phishcrit

Depository for my project to listen to every show from 1993 on and live-tweet it. May put other Phish stuff here too, I dunno. Like Phish, this project is best experienced live - on twitter @phishcrit

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6/17/94 - MILWAUKEE, WI

Brett Morgen’s ESPN documentary June 17th, 1994 is a virtuoso editing demonstration, the Avid equivalent of “Freebird.” With no voiceovers or new footage, Morgen zips through the hurricane of events on that crazy day, using OJ Simpson’s famous low-speed chase as the spine of his rapid-fire narrative. The information overload gets so severe by the end that it almost renders the documentary anachronistic — it doesn’t recall the channel-flipping behaviors of 1994 so much as it resembles the breaking news assault of modern-day social media.

If “The OJ Show” happened today, social media would have ruined the gag just a little bit. Inside the reportedly sweltering Eagles Ballroom in 1994, nobody had a magical rectangle in their pocket that sucked in news and text messages from around the world while they watched the show. While the murder of OJ Simpson’s ex-wife — and the possible involvement of the retired running back/rental car pitchman/Detective Nordberg — was all over the news the week before this show, nobody inside the venue would have been aware of the strange spectacle unfolding on television while Phish played “Scent of a Mule.”

So when the “Run OJ Run!”s started up in the second set, it probably made about as much sense to the crowd as whistling for Lassie did six months and change later. I’m not one of those zealots for smartphone prohibition during concerts (though I try my hardest not to look at my own), but it’s kind of wonderful to imagine the sensory deprivation of the Milwaukee crowd back then. If anything, the asymmetric information gives Phish more leverage to prank their audience, which they are so fond of doing, and which usually brings about a strong performance even when the prank is over. Back then, you could totally yield control over your attention to the band, and it’s a little bit sad that age is probably lost forever.

It’s often forgotten that the OJ references are basically over after the impromptu verse of Simple, but their sugared-up toddler energy persists through the rest of the set, fueling bonkers versions of Weekapaug, Harpua, hell, even Hydrogen and Big Ball Jam. In the end, the show isn’t famous for its instant pop culture reference, but because the OJ silliness was the nudge they needed to rip up the setlist and play the kind of giddy, freewheeling set that we took for granted in the late 90s.

It’s also notable, though less remarked upon, that OJ hands off the baton to Simple about halfway through this set, and Mike’s composition applies the weirdness whip for the remainder of the show. Simple premiered a few weeks earlier as part of the strange finale in San Francisco, but this feels like its true debut, interwoven as it is throughout the rest of the set. One could make an argument that Simple is the Phishiest song in the catalog, completely nonsensical but absolutely joyous. Its arrival makes things feel just a little more like “modern” Phish — a little darker, a little more dangerous, a little more confrontational. With your undivided attention in the palm of their hands, the band was starting to figure out all the evil things they can do with it…and they have OJ and his white Bronco to thank.


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6/16/94 - MINNEAPOLIS, MN

Everyone should get to see Prince play “Purple Rain” at least once. My lucky chance came in September 2012 at the United Center, a truly miserable place for live music, especially from the cheap seats where I looked down on Prince’s symbol stage. But Prince, as Prince does, made the room feel much smaller, playing frontman, conductor, and occasionally, soundman and light director. Anyone could see “Purple Rain” closing the main set from a mile away, but its predictability did little to diminish his impact. In a swirl of purple confetti, Prince navigated the song with effortless showmanship, then ripped off an extended solo that built and built and built. Even for someone cynical about arena-sized music, it was an immensely moving experience.

That was the second time I’d seen “Purple Rain” performed live. The first was on a hot night in July 1999, in the middle of an Indiana cornfield, by a man in a dress holding a vacuum. It was moving too, in its own way, coming near the end of a long, scorching journey from the blacktop of Oswego through the eastern Midwest — my longest consecutive run of shows — and an excellent show with two jam-heavy sets. Here, “Purple Rain” was a pressure valve for the accumulated intensity of that summer’s tour, capped off with a hilarious second verse ad lib: “I don’t know/the rest of the words to this song/I’m just being honest/like Prince would have me be.”

When Phish premiered their version of Purple Rain in the summer of 1993, humor was clearly their goal. All the covers debuted on that tour had some aspect of the jokey or unexpected: the hyper gospel of Daniel Saw The Stone, the absurd grandiosity of 2001, the a capella reenactment of Freebird’s dueling solos. The takes on Skynyrd’s trademark anthem and Purple Rain both play on similar gags, taking two of the most iconic songs of the late 20th century and Phishifying them up, bending them to fit two staple gimmicks of their mid-90s sets*.

It’s probably not a coincidence that those debuts came on the tour where Phish headlined giant sheds such as Great Woods and Jones Beach for the first time. Summer 1993 marks the time where the band starts to grapple with their increasing popularity, playing large venues where big, communal statements are expected. That atmosphere didn’t exactly suit their history as a nerd-prog band, so they took the ironic route of picking two classic cigarette lighter encore songs and doing them their way.

It’s a funny contrast to Prince himself, who burst onto the scene convinced that he was already a massive star and went on to basically will that persona into existence. That’s arguably the central conflict of the movie Purple Rain, the thinly fictionalized story of a diminutive musician who lives with his parents in Minnesota but dresses (and drives a giant motorcycle) like he’s already made it big. It’s a story of a struggling artist with dreams of stardom, while Phish in 1993/94 is the story of a band that has reached stardom but is not yet comfortable with it.

After 1994, Purple Rain became an extremely rare novelty — only six versions played since its appearance at the first MSG show. The last two performances before its one-off 3.0 revival aren’t parodies of the iconic, they’re just plain iconic — the famous version in the Red Rocks rain of 8/6/96, and the aforementioned summer 1999 capper. When the band grew into its big-venue shoes, they possibly no longer felt the need to wink at the audience and point out the absurdity of their success, at least not quite so often. They only wanted to one time see us laughing.

* - Sleeping Monkey is an earlier strain of this tongue-in-cheek epic joke, with its shameless Let It Be ending.

=====

Up north to 6/16/94, Minneapolis, MN, State Theatre. Somewhere out west, OJ Simpson is just chillin’.

6/16/94: Bouncin’, Rift, Julius to open, a parade of “singles.” What is this, Jazz Fest? ;)

6/16/94: After another “single” in Fee, a real bastard of a Maze. Stretched intro, choppy Page section, Fish whoops, less droney Trey.

6/16/94: Gumbo is back after 104 shows, just in time to be the 2nd weirdest inclusion on A Live One. Now w/ the Page ragtime ending.

6/16/94: Curtain > Dog Faced Boy, didn’t see that one coming. First electric DFB since 4/29. No emotion solo, as far as I can tell.

6/16/94: Man, just a runaway snowball of dissonance in Stash. Real teeth-grinding stuff. Only a sliver of respite.

6/16/94: A nice Coil solo to finish off the first. Maybe it’s just the song selection, but this is the first 94 show to feel very ALO to me.

6/16/94: Some of the Stash nastiness carries over setbreak to Antelope. Very long 3rd section, with creepy ambience, bass breakdown.

6/16/94: Forbin’s narration features a reading from the “old version” of the Helping Friendly Book, which just happens to be Kung.

6/16/94: Might this be the first Type II Disease? It’s definitely not the typical jam. @phishnet says it’s “Swingtown,” but seems like more.

6/16/94: For the parts that are “Swingtown,” that makes this Disease sort of a Wormtown prequel, if that is of interest to you.

6/16/94: Great true segue into Contact too. Fish maintains the swing beat from the jam while the rest of the band eases in.

6/16/94: The noisy storm in the middle of BBFCFM slows into Purple Rain, which was inevitable in Minneapolis. Hopefully Prince wasn’t there.

6/16/94: I’ll never understand why Prince got so mad at Foo Fighters, but let Phish jazz fart all over his trademark song.

6/16/94: Pretty sure Page teases DEG at 3:07 in Golgi, but don’t like sticking my neck out about these things.

6/16/94: No Ginseng and Amazing Grace on Phishtracks, so my ears are spared the trauma. Would’ve liked to hear the @zzyzx dedication though.

6/16/94 Final: Dark jams, unexpected segues, the first atypical Disease…lots to love here. The summer leap forward is well underway. 


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6/14/94 - DES MOINES, IA

Sometimes, it’s the little things. This show’s first set features two highly unusual “sandwich” jams: a Guelah Papyrus that diverts post-Landlady into Sweet Adeline and a digital delay loop session before wrapping up the original song, and an I Didn’t Know with an acoustic Ginseng Sullivan tucked inside. For a year where, thus far, the setlists have been increasingly formulaic, with only the occasional Bomb Factory or Bob Carpenter Center show exploding into a blizzard of >s and ->s, these weird little suites are a welcome breeze. Spontaneous, pre-planned, or played to cover up technical adjustments, they’re creative sparks that plausibly helps the centerpiece jams of the second set ignite.

The question then becomes: why didn’t/don’t they do this more often? Phish long ago tapped into the setlist as a secret weapon, an easy trick that many bands stupidly ignore, opting instead to play the same songs each night with only minor reshufflings and substitutions. There are some legit reasons for this stasis, such as an overly technical stage show or a shallow catalog. But for established bands without choreography and pyrotechnics, playing the same show from city to city is a missed creative — and economic — opportunity.

Phish has known this since the late 80’s of course, rotating songs as soon as they had enough to pull it off. But that’s only a first-level setlist maneuver — the real fun starts when those songs start bleeding into each other in interesting ways. True -> segues were still a rarity in the early 90s, but the shows where they did proliferate (2/20/93, 8/14/93, 5/7/94) are rightfully treasured landmarks. As the frequency of these fluid transitions increased in the late 90s, it was a crucial step in the evolution from the show as a loose collection of songs to the show as extended, symphonic composition. Segues are the seams that hold a great set together.

OK, so the first set of 6/14/94 is hardly a cohesive masterpiece, and the segues are the thinnest of ->s. But finding a new, clever way of working the almost obligatory a capella and acoustic numbers into the show immediately improves the overall flow, and generates a sense of anything-can-happen excitement that formulaic pairings like the umpteenth Jim > Foam can’t match. Additionally, it gives everyone in the audience a little souvenir of the experience, something to distinguish the date before it dilutes into the memory pool of all shows seen.

If you’ll allow a slight digression into modern times, perhaps the recent Jazz Fest set would have gone down better with the community if they had managed at least one sneaky segue move. As said here previously, it’s unwise to have lofty expectations for a multi-band festival set. But even in their last Jazz Fest performance, they managed the fascinating one-off YEM -> Wolfman’s, where the latter song drops unexpectedly out of the vocal jam and stays a capella for two full verses. For a rusty band that isn’t likely to lock into memorable improvisation out of nowhere, it’s a relatively easy move to imprint the show with a unique moment. Sometimes, it’s the little things.

=====

Still working on a kicker for the last show’s essay, maybe this one will jar it loose. 6/14/94, Des Moines, IA, Civic Center. cc @MarcHogan

6/14/94: Extra-noisy Llama opener, and extra-long Guelah intro. Strong signs.

6/14/94: Interesting — Sweet Adeline and a DDL jam *inside* Guelah? Between The Asse Festival and the return to the song. Tech issues?

6/14/94: Another “write it down” in the Disease intro. Still waiting on an explanation for that one. Is it in @zzyzx’s book?

6/14/94: Really beautiful Fee outro, led by a three-note, high-pitched Mike line. Good segue into MFMF too.

6/14/94: More Mike goodness — peep the ominous undercurrent he brings to Trey’s climbing feedback “solo” in MFMF.

6/14/94: Another weird, palindromic sandwich! I Didn’t Know > washboard solo > no-mics My Sweet One > washboard solo > I Didn’t Know.

6/14/94: Melt is making a big comeback, thanks to Trey’s embrace of noise. Moments at 6:00 and 8:00 where I fear for the venue PA.

6/14/94: For your setbreak reading, I finished the 6/13 post. Creating fake memories with YouTube: http://rob-mitchum.tumblr.com/post/83540990513/6-13-94-kansas-city-ks-in-general-im-not-a

6/14/94: I like Frankenstein as a set opener, which seems to be largely a 94 thing.

6/14/94: Can’t help but think of the next Bowie while listening to this one. Shorter intro, but the jam can hang with UIC’s. Good tension.

6/14/94: Mellow, spacier wah work from Trey in the It’s Ice breakdown. Lots of space all around actually, and more cohesive than par.

6/14/94: The length of the ambient section in YEM is a pretty good barometer for the band’s improvisational ambitions.

6/14/94: One of the more interesting tramps segments I’ve heard. Trey and Mike doing a two-note stop-start that keeps going after dismount.

6/14/94: Enjoyed the initial, 97-ish direction of this YEM jam, though steering into an extended “On Broadway” jam was a weird move.

6/14/94: Fish to the tune of HYHU (which started in the vocal jam) “I hate this song/I hate this song/You know I hate this soonnnng.”

6/14/94: “It’s nothing personal against Argent or anything. I just hate the way they abuse me with it.”

6/14/94: More On Broadway and a pretty lengthy DEG in this Possum, which also featured unorthodox Mike vox. #unorthodoxvox

6/14/94: We almost got out of Des Moines without a Sample, but they squeezed it into the encore.

6/14/94 Final: Very happy to hear them getting creative with the setlist. Thumbs up to Melt and Bowie too. Very satisfying show all around.


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6/13/94 - KANSAS CITY, KS

In general, I’m not a big watcher of Phish videos. Sure, I had a couple 18th-generation VHS tapes as a kid, most notably Halloween ‘94 and NYE ‘95. It’s great that there’s an archive of basically all available footage from the 90s and the current era on YouTube, depending on how aggressive the band’s management is enforcing their copyrights on any given day (RIP PhishVids). But as we all know, they’re not exactly the most dynamic band on stage, and pre-HD, camcorders couldn’t capture even a fraction of the most compelling visual stimuli of a Phish show, the lights. So other than an occasional glance at the Palace ‘97 videos to remember and chuckle at Trey’s nerd-shimmy, I stick with the audio and let my memory banks fill in the visuals where applicable.

As such, I haven’t looked too hard for video of the shows I’ve covered so far in ‘93 and ‘94. But when I did my usual pre-show research (aka “Google search”) for this show’s date, I noticed that there is partially complete footage of 6/13/94 online, courtesy of the stalwart, bafflingly-named silverchair97. It seemed like a good opportunity to actually add some legit information to the pastiche of A Live One liner notes, The Phish Book photographs, and the aforementioned Glens Falls VHS that makes up my mental image of the band in 1994, so I sat down with a bourbon and watched what was available (the first three songs and most of set II) they day after first reviewing the show.  Here are a few scattered impressions from watching the playlist, which you can view here.

- The Minkin backdrop: An element I rarely think about (since I never saw it in person), Mike’s mom’s abstract artwork really makes the stage setup feel a lot more compact than the open arrangement from ‘95 onward. They also seem to be closer together horizontally on the stage, though that may just be an effect of having so much less gear back then.

- Right off the bat in Buried Alive, Trey makes the “car alarm” effect that’s shown up in so many ‘94 shows by fiddling with knobs on some sort of crooked cabinet sitting at his right hand side. Mystery solved!

- Trey, in full-on muppet hair phase, seriously headbangs through the entire Sample solo, improving my attitude towards the song incrementally. It doesn’t always come across on audio, but man, they really seemed to enjoy playing it. On the other hand, Trey goes on to headbang a ton during Cavern and even the Reba jam, so maybe that was just his thing back then.

- Trey is also wearing the same vertical-stripe, multi-colored button-down shirt he’s wearing in roughly a third of the A Live One pictures. I think he owned exactly three shirts in 1994. Mike is wearing a sleeveless shirt with some sort of glow-in-the-dark detailing (a backstage pass?), and sweatpants rolled up to mid-calf, of course.

- As I said above, judging the lights from grainy old VHS footage is unfair, and the very tight focus of the unknown cameraman creates an especially restricted view, but Kuroda’s work appears to be so much less busy than the digitally choreographed displays we’re all used to now. 

- I’m forever impressed with how little eye contact they make with each other during songs, and especially during fairly complex improvisation such as the very unusual Reba jam in this show. From the evidence of this video, if anything, there was even less visual communication within the band back in the mid-nineties.

- Speaking of the Reba, the guy holding the camera kind of loses it a bit during the jam, and a bunch of weird video glitches crop up as well. It’s kind of perfect, to be honest.

- Some funny choreography in Mule, with Trey and Mike dancing in tandem towards and away from Page and Fish during the Klezmer section. Then, Big Ball Jam is even more preposterous on video, especially the part where a deadly serious Page, Trey, and Mike join hands to create a hoop for the balls. Goddamn, they were (are) such geeks.

- Gotta be honest, Fish playing the vacuum is really not all that interesting to look at either.

- I like how Trey carries his guitar with him right off the stage, like someone’s going to steal it.

Overall, my two main takeaways from the videos were their onstage hyperactivity and the intimacy of the show. The second set is packed full of their early-90s gimmicks, which means the band is constantly moving around for Big Ball Jam, Terrapin, and the Scent of a Mule dance. But even in his familiar place on stage, Trey is in constant motion, with all of his familiar tics exaggerated and the previously-noted head-banging reinforcing just how manic their sound was at this point. They’re working extra hard to get the crowd excited and keep them interested, and not taking it for granted that the audience is going to automatically love everything they do. As my wife would say, they’re really “selling it.”

The tightly-focused cinematography definitely contributes to the intimate feel — Memorial Hall is actually a pretty large room, holding 3500 people — but there’s still a “smallness” to the show that is surprising, given that they’re starting to play venues like Red Rocks and UIC Pavilion that are still in rotation today. 1994/95 is when they really made the leap from small venues to large, and these clips capture them a little earlier in that transition than I had assumed — they still feel like a club band playing big rooms at this stage, much more so on video than on audio alone.

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1994 finally reaches the Midwest! 6/13/94, Kansas City, KS, Memorial Hall. The site of two 1993 shows. http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/1994-06-13

6/13/94: You can add Buried Alive > Poor Heart to the list of recurring pairs in 1994. 4th time in a row it’s happened, will happen next 2x.

6/13/94: Weird that most of this Midwestern swing is indoors despite the summer weather. No mid-size outdoor venues in these parts, I guess.

6/13/94: First Wolfman’s in 12 shows, and the second-to-last before an *88-show* gap. I had no idea it got shelved so early/long.

6/13/94: As you might guess from that stat, they have no idea what to do with the Wolfman’s jam. Quickly jump cuts to Dinner and a Movie.

6/13/94: First real chance to stretch in Stash. Band in tight formation until Trey busts loose with an emotional lick and shredding.

6/13/94: Hmm, 2nd set Mike’s Song opener…dusting off an August 93 move, I see. Flirts with Simple, but doesn’t go all in.

6/13/94: Instead, 2nd jam gets pretty Metal around the 8th minute, with angry start-stop and demonic wah-pedaled chords. \m/

6/13/94: Another totally straight-arrow Weekapaug, but a smooth-gliding Trey lead salvages it.

6/13/94: Esther gets an absurd big rock ending, and then there’s a strange mid-set call for Cavern. Are they trying to end early?

6/13/94: Strange approach by Trey to Reba jam, lots of peppy staccato. Then Mike steers into some stop-start action. Proggier than usual.

6/13/94: Another August 93 callback with the first Jesus Left Chicago since 8/26. Page’s vox are still just too much, man.

6/13/94: Not too many Big Ball Jams left. This one provides a rare opportunity to (sort of) see how it looked: http://youtu.be/oLBgJGnf0A0?t=6m25s

6/13/94: Yes! Terrapin, first in 96 shows, completes Fish’s Syd trilogy in early 94. My favorite of the three.

6/13/94: Trey really pranking this crowd with multiple “Voodoo Child” teases before the Golgi encore. He can’t help showing off the wah.

6/13/94 Final: Some mild bustouts and interesting choices keep it fresh as they move back indoors. And there’s video, if you want it.


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6/11/94 MORRISON, CO

One point I keep hammering away at in these essays is how early 1994 mostly turned its back on the experimental advances Phish made in August 1993, in favor of developing the more mainstream sound represented by Hoist. By returning to Red Rocks less than ten months after 8/20/93, we have maybe our best chance yet to do an A/B test on this premise, controlling for setting, altitude, and even, in part, recording quality. The fact that 1994 gives us twice the shows in Morrison only raises the n-value. So let’s don our lab coats and safety classes and dive in.

Despite appearing near the end of one of Phish’s most famous months and its frequent appearance in tape collections, 8/20/93 is a fairly timid show as August 93 goes. The setlist is pretty standard for the era, with the exception of a rare, weather-inspired Divided Sky opener, an early Harpua, and only the second Slave since it made its triumphant Cincinnati return. It lacks the teasefests or inventive segues of other August shows, and it’s relatively light on shownotes and bold text over at Phish.net.

Nevertheless, the show is deservedly treasured as a worthy snapshot of the band’s status near the end of the year’s long, front-loaded touring schedule. Trey’s storytelling in Harpua is particularly creative, capping off a year where you could expect to get a narration song once or twice a week. The Antelope that closes the first set is a masterpiece that veers off the usual path almost immediately, Slave > Melt is an unusual pairing that shows off their ability to do both patient beauty and manic derangement, and Purple Rain and Freebird showcase the summer’s favorite gags.

The first night of the 1994 Red Rocks run is also pretty representative of its tour’s objectives, but unfortunately those objectives are sometimes “play it safe” and “promote Hoist.” There are five songs from the new album sprinkled through the show, and they’re five of the least open-ended Hoist songs*, even at this early stage. There’s two almost automatic setlist pairings (Jim > Foam and Tweezer > Lifeboy) and Fish’s standard joke from the spring, I Wanna Be Like You. The Axilla II > Curtain > Tweezer > Lifeboy > Sparkle > Possum may look nice, but is the kind of genre whiplash that they favored at this point over an organically flowing set. Only the Tweezer, with a brief wah-pedal detour and an unorthodox twist on the slow-down ending, provides a whiff of the past summer and a premonition of the future.

It’s the second night that provides a better companion piece for the previous August — no surprise, as 6/11/94 rivals 8/20/93 in tape ownership. The circulation of both shows likely benefitted from their soundboard quality, and the ‘94 recording — taken from a radio simulcast on Colorado rock station KBCO — is a remarkably bright, balanced mix that gives Mike in particular a welcome boost. Playing to an expanded audience at home, the band brings their A-game**, hitting the ground running with Wilson > Chalk Dust Torture and not really easing up the throttle until the last notes of the Suzy encore. In the process, they land on a bunch of songs that repeat from 8/20/93, providing our most direct comparison points. Here’s three:

YEM: While the ‘93 YEM gets off to a flubby start and never quite regains its footing, the ‘94 version is a precise assassin. Like everything on 6/11, the composed sections are played fast and flawless, with a slightly elongated ambient section filling up the gas tank for the rest. Where the ‘93 jam bided its time with a Foam-like quiet jam, Trey almost immediately finds his line of attack in the ‘94 version, a funk “riff” that doesn’t really repeat as much as rapidly mutate into increasingly intense forms. It’s not an exploratory version at all — in fact it all clocks in just under 20 minutes — but I can see how it’s a good contender for being a sort of Platonic YEM. ADVANTAGE 1994

Antelope: As mentioned already, the 8/20/93 Antelope is maybe the most August 93 moment in its show, a giddy rejection of the normal rules that produces some excellent improvisation. From the very outset of the jam section, they jump dimensions, grab a lick from Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, and waterboard it for several minutes. After a second detour into a Page-led anxious jazz nightmare, they burst back to the usual Antelope progression for a barrage of peaks, creating an early preview of important, multi-segmented spring 1994 moments like the Charlotte Gin and Bowie or the Wiltern Antelope. 

It’s a tough mark for the 6/11/94 version to reach, and as its 5 minutes shorter runtime indicates, this one sticks closer to the script. Trey brings his array of new sonic tricks to the jam (car alarm and airhorn effects, occasional feedback squalls), but they’re largely used for the standard tension/release pattern, and you never lose sight of Antelope’s structure. It’s a “radio” version, in a peculiarly Phish way. ADVANTAGE 1993

Melt: Split Open and Melt was one of the songs of the year in 1993, so you might think 8/20’s version would be the heavy favorite. And it’s definitely a good one, with an eerily calm pace set at the beginning of the jam instead of starting at full gallop. But while it builds to a nice, shrieky climax, the improvisation is sort of anesthetic and academic, a Trey-led experiment that toys with the three-note return while never straying far from it.

The 1994 Melt, on the other hand, is sheer visceral plane-crash terror. Here, Trey’s noisier tone reaches its full potential, with a droney, dirty style that could fit right into a Sonic Youth song. Without the traditional lead solo, Mike has room to press against the margins, hip-checking the jam out of its comfort zone at several points, particularly around the 7th minute when he stays on one awful note for 30 seconds, nearly obliterating the song’s structure. The seeds of Melt’s future as one of Phish’s most free improvisational showcases are planted here. ADVANTAGE 1994

So that’s 2 out of 3 for 1994, which may surprise regular readers. But despite my general frustration with the first few months of 1994, there’s a sense that something may have clicked on the second night of Red Rocks. When directly compared to the 1993 show, it’s easy to hear how the band’s performances have grown more leaner, more urgent — a key distinction from just “played fast,” which is something they were good at all through the early 90s. There’s a sense that they may have consciously tried to cut out some of the “excess” from their jam vehicles — all three of the above repeats are shorter in ‘94 than in ‘93.

But while this approach does sacrifice some of the experimental breakthroughs they made last summer, it injects some new energy into the rest of the catalog, from old songs such as Chalk Dust to new anthems such as Disease. 6/11/94 feels *larger* than 8/20/93, like a band that’s growing out of their quirky theatre phase into a Rock Band that will be selling out the Garden (both Gardens) in only six months. Soon enough, they will figure out that they can be both the Rock Band and the quirky weirdos at the same time, pushing their sound in both more accessible and more experimental directions simultaneously. The high-wire improvisational adventures may be what most of the Phish crowd chases and treasures, but without developing in parallel their ability to create a big sound to match their increasingly big crowds, the path of Phish history would have turned out very different.

* - Whither art thou, Wolfman’s?

** - No “webcast” curse in 1994, I guess.

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This show is not a rebel show, this show is 6/11/94, Morrison, CO, Red Rocks Amphitheatre. http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/1994-06-11/

6/11/94: Certainly an energetic start to this night with Wilson and Chalkdust. Wilson chanting is now routine, audible even on SBD.

6/11/94: Another unusually early call, cf last night’s Bowie, with YEM. Ambient section is on point, and they are flying through the rest.

6/11/94: YEM jam starts slinky, builds organically over an ultra-tight rhythm. Fantastic drum sound/overall mix on these boards.

6/11/94: YEM > Rift makes a lot of sense, since they can bridge with funny noises. They are attacking everything so far with extra zeal.

6/11/94: Brief DJ snippet between songs reminds me this show was radio simulcast, on “World Class Rock” KBCO 97.3 FM in Denver.

6/11/94: It’s Ice breakdown report - partly jazzy with scattered bursts of wah pedal and drumlessness. Concise.

6/11/94: Back-to-back Page vox and then a Stash set closer. This show’s not playing by the setlist rules, which is encouraging.

6/11/94: Laser-focused Stash. I like the melody Trey explores from around 5:30-6:00 and Mike’s ominous lines in the 8th minute.

6/11/94: Could a (non-Bunny) radio simulcast of a Phish show ever happen today?

6/11/94: With 2001 > Antelope to open the second set, this show feels much more like a sibling to 8/20/93 than 6/10 did.

6/11/94: I just never have anything to say about Fluffhead, at least until 7/24/99. This one is…exuberant?

6/11/94: Some cool full-band interplay in the Mule jam, and half a Sugar Plum Fairy tease. Hints of future duels.

6/11/94: Another 8/20 repeat in Melt, and a pretty deranged one at that. Mike’s scoring a horror movie, while Trey adds feedback chemtrails.

6/11/94: At least a half-dozen moments in this set where a random person turning on their radio would have been quite confused.

6/11/94: Nowhere near piano-knowledgable enough to pinpoint why, but this is one of the more interesting Coil solos in a while.

6/11/94: Surprise late-show Maze, just when it seemed things were wrapping up/safe. Sparser than usual Page segment with M:I tease.

6/11/94: And there’s the Frankenstein bustout — first one since the Giant Country Horns tour, 332 shows ago. I love Frank, esp Page’s synth.

6/11/94: Uh-oh, Fish just swore on the radio, during a Suzy interjection. Alert the FCC.

6/11/94 Final: Not a very experimental show, but earns its reputation through vigorous playing and a great FM mix. Maybe summer starts here.


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6/10/94 – MORRISON, CO

I’ve been trying to migrate the project archive, but it’s taking longer than expected, so…6/10/94, Morrison, CO, Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

6/10/94: 6/11 was such a popular tape, I actually didn’t realize this was a two-night run at Red Rocks. Rougher AUD for night 1.

6/10/94: The year’s 7th JimFoam opener not quite as exciting as last year’s very topical Divided Sky & Harpua kickoff.

6/10/94: Interesting how Nellie Kane appears in both electric and acoustic versions, while Ginseng is acoustic-set-only at this point.

6/10/94: Early call for Bowie, dropping out of Demand. Direct jam, melodic and chill at the outset, only a few dissonant patches.

6/10/94: Lizards w/ callback to 93 Harpua about the giant lizard. “Watch out for him as the night goes on…he can get a little out of hand.”

6/10/94: Awesome “Fanfare for the Common Man” tease from Page before the end solo of Lizards. Some vocal jammy stuff in there too.

6/10/94: Speaking of teases, impressive that Trey managed to tease two different Hendrix songs in the first 30 seconds of Cavern.

6/10/94: Long noisy outro from Axilla II (already the 4th Hoist song of the night) to create a passageway into The Curtain.

6/10/94: Salt-N-Pepa/En Vogue quotes in Tweezer, because that’s logical. Nice descending line from Trey to drive the jam’s first segment.

6/10/94: Trey double-times that riff, brings it down to a little wah-pedal (very-)proto-funk. Then, traditional Tweeze-jam w/ car alarms.

6/10/94: Weird variant on the slow-down ending toys with a sludgy riff. Overall, not too out there, but at least 4 distinct segments.

6/10/94: Yet another Tweezer > Lifeboy didn’t cause me to rage-quit…show interrupted by a meeting. Back to work with Possum.

6/10/94: One last spin for King Louie, who hasn’t shown up in 22 shows. “Have y’all heard of The Jungle Book?” Fish asks.

6/10/94: Fish forgot most of the words, just did a vacuum solo instead. This is the way most Fish songs die.

6/10/94: As they get longer, I’m starting to think Hood intros were like the It’s Ice jam in serving as laboratories for the fall 94 sound.

6/10/94: Trey’s approach in these 94 Hood jams is so different from the rest of his playing of this era. Patience is not a word I use often.

6/10/94: Hood is the only song, except maybe Slave, where Trey will sit so far back for so long, pre-drum kit.

6/10/94: Hey, this show ends with Tweeprise, Monkey, and Rocky Top, giving me some Palace 97 vibes. Always welcome.

6/10/94 Final: Not the equal of last year’s Red Rocks classic, but a Tweezer comeback and some weirdness/goofing around the edges. 


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6/9/94 - SALT LAKE CITY, UT

I’m tempted to haul out all of my tour opener theories for this one, but just as treating 5/29 as a tour closer felt kind of forced, so too does this show feel like a false start of tour. The “spring” and “summer” tours are basically just 3-½ months of cross-country touring interrupted by a 10-day break, when the band presumably recharged their batteries on the west coast (or not?) before heading back east. The gap is closer to the time off between legs for most 3.0 summers, instead of a true demarcation point between tours.

But there might still be something to say here about how the band shakes off the rust after time off, no matter how short. In the modern era, it’s self-evident that you are more likely to see a good show later in a tour than earlier. I think there’s also a lot of evidence that the longer the break between tours, the longer it takes for them to get back to peak performance — NYE runs tend to be better when there’s a fall tour, for instance.

Of course, when I say “better,” I mean it in the typical Phish fan sense of “more and deeper jams.” And this relationship makes sense narratively: the more shows they play, the more they can refine their communication and comfort with each other until nearly telepathic improvisation arises. But there’s probably a less magical reason too, where the tedium of being on the road for several weeks together eventually leads them to experiment more to keep things interesting for themselves.

So in some ways, the break between tours may not reset their improvisational skills, but rather refresh some of the simpler pleasure of just playing their songs tightly and well. Consider 2013, where the opening Bangor show was pretty subpar, but the nearly half-hour soundcheck jam is rightly acclaimed. There’s a sense that the progress over the course of a tour isn’t so much learning how to play together again as remembering how much they can get away with in front of a crowd.

Here in Salt Lake City, the week-and-a-half off appears to have recharged their ability to blaze through largely composed songs such as Rift and Llama or the contained jams of Down With Disease and Suzy Greenberg. But it also seems to have reset the clock on their experimental tendencies, with safe, underwhelming versions of Melt and Mike’s that don’t carry over the momentum of the pleasantly surprising Laguna Seca Daze shows. Every Phish fan knows that the next round of slap-happy long-tour antics is only a week away, but for now, the 10-day vacation was a pause in real time, but a slight rewind in evolutionary time.

=====

The band & I both took a 10-day break, but we’re back on the road w/ 6/9/94, Salt Lake City, UT, Triad Amphitheater: http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/1994-06-09

6/9/94: I figured they stayed on the west coast during their break, but @phishnet has Trey in Burlington on 6/3: http://phish.net/sideshows/guest-appearance/?d=1994-06-03

6/9/94: They definitely sound refreshed on Llama and Rift, both played fast and furious. The spring’s “write it down” joke returns for DWD.

6/9/94: Maaaaaaybe a little testing of the boundaries of the Disease jam in the 5th minute. An atypical solo for sure.

6/9/94: New tour, same obsession with It’s Ice. Breakdown is still long, more direct than spacey, good piano vs. wah back and forth.

6/9/94: Lots of Fish whoops in this Maze. Meanwhile, I found a cool newspaper ad for this show: http://golgiproject.com/files/phish/1994/1994-06-09gn.jpg

6/9/94: Lots of lyric flubs in Fee, and one insane note in Suzy. Clearly a set to get their feet back on the ground.

6/9/94: A Q for set break…anyone got details on the Triad Amphitheater in SLC? Can’t find much online. Indoor? Outdoor? New name?

6/9/94: Second set gets right down to business with Melt. Short, thorny, Stash-like jam, with lots of car-alarm tension from Trey.

6/9/94: After an okay Glide > Julius, the 2nd Halley’s in two shows, this one with a weirdly tentative start.

6/9/94: Nice quick double-time segue from Halley’s into Mule. Still not a proper duel, but more participation from Trey in Page’s solo.

6/9/94: And we have the first hearing damage due to no-mics AUD of the summer tour. I would think an SLC crowd would be more polite.

6/9/94: Sloppy second Mike’s jam suddenly gets a little more interesting when Trey goes briefly loop/drone-crazy in the 9th minute.

6/9/94: Some good ideas bubble up in Weekapaug, but they’re moving too fast to explore any of them. It’s really regressed from ’93.

6/9/94: The dude that almost broke my ears yelling for AC/DC during Ginseng gets his wish with a Highway to Hell encore.

6/9/94 Final: A short, unremarkable show that just idles in the driveway to warm the engine back up after the brief break. Shrug.


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5/29/94 - MONTEREY, CA

The end of the spring tour seems like a good time to assess The State of The Phish. But in this case, it doesn’t feel quite right. For one, treating this show as the end of a tour is kind of a joke, as the band takes exactly ten days off before starting their way back eastward on the summer leg. But more broadly speaking, if I was filling out a report card for Phish at the end of May 1994, the grade probably couldn’t be anything but “Incomplete.”

Not to sound like a broken record, but there’s not another time in Phish history when the struggle between mainstream and underground is so tensely pitched. Until this year, the band has enjoyed a slow, steady, word-of-mouth climb from New England obscurity to moderate success, able to fill theatres with a few thousand seats from coast to coast and sell a goodly amount of albums. In the traditional music industry trajectory, that’s the time where you make the push for the big time: radio singles, arena shows, and $$$.

Please know that I’m not making the tired, shallow accusation that Phish was “selling out.” These were the logical choices to make, given where their career sat at this point in time. Certainly, recording some shorter, slicker songs and performing them every other night made a lot more long-term sense than playing set-long Tweezers. And as I mentioned in the 5/21/94 essay, Dave Matthews Band and Blues Traveler would demonstrate by the end of the year that jamband crossover success was definitely possible.

Still, there’s no question that operating under these conditions makes for a very weird spring tour. And that’s “very weird” in the sense that it’s not weird enough, dialing back the usual Phish oddness considerably. They promote the new album dutifully, playing Sample at a relentless 30 of 46 shows (65%) and fitting in 25 Down with Diseases and Juliuses as well. The Intro to Phish setlist format of the first half of 1993 returns, but with the Big Ball Jam initially removed and the frequency of Fish songs reduced. The new novelty set piece, the acoustic/no-mics setup, is a much more traditional change of pace, even if one band member is wearing a washboard with breasts and occasionally performing an “emotion solo.”

But as usually happens with Phish, the tighter the limitations, the more creativity squeezes out from unexpected directions. On this leg, the professional veneer starts to slip on the southern swing, with weird shows in Clearwater, Charlotte, and Atlanta that dip deeper into the back catalog and start to suggest promising new improvisational directions. Oh yeah, and there’s a Saturday night in Dallas that gets pretty heavy too.

The thing about the Bomb Factory is that it really is an island within the calm seas of spring ‘94. Part of why I started this project is because I wanted to explore the space around the landmark shows that are a part of every fan’s collection, looking for less obvious transition points in the band’s evolution. But there is very little from the first month of shows in 1994 to suggest that something like the Bomb Factory is coming, and seemingly miniscule impact in the shows following. If anything, the band gets safer again as it travels west, playing some gentle, soothing shows in Santa Fe and San Diego, but nothing approaching the challenging and wonderfully self-indulgent Tweezerfest.

So you have to look a little harder for the incremental steps forward taken while the band largely treads water. As I wrote in the 5/20/94 essay, It’s Ice offers the most consistent laboratory for the testing of new ideas, providing a space where the band consciously splits off in four different directions to see if a truly spontaneous pattern forms from the chaos. There are a handful of Bowies, Antelopes and Gins that offer a glimpse of this approach on a larger scale, where the band eschews their traditional building-storm, tension/release approach in favor of lateral, fickle journeys that cycle through a number of unique themes.

Other advances are even more subtle. Trey introduces the digital delay and wah pedals, signaling a shift towards more atmospheric, effects-driven playing that would shape the band’s direction for the rest of the decade*. There appears to be a conscious effort to create more room for Page, with It’s Ice, McGrupp, the pre-duel Mule and, of course, Coil offering him opportunities to take the lead role. The move from tension/release to a more iterative jamming style lets Mike get a more frequent hand on the steering wheel, while simultaneously giving Fishman more responsibility to keep these restless excursions from floating off into free space.

But for the most part, in the tug of war between going more mainstream and getting more experimental, the mainstream is winning in spring 1994. Extended episodes are rare, and weirdly, less frequent as the tour goes on, even as Hoist falls from its Billboard peak only 17 spots higher than Rift hit the year before. Avant-garde epics like the Bozeman Tweezer or the Providence Bowie still sound completely impossible for anything but that odd, aggressively care-free version of the band that showed up in the second set on May 7th.

Yet there’s a glimmer of hope in these final two shows headlining the Laguna Seca Daze festival. Beneath them on the bill are a bunch of bands that found the radio fame Phish sought in 1994, most of whom are considered trivia answers or punchlines today. Instead of pandering to fans there to see “Hey Jealousy” and “What’s Going On,” Phish plays two relaxed shows containing patient improvisation and a smattering of inside jokes. On the 29th, they bend a multi-band festival at a speedway into their tour-closing party, playing two encores for a crowd that, by the end of the show, is audibly smaller…and audibly psyched as fuck. It’s a subversion of the traditional music industry promotional machinery that might not work for everybody in the audience, but makes true believers of those it does reach. Soon, very soon, they’ll figure out that this is the path for them.

* - Though his ankle injury probably slows this particular development…it’s hard to work the pedals on one leg.

=====

It’s the end of spring tour! 5/29/94, Monterey, CA, Laguna Seca Raceway. Last show for a whopping *11* days. http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/1994-05-29

5/29/94: Day 2 of Laguna Seca Daze was somehow even more 90s than Day 1: 4 Non Blondes, Big Head Todd, The Mother Hips and Meat Puppets.

5/29/94: Fittingly, this is the first Divided Sky opener since 4/4, the first show of the year/spring.

5/29/94: Simpsons secret language in Guelah w/o much response. Pretty cheeky to do at a multi-band festival.

5/29/94: It’s nice to have an AUD after the previous show’s SBD to judge audience reception. Like 3 people are excited to hear Halley’s.

5/29/94: Final tally for spring tour: 46 shows, 30 Samples, 25 Diseases.

5/29/94: 25 Juliuses too. Julii?

5/29/94: Double Nancy in the first set, Fish introduced for I Didn’t Know vacuum solo as “Mr. Al Unser Jr.” They’re on a raceway, you see.

5/29/94: Takes a little while for an idea to find purchase in Bowie jam, so Trey, Page and Mike play melodic triple dutch instead.

5/29/94: A Trey “hey” shortly before the ending trills begin suggests some underlying structure to the jam, but it’s a weird one.

5/29/94: Guessing nobody called Nellie Kane for a second set opener. Played electric, despite its recent home in the acoustic setup.

5/29/94: Could be the flip to SBD, but the whole band attacks this Melt jam right away with more bite than anything in the first set.

5/29/94: It’s a joy to have a louder Mike over the last few shows. He’s still not *Mike!*, but his counterpoints to Trey are fascinating.

5/29/94: Trey and Fish gibberish over Melt. Sounds like Barenaked Ladies meets Rollins Band, to keep it appropriately 90s.

5/29/94: At 10th min, Melt jam takes new direction. Grungy riff, wah pedal, choppiness, quiet/loud ending. That traveled a long distance.

5/29/94: Hey Esther, it’s been a while. 18 shows, to be exact. Still creepy, I see.

5/29/94: Horn has been missing for a while too, 17 shows. Maybe they’re practicing the deep catalog for the summer trek back eastward.

5/29/94: This set was getting a little sleepy, so it’s Suzy and Antelope to the rescue. Old TV theme I can’t place in the Antelope intro.

5/29/94: I probably wouldn’t have said this while doing summer ’93, but now that it’s a rare-ish treat, I’m going to miss Free Bird.

5/29/94: The crowd is chanting “One more set!” pre-encore. Damn, pretty audacious, guys.

5/29/94: The 2nd encore (!), starts with piano trio jazz while Fish sings “the guitar player/is taking a leak.”

5/29/94: A pleasantly unrushed Hood, despite the presumably late hour. The crowd sounds pretty thinned out, but they are into it.

5/29/94 Final: Maybe not as deep as the first night, but still a solid tour closer even in the festival setting. Enjoy your break, boys.


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5/28/94 - MONTEREY, CA

Multi-band festivals are one of those strange places where the Phish timeline doubles back on itself. From 1996 through 2009, it was unthinkable that Phish would play a festival that they hadn’t organized themselves, and where they weren’t the only performer.* On one hand, it was an impressive display of their clout and their fanbase’s dedication that they could stage a massive destination event as the sole organizer and attraction. On the other other, those single-band festivals were symptomatic of the weird isolationism of Phish in late 1.0 and 2.0, when they seemingly didn’t care about preaching outside of their choir loft or actively seeking new fans.

But before Jerry’s death launched them suddenly to the top of the jamband power rankings, Phish had to play the game just like everyone else. That meant serving as opening act, occasionally using an opening act or sharing a double bill, and playing multi-band festivals, such as HORDE, Laguna Seca Daze, and — my favorite — the Ancient Forests Benefit in Portland in 1993. As you might expect, these shows are as Intro to Phish as possible: one set, always featuring a vacuum solo and trampolines, no extended improv. The only thing I remember from listening to these shows was the gag where a John Popper dummy in a wheelchair fell from the rafters to close a HORDE stop in Richmond.

It’s a festival formula familiar to any 3.0 fan as well, who have seen “the real Phish” fail to show up for outreach efforts at Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Austin City Limits**. It makes a ton of sense for them to play it safe in these environments — Phish are an immensely weird band, and it’s good guest behavior not to drop a 20-minute rotation jam on an unsuspecting festival crowd that just wants to see Jack White. But it’s also a bit disappointing to see them put forth a somewhat edited version of the Phish experience for the rare audience that isn’t already pre-converted. Ask any Phish fan what caught their ear at their first Phish show, and it’s usually not a well-played Chalk Dust solo or a Sample. Does a stiffer, more accessible Phish create more new fans than an unfiltered Phish?

The band may have been testing that question themselves here, when they headlined two nights of the same Laguna Seca Daze fest where they served as mid-lineup support for the Allman Brothers Band and 10,000 Maniacs in 1993. Maybe because they were top of the heap and  allowed to preserve their two-set format, these shows are much closer to the abnormal normal of a Phish show circa 1994 — in fact, maybe a little weirder than the majority of Hoist-flogging sets we’ve heard in the year so far. In a canny move, they front-load the first set of the 28th with the “singles” from the last three albums, just in case they catch the ear of any departing Gin Blossoms fans. But by the second set, they’re rewarding the fans with delightfully off-model versions of It’s Ice and Reba and possibly the most exploratory Tweezer since *that* Tweezer three weeks ago***.

Maybe, just maybe, this looseness in front of strangers carries over to the summer and fall tours in their newfound spirit of transcendent self-indulgence. Maybe it’s just a giddiness that they have a whole ten days off after this festival before they start a long road back east. But on the lowered expectation scale of festival shows, this one (and to a lesser extent, the following night) is a darn good one. Now, in the present, which version of festival Phish will show up at Jazz Fest next month?

* - with the exception of Oswego, which is always complicating blanket statements about Phish festivals.

** - I know there are some scattered highlights at these shows, but none of them are making anybody’s must-hear list. For instance, how many of you forgot they even *played* Outside Lands or Austin City Limits.

*** - And by the end of the show they’re indulging in the sort of guest-addled YEM jam that is too much Phish even for *me* to handle.

=====

Back on the festival circuit with 5/28/94, Monterey, CA, Laguna Seca Raceway. First of two headlining shows for Laguna Seca Daze.

5/28/94: Opening acts for this date included Gin Blossoms, Freddy Jones Band, and Primus side project Sausage. #rememberthe90s

5/28/94: Honestly kind of surprised that Phish could headline two nights of a west coast festival (playing 2 sets each night) in ’94.

5/28/94: Based on the quiet jam of this Foam, sounds like there was some serious wind in Monterey on this night. It’s a SBD, even.

5/28/94: I think they front-loaded this set with “the hits” (Rift, Sample, Bouncin’) in case any Gin Blossoms fans tried to sneak out early.

5/28/94: Stash is its usual mounting tension self until the 9th minute, when it suddenly takes a bittersweet interlude for 90 seconds.

5/28/94: “That was for the people on the ferris wheel,” Trey says. Isn’t there a similar dedication at one of the Phish fests?

5/28/94: I’ve now heard Great Went, Lemonwheel, and Superball on the Ferris Wheel dedication question. Maybe he just does it every fest.

5/28/94: Pretty “clean” Maze in context, light on the screaming fields of sonic love.

5/28/94: Another kaleidoscopic Ice breakdown, this is not a repeat. Microfunk disintegrates into Phish jazz, which spoils into cock-rock.

5/28/94: Thick, stuttering tempo for Tweezer jam, Mike using heavy phaser, Trey and Page painting the high notes.

5/28/94: Didn’t expect Bomb Factory-level experimentation from a festival Tweezer, but this one is moving through several different phases.

5/28/94: Cartoony stretch (perhaps building off Trey’s Popeye tease earlier) around minute 10-11; then a big rock finish w/ a long sustain.

5/28/94: Reba in consecutive shows and both second setters, that’s pretty unusual. Unusually crunchy, dark start to the jam.

5/28/94: Very unique/awesome Reba, with storm clouds floating over and through the traditional jam. Even more emotionally rich than usual.

5/28/94: As expected, Les Claypool shows up for a bass jam in YEM. Things are getting real slap-bassy up there.

5/28/94: Now it’s dueling slap bass *and* vacuum. If you ever want a jam to scare someone off from Phish, this just might be it!

5/28/94: On the other hand, it’s kind of fun hearing Trey play drums in the YEM jam.

RT ‏@GuyForgetOPT I’m pretty sure many people would be surprised that there are times when Phish *doesn’t* have 2 slap-basses and a vacuum going.

5/28/94: A rare set 2 “Don’t do anything we wouldn’t do,” and then a dueling banjos coda in lieu of vocal jam.

5/28/94 Final: Low expectations for a festival set well surpassed. Set 2 Tweezer/Reba/Ice can hang with anything from the Warfield run. 


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5/27/94 - SAN FRANCISCO, CA

One of the wonderful things about the voluminous Phish live catalog is that it has a taxonomy that can be appreciated on multiple scales. There’s the atomic level of individual song performances*, which combine on a nightly basis into broader set-long and show-long architectures. There’s the narrative formed by a given tour, or a particular year of touring. And then there’s the grand structure of the different eras, or the entire body of 1700-some shows and counting.

Between the show and tour scales is an intermediate level, that of the multi-show, single-venue run. In modern-day Phish, these mini-residencies are becoming the norm instead of the exception — the tentpoles of this summer’s tour will be three-show runs in Saratoga Springs, New York City, Chicago, and Colorado. Clearly, the idea of not getting in a tour bus every night appeals to them in their older age, and the quality of these shows usually reflects a preference for a mini-residency.

But back in the early 90s, multiple-show runs were still a new idea. The famous Roxy run was the only three-night stand of 1993, and near as I can tell, the band’s first ever**, not counting primordial residencies in Burlington and Colorado ski towns. In 1994, they almost bookend the spring tour with three-night theatre runs at the Beacon in New York City and the Warfield in San Francisco, neither of which approach the creative chaos of the Roxy shows. 

Part of the problem is that, in 1994, Phish hadn’t yet mastered the pacing of a show, or even a set, so expecting an overarching three-show structure is pretty silly. For one, listening to multiple nights in a row reveals the formulaic nature of their setlists at the time. They also aren’t quite cocky enough yet to assume that a healthy chunk of the audience will even be there for all three shows, so there’s no obligation to avoid repeating songs or segments such as the acoustic set that has become standard by the end of May. 

At the Beacon and the Warfield, the band does nod to repeat visitors by evenly distributing their jam vehicles over the three nights, but each show doesn’t really spontaneously grow into its own unique identity within the run like you often see today. Instead, the final show of each run is rigged to be unique with special guests (the Giant Country Horns on 4/15, fiddler Morgan Fichter and soprano Andrea Baker on 5/27) and pasta-related gimmicks.

If you squint real hard though, the Warfield run does offer a miniaturized version of the transitional period acted out in Spring 1994. The 5/25 show is the past, using a very 1993 structure with first-set narration and Big Ball Jam/Fish-song novelties in the second. 5/26, like a lot of 1994 shows, veers between contained oddity (recreating Demand > Split Open and Melt and tacking Catapult onto the end of It’s Ice), Hoist promotion, old proggy favorites, and no-mics experiments, never quite finding cohesion. Then 5/27 contains heaps of foreshadowing for the rest of the year, with patient, communicative improv in Bowie, Reba, and Hood*** that could fit right into A Live One and the raucous debut of Simple, a lovably dopey song that signifies a step back from the measured mainstream overtures of Hoist****.

Extended runs went back on the shelf after the Warfield — the band won’t do another three-show run until The Fox Theatre in fall 95, and there are only four two-show runs over the rest of the very busy 1994 calendar. Like the restless improvisational style that would come to dominate this era, staying in one place for too long just didn’t suit Phish (or their fans) in 1994. Before they could write the novels of a thematic tour, or the short stories of a multi-show run, Phish still had to figure out how to write, well, an essay, regularly crafting shows that were more than just a collection of independent songs and jams. Eventually, most shows (and runs and tours and years) will spell something, but we’re not quite there yet.

* - one could even get down to segments within jams, but let’s consider those the quarks and bosons of Phish physics.

** - They played three nights in a row at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 1992, but only as opening act for Santana

*** - So good, I had to cheat and go with two examples of full-band interplay for today’s sound clip.

**** - I know Simple was written for Hoist, but it’s telling that it didn’t make the cut and wasn’t played live until two months into the year.

=====

Finishing off the Warfield run with 5/27/94, San Francisco, CA, Warfield Theatre. I’m told this one will go better. http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/1994-05-27

5/27/94: The band does a few extra rounds of “duh-nuh, duh-nuh” so that the Wilson chant can spread. Clearly they’re in on it by now.

5/27/94: I suppose Jim > Foam is slightly more notable when it doesn’t open the show. So many repeated song pairings these days.

5/27/94: Haha, awesomely awkward drop from Bouncin’ into Bowie. You don’t hear that transition too often.

5/27/94: Creepy/boss Bowie jam, with Trey and Mike call-response, tidal patterns darkly mutating, perverse tension and minimal release.

5/27/94: If I Could is currently the go-to cooldown after a hot jam. I will take it over Lifeboy any day of the week.

5/27/94: Accidental drums-only intro to PYITE makes it sound an awful lot like Melt.

5/27/94: Feisty Hood intro and a jam that’s like the Bowie’s good twin. Atmosphere from Trey, concrete melodic foundation by Mike.

5/27/94: Maybe it’s the SBD, maybe it’s that I’m listening on my home setup, but Mike is much more tangible than 94-usual in this show.

5/27/94: This second set comes out with its hair on fire. Suzy and Peaches and MFMF, pulse racing.

5/27/94: Strange Trey tone at the near-silent start of the Reba jam, warbly and far-off. Lots of room to expand, Mike very active again.

5/27/94: They saved a lot of heavy-hitters for the end of the run here, and they’re 3 for 3 so far on the jams.

5/27/94: Lizards is fitting after @misterajp and I were playing “what if True Detective used Gamehendge instead of The Yellow King” today.

5/27/94: Julius is only the second repeat of the run, joining Sample. Only 2 Hoist songs in this show too, interestingly.

5/27/94: Good way to freshen up the 3rd acoustic mini-set in 3 days: Camper Van Beethoven alum Morgan Fichter on fiddle!

5/27/94: First and only acoustic MMGAMOIO too.

5/27/94: We’ve got Simple! The debut sprouts from Mike’s a lot earlier than expected, and it’s still pretty rough. But I’m glad it’s here.

5/27/94: Argh, harsh edit between Simple and O Mio Babbino Caro on Phishtracks. Is that universal? Do I need to seek out a different source?

5/27/94: OK so song debut, opera singer, Flintstones macaroni and cheese distribution, all in about 10 minutes. Concentrated weirdness.

5/27/94: Macaroni gag is fun, but it sounds like they’re playing in a rainstorm, cf 7/22/93. Also, shouldn’t they have used Rice-A-Roni?

5/27/94: Nice gesture to donate the boxes, but some SF food bank must have gotten really sick of Flintstones mac and cheese in June.

5/27/94 Final: Craziness at the end was good antidote to the previous nights’ blandness, but the real thrills were in Bowie, Hood, & Reba.