway musicals. Further schooling from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s Administrator, Ernie Stires, opened Trey’s mind into the possibilities of blending rock music with classical structures. What resulted was a plethora of structured songs that have come to be regarded with near-unanimous praise by Phish fans. Spanning their entire career, the following songs are some of the best that Phish has ever performed. Yet many of the songs have rarely found their way into the opening slot at a Phish show. The song with the most appearances leading things off is “The Divided Sky,” with only 18 appearances. Thus the title of their section: these songs are always a welcome surprise whenever the band chooses to use them as a show opener.

Examples: ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘The Curtain,’ ‘David Bowie,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself,’ ‘Reba,’ ‘Stash,’ ‘Guyute’

Like the section that preceded, these songs just sound like Phish. From the sublime and organic melodies of “Divided Sky,” to the harmonic dissonance, and ultimate peak of “Bowie.” Each of them comprises the multiple influences and ambitions of the band’s music. Yet, each is received with a breadth of enthusiasm from a crowd when they’re selected to open a show. Each feels somewhat out-of-place in the regular opening slot, thus raising the stakes of their performance, and thus the overall show, simply from their appearance there. Just think of 08/13/1996, 12/30/1993, 02/26/2003, 06/19/2004, for examples of shows whose bar was immediately raised by one of these songs opening. Yet even if the show proves to be forgettable following one of these songs opening, the mere appearance of them leading off, is a highlight in and of itself.

III. The Predictable Classics

Like the previous two sections, the following songs are Phish classics through and through. They ultimately define Phish, whatever way you cut it – even if a couple of them are covers. Yet what differentiates them from the first section, is that these songs are greeted with an almost expected applause when played, rather than collectively unite or surprise a crowd. They usher in a Phish show in a predictable fashion, and are generally called upon midway through tours, when the band is in rhythm.

Examples: ‘Suzy Greenberg,’ ‘Funky Bitch,’ ‘Rift,’ ‘My Soul’

While certainly not songs that anyone openly complains about, nor actively hopes not to hear, they are not necessarily songs everyone’s angling for the band to open with. When it happens, it’s simply the sign you’re at a Phish show. Nothing more, and nothing less. And while 12/14/1995, 11/27/1998, 02/20/2003, and 01/01/2011 certainly turned out to be classics in their own right, their opener neither stole the show, nor made it what it was. They’re the kind of pattern-less songs that give nothing away about the show you’re about to see. It could be an all-time classic, it could be a throwaway. Either way, the song opening things up has little-to-nothing to do with the overall show’s make-up.

IV. The Ragers Out The Gates

There’s something about this next group of openers that just adds an extra dose of energy to any show, right off the bat. Any time these songs open, everything outside of the venue fades away, and for 5 – 10 electrifying minutes, the crowd is collective whipped up in a storm of dancing and yelling that kicks the show off just right. There’s something about being at a show where they open with one of these songs, for they take the already amped up atmosphere surrounding a Phish show, and immediately raise it a level higher.

Examples: ‘Down With Disease,’ ‘First Tube,’ ‘The Sloth,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Maze,’ ‘Carini,’ ‘Birds Of A Feather’

Capitalizing on the initial wave of applause from the crowd, the band wastes little time with these openers, seizing the collective adrenaline in the room, building to an initial peak that, by song’s end, makes it all-too clear: tonight, the band means fucking business. 08/07/2009, 08/31/2012, 02/22/2003, 10/31/1998, 12/09/1995, 06/14/2000, and 02/28/2003 were all beneficiaries of such openers. About the only thing one could say negative about said openers is that their show may suffer from a “too much – too soon” burst of energy. Yet, this is a rare case, for more often than not, when the band wants to greet the crowd with a song of this magnitude, chances are they’re feeling it that night.

V. The Immediate Jams

Most openers serve the simple purpose of ushering us from the state of pre-show, to that of the show. As has been seen in the previous four examples, the band has an arsenal of songs simply for this purpose. Yet, there are those nights, where the band has no use for bridging the gap between these two existential mediums. Nights when they’re feeling it to such a level that they just want to jump in deep from the get-go. On these nights – sadly they’ve become essentially non-existent here in 3.0 – there are no fillers, for the band is ready to jam from soundcheck. Seen most notably in their 1997 – 2004 improv-heavy period, on some nights the band is so keen on pushing their music into the unknown, that they simply can’t be bothered with a stereotypical opener.

Examples: ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Tweezer,’ ‘Wolfman’s Brother,’ ‘Ghost,’ ‘Piper’

A short list of songs that have been used to launch shows into the immediate unknown, of these five songs, only “Wolfman’s” is used as a semi-regularly opener any more, and even it fails to truly launch into the stratosphere. Still, 07/29/1998, 11/17/1997, 06/22/2012, 07/21/1997, and 12/29/2003 would have never been the same without their monumental jams that opened their shows. In 3.0, only 08/15/2010, 05/27/2011, and 06/22/2012 have experienced the sensation of a jam dominating the leadoff slot, only to be resigned to the fact that the band keenly aware of what position they played the song in. A legendary thing of the past, or a potentially mind-blowing surprise in the future? Only time will tell. Though with the way 3.0 has evolved over the past two years in particular, one wouldn’t be surprised if the band busted out a jam to open a show one of these days.

VI. The Laid-Back Easers

Sometimes, you just need to ease into a Phish show. Perhaps on a summer day when the weather is far to hot for raging, or maybe when the setting of the show is simply too idyllic not to, or even when stuck inside a concrete arena, wishfully dreaming of warm weather and sunshine. Certain shows just call for a mellow entrance. On these special evenings, when the band is more concerned with inside jokes that precision playing, are just feeling damn comfortable on tour, or feeling a bit fat and lazy after a barn-burner the night before, they’ll ease into a show, mellowing the crowd a tad, while displaying their dexterity in setlist craftsmanship. Working in the opposite manner of Section IV., the easers offer an opportunity to smoke a joint with your neighbor, and reflect on the simple joy of being at a Phish show. Far from bumming anyone out, or even killing any potential energy. The easers are almost as welcome a surprise as the ragers and the immediate jammers. While at times, they foreshadow an overall laid back affair, often times, they’re just a prelude to certain heat down the road. For when the band kicks things off with something downtempo, you can bet they’re in a great mood, and ready for a fun-filled show.

Examples: ‘Ya Mar,’ ‘Fee,’ ‘NICU,’ ‘Makisupa Policeman,’ ‘Limb By Limb,’ ‘The Squirming Coil,’ ‘Taste’

Substituting raw energy in favor of melodies, simple beats, and a focus on their musical capabilities, little can beat a summer night at a shed kicked off by one of the aforementioned songs. So long as you have good people around you, a decent amount of headies, and a full beer in hand, you’re good to roll. Extra points if you are rolling when they open with one of these gems. Just think of 07/11/2000, 06/18/2010, 12/29/1997, 07/17/1998, 07/26/1997, 07/16/1998, and 07/12/2003. Each of those shows was complimented by their mellow opener, as anyone in attendance will note. In the same way that some classic albums are best suited by a slower opening song, so certain Phish shows just deserve to be eased into.

VII. The Crowd Groaners

Up to this point in the essay, each section has been about various types of crowd-pleasing openers. From the absolute classics that just immediately make you feel like you’re at a Phish show, to the elongated jams that say fuck it to introductions, and just get down to business. All of the songs that preceded this segment are generally received with resounding applause, and communal joy from all in the building. Yet, there are those openers that the band goes with from time-to-time, that, while they certainly work as openers, are rarely, if ever, met with the kind of fervent enthusiasm, one attends a Phish show for. Far from being bad songs, they’re just kind of meh. They do little to spark the flame at a show, and rarely if ever do they impact a show for the positive. If the show sucks, so the attitude goes: “well, they were just off from the get-go.” If the show happens to rule, ala 10/16/2010, “Kill Devil Falls” is remembered for being particularly hot out the gates. Often overlooked, and rarely memorable, these songs just usher in a Phish show because, well, one song has to.

Examples: ‘Julius,’ ‘Poor Heart,’ ‘Kill Devil Falls,’ ‘Bouncing Around The Room,’ ‘Heavy Things,’ ‘Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan,’ ‘Dogs Stole Things,’ ‘Farmhouse,’ ‘Crowd Control’

Now, as 07/23/1997, 12/02/1994, 10/16/2010, 06/16/1994, 12/04/2009, 12/28/2012, 07/10/1997, 12/07/1999, and 08/19/2012 will tell you, these songs are rarely if ever deal breakers on shows. They’re more than anything, a sign that the band is either trying to push a new album, or is unsure about the way they’re feeling about the show. Some shows take some time easing into. Sometimes, they just need to play a song, see how they’re feeling, test the mood of the crowd, see how the arena sounds, etc, before they can get to business. Still other times, these openers can be omens that a 06/06/2009, 08/10/2011, 08/15/2009, 07/26/1999 is about to be played. Either way, these songs mean little in terms of energy, and most fans would simply prefer not to hear them open any show they’re at.

VIII. The Rare Gems

The next two sections are, without question, most fan’s favorite – and most preferred – ways to kick off a Phish show. Sure, an age-old classic, a compositional legend, a jam, even a downtempo easer is a great way to start a show. No one would ever complain about any of those types of songs initiating the separation between real life and a new Phish show. Yet, there is something about these next two sections. Whenever these songs are called upon, you just know the band’s got something bigger up their sleeve this evening. This section – The Rare Gems – are the kind of songs the band pulls out when they’re in one of their favorite venues, when they sense something special in the air, when they’ve been anxious for the show since the morning. While each of these songs has opened their fair share of shows, and thus doesn’t warrant any “WTF?!?!?” from the crowd, they’re still not your typical openers and are always greeted with great approval.

Examples: ‘Mike’s Song,’ ‘Dinner And A Movie,’ ‘Tube,’ ‘Cities,’ ‘Loving Cup,’ ‘Brother,’ ‘Free,’ ‘Meat,’ ‘The Mango Song,’ ‘Soul Shakedown Party,’ ‘The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony’

From 11/22/1997, to 08/16/2011, and 08/14/2010, 03/01/1997, to 06/24/2004, 06/21/2009, and 06/08/2012, 07/25/1999, to 08/08/2009, 07/03/2011, and 04/05/1998, all classic shows, all kicked off by the above songs. Adding an extra dose of energy, history and, aura to each show, the rare gems are the kinds of songs that one cannot expect to hear open their show. When they do open a show however, they immediately conjure up excitement and energy in the same way the ragers do, yet here, without using up energy on hose. They are some of the most effective openers the band has in their arsenal, in that they can guarantee to ignite a crowd in a quick frenzy over their simple presence and placement. Regardless of the rest of the show, one should feel lucky whenever they’re fortunate enough to attend a show where this is how the band makes their entrance.

IX. The ‘Holy Fuck’ Immediate Classics

Nothing else sums up the sensation of, and the element of surprise that’s ever present at a Phish show quite like these songs. They’re the songs you’d never dare hope to hear open a show, for the mere suggestion will forever display you as an outsider, a noob. These are the songs, that, when, and if, you’re lucky enough to hear them open a show, you should rejoice immediately, put your fucking cell phone away, get off PT, and just enjoy the damn show for what it is. Almost always ushering in an immediate classic, their appearances in the leadoff slot is so rare, that when they’re graced to the front of the lineup, you just know the band is in the mood to get zany, and dig deep. They’re the kinds of songs that result in loss of self control, brazen hugging with your neighbor, and a collective liftoff for all in attendance. They’re the kinds of songs that just make you scream, ‘Holy FUCK!!!!’ upon their appearance. They’re the immediate classics, no other way around it.

Examples: ‘Alumni Blues -> Letter To Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues,’ ‘Fluffhead,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Harry Hood,’ ‘LaGrange,’ ‘Col. Forbin’s Ascent -> Fly Famous Mockingbird,’ ‘Emotional Rescue,’ ‘Harpua,’ ‘Run Like An Antelope,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise,’ ‘Ha Ha Ha,’ ‘Sanity’

Ask anyone in attendance at 06/25/2010, 03/06/2009, 09/22/1999, 12/11/1999, 08/12/1998, 08/17/2011, 11/21/1997, 06/19/2011, 09/01/2012, 10/21/1995, 06/30/2000, and 03/08/2009, and they’re sure to tell you the same thing: they were blown away, made speechless, by the opener the band chose. Few could have, let alone, would have, ever predicted that when the band walked on stage they were going to play one of the above songs. So rare, they have combined to open just 51 Phish shows – less that 3% of all the shows ever played. They are the immediate classics for a reason. What more can you say? If you’ve caught one, you just know.

X. Gone By The Way Of Time

Sometimes you’ve just gotta shake things up. As things evolve, certain habits, certain routines, certain fallbacks have to fade away. Same goes for music. The music that worked for you five years ago, may not work for you today. Just won’t get you to that same place it once did. As Phish evolved from a group of college-pranksters playing bars, to post-punk, neo-psychadelic jammers in theaters, to rock stars dominating some of the nation’s most prestigious arenas, so their setlists evolved to reflect their current interests/passions/direction. As a result, many of the songs that were once considered reliable openers, just don’t fill that slot anymore. This isn’t to say that the following songs won’t ever open a show again, for they certainly could in the anything-goes, 3.0 era. Yet, it is telling that not a single of the following songs has opened a show since the 10/17/1998 Bridge School Benefit Show. While each of these songs was once known as an opener, their time has come and gone. Though few would ever complain if they were ever called up to the leadoff spot in the near future.

Examples: ‘The Landlady,’ ‘I Didn’t Know,’ ‘Carolina,’ ‘Split Open And Melt,’ ‘Cavern,’ ‘Sweet Adeline,’ ‘Slave To The Traffic Light,’ ‘Take The ‘A’ Train,’ ‘The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday -> Avenu Malkenu> The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,’ ‘Don’t You Wanna Go?’

Each of the above songs has opened at least three Phish shows, proving their worth in the opening slot, yet each found their own death: passed over by newer songs, the band’s jamming instincts, and the classic openers that have always seemed right for the spot. 04/25/1994, 10/28/1994, 10/17/1998, 06/24/1997, 04/23/1992, 03/16/1993, 11/05/1988, 06/01/1990, 04/06/1991, and 06/14/1995 respectively, served as the final show for each of these openers. While one couldn’t argue about the power a “Split Open And Melt,” “Cavern,” or “Slave” opener would posses, nor the sublime beauty of “TMWSIY” initiating a show, or even the gimmicky brilliance of bringing “The Landlady” out for one last dance, sans-“PYITE.” Yet, for whatever reason, the band has chosen to move on without these in the lead spot. Perhaps one day, they’ll unveil a “Slave” to open a half-empty show in Detroit and everyone will lose their shit. Until then…

XI. The One-Off’s

Each of the previous ten sections of openers featured songs that had opened at least two – and most times, at least three – Phish shows. However, there is a very special list of songs that have only opened one Phish show, only to then be forever cast to the middle/end of the line-up, or forgotten about entirely. Eighty songs total – 38% of all total songs used as openers – these songs share a special bond as the one-off wonders that both made us scratch our head, and sent us into euphoria at their very presence. From the oddball covers – ‘1999,’ ‘Amoreena,’ ‘C’mon Baby Let’s Go Downtown’ – to the out-of-place rotation standards – ‘Character Zero,’ ‘I Am Hydrogen,’ ‘It’s Ice,’ ‘Meatstick’ – the songs were thrown out as the opening to a show, and then, either never played again, or immediately moved back to their rotational slot. Comprised of songs that perhaps feel out of place opening a show, one can’t escape the notion, that the majority of these songs would send fans into a frenzy if they were ever at a show that opened with one of them.

Examples: ‘A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,’ ‘After Midnight,’ ‘Big Black Furry Creature From Mars,’ ‘Catapult,’ ‘Character Zero,’ ‘Foreplay/Longtime,’ ‘Garden Party,’ ‘Horn,’ ‘Meatstick,’ ‘Ramble On,’ ‘Seven Below,’ ‘The Birdwatcher,’ ‘Trenchtown Rock’

Thanks to the fact that just under half the total songs the band has used as openers have been one-off’s, combined with the fact that most Phish fans have seen more than 10 shows, chances are, most fans have caught at least one of these songs at one of their shows. Chances are they didn’t even know it was a one-off opener when it happened. Some of the songs are shrouded in mystery – I simply assumed “Gotta Jibboo” must have opened a show or two in 2000 when it opened 06/13/2010. Yet, more often then not, it’s clear the band is playing a one-off – especially when it’s a cover – in celebration, or recognition of a specific event surrounding the show – typically a holiday/anniversary. Regardless, 06/17/2004, 10/26/2010, 08/08/1993, 05/12/1994, 07/03/2010, 07/12/1999, 12/31/2012, 12/05/1995, 10/23/2010, 08/01/1998, 04/16/2004, 06/28/2012, and 08/11/1998, were all granted an extra dose of the good stuff right off the bat. Armed with more regularity than one might imagine, the one-off’s are a clear example of the sheer pleasure and enthusiasm Phish has had through the years in keeping their fanbase on it’s toes night in and night out. While some of the openers work, and some fall flat on their face, what matters is the sense of surprise that the band approaches the majority of their shows with. Few places is this seen clearer than the one-off openers.

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The bridge between our real lives and a Phish show, the opener is a sometimes precarious medium by which the band ushers us into a collective world of energy, happiness, and a seemingly limitless supply of the unknown. With a vast collection of original material, the band has only used 27% of said songs throughout 30 years to open their 1650 unique live shows. Yet each song opens each show in such a way that it strikes different feelings, and sets the tone of a show in it’s own unique way. Thus concludes our first of an eight part series, breaking down Phish’s live shows. Next up is the First Set.

Thanks everyone for reading! Hope y’all enjoyed the write-up! Please leave a few thoughts about the essay!

The Best Of Phish – 2009 – Part I

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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 I today is the Jams, look for Part II later this week. Enjoy! –

Walking out of Coventry was a dark and dismal scene. Like the days immediately following a horrendous battle, everyone had the same shell-shocked look on their faces. Nobody had won. Everyone was a casualty in some way. That churning, grinding feeling inside — WTF just happened? Phish was done. That’s all we knew. Trey looked like he was a few hits away from the grave. Page was in tatters after the one-two punch of his marriage and band ending. Mike and Fishman handled it the best, but in the end, looked like ghosts, unable to fully explain to the legions of fans how grateful, yet sorry they truly were.

The mud became the focal point for everyone almost immediately. Somewhat forgotten with the onset of music some 36 hrs earlier, now, following a disastrous “final show” all fans could think about was “how the fuck am I going to dig my car and all my shit out of this mud and get the fuck away from this farm!!!!!” Moving through the aching crowd, I walked with my two best friends to Newport. Six miles away, we hoofed it for a couple hours, figuring it to be the better option than to try and hitch a ride. We’d ridden in with two guys we’d met on PT. Not much for fans, they were going up there based on a one-show experience in 1999, figuring they ought to see what the fuss really was all about. After 24 hrs of traffic, a day spent stewing in the rain, and an unquestionably sloppy 08/14/2004 set III, they packed up and high-tailed out.

As it was, here we were, at 19, walking with everything we had on our backs, through the night, past hordes of strung-out wooks, angry vets, crying fairy’s, screaming babies, custy-ass NEsterners, and cynical PTers vocally chiding over the faux-Gamehenge, the debauched “Glide,” the fucking “Walls Of The Cave” opener (?!?!), the sexy bump, and numerous other faux pas the band had committed over the course of the weekend. We arrived at the Newport bus station around 5am, bought tickets to Albany, and slept.

Not even 20, my favorite band gone. Eight shows – not one on the epic level I’d heard on tapes, one festival – an asterisk, a footnote to the band’s glorious history – it was all I’d ever have to hang my hat on phishdom. Even worse was the way they went out; it was a completely different band from what they’d been ten years earlier. Totally unrecognizable in every regard. They’d allowed themselves to be succumbed by the scene. They’d been the cause of their own demise. They’d given up the dream. It would be up to their fans to pick up the pieces.

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On 1 October 2008 Phish announced what everyone had been anticipating for months: they would reunite on 6 March 2009 at the hallowed halls of Hampton Coliseum. In the year prior, much of the aggression towards Phish had cooled. Following Trey’s DWI in December 2006, many had given up hope that the band would ever reunite. And as Trey began a 14-month drug rehabilitation stint, the band became somewhat shrouded in shadows for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Emerging a completely changed man, Trey sought out rebuilding his life. A poem from Tom Marshall on his 43rd birthday – the first in years, and the eventual lyrics to “Backwards Down The Number Line” – spawned his first post-rehab song. From there, Trey got back to the grind of writing songs, now focused, driven, and sober. 2008 brought a reunion of sorts as the band appeared on stage together for the first time since Coventry, while accepting their Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jammy’s – an award show they essentially created a niche for. During the Rothbury festival that summer, Mike invited Fish and Trey on stage to play “She Said, She Said.” And a quote made it’s way around the internet by which Trey claimed willing to forgo one of his testicles for the chance to play “You Enjoy Myself” all day every day. Rumors swirled, and by fall Phish was back, at least in part.

When the finally hit the stage the following spring, they ushered in a new era of Phish by paying homage to the past. Both with the original linear stage set-up, and the “Fluffhead>Divided Sky” opener, they sent a clear message that the 3.0 incarnation would be about reacquainting themselves with their historical greatness. The Hampton weekend took on a feeling of a recital. Nearly 100 songs were played. First sets stretched on far past 90 minutes, and few moments of improv were even attempted. The message was clear: after 5 years apart, Phish would need some time honing their chops in the live atmosphere. Add to this an ethereal joy that emanated from the stage and the crowd, the sound of 3.0 Phish took on a far happier sound than the era that immediately preceded it. Phish was back, and that was all that mattered. For a while at least.

When Summer Tour came around, many were expecting the cobwebs that had accompanied many parts of Hampton to be a thing of the past, and for Phish to get down to the business of jamming again. To many-a-fan’s dismay though, the band was still not fully comfortable with themselves, each other, nor the massive crowds that adorned them, to let loose in ways many had expected. As a result, the June leg of the tour reflected much of the Hampton shows, in both containment and rust. In hindsight, it made complete sense. As this blog has written about at length, it took years of playing together for the band to attain the liner musical communication needed to jam effortlessly, and completely united, as they did in the best parts of 1995 and 1997. Five years apart, with little communication, one member in drug rehab, and another who reportedly sold his drum set, moved to the woods and didn’t think about music for a year, rust, and caution were bound to dominate Phish’s first year back on the stage.

Returning in late-July to Red Rocks for the first time since 1996, the band, for the first time in 3.0, looked like themselves again. Standout shows on 07/31 and 08/01 gave way to the groundbreaking Gorge shows, and the 08/14 Hartford show that still lives in infamy to this day. The summer also gave the band their first chance in years to toy with the minds of their fans. By uploading a map of the US to the Internet, they spent a month eliminating state-by-state in anticipation of a three-day Halloween Festival in Indio, California. Festival 8 combined two storied aspects of the band’s past in one glorious weekend as the band not only continued to push their improv further, but also played their first-ever acoustic set, and covered Exile On Main St taboot. The Fall Tour that followed was, while a step-back in parts musically, nonetheless, one more enthusiastic stamp on the band’s return, as they toured their NE home-turf to raucous crowds, culminating with a three-night return to the world’s most famous arena – Madison Square Garden.

Closing out the year with a four-night run in Miami, the band peaked on the 29th and 30th, displaying both dexterity and a comfort on the stage that had been missing throughout much of the year. Setting their sights on 2010, Phish ended 2009 on a high note. The multitude of inconsistencies of the early part of the year behind them, they were ready to embark on a year in which the music they created would be the sole focus. While 2010 would bring it’s own share of issues, the greatness attained in the latter part of the year would not have been possible without the groundwork laid throughout 2009. Up and down, sure, but 2009 is, more than anything, a unique peak into a band trying to both regain their footing, and crafting raw, untested, and wholly original music all at the same time.

As with the 2010, 2011, and 2012 recaps, I’ve assembled a list of ten shows and ten jams that standout as the best of the year. Along with these selections, there are three honorable mentions to each. These are not simply jams/shows 11-13, but rather foundational jams and shows with which the band grew, yet didn’t crack my top ten. The lists are comprised chronologically like the last few years, thus reserving the title “Best Ever” as subjective accolade. Here’s to the original year of 3.0 Phish!

The Best Of Phish 2009

Honorable Jams

Phish Concert

“Sand” – Camden, NJ – 06/07/2009

The first show and the first jam where everything felt right again. After a week of subpar shows, and questionable jams, Phish opened up the second set of their return to the ghetto of Philly with a proper jam off a song that had gone virtually unplayed since 2000. Wading through the “Sand” theme for the first nine minutes, Trey initiated a shift from the minor the major at 9:20, and off they went. Building the jam into a more rock-oriented space, the band transformed the ever-present groove of the song into a peaking monster. A far cry from the thematically redundant jams that had come to defined it in the latter 1.0 era. Passing through a groove-ladend, rhythmic segment from 13:30 – 16:25 the band – Page and Trey especially – proved they still could specialize in the kind of dance-heavy melodies that had become like musical crack to many fans. Concluding with a near-5-minute peak, the jam was a celebratory revival of all things Phish: diverse, surprising, explosive, and communal, the “Camden Sand” – as it’s come be to known – was all fans needed to know the band was back, and, in time, would fully reclaim their title of “The Best Damn Band In The World.”

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“Bathtub Gin” – George, WA – 08/07/2009

Deep in the heart of the best show of 2009, Phish dropped a rare – for 3.0 at least – second set “Bathtub Gin.” Had we known at the time it’d be – thus far – the last truly extended “Gin” of 3.0 it might have been savored a bit more. Yet, four years on, this jam remains buried as one of the underrated gems of 2009. Flowing lackadaisically from the song proper, the jam takes on the laid-back feel of many-a second set “Gin’s.” As opposed to their set I, type-I ragers, which rely on peaks more than exploration, typically when “Gin” appears in a second set, the possibilities are limitless. Coming on the heels of an ambient-laced “Sneakin’ Sally,” and a calypso-infused “Light,” the “Gin” was the third major jam of the night. Flowing with ease from the aforementioned slinky trot to a minor-keyed groove fest at 10:05, the jam took on a Summer ’98 feel as it emphasized sonic quality, and glossy rhythm, over notes and shred. In stark contrast to much of the Summer 2009 tour, it is Anastasio who shines through, constantly infusing the jam with fresh riffs and ideas, complimenting the prodding bass of Mike, and the swirling clav from Page. A foreshadow of the following evening’s massive “Rock & Roll” is probably its lasting purpose. Yet, when Trey signals yet another downshift at 13:46, calling upon a thick, Mike-heavy rhythm section to close the jam out, it cements itself as one of the loosest, organic and redeeming jams of the year. Deliberate without being forceful, fluid without being lost, the Gorge “Gin” is one of the many signs of 2009 that Phish still had it, even through the ups and downs.

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“Wolfman’s Brother -> Piper -> Joy” – Indio, CA – 10/30/2009

After a first set that was essentially used to clear the cobwebs after two months off, Phish got down to business at Festival 8 with a psychedelic combo of “Wolfman’s Brother” and “Piper,” the latter of which bled effortlessly into the contemplative resolution of “Joy.” Uniting the two jam vehicles for only the second time since 10/31/1998, the jam gave fans their first peak into the band’s evolving jam style – heard in the Festival’s soundcheck – since the monumental August Run. Following a similar funk/rock pattern it’s been pigeonholed into throughout 3.0, “Wolfman’s” took all altogether different course at 7:33 when Trey began building walls of sound, rather than push the dance rhythms further. Evolving into an ambient soundscape, the jam was highlighted by Trey and Page’s conflicting musical ideas; the battle of melody v. noise. While 2009 was chock full of ambient fades from one potential jam to another, the 8 Wolfman’s was one of the only one’s to truly feel like an organic jam, rather than a thoughtless segue. Eventually, Page’s ideas pushed through to fruition as Trey signaled “Piper,” and Page keyed in the “Piper” melody on his synths before moving to the baby grand. Like “Wolfman’s,” “Piper” initially took a more traditional approach in it’s jam, focusing on splintering guitar work from Trey, and heavy, rhythm breaks from Mike and Fish. At 7:39 though, Trey and Page moved the jam into a more lighthearted, melodic realm, bringing back memories of the calypso-infused “Light” from the Gorge. Injecting vocals into the jam, it felt at once as the calm from “Wolfman’s” storm, as it allowed fans their first breath after an absolutely rollicking start to the second set. Flowing into the nuevo-Phish ballad, “Joy,” the jam resolved in organically beautiful fashion, capping off one of the most memorable segments of music from the weekend, and the year overall.

The Top Ten Jams Of 2009

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“Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> Cavern” – George, WA – 08/07/2009

Dropped for the first time since 08/12/2004, and only the third time since 2000, the mere sight of “Sneakin’ Sally” towards the end of the first set of the 08/07 Gorge show was significant in and of itself. Yet when the band emerged from the song’s vocal jam they embarked on an eleven minute jam that pushed aside the notion that their jams lacked creativity in 3.0, sculpting one of the most memorable jams of the era. Initiating a refined approach, Trey compressed his tone and began playing melodic notes in a scattered fashion. Mike soon followed suit, and they were off on a whirlwind of back-and-forth melodies before Trey signaled a complete thought at 7:01. The jam appeared to be it it’s limit when it began the fade into ambience, but the band was keen to explore at the Gorge, and in their first jam of the weekend, they displayed how far they were willing to go to create a lasting jam. Akin to the “Light” jams of 08/07/2010 and 07/08/2012, once the band found themselves in a melodic beatless territory the jam became an unstoppable force. Perfectly complimenting the setting sun behind the stage, the jam wove through ascending and descending melodic lines, guided wholly by Trey. Switching to the baby grand, Page followed Trey through his winding  and lyrical playing bringing the jam to a resounding peak before fading into the set closing “Cavern.” Far more intuitive and creative than many of their jams in their first six months back, the Gorge “Sally” stands the test of time, and is still generally regarded as one of the best jams produced in 3.0.

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“Light -> Taste” – George, WA – 08/07/2009

After debuting the song out of a segue from a resounding “Tweezer” in Boston, “Light” only made one other appearance on 2009’s Summer Leg I, again as a segue, this time, from “Rock & Roll.” Hinting at the song’s improv potential, it descended into a menacing swirl of noise before fading into “46 Days.” After five shows on leg two it had yet to make an appearance forcing many to think if the song had been shelved for tinkering. When it reemerged in the second slot of 07 August’s set II, it’s course in Phish history was about to be altered forever. Passing through it’s structured post-song jam, the song averted it’s previous noise-induced destiny, and instead, made way for a more melodic take on the song. Initiated by Page and Trey at 8:07, the song wove through a splintered thematic journey, moving with ease through various passages and melodies. Settling on a path at 10:06, the band moved into a jam laced with a Caribbean feel, transforming the mountain surroundings into a idyllic beachside island party. Using the same type of lyrical musicianship that defined the Festival 8 “Piper,” the “Light” became contemplative, while also proving impossible to sit still through. Bleeding right into “Taste” the performance and segue put a stamp on the song as one of the most impressive of the summer and bore new life into the band’s jamming. A song that has grown to be regarded as THE standard-bearer of all 3.0 jams, the Gorge “Light” gave us the initial glimpse of all the potential the song possessed.

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“Rock & Roll -> Makisupa Policeman” – George, WA – 08/08/2009

Up until 2011, one could predict with a fair amount of accuracy what songs would be jammed each night. Throughout most of 2009 and 2010, Phish remained in the box with much of their catalogue, only routinely allowing a fairly strict rotation of “Down With Disease,” “Drowned,” “Tweezer,” “Light,” “Piper,” “Ghost,” “Crosseyed & Painless,” and “Rock & Roll” to be their vehicles for major exploration. Eliminating much of the spontaneity that had been their name-stay throughout the 1993 – 2004 period, moments of pure, unadulterated exploration typically came in expected pieces. Yet when they did truly hook up – regardless of the song used to catapult them into the unknown – the results were typically sublime. Case in point: the 2009 Gorge “Rock & Roll.” A melodic beast, led in large part by Trey and Page, the jam spends much of it’s 23minutes locked into a loosely-based “Rock & Roll” theme. Highlighted by a brilliant section of interplay by Trey and Page from 10:53 – 18:27, in which the two ride an unshakable foundation from Mike and Page, trading licks and ideas in ways that can only result from close to thirty years of partnership. Building into a rising peak, the jam returns to the “Rock & Roll” chorus proper, before seguing into a bubbly “Makisupa,” that featured Trey and Mike trading instruments. Unique from essentially all other ’09 jams in its clear avoidance of the doctored rhythmic breakdowns and ambient fades that plagued one too many jams throughout the year. The Gorge “Rock & Roll” displayed a keen musicianship and communication in it’s ability to build a lengthy jam off the song’s melody, and sustain it for close to 25min.

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“46 Days” – Columbia, MD – 08/15/2009

Perhaps the most underrated piece of music the band has played in all of 3.0? Overshadowed by the dreadful Merriweather Post show it appeared at, “46 Days” emerged in the middle of set II to little-to-no fanfare. A throwaway show just took an awkward turn….Here comes another 5 minute filler….Why play “46 Days” right now????….were all thoughts from fans at the show, listening to the stream, and following the setlist online. Little-to-no attention was paid to it, the show got shat on the next day on PT, and most forgot about the jam by the time Fishman covered Katy Perry the next night at SPAC. Yet going back, it’s clearly one of the top tier jams of the year, and still, one of the lasting moments of 3.0. Wasting no time, Trey initiates a dive into the unknown at 4:38 with an ominous riff, latched onto immediately by his bandmates. Abandoning “46 Days” completely, the jam straddles darkness and light like few jams at the time were capable. Latching onto new ideas with ease, the guys followed each other in a veritable musical dialogue, wasting little time, and not allowing any idea to become stale. A foreshadow of many of the jams that would become commonplace in 2011 and especially 2012, the “46 Days” was one of those rare moments during the early parts of 3.0 where the band showed clear signs of their former selves. Building to a resounding peak from 9:35 – 11:13, Trey directed the jam even further into a beat-driven territory, that peaked again before fading away. A fully realized jam that moved beyond the thematic realm of “46 Days” with little effort, and displayed an innate communication, it was a shining moment in an otherwise forgotten show, and a hidden gem in the 3.0 era.

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“Light -> Slave To The Traffic Light” – Indio, CA – 11/01/2009

Just when it seemed Festival 8 would go down as the first Phish festival since The Clifford Ball without a massive foray into the netherworld, Phish busted out “Light” for the first time since the Gorge, taking the song deep into uncharted territory. Initiate by Page’s switch from the baby grand and organs to his synths at 6:49, the band moved away from the loose melody of the jam, and into more spacious, noise-based territory. Where in many of the jams of the summer Trey would fade immediately upon Page’s cue, thus signaling another song, here he layered above Page with staccotoed notes, while Fishman moved into more beatless territory. By 9:46 they’d all jumped onto the noise jam, culminating in a five minute segment of improvisation based around ambient washes and atypical soundscapes. Like a peek into the Phish of old, the 8 “Light” harkened memories of the IT “Waves” in it’s emphasis on nothingness. Hinting at “What’s The Use?” the jam ultimately bled seamlessly into “Slave To The Traffic Light,” capping off an incredible holiday weekend, and sending everyone off to Fall Tour with high expectations. Though the song wouldn’t be fully realized until nearly a year later in Berkely, CA, the 8 “Light,” like the Gorge version before it, displayed the near-limitless possibilities for the song, and proved the band still knew how to throw down at a fest.

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“Seven Below -> Ghost” – Albany, NY – 11/28/2009

It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. The moment when Phish would cut the shit, quit trying to be a tight rock band, and just fucking jam. Eight shows into a Fall Tour that felt more like a step back than the great leap forward everyone expected it would be, the band stepped on stage for the last set of their Albany Run, and threw down 50 minutes of uninterrupted improv. While the jam segment has been surpassed time and again in the years since, the “Seven Below -> Ghost” is still regarded as one of the most cherished moments of 3.0 for the ubiquitous celebration that emitted from the arena, and on the message boards in the days following it. Sparked by the band’s refusal to follow Trey back into “Seven Below,” Trey finally relented at 8:06, and the band was off. Stumbling a bit out the gates, the band sounds stubbornly determined to actually jam until 12:10 when the ideas start coming with ease. Reminiscent in ways to their ’94-’95 jams, by which they’d throw ideas at a proverbial wall to see which stuck, once they latched onto a strutting rhythm, garnished by a bubbly melody, they jammed without restraint straight through “Ghost.” From the moment Trey initiated a thematic riff at 16:17, the band built to a massive peak, culminating from 20:33 – 21:03 before shifting into a loose and ominous fade into “Ghost.” If “Seven Below” had taken a few minutes to sort itself out before discovering greatness, the band was so loose upon entering “Ghost,” that they went straight for the jugular. Coming out the gates with a thick groove, the jam initially resembled “Cool It Down,” before teasing “Seven Below,” and then moving into a strikingly melodic jam. Beginning an initial ascent, the theme peaked at 9:43, before turning sinister and grungy. After spending a few minutes wandering from various themes, the jam settled in it’s most thrilling segment, a seven-minute jam off the theme of “Maze.” Peaking repeatedly, it became one of the most raucous, hectic, and powerful “Ghost’s” we’ve ever heard. Fading into an ambient section, the jam concluded to a standing ovation, as fans everywhere let the band know how appreciative they were of them throwing everything on the line. Unsurpassed in many ways until August 2010, the Albany “Seven Below -> Ghost” is still regarded by many as one of the top jams of 3.0.

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“Down With Disease -> Piper” – New York City, NY – 12/03/2009

Cueing up the best set of Phish’s 3.0 return to MSG, the band threw down a classic combination of two of their best jam vehicles, resulting in one of the more enamored segments of the year. Riding out a ferocious Type I onslaught off the “DWD” theme, Trey directed the jam into open territory at 9:31. Weaving with fluid motion, and full-band-connectivity, the jam straddled rhythmic grooves and Trey-led builds in ways many jams during the Fall Tour simply couldn’t. Seriously, it is some of the best lead work Trey did all year long. At 14:48 Trey cues a descent from the jam’s surging pace, resulting in five minutes of gorgeous ambient interplay. Highlighted by Page’s choice synth work, and Trey’s blissful interjections, the jam is a shining example of the less-is-more approach, as the band clearly let the jam take hold of their playing, rather than try to force ideas. Flowing with ease into “Piper,” the jam took on a more focused approach, opting for a full-on rhythmic assault, less exploratory in nature, yet still quite compelling. Like a refined version of many of the attempted percussive jams of the tour, the “Piper” concluded near-30 minutes of improv in raging fashion. After a lackluster night one at MSG, the “Down With Disease -> Piper” was the kind of moment many had been expecting Phish’s return to The World’s Most Famous Arena to be full of. Kicking off a monumental set of music, it was yet another transformative moment for the band in 2009.

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“Tweezer -> Prince Caspian” – Miami, FL – 12/29/2009

For as talented as each member of Phish is, their best jams almost always come from a place of innate musical simplicity. Case in point: The Miami “Tweezer.” One of the best jams of 2009, yet another step forward for the band in terms of communication, flow, and patience, and a jam that displays little of the bells and whistles that comes with each member’s abilities. Flowing out of the “Tweezer” theme into a sultry funk groove, vocal harmonics are incorporated, a “Manteca” tease is tossed out, Gordo is given a proper spotlight, and a bit of start/stop jamming is implemented, all in the first 13 minutes. 2009 “Tweezer’s” were good. So good that no less than six were considered for this list. What separates this “Tweezer” from the rest of the pack however, is the near-five minute ambient jam that concludes the piece – hinting at “I Am Hydrogen” – before segueing beautifully into “Prince Caspian.” Devoid of the Trey-ADD moments that cut short so many promising ambient jams in 2009 and 2010, the “Tweezer” is given room to breathe, resulting in a contemplative, and fully realized jam. The “Caspian” that follows is akin to many of the revitalized performances throughout 3.0 of the once-hated buzz-kill. Prominently featuring Trey front-and-center, it’s granted the patience of the “Tweezer” with the distinctly arena rock flair it was written for. Though not as esoteric, nor shape-shifting as many of 2010 “Caspains” would turn out to be, the Miami version proved a proper cap to the year’s iconic “Tweezer,” as the overall segment properly sums up the band’s comfort and pleasure with playing together, as could be heard throughout their Miami Run.

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“Back On The Train -> Wading In The Velvet Sea” – Miami, FL – 12/30/2009

Props to the most random union ever to be found on one of these lists. The transcendent 17-minute “Back On The Train” would not have been possible were it not for a mistake by Trey at 6:18. Upon returning to the song after the solo, he riffed the “BOTT” rhythm, but with minored chords. Forging ahead the band diverted their return and directed the jam into uncharted waters. While “Back On The Train” had been extended twice prior – 06/14/2000 and 02/28/2003 – never had it left it’s structure with such ease, yet determination. Moving into an ambient terrain, the jam initially felt like more of an extended outro, until Trey latched onto Fishman’s rising drums at 10:49. Building into a rock-based climb, the band embraced the unknown with open arms, recalling the 1997-esque Hendrix-style guitar attacks that once defined their jams. Flowing through a number of segments of sonic interplay the jam eventually came to rest before segueing into “Wading In The Velvet Sea.” Though not as rewarding in it’s peak as it could have been, the jam is notable for both the absolute rarity of a near-20 minute jam off “BOTT,” and for it’s clear display of the comfort and zealousness the band was enriched with throughout the Miami Run. A run that proved to band and fans alike just how far they’d come, jams like the 12/30 “BOTT” were essential is displaying how successful they could be when they unleashed into the unknown. It’s no surprise either, that, following this performance, nearly every “Back On The Train” in 2010 is a must hear.

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“Ghost -> N02” – Miami, FL – 12/31/2009

My pick for The Jam of 2009, the Miami “Ghost” is fully connected piece of Phish that completely displayed how far the band had come in just nine months, and gave everyone reason to look towards 2010 with high expectations. From the moment the song ends, Gordo flipped on his envelope filter, crafting a bubbly counter-melody to “Ghost’s” groove, pushing the song into a dance-based territory. Sustaining the trance-yness of Gordeaux’s bass lines, Trey stuck to the background, refraining from injecting too much, rather allowing the jam to build organically. It was a telling sign of his improvement throughout the year, in that Phish’s best jams in 2009 typically came from moments when he installed a less-is-more philosophy. Since their return, not coincidentally, nearly every failed jam has resulted from Trey trying to do too much. At 6:09 Trey cues a switch to a more rock-based jam, yet Mike stays within the realm of the bouncy, dance melody he’d constructed. Resulting in a strangely organic segment where in which Trey and Page were clearly building towards a traditional peak, while Mike was bouncing from thought to though, and Fishman – much improved from his mid-2009  low point – was sustaining both the rock build-up, along with the dance beats. Pushing into a more melodic segment at 8:20, the band continues the tension & release build, while directing the jam into it’s most rewarding part. Trey takes the lead with some really stunning and gorgeous riffs, all the while layering his thoughts under his immediate licks. While it sounds at 10:56 like they’re going to break down and fade the jam out without any true peak, Trey uses the strutting groove to his advantage, continuing his masterful and melodic onslaught. Some of his most creative playing of 2009 ensues, as he directs the jam into a dream-like territory before teasing “Auld Lang Syne.” Driving the theme into a demented realm, Trey signals the sirens and the band cues up “N02” for the first time since 07/13/1999. A perfect counter to a “Ghost” that had everything, featured each member with equal clarity, and displayed an innate communication that had been gaining steam throughout their return. While certain jams were longer, some raged harder, and a few went deeper into the unknown, the Miami “Ghost” reigns as the jam of 2009 for it’s simple display of the four members abilities and the linear musical communication required for them to reach that place. A jam that still holds up some four years later, it’s a testament to how far they’d come in such a short time.

Click Here For Part II – The Best Shows of 2009

The Best Of Phish – 2012

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“To the victor goes the spoils.” – Sen. William Macy (1832)

When Phish announced their return on 1 October 2008 – four-plus years away from the world of sold-out arena’s, fully connected jams, and everything that comes with the Phish scene – there was both a collective sigh of relief and, resounding celebratory roar from anyone who’d connected with the band, and had hoped the demise of Coventry would not be the last time Phish would grace the stage. Four years of worn out Phish tapes, unfulfilling solo efforts, and quotes from Trey about his willingness to give up a testicle to play “You Enjoy Myself” all-day/every-day had made the fan base hungry, and desperate, for a do-over of the 2004 conclusion of Phish. What few realized, however, was just how long and arduous a process it would be for Phish to retain the sense of who they were when they finally returned to the road in the Spring of 2009. Five years removed from touring – not to mention at least ten years since their last serious practice session – Phish was noticeably rusty upon their return, and used much of 2009 and early 2010 as a back-to-basics campaign to relearn what it meant to be Phish. Determined to rebuild from scratch, the early part of 3.0 featured an inconsistent band who was accused by many of returning simply as a last grasp for a paycheck.

Gone were the unending jams of 1997-2004, gone was the zany spirit that had defined them in their early years, gone was the unpredictability that made every show a must-see, must-listen event. In it’s place was a band that appeared unsure of itself, intimidated by their fan’s expectations, and unable to consistently muster up the energy and magic that had come to be expected with a Phish show. First sets became extended recitals where the band sought to relearn their entire catalogue. Second sets – which had long been an opportunity for the band to dive head first into the unknown – were suddenly predictable. Featuring a handful of rotating “jam vehicles” to kick them off, yet provided little in the way of substantial experimentation, they almost always concluded with a string of high-energy classic standards, that, while certainly were fun to hear live, retained little replay value for anyone interested in listening to their shows. All the more frustrating was the sense that anytime Phish would play a show that was unanimously regarded with praise, they would essentially take two steps backwards by following it up with a dud. The entirety of 2009 and the June 2010 run is littered with shows that many loved, and still love – 06/07/2009, 06/19/2009, 08/01/2009, 08/14/2009,  11/24/2009, 11/29/2009, 06/18/2010, 06/27/2010 – only to be followed by shows that were among the weakest offerings of this or any era of Phish. Worst of all, Trey Anastasio, Phish’s leader – far and away the most talented member of the band during their best years – had seemingly forgotten how to play guitar. It appeared throughout the first 18 months of 3.0 that the Trey, who had so often taken charge in jams – who’s playing had inspired Carlos Stantana to coin the term “Hosing” to describe his style of jamming – had disappeared in a cloud of drug abuse and rehab. Replaced by a fumbling, awkward, mistake-prone guitarist who couldn’t get his tone right, cut jams short, ignored his bandmates, and valued contained energy over exploration, the band felt tame simply because their leader was leading with an emphasis on timidness. When they closed out the first leg of their June 2010 run with a high-energy, yet forced string of shows in Alpharetta, GA, there were more questions surrounding the direction of the band, than at any time in their career, save April 2004.

And yet, throughout all of the ups and downs, throughout all of the just bad shows, throughout all of the “Sand> Horse” moments that seemed to hang over Phish 3.0 in the first year and a half since their return, there were still many fans who held on to the belief that the entire process was a calculated one of rebuilding, one that would reward in droves once the band regained their footing. There had been too many signs of greatness – the “Fluffhead> Divided Sky” to beckon in 3.0, 06/07/2009, the gimmicks and jams that engulfed 06/21/2009, the entire Red Rocks run, the music created at the Gorge, Hartford, Festival 8, “Seven Below -> Ghost,” 12/30/2009, “Tweezer Reprise Reprise,” 06/27/2010, “Fuck Your Face” – for 3.0 to simply be a cash-grab. Phish had always been a band that relied heavily on a tight-looseness (loose-tightness). And this in-the-moment creativity was best delivered through practice, repetition and communication, something that the band hadn’t had in at least five years. Clearly they were aware that their music wasn’t on the level that many had come to expect from them. Clearly they were working towards a bigger goal. Clearly they hadn’t reunited, toured and spent so much time relearning their entire catalogue for nostalgic purposes. Clearly, Phish wasn’t a Greatest Hits band that would return to the stage only to be a stale shell of their former self.

The first sign that those who stood by the band’s 3.0 direction were right came on 08/06/2010. In the intimate Greek Theater Phish took a typically standard First Set “Cities,” latched onto a groove from Mike, and locked into a jam that could have been plucked right out of Summer 1998. The second set featured a blissful take on “Simple,” directing the ambient section of the song into a bubbling melody, resulting in some of the most organic music created in this era. “Light” from 08/07/2010 followed the trend, and from there, the band crafted easily the best tour of 3.0 at that time. Surpassed immediately by the Fall Tour that saw the band traverse throughout the Northeast in some of the most intimate and archaic venues they’d played since the mid-90’s, Phish rediscovered their zany spirit, and infused nearly every show with humor, energy, and intricate jams. Due in large part to the Ocedoc guitar that Trey received from their former sound technician/guitar craftsman, Paul Languedoc, prior to the August 2010 tour, Trey’s tone became much less abrasive overnight, and his playing immediately evolved into a more rhythm-oriented style, emphasizing the lead only when necessary. Concluding the year with a triumphant five-show run through Worcester, MA and New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Phish had clearly turned a corner in 2010, allowing all to look ahead to 2011 with gleeful excitement, rather than cautious optimism.

The overall sense surrounding 2011 is that while Phish made some of the greatest leaps forward in reasserting their brilliance, they still lacked the consistency that had defined them during the peak of their career. While there were moments that were far and away better than anything they’d been capable of during the first two years of 3.0, they were still just as prone to abandon exploration in favor of energy, and at times, could certainly be accused of mailing in performances, such as their incredibly lackluster 2011 NYE Run. Featuring a number of ups and downs, the year started off with a brilliant run in Bethel Woods, NY, and jam for the ages from “Down With Disease -> Fluffhead -> David Bowie,” outside Detroit. Yet, the June tour took the route of the 2009 and ’10 runs, sputtering as it moved along, and featuring a string of forgettable shows that left many questioning where the source of their initial energy had come from. The Super Ball IX Festival over Fourth of July Weekend on the other hand, featured the most important moment in 3.0 – “The Storage Jam” – followed by the best show of 3.0 in 07/03/2011, and helped to reinvigorate the band with a sense of wonder, and an intrigue in the unknown. As Trey said, “it kind of reignited us to open our minds a little bit.”

When they returned in August at the wide-open Gorge amphitheater in Washington, they kick-started a tour that would feature some of the darkest, most exploratory, and surreal jams since 2004, most notably the 08/05/2011 “Rock & Roll -> Meatstick -> Boogie On Reggae Woman,” 08/09 “Light” and 08/15 “Waves -> Undermind.” Closing out the tour with a celebratory, innovative and overall victorious three-day run at the intimate Dick’s Sporting Goods Park just outside of Denver was a send off to a summer that, while it had it’s moments of uncertainty and mistakes, had seen Phish take more risks and reap more rewards than any point during 3.0. All the more bizarre then, their New Year’s Eve Run at Madison Square Garden turned out to be a complete dud aside from the tepidly exploratory and genuinely fun opening show on the 28th. Without a Fall Tour to bridge Summer and the holiday’s, Phish sounded directionless, and for the first time in all of 3.0, truly appeared to be going through the motions. 2011, which had begun with such optimism, with so much joy over the state of the band, ended with a resounding sense of skepticism, backed up by the fact that 2012 was going to be a “lite touring year for the band.”

As the two summer tours were unveiled in the late winter, the offerings left much to be desired for they featured a string of shows in oft-played Northeastern venues, followed by a two-week scattering of one-off shows in August in-between a three-night stand in San Francisco, and the second-annual Labor Day Tour Finale at Dick’s. What’s more was the confirmation in April that the band would not release any more tour dates in 2012, meaning even fewer shows would be played in 2012 than 2011, only further worrying a fan base that the best of 3.0 had come and gone in a flash. Oh, but we were oh so wrong…

In one of the best scene’s in Phish’s 2000 documentary, Bittersweet Motel, Trey responds to a question about their Fall 1997 tour, saying, “Nobody’s paying any attention, and we’re having the best tour we’ve had in years.” This quote could aptly describe the Summer 2012 tour in the same way it did the legendary Fall 1997 outing. While sure, people were excited for the 2012 return of Phish, the sense of anticipation, the unbridled celebration, the endless discussions on what would happen this tour were all but absent from the Phish community in the weeks leading up to 7 June. For the first time Phish would begin a tour in 3.0 without much fanfare, hype or expectations. And in legendary fashion, they responded with easily the best tour they’ve had in years. Putting to rest the myth that their June runs were there to get the kinks out, the band spent a week rehearsing prior to their opening run in Worcester, MA. Resulting in an experimental-heavy tone to the start of tour, a string of rare songs, and standards in unique placements, the tour kicked off with an anything-goes spirit that wouldn’t let up once throughout first leg.

Turning conventional wisdom on it’s head, the tour featured a band excited about it’s music, excited about playing with each other, energized, and using every show as an opportunity to dig deeper than they had in all of 3.0. The growing pains were officially gone, this was finally the Phish we’d been waiting for for four years. To those who had hung around and believed even when the band threw a 06/20/2009, 08/15/2009, 11/25/2009, 06/17/2010, 10/15/2010, 10/24/2010, 06/10/2011, 08/10/2011, 12/30/2011 in our faces, 2012 was a revelation, a year of spoils to both band and fans alike. With a stated goal of playing 200 unique songs throughout June, the run was infused with rarities and a sense that any song could – and would – be played at any show. Add to it, the comfort the band felt with each other again, multiple jams would pop up in various shows, reigniting the band’s sense of exploration, and thus proving “The Storage Jam” was a turning point, rather than a on-off experiment. Combining these two aspects of Phish resulted in a tour for the ages, one that spilled over into August and featured a number of standout shows with a more polished approach to the wildness of June. Culminating with the Dick’s shows, the band once again capped off the tour with a celebratory run that emphasized exploration, delivered the best jams of the year, the best shows of the year, and gave 07/03/2011 a real run for it’s money.

In the same sense as the rest of 2012, Phish returned to MSG for their NYE Run far more prepared than they had a year earlier, resulting in a much better overall run. While it is clear that they do in fact benefit from a Fall tour, the band still managed to infuse their MSG shows with a determined and driven energy, stoked the exploratory fire lit at Dick’s, and gave all in attendance – and all listening at home through the much-refined couch tour – a reason to truly be happy about the state of Phish in 2012. As we look forward to the 30th year of the band’s career, there’s no reason anyone should question the direction, drive or focus of Phish. If it wasn’t clear before, it’s more than obvious now that the trials and errors of 2009 – 2011 have all but been overcome, and that Phish is in a healthier state than they’ve been since 1995.

As with the last two years, I’ve assembled a list of ten shows and jams that standout as the best of the year. Along with these selections, there are three honorable mentions to each. These are not simply shows/jams 11-13, but rather foundational jams and shows with which the band grew, yet didn’t crack my top ten. The lists are assembled chronologically just like the last two years, thus reserving the title “Best Ever” as a subjective accolade. Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season! Happy New Year! Can’t wait to see what 2013 brings to the world of Phish!

The Best Of Phish 2012

Honorable Jams

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“Boogie On Reggae Woman” – Worcester, MA – 06/07/2012

The first night of the 2012 Summer tour brought an array of surprises – from the bookending “Buried Alive” performances, to the quantity of jams in Set II including “Carini,” “Ghost” and “Harry Hood” – perhaps the greatest being the jam that emerged from “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” A song that’s been let out to run only a handful of times, it’s typically been called upon in 3.0 to showcase Mike’s bass talents, and inject a show with a dose of fun and energy. Yet on 7 June, after emerging from a rather demented and atypical “Ghost,” Trey jumped all over the “Boogie On” jam, building a raucous theme, and highlighting his reacquaintance with the “Hose.” All energy, all rock, all Trey, the Worcester “Boogie On” is neither the most exploratory, nor most original number of the night. What it is though, is that moment when everyone in the Phish scene realized the band had really brought out their big guns in 2012, a foreshadowing of the surprises and the overall greatness the band had in store for us fans during the summer of 2012.

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“Limb By Limb” – St. Louis, MO – 08/28/2012

For a song that had grown increasingly stale, and predictably tepid, the “Limb By Limb” from 28 August represented a revolutionary moment for Phish. Appearing deep in one of the best second sets of the year, it seemed initially that it would be used as a breather after the “Chalk Dust Torture -> Frankie Says -> Undermind -> Sand -> Walk Away” jamfest that had opened the set. Yet, once the band broke from the song’s structure, they left the theme completely, as Trey led them down a completely unique and untapped path, totally devoid of “Limb By Limb’s” original concept. At first, dark and rhythmically plodding, the jam built upon a celebratory melody, leading to a full band peak, which ultimately hinted at the jams that would emerge from “Light” and “Sand” at Dick’s the following weekend. Featuring fully realized licks from Trey, structurally supportive bass from Mike, a resounding organ fill from Page and proactive drum riffs from Fish, it was the kind of energized tension and release jam that had been the band’s bread and butter for so many years. Returning here, in type-II fashion to compliment one of their best lyrical songs – at a critical point during the show, and tour – it only further stoked the furnace that was burning within the band in 2012.

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“Runaway Jim > Farmhouse” – Commerce City, CO – 08/31/2012

The first of five jams and two shows from the legendary 2012 Dick’s Run to appear on this list. When Phish left the structure of “Runaway Jim” to open the second set of 08/31/2012 – only the second time they’d done so since 2000 – everyone in the venue, and watching from the comfort of their couches knew it was on. The first set of the show had featured two fully realized jams in “Carini” and “Undermind,” a first set “You Enjoy Myself,” and a setlist that read: F.U.C.K.Y.O.U. Thus when they opted to see how far from home Jim would rome, rather than keep him chained up as he’d been for all of 3.0, it was a clear sign that the Dick’s run wouldn’t follow suit with the various criticisms and assumptions that had plagued much of the last four years of Phish. A jam that moved from it’s theme into a much darker realm, the Dick’s “Jim” might be most notable for it’s recovery from potential miscommunicated disaster from 12:00 – 12:24, resulting in an improvised funk-throwdown, the sorts of you just don’t get this side of 1998. Sveltely flowing into a melodic segment of psychedelia, the band displayed a desire to push jams beyond their typical resting places, a theme which would come to represent the entire run. Landing in “Farmhouse,” it appeared as though the gimmicks from set one were over. Yet, the band had other ideas. Needing to fit R.F.A.C.E. in the second set meant they had to keep the jams rolling, and once the theme of “Farmhouse” ended, they embarked upon a segment of Ambient washes and spacious noise that brought everyone back to the phenomenal “IT Waves” from 2003. An unlikely pairing of jamming partners in 2012, “Jim > Farmhouse” represented the realization at Dick’s that the Phish we thought we’d figured out, had once again duped us. A sense us fans were more than happy to accept.

The Top Ten Jams Of 2012

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“Birds Of A Feather -> Back On The Train -> Heavy Things” – Atlantic City, NJ – 06/15/2012

Born out of Phish’s 1997 linear musical communication renaissance was a song that felt snagged from the discography of The Talking Heads. For it’s first seven years in existence, “Birds Of A Feather” worked a lot like “Chalk Dust Torture” in that it could alternate with ease between an exploratory jam vehicle and a short, punchy, determined rocker. Then 3.0 came around and the song’s edge seemed to be gone for good, as every version followed the same pattern of thematic soloing, high-energy payoff, end. At first it seemed the 15 June version was destined for the same short, unnoticed death, something which would have hailed an immediate end to a promising show. Yet, Trey held the final note of the song’s chorus out just long enough for his band members to latch on and ride the song out into the unknown. What followed was a blissful, weaving jam which displayed full band communication, startlingly gorgeous leads from Trey, and an intricate and patterned melody that sounded as though it had been composed. Building through melody, rather than noise or energy, the jam took on a sound much akin to the “Birds” jams of 1999 and 2000, retaining the song’s theme, and exploring within it. When Trey moved into a minor key the jam took on a harder feel, resulting in a rhythm-based jam that led seamlessly into “Back On The Train.” Remaining totally within the structure of the country-twinged song took nothing away from the segment, for when it bled into “Heavy Things” the triumvirate of the late-90’s songs had flowed so perfectly together, that the concept felt pre-planned. Ushering in the era of musical suites that seemed to defined 2012’s jamming structure, the “BOAF -> GBOTT -> H Things” was one of the early highlights of summer which reminded everyone that the successes of Worcester were not all for naught, regardless of the mediocre Bonnaroo show.

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“Twist” – Cincinnati, OH – 06/22/2012

Emerging out of the murky fade of “Kill Devil Falls,” “Twist” was a welcome addition mid-way through Set II of a show that had produced an absolute classic First Set – full of gimmicks and killer playing – and a Second Set that through “DWD> Guelah, Kill Devil Falls” was in danger of fading into predictability. A song that had been used almost solely as an vehicle for seedy improv in 1.0 and 2.0, “Twist” had become more of a slow-shuffling blues number in recent years, exciting fans more with it’s possibilities, rather than it’s delivery. Keenly aware of this, Page switched from his strutting piano fills to his organ at 6:13, followed immediately by Gordo hovering over an ominous tick-tock bass riff, solidified by Trey’s minored trills which dove the song into the nether world for the first time since Coventry. What followed was perhaps the darkest, seediest and evilest jam Phish had produced since the 08/15/2004 “Split Open & Melt -> Ghost.” If the knock on Phish has been that they can’t get dark in this era of drug-free, happy-Phish, then the Cincinnati “Twist” threw this theory into an abandoned pit and let it rot to the glee of everyone watching and listening. Highlighted by noise-induced guitar washes and a sinister duel between Mike and Trey from 8:54 – 10:20, the jam never rose above the underworld it embodied over fourteen minutes. A moment when Phish proved their ability to summon the demons of the past, the Cinci “Twist” would reemerge at least in theme in a number of other dark jams throughout the year, all of which owe a debt of gratitude to it for breaking the barrier.

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“Mike’s Song -> Simple> Light> Weekapaug Groove -> Seven Below” – Burgettstown, PA – 06/23/2012

Throughout their career there has been a suite of music that has hung around with their constantly evolving styles, and has reflected the current state of the band like few other songs could. “Mike’s Groove” as it’s affectionately referred to by their fan’s is a shape-shifting union of songs which can appear as simply as “Mike’s -> Hydrogren> Groove,” or “Mike’s -> Simple -> Hydrogen> Groove,” or, can morph into a completely separate entity, book-ended by “Mike’s” and “Groove,” but containing ideas within that can only be found within the confines of an era. Notable examples can be found on 12/30/1993, 06/22/1994, 12/01/1995, 12/07/1995, 12/31/1995, 12/02/1997, 08/15/1998, 08/06/2010 and 10/26/2010. The lone show of 2012 in Burgettstown, PA joined this elusive group with a “Groove” in Set II that seemed to sum up everything about the modern era of Phish that makes it special. Following a punctual “Mike’s,” “Simple” faded into the Ambient wonderland it’s become in 3.0 as Mike, Page, and Trey all built a wall of blissful noise, and Fishman continued to prove his worth with off-beat rhythms that kept the music constantly on it’s toes. The undisputed jam-champion of 3.0, “Light” once again was featured as the centerpiece in this suite and show, as Trey and Page guided it from a noise-ladened swamp into a calypso-themed dance-off, and finally a demented, rhythm-based soiree. One of the more connected versions in a year full of them, the “Light” itself is truly one of the top tier pieces of music produced by the band this year. “Weekapaug” picked up right where “Light” left off, diving head-first into staccatoed beats, Moog-induced rhymes, ambient washes, and a deconstructed fade to the 2.0 rare-classic, “Seven Below.” While not the extended journey it is constantly capable of being. “Seven Below” served as a proper conclusion to the suite, with it’s “Weekapaug” inspired jam, hints at the underworld, and contemplative pace that allowed everyone a chance to breath after the music that had just transpired. A fully realized fifty-minute suite of music the “Mike’s -> Simple> Light> Groove -> Seven Below” was one of the best overall moments of an incredible June run, and an incredible year of Phish.

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“Crosseyed & Painless -> Light -> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> Crosseyed & Painless” – San Francisco, CA – 08/19/2012

On the third night of their massively hyped, yet so far underwhelming, run at the intimate Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, Phish not only put on one of the best shows of the year, but clicked for a 45-minute suite of music that rivaled the Burgettestown “Mike’s Groove.” Featuring the first truly extended and experimental “Crosseyed & Painless” since 05/27/2011, the set moved with determined precision, weaving through historical Phish themes, and crafting a fully-realized union of songs that would have highlighted any show in any era. Dedicating the final 7:45 of “Crossyed” to ambience, the band engaged in a jam that flowed with ease from one theme to another, pushing itself seamlessly from its origins. Featuring some of the best Mike, Page and Trey interplay, it was a blissful foreshadowing of the music that would come to dominate Dick’s and the best parts of MSG. “Light” took on a more aggressive role, initially teasing “Crosseyed” before moving into a fully-loaded, rhythm-based groove session. Packed tight with a rock breakdown from Trey and Page, Trey once again took the lead and engulfed the jam with fully-formed lyrical phrasings on the Ocedoc, harkening back to the aforementioned Burgettstown “Light.” Hinting at the “Tweezer Reprise” that was still on the table, Trey directed the torrid jam into “Sneakin’ Sally” crafting the second memorable version of the legendary cover of the Summer. From funk-rock origins the song descended into a groove that resided in the Set’s opener and before one realized it, suddenly they were back in “Crosseyed & Painless,” thus completing a massive sandwich of high-energy and exploratory music that achieved literally all the goals set out for by the band when they returned in 2009. A flawless segment of music, the “Crosseyed -> Light -> Sally -> Crosseyed” highlighted one of the shows of summer, and reignited summer tour as it moved into the Southeast.

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“Undermind” – Commerce City, CO – 08/31/2012

Deep in the best First Set of 3.0 came a top tier jam and immediately solidified the Dick’s run as the best of the last four years; even before it ever really got going. Completing the First Set F.U.C.K.Y.O.U. gag, which would spill over and engulf the entire show, “Undermind” took a wholly unique route the second it left it’s theme. Led entirely by Trey, the jam reflects the massive improvements he made as a guitarist throughout 2012, and is the culmination of the efforts he made all summer, starting with the Worcester “Boogie On.” Flowing through various themes before reaching an ethereal peak that closed out the set, it’s a perfect piece of improv, something Phish simply wasn’t capable of on this level prior to 2012. Whereas in the previous three years, any Trey-led jam would follow the route of predictable rhythm-based breakdowns, followed by ambient washes, the Dick’s “Undermind” has fully-formed ideas based around unique riffs that all sounded composed upon first listen. When it was happening, I was unaware of the gag occurring, simply thinking I was witnessing a totally different band than the one I’d listened to play a contained and predictable show in Oklahoma City two nights earlier. All’s I remember thinking is that this would be the perfect jam to end the set on, that we didn’t need a “Golgi,” “Character Zero,” or “Stealin’ Time” set closer proper. The fact that gag-or-no-gag, the band instinctively knew what they’d accomplished with this jam and decided to close out their phenomenal opening set at Dick’s with it, only goes to show just how important it was to them then. It’s replay value and ability to still surprise, proves it’s importance to all of their fans now.

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“Chalk Dust Torture” – Commerce City, CO – 08/31/2012

The eternal Phish-rebellious-rocker, “Chalk Dust Torture” has been here before. One of the most unique numbers in their repertoire, the song spent the majority of it’s first eight years as a punctual rocker, used to open/close a show, or infuse one with a massive dose of adrenaline. Then, out of nowhere it started randomly being used as a launching pad for exploration. The 07/10/1999 version which spilt into “Roggae,” the 08/03/2003 masterpiece that seemed to fulfill the idea of what it would be like if “Chalk Dust” were originally written as a 25-minute song, and the elongated 08/09/2004 version that’s probably the only memorable part of the Hampton ’04 show. In 3.0 it returned to it’s historical place of a doors-busting rock anthem, used seemingly to open every other show in 2009 and much of 2010. Yet, when it opened Set II of 06/25/2010, something changed, the paradigm shifted, and the exploratory possibilities were renewed. Call it fate, call it destiny, but when the band stretched the 08/25/2012 version into “What’s The Use?” and the 08/28/2012 Set II opener into a spacey jam that ultimately landed in “Frankie Says,” everyone could sense that the version played at Dick’s would fully embrace the unknown. Thus when it was placed in the “C” slot of the F.A.C.E. part of the gag, only forty minutes into the second set, the band jumped all over a version that ranks up there with 07/10/1999 and 08/03/2003 as the best versions of the song ever played. Like the “Undermind,” Trey is in control of the entire jam. Yet what separates the “Chalk Dust” is his willingness to rely on off-beat rhythms in a way he simply couldn’t in years past; to fully communicate with his band members as they shifted through a multitude of themes. Each member shines in this version, and every fan owes it to themselves to watch the performance of it for themselves. You’ve just never seen Phish fully embrace the unknown and exploration in 3.0 in the way they do throughout the “Chalk Dust” jam. Surreal still now to hear it, something about Dick’s just brings whatever it is, out of Phish.

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“Prince Caspian> Light” – Commerce City, CO – 09/01/2012

After playing an impossibly brilliant show to kick off their run at Dick’s over Labor Day weekend, it seemed pretty certain that Phish just wouldn’t be capable of topping their 08/31 performance. Even a “Run Like An Antelope” opener, followed by a “Tweezer -> Fluffhead” in slots 3 and 4 didn’t seem up to the immeasurable task asked of them on this evening. Thus when Trey abandoned a potentially promising “Golden Age” jam for “Prince Caspian” it felt like a confirmation that they just couldn’t quite summon up what was needed to even attempt to push the show into the conversation with the “Fuck Your Face” show. Then, out of nowhere, “Caspian” went where it hasn’t gone in years; or, since at least 1999. Trey hooked onto a Hendrix-esque concept and drove the song far below the waters, infusing it with sinister lead, before breaking it all down, only to re-build the atypical jam with torrential focus and drive, summoning the demons. Brutal, evil, raging, it was the kind of jam that just wasn’t commonplace in Phish 3.0. It felt badass. It felt like the Phish of old where one couldn’t predict where or when their moments of inspiration would emerge. Fading into “Light” – the 3rd version of the song on this list this year – it was clear Phish was going to at least take a stab at competing with the previous night. And compete they did. A performance for the ages, “Light” – which had never crossed the 20-minute mark in it’s storied career as Phish’s go-to 3.0 jam vehicle – built through multiple, fully-conceived themes to a peak that’s honestly difficult to communicate in writing. Stylistically altering the fates of two remaining jams on this list, the Dick’s “Light” combined the exploratory zealousness of 2012, with their high-energy, Tension & Release jams of lore, patiently building over time to a peak that nearly tore the Colorado soccer field down. Sustaining the peak from 20:10 – 22:45, the venue was overwhelmed in the expansive lights, fist pumps, engulfing cheers, and shit-eating-Trey-Grins that have long represented the band’s most memorable moments. Honestly, a jam that needs to be heard to believed, this was Phish fully connected, refusing to abandon an idea when they knew they could sniff greatness, building towards a moment of ethereal bliss that felt like a brilliant cap on the summer, and confirmed that Dick’s was no one-show-pony.

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“Sand -> Ghost -> Piper” – Commerce City, CO – 09/02/2012

On the final night of their 2012 Summer Tour, Phish opened up their second set with a triumvirate of music, featuring three of their most historically brilliant jam vehicles. After playing two of their best shows of the year – and of the era – the band opted to treat the First Set of 09/02 like a Greatest Hits album, throwing down high-energy classics rather than traversing the unknown like the previous two nights. With so many songs still on the table, it seemed a certainty that they’d treat the final set of Summer in the same manner. Yet, when they left the confines of “Sand” seven and a half minutes into the song, they kicked off 50 straight minutes of unabridged music, the likes of which ranked with the best of the previous two days. The “Sand” itself is incredibly notable for the sheer fact that – aside from the adventurousness of 12/13/1999, 12/31/1999 and 06/07/2009 – no version has ever left the structure of “Sand” quite like this. Building from a sublime state of ambient pause, “Sand” went the rout of “Light” as it built into an absolutely epic peak, thus transforming the trance classic into an arena rock anthem, before bookending it with the “Sand” theme. Not to abandon what they’d built over the first 25-minutes of the set, Gordo directed the band from the jam’s conclusion seamlessly into “Ghost,” the first version since Long Beach. Directing “Ghost” in much the same way it’s been used in 3.0, the jam built through high energy exchanges from Trey with Fishman, supported by throttling bass and obedient piano fills from Page. Where it really got interesting was in it’s final 2:30, as it faded into an ambient fade that featured some beautiful and patient interplay between Mike, Trey and Page – fully utilizing the Rhodes – before emerging in “Piper.” Torrentially building the energy back up, “Piper” came out with one of it’s more unique performances of the year highlighted by it’s final 3:30 that featured some of the best Trey and Page interplay this side of the 07/01/2012 “Light.” A trio of modern classics, jammed out to full potential, the “Sand -> Ghost -> Piper” capped off the summer in victorious fashion, ushering everyone out into the Colorado night; bellies full, blissfully stoned, eager for more Phish.

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“Tweezer -> Maze” – New York City, NY – 12/28/2012

The “Tweezer” we’d been waiting for all year from Phish. Fully embracing the style that was mastered over three nights in Central Colorado, “Tweezer” left the funky/bluesy comfort zone it had inhabited for much of 3.0, and for the first time in nearly ten years – including even the classic versions that have appeared on this list in years past – totally left the structure of “Tweezer” and carved out a new path in it’s unrivaled history. Flowing through fully conceived themes, “Tweezer” was the swift kick in the ass the MSG run needed after a painfully predictable first set. More than that, it immediately bridged the ideas of Dick’s with MSG, and proved that in 2012 – while literally everything produced this year was brilliant – there was a clear line between pre-Dick’s and post-Dick’s in terms of what the band was capable of. The final 11:45 are where the magic’s at, for when Page infuses the jam at 9:09 with a lilting piano fill, Trey latches on immediately, and off they go. Effortlessly blissfully, and suave improvisational mastery is one way to describe this new style of Phish; one which relies wholly on the communication they’ve built as a band over the past 30 years, embraces all of their styles, flows from one theme to another with ease, and emphasizes the sublime and ambient. Building to a satisfying peak, the MSG “Tweezer” followed suit with the concept established with the Dick’s “Light” and “Sand,” and forged a bridge between the modern, sub-tempo jams of 1997-2004, with their career-long dedication to Tension & Release. The sound of a band coming full circle, the “Tweezer -> Maze” used two classic Phish songs to open a Second set that helped to elevate MSG 2012 almost immediately from the catastrophic lows of their 2011 run.

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“Down With Disease -> Twenty Years Later> Carini” – New York City, NY – 12/30/2012

The musical peak of the 2012 NYE Run came at the start of the Second Set of the best show of the entire run. “Down With Disease -> Twenty Years Later> Carini” highlighted a forty-minute segment of music to kick off the best set of the run, and infuse the show with some much-welcomed evil Phish. In a year when “Down With Disease” stayed either noticeably contained, or failed to produce transcendent versions, the jam on 12/30 traversed as far from the structure of the song as any since 08/16/2011. Weaving through various segments of down-tempo, ambient bliss, the jam allowed for the band to just play, all to the delight of the MSG alum. While never producing any fully-realized sections of improv, what the “DWD” does better than any jam of the weekend, is display the diversity that Phish plays with now. Their jams are no longer long-winded, failed experiments that occasionally produce greatness, nor are they singular concepts that build through repetition. Instead, they are constantly evolving entities, which value shape-shifting, and melodically crafted music more than any previous era of Phish. Armed with 30 years of experience, there is no wasted space in Phish jams any longer. The one faux-peak of the jam came at 17:15 as Trey and Mike latched onto a simple, yet sinister riff, transforming MSG, for a moment, into a beckoning ground for the devil. A concept which would be fully realized two songs later, in “Carini,” the evil spirits that had invaded Phish so often in the late-’90’s and early-aughts returned with impassioned results. Fading into near silence, the “Carini” relied solely on industrial beats from Fishman, ambient washes from Trey and Page, and an all-engulfing bass from Mike. Summoning up the best noise they’d created this side of “The Storage Jam,” and doing their best Animals-era Pink Floyd impression, the jam goes deeper that the Cinci “Twist,” and is simply the evilest thing Phish has played in years. In an era when “Carini” has really stepped up as one of the premier jam vehicles, the 12/30 performance took the joke-metal song to completely new heights, unimagined when it was first performed back in 1997. A segment that will surely carry Phish fans through the long winter, “Down With Disease -> Twenty Years Later> Carini” will be hard pressed to be topped whenever Phish steps on stage again.

Honorable Shows

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DCU Center – Worcester, MA – 06/08/2012

Set I: Free, Kill Devil Falls, Roses Are Free -> Theme From The Bottom> Axilla I> Julius, Bouncing Around The Room, Maze, Bathtub Gin

Set II: Down With Disease&> Sand -> Nellie Kane, Mike’s Song> Makisupa Policeman+> Weekapaug Groove, Wading In The Velvet Sea, 2001#> Character Zero

Encore: The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony> Suzy Greenberg

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

+ The keyword in “Makisupa Policeman” was “Sour Diesel”

# “2001” contained a “Sand” tease from Fish and “Sex Machine” and “Mike’s Song” teases from Trey

On the second night of Phish’s 2012 Summer tour, the band threw down a solid affair that built upon the brilliance of the opening night of tour. Featuring a high energy First Set, and a fully-flowing, jam-heavy Set II, it was an all-around great show, one which helped to establish a base from which to build upon throughout the tour. Highlighted by a blissful jam out of “Roses Are Free” – the first “Roses” jam since Big Cypress” – Set I featured unique versions of First Set standards, not to mention the second “Free” opener in history. Set II flowed through moments of darkness and light, crafting a complete set that never let up. Featuring a funky, ’97-esque jam out of “DWD,” an all-time segue in “Sand -> Nellie Kane,” a bit of humor in the “Mike’s> Makisupa> Groove,” and a top notch 3.0 version of “2001,” the set left little to be desired by a band that sounded as if they were deep into a tour only two days old. The surprise encore of the classic “Oh Kee Pa> Suzy” pairing topped things off, and finished the run off with an old-school feeling. While Worcester II was forgotten by most by year’s end, when listening back, it provides a clear foundation to the brilliance that would become commonplace just a week later.

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Deer Creek Music Theater – Noblesville, IN – 06/28/2012

Set I: The Birdwatcher, The Curtain With, Fuck Your Face, The Old Home Place, Pebbles And Marbles, Weigh, Chalk Dust Torture, Wolfman’s Brother, Cool It Down, Tweezer#, Tela, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan

Set II: Mike’s Song> McGrupp And The Watchful Horsemasters> Back On The Train## -> Hold Your Head Up> Bike> Hold Your Head Up> Weekapaug Groove$, Prince Caspian& -> Waves, Bug> David Bowie###

Encore: Show Of Life> Tweezer Reprise

# “Tweezer” contained a “Fuck Your Face” tease from Mike

## “Back On The Train” contained a “Psycho Killer” tease

### “David Bowie” contained a “Bug” tease from Trey

$ “Weekapaug Groove” featured Trey & Fish switching instruments, and a drum jam between the two

& “Prince Caspian” was unfinished

By this point in Phish’s June leg of their 2012 Summer Tour, full sets had become so engulfed in the band’s determination to play 200 unique songs, that one had no clue what could or would be played during a single show. Calling upon their recital-type shows from 2009 and 2010, the band focused on songs during many of these shows. Yet, whereas in the past, the shows were full of heavy-rotation songs, in 2012 sets felt like putting Phish on shuffle, where any random song could appear. Probably the most complete, fully formed of these shows was the first night of Deer Creek. Featuring tour debuts tour in the first six songs of the set, plus “Cool It Down” and “Tela,” Set I was both unpredictable and unending, and helped to take the crowd’s mind off the torrid Midwestern heatwave billowing down on Central Indiana. Focusing heavily on songs, the only numbers in Set I to really move outside the box were a dance-heavy “Wolfman’s” and a peaking “Tweezer” that countered the temperatures for brutal heat. Set II is one of the most unique of the summer, featuring an elongated “Mike’s Groove,” an “HYHU” within the groove, and two phenomenal jams out of “Back On The Train” and “Waves,” the former which bled right into “HYHU.” Clearly in a playful mood, the “Weekapaug” featured Trey and Fish switching instruments, inspiring Trey to muse whether or not Phish would be a better band with this set up. The late-set “Waves” takes the medal for song of the night, emerging out of “Caspian,” producing an aggressively atypical jam that came close to making this list. Easily the best show of the Deer Creek-Alpine weekend, 06/28/2012 had just a bit of everything that was Phish 2012 all mixed together.

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Saratoga Performing Arts Center – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/08/2012

Set I: AC/DC Bag> My Soul, Camel Walk, Sample In A Jar, Wilson> Party Time, Gumbo, Nellie Kane, Driver, Foam, If I Could, Split Open And Melt> La Grange*

Set II: Axilla I> Light> Twist#, Kill Devil Falls## -> My Friend, My Friend& -> Swept Away -> Steep, Piper -> Free -> Kung> Harry Hood###> Cavern -> David Bowie

Encore: You Enjoy Myself####

* First “La Grange” since 22 September 1999

# “Twist” contained an “In-A-Gaada-Da-Vida” tease from Trey

## “Kill Devil Falls” contained a “Jeopardy!” tease

### “Harry Hood” contained a “Kung” quote

#### “You Enjoy Myself” contained a “Flashlight” tease from Mike

& “My Friend, My Friend” was unfinished

Closing out the first leg of Summer with a three-night run at SPAC, Phish produced two of the best shows of the year, the final of which produced a massive bustout, and a fully-flowing, jam-heavy Set II. Coming out the gates with a string of standards, Set I got a boost from a high-energy “Wilson> Party Time” pairing, and a surprise twist at the end when everyone who thought they’d be closing things out with a seedy “Split Open & Melt,” were instead treated to the first “La Grange” since 1999. The real magic, however, is in Set II: a high-octane, jamming set which saw both “Light” and “Piper” go deep. In between were masterful segues of unlikely pairings – “Kill Devil Falls -> My Friend -> Swept Away -> Steep,” “Free -> Kung> Harry Hood” – which elevated the possibilities of the set. Never relenting energy, yet never sacrificing exploration for such energy it was a masterfully atypical set that simply couldn’t have occurred with as much success during any other year of 3.0. Concluding with a noise-ladened segue from “Cavern -> Bowie,” it was the kind of set that displayed a band at the top of their game: relentlessly attacking their catalogue with precision and youthful excitement. Capping off the tour with the only appropriate song left, “You Enjoy Myself” closed out Leg I on a classic note, ushering everyone into a month of no Phish with jam-packed must-listen-playlists. After the best June of 3.0, Phish closed it out with a memorable run at SPAC, and a tour finale that foreshadowed the music that was still to come in August.

The Top Ten Shows Of 2012

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Bader Field – Atlantic City, NJ – 06/15/2012

Set I: The Sloth, My Sweet One> 46 Days> Camel Walk, Tube> Cities -> It’s Ice, Ginseng Sullivan, Stash, Simple> The Wedge, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, The Squirming Coil

Set II: My Soul, Birds Of A Feather& -> Back On The Train -> Heavy Things, Twist> Piper# -> Billy Breathes, Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> David Bowie##

Encore: First Tube#

& “Birds Of A Feather” was unfinished

# “Piper” and “First Tube” contained “Twist” teases

## “David Bowie” contained “Stash,” “It’s Ice,” “Birds Of A Feather,” “Simple” and “Ginseng Sullivan” teases

Night one of the quasi 2012 Phish fest (If there’s a Ferris Wheel it’s a festy, right? Right?) produced easily the most complete show of the weekend and immediately raised the bar from the brilliant opening shows in Worcester the previous weekend. Opening with the random trio of “The Sloth,” “My Sweet One” and “46 Days” was really all the indication anyone needed that the night was going to produce the kind of magic one hopes to catch at any Phish show. The First Set enveloped into a lengthy recital of rarities and unique combinations – “Camel Walk,” “Tube,” “Cities -> It’s Ice,” “Simple>The Wedge” – and all around excellent playing, including perhaps the best “Stealing Time” we’ve ever heard from the band. Wholly embracing the 200-song challenge, Set I was both the exact kind of comeback needed after the Bonnaroo show, and the kind of reassurance that the band wasn’t simply going to play 200 different songs throughout the month; they were going to craft wholly unique shows while doing it. Set II was simply perfect. The aforementioned “Birds -> BOTT -> H Things” made way for the late set “Twist> Piper -> Billy Breathes” which kept the Farmhouse-era jams unravelling, and produced a segment of music that barely missed this list. Infusing “Bowie” with various teases of songs played throughout the night only further solidified it’s placement among the top tier of the summer. A show that felt like one of the best shows of summer right when it happened, 06/15/2012 never relented it’s placement among the best, regardless what came after it.

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Riverbend Music Theater – Cincinnati, OH – 06/22/2012

Set I: Wolfman’s Brother> Peaches En Regalia, Shaggy Dog*> Runaway Jim#, Light Up Or Leave Me Alone, Wilson> Alaska, Stash, Llama, Buffalo Bill, Saw It Again -> David Bowie

Set II: Down With Disease&> Guelah Papyrus, Kill Devil Falls -> Twist##> Halley’s Comet> Sand -> Roggae, Carini> Chalk Dust Torture, Golgi Apparatus

Encore: Fluffhead**

* First “Shaggy Dog” since 29 October 1995

** First “Fluffhead” Encore since 3 November 1990

# “Runaway Jim” contained a “When The Saint’s Go Marching” tease

## “Twist” contained a “Eleanor Rigby” tease from Trey and a “Heaven On Their Minds” jam

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

A must-hear, top-tier show of the summer, the band let it all hang out on the third Friday of the June leg, crafting a show full of rarities, segues, gimmicks, and one of the best jams of summer. A “Wolfman’s” opener is always a welcome sign, for it produces a no bullshit intro to a show, bringing the house down before anyone has a chance to catch their breath. Followed by the always welcome Zappa-cover, “Peaches En Regalia” and the first “Shaggy Dog” since October 1995 immediately gave the show an air of superiority over the rest of summer thus far. The rest of the First set contained even more rarities with “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone,” “Llama,” “Buffalo Bill,” and “Saw It Again,” the latter three which were results of a Fishman gaffe when the band tried to go into “Poor Heart” and “The Moma Dance,” leading to Trey joking they apparently needed to play a song that started with drums so their drummer could keep up. The energy spilled over from the “Saw It Again” fade into “David Bowie” resulting in another solid version for the summer. Set II started out with an abandoned jam in “DWD,” a welcomed “Guelah,” and a make or break “Kill Devil Falls,” which was oddly placed in the middle of the second set. Fortunately, Trey extended the end of “KDF” over two minutes, resulting in stunning ambient waves that bled into the best “Twist” of 3.0. A “Sand -> Roggae” crafted the second unique “Sand” segue of Summer, and the “Carini> Chalk Dust” added some extra adrenaline to the end of the set. A unique blend of classics, jams, darkness and light, the show ended with the first “Fluffhead” encore since 1990, a placement that all but confirmed the band’s enjoyment in Cinci. The show of summer until SPAC night one, Cinci kicked off an incredible run of music throughout the midwest, and, reignited Phish with their love of the dark side in one of the best jams of the era.

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First Niagara Pavilion – Burgettstown, PA – 06/23/2012

Set I: Funky Bitch> Backwards Down The Number Line, Gumbo> Maze#, Torn & Frayed, The Moma Dance> Scent Of A Mule+, 46 Days, You Enjoy Myself##

Set II: Gotta Jibboo> Mike’s Song -> Simple> Light> Weekapaug Groove### -> Seven Below, Bouncing Around The Room> Julius> Slave To The Traffic Light

Encore: The Lizards

# “Maze” contained an “Eleanor Rigby” tease

## “You Enjoy Myself” contained a “Scent Of A Mule” tease from Trey

### “Weekapaug Groove” contained a “Divided Sky” tease from Trey

+ The “Mule Duel” featured Page on the Theremin

A night after raising the bar on Summer 2012 with a standout show that focused on bustouts and rarities, Phish played another gem in one of their storied venues, only this time, consisting almost totally of standards, which allowed their playing to totally speak for itself. With a First Set that appeared brutally bland upon initial glance, the band offered top-notch versions of “Maze,” “Scent Of A Mule,” “46 Days,” and the first First Set closing “You Enjoy Myself” since 07/13/2003. Interweaving teases, the theremin, and a fully-connected jam in the set closer, the show lived and died on the band’s performance, something that would come to fruition in the brilliant Second Set. Opening with the always welcome “Gotta Jibboo,” the set can essentially  be summed up in five songs: “Mike’s -> Simple> Light> Weekapaug -> Seven Below.” The aforementioned “Groove” is one of the standout suites of 2012 – a 50-minute sequence of communication, connection, and brilliant playing that joined the echelon of “Mike’s Groove’s” throughout their storied career. Foregoing the 200-song challenge for at least one night, Burgettstown 2012 was all about the performance. With little-to-no breaks in flow throughout, the show is one of the tighter shows of 3.0,  and combined with the standout jamming in Set II, is in a lot of ways modeled after a 1.0 type of show than anything we’ve heard from the band in the last 10 years. Rounding things out with a solid “Julius,” a sublime “Slave To The Traffic Light,” and a “The Lizards” encore which added a bit of humor when Trey forgot the lyrics, the show finished in classic fashion. More than anything, the show was a reminder to all that Phish has reached a point where they don’t need bustouts or rarities to craft a memorable show in 2012.

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Nikon At Jones Beach Theater – Wantagh, NY – 07/03/2012

Set I: Skin It Back*#> Possum##, Tube, Happiness Is A Warm Gun**, Mike’s Song -> I Am Hydrogen> Weekapaug Groove, Halley’s Comet> Axilla I> Ya Mar, Joy, Jesus Just Left Chicago> Backwards Down The Number Line> Golgi Apparatus

Set II: Chalk Dust Torture, Sand### -> Golden Age, Wolfman’s Brother -> Walk Away, Bug> Fluffhead####> The Wedge, Run Like An Antelope

Encore: Character Zero

* First “Skin It Back” since 29 July 1988

* First “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” since 31 October 1994

# “Skin It Back” contained a “Spanish Moon” tease

## “Possum” and “Chalk Dust Torture” contained “Skin It Back” teases

### “Sand” contained an “Izabella” tease

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

Jones Beach has produced some of the standout moments in 3.0. From their 2009 three-night run that allowed the band to settle in to the road, featuring a completely unique take on “Hood,” “Ghost> Antelope,” and a second set that rivaled all in 3.0 before it on 06/05/2009, to their 2010 Leg II closing affair that gave us the first “Fluffhead” opener since Hampton, the best “Backwards Down The Number Line” we’ve seen thus far, to their 2012 Fourth of July Performance, it’s been hallowed grounds in this era of Phish. Fitting then, that they’d use the East Coast hideout to bustout “Skin It Back” for the first time in nearly 24 years, after so many soundcheck jams featured the Little Feat classic. Fully embracing the 200-song challenge in this show, Set I is a full-on recital featuring another massive bustout in “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” plus a solid “Mike’s Groove,” “Axilla I,” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Set II reigns supreme in this show however, with a brilliant jam-combination occurring between “Sand -> Golden Age,” the former which produced hands-down, the best version of the TV On The Radio cover that we’ve ever heard. Dedicating it’s final 4:42 to blissful ambient soundscapes, it’s really the furthest the band has ever let the song traverse, and it’s the most patience they’ve displayed towards expanding it. With another peak in the “Wolfman’s -> Walk Away” combo that literally never gets old, the set finished in strong fashion with top notch versions of “Fluffhead” and one of the most torrential “Run Like An Antelope’s” we’ve heard this side of Utica. In the same realm as 06/15 /2012 and the first night of SPAC, 07/03/2012 used a lengthy, song-based Set I to ease them into a calculated, and professionally driven Set II.

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Saratoga Performing Arts Center – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/06/2012

Set I: Runaway Jim, Ocelot, Heavy Things, Back On The Train, Funky Bitch, Tube -> Psycho Killer -> Tube, Hold Your Head Up#> Craklin’ Rosie> Hold Your Head Up, Stash, Bouncing Around The Room, Paul & Silas> Horn, Corinna, Light Up Or Leave Me Alone

Set II: Chalk Dust Torture> Carini> Sand> Roses Are Free -> Punch You In The Eye> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> Ghost> Suzy Greenberg> Run Like An Antelope##+

Encore: Loving Cup

# “Hold Your Head Up” contained “Psycho Killer” quotes

## “Run Like An Antelope” contained a “Crosseyed & Painless” tease

+ “Run Like An Antelope” featured Tom Marshall and The Dude Of Life on vocals

On the opening night of the final weekend of the First Leg of their 2012 Summer Tour, Phish crafted an absolute masterpiece that still ranks as one of the best shows of the entire year. Once again, the 200-song challenge dominated as they threw down an unprecedented 17-song First Set. Opening initially with a string of standards – all of which carried an extra summer-flair – the set got going in earnest with a nasty “Tube -> Psycho Killer -> Tube,” thus marrying the best moments of 12/07/1997 into one surreal jam. Festivities continued with a humorous take on their “HYHU” gag, including references to the “Tucking” joke that had consumed Summer – by which Fish would tuck his gown into his underwear, and perform whatever song was asked of him; always a willing jester. Concluding with top-notch versions of rarities “Corinna” and “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone,” the set was a marathon 90-minute journey that left all eagerly anticipating how the band would top it in Set II. Focusing on energetic jamming, Set II produced a tight combination of “Carini> Sand,” and a sprawling, forceful and powerful jam between “Sneakin’ Sally -> Ghost.” “Sally” fully left the structure of the song for the first time since 08/07/2009, producing a driven and hard-edged jam, which deviated from many of the traditional funk takes on it. One of the final cuts for this list, the “Sally” displays just how unique and original Phish was willing to go in 2012, how far they were willing to push their jams to discover the unknown. Concluding with a classic pairing of “Suzy Greenberg> Antelope” – the latter which featured Tom Marshall & The Dude Of Life on vocals – the show fit the bill of it’s locale and placement in the tour. Feeling like a true homecoming show, SPAC I was, and is, one of the clear standouts in a year full of them.

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Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – San Francisco, CA – 08/19/2012

Set I: Crowd Control, Party Time, Axilla I, Reba, Free> Mound> Walk Away, NICU, Back On The Train, Gotta Jibboo, Roggae, David Bowie

Set II: Crosseyed & Painless# -> Light## -> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley## -> Crosseyed & Painless -> Theme From The Bottom> Rocky Top> Boogie On Reggae Woman -> Meatstick+, Bug, You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Ride Captain Ride> Tweezer Reprise

# “Crosseyed & Painless” contained a “The Cave” tease

## “Light” and “Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley” contained a “Crosseyed & Painless” tease; “Light” contained an “All The Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” tease

+ “Meatstick” included Japanese lyrics

Night three at the BGCA was a night to remember in 2012 and Phish 3.0. Featuring a classic first set – the kind where it literally did not matter what song was played – and a fully-flowing second set, including one of the best jam segments of the year, it was a standout show in the greatest regards. After two sub-par shows opened the overhyped, three-night stand at the intimate San Francisco theater, Phish clearly came out on the 19th on a mission. Crafting a killer show with apparent ease, listening to this show was without question, one of the most pleasurable experiences any Phish fan had with the band in 2012. Riding a scorching “Back On The Train,” “Gotta Jibboo,” “Roggae,” “David Bowie” segment into set break, the band came out on fire in Set II. With a six-song opening segment that read “Crosseyed & Painless -> Light -> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> Crosseyed & Painless -> Theme From The Bottom> Rocky Top,” there was no let-up over the set’s first hour. Featuring intricate jamming, high-energy transitions, a gorgeous ambient breakdown, a massive “Tweezer Reprise” tease, and fluid song selections, it was a jaw-dropping section of music that left many wondering how the band was capable of putting on a show as discombobulated as 08/18 one night, and one as fully-connected as 08/19 the next. Riding the energy to the end, the show never let up as “Boogie On” and “Meatstick” continued their perfect tandem, and “You Enjoy Myself” closed out the set in strong fashion. Encoring with the second “Ride Captain Ride” of the summer – a song which includes references to San Francisco – it was the kind of rare treat that fit perfectly within the celebratory feel of the show. The “Tweezer Reprise” that followed, and closed out the run, blew the roof off the joint once more, providing the extra oomph that “Tweeprise” is always good for. Immediately launched into the discussion of “Show Of The Year,” 08/19/2012 is literally the exact show that everyone hopes to catch every time they see Phish.

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Chaifetz Arena – St. Louis, MO – 08/28/2012

Set I: Punch You In The Eye> Runaway Jim, Ocelot> Reba, I Didn’t Know+, The Curtain> Peaches En Regalia> Mound> Sample In A Jar, The Sloth, Camel Walk, Possum> Quinn The Eskimo

Set II: Chalk Dust Torture -> Frankie Says -> Undermind -> Sand -> Walk Away, Limb By Limb, Julius> 2001> You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Shine A Light

+ Before the vacuum solo in “I Didn’t Know,” Fish was introduced as The John Coltrane of the Vacuum Cleaner

On a Tuesday night during the last week of their 2012 Summer Tour, everything came together for Phish, crafting yet another classic on par with 06/22/2012, 07/06/2012 and 08/19/2012 for the best shows of the year at the time. With a first set that matched 08/19’s in terms of the irrelevance of songs played, “Reba,” “Peaches> Mound,” and “Possum> Quinn The Eskimo” all stood out as top-notch versions. The “Reba” in particular – the last performance of summer – was a stunning display of the beauty the song encompasses, as Trey crafted sublimed riffs and musical thoughts with the subtle backing on his band. It was the kind of First Set that, once concluded, everyone in the venue just knows will lead to a heated Set II. While on paper, Set II of 08/28 looked admittedly like a crapshoot, once one listened to the intuitive communication displayed by the band throughout it, it was clear we had an immediate classic on our hands. Containing fluid segues from one song to another that no one – not even the most clever PT-vet – could ever conceive of, the first forty minutes of the set were one unending jam. “Chalk Dust -> Frankie Says -> Undermind -> Sand -> Walk Away” all somehow found their way to one another – bridging the gap with masterful playing, where on paper, they appeared to be a choppy mishap. Concluding with a “Limb By Limb” that initially appeared to be a breather, the contemplative Ghost-era track broke ground and wound itself through layers of upbeat, Trey-led percussive jamming, finishing off with a massive peak before rediscovering the “Limb” theme. “2001> You Enjoy Myself” brought things home with a classic pairing of two songs that, while a bit tamed by 3.0, still retain the magic that brings the crowd to full attention and a rousing applause whenever they hit their ecstatic points. One-off encores can be tricky, particularly after a show with so much heat, but no one can argue with the importance of “Shine A Light” to the band in the 3.0 era, and whenever it concludes a show on par with 08/28, it fits perfectly, in the same way “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “A Day In The Life,” and even “Harry Hood” does. A killer show all-around, St. Louis sent everyone off to Central Colorado dreaming of seeing a show on par with it, and the best shows of summer that had come before it. Little did anyone know what they were in for…

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Dick’s Sporting Goods Park – Commerce City, CO – 08/31/2012

Set I: First Tube, Uncle Pen, Carini> Kill Devil Falls, You Enjoy Myself+, Ocelot, Undermind#

Set II: Runaway Jim&> Farmhouse> Alaska, Chalk Dust Torture&, Emotional Rescue> Fuck Your Face##

Encore: Grind, Meatstick++

+ “You Enjoy Myself” contained a “We all love Dick’s!” vocal jam

++ “Meatstick” contained Japanese lyrics

# “Undermind” contained a “Crosseyed & Painless” tease

## “Fuck Your Face” contained “Emotional Resuce” quotes

& “Runaway Jim” and “Chalk Dust Torture” were unfinished

There are certain shows that hold such superiority to the rest of Phish’s live catalogue, that words really do them no justice. They must be heard to be understood. Many of them, must have been seen to fully grasp. They are nights when the band is so on, when everything just comes together, that even Trey, Mike, Fish and Page couldn’t tell you why they were so good. In The Phish Book Trey said, “It’s Strange. There are some shows that crystallize into great experiences for bot us and the audiences, and I usually remember a minute of them.” 08/31/2012 was one of these such nights. In so many ways it resembles no single show that has appeared before it in 3.0, and who knows how long it will take them to reach this level again. With a goal set to play a show that read F.U.C.K.Y.O.U.R.F.A.C.E. the band had to somehow fit 13 songs (plus “Fuck Your Face”) into a three-hour show – something they hadn’t done since SPAC ’04. As the show unraveled from the fan’s perspective, it was clear something was amok. The “First Tube,” “Uncle Pen,” “Carini” – which included a blissful type-II jam – just didn’t fit with the 3.0 model. The fifth song “You Enjoy Myself” only threw people off more, and the glorious, set-closing “Undermind” had everyone celebrating like Phish had just won the World Series. As word spread through the venue that the first set had spelled out F.U.C.K.Y.O.U. the sense was that the band had caught onto the all crap they’d received over the lack of jams in 3.0, and were thus responding with an onslaught of exploration to the unassuming ears. The gag of course, would in fact spill over into set two, and the format would allow the band to reach even more sublimity through jams in “Runaway Jim> Farmhouse,” and “Chalk Dust Torture.” When all was said and done, the show was an instant classic. Regardless of the gimmick – something that’s come to dominate the first night of the Dick’s runs – the band stepped up and responded with a show for the ages. Full of top-notch jams – three of which made this list – a song selection that kept fans on the edge of their seats, and an all-time gag that messed with the crowd all night long, 08/31/2012 is without question the best show of 2012, the best show yours truly has ever seen, and the best show the band has played in 3.0 aside from 07/03/2011.

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Dick’s Sporting Goods Park – Commerce City, CO – 09/01/2012

Set I: Run Like An Antelope*, Backwards Down The Number Line> Tweezer> Fluffhead> Roses Are Free> Funky Bitch> The Moma Dance> When The Circus Comes, Theme From The Bottom> Golgi Apparatus, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan

Set II: Golden Age> Prince Caspian&> Light#, Boogie On Reggae Woman> The Wedge, The Horse -> Silent In The Morning> Mike’s Song -> No Quarter> Weekapaug Groove

Encore: Sleeping Monkey> Tweezer Reprise

* First “Run Like An Antelope” opener since 26 January 1990

& “Prince Caspian” was unfinished

# “Light” contained a “Mercy Mercy Mercy” tease from Page

The night after THE night. After playing their strongest show of 2012, and one of their best of 3.0 overall, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who thought Phish could in fact top the brilliance of 08/31. On it’s own, 09/01/2012 would have been endlessly praised, yet grouped with 08/31 it was unfortunately overshadowed, and has been hopelessly underrated by many in the Phish community. The truth is, 09/01 is one of the best shows of 2012. Opening with the first “Run Like An Antelope” opener since January 1990, and featuring a “Tweezer> Fluffhead” in the 3-4 slot, the show was a keeper just 45 minutes in. Rounding out Set I with a focus on First Set standards offered a nice breath of fresh air after a show-and-a-half of mind-altering music. The Second Set kicked off with a 50-minute sequence of music that read: “Golden Age> Prince Caspian> Light.” Featuring expansive, groove-based jamming in “Golden Age” – on par with the brilliance of 07/03/2012 – a deep, extensive and sinister “Caspian” and one of the the jams of the year in “Light,” the set opened with endless possibilities, assuring the entire crowd that the magic of 08/31 had in fact spilled over into Night II. Filling the middle of the set with crowd pleasers – “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” “The Wedge” – and a quick, contemplative breather in “The Horse -> Silent,” the set ended with a straight up nasty take on “Mike’s Groove,” with the Zeppelin cover “No Quarter” bridging the two classics. A welcome shock to everyone in the venue, the “No Quarter” built upon the rage of the “Mike’s” “jam” section, and fit the bill with the darkness that had engulfed so many of the jams throughout the weekend. Finishing with a raging “Weekapaug,” when the band reemerged for the encore, Trey informed the fans that they’d have to give them a minute, cause Fishman was simply too worn out from rocking out. When they finally did play, the classic pairing of “Sleeping Monkey> Tweezer Reprise” finished the show off right and sent a message to the fans that Phish had thought as highly of the last two nights as we did.

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Madison Square Garden – New York City, NY – 12/30/2012

Set I: Runaway Jim#, Cities> The Divided Sky, Back On The Train, Ride Captain Ride, Ocelot, Ya Mar, Horn, My Friend, My Friend&> Run Like An Antelope

Set II: Down With Disease##& -> Twenty Years Later> Carini> Backwards Down The Number Line> Julius, Slave To The Traffic Light###

Encore: Harry Hood###, Show Of Life

# “Runaway Jim” contained a “Dave’s Energy Guide” tease from Trey

## “Down With Disease” contained a “Woman From Tokyo” tease

### “Slave To The Traffic Light” and “Harry Hood” contained a “Little Drummer Boy” tease

& “My Friend, My Friend” and “Down With Disease” were unfinished

For the first time since 2009, Phish took the stage on a 30 December and played like they fully understood the implications of the date in Phish history. 12/30/1993, 12/30/1995, 12/30/1997, 12/30/1999, 12/30/2003, 12/30/2009; these are shows that are revered across years and eras for the anything-goes atmosphere that engulfs Phish on the night before THE night. After a 12/28 show that featured a fully connected Set II, and a rocking 12/29 show that never quite got off the ground, the energy was palpable in MSG, and Phish responded in classic fashion. A top-notch first set, chock-full of classics was really the definition of fun. It was the kind of set that, like 08/19 and 08/28, matter little what songs were played, for by setbreak everyone was raving about just how good the band had sounded. Whatever good feelings were crafted by the band in Set I, however, would quickly be reversed (for the better) with a three song jam segment that would ultimately be the most memorable aspect of the entire NYE Run. Reading: “Down With Disease -> Twenty Years Later> Carini,” the set started with an ominous dive into the netherworld, featuring some of the most abstract, beatless, egoless music the band has produced throughout 3.0. Akin to the best moments of Dick’s, the thing that separated the “DWD” and “Carini” was that they were devoid of any of the climactic peaks that defined the “Light,” “Sand” and the MSG “Tweezer.” Emerging from the reckoning with a killer version of the 3.0 theme-song, “Backwards Down The Number Line” and “Julius” brought everyone back to life, and kept the show moving, regardless of the song selection. Finishing things off with an emotive “Slave” set closer, and a gorgeous “Hood” encore was the perfect way to end the show of the 2012 NYE run, and veritably end the 2012 playing season. The NYE show the following night was by far their best NYE show since 2003, and a great show in it’s own right. However, 12/30/2012 was the exact kind of show that defined Phish 2012: solid song selection, high-energy, transcendent playing, and an intuitive linear music communication from four solid years of playing together which produced some of the best improvisation music crafted by the band in the last 10-15 years. After such a phenomenal year for Phish – a year that rose to the ranks with best the band has produced in the last 30 years – one can only wonder what the band has in store for us in 2013. A year of with another two-legged Summer tour, 30th anniversary events planned, Festival X, and yet another year-ending NYE Run at MSG, there is a resounding sense of hope surrounding the direction of the band. The ups and downs of 2009, 2010 and 2011 fully behind them, 2012 was without question the best year of 3.0. The year where people stopped wondering if Phish would ever regain their former glory, it was instead when everyone stopped critiquing and fully enjoyed the ride Phish was taken us all on.

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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!