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!

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The Three Decembers – 1999

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Minimalist music got its start in the underground art-rock scenes of New York and San Francisco in the early-mid 1960’s. Pioneered by such composers as Philip Glass, John Adams, Steven Reich and Terry Riley, the music was created in effort to communicate the banality of the modern world, specifically, in an urbanized Post-War-West. Characterized by an almost stationary and repetitive melody, Minimalist music shifts between great lengths and ephemeral ideas. It is usually accompanied by a slow modulation, is generally marked by moments of elongated silence, and, is notable for its lack of overall direction. The Velvet Underground might be the first pop group to bring Minimalism to the masses, experimenting with the style in their attempts to describe Lou Reed’s experiences with electroshock therapy, and the band members well-documented substance abuse problems. In the 70’s Brian Eno’s Ambient Series focused entirely on minimalist music as he sought to regenerate his feelings of being stuck in airports, and being on solid ground, through motionless melodies. Perhaps no one has had more of an impact on minimalism than Brian Eno, whose career as both a solo artist and producer has helped to influence countless pop and rock acts to incorporate minimalism and ambient music in their own catalogue. From U2 to Radiohead, David Bowie to Coldplay, David Byrne to Paul Simon, Eno has infused the sound of modern pop music with a simplicity, cogitation, and subtly overt description of the world we live in.

When electronic and dance music rose to prominence in the mid-90’s, minimalism found its proper place in the lexicon, heard seemingly everywhere – most notably in Britain – from Radiohead to the Aphex Twin. Just as Baroque properly described the artistic, scientific, architectural, and literature advancements of 17th Century Italy, Minimalism’s stark, motionless melodies, washes of noise, and overall structure-less ideas are a reflection of the burdened existence of humans in this age of globalized commerce, overpopulated dreams, and decaying empires. While it has been compared to fascism for it’s repetitive thoughts, claimed as proof that American audiences are uneducated, and criticized by British music critic, Ian MacDonald, as the “passionless, sexless, and (the) emotionally blank soundtrack of the machine age,” Minimalism is, for better or worse, the music of our time. Whether or not one enjoys it is another topic entirely, but in order to truly understand and appreciate the era in history we currently reside in, one must grasp the role that minimalist music plays within this period. In this same regard, the artists – the communicators of an era – must embrace the concept to stay relevant, lest a revolutionary style emerges to document our era in a more contextual way.

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To many Phish fans, the end of 1997 felt like the end of 1993 or 1994 did. Having just concluded one of the standout tours of their career – not to mention a holiday run for the ages – 1998 loomed as yet another potential peak year, ala 1995. Reinforced by the surprise “Island Tour” during the first week of April, the band was rejuvenated, confident and stirring with 0402bandexcitement to push the sound they’d explored throughout 1997 even further through linear musical communication. Citing boredom after a three-month break, the band announced four shows on Long Island and Rhode Island in effort to keep the musical successes of 1997 fresh. A historic run that’s discussed with near-unanimous admiration and awe to this day, the Island Tour is perhaps the rawest Phish anyone’s been granted access to since the late-80’s. Each show is full of standout performances and transcendent jams, and features a Phish teetering on the edge of a musical cliff multiple times. And yet, no matter how risky, how far-flung, how abstract the band decided to push a jam, a set, or even a full show, the results completely speak for themselves. ‘Stash’, ‘Twist’, ‘Mike’s’, ‘Weekapaug’, ‘Roses Are Free’, ‘Piper’, ‘Tweezer’, ‘Birds Of A Feather’, ‘2001’, ‘Brother’, ‘Ghost’, ‘You Enjoy Myself’, ‘Bathtub Gin -> Cities’, ‘Prince Caspain -> Maze -> Shafty -> Possum -> Funk Jam -> Cavern.’ All top tier jams, all unique in their own right, all display a band in one of the peak moments of their career, connecting with such ease that it’s almost unrecognizable to the discombobulated quartet that would regularly stumble through shows just six years later.

In particular, the “Twist” from 04/02/1998 and the “Roses Are Free” from 04/03/1998 stand out as two of the most innovative, original, and jaw-dropping moments in Phish history. The “Twist” built through a Gordo-led dance-beat and swirling guitar riffs from Trey, (matched by Kuroda’s instinctive lighting skills) into an atmospheric jam that rivaled Spielberg and Dreyfuss for musical Close Encounters. A song that has been known to consistently push Phish into more demented, spacious and inter-stellar dimensions than practically all others, their performance on 2 April is famous for the integrated relationship between the music and the lights, creating a true aural and visual sense that the band was on the verge of lifting the venue off into outer space. Kicking off Set II of the 3 April show, “Roses Are Free” made its 3rd appearance in the band’s history. Opening into an unyielding soundscape it featured one of the most connected planes the band has ever reached, whereby Trey emphasized singular note dance beats over a thick layer of a Mike and Fish groove from 13:20 – 17:35, before stretching on into the unknown for another ten minutes. Separate from the overt funk jams of 1997, the Island Tour proved the grasp Phish held on linear musical communication. Completely locked into a simple musical language with which the band could connect, their jams in 1998 diverted from the Hendrix-esque onslaughts, the four-part James Brown breakdowns, and the disco-spaciousness of 1997. In their place were more fluid, glossy passages, Mike-led slow-strutting bass jams, blissful washes of noise and space, and an overall emphasis on the Ambient music that Brian Eno had perfected in the ’70’s.

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From the musical highs of the Island Tour, Phish returned to Bearsville Studios, heads full of ideas and inspiration, and recorded a number of songs that would ultimately become The Story Of The Ghost. As with 1997, they began their summer in Europe. Armed with an arsenal of new songs, they focused on pushing their jams into more simplistic, groove-oriented, and ambient realms. A quick 10-day tour of Copenhagen, Prague and Barcelona allowed the band to stretch their musical minds much like the previous summer, and eased them into what would become their last consistently brilliant summer tour until the 2012 run. A notable point in the band’s history, they were not only big enough to play pretty much wherever they wanted, but had just emerged from a year in which they’d overcome their first batch of improvisational writer’s block and had conquered their 14-year-long goal of crafting music that highlighted each member equally. They were essentially a 1997-version of Jordan: reinvented, dominating, perfecting their craft in such a way that few of their peers were capable of. And like Jordan, after a 72-Win season in 1996, another set of MVP’s in the regular season and Finals, and a commanding Championship over the Seattle Supersonics, Phish followed up their victorious 1997 with a year that, while incredibly successful and memorable in its own right, was the first sign of a band who was regressing.

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As a quick side note: what might be most interesting about the period between 1998 – 2004 is that literally nothing substantial has ever been written about it. And yet, it is the most clear-cut era of Phish that features a band in conflict with each other, struggling with why they’re still playing together, attempting to reinvent themselves once again, failing to surpass the highs of 1995 and 1997, and battling against the internal and external forces that substance abuse has on people. Biographers have written at length about the band’s improbable rise from the mountains of Vermont to Madison Square Garden. Bloggers – such as this one – have relentlessly praised the band’s musical heights in 1995 and 1997. The 3.0 era is littered with reviews, insights, interviews and articles about the happy state of Phish, and the clear redemption story that they’ve come to be considered. Yet no one has comprehensively written about, nor sought to truly understand, the darkest, most confusing, and most misunderstood period of Phish. In his 2009 book, Phish: A Biography, Parke Puterbaugh essentially wrote off the entire six-year-era, claiming it to be little more than a drug-addled voyage into the unknown.

While we can all agree that these years featured loads of mistakes, shows where the band simply didn’t show up, questionable energy, and cringeworthy moments, there’s also an untapped amount of brilliance that emanates from the conflict, and provides an intriguing view into the world of the band. Yet, it’s almost as if no one wants to go there with Phish. It’s almost as if the majority of their fanbase, the writers tasked with articulating their history, and the band members themselves, wants nothing to do with the reality that the scene overtook them at the height of their powers and popularity, and directly impacted the music they made. The sum of Phish’s entire history – some 30-years in – has thus been reduced to: happy hippy drug band makes it big, happy hippy drug band jams, happy hippies dance, everyone has fun, happy hippy drug band breaks up (twice), happy hippy drug band returns a bit older and wiser, happy hippy drug band rediscovers their happy hippy selves, happy hippy drug band becomes the elder statesmen of the jamband scene all while infusing good ole’ fashion rock n’ roll into their happy hippy repertoire. While it’s an endearing tale, it’s not honest. It does not serve any of their fans – nor any casual observers – any benefit by providing a lighter version of the band’s history. Conflict and confusion are a part of life whether we like it or not. And one of the most intriguing aspects of Phish has always been their diametric relationship with darkness and light. At no time was this relationship clearer than during the tumultuous period of 1998 – 2004.

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Drugs had begun to seep into the lives of Phish and their road crew in ways they simply hadn’t before 1998. While, sure, obviously Phish’s music wouldn’t have been produced in the way it was without the aid of a few psychedelics and a bit of weed, and yes, their energy and drive couldn’t have been sustained over four month tours without a bit of yay to keep them going, drugs have been a part of the modern musical lifestyle, since at least the Honky-Tonk and Jazz age. But up until 1998, drugs had taken a back seat to the omnipresent goal of hooking-up in a unified and fully connected way. In 1998 however, we see, for the first time, the negative effects of a life lived on the road, and the addictions that can stem from casual drug usage and partying. The introduction of pharmaceutical drugs and MDMA were probably what turned the tide in the late-90’s. The latter – which is thought to have entered the Phish scene in 1997 – is known for both its ethereal highs, and the lack of disturbance to cognitive behavior. Yet taken regularly, it leads to increased paranoia, chronic depression and liver damage.

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Prescription drug abuse isn’t thought to have become an issue within the band until around 1999. Overwhelmed by the tidal wave of fandom that followed the band’s every step, in need of a substance to effectively cut their anxiety, it’s no wonder the band and their crew – each with various connections to fans and dealers – latched onto drugs that have increased in their prescriptions in America from 5 million to close to 45 million between 1991 and 2010. Essentially a heroin addiction, prescription drug abuse takes a viscous grip on the addict, resulting in an unrelenting need to satisfy their urge to get high, while impacting their cognitive awareness, personal relationships, and increasing the addict’s anxiety and paranoia. Trey and Page, most notably, would be overtaken by the unrivaled force of drug addictions. Affecting both their own individual lives, the addictions eventually led to Page’s 2004 divorce and Trey’s bottoming out in 2006 which all but killed him.

Musically they had become even looser than 1997 leading many of the band’s oldest fans to accuse them of laziness – a claim backed up in part by the increasing amount of flubs that accompanied many shows. While yes, a stronger focus on jams seeped into their live repertoire in 1997 and 1998, and while yes, one can certainly claim that this was a stylistic result of the linear musical communication they’d unearthed, there is unfortunately a laundry list of examples where the band used jamming as a crutch to overshadow their lack of tightness from 1998 – 2004, particularly when it came to performing their compositionally complex classics. Just listen to the 04/02 ‘Sloth,’ 04/03 ‘Reba’, the 04/05 ‘You Enjoy Myself’, the 07/02 ‘Fluffhead’, much of 07/05, 07/15 ‘Guyute’, the 08/02 ‘David Bowie’, 08/09 ‘Esther’, 11/04 ‘Guyute’, 11/11 ‘Punch You In The Eye’, and the  11/15 ‘My Friend, My Friend’, among others for clear examples of the band’s performance and discipline slipping. What’s more is that each of the above shows contain jams that have, over time, come to overshadow moments where it’s clear the band had lost a step when it came to performing their compositions. While not nearly as mistake-prone, or even careless as they would become in the coming years, 1998 is the first time where we see a clear shift from practice and dedication to the songs they’d written, to the band who would eventually all-but omit their songs entirely in favor of extended jamming.

All said, 1998 is still retained as one of the better years of Phish. The Europe tour, while not as monumental as 1997’s absolute destruction of the old world, still produced moments of brilliance throughout, and pushed the band forward in their experiments with the sublime and ambient blissfulness. The Copenhagen ‘Down With Disease -> Dog Faced Boy> Piper’, ‘Tweezer -> 2001’, and 07/02/1998 Set II, Prague ‘s’Fee -> Water In The Sky’, ‘Buried Alive> AC/DC Bag -> Ghost -> Cities’, and ‘Piper -> Makisupa Policeman’, and the Barcelona ‘Ghost -> Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Tweezer’, and ‘Drowned -> Theme From The Bottom’ all stood out as moments when the band hooked-up and embarked on extended journeys, defined by stunningly beautiful, and wholly simple, fully connected music. When they returned to the States in mid-July, Phish trekked from Portland, OR to Limestone, ME over the course of a month, igniting the tour with two gimmicks that would reap insurmountable payoffs.

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Throughout their entire career Phish has always emphasized cover songs as a way to celebrate their influences, embark on extended journeys of classics, and inject their overall sound with fresh ideas. In the mid-80’s The Grateful Dead dominated the band’s cover arsenal, so much so that Trey swore off listening to the band in 1986. Almost overnight, The phish1dDead’s songs disappeared from their live catalogue, as Phish moved swiftly in their own unique direction. Frank Zappa, The Talking Heads, Jazz Standards and under-the-radar rock groups like Traffic, Robert Palmer, and Little Feat took precedence in the late-80’s. In the early-90’s there was a noticeable shift away from covers and towards the band’s own catalogue, as original songs began to dominate their shows. With a goal to “tighten the ship” from 1989 – 1992, the band spent much of their shows focused on their own burgeoning song collection, reserving many of their covers for the Fishman “HYHU” gag. By late-1993/early-1994 however, Phish was so ripe with confidence in their catalogue and overall show, that they began re-introducing covers back into their sets. While still, many were of the “Freebird,” “Great Gig In The Sky” variety – honoring the cover as somewhat of a joke performance – legitimate takes on The Who’s “Sparks,” Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and Joe Walsh’s “Walk Away” injected new life into Phish sets, and would help to shape the band’s sound in the coming years.

An idea was thus born in the Summer of 1994 to cover an entire album of another band, immersing themselves in the style and sound of a group, in effort to both capture the snapshot of a band, and see what affect it had on their own music. On 31 October 1994 Phish spent the show’s entire second set performing The Beatles’ The White Album, an exercise that would be repeated six more times – including one 11/02 cover – and each offering would impact the band’s style and sound in various ways, such as songwriting, and stylistic jamming. In 1995, covers began bleeding into Phish’s live repertoire like they hadn’t since the mid-80’s. A new tradition was born, by which the band would select one song from the year’s covered album to remain within their rotation, so as to always remind fans of the original performance, and to keep the sound born out of it, relevant. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Drowned’, ‘Crosseyed & Painless’, ‘Rock & Roll’, and ‘Shine A Light’ are each revered songs for this very reason.

Flash forward to 1998. Now a band that had twice peaked – once in December 1995 with the defining sound of their entire career, and then in November/December 1997 with a wholly reinvented style – they were, in the Summer 1998, seemingly out there with nothing left to prove. Hence the overt-looseness of the tour, Summer 1998, while chock-full of stunning improv, sounds in many ways like the most pure fun the band’s had in years. Calling upon the inspirational source of covers, Phish infused the entire summer with one-off covers that added an anything-goes dynamic to nearly every show, and ultimately led to one of the most emotive, personal, and honorable gags of all time. ‘California Love’, ‘She Caught The Katy And Left Me A Mule To Ride’, ‘Albuquerque’, ‘Ramble On’, ‘Rhinoceros’, ‘Runnin With The Devil’, ‘Sabatoge’ – all out of nowhere covers – all proved the versatility of Phish’s musicianship, and all gave the tour a defining sense of humor that has stayed with the band some 15 years later. All led to Virginia Beach when, for the first time in twelve years, Phish covered The Grateful Dead. Honoring the band and their leader on the third anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death, Phish shocked their unassuming crowd with a stunning and beautiful encore performance of The Dead’s composed tale, “Terrapin Station.” A moment that linked the two bands forever, it marked a sense of unity and equality, and a shared goal the two bands embraced, regardless of the often lazy comparisons tossed around about them. It represented, in many ways, a growing-up moment for Phish. They’d conquered the goals they’d set out for themselves over the previous 30 months, and were now, just a band again, playing for the sheer sense of joy they got out of playing together. It was clear at this point in their career that The Dead had provided a road map for their success, and that there was a shared lineage between the two. It was okay after 1995 and 1997 to embrace their similarities, and to honor the band . After twelve years of forging their own path, they no longer sounded like a kid trying to emulate Dad. They now sounded like the Dad, fully established, with a sound all their own, honoring those who’d come before them.

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All summer long, the posters that accompanied each show proclaimed Phish would play in a ring of fire by tour’s end. Used to senseless gimmicks and jokes from the band, many fans brushed this advertisement off in the same way they had Fall ’97’s Phish Destroys America posters. As far as anyone was concerned, they were there as one more proof of the absolute brilliance with which Phish had been playing over the last five years. Musically a dedication to Ambient music had overtaken the band. From the onset of the tour, the band infused their sound not with the thick and meticulous funk grooves of 1997, but with a more refined, minimalist, spaciousness and overtly Ambient style. Heard in the jam that emitted from the end of ‘Horn’ on 07/15, Ambient influences popped up in the 07/17 ‘Mike’s Song’, 07/19 ‘McGrupp’, 08/01 ‘Tweezer’, 08/03 ‘Halley’s’, 08/08 ‘Piper’, 08/09 ‘Bathtub Gin’, 08/12 ‘Ramble On -> Slave’, and the 08/15 ‘David Bowie’, among others. Combining both the “ring of fire” gag with the style that was creeping into their jams, Phish emerged after three sets of music on the first night of the Lemonwheel Festival and played an hour-long set of music totally in the Brian Eno Ambient style, lit only by a ring of handmade candles provided by their audience. Bridging their festival tradition of the late-night, instrumental set with the musical style they were infusing into their sound, the “Ambient Jam” is the most successful of their late-night sets, not only for its sheer listenability, but also for the impact it had on the band over the course of the next two years.

When the band returned to the road in late-October, their jams took on a patient, wholly-ambient soundscape, as they further built upon their linear musical communication. All but phish_DSOTMeliminating individual notes from their jams, they took on the sound of one unified instrument, more so than any period in their career. The 10/29 ‘Reba’, 10/30 ‘NICU -> Prince Caspian’, the terrifying ‘Wolfman’s’ from Halloween, UIC ‘AC/DC Bag’ and ‘Bathtub Gin’, Hampton ‘Simple’, and the Worcester ‘Weekapaug’ and ‘Simple’ were far less reliant on beats and dance breakdowns as their jams had been in 1997 and early 1998. Trey stepped further into the background, all but omitting the Hendrix-style guitar onslaughts from his repertoire, favoring instead, patient washes with his effects, allowing Mike and Page to rise to prominence in their most innovative jams. While the style aggravated many who only saw it as a continued downward spiral away from the youthfully crazed jams of 1993-1995, and others who viewed it as nothing more than a distraction from the grip the band was losing on playing their actual songs, one cannot ignore the fact that here was a band, fifteen years into their career, not even a year removed from one of their peak musical achievements, attempting to reinvent themselves once again.

It’s a point Tackle & Lines has been pushing since its onset: Where most bands would have cashed in on the successes of 1993, 1994, and 1995, and either broken up, or reverted to an easier method of playing, Phish has never remained still. Keenly aware that if they keep pushing their music further, if they stay dedicated to the process of improvisational change, the musical payoff will come, and, they will gain even more knowledge about each other as people. This knowledge not only serves them as friends, but as musicians trying to unearth the secrets of linear musical communication.

The Holiday Run of 1998 was unique for two reasons. First, it was the band’s first four-night NYE run in the same venue – that being, “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” Madison Square Garden. Second, it is generally referred to as the most consistent, and overall most on-point NYE Run they’ve ever embarked on. While there were certainly more highs in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1997, no one would ever call the 28th in any of those years a standout show. A path that would be followed in their 2003, 2009, 2011 and 2012 NYE runs, the 1998 NYE run in no way suffered from a rusty opening night, nor a weak show throughout, probably due to the consistency of the venue. Ambient jams dominated the run with ‘Carini> Wolfman’s’, ‘2001’, ‘Frankie Says’, ‘The Squirming Coil -> Slave’, ‘Mike’s Song’ and ‘Simple -> Harry Hood’ all standing out as the best moments of integration. Concluding the year with the best all-around NYE show since 12/31/1995, the band looked to 1999 as a year of change. Few probably realized at the time just how different things would be when the band finally reemerged as a singular unit six months later. Combining the stylistic changes that had been occurring within their sound over the past two years with the impact drugs and the burgeoning scene were having on the band, 1999 was to prove to be the most tumultuous and confusing year of the band’s career – save 2004, of course. And yet, with the awesome world-wide event of the Millennium occurring just one year later, Phish would prove once more their ability to rise above the darkness, and in part, accomplish one more of the distinctive goals they’d set as a band.

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While Phish’s 1997-1998 foray into linear musical communication produced exceptional results in terms of whole-band unified jamming, and led to a musical peak in 1997, there were a few casualties of the controversial era. The band’s dedication to precision playing, particularly with their composed pieces, took a back seat to their nightly dives into the unknown. The tension & release jams which had been their bread & butter for twelve years nearly faded from existence, as the band opted for mellower, less peaky jams with which they could communicate on an even plane. Being as the music they were making had to be  completely egoless to work, Phish’s guitar-extroidinaire stepped behind the shadows, and many of the jams which in the past had lived and died with him, became far less reliant on his output. Sure, no one could have replaced him, but it was necessary – by Trey’s own admission – that he reduce his role in leading Phish, thus giving Mike and Page a chance to step up and lead the band. This diminished time in the spotlight took its toll on the natural born star, Trey, and in the winter of 1999 he embarked on his first solo tour, in effort to not only get his kicks as a front-man again, but also to test out potential future Phish songs in a live setting.

His decision in early-1999 to pursue a solo-tour in his free time was a monumental shift for the band. No longer would all the band members’ time be dedicated to pushing Phish forward. For the first time, it appeared the band might need a vacation from itself. Phish suddenly became a part of Trey’s life, not his whole life. This new world for both Phish and their fans has become the norm some fourteen years later, as fans have come to expect that Phish will play only when they’re recording or in the immediacy of a tour, and the rest of the time will either be dedicated to family or side projects. Yet, in 1999 it was just another in a long line of reasons, that displayed the band was on rocky ground and was, in a lot of ways, adrift for perhaps the first time since Trey’s suspension from UVM in 1984.

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When fans strolled into Sandstone Amphitheater, just west of Kansas City, on 30 June 1999, the first thing that must have caught their eye, was the stage set-up which was drastically altered from the way it had been since the mid-80’s. Whereas for the first 15 years of their history the band had been arranged on stage in a horizontal line – Page, Trey, Mike, Fish, from left to right, respectively – which spoke of their goals of linear musical communication. In 1999 Mike and Trey switched places, and Fishman moved behind Trey and Gordo. A clear sign that the band wanted to sonically emphasize the rhythm within their music, the shift would have a direct impact on the music they made over the following two years, while at the same time, symbolically represented the growing divisions that would ultimately tear the band apart. When looking at pictures of the 1999 – 2000 stage set-up, what’s most interesting is that Fishman is not located directly behind Mike, ala a generic rock band. Positioned slightly ajar, with an opening towards Trey, the band appears to be a trio, with Page off to the side. The new set-up would have its effects on a growing division between Trey and Page, with Trey conferring with Mike and Fish about song selections, directions of jams, and Page being left in the dark for much of each show.

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Wasting no time displaying the affect their new stage set-up had on their sound, Phish opened 1999 with a twenty-minute “Bathtub Gin” which heralded in a tour, and a year that would see them move even further from a regimented playing of their songs, while consistently favoring improv and the unknown. Prior to the start of the Summer Tour, Phish released The Siket Disc. A compilation of instrumental song concepts from The Story Of The Ghost sessions, The Siket Disc was the product of Phish toying with ideas out of extended jams, rather than composing any songs proper. These songs debuted throughout the summer, adding a new element to the shows, as many fans who either hadn’t heard the record, or weren’t following the band on the road, simply thought they were extensions of jams. “My Left Toe,” “The Happy Whip & Dung Song” and “What’s The Use?” received the most play, each of which added to the loose style with which the band was playing, where any song could catch a groove and set off on a twenty-minute excursion. What’s more is that the songs further emphasized the minimalist and ambient style the band had been experimenting with throughout 1998, pushing the band to continue developing their sound through a more noise-based approach.

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Much like three of their last four Summer Tours, Summer 1999 lives and dies on its improvisational jams. What’s truly incredible about the tour – and really, the year overall – is that through all of the unknowns, through any of the conflict, through any of the slop, the band is still capable of crafting unique, mind-altering improvisational music. Retaining the groove-based nature of the 1997 revolution, the sound of Phish in 1999 is even more spacious, even more focused on the abstract. Their best jams emanate from simple grooves set by Mike and Fish and allow Trey and Page even more freedom in painting melodies over the tops of a rhythm section that has essentially been training for this moment for three years. Increasing his arsenal of effect pedals, Trey continued to remain in the background of many Phish jams, though by year-end, the best jams would have built upon linear musical communication, only to be fully realized through colorful melodic riffs from The Bad Lieutenant. What’s most unique about the Summer 1999 tour, is that it’s the one tour where the band’s drug problems really showed – just listen to 07/24/1999 – AND were a good thing. The whole summer sounds like a band that’s over the crest, and is just playing on pure instinct. First sets were mostly compiled of songs that couldn’t have matched in any other year – 07/08/1999, 07/13/1999, 07/24/1999, 07/25/1999 – and yet due to jams and segues, work somehow in an effortless way. Second sets, much like the last four years, are full of stunning excursions into the unknown. Only this tour, with a more spacey and contemplative approach, emphasize the space between notes, and the mellow moments in between the rage, creating a dream-like affect throughout the entire tour.

Standout shows are found in Camden, where the band embarked on one of the first extended jams out of “Chalk Dust Torture -> Roggae” with stunningly blissful results in the first set, before taking “Tweezer” and “Birds” of a feather to ambient, groove-based realms in the second. The second night of Great Woods is remembered for the sublime “The Curtain> Halley’s Comet -> Roses Are Free -> NO2” segment in Set I, a monster “Wolfman’s> Piper” in Set II, and a fitting one-time performance of “Tuesday’s Gone” in the encore, concluding their first two shows at Great Woods since 1994, the latter of which stretched into Wednesday morning. Holmdel, NJ’s two-nights featured the closest shows the band had played to Trey’s hometown of Princeton, and Page’s Basking Ridge, in five years. The first night contained a jam sequence in Set II that has lived on as one of the lasting soundscapes of the era. Reading “Meatstick -> Split Open & Melt -> Kung -> Jam -> Bouncing Around The Room,” the jam is nearly 55-minutes of unabridged improv. The fifteen minute jam out of “Meatstick,” and the post-“Kung” jam prove to be two of the most equally sublime and unnerving moments of the entire tour. The Oswego Festival granted fans a third set on 07/18 which read “My Soul> Piper> Prince Caspain> Wilson -> Catapult -> Icculus> Quinn The Eskimo> Fluffhead,” thus bridging stunning improv with their age-old gimmicks. As the tour wound into the midwest towards its conclusion, Columbus’s second set of “Ghost -> Free> Birds Of A Feather -> Meatstick> Fire” provided one of the most fluid sets of the entire tour, displaying the band’s grasp on groove-oriented, spacious jamming, regardless of the fact that Trey clearly stumbled through the lyrical section of “Birds.” For as controversial a show it is among the legion of Phish’s dedicated fans, 07/24/1999 at Alpine Valley still retains some of the most surreal moments of the tour. The 18-minute jam that unfolded from the second song “Fluffhead” is a completely unprecedented moment in the band’s history, resulting in a blissful jam in the least likely of places. The Second Set’s 18-minute “Mango Song ->The Happy Whip & Dung Song” provides yet another completely atypical jam of the show, and the encore of “Glide> Camel Walk, Alumni Blues> Tweezer Reprise” will set the standard for years to come in terms of what an incredible encore is. The following night at Deer Creek is probably the best show of the entire tour, and is on the short list for show of the year. With an absolutely classic first set that opened with a six song segment “Meat> My Friend, My Friend -> My Left Toe -> Whipping Post> Makisupa Policeman -> Happy Birthday Chris Kuroda” that was as out of place as it was stunning, the show is a microcosm of 1999. Loose, jammy, a bit strung-out, the music crafted is the kind you’d expect a band to craft in the wee-hours of the morning.

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After six months apart from each other in early-1999, the band dedicated the last six months of the year to Phish. Thus, only a month and a half after the conclusion of the Summer Tour, the band embarked on a month-long Fall Tour that saw them spend more time on the West Coast since Summer 1997. Inherently understanding that their songs had gotten away from them over the course of the last two years, First Sets began to resemble the recital type sets that would become commonplace over the next fourteen years. While there’d still be jams regularly contained within for at least the next five years, a clear structure was being implemented, whereby the band would play themselves into shape over the course of a tour, through essentially rehearsal-esque First Sets, and then use Set II as a platform for exploration. Fans of Phish’s extended-improv have more than their fair share of choices in 1999, as the Fall Tour is littered with standout jams that feature even darker themes, deeper spacious exploration, and an emphasis on electronic beats that would come to define their sound over the next year-and-a-half. The Portland ‘Ghost’, Boise ‘AC/DC Bag -> Gumbo’, Chula Vista ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’, Memphis ‘2001 -> Down With Disease’ and ‘Mike’s -> Catapult -> Mike’s -> Kung -> Mike’s -> I Didn’t Know’, Minneapolis ‘Piper’, and Albany ‘Limb By Limb -> 2001’ all stood out as the top-tier jams of the tour. The 09/14 “AC/DC Bag -> Gumbo” resides in its own separate category. A jam that displayed the interwoven communication 16-years as a band creates, the “Bag” wove through blissful ambience, beat-driven electro-funk, and noise-laden soundscapes over 27-minutes, crafting a jam for the ages, fusing sounds of 1995, 1997 and 1998 in a compartmental vehicle that could have only been created in 1999.

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Along with their career-long goal of establishing a sound that allowed them to play as one unified instrument, Phish had long talked of a desire to play what they called “The Long Gig.” In their ideal world, the band would surprise their fans by locking the doors prior to show time, give everyone in attendance one phone call, and then play for as long as they desired, be it overnight, or over the course of multiple days. The idea was part experiment to see how their fans would react to not only an onslaught of Phish, but also the psychological effects of being locked in a room for an extended period of time with no clear ending. Musically, the band had always wanted to see what kind of music they would be creating some 10-20-30-hours in, if they embarked on an unyielding journey of exploration. Unfortunately, with the age of modernity that birthed us cell phones, frivolous laws that prevent trapping people, and the monetary needs of a venue which relies on turnover at the gate on a regular basis, the idealized Long Gig would have to be altered to be plausible.

With the millennium celebrations fast approaching, Phish realized that by combining their New Year’s show with their festivals, they’d have the opportunity to fulfill their Long Gig, at least in part. A massive Phish-blowout was in the works. Located in the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, the show would allow the band to emulate their summer festivals, while celebrating the literal, once-in-a-millennium event. Phish would play three-sets on the 30th, an afternoon set on the 31st, and then emerge just before midnight and play through the night, a seven-hour, unending set, one that would go down in infamy as perhaps the most unique, special, and incredible gag/show of Phish’s entire career.

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phish_9_16_99_1The December 1999 tour was announced as a run-up to The Big Cypress Festival. Just three-weeks in length, it gave the band a chance to tour their home turf, seeing as 1999 would be their first ever NYE run outside of the Northeast. Building upon the improvisational accomplishments of the summer and fall, the December 1999 tour is probably the best example – aside from their June 2000 tour of Japan – of Phish fully realizing the groove-based-ambient jams they’d been working towards over the past year. Maybe it was the cold weather, maybe the anticipation of an entire night of live music, maybe the cement structures which always seem to bring out a darker side of Phish’s music, maybe it was the sheer fact that they’d been playing almost continuously for six months, whatever it was, the improvisational music crafted in December 1999 resides in a category with that of December 1995 and 1997 as some of the most original they have ever crafted. This is not to suggest that the greatness of December 1999 is somehow comparable or equal to the greatness of 1995 and 1997. It’s not. For starters, many of the overall shows in December 1999 are shit, and in many ways, complete throwaways. As with much of 1999 (and 2000, and 2003, and certainly 2004) the jams are what make or break a show. Overall the energy of shows was certainly lacking, most likely due to song selection and performance. Unlike December 1995 and December 1997, December 1999 is not a peak month in Phish’s history. What it is – for all of the negativity brewing within the band and for all of the ominous darkness hovering over the scene – is a shining example of the band immersing themselves in their music, crafting jams that are original, and completely true to themselves, using a minimalist style to further push linear musical communication.

– Jams –

In a month so reliant on its jams, selecting three to sum up the overall sound is a bit daunting. Each show contains at least one exploratory excursion that would be worthy of selection, be it the 12/02 ‘Bathtub Gin -> 2001’, the Cincinnati ‘Limb By Limb’ and ‘Split Open And Melt’, Portland ‘Halley’s Comet’, 12/10 ‘David Bowie -> Have Mercy -> HYHU’, 12/11 ‘Ghost -> 2001’, the 12/13 and 12/16 ‘Sand’, the Hampton ‘2001> Sand’, or the Big Cypress ‘Mike’s’, ‘DWD’,  ‘Rock & Roll’, ‘Crosseyed’, ‘Drowned.’ Yet for as remarkable as each of those jams was in both their musical merits and their ability to embrace the sound the band was seeking to emulate, there are three jams which just capture the entire era of Phish with more ease and authenticity. The Hartford “Drowned,” and the Big Cypress “Sand -> Quadrophonic Toppling,” and “Roses Are Free” standout as The jams of December 1999.

On the day after Trey’s Grandfather passed away, Phish took the stage in Hartford, CT, and unleashed a Second Set jam out of “Drowned” that turned the tide of The Who classic in a shape-shifting manner, that altered all versions played up to now. Leaving the song proper, guns a blazing, Trey absolutely dominates the torrential jam like few of 1999 right up to 14:28. From there, the band embarks on a beat-driven, dance-heavy jam that builds off a rock-solid foundation from Mike and Fish, and features interwoven licks from Page on the clav, and Trey alternating between guitar and his own keyboard.

Moving through various rising themes, the jam pushes into its own realm, away from the arena-rock jam in which it originated, as each member trimmed the fat and moved into more simplistic rhythms. At 20:19 the band crosses a plane, leaving the dance-heavy mid-section of the jam, as Trey hits the sirens and they move into more abstract territory. It’s here that we 17445967week0hear the massive influence of Mike, who emerges from his back-up bassist world and directs the jam around pseuedo-dance-beats that emphasize space over notes. Trey follows suit, while Page moves to his synths to cultivate a wall of sound, and Fishman keeps the jam afloat atop a subdued, electronic beat. The last six minutes of the jam are spent in atmospheric space, as Trey allows the layered loops he’s established to continue, and his guitar becomes more of a destructive force, in conflict with the beat. Concluding with an ominous tone before fading into “Prince Caspain,” the Hartford “Drowned” embodies literally everything about 1999. Combining blissful Hose with dance-heavy breakdowns, atmospheric noise, and minimalist influences, the jam is a stark image of where Phish was in this latter era of 1.0.

Three hours into their all-night set at Big Cypress, Phish kicked into the song that had come to define December 1999, “Sand.” Born out of Trey’s solo band, “Sand” was built on a incessant beat from Mike and Fish, staccato dance melodies from Trey, and ambient washes from Page. While it jammed consistently, it rarely diverted from its theme. It thus provided both a sustained groove-based dance party for their audience, and further ample reason for their longest-surving fans to continue criticizing them for laziness. All this changed on 12/31/1999 (well, 3am 01/01/2000, to be technically correct) when the band followed a straight-up fiery peak of the song’s theme with one of the most unique jams they’ve ever embarked on. At 17:41 Trey stays locked in to the fatty and distorted tone he’d used to emphasize the jam’s tension & release segment. Only here he follows Mike and Fish by pushing their poppy rhythms forward, diverting the expected return to “Sand”. Moving into a melodically demented realm, the band locks up rhythmically in a jam that sounds like a combination between an early-morning dream, and the last few hours of an acid trip. As the jam flows into a more twisted and melodic soundscape, the recorded voice of Mike Gordon appears, repeating the phrase “Quadrophonic Toppling.” A short sample on The Siket Disc, the song’s title is repeated, much like it is on the recording, though here, over far different music. A jam, a tease, it’s unknown really what inspired the band to inject the snippet into the “Sand” jam, other than to just fuck with the crowd, three hours into a mind-bending set. Emerging from the demented jam Mike and Page take the lead as an organic dual ensues with Page on the grand piano and Mike twisting bass lines around his “Squirming Coil”-esque patterns. Trey and Fish are thus left to enrich the jam with ambient washes through effects and cymbals, crafting yet another dream-like state, only this time, far more at peace.

Three hours later, just after 6am on New Year’s Day, Phish kicked into the fan-favorite Ween cover “Roses Are Free.” Since the “Sand -> Quadrophonic Toppling”, the set had struggled to remain fluent. While there were certainly some memorable moments within – “Reba”, “David Bowie”, “Drowned”, “Piper”, each of these jams popped up in between filler songs, compromising the structure of the set in favor of continuity. A song that had only been extended twice before, many expected “Roses Are Free” to follow the route of the last couple hours. A welcome surprise then when Trey held out the final chords of the chorus, the band followed suit, and they embarked on a totally unprecedented 35-minute jam that brought the sun up on the new millennium. Initially dominated by blistering Trey riffs juxtaposed against Page’s experimental jazz diversions, when Trey backed off at 8:30, the jam opened up, allowing Mike to join the fray. Over the course of the next nine minutes the band embarked on a loose and weaving, subdued psychedelic jam that featured Page in the spotlight, while Trey and Mike backed him up with minimalist noise. All this changed at 17:54 when Trey, who had begun searching for a melody to build off of, began looping a lilting riff that would see him take control of the jam, littering over the top of the base set by Fishman’s traversing drums, Mike’s equally bouncy bass, and Page who began incorporating ambient washes into the jam. Around 20:04 Page started forcing an ominous tone onto the jam, increasing his atmospheric noises pushing the jam into more abstract territory. The excursion resided in a conflicting zone over the next six minutes as Mike and Page underwrote the jam with intensifying noise, while Trey continued his blissful and sublime riffs. A sound that at first listen could have been accused as being offensively out-of-synch, when put into the context of the performance, it’s an incredibly fitting jam, displaying the interwoven musical relationship of Phish, crafting the experience of dawn through music. The final nine minutes are akin to a prayer of thanks, as they play out like a direct mental projection of the band’s state of mind after six-and-a-half-hours of near-continuous playing. Building to a driving force, the jam ends with little fanfare, simply concluding seemingly mid-jam, it shows the finite nature of improv, and displays the organic style with which Phish sought to embody in their 1997 – 2000 period.

– Shows –

If anyone were to compile a list of the best shows of December 1999 it would read like this: 12/02/1999, 12/03/1999, 12/08/1999, 12/11/1999, 12/15/1999, 12/18/1999, 12/30/1999, and, of course, 12/31/1999. Each of these eight shows reigns supreme over the rest of the month, and provide a snapshot of the best full shows the band played during one of their most unique months. Yet, if one were to select two shows that summed up the overall sound, the overall goals, and the overall mood of December 1999, those two shows would be 12/03/1999 and 12/31/1999. Providing a diametric perspective on one of the most controversial and misunderstood month’s of the band’s career, these two shows embody the improvisational sound, the lost sensation and the heralded place in their career December 1999 ultimately was.

On the second night of the tour, Phish crafted a full show in the minimalist style they’d spent the previous year pining at, displaying the sheer brilliance of it in the context of their music, while also proving its negative effects on their overall performance and relationship. The entire show was thus blanketed under the style that had overtaken their improv, altering the band’s approach in typically guitar-slinging songs like “Wolfman’s Brother,” “AC/DC Bag” and “Possum.” The shift is most successful in a second set that reads: “Sand> Limb By Limb, Bug> Piper, Harry Hood.”

Opening with one of the theme songs of the 99-00 Phish era, “First Tube” relies on a forward pressing, simple beat from Fishman and Gordo, while Trey and Page flitter over the top with walls of sound, and layered melodies, creating an electronic/dance feel. It’s a song that would become a commonplace opener over the next year, adding a burst of energy right out the gates, here, ushering in a show that would seek to emulate it’s musical philosophy. In the first set, “Wolfman’s,” “Bag>Possum,” and “Slave” were transformed and built like “First Tube.” Each relying on extremely simple, repeated riffs from Trey, accented by washes from Page, all over a steady beat from Mike and Fish, they fully emulated the minimalist approach the band was undertaking in 1999. Was this method good for a live concert? That’s in part up to the listener to decide. Many of the band’s oldest fans have long complained about the simplistic, lazy style Phish engulfed themselves in in the late-90’s, something which drained energy from what was once the most high octane, energized show out there. From this blog’s perspective, they’re right to a certain degree, and wrong to another. While it is apparent that the band’s performance on 12/03/1999 does lack some of the energy one might find in 1993 or 1995, but that’s the thing, it was 1999, not 1993 or 1995. Phish’s sound has always evolved, and the fact that they evolved from such an individually isolated zone of music to emulate the music of the time really goes to show the musical prowess of Phish. The fact that “AC/DC Bag” and “Possum” can be reinvented, in the moment, from a guitar-driven, straight forward rock song, to a patiently building minimalist dance number reveals more about Phish’s diversity than their laziness, regardless of the influence drugs and alcohol had on the band at the time.

The second set is without question one of the premiere examples of the 1999 sound fully working for the band. Flowing with ease, jamming with purpose, the “Sand”, “Limb By Limb” and “Harry Hood” all stand out as moments where the band fully hooked up under the guise of the minimalist style they were seeking. “Limb By Limb” in particular, which leaves its theme at 7:50, entering a rhythmic and melodic dual between Trey and Page before journeying off into the unknown. It’s the kind of solemn and peaceful jam that could only have occurred in the 1998 – 2000 era of Phish, where the conflicts of the time mixed with the linear musical communication they’d established, crafting music that was as simplistic as it was advanced.

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At this point, really the only thing left to say about 12/31/1999 should be said by the band in a series of interviews, be it for a book, or for the – hopefully – expected DVD to come about their Millennium blowout. Every fan has said their piece, as has every blogger. All that can be said about it really, is that it is without question the peak event in Phish’s 30 year history. Now, this is not to say it is their peak musical moment, for that came in 1995. What it is though, is the event where Phish realized all that was possible with their music, and with the culture they’d created, and played a concert that was totally their own. Afterwards, all Trey and Fishman could do, was look at each other and say, “We should quit.” After musically reaching their peak four years earlier, then shedding their skin and completely reinventing themselves in 1997, they’d finally discovered a moment that they knew they simply couldn’t top. Nothing Phish does in the future can, or will ever top it, even if they try to do it once more. Big Cypress was, and is, the greatest concert Phish has ever conducted. Not because of the music they created, but because of how they fully realized the power their music conducted.

From a musical perspective, the most fitting thing about the show is that the 1999 style fully matched with the band’s goal of playing all night long. Whereas their 1993-1995 sound would have been too intense for an all-night gig, and their 1997 sound would have been too reliant on Trey’s Hendrix-esque onslaughts, and four-part funk breakdowns, their sound in 1999 was so mellow, so patient, so melodic that it created a dream-like state for everyone in attendance, and everyone listening over the past thirteen years. Crafting a completely surreal feel to the entire show, ‘Down With Disease’, ‘Twist’, ‘Crosseyed & Painless’, ‘Rock & Roll’, ‘Sand -> Quadrophonic Toppling’, ‘Piper’, ‘David Bowie’, ‘Drowned’, ‘Roses Are Free’, ‘2001’ are all pushed forward with an effortlessness that could only emerge from a band so intuitively aware of each other as Phish was in 1999. The exhausted sensation, the “we made it” feeling that emanated through the concert field by daybreak sums up Phish in 1999 like no other could. While they played together for another eight months before taking an indefinite hiatus, Big Cypress was the top of the mountain for the 1.0 era of Phish. And is still, the peak of everything they have ever created.

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A year completely built on conflict, 1999 shows Phish producing some of the simplest, most connected, most linear music of their entire career, all while struggling with some of the more complex issues they would have to confront as individuals. A scene that had ballooned to proportions they could have never imagined. The negative effects of drugs and partying seeping in to their lives disagreements among each other that had always remained below the surface began billowing out. Confusions over the band’s overall direction became paramount issues. Through it all, the band continued musically evolving with ease. While there were certainly glaring issues due to their lack of practice and the personal conflicts that began to dominate the band, the fact that Phish was able to craft profoundly new music that both pushed their songs in a new direction, and reflected the current times, is an accomplishment that should rank with their 1989-1992 tightening-of-the-ship, 2003’s deep and prodding return from hiatus, and 2012’s overcoming of 3.0’s rediscovery period. Proving that their best music doesn’t always come from periods of sustained happiness. Sometimes, conflict and uncertainty are the best mediums by which to produce music. While in hindsight, one could certainly argue that Phish should have figured out their personal issues and should have practiced more in 1999, the music speaks for itself in its rawness, nakedness, and stark simplicity that is completely unique in comparison to all other eras of Phish.

The Best Of Phish – 2010

——– Back in 2010 I managed a blog titled The Suffering Jukebox. While it was a general music blog first, I used the opportunity to push my thoughts on Phish through the medium. These next two posts are a look back at my writings on Phish in 2010 and 2011. Part revisionist/Part preview of the Best of 2012 post I have in the works. More than anything, they offer us a look back at how far Phish has come in 3.0 ——–

With their year-long reunion tour behind them, many within the Phish community looked towards 2010 as the year when Phish would once again reclaim the title of “Best Goddamn Band On The Planet” that they had earned throughout the 1990’s, yet strayed from for much of the past decade. With a serious, back-to-basics campaign throughout their entire reunion year, all signs pointed towards the band evolving in much the same way they did in the early 90’s. To listen to a Phish show from 2009, one could take away many similarities to their sound in 1991 and 1992. There were very few jams, shows were very song-based, and for the most part, they nailed each of their complex compositions. This kind of dedication towards playing their songs right was a far cry from the sloppy, yet heavily experimental Phish that fell apart with such lack of care in 2004. Yet while many could argue that the playing was tamer and less adventurous than the band had been from 1994-2004, those with a keen ear towards their past knew that there would have been no heavy experimentation from the band without the years of tight, jam-less shows, where the band focused on chemistry, and hitting all their changes, rather than exploring the ethos.

Thus when the band concluded 2009 with an energized, fully-flowing, and yes, experimentally-heavy four-show New Year’s run in Miami, many saw this as a microcosm of the band’s evolution in the 1990’s. Many expected 2010 to kick off with a bang, as the band – a year of getting comfortable with each other on stage, and with playing their material, under their belt – could now relax and combine energized, sharp-playing, with the improvisational creativity that harkened back to their glory days of the mid-90’s.

And yet, as can be with art, not everything went as planned. While Phish opened 2010 with arguably their best tour opener since 1999, their string of shows throughout June hit multiple speed-bumps due in large part to Trey’s inability to relax on stage and let a jam build organically. Along with this was his overwhelming reliance on the Whammy Pedal – known affectionally throughout the community as the “Whale Call” – an effect which shifted pitches on his guitar creating more soundscapes rather than melodic guitar lines. While definitely a choice effect for ambient/noise-laced jams, many fans took issue when seemingly every composed piece, and every jam – no matter the style or direction – was suddenly bombarded by the whale. By the time the tour closed with a gimmicky 4th of July show, many were openly questioning the band’s direction, and why they seemed to be so lost after a year of such promise.

Returning to the stage in early August, for an eleven-show run that crossed the country, hitting only five-venues, many were skeptical, beginning to expect Phish to underwhelm them, rather than blow them away like they had so many times before. Yet mid-way through the first set of the band’s second show of the tour, everything clicked. Maybe it was the confined, archaic Greek Theatre, maybe it was the cool Bay Area air wafting up to the stage, maybe it was the spirit of the Grateful Dead, maybe it was the new guitar Trey was playing – one that held a deeper tone, thus making pitch-shifting less of an ideal effect, thus forcing him to play lead guitar once again – maybe they had just been together long enough once again, and everything finally fell into place. Whatever it was, when the band launched into their cover of the Talking Heads’ classic, “Cities,” they settled back into a groove that built through eleven funky minutes, culminating with a pristine segue into “The Moma Dance.” Listening to a live stream of the show, one could literally hear Trey sit back and let Mike and Fish build on a theme, while he and Page offered staccatoed licks over the gooey foundation. Realizing what they were witnessing, the crowd let off an astounding roar, pushing the band further into the unknown. What had once been commonplace within a Phish show was realized once again, as the band seemed to reawaken once again to everything that could happen on stage if they just allowed the music to carry them.

The entire paradigm of Phish 3.0 changed in those eleven minutes. Late in the second set, the band took “Simple” on a fifteen minute ride that touched on melodic ambient themes, moving through multiple segments before segueing into “Backwards Down The Number Line.” The next night the band topped themselves with an energized, classically flowing show that featured what many considered to be the jam of the year in “Light.” For the remainder of the tour the band re-discovered their improvisational spirit, crafting memorable jams out of “Carini,” “Down With Disease,” “Prince Caspian,” “Drowned,” “Backwards Down The Number Line,” and more. Combining their renewed spirit for simply playing their songs with the adventurousness that defined their latter years, many began to openly pronounce that we were on the verge of witnessing the greatest incarnation of Phish there was.

Building off of this energy, Phish played a fourteen-date Fall Tour in October that not only confirmed the renewed innovation in their playing, but in many ways, far surpassed anything they had done in all of 3.0. Returning to many smaller arenas they hadn’t played since 1994 & 1995, there was a noticeably youthful flair that dominated many shows on the Fall tour resulting in a combination of energy, gimmickry and improvisation, thus putting the stumbling blocks of 2009 and early 2010 far in the band’s rear view mirror. Be it their perfectly flowing, pristine setlist from the second night in Charleston, or their playful sets, full of rarities and back-and-forth segues in Augusta, Utica, Manchester, and the second night of Atlantic City, or their all-around solid shows – that year ago would have been duds – from the third night in Broomfield,, Providence, or the first night in Amherst, no longer did it matter what Phish played, for how they played seemingly always came through. Full of surprises, energy and power, the Fall Tour reminded every Phish fan why this band had captured them so many years ago. Topped off with a top-notch Halloween cover of Little Feat’s Waiting For Columbus, an album that perfectly matched the band’s current style, Fall Tour ended with Phish fans more excited for the future of Phish than any time since 1998.

Closing the year off with an unprecedented five-night New Years run in Worcester, MA and New York City, the band condensed the energy and excitement of the monumental year, into five shows, each with stand-out performances. While the Worcester shows offered a more mellowed affair, mixing rarities with more emotive jams, by the time they stepped on stage at Madison Square Garden on 30 December, the band was fully-oiled, and ready to explode. Throwing down memorable jams in “Tweezer,” “Ghost,” “Walk Away,” “Sand,” “Walls Of The Cave,” and “Simple,” the band sounded far more mature and capable than they had just one year earlier when they had taken their talents to South Beach. And fusing their past and present through one of their best New Years gags in years – bringing the 1994 hot dog out of retirement to ride around the Garden, while a chorus of international dancers sang the “Meatstick” – the band reminded anyone still wondering, that they were still the same goofy pranksters from Burlington, now just a few years older. Playing one of the best shows of the last year on their first ever New Years Day performance, the band sent a message that 2010 was not a definitive culmination, but was once again part of a climaxing process that will lead to yet another peak in their career. Who knows exactly what 2011 will bring for Phish, but one thing is certain: the band has regained their energy and is fully comfortable on stage again, and can annihilate full arenas through their music in the same way they did fifteen years ago. However one plans on seeing shows in 2011, be it on tour, or on couch tour, look forward to what’s certain to be an excellent year from The Phish From Vermont.

Below is a list of my Top 10 Jams and Top 10 Shows of 2010. Each list contains three honorable mentions. These are not simply shows/jams 11-13, rather they are shows/jams that were excellent in their own right, and helped to build the foundation of Phish in 2010, yet didn’t crack my final ten. Each list is organized chronologically to ensure flow from the start of 2010 to the end. There is no ranking, these are simply the best ten shows/jams of the year. Below each show is a download link, and there is a link after the entire list of jams.

Hope everyone enjoys these shows and jams! Happy New Year!

The Best Of Phish 2010

Honorable Jams

“Cities” – Berkeley, CA – 08/06/2010

The much-needed kick in the ass to Phish 2010 came five songs into the band’s second show at the intimate Greek Theatre, via their longtime cover of the Talking Head’s “Cities.” A song that had once been a guaranteed trip into the netherworld, “Cities” had been demoted to first set filler throughout much of 3.0, always certain to ignite a crowd through it’s infectious grooves, yet constantly leaving much to be desired. All of this changed in Bay Area this past August when Trey – known to rush the end of every jam – sat back on a thumping groove from Mike, and let the jam build organically. What ensued after the composed section of the song was a four minute clinic in groove, fooling anyone listening that it was the summer of 1998 rather than 2010. While there were more exploratory and innovative jams from the band in 2010, without the “Greek Cities,” one has to wonder the direction the band would have gone in for the remainder of the year.

“Reba” – Augusta, ME – 10/19/2010

Played as an encore for the first time in eleven years, Phish dropped this normally first set composition after playing one of their most inspired sets of the young Fall tour. While “Reba” had improved considerably throughout the summer, resulting in some of the most inspiring Type-I jams of the era, the “Augusta Reba” was a whole different beast all to it’s own. Departing completely from the structure of the rising solo, Trey directed the band into a darker realm, resulting in yet another tease of the elusive “Manteca.” Extending the jam through five minutes of unknown territory, the performance sent out a bold message that the antics of the second set, and the accomplishments made thus far throughout the tour were not all for naught, and that the band was keenly away of their inspired playing. Representative of the “anything goes” spirit of Fall Tour, the “Augusta Reba” shocked the hell out of everyone when it was first played and has had lasting power over many jams from the rest of the year.

“Seven Below -> What’s The Use?” – Worcester, MA – 12/27/2010

The first significant piece of improv on the New Year’s run came in the form of the weather-apt “Seven Below,” and it’s smoothly executed segue into the ambient “What’s The Use?” A song everyone knew was coming as a result of the horrid travel conditions for most fans heading to Worcester, when “Seven Below” dropped midway through the first set of the run, many anticipated a huge musical moment coming. Moving through a percussive section that still retained elements of ambient themes, the jam in “Seven Below” matched both the song’s title and weather in it’s icy feel. As it became more melodic, Trey began teasing the theme of “What’s The Use?,” ultimately segueing into it some nine minutes later. Always a welcome treat since it’s bust-out a year before in Miami, “What’s The Use?” finds itself on this list twice, both times perfectly matching the jam it emerged from and the mood of the set it was placed in.

The Top Ten Jams Of 2010

“Tweezer” – Hartford, CT – 06/18/2010

Midway through the second set of the first complete show of 2010 came the “Tweezer” everyone was waiting for. While much of 2009 had been reserved for a back-to-basics approach throughout their songs, anytime the band played “Tweezer,” everyone knew a powerful and inspired jam would emerge. Thus when they kick-started “Tweezer” in Hershey, PA, three nights into their summer tour, many expected a massive jam to be played. However, the version was more underwhelming than anything else, ultimately petering out into “Twist.” Less than a week later however, Phish played “Tweezer” again, this time giving it it’s proper 2010 due. Patiently entering the jam, Trey allowed Mike to build a solid and funky base, creating a dance-party throughout the Hartford Meadows. Yet the jam truly took off in it’s second section when Trey began offering more melodic leads, building the jam into a major-keyed, triumphant jam. Pushing the song to its extreme, Trey allowed the theme to wither away slowly, extending a contemplative ambient section far longer than he normally would. When it finally emerged in “Theme From The Bottom” some seventeen minutes after its inception, no one could utter a word.

“Chalk Dust Torture” – Camden, NJ – 06/25/2010

One of the rare Phish songs to serve as both an arena rock anthem and a free form improvisational excursion, “Chalk Dust” had seemingly been regulated to show opening rocker for 3.0. That is, until the second night of Camden this summer. Midway through an ultimately underwhelming tour, Phish was in search of inspiration in anyway they could find it. In effort to find a new, bold direction, the band opened the second set of the show with “Chalk Dust Torture,” a song that was normally played in the first set of shows. Immediately latching onto a searing minor theme once the song’s final chorus had been sung, Trey harnessed the powers of his Whammy Pedal, sculpting a wall of sound that allowed Mike, Fish and Page to build a groove-based jam. Yet the real hero of the jam was the bass-weilding mastery of Mike Gordon. As the jam began to lose direction fourteen minutes in, Gordo hit his envelope filter and unleashed a disco-infused theme that carried the song to yet another peak, before it dissolved. Once again proving his MVP-status throughout 3.0, Mike took this jam from simply a welcomed experiment, to one of the strongest musical moments of the entire year.

“Simple” – Berkeley, CA – 08/06/2010

While the “Cities” played in the first set of the second night at the Greek Theatre sent shockwaves throughout the Phish community, at the time no one knew if this was a one-and-done moment of inspiration or a theme that would carry throughout the remainder of the tour. After all, a year before, the fanbase witnessed as Phish took us on a fifty-minute excursion in Albany through “Seven Below -> Ghost,” only to see them reign in their improv considerably by the very next show. Yet as the composed section of “Simple” fell away, listeners could distinctly hear Mike and Trey hooking up through a looped melodic theme that Page and Fish quickly latched onto. Building on this playful theme for a few minutes, the band took the jam on a bubbling ride that peaked with choice and bright tremelo chords from Trey. Building through fifteen minutes of upbeat jamming, the song came to a proper conclusion as it spilled over into the appropriate “Backwards Down The Number Line.” While the “Cities” jam may have been the spark that lit the flame, the “Simple” reassured a fanbase desperate for creative playing from Phish.

“Light” – Berkeley, CA – 08/07/2010

Far and away, the song of the year, the version of “Light” at the Greek ranks up there with the best jams of 2010 and of the entirety of 3.0. Bursting out of the conclusion of “Wilson,” “Light” traversed through nine minutes of tension-and-release soloing from Trey before opening up into a vast ambient landscape that displayed an interplay and patience from the entire band, unseen prior in 3.0. Ditching his whammy pedal entirely, Trey latched onto the emotive theme established by Mike, offering choice licks around his swirling bass lines. Complimented by a renewed, rhythmically-charged Jon Fishman and beautiful fills from Page, the jam moved effortlessly through the unknown, reminiscent of the band’s playing from 1998-2000. In the midst of the band’s creative reawakening, the “Greek Light” is unsurpassed in terms of its role in pushing the band further into the unknown, while giving them direction and a foundation to build on for the remainder of the year.

“Down With Disease -> What’s The Use?” – Alpine Valley, WI – 08/14/2010

The centerpiece of one of the band’s best shows of 2010, the jam out of “Down With Disease” that effortlessly segued into “What’s The Use?” stands out as representation of the renewed exploratory spirit that overtook the band throughout August. After tearing through a blistering and precise solo, the band jumped on one percussive theme after another, resulting in a constantly unwinding, relentlessly exploratory jam that pushed further and further into the unknown through full-band interplay. Easily the most diverse jam the band has played in all of 2010, the song moved with such a frenetic pace that it’s hard to zero in on a single theme that reigns supreme. More than anything, the most impressive aspect of the jam, aside from the connectivity the band played with, was the fact that the segue into the airy “What’s The Use?” literally sounded composed. It is the most graceful segue the band has played in all of 3.0, one that came out of nowhere but fit perfectly as an extended fade after the relentless climb that was the seventeen minute “DWD.”

“Backwards Down The Number Line” – Wantagh, NY – 08/17/2010

Ever since it was used to kick off the first second set of Phish’s reunion show in Hampton, VA back on 06 March 2009, “Backwards Down The Number Line” has in many ways represented everything that is Phish in it’s 3.0 incarnation. A song of celebration and friendship, the song was originally a poem Tom Marshall wrote to Trey on his birthday in 2007, in attempt to reestablish contact with his recovering friend. Within five minutes Trey had given the song a melody, and in that moment the first hopes for Phish’s renewal were born. Yet for as emotionally uplifting as the song is, it has also become something of an enigma through its performances. At times an eight-minute Type I guitar solo, at others a fifteen-to-twenty minute excursion into the unknown, each time the song emerges, the entire crowd is left wondering what kind of “# Line” they’re about to hear. The version played on the first night of Jones Beach this past summer is without a doubt the song’s best, for the band combined the uplifting, melodic quality of the song’s theme, with an extended jam that lasted for fifteen glorious minutes. In the midst of one of their most unique, best flowing sets of the summer, “Backwards Down The Number Line” shone as the most inspired moment of the night, and one of the most enjoyable jams to re-listen to in 2010.

“Light” – Augusta, ME – 10/19/2010

My vote for jam of the year, and for the best jam of the entirety of 3.0, the “Light” played in Augusta, combined the exploratory spirit of Fall Tour with the highly energized, thematic jamming that was everywhere throughout their shows, in a jam that displayed connection and patience unlike any other. Moving rapidly through the song’s post-lyrical segment of tension and release, the band settled down by eight minutes in, into a melodic and bouncing theme that they would use to build their most connected jam of the year over the course of the next six minutes. Stripping away the fat, the band focused on Trey’s melodically staccatoed riff, building with him with the unison of a four-instrumented beast. Yet where in the past they would seek to build the theme quickly before quickly moving onto a new segment or song, the beauty of this “Light” is in the fact that the band took such noticeable pleasure in the theme, playing within it for five minutes of glory. Without a doubt the most inspired theme the band had stumbled upon to that point, the jam was a watershed moment in the tour, pushing them to continue searching for more hidden moments throughout the vast unknown of improv.

“Split Open & Melt -> Have Mercy -> Piper -> Split Open & Melt” – Utica, NY – 10/20/2010

While their show in Utica is generally renowned for the “Guyute,” “David Bowie -> Guyute -> David Bowie -> Wilson -> David Bowie -> Wilson -> David Bowie, Wilson -> Guyute -> Wilson” monstrosity in Set I, the true brilliance of the show came late in Set II through the “Split Open & Melt” sandwich that contained “Have Mercy,” and “Piper” within it. Since their comeback in 2009, no song has been as controversial as “Split Open & Melt.” A dark and seedy song by nature, the band has used it as their sole excursion to the disjointed and dark side, resulting in either terrifically nasty jams, or overall distorted, collapsing failures. Loved or hated, there has been no middle ground for “Split Open & Melt” in 3.0. So when it appeared late in the second set of the runaway show of the tour, there were those who rejoiced, and those who cringed at what was to come. By the end of the segment, literally all fans would be blown away by the musical craftsmanship displayed by the band throughout twenty torrid minutes. Dropping out of the rising theme almost immediately after the composed section finished, the band directed “SOAM” towards the abstract and ambient before Trey emerged with a gorgeous theme, soon recognized as the elusive cover of “Have Mercy.” Played for only the second time since 1999 – and the fourth since 1994 – the song was a welcome bright spot in the jam, with every fan noting it’s significance. Yet almost immediately after Trey stopped singing, he reverted back to the disjointed theme that typically dominates “SOAM,” signaling what many figured would be a segue back into the song. However, Trey had other ideas, stretched the jam out for seven minutes before cuing up fan-favorite “Piper.” A song whose jam has become increasingly nonexistent, Phish took this version on a powerful ride, teasing the jam of “Birds Of A Feather,” before locking into the theme of “Split Open & Melt” and directing the jam back to the origin of the excursion. While certainly no one would argue that the song was without some serious sloppiness, the greatness of it came in it’s harnessing of Phish’s playful spirit, and the twisted territory it explored. A jam that stands up to it’s gimmicky show, the “SOAM sandwich” was one of many moments from the Fall tour that sounds as good on speakers as it looked on paper.

“Tweezer” – New York City, NY – 12/30/2010

The Set II opener of the band’s first of three shows at Madison Square Garden, “Tweezer” was exactly what the show needed after a fun, albeit awkward first set. Building through two distinct segments, the jam was patient, it was incredibly exploratory, it was dark and seedy, and it was representative of everything the band had accomplished throughout 2010. After a funk jam led the song out of its gates, Trey brought the band back through a noise-laced ambient jam that didn’t fit the bill as your typical ambient fade into a new song. Instead, Trey allowed Mike and Page to build a theme over Fish’s percussive beats, emerging a few minutes later in a heated groove-based jam that harkened back to 2003. The last kind of jam anyone would have expected to come out of the greatest hits-type show the band played on New Year’s Eve Eve, the “Tweezer” blew everyone away, both those inside the Garden, and the thousands watching on the live streams from their couches. A possible new direction for the band in 2011, the “MSG Tweezer” more than anything displays that the band still is possible of conjuring up demons and playing as if locked in Hades, something many thought was far behind them.

“Ghost” – New York City, NY – 12/31/2010

Right smack in the middle of the best set of the New Year’s run came a jam that seemed to sum up the overjoyed emotion throughout the Phish scene, thanks to the band’s rejuvenated playing in 2010. After nailing the rhythmic break back into the song – something that took the band over a year to accomplish – Trey directed the jam out from it’s funky theme into a brighter and more melodic territory, one that would result in the most impressive and soaring jam Trey has led in all of 3.0. Locking in behind his spirt and theme, Mike, Fish and Page simply provided a base, allowing for Trey to display his regained chops in a solo that he would have simply been unable to play six months ago. Words really can’t describe this jam. It’s gorgeous in it’s building melody, in the peaks it bursts through, and then bursts through again. An explosion of energy from the band and all watching matched the jams peak, as everyone shared in the celebration of how far the band had come in a year, let alone since they reunited in March 2009. If there was any question how high of a regard the band held this jam immediately after it’s conclusion, it came in the set-closing performance of “You Enjoy Myself,” the seminal Phish song, and one most figured would be held off until the following set or the New Years’ Day closer.

Honorable Shows

Hershey Park Stadium – Hershey, PA – 06/13/2010

Set I: Gotta Jibboo, Chalk Dust Torture, Fluffhead, Funky Bitch, Runaway Jim>NICU>Horn, It’s Ice>Bouncing Around The Room>Sparkle, Split Open & Melt

Set II: Drowned>Tweezer -> Twist>Piper>Free, Wading In The Velvet Sea, You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Bold As Love

The final show of the first weekend of Phish 2010, everything came together at Hershey Park on a perfect summer day that was punctuated by an old-school show, and a flowing second set. Boasting a first set with no songs written after 1993, aside from the opener, Phish came out with a laid-back feel that matched the season and the half empty stadium. Gelling for the first entire show of the year, Hershey Park felt like the moment when the band finally adjusted to being on tour, settling back for the long haul. In the second set, Phish sought experimental groove-based jamming in “Drowned,” “Twist” and “Piper,” intermixed with rock in “Tweezer” and “Free,” and a late-set breather in “Wading In The Velvet Sea.” While at times disjointed because of Trey’s ADD-shifts from jam to new song, the show was the first complete show of the tour, topped off by a relentless, fire-breathing “You Enjoy Myself.”

 

Susquehanna Bank Center – Camden, NJ – 06/25/2010

Set I: Alumni Blues* -> Letter To Jimmy Page** -> Alumni Blues, Big Black Furry Creature From Mars, Runaway Jim, Army Of One, Free Man In Paris^, Summer Of ’89, Split Open & Melt, The Sloth, Time Turns Elastic, Golgi Apparatus

Set II: Chalk Dust Torture>Prince Caspian -> Heavy Things>Alaska -> 2001#>Light -> Possum>Character Zero

Encore: Shine A Light

* First “Alumni Blues” since 24 July 1999

** First “Letter To Jimmy Page” since 15 July 1994

^ Debut of “Free Man In Paris” – Joni Mitchell

# Multiple Michael Jackson-inspired teases throughout “2001” on the first anniversary of his death

A strong show that burst out of the gates with two bustouts in “Alumi -> Jimmy Page -> Alumni” and a rarity in “BBFCFM,” before easing into a more contemplative summer’s evening set, the second night of Camden was one of the few truly memorable shows from June mainly thanks to the powerful and flowing second set. Dominated by one of The Juke‘s jams of the year in Set II opener “Chalk Dust,” the show flowed through impressive playing by Trey in “Prince Caspian,” “Heavy Things” and “Alaska” before things turned experimental again with a segue into “2001.” A song that once meant a twenty minute journey to the outer realms of the galaxy, “2001” has been relegated to mere five minute late-set filler since 2003. However, on the one year anniversary of the death of the former King Of Pop, Phish turned the grooving jam into a journey through Wacko’s greatest hits. Teasing “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” “Billy Jean,” and “Thriller,” the song had everyone at the show going crazy, while offering a classic and re-listenable dance party for all who weren’t in south Jersey for the show. The performance did wonders to rejuvenate “2001” for the remainder of the year, and each successive version was filled with an energy that had seemingly been lost. Segueing into a powerful and percussive take on “Light,” Phish used the performance as another opportunity to build the 3.0 anthem towards the glories it would realize later in the year. A dark-horse show in 2010, the second night at Camden saw Phish take far more risks than they did at most shows during the June run. The results would speak for themselves throughout the year.

 

The Greek Theatre – Berkeley, CA – 08/06/2010

Set I: Chalk Dust Torture, Guyute, Ocelot, It’s Ice, Cities -> The Moma Dance>Bathtub Gin, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan

Set II: Rock & Roll> Ghost>Mike’s Song>Simple>Backwards Down The Number Line, Show Of Life, Seven Below -> Weekapaug Groove, You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Good Times Bad Times

Highlighted by the jams in “Cities” and “Simple,” which I discussed in the Top Jams segment, the second night at The Greek was the awakening the band needed in order to have the kind of revolutionary tour they had in August. With a strong setlist, and a fully flowing second set, powered by a diverse “Mike’s Groove,” the show never let up, showing a confident side of Phish many wondered if still existed throughout the inconsistent June run. To point out how killer this show was, consider the fact that the “Rock & Roll” jam would be a highlight at any other show, but here was the third best jam. After opening the August run with a solid, albeit safe show, Phish chose to make a statement on the second night of their three-night stay at The Greek. While night three would eventually surpass this night in terms of playing and song choice, for at least 24 hours, the second night reigned supreme as THE show of the year. I still get chills whenever I hear those jams, for this show was the breaking point between the first half of 3.0 and everything that has resulted since.

 

The Top Ten Shows Of 2010

The Comcast Theatre – Hartford, CT – 06/18/2010

Set I: Fee>Rift, Wolfman’s Brother, Summer Of ’89^, Foam, Possum>The Moma Dance>Julius, Reba, Cavern

Set II: Halley’s Comet>Light -> Billy Breathes, Tweezer -> Theme From The Bottom>Harry Hood -> Wading In The Velvet Sea, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan

Encore: Sleeping Monkey+>Tweezer Reprise>Tweezer Reprise++

^ “Summer Of ’89” Made it’s Phish debut

+ Played for a fan who brought a sign requesting it the previous night

++ Played again to make up for the lack of “Reprise” at Hershey

A week into what was becoming an incredibly inconsistent tour, Phish threw down a perfect summertime show that carried an excellent setlist, patient, full-band jamming, and the kind of playful gimmickry that has long been associated with some of the best Phish shows. Opening with the old school combo of “Fee>Rift,” “Wolfman’s Brother,” the entire Meadows knew that the second night in Hartford would not only surpass the uneven first night, but would also go down as one of the shows of the tour. Playing an old school first set, akin to Hershey, the band followed a similar formula in Set II, by focusing on improvisation. However, where Hershey featured lots of improv within a somewhat uneven set, the second set at Hartford flowed like a river through jams, breathers and rock gems. Kicking things off with fan-favorite “Halley’s Comet,” the band took their first excursion in an ambient-laced “Light” that segued beautifully into the increasingly rare ballad, “Billy Breathes.” After the short stop, Trey kicked the set into full gear with a “Tweezer” that has stood the test of the entire year as one of the most powerful jams the band has played. The next highlight came in a beautiful “Harry Hood,” one that worked to build on the success of Blossom’s version, foreshadowing the great “Hoods” that would be seen later in the year. A quick burst of adrenaline in set closing “Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan,” ended the show on a high note, with everyone expecting a quick encore before making the drive to SPAC. However, in classic Phish fashion, the band used the encore to put their stamp on an epic show, playing fan-requested “Sleeping Monkey,” before diving into the “Tweezer Reprise Reprise.” Always an energetic and killer closer, Trey kicked the energy way up by announcing that they were going to play the song again in honor of not playing it in Hershey. The crowd lost it, Trey fed off the energy, jumped off his speakers, got on his knees, and sent everyone into the night absolutely crazed with excitement. The next night in SPAC, the band appropriately opened and closed the show with “Tweezer Reprise,” thus carrying the energy over and infusing the June run with the kind of excitement it so desperately needed.

 

Merriweather Post Pavilion – Columbia, MD – 06/27/2010

Set I: Walfredo*, Mellow Mood, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan>The Divided Sky, Tela, My Soul, Ginseng Sullivan, Sample In A Jar> Bathtub Gin, Brian & Robert, Run Like An Antelope

Set II: Wilson>Meatstick& -> Saw It Again>Piper#>Ghost# -> Jumpin’ Jack Flash^ -> Saw It Again>Contact, You Enjoy Myself#

Encore: Fire#

* First “Walfredo” since 30 September 2000

& “Meatstick” contained Japanese lyrics

# “Piper,” “Ghost,” “You Enjoy Myself,” and “Fire” contained “Saw It Again” quotes

^ Debut of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – The Rolling Stones

Just when it appeared Leg one of Phish’s 2010 summer tour was going to be full of underwhelming shows, with a few solid ones dispersed throughout for good measure, Phish threw down an epic classic on their second night at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Opening with the rare, rotation song, “Walfredo” for the first time since 2000, followed by the just as rare, Bob Marley cover, “Mellow Mood,” sent a message that the show would be a keeper. With a first set full of solid performances of some of the fanbase’s favorite tunes, everyone was hunky dory as the band emerged for what would become one of the top sets of the year. Opening with “Wilson,” before moving into “Meatstick,” it appeared gimmickry was at work, and with the return of the Japanese lyrics to the song, everyone could tell Phish was having fun on stage. Moving into an ambient jam out of “Meatstick’s” theme, it appeared as though the band might take the song for an improvisational journey for the first time since 1999. However, a choppy segue into the rare, but always welcome, “Saw It Again,” threw that off, setting the table for a powerfully flowing second set that put the rest of the tour to shame. Out of the end of “Saw It Again” came a torrid “Piper” that built on percussive themes over sixteen blazing minutes, reminding many of the epic jam that emerged from the song in the same venue twelve years prior. Segueing into “Ghost,” the band road the song’s theme for ten minutes before moving effortlessly into the one-time cover of The Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” A song that had been teased many times in “Ghost” jams through the years, it was a fitting cover, coming some nine months after the band played Exile On Main Street in full the previous Halloween. Clearly overtaken by the energy of their surprise debut, the band built into a thrilling jam that moved back into the climactic peak of “Saw It Again,” before landing in the fan favorite classic, “Contact.” Closing the set out properly with a “Saw It Again” – infused “You Enjoy Myself,” the show ended on a high note with the seminal song toying with the thematic gimmick of the show. When they encored with “Fire,” a song reserved for shows worthy of it’s name, it was all but a given that this would go down as The Show Of The First Leg.

 

The Greek Theatre – Berkeley, CA – 08/07/2010

Set I: AC/DC Bag>Foam, Gotta Jibboo, Reba, Sleep Again, Army Of One, Poor Heart>46 Days>Tube, Character Zero

Set II: Wilson>Light -> Twenty Years Later>Harry Hood -> Theme From The Bottom, 2001>Suzy Greenberg>Slave To The Traffic Light

Encore: The Lizards, First Tube

Building on the experimental successes of the second night at The Greek, Phish came out firing on all cylinders on 07 August 2010, playing what many believe was the jam, and set of the entire year. Exactly a year after playing one of their best shows of 2009, the band played a balanced affair, featuring a flowing, energized and emotive first set and a greatest hits, patient second set that flowed perfectly from note one through its conclusion. The peak of the second set came in five specific places – the nine minute ambient jam that emerged out of “Light,” and was documented earlier in The Top Ten Jams of 2010, the beautiful build within the “Harry Hood” jam that featured some of Trey’s most inspired playing of the year, the bouncing, groove-heavy “2001” that echoed the Michael Jackson-themed version from Camden earlier in the summer, the jam in “Suzy Greenberg” that built out of the frenetic energy of the set and extended the song through ten dance-heavy minutes, harkening back to the powerful “Suzy” jams from the early part of the decade, and the set-closing “Slave To The Traffic Light” that saw Trey use the emotive playing in “Harry Hood” to create a gorgeous peak in the classic Phish number. The kind of show that would be a classic in any era, night three at The Greek immediately reestablished the line between a good show and an epic show in Phish 3.0

 

Alpine Valley Music Theatre – East Troy, WI – 08/14/2010

Set I: Tube>The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony>Suzy Greenberg, Funky Bitch>Reba, Fuck Your Face, Alaska, Back On The Train>Taste>When The Circus Comes, Lawn Boy, Sparkle, Gumbo>Run Like An Antelope

Set II: The Sloth, Down With Disease -> What’s The Use?>Scent Of A Mule, Mike’s Song>Dirt>Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley> Weekapaug Groove, Bug

Encore: Quinn The Eskimo

By the time Phish reached the midwestern Mecca of Alpine Valley in mid-August, they were a well-oiled-machine, one ready to blow the lid off the 40,000-person strong hillside amphitheater. Tearing out of the gates with a six-song opening segment that featured rarities – “Tube,” “Fuck Your Face” – the idyllic summertime composition – “Reba” – and high octane classics – “Suzy Greenberg,” “Funky Bitch” – by the time the band finally stepped back to figure out their next song to play, a good forty minutes had already passed by and the crowd was completely enthralled. It was really no wonder that the band basically had to be forced into setbreak after a fourteen song, nearly two hour first set. Yet, for as rocking as the first set was, it was the second set of the first night at Alpine that solidified the show as one of the peak performances of 2010. Opening with the rare, “The Sloth,” sent a wave of darkness spiraling through the venue, topped only when Mike began sending out the distorted waves that introduce “Down With Disease.” A song that has appeared in every Phish weekend at Alpine since 2003, there was really no question that the song would turn in the jam of the night. As described in the Top Ten Jams Of 2010 segment, the jam featured all four members working like a single unit, pushing the jam further and further into the ethos before finally caving into the heady bliss of “What’s The Use?” Taking a breather with “Scent Of A Mule,” Trey showed off his much improved chops, destroying the Mule dule, resulting in a resounding applause throughout the venue. At this point in the show, the band could have really done anything, and few would have groaned had they signaled the start of a ballad, yet when they dropped “Mike’s Song,” the place erupted, and Phish responded with one of the most inspired “Mike’s Song’s” in years. Filling the “Groove” with the contemplative “Dirt,” and a funk-throwdown in “Sneakin’ Sally,” the band capped it off with a fast-paced, collective jam in “Weekapaug Groove,” before closing the set with an epic and soaring guitar solo out of “Bug.” Choosing the Dead’s favorite cover, “Quinn The Eskimo” – a song that had been busted out after eleven years in Telluride, CO just a week prior – to encore at their favorite venue was a warm message to the fans that the show was a special one for everyone involved. Small wonder they decided to release it DVD just four months later.

 

Jones Beach Theatre – Wantagh, NY – 08/17/2010

Set I: Fluffhead, Kill Devil Falls>Cities, Funky Bitch>Wilson, Reba, Walk Away, Wolfman’s Brother>Possum

Set II: Lengthwise -> Maze, Halley’s Comet>Mike’s Song>Simple>Backwards Down The Number Line>Prince Caspian>Rock & Roll -> Weekapaug Groove, Loving Cup

Encore: Show Of Life, Golgi Apparatus

On the second to last show of Phish’s triumphant August run, the band threw down a fully flowing show, highlighted by great song selection and excellent jamming throughout. Along the same lines as night three at The Greek and night one at Alpine, Phish clicked from the moment they walked on stage, never once letting up. Choosing to open the show with “Fluffhead” for the first time since it reintroduced the fanbase to Phish in back in March 2009, the band sent a wave of energy through the venue, symbolically stating they understood the significance of their vastly improved playing throughout the run. Tearing through a high-energy first set, the band hit peaks in a thick “Cities” jam, a soaring late-set “Reba,” and a funky, bubbling “Wolfman’s Brother.” When they emerged for the second set, Phish seamlessly blended humor – “Lengthwise -> Maze” with a jam-packed “Mike’s Groove” centered around one of the best jams of the year in “Backwards Down The Number Line.” Throwing a curveball with a late set “Rock & Roll” – a song normally reserved for the Set II opener slot – the band locked into the theme of the song, building a powerful jam out of it, before segueing right into “Weekapaug Groove.” A show that put on high display the accomplishments of August, while still building towards the eventual peak of the year in the Fall, Jones Beach night one was one more memorable outing for Phish in the inspiring month of August.

 

North Charleston Coliseum – Charleston, SC – 10/16/2010

Set I: Kill Devil Falls>Guelah Papyrus, The Curtain With>The Mango Song>Sand, Limb By Limb, Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley, Uncle Pen, Pebbles & Marbles, Cavern -> David Bowie

Set II: Crosseyed & Painless>Dirt>Fluffhead>2001>Tweezer>Show Of Life, You Enjoy Myself

Encore: I Been Around, Quinn The Eskimo>Tweezer Reprise

After playing four shows on their Fall Tour, it was clear something was missing. No question the shows were solid, but the magic the band had conjured up through innovative and creative improv in August was nowhere to be found throughout the Colorado stand and the first night in Charleston. All this changed on a Saturday night in South Carolina, and when the band left the stage that night, they were a completely changed organism, never once looking back as they absolutely demolished the remainder of the tour. Kicking things off with the new school/old school combo of “Kill Devil Falls> Guelah Papyrus,” the band came out with an energy and tightness that had yet to be seen thus far. By the time they had reached the ethereal jam of “The Curtain With” it was clear the show was going to be a memorable one, one that would shape the remainder of the tour. Throwing out a mid-set surprise in the form of “Sand,” the show carried the “anything goes” vibe that normally accompanies tour highlights. Building an atypical jam, Trey backed away from his seedy licks, allowing the jam to be led by Mike and Page, forming a more melodically infused jam where normally a tripped-out electro-jam would unwind. Filling out the first set with well-placed rarities in “Sneakin’ Sally,” “Pebbles & Marbles,” and “Uncle Pen,” the band closed things out with a nasty combo of “Cavern -> David Bowie,” the later which built on the fantastic version in Colorado, blisteringly closing the set out like it used do on a regular basis. The second set however was on a completely different level. Flowing from note one, Phish blew the lid off the Coliseum with a raging cover of “Crosseyed & Painless,” before settling into a classic run of “Fluffhead>2001>Tweezer.” The latter two songs provided the musical highlight of the evening as the entire band engaged in minimalist playing, toying with varying themes and building single-minded jams that fused both the creativity of the August run, with the energy developing in the Fall. Closing the set with the appropriate, first “You Enjoy Myself” of the tour, Phish left the stage a more confident band than they had been when they first took it, playing what is still regarded as one of the best shows of the year. Encoring with the playful, reborn rarity, “Quinn The Eskimo,” only further emphasized the band’s renewed spirit. Fall Tour would never be the same.

 

Utica Memorial Auditorium – Utica, NY – 10/20/2010

Set I: My Soul, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Vultures, Wolfman’s Brother# -> Cities>Guyute, David Bowie##, Wilson###>McGrupp & The Watchful Horsemasters>Saw It Again -> Run Like An Antelope

Set II: Drowned -> Sand -> Theme From The Bottom>Axilla I>Birds Of A Feather, Tela, Split Open & Melt -> Have Mercy -> Piper#### -> Split Open & Melt>Slave To The Traffic Light

Encore: Good Times Bad Times

# “Wolfman’s Brother” contained a “Streets Of Cairo” tease

## “David Bowie” contained multiple “Guyute” and “Wilson” teases

### “Wilson” contained a “Guyute” solo

#### “Piper” contained a “Birds Of A Feather” Jam

A night after playing a breakthrough set in Augusta, ME, one that fused gimmicks of lore – “Fuck Your Mike’s Groove” with the jam of the tour – and possibly the year – in “Light,” Phish came out with straight fire from the start crafting a humorous, fully-flowing, jam-packed show that has gone down as one of the heavily debated shows of the year. Boasting two complete sets, each with massive amounts of energy, musical prowess and gimmickry from the band, Phish harnessed the energy of a random Wednesday-night show in northern New York in the same way they had made a career out of for so long. Packing heat with a “My Soul,” “Stealing Time,” “Vultures” opening frame, the show got going in earnest with a funky stroll through the jam section of “Wolfman’s Brother,” which featured a distinct “Streets Of Cairo” tease from Trey before effortlessly melting into “Cities.” Answering the calls for the band to play “Guyute,” most notably from a masked man in the front row, the band tore through the composed tail of the ugly pig before getting down right dark and sinister in a fade into “David Bowie.” Looping the thematic solo from “Guyute” into the hazy “Bowie” hi-hat intro, Phish extended the intro like they hadn’t in years, creating a twisted, psychedelic wall of sound, before busting into the song proper. Pulsing with energy and excitement, Trey and Mike latched onto the similarities of “Bowie’s” breakdown to that of the intro of another classic, “Wilson.” Before anyone knew what was happening, the arena was chanting “Wilson,” in the middle of “Bowie,” giving all listening the trippy uncertainty of whether or not we were existing in 2010 or 1995. When they brought the jam back into “Bowie,” the band gave the song a fitting tribute, patiently building the theme before annihilating the peak. Fittingly, as soon as “Bowie” ended, Trey signaled the start of “Wilson,” carrying over the set’s theme, while stirring the crowd into a frenzy. Infusing the thematic solo of “Guyute” into the middle of “Wilson,” Trey brought to life the kind of distorted Phish humor that has long been missing from their shows. Fading into the old-school rarity, “McGrupp & The Watchful Horsemasters,” the band gave the nod of approval to the show, with a song that seems to only appear in the best shows. Yet for as entertaining as the middle segment of the set was, the final two numbers may have surpassed it all in terms of musical prowess and adventurousness. Playing “Saw It Again” for the first time since the famed Merriweather Post Pavilion show, the band extended the song’s demented ending into the ether before segueing into “Run Like An Antelope.” A song that had certainly lost some of its former fire in 3.0, Phish made sure to expand this “Antelope” to lengths and musical dimensions many had forgotten it could go. Reminiscent of the experimentation on “Reba” in the previous night’s encore, the “Antelope” that closed the first set was the reassuring sign that Phish was completely on top of their game, playing with an energy and spirit many had thought was a thing of the past. After playing such a powerful first set, the band could have very well thrown down a dud in Set II, and no one would have thought anything of it. However, while the second set doesn’t live up to the first set’s full on energy and musical precision, it was certainly a gem in its own right. Opening with the back-to-back jam combo of “Drowned -> Sand,” the band fused their collective jamming for close to twenty minutes before moving into more energized/rock territory with “Theme From The Bottom>Axilla I>Birds Of A Feather.” At a point when the band could have played the expected “Waste” or “Prince Caspian,” they opted for a breather in the old school “Tela,” a song that just breathes of youthful, idealistic Phish, and can only make one nostalgic for the amphitheaters of Summer Tour. After the break, the band kicked into one of the Top Ten Jams of the year in “Split Open & Melt -> Have Mercy -> Piper -> Split Open & Melt,” before closing things out with a beautiful, peaking “Slave To The Traffic Light.” A full show, front-to-back, Utica was the kind of special show that occurs once or twice a year, generally on a random night in a random town when no one is even considering a good show being thrown down. A powerful statement that reminded all that Phish certainly still has it, Utica 2010 will long live in Phish lore whenever people talk about “had to be there” moments.

 

Verizon Wireless Arena – Manchester, NH – 10/26/2010

Set I: After Midnight*, The Sloth, Alumni Blues -> Letter To Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues, Mellow Mood, Access Me, Llama, All Of These Dreams, The Curtain With, Scent Of A Mule, A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing, It’s Ice>Walls Of The Cave

Set II: Possum>Light>Mike’s Song -> Simple> Makisupa Policeman -> Night Nurse^ -> Makisupa Policeman>The Wedge, Ghost -> The Mango Song>Weekapaug Groove# -> Llama

Encore: Show Of Life

* First “After Midnight” since 31 December 1999

^ Debut of “Night Nurse” – Gregory Isaacs

# “Weekapaug Groove” contained a “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” Jam and subsequent teases of “Ghost” and “Night Nurse”

For close to thirty years, Phish has made a career of playing their best at the most unexpected times, thus continuously staying under the radar while at the same time keeping their biggest fans constantly on their toes. Playing tour highlights in random towns in the middle of the week, or many times, just prior to a heavily anticipated show, Phish has long required that fans show up to each show, knowing full well that the one show you choose to skip could be the one people discuss for years. Thus when the setlist started rolling across the internet on a Tuesday night in late-October – Phish playing in tiny Manchester, NH, three nights away from their Halloween blowout in Atlantic City, NJ – it was fitting that their first set contained few songs played prior that tour. Opening with the Clapton cover, “After Midnight” for the first time since their all-night NYE Millennium blowout in Big Cypress, FL, everyone knew Manchester was going to be one of those shows. Tearing through rarities – “The Sloth,” “Alumni Blues -> Letter To Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues,” “Mellow Mood,” “Llama,” “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” – while offering incredible musical adventurousness in a beautiful “The Curtain With” and a raging “Walls Of The Cave,” the first set was the kind that blew everyone away, and had all buzzing about what the second set might hold. Coming out on a mission, Phish opened with one of the fiercest “Possum’s” in recent memory before unleashing another stand-out “Light” in a tour full of them. Harnessing a percussive theme that was reminiscent of Augusta’s masterful version, while still venturing out into it’s own unique realm, the band crafted yet another improvisational memory for the tour. Opting to use the remainder of the set for another expansive “Mike’s Groove,” the band took an opportunity by way of the always welcome “Makisupa Policeman” to pay tribute to the recently deceased reggae legend, Gregory Isaacs. Segueing seamlessly into his classic “Night Nurse,” the band interwove a musical highlight with a telling sign of gratitude. The final musical highlight of the night came in the surprise late-set “Ghost” which built out of it’s seedy origins into a powerful, melodic jam that brought the bright and shiny “The Mango Song” out from hiding, before it too segued into “Weekapaug Groove.” A song that has been a constant gem since Phish’s 2009 return, the band took “Weekapaug” on a wild ride in Manchester, evolving it into a jam on “Don’t You Hear Me Knockin'” that featured teases of “Night Nurse” and “Ghost,” before speeding the jam up to an absurd pace, segueing it into a full-on reprise of “Llama.” Capping off a night of rarities, jams and all-out Phish-fun, Manchester was the last proper show of Fall Tour, and one that capped off an incredibly powerful three weeks on the road for the band. On to their three-night Halloween party in Atlantic City, Phish was cruising on the kind of peak they hadn’t been on in years. All was right in the world.

 

Boardwalk Hall – Atlantic City, NJ – 10/30/2010

Set I: Kill Devil Falls>Cavern>Foam, Guelah Papyrus>Chalk Dust Torture -> Whole Lotta Love* -> Chalk Dust Torture, Ha Ha Ha#>Walk Away, Wolfman’s Brother -> Undermind>Bathtub Gin, The Squirming Coil

Set II: Tube>Possum#&>Tweezer# -> Heartbreaker^ -> Tweezer -> Ramble On** -> What Is And What Should Never Be^>Tweezer -> Stairway To Heaven^$, Halley’s Comet -> 2001 -> David Bowie, Show Of Life>Backwards Down The Number Line>Good Times Bad Times

Encore: Sleeping Monkey>Tweezer Reprise#

* First “Whole Lotta Love” since 01 March 1991

** First “Ramble On” since 12 August 1998

# “Ha Ha Ha,” “Possum,” “Tweezer” and “Tweezer Reprise” all contained “Whole Lotta Love” quotes

^ Debut of “Heartbreaker,” “What Is And What Should Never Be” and “Stairway To Heaven” – Led Zeppelin

& “Possum” contained a “Sneakin’ Sally” tease

$ After “Stairway To Heaven” Trey say’s “Happy Halloween! See you all next year.”

The night before THE night. Similar to Phish’s reputation for throwing down huge shows in the middle of nowhere, they’ve also garnered the reputation of a band that will play the best show, the night before a holiday/highly anticipated show. From 12/30/1993 to 12/29/1995, 08/14/1996 to 12/30/1997, 12/01/2003 to 12/30/2009, time and time again, Phish will blow fans away with a massive show the night before they were supposed to. In keeping in line with their prankster past, this has become something of a game for fans, always left in the dark as to what nights will be THE show until it happens. When Phish took the stage on 10/30/2010, their second night of a three-night stand at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, the feeling of a big show resonated throughout the entire fanbase, and boy did the band come through. Tearing through an opening four-song segment of “Kill Devil Falls>Cavern>Foam, Guelah Papyrus,” the crowd rang with such approval, responding with a massive – not to mention unheard of – glowstick war in the middle of “Guelah.” Sensing their opportunity, with the crowd in the palm of their hand, Phish tore into a rocking mid-set “Chalk Dust Torture” that segued fluidly in-and-out of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” With little fanfare surrounding the upcoming Halloween cover album, fans had been left to their own imaginations leading up to Halloween, with many surmising that Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti was the ideal choice for the band this year. A cover of “The Rover” that the band destroyed from June only seemed to further confirm this. Yet before the crowd or the fanbase could properly react, Phish launched into the rare, Fishman-penned “Ha Ha Ha,” all but promising there would be no Zeppelin the following night. The end of the set featured more stand-out performances of “Walk Away,” a nasty segue of “Wolfman’s Brother -> Undermind,” yet another soaring, Type I “Bathtub Gin,” and a contemplative “Squirming Coil” to send the crowd into setbreak musing over the Rock fest that just went down. Yet in perfect Phish fashion, the band took the successes of their first set and crafted a powerful monstrosity that only furthered their gag on the crowd, while continuing to redefine their relationship with their fanbase. Coming out swinging with a “Tube>Possum>Tweezer” opening segment, it was clear the band was on for another legendary set. However, as they moved out of the song structure of “Tweezer,” and into the jam, the band latched onto the theme of “Whole Lotta Love” yet again, a theme which would take them on a trek through some of Led Zeppelin’s biggest songs, all within the confines of “Tweezer.” In a fifteen minute rock & roll sandwich, the band played “Heartbreaker,” “Ramble On,” “What Is And What Should Never Be,” and “Stairway To Heaven,” all but disposing any hope that they’d play Physical Graffiti the next night, yet giving their fans something they’d always wanted. While clearly unrehearsed, somewhat sloppy, and more humorous than anything, the “Tweezeppelin” sandwich was yet another creative way for the band to not only toy with their audience, but also give them a performance many had been begging for for years. Even more, Phish was now one of the few rock bands to break the code by playing both “Freebird” and “Stairway,” yet the ways in which they’ve placed them in their shows – “Freebird” is always sung accapella – says tons about their creativity and playfulness. Finishing off the set with a spacey “2001” that segued into yet another blistering “David Bowie,” the show was capped off by the eternally classic encore: “Sleeping Monkey>Tweezer Reprise.” While there were far more impressive musical outings throughout 2010, 10/30/2010 was the kind of show that put on high display the humor of the band, and the playful spirit they continue to share with their fanbase.

 

Madison Square Garden – New York City, NY – 01/01/2011

Set I: My Soul, Tube>Runaway Jim>Foam, Guelah Papyrus>The Divided Sky, Round Room*>Walk Away>Gotta Jibboo, Reba, Walls Of The Cave

Set II: Crosseyed & Painless>Twist>Simple>Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley>Makisupa Policeman -> David Bowie

Encore: Fee, Frankenstein&

* First “Round Room” since 13 July 2003

& Page was on the Keytar for “Frankenstein”

While technically played in 2011, Phish’s first ever New Year’s Day show will always be viewed as a culmination of the 2010 sound. The fact that it was played on the first day of 2011 will only display forward continuity and progress when looked back at, midway through their summer tour. Featuring a killer setlist with literally no breather’s or throwaway songs, Phish came out to play on New Year’s Day, their fifth show in six days, and their last before an almost certain six month break in touring. Anyone wondering if this would shape up to be the dud of the tour was hushed when during the bluesy opener “My Soul,” Trey all but refused Page’s reentry to the song, opting to instead extend his powerful solo a minute longer. From there the band tore through classics – “Runaway Jim>Foam,” “The Divided Sky” – and rarities – “Tube,” “Guelah Papyrus,” “Round Room” – before closing the strong set off with blistering renditions of “Gotta Jibboo,” “Reba” – probably the best pure version of the year – and the revived 2.0 anthem, “Walls Of The Cave.” Fusing all the right elements for a classic show, Phish emerged from setbreak, ready to unleash yet another perfectly fluid second set, one that rivaled the mastery of 10/16/2010 and 08/07/2010. Opening with the “Crosseyed & Painless” – a song that until a year ago was generally a once a year affair, the song has somewhat slipped into the band’s rotation, producing strong and raging jams each time around – the band made it known right away that they were ready to tear the Garden a new one. Segueing into “Twist,” the band built on the rhythmic grooves that had dominated the year, crafting a dance-heavy jam that morphed into the arena rock of “Simple.” A song that offered us one of the top ten jams of 2010 back in August, this version, while not nearly as dynamic and expansive, grew effortlessly from the song’s theme into a bubbly and melodic jam that somehow led right into the chunky grooves of “Sneakin’ Sally.” Tossing the now-common vocal jam onto the end of the lyrical segment of the song, Phish used sparse and funky beats alongside a strutting rock melody to extend the jam before they found themselves in the cool reggae of “Makisupa Policeman.” A version reminiscent of the airy space of Champaign, IL’s 11/19/1997 version, Trey offered the comedy line of the night in: “Went back home last night after doing the New Year’s stunt / I laid back on my couch and rolled myself a blunt,” to great approval from the audience and Page. Clearly relaxed by this point in the show, Trey allowed the jam to be reduced to nothing before building a placid wall of ambient noise and sound. The musical highlight of the set and the show, the band rode the ambient wave perfectly into the hi-hat intro of “David Bowie,” capping off the set with one final blistering version for the calendar year. For the encore, the band celebrated the return of the megaphone to “Fee,” something that had been unveiled over the summer in Deer Creek for the first time since 1997, and used throughout the Fall. Tying in the playfulness of the year, the song was the perfect lead-in for the all-out arena rock of “Frankenstein” complete with Page on the keytar. A proper conclusion to such a massive year of growth, development, creativity and newness within the Phish community, 01/01/2011 bridged the gap between the year that was, and all that is to come for Phish in 2011. A fitting conclusion for the year, and this list. Can’t wait to see what 2011 brings for Phish!

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

The Three Decembers – 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Jams – 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Shows –

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

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

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

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

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