The Next Level: Thoughts On The West Coast Leg Of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour

577216_10151503226831290_30855049_nAnd so we’ve come to the end of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour. Yes, we do have that Dick’s run looming just two-and-a-half weeks away, but Dick’s is something all to itself at this point, right?

After just over a month on the road Phish capped off their summer tour with an eleven-day stretch of shows along the Pacific that has to rank as one of the most profound peaks of their entire career.

(This isn’t to say of course that their music is somehow better than anything they’ve played in, say, the last 15 years – how could one even begin to be able to quantify that, after all? Yet, there’s an undeniable energy surrounding Phish right now that hasn’t been present this consistently for a long, long time…)

More on this later.

Leaving behind the rain for good, Phish built upon, and expanded on the foundations of their NE run, the celebratory vibes of their SE run, and the conflicts overcome in the midwest to produce a string of diverse, exploratory, uniquely engaging, and overall classic shows chock full of highlights.

One night they were throwing down rapturous funk, the next they were weaving together rarities in an unending seguefest. Any style could, and would, be explored from one show to another – and often within each show – displaying a dexterity in a consistent peak that we honestly, may have never truly experienced with Phish to this point.

(It’s the thing that completely separates Phish 2013 from their past. Where their sustained peaks in 1995, 1997, 1998, and 2003 for example, were centered around a singular style, here in 2013, the band is attacking a variety of styles within each show – often times within a single jam. The diversity of music played within this past week is nothing short of astounding from a purely musical level.)

Jams abound, songs perfectly placed, the string of shows from The Gorge on 07/26/2013 to Los Angeles on 08/05/2013 represents the most consistent, highest quality Phish we’ve heard in over a decade.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around everything I’ve just heard.

Below I’ve once again compiled an assorted list of thoughts on the finale week-and-a-half of the tour.

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So, How’d We Get Here?

Perhaps the best place to start is by looking back on everything Phish has done since reemerging from hibernation on July 3rd in Bangor, ME.

While it was clear throughout the opening weekend of summer that the band was focusing on laying the groundwork for the tour that would ultimately unfold, it’s also clear that their plan hit a bit of an unexpected moment of advanced inspiration within the second set of 07/05. Weaving together a fully-flowing set of music that started with the debut of The Apples In Stereo song “Energy” – also the eventual theme song of Phish 2013 – and ended with their age-old classic, “Slave To The Traffic Light,” from the onset, one couldn’t deny the high level Phish was already playing at.

Continuing southwards – following the 07/09 postponement of their Toronto show – the band reached an initial peak in the tour with their PNC – MPP run of shows. Fusing old school setlists with high quality, boundary-pushing jams – 07/10 “Crosseyed & Painless,” 07/12 “Rock & Roll,” 07/13 “Simple,” 07/14 “Light,” – the band showed two differing, yet ultimately united sides of modern day Phish. In emphasizing their most time-honored classics – “Stash,” “It’s Ice,” “Maze,” “Harry Hood,” “Mike’s Song,” “You Enjoy Myself” – while also centering their 07/14 show around a harangued take on “Light,” the band played a show that could only have happened here in 2013.

A point that must be emphasized: 2013 Phish is everything that Phish has been, everything that Phish currently is, and everything that Phish is working towards. This career-spanning sound is no better heard than in these four shows.

A brief midweek stoppage in Alpharetta, GA allowed the band opportunity to let their hair down, while still expanding upon the improvisational advancements of their first week on tour. Basing their entire 07/16 second set around the riff from “Heartbreaker,” the band built a massive seguefest that read: “Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning> Birds Of A Feather.” A wholly-engaging musical moment, it fused the band’s modern-day melodic jamming with their endearing sense of humor, resulting in absolutely classic Phish.

The following night’s highlight came in the monumental “Energy -> Fluffhead -> Piper -> Fast Enough For You” quartet, a segment which displays both how keen Phish is right now at sparking creative jams out of the ether, and how aware they are of fusing their past and present together – be it through setlist construction or various jamming styles – within each of their shows.

The first half of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour came to a close in a three-night run in Chicago, and a makeup show in Toronto. For however memorable the music made at Chicago was – and much of it is very memorable – it will always be overshadowed by the rain that cost the band half of their 07/19 show, and nearly cancelled their 07/21 show. Regardless the fact that 07/19’s first set is among the strongest of the first three weeks of tour, nor the fact that 07/20 was a surprise three-set show that saw the band construct a fully-flowing (sorry, @waxbanks) second frame which featured a sublime “Golden Age> Waves -> Piper> Slave To The Traffic Light” closing segment, those two nights in particular will always be seen as casualties of THE RAIN.

On the run’s final night it poured and poured and poured. (And poured and poured and poured and…) Rain fell from the heavens in biblical fashion cutting the first set short, while also breaking the internet for the first 25mins of the second frame.

It was in the second set however where the band emerged phearlessly, and pointed the way towards the west – and towards their own future – within a 35min segment that read: “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards.” Infusing literally every style of improvisation the band has experimented with throughout their career – before giving a nod to their past through a perfectly placed “Lizards” – the band sent a message about where they were, where they’d been, and most importantly, where they were going.

Following this with a “Harpua” gag for the ages, one in which the band sent a message to their fans that it was in fact they, and not us, who knew what the “right way” forward was for Phish, and it simply was a set we’ll be talking about for years to come.

The next night in Toronto they opened Set II with a lengthy, uplifting, and melodic take on “Down With Disease” whereby Trey and Page hooked up for over seven minutes of improvisational bliss. The trail westward had been marked. Little did we know what was to come…

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There Are No More “Standard” Songs

Immediately evident in the rollicking first set on night one at The Gorge – and only further emphasized as the tour wound south along the Pacific – is the fact, that, no matter the setlists, no matter the set, there’s no such thing any longer as a “standard song.” Proof of the absurdly high level the band is playing at right now, there are seemingly no more filler songs anymore.

Listen back to the “AC/DC Bag,” “Timber,” “Funky Bitch,” “Architect,” “The Curtain (With),” “Ocelot,” and “After Midnight” from The Gorge. Listen to the “Bathtub Gin>Tube>Walk Away,” the “It’s Ice,” and the “Stash” from Tahoe. Listen to the entire first set from 08/02, to the blistering seven song opening segment from 08/03, and the “Divided Sky” and “Ya Mar” from 08/04. Listen to the “Wolfman’s Brother,” “Scent Of A Mule,” and “Ocelot” from LA.

First sets, which, particularly from 2009 – 2011, were the definition of banality and sterile song selection, now pop with ease.

You can say whatever you want about how jamming displays the evolutionary steps forward for Phish, but, as the irreplaceable Walter G Holland (@waxbanks) showed us in his insightful piece from last week, the energy the band is now putting into their individual songs – particularly those in Set I – proves the refined peak we now find ourselves at with Phish.

Ever since they stopped focusing on their individual song performances in 1997, this singular aspect of the Phish experience has been missing. A point of emphasis since 2009, not until last year was the band truly capable of stringing together complete shows that featured consistently unique performances of their most time-honored classics. Yet even last year, many shows still relied on extra-musical aspects such as song selection, jamming lengths, and gimmicks to be memorable. Here, now, in 2013, there’s simply no question of whether or not their whole shows are going to be standouts, they just are.

Perhaps we can hear this best in the three-song opening segment from 07/27: “Architect,” “Golgi Apparatus,” and “The Curtain With.” A run of songs that, on paper would appear to be a rigid – even, awkward – way to kick off a show, here, in the idyllic setting of The Gorge – and played with such a unified passion as these were – the songs flowed with an organic, and thematic brilliance.

The kind of moment that signifies Phish at their best, one can only imagine that, by the time the band invades their favorite soccer field just outside of Denver, and then tears through some of their most classic venues back east, that this approach will be further explored and capitalized on.

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About That “Tweezer”…

I recently spent a week in Tokyo, on summer vacation from my job as an English Teacher in Korea. On our second day in the country, my wife and I wandered through the Shinjuku and Shibuya neighborhoods, sampling various ramen and sushi shops, soaking in the youthful and creative vibe that permeated around us. We felt alive with that tangible elevation that can only come from travel in a completely new place. At night we made our way to a pub we’d discovered the previous night run by a Japanese man who obsessively collected classic rock records. He graced us with drinks, music that reminded us from home, and invited us to share in a late-night Izakaya feast with his wife.

At one point he put on the 09/02/2012 “Sand,” and the bar, packed with aging Japanese hippies, boogied down like life-long fans.

It was one of the best days I’ve ever experienced in my entire life..

When I arrived back at my hostel I jumped on the internet to discover that Phish had just played a 37-minute “Tweezer.”

I sat at a public computer laughing hysterically.

Somehow this “Tweezer” made this perfect day even better. I wouldn’t even hear the jam for another week, but somehow I just knew…

The thing about this “Tweezer” isn’t so much its length – yes, it’s incredible to see the band played a 37-minute song, but it could have been half that long and it still would have been one of the best jams of the year – nor is it the connective peaks the band reaches throughout – though they are pretty epic. What ultimately makes it so unique, so special, and yes, so important in the historical lineage of monumental Phish jams, is the fact that it reached such a moment of full-band-interplay that it ultimately peaked with a united band AND audience jam, that will go down as one of THE top moments of Phish’s entire history whenever it is they finally decide to hang it up.

By now the topic has been almost beaten into the ground through a series of follow-up “woo’s” in the tour’s final days, and in the endless discussions on the jam that have spread throughout the online community. But, for a moment, just consider the fact that the true peak of the Tahoe “Tweezer” – and the reason the jam will ultimately be remembered – came as a result of an audience instigated cheer within a start/stop jam, that the band immediately latched onto, leading to an apogee within the entire Phish experiment.

This is the artist creating based upon the environment that their audience has created for them.

For all of their history the band has made a point to emphasize how important their relationship with their audience is; how the crowd’s energy often pushes the band to greater heights. Yet, never before has crowd & band seemed so united, so in the moment, so spontaneously connected as they do during the peak of this “Tweezer.” Just listen to the force with which Trey re-enters the jam following the first set of “woo’s” and try to tell me the band wasn’t completely taken aback, and totally blown away by the unified moment of improvisational connection that had just occurred.

Yes, the “woo’s” became a tad over-exhausted by the end of the tour, but, honestly, could you really blame the band for capitalizing on this moment and trying to replicate it? Like their secret language in the early-90’s, their chess match in the Fall of 1995, and the entirety of Big Cypress, the Tahoe “Tweezer” represented yet another completely unexplainable moment of band-audience interplay where Phish just seemed bigger than a rock & roll band.

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A New Old School Approach – 08/02’s First Set

You can just feel the energy seething from the August 2nd Bill Graham Civic Auditorium show simply from watching the YouTube clips. The first set since the Tahoe “Tweezer,” the band enters to a crowd that has seemingly lost its collective mind. Just watch how shocked Trey is as he humbly waves towards the fervent fans.

It looks like what one might imagine a 1994 show in some dingy IHL Arena might be like.

In the moment, and in hindsight, “Free” was the perfect song to open that show with. Could anything else have summed up the unified feelings of their entire fanbase quite as well?

I feel the feeling I forgot…..

I feel freeeeeee………

Freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

And then that guitar riff…

Without question, 08/02’s first set is the most diverse first set of the entire tour. Combining rarities – “Meat,” “Oh Kee Pa,” “Vultures – tour debuts – the aforementioned along with “Roggae,” “When The Circus Comes,” and “Babylon Baby” – with absolutely stellar playing throughout, it’s – if not the best – then certainly one of the best first sets of the entire tour. Trey just sounds so alive, and in the moment, in the dirty, and building solo out of “Sand,” and in the patient, yet focused, “Reba” that came two songs later.

While one can’t deny the impact of the band’s tighter song rotation here in 2013 – be it more exploratory playing or an influx of repeats – regardless your stance on their structural approach this year, there’s just something about the feeling of being at a show where the band decides to throw down a number of unexpected rarities and bust-outs. Not something any of us should be actively chasing – particularly now, when the band is at the top of their game regardless what they play – when you hear a show full of songs you’d have never guessed the band would have played that night, it just seems to raise the energy and sentiments surrounding the show to an unexpected level.

By mixing “Meat,” “Oh Kee Pa,” “Vultures” and “Roggae” in with rotational staples “Free,” “AC/DC Bag,” “Sand,” and “Reba,” the band crafted a setlist that both celebrated their diverse history, while also displaying their current peak. That they played each of these songs with fresh energy, innovative musical passages, and precision delivery only further emphasized the new/old school gem they unleashed in 08/02’s first set.

Whereas in recent years, these kinds of sets tended to sound bloated and even awkward, everything gelled on the first night in San Francisco.

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The Second Set Of 08/04 & Where We Go From Here

If the first set of the San Francisco run represented a veritable link between Phish’s past and present, then the run’s final set displayed not only how far the band has come over the last five years, but also, where they’re headed.

All summer long the band has used “Energy” to usher in their most innovative and consequential second sets.

On 07/05 it displayed the high level in which Phish was entering their tour at, and graced us with the theme of the tour: Energy & Electricity.

On 07/21 it was the only song Phish could have played at the time, expanding into a limitless jam that eventually flowed into “Ghost,” summing up the phearlessness Phish was playing with, and turning the focus towards the west.

On 08/04 it closed out the BGCA run in perfect fashion, summing up the entire vibe surrounding Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour, while reminding us of the electricity that coursed through the community.

Like the two previous sets it kicked off, the entirety of the 08/04 second set flows from the intangible force that that song has on the band here in 2013. Following with an expansive, rock-based jam off “Runway Jim,” a “Light” that both explored all the musical terrain contained within itself before moving into the Storage Unit, and ultimately towards the original kiln of the storage jam: “David Bowie,” the set was constructed in a way to emphasize their jamming vehicles of old, and of new, while systematically pointing the way towards Dick’s, and the Fall.

So, where are we going?

I wrote about this in my recap of the second week of tour, just about a month ago, which you can read here. In that essay, I argued that – up until 07/14 – the 2013 Summer Tour reminded in many ways of August 2010, in that, while it was an incredible tour to be a part of, little did we know until October, that it was actually the building block for the first true peak of 3.0.

Lo and behold, as this tour moved westward, faced with torrential weather that had consumed the tour until that point, with the band fully aware of timing and the moment, Phish pushed the tour to a completely new level with their second set on 07/21. From there through Hollywood the tour remained on an absolutely consistent and mind-bending high.

I cannot see this ending any time soon.

Phish is completely comfortable back on stage, communicating with each other like they haven’t since 1998. The growing pains that plagued them in their first years of 3.0 aren’t even a conversational bit anymore. There’s no longer a need for a “settling in” process whenever they get back on tour.

When we look towards the remainder of the year, what we find is a Dick’s run that’s sure to be a HUGE moment for the band. Regardless if it actually “tops” last year’s run – something that has more to do with subjectivity than it does with what the band actually plays – one has to imagine the shows are going to have a deeply emotional impact on the band. Beyond that: Fall Tour, most notably a return to Hampton. If one thinks Dick’s will hit the band emotionally, just think what Hampton’s going to be like…

Following the first three-night run in the Mothership since March 6th, 7th, and 8th, 2009 is a tour that takes the band through their most hallowed stretch of country – returning them to Hartford, Worcester, Glens Falls, Rochester, and a Halloween date in Atlantic City. And after all that is the 30th Anniversary Run the band has clearly been building towards, and then finally a return to MSG to ring in 2014!

When was the last time the back-half of a year looked this promising for Phish fans? 1997??? 1995???

The point is, the band built to a sustained peak out west at a time when they’ve only got monumental show after monumental show on their horizon. The thought of where (mentally & emotionally) the band is right now musically, and where (locationally) they’re going to be playing over the next five months is somewhat incomprehensible.

Moreover, the fact that they’re playing sets like 08/04 II where they’re throwing out stunning jams from new songs such as “Light” and “Energy,” combined with innovative takes on their classics – “Runaway Jim,” “David Bowie,” “You Enjoy Myself” – while also fucking around with the crowd by continuing to play a “Horse”-less “Silent In The Morning,” or encoring with “Sanity” and “Bold As Love,” just raises the possibilities even higher as we move towards Fall.

So, where are we going?

Gamehendge, duh…

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When Is The Last Time Phish Peaked Like This?

In my recap of the second week of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour, I argued that this was the best start to a tour since Summer 1998. Not only do I not feel this statement was in anyway shortsighted or, even overfluffed, but I firmly believe that the way the tour has unfolded since then has only worked further confirm this opinion.

It’s time to go a bit further….

This recent peak from 07/21 through 08/05 represents the most consistent stretch of high-quality music the band has made since 11/17/1997 – 12/07/1997.

It’s true. Go back through the setlists and the shows of the past fifteen years, and try to find a stretch of ten shows that have been played at as high a level as these have. Add in sets like 07/05 II, the run from PNC – MPP, even the Alpharetta run, and this tour is without question the band has played since at least Summer 1998.

This is not to compare the music made from these two eras – a task that would be as impossible as it would be pointless – rather it’s simply a statement on how great things are in the world of Phish right now.

This is also not to say that this peak here in 2013 is somehow better than any of their peak periods from 1998 – 2012 were. This is only to say that Phish has reached a point of consistency on a high level that is absolutely unprecedented in 3.0 and 2.0, and, that the absence of such a recent period was a major factor in why the band decided to take their first hiatus back in 2000.

Ever since the final show in Chicago, Phish has played with both a driven energy, and an understood ease that has always been present in their peak periods. Regardless if they were exploring minimalistic funk grooves, abstract patterns of dissonant noise, the hellish depths of their souls, or prying open the pockets within their own songs, the combination of a driving force, and a relaxed ease has always been needed for the band to reach these heights.

The only difference between these current heights and those from 1998 – 2012, is that, now, the band can sustain them for weeks on end.

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Favorite Shows/Jams Thus Far

I’ve been compiling this list as the tour’s moved along. Were I to grant you my full list that’s currently occupying an itunes playlist, this post would become a lot more bloated than it already is…. Once again, I’ll be focusing here on only a select number of my favorite shows and jams. Rather than ranking them, or trying to grant any a “best-of” status, they’re all simply listed chronologically. More than anything, these are the shows and jams that have really grabbed me as the tour’s evolved.

For any show/jam listed that I’ve discussed prior, I’ve left any sort of write upon them blank. I’d invite you to check out the past lists/write-ups compiled here and here.

Favorite Shows

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

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

– 07/10/2013 PNC Bank & Arts Center – Holmdel, NJ

– 07/12/2013 Nikon @ Jones Beach Theater – Wantagh, NY

– 07/13/2013 Merriweather Post Pavilion – Columbia, MD

– 07/14/2013 Merroweather Post Pavilion – Columbia, MD

– 07/20/2013 Northerly Island – Chicago, IL

– 07/21/2013 Northerly Island – Chicago, IL

– 07/26/2013 The Gorge Ampitheatre – George, WA – To me, this is the most complete show of the entire summer. Combining rarities, gimmickry, jamming, a crafty setlists, and the overall magic that just permeates The Gorge, this is one of those special nights we spend so much of our time and energy as Phish fans searching for.

– 07/27/2013 The Gorge Ampitheatre – George, WA – A more refined approach after 07/26’s throwdown. 07/27 opens with my favorite opening segment of the year, fully summarizing what makes Phish such a special bend. The second set is the definition of perfection in my mind. Fully-flowing, expert selections, top-notch playing of some of their best songs, one listen to this will go a long way in displaying just how high Phish is right now.

– 08/02/2013 Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – San Francisco, CA – Set I might be my favorite of the entire year thus far. Set II is a gem in and of itself as well. With so many rarities and tour debuts in the first set, one might have assumed by simply glancing at the setlist that the flow was sacrificed, but that simply doesn’t happen anymore with Phish. Energy prevails throughout, and the band busts open “Seven Below” and “Stealin’ Time” in Set II before capping the night off with the first ever “Walls Of The Cave” encore, perfectly setting things up for the tour’s final weekend.

– 08/04/2013 Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – San Francisco, CA – Similar in structure to last year’s 08/19/2012 show at BGCA, this show perfectly displays where Phish is at here in mid-2013. Nailing every single song in Set I, the band focuses Set II on two remarkable jam segments – “Energy> Runaway Jim” and “Light -> David Bowie” – while never relenting energy. A perfect show to cap off the best tour of Phish’s career in fifteen years.

Favorite Jams

– 07/06/2013: “Split Open & Melt”

– 07/06/2013: “Carini -> Architect”

– 07/10/2013: “Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood”

– 07/12/2013: “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge”

– 07/21 2013: “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards”

– 07/22/2013: “Down With Disease”

– 07/27/2013: “Down With Disease -> Undermind> Light -> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> 2001” – A 50-minute segment of music that opened up the final set at The Gorge, this flowed from sparse/rhythmic themes in “DWD” and “Undermind,” to contemplative melodies in “Light,” before building to a massive funk/rock peak in “Sally.” The first half to my favorite set of the summer, this is just further proof of both the power of The Gorge, and the unique peak Phish currently finds themselves in.

– 07/31/2013: “Tweezer” – 37 minutes. The woo’s. Trey’s riff. Tears. What more can I say?

– 08/03/2013: “Rock & Roll -> Steam” – A diametrically different take on “Rock & Roll” than JB’s extended-Type I jam, this version explores the innate groove within the song before segueing fluidly into one of the stronger “Steam’s” we’ve heard thus far. For me, there’s just something about the force in which the band enters the “R&R” jam segment that says so much about how high they’ve been over the past month.

– 08/04/2013: “Energy> Runaway Jim” – The theme song of the summer combined with an age-old classic that’s jammed to a menacing and lengthy rock-based peak. It’s the kind of stuff that’s becoming commonplace here in 2013.

– 08/05/2013: “Harry Hood” – Three songs before the tour’s conclusion, the band expanded on “Harry Hood,” crafting a 22-minute gem that stands up with some of the best versions ever played. No matter the fact that the band clearly wanted to play an upbeat, if, safe show, IT was still racing through their veins. Times like these, even the band can’t even control when they’re going to hook-up.

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And this concludes tackle & lines recap of Phish’s west coast run. Hope everyone has enjoyed this tour as much as I have! Please feel free to leave me comments here, or at my twitter feed: @sufferingjuke. Can’t wait for Dick’s!!!

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What Can We Reasonably Expect From Phish In 2013?

228575_10151002926501290_1761768171_nWith just over two weeks to go until the start of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour, the Phish community is abuzz with plans, predictions, and expectations for the coming year. After a peak year in 2012, the expectations for Phish 3.0 have never been higher. Whereas each year since 1999 has ended with a litany of questions about the band’s health, focus, direction, etc, 2012 concluded on a unanimous high note. And, while their NYE Run didn’t quite stack up as a whole to the entirety of their brilliant summer tour, it was still a far cry from the puzzling no-show that plagued the end of 2011.

So, the question begs asking, what can we reasonably expect from Phish in 2013? I emphasize “reasonably” because, more often than not, these types of columns result in writers predicting everything from 30min jams to guaranteed-Gamehendge performances. Here at tackle & lines we try to view Phish’s career and music with as much of an even-handed approach as possible, and this column will be no different.

Before we get to the predictions, however, we must take a quick retrospective look back at how we got to where we are now.

In the five years since Phish emerged from an extended hiatus in Hampton, VA the band has far exceeded the expectations that any fan could have had when they announced their return in October 2008. While during much of June 2009 they appeared to be a band lost within themselves, by the time Leg Two of their tour started out west, they immediately rediscovered what made Phish Phish. Jams returned, gimmicks became something of a norm, and Phish shows became re-listenable once more. With their eighth festival, and an incredibly apropos Halloween cover of Exile On Main Street under their belt, the band toured their East Coast stronghold’s, before celebrating their first NYE in six years in Miami. Featuring two dynamically different sides of Phish, their Fall Tour showed them tightening up and adding a bit more energy into their shows, while their NYE Run resulted in some of the more interesting jams of 2009.

Six months later the band’s second Summer Tour of 3.0 began in Chicago. What started with a string of uneven shows eventually proved to be the band’s weakest tour of 3.0. Dominated by Trey’s overuse of the Whale Call effect, jams lost steam midway through, shows lacked flow and energy, and, by July 5th, the band looked totally lost. While the 06/27/2010 Merriweather Post Pavilion show is still highly regarded among fans, it proved to be little more than an anomaly, as the band entered the second leg of their tour with more pressure to deliver than anytime since 2004.

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In typical Phish fashion however, the band came out the gates on a mission. Armed with a new guitar that gave more overall body to his sound, Trey moved away from the atmospheric sirens of the June Tour, incorporating more notes and rhythm into his playing. The results were immediate with jams off of “Cities,” “Simple,” and “Light” from the Greek Theatre displaying how much more dexterity they had when their sound was opened up to more communal playing. The August Run proved to be the point where everything changed in 3.0. A massive step forward for the band, they followed it up with an even more groundbreaking Fall Tour. Clearly in control of the direction of their music once again, Phish used the Fall Tour to revert back to age-old gimmicks, and an overt playfulness that bled throughout their shows. Shows like 10/16/2010, 10/19/2010, 10/20/2010, 10/26/2010 and 10/30/2010 carried the same energy, element of surprise, and aggressive playing that harkened back to their glory days in the 90’s.

Closing out the year with a five show NYE Run through Worcester and MSG, all was right in the Phish community. While there were still questions about certain aspects of their playing – their jamming was still not totally consistent, their shows still had the capability of becoming tedious recitals at Trey’s initiation, and their fluidity seemed to come and go at will – overall, 2010 ended on an incredibly positive note, in much the same way as 2012.

When Phish kicked off 2011 with a string of shows from Bethel, NY – Cincinnati, OH that ranked as some of the most consistent and transcendent they’d played in all of 3.0, it immediately seemed that all the trepidation and uncertainties of the first two years of their comeback were all but behind them. And yet, while 2011 featured some of the biggest breakthrough’s of 3.0, it was still marred at times by the inconsistency that continued to define Phish’s return. Losing steam midway through the tour when most would have assumed they’d have kicked it up a notch, the band treated their home turf to some of the shakiest shows in recent memory.

However, at their SuperBall IX Festival over Fourth Of July the band engaged in their biggest musical risk in years: locking themselves in a storage unit on the night of July 2nd and performing an abstract, noise-based jam for all who were still awake. On the next night they played their best concert since reforming, weaving the Storage Jam into the first narrated “Col Forbin’s” in eleven years within a first set that saw the band compliment expert song selection with adventurous playing. A show for the ages, they returned to the road a month later with essentially all the baggage of year’s past off of them. Over the course of August and early-September the band infused many of their jams with the seedy and industrial noises of the “Storage Jam,” embracing full-on experimentation in ways they simply hadn’t since 2004.

Concluding with two incredible three-night-stand’s in Chicago and Denver, the band took the Fall off at essentially the highest they’d been in all of 3.0. For whatever reason – rust, lack of inspiration, lack of communication, side-project distractions – their 2011 NYE was one enormous dud. Save for a surprisingly fun 12/28/2011 show, and a scintillating “Piper” jam on 12/30, Phish simply couldn’t muster the ability to play up to the standards they’d created on three of their biggest night’s of the year. As a result, the good vibes that resonated thanks to the breakthrough’s in the summer were overshadowed by the questions that lingered as a result of the NYE Run. Rumors of problems within the band persisted all winter and spring, and Phish entered 2012 with more questions hanging over their head than any time since July 2010. After all their hard work to reinvent themselves in 3.0, it felt to many that the band was back to square one all over again.

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For whatever reason, 2012 was without question the band’s best year since 2000. Armed with a goal of playing over 200 unique songs throughout the Summer, the band injected fresh songs into their setlists, creating an immediate element of surprise at each of their shows. Also, from night one in Worcester, it was clear that a focus on improvisation had been pushed to the forefront. For the first time in 3.0, the band played a better June Tour than an August Tour, as June was filled with humor, bustouts, and a genuine sense of fun from both band and audience. Gone were the clunkers that could dominate whole runs. Phish shows’ felt like Phish shows again. As shows like 06/15/2012, 06/22/2012, 06/23/2012, 06/28/2012, 07/03/2012, 07/06/2012 displayed, the band could now really play any style of show and nail it.

In the Second Leg they battled their first bout with inconsistency in San Francisco and throughout the SE, yet whereas in the past this would have resulted in complete duds for shows, here, in 2012 there are still plenty of moments of inspiration that can be found within each. More to the point, shows like 08/19/2012, 08/28/2012, 08/31/2012 and 09/01/2012 displayed a total command the band had over their sound and sonic direction.

The tour concluded with the best three-night-run of 3.0 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, CO. A venue they’d closed their 2011 Tour with to rave results, Dick’s featured the band as probably the best they’ve been since 1.0. Taking hold of the “FUCK YOUR FACE” gimmick on 08/31, Phish jammed with dexterity and ambition in ways we simply hadn’t heard throughout 3.0. It was an affirmation of sorts for all who’ve stood by Phish since their return. A Summer Tour that had started with so many questions and uncertainty concluded with the best show they’d played in over a decade.

Following another four-month break before their NYE Run, the band proved far more prepared this time around, assaulting MSG at times with jams on the level of those we’d heard at Dick’s, while closing out a banner year with their best NYE gimmick in years. While it was clear that they could have used a few buffer shows between Dick’s and MSG, overall the run was a success, and has us standing on the brink of the band’s 30th Anniversary with more anticipation than anytime throughout 3.0.

Below are a list of things I think we can reasonably expect from Phish in 2013. Aware of the fact that the overall point of listening to Phish is to embrace the unexpected, these are presented as more of a preview of what’s to come in 2013. As always in 3.0, we’re simply lucky to have the band back, the fact that they’ve reinvented themselves is such a powerful way is simply icing on the cake.

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I. Further Development In The Three Dominant Styles Of Jamming

Everyone can agree that 2012 was the year the jams fully returned to the forefront of Phish. Whereas in the formative years of 3.0 the band would go multiple shows in a row without a single exploratory jam, in 2012 nearly every show contains at least one example of genuine improve. Even more encouraging to fans of their exploratory excursions is the fact that by year’s end Phish had settled on three defined styles of jamming that displayed communication, diversity and regularly produced standout jams.

First, you had the Dick’s “Light,” and “Sand,” and the MSG “Tweezer,” three jams which spent upwards of ten minutes exploring the unknown, before becoming focused and building towards an old-school tension & release peak.

You also had more abstract jams such as the Cincy “Twist,” Alpine “Fee,” Long Beach “Rock & Roll,” San Francisco “Crosseyed,” Dick’s “Carini,” and “Runaway Jim>Farmhouse,” and the MSG “Down With Disease,” and “Carini,” which meandered like many of the late-90’s and 2.0 vehicles, contemplatively covering a plethora of ground with little focus or tension.

Finally, you had, perhaps the most intriguing of all, the melodic-driven jams, that are purely a product of 3.0. From the AC “Birds Of A Feather,” and Burgettstown “Light,” to the Dick’s “Undermind,” and “Chalk Dust Torture,” the band used a melodic approach with each of these jams resulting in whole-band communication, along with a multitude of terrains explored, solidifying them as some of the most innovative and memorable jams of the era. One can only expect that, as 2012 built off the improvisational advancements of 2010 and 2011, that 2013 will display even further the potential each of these styles of jamming have.

II. Bustouts……Even More Bustouts

Entering 2012 with the ambitious goal of playing 200 different songs throughout their Summer Tour helped to infuse the tour with fresh songs, and ultimately resulted in an anything-goes feeling throughout he tour, and overall year. Since the onset, 3.0 has been chock-full of bustouts like no period in Phish’s history before. Partially due to the fact that the band simply played less shows between 1997 – 2004 than they had in the previous eight years, and thus focused more on rotational songs than rarities. Yet, perhaps even more so, thanks to their emphasis on celebrating their own musical history, Phish has brought many once-forgotten songs like “Fuck Your Face,” “Skin It Back,” “Tela,” “Sparks,” and “Alumni Blues” back from the dead over the past five years. Based upon this trend, and the fact that this is the band’s 30th year of existence, one wouldn’t be too out of place to suggest we can expect more of the same in 2013. Could songs like “Acoustic Army,” “Ain’t Love Funny,” “All Things Reconsidered,” “Amazing Grace,” “Axilla (Part II),” “Bye Bye Foot,” “Chalk Dust Torture Reprise,” “Crossroads,” “Dave’s Energy Guide,” “Dear Mrs. Reagan,” “Don’t You Wanna Go,” “Fourplay/Long Time,” “Izabella,” “The Landlady,” “Lushington,” “Spock’s Brain,” and “Prep School Hippie” be far behind?

III. “Harpua,” “Col. Forbin’s Ascent -> Fly Famous Mockingbird,” and “Icculus”

Believe it or not, but 2012 was the lone year of 3.0 that didn’t feature any of the above songs. Lost in the mix of the band’s musical renaissance were three classics that focus more on the theatrical side of Phish than their musical. While one certainly can’t complain about their exclusion from a year that featured so many highlights across the board, one has to assume they’ll be back this year. A year that’s poised to feature a number of surprises, and referential moments towards the band’s legacy, each of these three songs would fit perfectly with the overall vibe of the year. Be it in Toronto or Alpharetta, or even in Chicago, each of these songs are welcome at any show, for they immediately raise the bar in terms of energy and historical significance.

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IV. A Substantial Fall Tour That Builds Off The Achievements Of Summer

For as boundary pushing as the last two Summer Tour’s have been, the only thing they’ve clearly suffered from is a lack of Fall Tour to continue pushing their sound further. Just imagine for a second what would have happened to the sounds of Summer ’95, Summer ’97, and Summer 2010 if they hadn’t had a Fall Tour to be fully realized. Then think about how much more consistency the band could have played with, and how much further they could have pushed their music had they spent the last two Fall’s on the road.

By all accounts a Fall Tour is happening this year. The sheer fact of it is nothing to predict. This is Phish’s 30th Anniversary, the rumors are all across the web. What we can predict however, is that, unlike Fall 2009, the Fall 2013 will better resemble Fall 2010 in the way it will push Phish’s sound even further. Rumors of a Halloween show being tossed in there only raise the bar even further, for we know what positive effects practicing and covering full albums have historically had on the band. With a summer set to hit up some of the most storied shed’s in Phish history, we can only imagine how much music they’ll have to build upon with a short break before Fall.

V. A 30th Anniversary Run That Actually Celebrates The Band’s Legacy

If there’s any takeaway from the 2003 Turkey Run it’s the fact that it really couldn’t have honored the band’s twentieth anniversary any less than it did. After a four-month gap following their IT Festival, the Run featured a band in an awkward state of denial over their current health and dismal future. Sure they brought The Dude of Life and Tom Marshall out. Hell, they even brought out Jeff Holdsworth for the first time since 1986. And, yes, there are some intriguing moments throughout, see: “Ghost -> WTU,” “Twist -> Simple,” 12/01, “Piper,” and the “Rock & Roll -> Weekapaug -> Tweezer Reprise -> FranKungstein”. But the historical legacy of the run is more of failure, and foreshadowing, and less of a band fully embracing their historical significance.

Here, however, in the healthy and joyful era of 3.0, you can be certain the band is going to go to great measures to celebrate the fact that after 30 years, they’re still alive, and going strong once again.

VI. More First Set “You Enjoy Myself’s”

Played only seven times in the last two calendar years, “You Enjoy Myself,” has in three of those instances, been played out of it’s normal slot, and in the first set. Expect this to continue. It appears the band really likes its ability to inject fresh energy and intrigue into a show through a first set performance. It’s also proven to help expand Set I’s from what were strictly song-based affairs, into more fluid and jammable mediums.

A noticeable trend throughout 2012 was the band’s re-embracing of the first set. From 06/15 and 06/22 to 07/06, 08/19, and 08/31, Phish attacked their first set’s with energy and a focus on exploration like they hadn’t since 1.0. Further appearances from the band’s seminal song will only solidify their dedication to explore within Set I.

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VII. A Dick’s Run That Will Fail To Live Up To The Hype

With a two week gap between their UIC run and their initial Dick’s Run in 2011, many wondered if Phish would lost steam from their August Tour and play a rusty set of shows to close out the tour. At the time, Dick’s looked more or less like bonus Phish. As it turned out however, Dick’s 2011 turned out to be the run of the year, solidifying 2011 as the year of the three-night-stand’s, and gracing us with some pretty monumental music to keep our faith alive throughout the winter and spring of 2012.

Last year Phish timed everything perfectly, with their whole tour leading up to Dick’s. Easing themselves throughout the tour, they picked their spot’s perfectly, allowing them to be energized and fresh by the time Dick’s came around. As a result, they absolutely tore the soccer stadium to pieces, playing the best show they’ve played in almost a decade, while littering three nights with monumental jams.

This year, there’s a twenty-five-day gap separating their tour finale at the Hollywood Bowl and Dick’s. Many surmised that this break would allow them to have a storied, mid-August NE Festival akin to 1996 – 1998. This, however, has proven to be little more than baseless rumors. Either way, seeing how the band has crushed Dick’s in year’s past, along with the fact that their going to have close to four weeks between their last show and Dick’s, I’ve got to imagine that this is the year Dick’s fails to live up to the hype. This doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be memorable moments throughout, or even a solid show tossed in the mix. Just simply based on the fact that like how Phish can’t crush MSG every single year – nor any other legendary venue – odds are one year is going to be an off year at Dick’s. My gut tells me this year is that year.

My heart on the other hand, has me hoping they come through once again. Anyone who’s been there know’s, there’s a damn good reason they keep coming back to Commerce City.

VIII. A Banner Year For “Harry Hood”

“Harry Hood” has been something of a wandering classic for the last ten-odd years. In 2.0 the band chose to explore it in ways they’d rarely done in the past. In 3.0 it’s shifted between performances that have completely fallen flat, and those that have just almost reached that place. In 2013, one has to imagine that all the time back, the vastly improved chops of Trey, and the inert communication that’s been brewing for five years will lead to a glorious return of one of Phish’s true masterpieces.

Listen closely, and it’s clear, from 09/04/2011 to 08/15/2012, 09/02/2012 to 12/30/2012, slowly but surely the band has been rebuilding “Hood” back to its former glory heard clearest from 1993 – 1996. While still scattered with versions that were either rushed, forced, or just couldn’t quite get there, 2012 was the best year we’ve had for “Hood’s” since the 90’s. In 2013, expect the majority of Hood’s to be the kind of emotive and connective forces that made us fan’s of it so long ago. No better way to celebrate 30 years of Phish than with a transcendent “Hood” after all.

IX. SPAC, Chicago & San Francisco…

Within the first twenty-two shows of the tour are three individual three-night runs. In 2011, Bethel, SuperBall IX, Chicago, and Dick’s reigned as the runs of the year. While 2012 still faired pretty well with AC, SPAC, San Francisco and Dick’s, only SPAC and Dick’s truly mastered the three-show run. Here in 2013, one has got to imagine the SPAC is going to explode with the energy of the band out the gates, the mid-tour stop at Chicago’s Lakefront will produce some particularly inspired music, and their comfort on the road after a month will lead to a three-night romp in San Francisco. With only Dick’s coming at an awkward time within the tour, these three three-night runs are sure to be the most memorable stops of tour. A unique medium, and one that can either bring out the best in the band, or prove how off they are, the three-night run, when played accordingly, usually result’s in some of the most transcendent moments of a tour. With enough time to get settled into a venue, and ideas that build from one show to the next, there’s simply no way they won’t destroy the above runs.

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X. Even More Six & Seven Song Set II’s

Hand-in-hand with the inspired jamming of 2012 came a plethora of six and seven song second set’s. A simple product of mathematics – when you play longer songs, you have to play less of them – the band filled much of the last part of 2012 with a number of inspired sets focused more on their playing, rather than what songs they were playing. Look no further than 08/15/2012, 08/31/2012, 09/02/2012, 12/28/2012, and 12/30/2012 for some of the best examples.

While, in the same sense that longer jams don’t necessarily mean better, there are also examples to the counter, of 10+song second sets that were fantastic – 06/22/2012, 06/28/2012, 07/08/2012, 08/19/2012, and 09/01/2012 per example.

What makes the six and seven song Set II so special is the fact that it offers the band the unique opportunity to fully incorporate flow and thematic music into a cohesive set. These set’s listen more like albums, rather than a simple conglomeration of songs. With an increased focus on improv, expect these types of second sets to become something of a norm in the summer of 2013.

XI. A NYE Show That Totally Delivers

It’s strange to consider, but, for however good as Phish’s NYE Runs typically are, the band has yet to deliver on a monster 12/31 show since 1999. Sure, 12/31/2012 was an all-around fun show to be at, complete with a fully-flowing Set II and a classic gag to ring in 2013, but more often than not, since the 90’s, NYE shows have often felt more like after-parties to the mayhem of 12/29 and 12/30. One’s got to imagine that coming into this NYE Run the band is going to be so amped up from their 30th Anniversary celebrations, along with a complete Fall Tour, that they’re going to finally put everything together to craft a NYE show of lore.

In the past, their best 12/31 shows have revolved around three factors: classic song selections, monumental jamming, and ideal gag’s that fit perfectly with the music. Look back at 12/31/1993, 12/31/1995, 12/31/1998, and 12/31/1999 for the best examples. It’s bound to happen one of these years, and it just makes perfect sense that the combination of playing, gimmickry and song selection will come through this year. If you’re on the fence about NYE 2013, man-up and make the commitment. This year has classic NYE Run written all over it.

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That does it for tackle & lines 2013 Phish Predictions. As with all these types of columns, the key is to read them for pleasure, and take them with a grain of salt. At this time last year few could have ever predicted the year of Phish we were in for.

Hope everyone’s looking forward to tour as much as we are! Please feel free to leave comments, thoughts, suggestions and rants to the column as we will respond to any and all questions.

Why Can’t They Take Golden Age Out There?

2012_12_30_04Perhaps the most appropriate cover Phish has played in all of 3.0, the infectious TV On The Radio quasi-indie-hit “Golden Age” is at something of a creative crossroads as we head into 2013.

Long before the June 2010 tour that featured seemingly one new – and totally obscure – cover every night, there was the 11/27/2009 Set II, way-out-of-left-field debut of “Golden Age.” A performance which shocked the fanbase at the time, it immediately appeared to have granted the band their most jam-happy cover since “Crosseyed & Painless” and “Rock & Roll” entered the rotation more than a decade before. Bubbling with syncopated grooves, a communicable melody, and lyrics that spoke directly to Phish’s current state, it seemed a no brainer that the ten-minute version that highlighted the first night of Albany would quickly grow to join “Light,” “Down With Disease,” “Rock & Roll,” and “Drowned” as the reliable jam vehicles of 3.0.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2009-11-27/golden-age

Nearly a year would go by however before we’d hear the song again, when, on 10/11/2010 it opened the second set of the middle show of the largely forgettable Broomfield, CO run. Eight months later it returned, once again, out of nowhere, opening up the second set on an inconsistent Wednesday night in Darien Lakes. For whatever reason, from there on it firmly entered a 5 – 10 show rotation for Phish.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2010-10-11/golden-age

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2011-06-08/golden-age

While up until this point, the “jam” had remained largely contained, the song’s next performance – opening the third set of the 07/02/2011 Super Ball IX show – would display, for the first time, “Golden Age’s” improvisational potential. Seamlessly building off the dance-heavy beats of the song’s origin, the band moved it swiftly away from melody, into something of a Mike-Trey staccatoed duel. Menacing, deranged, invigorating, and constantly moving, the jam spent it’s first four-ish minutes figuring out if it was going to self-implode or not, before Mike and Fish discovered a more structured type of foundation to push forward, thus allowing Trey and Page to enrich the song with plinko’d scales.

The key here was a distinct focus on the song’s rhythm, rather than on the soaring melody that accompanied it’s populist chorus. Taking a cue from the band’s plinko jams of the last two years, and the schizophrenic “Boogie On Reggae Woman” from 05/27/2011, the jam ultimately resembled something totally un-Phish like, at least in their current state. At times it sounds like a totally different band, like, perhaps what a looser incarnation of Atoms For Peace would sound like.

And yet, while there are certainly moments of brilliance throughout – check out the segment from 11:21 – 12:05 in particular – overall, the emphasis placed on the beat appears to be a barrier that the band keeps running into, rather than an opening to further exploration. After about seven minutes of jamming, it ends abruptly with a Trey-led segue into “Prince Caspian.” While one can hardly fault the band for not figuring out how to “properly jam” a song the first time they attempt to, the inability to get past the initial segment of beat-driven discorse can tell us a lot about why Phish has struggled up until this point to truly break “Golden Age” open.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2011-07-02/golden-age

Since it’s performance on 07/02/2011, the song has been played 14 more times. Out of that, only 3 of those versions have been truly memorable, or worth revisiting. That is, unless of course you happened to be at a show it was played at, and have a particular emotional tie to a specific version. While one can’t argue the fact that it’s just a damn fun song to hear live, to this point, only the 07/03/2012, 09/01/2012, and 12/29/2012 versions have truly pushed the song beyond it’s structural limits into some sense of transcendence. And of these, 07/03/2012 truly stands out as the only version where the band has capably navigated into the ether, displaying the infinite possibilities of the song.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2012-09-01/golden-age

Still, though, each of these performances has fallen short of totally pushing the song past an initial jam segment, and into the complete vastness of exploratory jamming. Each, falling under 15 minutes, has come to resemble the multitude of jams from 2009 and 2010 that, while yes, they’d traversed beyond the confines of “Rock and Roll,” “Drowned,” and “Down With Disease,” couldn’t quite turn that corner into open space, instead opting for ambient washes and a fade into the next song.

So, the question bears asking at this point: what’s the deal with “Golden Age”? Why can’t the band seem to figure out how to take a song that lyrically speaks directly to the sentiments of 3.0, and musically caters to each of their individual musical specialties out past the structural barriers of the song, and into the unknown potential it clearly has?

I have a theory that the current problem with the song as a jam vehicle rests in the fact that the band is simply focusing too much energy on jamming based on the frenetic beats of the song, and less on developing space to jam within. As has been argued at length here on tackle & lines, Phish is at their best musically when they step back and allow the music to develop itself. Rarely are they successful when they try to force ideas.

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While, yes, much of their brilliance in the early-90’s was due in large part to this exact form of forced inspiration through their speed-jazz jams, the “Include Your Own Hey” exercise, and many of the abstract, shape-shifting jams of 1994, it was, in reality, an altogether different time, and, they an altogether different band. They toured relentlessly, and practiced even more so, thus catering to said freneticism in their music. Since their peak musical month of December 1995 however, and the evolution to sparser, more ambient-driven jams, the majority of the band’s success has occurred when they step back from the music, and accept their role as conduits to a larger musical force, rather than drivers.

In 3.0, this hurdle of allowing the music to guide them, rather than the other way around, took much of their first 18-months back together to totally accept and integrate within. Even then, Phish spent much of the latter part of 2010 and 2011 still fighting off the habitual tendencies to take control of their music. 2012 was far and away the best year Phish has had in the past decade, much of it due to their acceptance that if they just kept playing, innovative ideas were right around the corner. It makes sense then, that three of the four best versions of “Golden Age” have come in the past year. And yet, for all the improvisational success they were finding at Dick’s and MSG – I mean, they found a way to substantially jam “Farmhouse” and “Prince Caspian,” after all – “Golden Age” still remained that confusing outlier that displayed a band somewhat incapable of letting go and allowing the music to dictate their path.

While both the 09/01/2012 and 12/29/2012 have moments of connection, each suffer from this overt focus on the beat, which in turn adds far more noise and activity to the jam than is productive for a jam to flourish. In many ways, “Golden Age,” at this point in it’s existence, is reminiscent of “Light” prior to the 08/07/2010 version. While yes, we’d had the 08/07/2009 calypso jam, and the 11/01/2009 descent into Hell, overall, “Light” had become something of an inconsistent mess of whale call’s, disjointed rhythms, and an total lack of communication that prevented the song from realizing it’s full potential. Then, out of nowhere came the Greek “Light”: a patient, gorgeous version that built off a simple melody and displayed how far the song could traverse.

If the key to any substantial jamming is to be found in “Golden Age,” one need to look no further than the Trey and Page interwoven melodies from 8:17 – 8:46 on the 07/03/2012 version, which directly led to Trey deliberately opening up his playing, allowing more sound to grow within the notes. As Page follows suit – injecting the jam with a hushed, contemplative, and yet, somewhat errie piano line – Mike and Fish noticeably tone down their aggressive beats. Still rooted in electronica, their playing becomes muted as the jam shifts into another dimension. Touching on ambient themes, and a brief foray into soft rock, the jam ultimately fades away into nothing. It’s short, for sure, but it gives a hint as to where the song could go if the band allowed it the opportunity to breathe in the future.

As Phish has displayed time and again in their 3.0 evolution, the key to jamming at this point in their career is with a less-is-more approach. From the 12/31/2009 “Ghost,” and 08/07/2010 “Light,” to the 07/03/2011 “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” and 06/22/2012 “Twist,” when they get out of the way of the music they’re far more apt to discover untapped melodies, and vast open space that lead to groundbreaking jams. For a song that speaks to Phish’s current state like few others, and one that is so clearly being given the platform to dominate a show, one can only hope that Phish can figure out how to take “Golden Age” out there. Based on the evolutionary steps forward of the last few years, one wouldn’t be too surprised if this were the summer that finally featured an array of creative, boundary-pushing, and exploratory jams based off of “Golden Age.”

The Legacy Of The Dick’s Light

543621_10151001266261290_1182845659_nIn the spring of 2009, in the nascent days of Phish 3.0, the band choicely debuted two songs that have come to shape the entire era. In their inaugural second set of 3.0 they introduced “Backwards Down The Number Line,” a song that not only bore the seedlings of Phish’s reunion, but has also come to symbolize the celebratory and communal spirit surrounding their return. Three months later, on the first night of their summer tour, the band unveiled “Light” by way of a noise-ladened segue out of “Tweezer.” While the former song will forever be associated with the unbridled joy surrounding Phish’s return in 2009, “Light” has since come to represent the constantly evolving state of Phish in 3.0. No performance of the song clearly displays its potential, its power, and its ability to push Phish beyond what they once thought possible in this era, than the 24-minute raucous jam on 09/01/2012 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, CO.

In the nine months since that performance, the Dick’s “Light” has been adorned with literally every accolade a jam could receive. It’s been called the best jam of 3.0, a top-25 jam of Phish’s entire career, a game-changing moment, the best jam since the Nassau “Tweezer,” the onset of Phish 4.0, et al. While the jam is certainly deserving of a few of those superlatives, and while it clearly represented a shape-shifting moment in the now four-year-old experiment of Phish 3.0, it’s legacy is somewhat more complicated – and overall, more rewarding – than a four-word soundbite can accurately conclude. To fully appreciate and understand the legacy of the Dick’s “Light,” however, we must revisit the building block moments that led to it.

2009

If the manner in which “Light” was debuted on 05/31/2009 was any indication of the potential the song possessed, it was buried within the subtle nod of its emergence, from the cauldron of a fading “Tweezer” jam. The mother-of-all Phish jams, it was all too fitting for this era’s main jam vehicle to be ushered into existence from the former’s embers, regardless of the fact that that night’s performance of “Light” concluded not with a jam, but rather promptly with a lovely, fluttering and layered melodic vocal jam. Two weeks later, the band gave a bit more of an indication of how they planned to use “Light” when it appeared once again from the depths of a noise jam, this time out of “Rock & Roll,” before going on to produce a stunning, beatless, ambient, noise-based jam itself.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2009-05-31/light

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2009-06-14/light

We would only hear “Light” twice in the next five months, however both performances would rank as the two best of the year, and would provide the band with important creative reference points when returning to the jam in the future. In the vast nothingness of central Washington, the band dropped a second set “Light” that would display both a willingness to explore, and a keen desire to diversify the jam, by infusing calypso melodies and vocal harmonies into the song’s open-ended jam. A performance that ranked as the best version of the song until exactly one year later, the Gorge “Light” still reigns as one of the most rewarding and creatively prodding moments of 3.0. Three months later, in the waning moments of Festival 8, “Light” emerged wholly unexpectedly, diving, this time, back into a swamp of noise. Displaying a eagerness to explore the underworld like they hadn’t since 2004, the jam proved that the key to future success within “Light” was an egoless approach, and a willingness to accept whatever direction unfolded once they’d moved past the song’s melodic conclusion.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2009-08-07/light

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2009-11-01/light

We’d see the song six more times throughout the 2009, and, while each performance displayed the band’s willingness to take chances like they simply wouldn’t with much of the rest of their material, only the version from 12/02/2009 truly hooked up in the ways its brilliant predecessors did.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2009-12-02/light

At the end of 2009, two things were blatantly clear: “Light” was the closest thing we had to a fully-formed jam vehicle in the batch of Joy songs, and, its best performances were driving the band further into the unknown than they were willing to go with much of the rest of their material.

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2010

For their first second set of the second year of 3.0, Phish aptly chose “Light” to open. Pushing deep into a polyrhythmic noise jam that bordered constantly on internal destruction, the 06/11/2010 “Light” was reminiscent more of the failed experiments of the previous fall, than the two peak performances we’d heard in Washington and California. The remainder of the First Leg of the 2010 Summer Tour featured an array of “Light” jams in this model: the band pressing deep into unknown territory, yet unable to fully hook-up and create any memorable musical passages out of their experiments. Aside from aspects of the Raleigh “Light” on July 1st, no version truly transgressed beyond initial concepts that, under the weight of so much combined pressure and noise, seemed to be infringing on the basic concepts of improvisational jamming that “Light” had initially appeared to cater so well to.

Namely, a dedication to a simple back-and-forth musical conversation, what had made the 08/07/2009 and 11/01/2009 “Light’s” so compelling and influential was the fact that the band listened to each other throughout, while allowing a necessary amount of space to develop within the jam, all leading to a singular concept being followed, and a transgressive jam being created. Whatever inspiration and focus was at play in the two aforementioned versions reared it’s head again on the final night of the Greek Run, which had already proven to be a giant leap forward for a band who one month earlier looked increasingly lost. Moving aggressively through the song’s caustic post-lyrical jam, the entire band backed off around 8-minutes in, perhaps allowing the breeze from the Bay, the archaic, and cozy confines they were playing in, and the historical legacy of the Dead to overtake them over the course of the jam’s final nine minutes. A patient, spacey, melodic, gorgeous jam followed, rewarding both band and fan’s alike for their patience with the ever-pesky young jam vehicle.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2010-08-07/light

Two months would go by once again before another substantial version was heard, this time in Augusta, ME. Two weeks into a Fall Tour that had yet to fully realize it’s promise, the band used a tiny college basketball arena in the center of Maine to not only confirm the fact that the second night of Charleston was not a fluke show, but also to grace us with THE jam of the year, and an all-time version of “Light.” Incorporating the melodic rhythms of the Gorge version with the spacious patience and simplicity of the Greek’s, the segment from 8:51 – 11:01 is some of the most hooked-up Phish you’ll hear out of them in this era, and on par with some of the best two minutes of music the band has simply ever made. Proof that the key to success with “Light” was simplicity, rhythmic brilliance, and sublime melodies, the song was a microcosm of Phish in the Fall of 2010; on the cusp of rediscovering their past greatness, yet still incapable of summoning the inspiration, focus, and communication on a nightly basis.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2010-10-19/light

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2011

Yet another ten months would pass until we’d hear another “Light” on the level of the four peaks it had experienced in it’s young history. While it had settled firmly in the five-show rotation, and while it’s two successive performances on the Fall 2010 Tour showed continual potential and advancement, the song ultimately fell flat throughout the June 2011 Tour. A tour that started with such promise in Bethel ultimately sputtered as it moved southward, and “Light” was never allotted the type of focus that a centerpiece jam deserves. While it’s Superball IX performance midway through the second set of one of the best shows of 3.0 featured a patient jam that led to a rewarding rhythmic jam, it ultimately fell a tad short of the expectations that were now associated with it.

In a parking lot-turned-venue on the shores of Lake Tahoe, Phish stole a page out of the Storage Jam, infusing “Light” with a kaleidoscopic jam that teetered on the edge of destruction numerous times, yet ultimately proved to be one of the most transgressive jams of the year. Diverging completely from the melodic jams that had come to define the best performances of “Light,” the song wholly embraced space and rhythm while focusing heavily on demented passages that only a month earlier typically signified the song’s demise. Displaying a dexterity that, to this point, the song had yet to fully embrace, the Tahoe “Light” was nothing less than the precursor to a vast array of innovative “Light’s” in 2012 that would ultimately pave the path to the incredible Dick’s version.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2011-08-09/light

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2012

While we’d have to once again wait another ten months for a mesmerizing version of the song, 2012 will forever be remembered as not only the year the band fully rediscovered what it meant to be Phish again, but also the year “Light” fully arrived as THE jam vehicle of 3.0. Beginning with the “Light -> Manteca -> Light” version on 06/16/2012, the band played six top-tier versions of the song over the course of the summer. From the playful and rhythmic “Manteca” laced, “Crosseyed” teased version in Atlantic City, came the re-birth of the calypso jam in “Light” in a version sandwiched within a phenomenal “Mike’s Groove” in Burgettstown. A week later at Alpine Valley, they showcased a completely different version than had ever been played. Abandoning any concept of rhythmic influence, the band instead opted for a subdued version that ultimately bled into a blissful Trey-Mike-Page duel. On the last night of the Summer Tour’s First Leg, they again dropped a masterpiece, here infusing the theme of the jam from the 08/07/2009 “Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley,” using the “Light” jam as something of a historical reference point to how far they’d come in the past three years.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2012-06-23/light

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2012-07-01/light

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2012-07-08/light

The massively hyped BGCA shows in San Francisco finally proved worthy of their ballyhoo in the final show of the run. The second set of 08/19 in particular featured some of the most locked-in, adventurous playing on the year, heard particularly in the high-octane “Light” that emerged from this era’s finest “Crosseyed & Painless.” Combining many of the reference points of the monumental “Light’s” of the past, the jam drove forward with exacting rhythmic interplay, while still retaining a source of melodic brilliance and simplicity. Evolving one step beyond however, the jam incorporated a rock foundation, the likes of which we’d never before heard with “Light.” Building towards a spectacular peak that referenced “Tweezer Reprise” before segueing into “Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley,” the jam foreshadowed the Dick’s version ten days later while still carving out a space for itself in the growing pantheon of top-shelf “Light’s.”

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2012-08-19/light

After four years of Phish 3.0 “Light” remains as the band’s go-to jam vehicle, on par with “Tweezer,” “Down With Disease,” and “Rock & Roll” as the band’s most reliable song’s with which to launch willfully into the unknown. And yet, up until 09/01/2012, no version of “Light” had ever crossed the ominous 20-minute mark that’s historically been the gauge by which all the band’s best jam vehicles have been judged by. While 3.0 Phish has been unique in the band’s ability to access that place far more quickly than ever before, there is still something about the jams that extend past 20-minutes. Encompassing such time and such space, they force the band to work through various themes, typically resulting in a segment(s) of music that historically outlast 99% of the entire music they’ve made.

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The Dick’s “Light”

The first thing one needs to know about the Dick’s “Light” is that it almost never happened. Seriously, listen to the segment from 7:09 – 11:10, and you’ll hear a band that simply can’t hook up. At times it sounds like the jam will be abandoned completely and they’ll opt for an easy segue into “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” Mike and Trey aren’t even reading the same book, and Fishman’s rhythmic playfulness borders on the overbearing confusion that defined so many failed “Light’s” over the years. Had the band given up and moved on with the set it would have been a colossal failure, the likes of which they probably couldn’t have recovered from for the rest of the weekend. At the halfway point in the tour-closing weekend, Phish had already played hand’s down their best show of 3.0 the night before. The worry now however, was that they’d blown their load too quickly, and would sputter to the end of summer, rather than conclude it with the inspired play that had defined it’s entirety. For however epic the “Run Like An Antelope” opener had been, or the “Tweezer -> Fluffhead” segment in Set I, there was something of a tense anxiety hanging over the 09/01 show, as many in the crowd wondered if they had anything left to top, or, at least match the power of the FUCK YOUR FACE show.

At 13:04 Trey begins toying with his effects, and moves the driving groove they’d been residing in for the past two minutes into a minored key. The musical shift has an immediate effect on the band as Mike sharpens his funk-ladend support, Fishman begins pounding away with a heavier approach, and Page moves to the clav, thus layering over the seductive groove the band has going. Akin to their best jams from 1997, the section is completely reliant on the powerful foundation established by Mike and Fish, which in turn allows Trey and Page to flutter on the surface, establishing melody, and driving the jam forward. By 13:45 it’s clear we’re in this jam for the long haul. Trey instigates a flurry of clean, melodic soloing, displaying a level of comfort within the jam, while also referencing some of the best moments in the band’s history; often times they get so deep into a jam, that they inadvertently start writing new songs in the moment.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2012-09-01/light

At 15:36 the jam turns dark again as Trey instigates a sinister rock riff. As the jam becomes more intense it also becomes more focused and driven, and it’s becoming clear where we’re heading. Historically, the band’s most rewarding jams have been those that explored a vast array of musical dimensions over a period of time, before leading into a peaking jam that, thanks to their emphasis on the theory of tension and release, created a enthralling, celebratory, and ultimately tribal experience for anyone in attendance, while recreating itself accordingly for anyone listening in the future. A concept that had been essentially unattainable in the 3.0 era, many of the band’s jams failed to reach the 20-min threshold that typically cater to these types of moments, because they’d either been incapable of pushing their improv totally into the unknown while still staying focused on an end goal, or because they’d abandon any such goal midway through jam, opting instead for another song.

As the band built a foundation for a massive release of energy, the tension that had hung over the venue until this point faded, replaced instead by a collective energy, all focused on the driven music emanating from the stage. In line with the best music they’ve ever made, the Dick’s “Light” was ultimately rooted in a simple rock-based jam that felt like it could be recreated by any band. Yet, that’s exactly where the power of Phish comes into play. Four resoundingly talented musicians, who, at the peak of their power could interweave fugues and 7/8 time signatures into their songs, Phish is ultimately at their best when they abandon their challenging musical concepts, and instead focus on space, melody, and communication.

When at 20:09 the band released the tension for the first time in a heavy-handed peak, the stadium went nuts. The collective release of energy and emotion was palpable. Another peak at 20:29 only further raised the bar on the jam. Yet nothing could have prepared anyone for the segment from 21:08 – 22:45 which featured not one, not two, not three, but four massive peaks of music, some of the best guitar work we’ve heard out of Trey in years, and a massive outpouring of unintelligible cheering in the crowd that made one feel like their favorite team had just won the World Series. Glancing at the stage one could see the band was just as thrilled by the music as the audience. After four years back together, they had finally reached the peak of the mountain once more.

While not the best jam of the year – that would come the next night in the absolutely epic “Sand” – what the Dick’s “Light” represented was a complete microcosm of everything Phish had been working towards since they discussed reuniting for the first time in mid-2008. After all the struggles. After all the ripcorded jams. After all the shows where they just couldn’t hook up. After all the questions surrounding Trey’s ability to still master the guitar, everything had come together in one jam that summed up everything that was incredible about Phish in 2012. The fact that it occurred within the confines of their 3.0 jam vehicle, made it all the more rewarding and memorable. A song that debuted with so much raw potential, fans and band alike waded through a multitude of mediocre versions interspersed with these great leaps forward, each of which led in some way to the version played on 09/01/2012.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the lasting power of the Dick’s “Light” came in the following song, “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” The song they’d almost abandoned “Light” for, this was the loosest and most playful version one could imagine. It sounds throughout like the band just took the biggest shit of their lives, now feeling re-born, re-energized. A performance that will outlast the 3.0, the legacy of the Dick’s “Light” is one of proof that when Phish works towards a musical goal, no matter how long it may take them to achieve this goal, once they do – and as tackle & lines has pointed out continuously, they always do – it results in a collective moment of celebratory release and communal elation. Part of the reason we go from concert to concert, city to city, webcast to webcast, and listen to hours upon hours of Phish shows in our free time, we’re always keenly aware that, just around the corner may be the next Dick’s “Light.”

*Special thanks to phishtracks.com for the song links

The Structure Of A Show – Set II Opener

Dick'sAnd then, after a “fifteen minute break,” they’re back.

Whereas when Phish hits the stage prior to Set I there’s a general sense of euphoria surrounding the unknown, and the newness of being at a show again, by the time the band return’s from their setbreak, we’re all well entrenched to the experience of a Phish show. Seen in the rainbow of glowsticks scattered across the stage, there’s a more settled feeling to the onset of Set II than there is to the show’s opener. The cathartic release of Set I behind us, it’s time to get down to business. Upon entrance, the band is of course greeted once again to a rousing applause, yet here the sentiment is more one of focused energy, rather than blissful exultation.

Simply put, Set II is where shows are won and lost. And, increasingly over the last two eras of Phish, the Set II Opener is typically seen as the crux of the entire show. Perhaps the most crucial song played all night, the Set II Opener plays the role of either picking the band up right where they left off in the first set, or redirecting them into uncharted waters. Further, much of what is played in Set II, both stylistically, and song-wise, are determined specifically off their Set II Opener.

In the same way that the second set has evolved in far more dramatic ways over the years than the commonly more song-based first set, the Set II Opener has too evolved substantially. From what was once just another high-energy number out the gates, to, now, a fluid slot that can become a massive Type II jam, Set II Openers can often lead to a rock-based set, lull the crowd with a sleepy and subtle entrance, or, can surprise fans on the level of many of the shocking Show Openers. The two biggest keys that separates the Set II Opener from the Show Opener however, are the simple fact that prior to the Show Opener there’s no single part of the show played yet that can help gauge what song to play, and, the fact that the second set opener often carries a far more sinister, and “anything goes” sentiment with it. Because of this, the second set opener is certainly far more influenced by the music that came before it than the Show Opener. In essence, there are just those shows that feel like “Down With Disease,” or “Tweezer,” or “Axilla,” or “Chalk Dust Torture” need to open their second set’s.

What was once linked closely with the high-energy numbers that opened both Set I and II, the Set II Openers are now, without question, the most common slot to expect a jam from the band. In fact, in the highly unscientific perusing of my iTunes library – where I have upwards of 300 Phish shows stashed away, mind you – I discovered that, no less than 160 Set II Openers since 1995 have been a 10+ minute jam. A trend that began in the psychedelic summer of 1995, one can more or less predict that, if they’re to hear an open-ended jam while walking into a Phish show, chances are it’s gonna come during the Set II Opener.

What follows is Part IV of VIII in tackle & lines series on The Structure Of A Show. Each category contains write-ups, examples, and video clips for better understand. As with the articles on Set I, the goal of this 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 their shows – here in the medium of the Set II Opener. This is not a means to rank the best openers, or the best shows, versus the weakest – though negative habits and instances will be discussed – instead it is seeking to find points of connection across various eras – and within each – while pointing out their differences. Hope you guys enjoy the piece, we’re now just a month from 03 July!

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I. The Classics

As with each of the other write-ups, there are just certain songs that feel like a proper Set II Opener. Be it their ability to jam, the number of times they’ve opened a second set, or just the sound they contain which fits so seamlessly with second sets, the following songs are the classics because they’re simply ubiquitous with the opening of second sets. From a purely numbers standpoint, these songs have each opened no less than 24 Set II’s, and 246 total second sets. Anyone going to a Phish show has a 15% chance of hearing one of the following six songs open a second set, no small feat.

Examples: ‘2001,’ ‘Down With Disease,’ ‘Mike’s Song,’ ‘The Curtain,’ ‘Tweezer,’ ‘Rock & Roll’

While two of the songs on this list relinquished their role as regular Set II Openers around 1996 – “2001” and “The Curtain” – statistically they’ve garnered so many appearances in this slot that to many fans they will always sound like Set II Openers. Aside from that slight technicality, there’s just something about a second set opening with a monster “Down With Disease,” “Tweezer,” “Rock & Roll,” or an old-school “Mike’s” that just feels right. Scanning the lineage of Phish’s career, there are so many classic shows, and classic second sets that opened with these songs. Off the top of my head: 12/30/1993, 03/20/1992, 08/14/1993, 06/11/1994, 06/26/1995, 10/21/1995, 12/11/1995, 12/14/1995, 08/17/1996, 11/27/1996, 08/02/1997, 08/17/1997, 11/17/1997, 11/19/1997, 12/02/1997, 12/06/1997, 12/29/1997, 07/01/1998, 07/17/1998, 08/12/1998, 08/16/1998, 12/30/1998, 07/10/1999, 07/24/1999, 07/31/1999, 10/02/1999, 06/15/2000, 06/28/2000, 07/11/2000, 09/17/2000, 02/16/2003, 02/20/2003, 02/28/2003, 07/18/2003, 07/23/2003, 08/02/2003, 12/02/2003, 12/29/2003, 08/10/2004, 08/15/2004, 03/07/2009, 03/08/2009, 05/31/2003, 08/01/2009, 08/08/2009, 08/14/2009, 12/03/2009, 12/31/2009, 07/03/2010, 07/04/2010, 08/06/2010, 10/22/2010, 10/23/2010, 12/30/2010, 05/28/2011, 06/03/2011, 08/16/2011, 09/03/2011, 09/04/2011, 06/08/2012, 06/20/2012, 06/22/2012, 06/28/2012, 08/15/2012, 08/22/2012, 12/28/2012, and 12/30/2012 all opened their second sets with one of the six above songs. Further proof that these songs are just the classic way for the band to usher in a second set.

II. The Guaranteed Jam

As was pointed out above, if you’re going to hear an open-ended jam at a Phish show, chances are you’re going to hear it in the Set II Opener. The combined released of the energy in Set I and the unknown quality to the onset of Set II lends itself perfectly to a captivating jam out the gates. Whenever the lights drop following setbreak, and the band kicks into one of the following eleven songs one’s almost guaranteed a lengthy, often experimental, wholly unique, and at times game-changing jam to be unveiled in real time.

Examples: ‘Down With Disease,’ ‘Tweezer,’ ‘Rock & Roll,’ ‘Drowned,’ ‘Ghost,’ ‘Piper,’ ‘Sand,’ ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Seven Below,’ ’46 Days,’ ‘Twist’

As anyone in attendance at 08/17/1997, 02/28/2003, 08/08/2009, 09/14/2000, 09/12/1999, 07/19/2003, 09/02/2012, 11/23/1997, 06/25/2004, 06/17/2004, and 07/30/2003 can attest, once they heard one of the above songs start the second set, they knew they were in for a wild ride. While the band has been increasingly prone to cut even some of the above songs short at times here in the 3.0 era, throughout their history they’ve proven to be so ubiquitous with the concept of Phish’s improv, that one has to at least anticipate a jam emerging from them when they do in fact hear them nowadays. Regardless of current tendencies, throw on any show between 1995 and 2003 that opens with one of the above eleven songs and you’re almost guaranteed at least a 15 minute jam, and in many cases, even a 20+. For those of us who love Type II Phish, these songs, in this slot, is just where it’s at.

III. The Sinister Assault

While the role of the Set II Opener has come to represent a guaranteed jam for many-a-fan, it’s original task was similar to the Show Opener, being more of a quick punch to the eventual set. Still used from time to time – increasingly more here in the 3.0 era – the band will opt for a quick burst of energy before getting down to business. A move that initially leaves the possibilities of the set up in the air – these songs can just as easily lead to rock-based Set II’s, and they can more experimental driven ones – they’re used more to rile up a crowd, and, presumably the band, in anticipation for the set to come.

Examples: ‘Wilson,’ ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ ‘Llama,’ ‘Buried Alive,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Maze,’ ‘Carini,’ ‘Split Open & Melt,’ ‘The Sloth’

While some of the above songs have been used from time-to-time as jam vehicles, their most known in this setting for their role as immediate bursts of energy to kick of a second set. Just throw on 08/07/2010, 08/06/2011, 07/13/2003, 11/27/1998, 07/08/2012, 11/14/1995, 12/28/2010, 12/07/1995, and 08/14/2010 and you’ll hear how powerful a way each of the above songs is at opening a second set. While staying more or less contained in their own structures, their energy has an undeniable affect on the set that follows, leading, in each case, to massive throwdowns. Perhaps not the most anticipated approach to a second set, these songs nevertheless prove to raise the energy of a show substantially, something that can never be argued with.

IV. The Composed Approach

In the same sense as this section in the Show Opener’s piece, the following songs are some of the band’s most cherished classics, and most fans would be absolutely thrilled to hear them open a Set II of any show they were at. While rarely featured in this slot ever since the band took on a more improvisational approach with the Set II Opener, their composed classics used to usher in numerous second sets in the band’s early years. All told, the following seven songs have combined to open 79 second sets, with “David Bowie” leading the way with 25 appearances in the slot. A monumental occasion were it to happen today, these songs represent a bygone era where the first and second set shared far more in common than they do now.

Examples: ‘David Bowie,’ ‘The Landlady,’ ‘Reba,’ ‘Stash,’ ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘Fluffhead,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself’

A bona fide rarity in the modern age of Phish, only “Stash” and “David Bowie” remain as plausible rotational options for the Set II Opener, and even that’s a stretch. Still, as anyone who attended, or has heard 12/03/1997, 12/28/1990, 10/25/1995, 12/31/2003, 04/20/1989, 02/08/1988, or 09/21/1987 can tell you, these songs each worked in ideal fashion when thrust into the role. A welcome addition to the band’s 30th anniversary year, tossing a couple of their composed classics into the Set II Opener slot would both make Phish stat geeks go crazy, while adding some historical lore to whatever show they appeared in.

V. The Quick Punch

Akin in some ways to the sinister assault, these following ten songs distinguish themselves for the fact that, while their essential role is to provide a shot of adrenaline to a second set, they each do it with such an immediacy, such a quick burst of energy, that they’re almost forgotten by the time they’re over. Used in many ways to segue into a lengthier jam, these songs have been featured throughout the years to essentially set up a set, and wake the band and crowd back up from their setbreak lull. While a few of them have evolved into legitimate Set II Opening jams, in their origins, they were continually thought of as the quick punch that announced the onset of Set II, before fading into a lengthier jam that would come to dominate the overall set.

Examples: ‘2001,’ ‘Llama,’ ‘Buried Alive,’ ‘The Landlady,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Halley’s Comet,’ ‘Peaches En Regalia,’ ‘The Sloth,’ ‘Party Time,’ ‘Ha Ha Ha’

From 06/22/1994 to 07/19/1998, 02/26/1997 to 12/28/1990, 12/28/1997 to  12/01/1995 to 09/14/1999, 07/15/1992, 06/12/2011, and 12/04/1996, each of these songs have perfectly sprung us out of setbreak and into the second set with an energized kick that simply can’t be matched. Not only pulling everyone out of setbreak, they also segued into a lengthier jam, thus creating a proper bridge between reality, and the anything-goes spirit of a second set. One of the best Set II Opener’s one can hear, they generally display a fun-loving spirit for the band, almost always resulting in memorable sets.

VI. The Laid-Back Easers

Completely opposite to the previous section, these are the openers where the band takes their time easing into a set, allowing any sentiments towards the show breathe, rather than immediately diving into a jam or assaulting the crowd with energy. Often times hinting at a more contemplative mood within the band, these openers often catch a crowd off guard, yet can many times be full of rewards. Leading to potential jams, or segueing directly into a jam, these songs work in similar ways to the quick punches and the sinister assaults, yet with the opposite mood.

Examples: ‘Makisupa Policeman,’ ‘Ya Mar,’ ‘Lengthwise,’ ‘NICU,’ ‘Limb By Limb,’ ‘ ‘Waves,’ ‘The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday’

While most fans typically correlate an opener with a high-energy number, these songs turn that theory on it’s head, while often times proving to be just as emotionally captivating as the band’s more raucous songs. Check out 12/29/1995, 12/30/1995, 08/17/2010, 12/13/1997, 07/15/1998, 02/15/2003, and 10/31/1987 to see how well these songs worked as Set II Openers. As a general rule, the unexpected is always the best approach with Phish. As each of these songs display, when the band is at their most unexpected, it’s often the best opportunity to sit back and just enjoy whatever show you’re witnessing or listening to. While a bit against the grain to their typical Set II Opener approach, the laid-back easers are, nonetheless just as engaging an entrance into the second set as any.

VII. The Old-School Hits

Some sets, and some shows just call for the old-school hits. The old reliables, some of which have been with the band since their inception, they’re the guaranteed crowd pleasers, sometimes just what the band needs to kick off a set. Sure to result in a boon of energy from the audience to the stage, these songs don’t so much create any sense of the unknown when they open a Set II, for the could just as easily open Set I, rather they’re there to trigger the remembered sensation of why we fell in love with Phish in the first place. Many of these songs are the earliest fans hear when being introduced to Phish, and, while they’re rarely the songs anyone would pick to open a second set, they do tend to add an old-school dimension to whatever show they appear in.

Examples: ‘Runaway Jim,’ ‘Suzy Greenberg,’ ‘Golgi Apparatus,’ ‘Possum,’ ‘AC/DC Bag,’ ‘Sample In A Jar’

First ballot tracks on any sort of Phish Greatest Hits, the above six songs are for the most part called upon in their Set II Opener role to remain within structure. Yet, as any fan knows, “AC/DC Bag” and “Runaway Jim” have numerous times displayed the awesome power of the Set II Opener slot, in expanding their structure, and time and again exploring the unknown. Regardless where the band takes one of these songs in this slot, few can argue with their placement on 06/16/1995, 11/02/1990, 04/27/1993, 10/26/2010, 12/30/1997, or 12/15/1999. Similar in many ways to section IX, these songs either work or they dont. When they do, they inject the show with an old-school feel, surely bolstering the show in some way.

VIII. The Unexpected Gems

While many of the songs in this section have opened their fair share of second sets, there’s always an unexpected thrill that comes with them in this slot. Rarely in a Set II Opener rotation, often times many of these are completely out of the band’s rotation all together, thus when they open a set they create a jolt of electricity to run through the venue based solely on their presence alone. Sometimes leading to a monumental jam, in reality, just the fact that many of these songs are being played is enough to up the energy of their set right from the get-go.

Examples: ‘Timber,’ ‘Crosseyed & Painless,’ ‘Tube,’ ‘Punch You In The Eye,’ ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman,’ ‘My Friend, My Friend,’ ‘Loving Cup’

Remove these seven songs from their placement on 11/28/1997, 06/21/2009, 06/24/2004, 07/23/1997, 09/18/1999, 11/27/2009, and 05/07/1994 and insert any standard opener, and you’ve got a totally different sentiment heading into the set. Upping the ante of their set and show simply with their presence, on the occasions that some of the above songs have been jammed into the unknown, they’ve essentially made their shows right then and there. Akin to the often jarring placement of an easer in the opening slot, these songs prove the power of the unexpected when it comes to Phish.

IX. The Hit Or Miss

Until this point in the essay, the songs featured have more or less been guaranteed hit’s whenever performed. Due to a combination of factors – there’s less pressure on the Set II Opener, and many develop into jams out of their song origin – more songs work as Set II Openers than Set I Openers. Here, however, we find ourself in the first section of songs that could potentially kick the set off on the wrong note. For whatever reason, the following songs either work as Set II Openers, or they don’t. And there’s little room in between. Some of the songs are the kind few would request for a second set opener, and others, while a treat to hear, rely in many ways on their ability to transform into an exploratory jam to fit within this role. Either way, whenever these songs are featured in the Set II Opener slot, fans tend to hold out hope that something will come of them, rather than just sink into the immediacy of the performance.

Examples: ‘Runaway Jim,’ ‘Suzy Greenberg,’ ‘Possum,’ ‘Birds Of A Feather,’ ‘Gotta Jibboo,’ ‘Golden Age,’ ‘Back On The Train,’ ‘Theme From The Bottom’

There are two sides to each of these songs. There’s your 08/11/1998 and 11/18/2009 “Jim,” your 10/08/1990 and 03/13/1991 “Suzy,” your 11/24/2009 and 08/02/1998 “Possum,” 06/04/2011 and 06/29/2000 “Birds,” 07/04/2000 and 08/09/2011 “Jibboo,” 06/08/2011 and 12/29/2012 “Golden Age,” 06/07/2011 and 06/14/2000 “GBOTT,” and your 11/19/1995 and 06/22/1995 “Theme.” Some of these work, some of them don’t, it all depends on the way the band is feeling, and if they find any of the magic in their performance that night. If it’s there, these songs can often times develop into a memorable moment of interplay and exploration. If not, they tend to get the set started on a tepid note that rarely transforms itself into any monumental music made later in the set.

X. The Head Scratchers

Whereas the last section at least provided opportunities for the band to redeem their Set II Opener song selection through their performance, the following songs rarely, if ever, prove to overcome the initial moment they open a set, when the venue lets out a collective, “huh?”. Akin to the crowd groan segment in the Set I Openers essay, these songs just don’t seem to have what it takes to open a second set, yet for whatever reason, the band has gone with them from time to time. Seemingly removing all energy from the venue within seconds of starting, these songs rarely offer any opportunity for Type II interplay, and instead, act as a filler, a well-defined bridge from the setbreak into the second set. The problem with them more than anything is the fact that unless they develop into something outside of their structure, they tend to cater heavily to the type of awkward and uneven sets that offer little in terms of memorability.

Examples: ‘Julius,’ ‘Sample In A Jar,’ ‘Backwards Down The Number Line,’ ‘Poor Heart,’ ‘Heavy Things,’ ‘Bouncing Around The Room,’ ‘Cars Trucks Buses,’ ‘All Of These Dreams’

Regardless how much an apologist you are for the band – and trust me, I tend to be one myself – you can’t really argue that the above eight songs are at the bottom of any fan’s wish list to open a second set. Aside from “Number Line,” none of those songs have proven to evolve into the types of unwavering jams that would make them worth hearing in this slot. Instead, as 10/15/1995, 05/19/1994, 08/05/2009, 04/07/1992, 07/08/2000, 12/17/1995, 09/27/1995, and 08/09/2004 have shown, these songs have typically kicked off some of the less “hooked-up” sets the band has played. While no one should ever discount the potential to be surprised with Phish, until this point, the above song’s track record as a Set II Opener, more or less speaks for itself.

XI. The One-Off’s

Due to the unexpected nature of Phish shows, there are those nights where you’ll hear a song in a slot it’s just never been played in before. Whether to test something out, perhaps as an opportunity to play a random cover, or just because of a wild hair the band’s got that night, from time to time the band will drop a totally unexpected song in a specific slot, only to never feature it there again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, more than anything it leads to anything-goes spirt that accompanies Phish in their approach to the second set.

Examples: ‘After Midnight,’ ‘Big Balls,’ ‘Camel Walk,’ ‘Character Zero,’ ‘Farmhouse,’ ‘First Tube,’ ‘Gumbo,’ ‘Harpua,’ ‘I Am Hydrogen,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Nellie Kane,’ ‘Sabotage,’ ‘Saw It Again,’ ‘Scents & Subtle Sounds,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise,’ ‘Uncle Pen’

While a few of the above songs were received with rave results, and others just didn’t seem to work, few can argue that their sheer presence as a one-time Set II Opener didn’t add a bit of variety to each of the shows they appeared in. Check out 05/31/2011, 07/03/2011, 08/04/1988, 11/26/1997, 09/28/1999, 09/20/2000, 08/03/1998, 10/28/1989, 01/21/1987, 06/11/2010, 05/29/1994, 11/21/1998, 12/12/1997, 12/04/2009, 12/15/1995, and 04/26/1991 for examples of each of the above songs being featured as Set II Openers. From the above list, one would be hard-pressed not to hope for another “After Midnight,” “First Tube,” “Gumbo,” “Harpua,” “Light,” “Sabotage,” “Saw It Again,” “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” and “Tweezer Reprise” Set II Opener at some point in the future. Fingers crossed.

XI. The One’s That Should Open More Set II’s

Related in some ways to the above section, the following songs are simply those that, while featured from time-to-time as Set II Opener’s, really deserve to be played in that slot more often. Either because they’re a guaranteed jam, or because their simple appearance in the slot would immediately raise the bar of the show they’re in, there’s just no reason the band shouldn’t try to fit these songs in the Set II Opening rotation a bit more. I guarantee these songs would go a long way to countering whatever complaints certain aspects of the fan community have about Phish’s variety, or lack thereof. Regardless of any fan agitation, these songs are just great examples of what Phish is capable of musically, and deserve more time spotlighted in THE slot of the show.

Examples: ‘Twist,’ ‘Harry Hood,’ ‘Piper,’ ‘The Sloth,’ ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Seven Below,’ ’46 Days,’ ‘Waves,’ ‘A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,’ ‘Cities,’ ‘Col. Forbin’s Ascent,’ ‘Fee,’ ‘First Tube,’ ‘Gumbo,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Saw It Again,’ ‘ Scents & Subtle Sounds,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise’

A list stacked with songs that any fan would kill to hear at any point in any show, one can’t argue that any show would be immediately bolstered by the simple appearance of one of the above eighteen songs. Check out 07/30/2003, 11/10/1989, 07/19/2004, 08/14/2010, 11/23/1997, 06/20/2004, 01/02/2003, 11/28/2003, 06/19/2004, 08/10/1997, 04/22/1988, 10/12/1989, 09/20/2000, 08/03/1998, 06/11/2010, 12/12/1997, 12/04/2009, and 12/15/1995 to hear the immediate impact each of these songs has on their sets. In an era that has proven to be the band’s most diverse and has taken more risks within their setlists that essentially any other period in their history, one wouldn’t be too far off to expect that perhaps one of the above songs would make a return to the Set II Opening slot sometime in 2013.

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Perhaps the most critical song played in a Phish show, the Set II Opener allows the band a veritable tablet of differing options with where to take a show. They can build off the energy in an excellent Set I, or they can redirect the show after a forgettable set. They can launch the set into the unknown, or they can display a band incapable of exploration. Regardless where the band decides to go with their second set opener, it’s clear that many shows live and die in their second sets, and that the opener directly impacts the set that will unfold. Thus concludes the fourth part in an eight-part series breaking down Phish’s live show. Up next is The Second Set.

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

The Structure Of A Show – Set I Closer

4171325972_5aa4573fb4_zFrom the thrill of the unknown that is the show opener, to the constructed unit that is the first set, we come to the third part in our series on The Structure Of A Show: the Set I Closer. A different beast than the opener, and even more so than any of the songs that precede it. What defines the Set I Closer is both a collective release of energy that can only come from the shared experience of having been at a Phish show for now 90 minutes, and the shared anticipation of the unknown. A full set into a show now, a Set I closer can often give hints to how the band feels about the set just played, how energized a crowd is, and can often be the determining factor between an amped-up setbreak, and a monotonous slog to the bathrooms. While rarely a moment that will make or break a show, the Set I Closer derives it’s power from a source of energy that explodes in the most visceral ways: when both band and crowd are keenly aware of the singularity of the moment.

There’s always that point deep into a first set where one checks their internal setlist, and says to themselves, “I wonder what they’re gonna close with?” Rarely a surprise – though sometimes it certainly is – the Set I Closer is typically an understood moment that combines timing, and a high-energy number. While there are certainly classic closers, akin to classic openers, there are also those that are far less expected and produce a similarly uneasy and bizarre sensation to their rare opener counterparts. Essentially, there are Set I closers that feel like the closer from the moment they begin, while there are others that either a) become a closer by default due to the energy they conduct, or b) take fans into setbreak scratching their heads – for both good, and sometimes, bad reasons.

The essential quality that separates the majority of Set I closers from the rest of the songs in a set is their dedication to an explosion of energy that either raises the bar from a throwdown Set I, or proves to be too little too late after a less-than-stellar affair. From time to time, however, a Set I closer will be a confounding moment whereby, the band exits without conducting a massive explosion, rather, concluding with a whisper, sending everyone off into setbreak in a bit of a hushed tone. Regardless of how the band chooses to move into setbreak, there is typically a sense of finality that comes with either the song selection, or music that emerges, capping off the connected idea of the set.

Beyond this explosion of energy, one other aspect of first set closers that separates it from the entirety of Phish’s song catalogue is that throughout their career, the role of the closer has essentially remained unchanged. With only 171 of their 750 unique songs being used as Set I Closers, only 23% of the catalogue has been given access to this placement. Beyond this, two songs – “Run Like An Antelope,” and “David Bowie” – have combined for a staggering 291 performances in the Set I Closer role. With 1650 shows under their belt, this means that 18% of all Phish shows ever performed have featured either “Bowie” or “Antelope” as the first set closer. An astounding figure, it displays the band’s overt lack of experimentation with the role of the Set I Closer. Thus, as we’ll see as we examine it, the Set I Closer is a far more entrenched, established, and formulated aspect of a Phish show than essentially all other parts. Not without it’s own surprises and thrills, the Set I Closer is quite possibly the most expected aspect of this entire series.

What follows is Part III of VIII in tackle & lines series on The Structure Of A Show. Each category contains a write-up, examples, and video clips for better understanding. As with the article on Openers and Set I, the goal of this is not to come to some sort of a conclusion about what a specific Phish show is, but rather to explore the various directions the band chooses to go with their shows – here in the medium of the Set I closer. This is not a means to rank the best closers, or the best shows, versus the weakest – though negative habits and instances will be discussed – instead it is seeking to find points of connection across various era – and within each – while pointing out their differences. Hope you guys enjoy the piece, we’re now less than two months from 03 July!

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I. The Classics

Akin to the Openers segment, there are certain Phish songs that simply were meant to close a set. In both structure, energy, and sonic quality, the following six songs define the idea of a Set I closer. Indeed, they have combined to close 533 first sets, or 32% of all first sets ever played. Providing little surprise with their placement, these songs are still consistently captivating for their ability to conclude first sets with a combined grace, power, and certainty. Hear any of these songs, either at a show or on your stereo, and they just feel like the conclusion of a set. Like the classic Openers, these are the classics for a reason, what more can you say?

Examples: ‘Run Like An Antelope,’ David Bowie,’ ‘Cavern,’ ‘Golgi Apparatus,’ ‘Good Times Bad Times,’ ‘The Squirming Coil’

We’ve all been at these shows. The band’s been on stage for little over an hour, and out of nowhere, the bouncy trill of “Antelope” kicks off, or the haunting hi-hat for “Bowie” emerges, or the drums slam in a bombastic roar, signaling “Cavern,” and you just know, this is gonna close the set. These six songs are the classic Set I closers for a reason. They each act as a barometer for the impending setbreak, they each have come to be considered a bookend to the concept of an overall set. Outside of their set closing role, they appear a bit out of place. Beyond their overall sound, they’ve appeared in some of the best Phish shows in the closing role. From 12/29/1997, 08/09/1998, and 08/14/1997, to 06/22/1994, 12/13/1997, and 10/30/2010, these songs have capped off dozens of classic sets and shows. What’s more is, regardless the overall power of the show they’re appearing in they always just seem to fit when they appear as the Set I closer.

II. The Raging Cap

Similar in a sense to the classics, these songs have each seen their fair share of the Set I closing role. What separates them from the previous section is their ability to just rock the fuck out of a venue prior to setbreak every single time. Without fail, the following nine songs shake a crowd to it’s core. Best displaying Phish’s ability to coalesce energy in a massive group, these song’s send everyone off to setbreak with a thrilling rock-out. When placed anywhere else in a set these songs surely still raise the energy level to yet-unattained levels, yet it’s when they’re ushered in to close a set that they each seem to have that much more umph. Not surprising bustouts, nor exploratory jams, what these songs do instead is prove the immense power Phish’s song catalogue possesses, particularly when certain songs are placed in the right part of a show.

Examples: ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ ‘Suzy Greenberg,’ ‘Llama,’ ‘Julius,’ ‘Fire,’ ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise,’ ‘Wilson,’ ’46 Days’

Ask anyone in attendance at 11/11/1995, 09/14/2000, 05/21/1994, 07/19/2003, 11/30/1995, 11/16/1996, 12/28/2003, 09/25/1999, and 10/12/2010, and they’re certain to tell you the same thing: no matter the energy levels prior to their appearance, each of these Set I closers amped up the energy within the venue ten-fold. Like a smack in the face, these songs billow out of nowhere, capture immediate energy, build on it, and continue building to a certain peak that results in a euphoric applause from the crowd. Uniting both band and crowd in an aura of lights, glowsticks, confetti, raised arms, and that tension-filled sense in the air, these songs send everyone off to set break with shit-eating grins plastered across their face. Yours truly’s preferred way to exit a first set, these songs more than raise the bar on set one towards the unknown potential of the second set.

III. The Expected Send-Off’s

With only 23% of their catalogue used thus far to close a first set, it’s understandable there are going to be some predictable songs capping off set’s from time to time. While these are rarely songs that anyone will complain about in this slot. And they’re certainly songs that do their part of closing the set off with a bang. The following songs are the kind no one will rave about all things considered the next day. They’re akin to a serviceable Center in Basketball. You need them to fill a role, and they do their part, albeit without the fanfare, and ecstatic buzz that other more notable songs will. They’re the songs called in when the set has either reached that point where it just needs a closer, or if the band has been playing an assortment of well-known “hits” that night. They deliver the bang, and allow the band to exit the stage to an energized applause heading into setbreak. Nothing more, nothing less.

Examples: ‘Possum,’ ‘Character Zero,’ ‘Sample In A Jar,’ ‘Loving Cup,’ ‘Taste,’ ‘Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan’

Now, just because they’re expected, doesn’t mean they can’t be great, nor accompany excellent shows. For as 08/13/2010, 08/03/1998, 11/09/1995, 10/02/1999, 07/22/1997, and 09/01/2012 all display, these are sometimes the perfect songs to accompany their sets. Never outlandish, never a surprise, sometimes the best shows just need a dose of predictable Phishdom to round themselves out. Offering energy, a massive Trey solo, and that big bang that is Phish’s Rock ‘n Roll meal ticket, they play the role of set closer to a T. The kinds of songs that routinely get lambasted on PT for their regularity in the rotation, they prove time and again when called upon to close a set, just why they kick around so much.

IV. The Composed Conclusion

Rooted in stylistically structured, and classical compositions, it’s no wonder that their most beloved songs have found their way into the Set I Closer role over the years. Concluding a first set in one of the most powerful and sublime ways there is, these following songs both serve as reminders for the band’s origins, while also providing a pretty potent energy kick to the end of their respective sets. While their roles have shifted throughout the years, most of these have closed out at least five first sets, meaning at one point they were all thought of as potential Set I closers. Separate from their appearances in Set II, their appearance here in the first set allows all to take a step back from the initial reality of being at a psychedelic rock show, and instead simply enjoy the musical chops of the boys.

Examples: ‘You Enjoy Myself,’ ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘The Curtain With,’ ‘Stash,’ ‘Fluffhead,’ ‘Foam,’ ‘Time Turns Elastic’

Aside from the final selection on in this group, these songs are ubiquitous with the concept of Phish, and unanimously loved by literally every Phish fan. Thus their appearance anywhere in a show is welcome, regardless of their placement. However, when any of the above songs are chosen to close out a first set, it’s certainly a celebrated moment by all in attendance. Just think of 12/03/1997, 07/08/1994, 06/10/2011, 06/11/1994, 08/06/2011, and 03/14/1989, for clear examples of the positive impact these compositional classics had in closing out the first sets of said shows. Even “Time Turns Elastic,” a song both misunderstood, and hated equally by Phish fans everywhere, has played a role in closing out the first sets of a few solid shows, 06/21/2009 and 08/12/2010 immediately come to mind. This is a section that, overall, produces, more than anything, wide smiles, emotive peaks, and an overly satisfied crowd thanks to their appearance.

V. The Jams

And then, there are those nights where the band just wants to jam. So much so, that they’re sometimes forced to abandon a typical big bang closer in favor of a jam that naturally built to a climax. Some of the best Phish shows happen when the band throws caution to the wind and just unleashes a series of exploratory jams. Compounding these shows are the times when the band dives deep mid-Set I, and realizes they’ve extended a jam so far out there, they’re forced to simply end the set on that note. An exhilarating, unique, all-inclusive experience, whenever the band removes their instruments after just throwing down a jam, everyone in the venue knows something special just went down. Some of the following songs are simply programmed as jamming closers, while others have been used on occasion, typically when the band stumbles into a jam late into the first set and thus has no option but to conclude with it – be it for time constraints, or in honor of proper flow. Regardless what they are, they’re continual reminders of the unexpected at a Phish show, making each show better for their placement and their unpredictability.

Examples: ‘Split Open & Melt,’ ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Walls Of The Cave,’ ‘Gotta Jibboo,’ ‘Undermind,’ ‘Wolfman’s Brother,’ ‘Drowned,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Tweezer’

Mention to any fan 06/16/1995, 05/28/2011, 02/28/2003, 02/20/2003, 08/31/2012, 12/28/2012, 06/20/2004, 11/27/2009, and 06/18/2004, and without question, one of the first things they’ll talk about is the incredible jam that ended Set I. A wholly unique moment when everything clicks for the band prior to setbreak, a Set I closing jam is a good of proof as one needs that the band is on. Whereas much of their improvisation has historically occurred in the second set, the Set I Closer is often a bridge from Set I to II, allowing the band the looseness to explore after 70+ minutes of typically tight music. When they go off on an extended journey, it’s typically the stuff of legends, and usually signifies big things for set II. In fact, each of the above songs directly led to massive second sets, whereby the band dedicated a large portion of the set to improve. While not the kind of Set I Closer one should be heading to any show expecting, when they emerge, you know you’re witnessing a classic.

VI. The Subdued Pause

We’re entering into a bit of strange territory for these next three sections. The following are the closers one wouldn’t immediately request, nor consider when compiling a setlist in their head. Some of them work, some of them don’t, but they’re all united in the fact that each of the following sections defies the stereotypical idea of what a Set I closer is. For this section, we’ll cover the more subdued, softer songs that are called upon from time to time to close out a first set. Often catching many fans off-guard, these songs end the set with more of a whisper than a roar. While not the type of song that initially comes to ones mind when they think of the emotional release expected to end a set, in many of their instances said songs work. While yes, they often give off a strange vibe heading into setbreak, in many of the cases, their subdued nature creates a more relaxed feeling surrounding a show, and results in a creative, and exploratory Set II. Other times they force one to scratch their heads – an issue we’ll discuss further in two sections. Here, we have seven songs that, for whatever reason, work as set closers, regardless of their subdued nature.

Examples: ‘Prince Caspian,’ ‘Bittersweet Motel,’ ‘If I Could,’ ‘Let It Loose,’ ‘Reba,’ ‘The Wedge,’ ‘Waste’

For whatever reason, on 11/21/1997, 07/21/1999, 06/28/2000, 08/16/2011, 12/30/1998, 06/03/2011, and 09/22/1999 the band felt like closing the first half of their show out with a mellow song. Whether a planned affair, or a spur of the moment idea, in these cases, the choice to conclude Set I with a more subdued number worked. Easing everyone into setbreak, rather than leaving them with a massive roar, these songs allow both band and audience the opportunity to reflect on the set that was, and prepare for Set II. Coincidentally or not, each of the above songs led to massive jams in Set II. More than anything, these songs proved that even in going against the stereotypical concept of a Set I Closer, the band was still capable of crafting a genuine closing statement. A bit mellow, a bit subdued at times, often quite unexpected, in these cases, the choice worked ten-fold.

VII. The A Cappella’s

Throughout their history, one of Phish’s trademark’s has been the diverse styles and genres they’ve continually meddled with. From classical to funk to jazz to dance, the band has spent the majority of their 30 years together tinkering with their own sound, and inviting various aspects of American and World Music into their own individual style. Starting in the early-90’s the band decided to focus attention on Barbershop, in effort to improve their much-ailed vocal chops. Offering a new avenue for their sets, the Barbershop songs quickly became stand-in set closers and encores. Typically following an expected – read: big bang – closer, the band would remove their instruments and meet mid-stage to grace the crowd with an old-timey number, thus concluding the set/show. Just another unique aspect of what you can expect at a Phish show, the Barbershop set closers never failed to rile up the crowd on the band’s attempts at recreating the gay nineties.

Examples: ‘Sweet Adeline,’ ‘Carolina,’ ‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘Free Bird’

Filling out literally every kind of first set, the above numbers are rarely expected, nor requested, though are typically always appreciated. Never too long to bore any fans, and always offering a thrilling moment witnessing the band’s widespread talent, they conclude sets in a way that allows everyone to celebrate the secret of Phish. Whereas most on the outside assume all that happens at a Phish show is senseless drugs, and guitar-noodling, these songs conclude a set like a wink and a smile, reminding all in some way, why we fell in love with Phish in the first place.

VIII. The Head Scratchers

There’s always gotta be at least one of these. Proof that Phish is far from perfect, these sections help illuminate the risks the band takes with each show to produce magic out of the unknown. Rather than being bad songs, the following selections just seem odd when placed in the Set I Closer role. None produce that massive bang that everyone expects with a closer. None are either mellow enough to fit in that section. Some of the choices are better suited as openers, while others have proven to be best fit midway through a set. Either way, the band has thought enough of each of these to use them as a Set I Closer at least three times.

Examples: ‘Runaway Jim,’ ‘Funky Bitch,’ ‘AC/DC Bag,’ ‘My Soul,’ ‘Farmhouse,’ ‘Backwards Down The Number Line,’ ‘Lawn Boy,’ ‘Meatstick’

While they’ve each close out sets in often solid shows – 10/31/1991, 12/31/1994, 07/25/1997, 04/03/1998, 06/15/2000, 11/28/2009, 04/28/1990, and 07/03/1999 – they’ve often made each of their sets feel a tad unfinished. At it’s best, a set closer offers a book-end to the idea of a set, and none of these songs are truly built to do that. Often leaving fans scratching their heads when the lights come on, they’re simply not your first choice, nor really, even your last choice, to concluded a set. Proof that even the band stumbles in crafting a fully flowing set, the above songs just don’t fit the bill of a Set I closer, no matter how many times the band tries to prove otherwise.

IX. The Why Don’t They Close Out More First Sets?

While they’ve only used just over 20% of their song catalogue for Set I Closer’s, there have ostensibly been those songs they have used, that wholly work as closers, yet for whatever reason are only played on increasingly rare occasions. The kinds of songs that send everyone into setbreak on a high, just on their appearance alone. They’re the songs that seem to raise the level of the show just another notch, typically confirming the brilliance of the set their concluding. Catching the entire crowd by surprise, these songs both define the sense of the unknown that permeates every Phish show, and the ultimate surge of energy that everyone in attendance – band and fans alike – is seeking upon arrival. Perhaps a beneficiary of their scarcity, these songs nevertheless, force all fans to wonder aloud why the band doesn’t opt for them on more occasions.

Examples: ‘Slave To The Traffic Light,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise,’ ‘Down With Disease,’ ‘Harry Hood,’ ‘Birds Of A Feather,’ ‘First Tube,’ ‘Rock & Roll,’ ‘A Day In The Life,’ ‘ Maze,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Alumni Blues -> Letter To Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues’

Associated with some of the most highly touted first sets of the band’s career, these songs span the various eras of the band in their appearance as a Set I Closer. Yet they all find commonality in the fact that they both unquestionably work as a closer, and make far too few appearances in said role. Just listen to 08/13/1996, 10/21/1995, 11/17/1994, 08/10/1997, 08/10/2004, 12/04/2009, 06/29/2000, 12/30/1997, 02/26/2003, 07/30/1999, and 08/15/2011, and try to contemplate those masterful first sets ending with any other song. A simple ‘Cavern,’ or ‘Character Zero’ wouldn’t have fit. Neither would even something on the level of ‘Fluffhead,’ or ‘Chalk Dust Torture.’ No, what those sets deserved was the kind of rare gem that riles an audience up on appearance alone, and then delivers on a top-notch performance. Something each of the above songs has done brilliantly when asked to, they nevertheless require the crowd to wonder why they’re not called upon more often to deliver the same punch.

X. The Absurdly Good Surprises

Similar in ways to the above section – even featuring a few crossovers – these Set I Closers are unique for the fact that literally no one could have predicted they’d close out their respective set. Yet when they did, they not only fit like a glove, but proved to be nothing short of brilliant. Full of energy, completely unpredictable, immediately satiating a crowd, these are the kinds of closers one would never think to request, they just have to be experience to completely enjoy. Incredibly rare moments where the band capitalizes on the energy and mood of a set and comes as close as possible to perfection.

Examples: ‘Highway To Hell,’ ‘Big Black Furry Creature From Mars,’ ‘After Midnight,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Drowned,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Undermind,’ ‘Monkey Man,’ ‘Harry Hood,’ ‘Alumni Blues -> Letter To Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself’

You know when you’re witnessing one of the above selections by the fact that the energy within the venue becomes a tangible thing – effervescent, emanating from the audience, lingering throughout. It’s an example of the moments where a simple rock concert turns into something that feels like it means something. These songs don’t just summon applause and cheering, they literally make people lose their collective shit. Elevating the show from whatever it was to something truly memorable, one would never argue that 12/31/1989, 10/31/1987, 12/31/1999, 12/30/2003, 06/20/2004, 11/27/2009, 08/31/2012, 07/02/2011, 09/28/1999, 08/15/2011, and 06/23/2012 were not immensely blessed and advanced by the inclusion of these songs at the Set I Closer.

XI. The One-Off’s

One of the greatest aspects of listening to, and following Phish, is their penchant for the one-time thrills that essentially serve as snooze-you-lose reminders to those who don’t keep up. Seen in their random openers, covers, and bustouts, another way Phish has found to work the ultimate element of surprise into their shows is through random, one-time performances of songs in the Set I Closer role. Adding another level to the lore of their constantly shifting live shows, these songs have all appeared once as the Set I Closer, never to be seen in that position again. For whatever reason, be it they realized they were running late, the song developed into a particularly impressive jam, or it just fit the mood of the set, these songs were chosen to close, never since being used.

Examples: ‘After Midnight,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Crossroads,’ ‘Ghost,’ ‘Glide,’ ‘Harpua,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Monkey Man,’ ‘Mound, ‘Reba,’ ‘Sweet Jane,’ ‘The Curtain With,’ ‘Tweezer,’ ‘Ya Mar’

Many of the above worked well as closers when they were played, leading many to wonder why they only saw one appearance in the role. For whatever the reason, 12/31/1999, 12/30/2003, 07/30/1999, 08/09/1997, 06/22/1997, 10/31/1995, 11/27/2009, 07/02/2011, 06/15/2011, 12/30/1998, 08/08/1998, 06/10/2011, and 06/18/2004 were befitted special status with these one-off closers, adding a bit of lore to each of the shows. Perhaps one day they’ll resurface as Set I closers, thus eliminating them from this list. Until then, they’re a part of a unique group with 71 other songs, having been used to close out Set I only once.

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Akin to their Set I Openers, the Set I Closer is an opportunity for the band to use one singular song to generate energy and fully connect with an audience. With a full set behind them, it’s their parting message before the break, often times thematically capping off the set that was. A maze of classics that just fit the part, jams that came out of nowhere, a cappella and composed original songs that allow the band to display their musical dexterity, and one-off rarities that add a bit of lore to their shows, the Set I Closers are further proof of the diversity of Phish on a night to night basis. Thus concludes the third part in an eight-part series breaking down Phish’s live show. Up next is the Second Set Opener.

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

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!