From the editors: For this installment of our Summer Tour Venue Revue, the editors of Phish.net wanted to extend an invitation to Craig Hillwig (aka @chillwig) to offer his perspective on Phish’s return to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Craig is a longtime fan and taper, who has generously shared countless recordings with the fan community over the years.
Phish returns to the historic Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco for three nights on August 2-4, 2013. Thanks to phish.net for inviting me to guest post about it.
For Phish fans who are also Deadheads, a San Francisco run during the first week of August is highly symbolic. Of course, I'm referring to the “Days Between” - the period between Jerry Garcia's August 1 birthday and the August 9 anniversary of his death in 1995. Eighteen years later, it's still a pretty big deal in the Bay Area. For some sobering context, consider that some of this June's high school graduates were born after Garcia's passing.
As any student of Phish history can tell you, the odds of Phish acknowledging Jerry with a cover or related guest appearance on this San Francisco visit seem slight. Yet, paradoxically, they are due. After shunning their Grateful Dead cover roots for more than a decade, Phish stunned a Virginia Beach audience with a moving “Terrapin Station” tribute on August 9, 1998. The following year - after Trey and Page punched many fans' “best ever” cards as part of Phil & Friends at the Warfield - Phish busted out “Cold, Rain and Snow” and “Viola Lee Blues” with Lesh at Shoreline. And in 2000 (again at Shoreline), Bob Weir sat in for “El Paso” and “West L.A. Fadeaway.”
So the old taboo about Dead covers had finally been laid to rest. Or so it had seemed - there have been no Dead covers since "Phish 1.0," despite having several opportunities at storied Grateful Dead venues such as Shoreline ('03 & '09), Berkeley Greek Theatre ('10) and Golden Gate Park ('11). Unsurprisingly, speculation about a Dead-related guest appearance ramped up shortly before last year's BGCA shows, and with good reason. After a strong Leg 2 opener in Long Beach, Mike spent the off-night playing Grateful Dead songs with Phil & Friends at Terrapin Crossroads. That, coupled with sightings of Phil's bass tech tweaking Mike's rig during soundcheck at BGCA raised more than a few hopes. But there would be no guests or Dead covers.
Regardless of whether you were a Deadhead, last year's announcement of three weekend nights at the relatively small BGCA (8,500 capacity per the promoter) made for a lot of anticipation. Given that Phish could sell nearly as many tickets playing just one night at Shoreline (22,500 capacity), the band's choice of a more intimate, downtown venue for an extended run was welcome news. It also made for a relatively tough ticket, and the shows sold out within minutes.
But a funny thing happened when Phish announced that the shows would be webcast. A vigorous online debate erupted over the existence of a so-called "Webcast Effect," a controversial theory that webcasts correlated with "weaker" Phish shows. Proponents argued that Phish was afflicted with a form of "red light syndrome," buckling under the weight of their own self-awareness in front of the cameras. Others claimed that webcasts degraded the experience for fans as well, detracting from the characteristic give-and-take interaction and immediacy between band and audience that helps define a great Phish show. Recent webcasts of Bonnaroo, Portsmouth and Jones Beach shows were offered as anecdotal proof of the phenomenon. It was a circumstantial case to be sure, but many fans perceived a connection and the webcast announcement led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth on Twitter and the blogopshere.
It didn't help matters that the first two nights of the 2012 BGCA run arguably validated this perception. The first night (8/17) featured solid but mainly standard fare, despite noteworthy jams in stand-out versions of “Down With Disease” and “Tweezer” > “Twist” in the second set. I enjoyed this show much more on tape than I did at the venue, in part because I was jet lagged (pro tip – take a travel day if you're flying in from the East coast). The next night (8/18), a strong “Runaway Jim,” “Wolfman's Brother” opening sequence gave way to a somewhat meandering, disjointed effort that never really took off for me (the “Tube” ran 4:38 in case you were wondering). You could tell the band was working extremely hard - maybe too hard - but things just weren't clicking for them. Had the cameras done them in again?
As it turned out, the inconsistency of the first two shows may have been attributable to another piece of gear altogether. Fishman had started using a new in-ear monitor setup, and he was struggling to hear his bandmates on stage. By the third night (8/19), Fish decided to abandon the setup. That seemed to make all the difference, and set the stage for a night to remember.
The “Crowd Control” opener was an auspicious sign, with the "time has come for changes" chorus alluding to Fishman's equipment changes. A raucous, Fishman-led “Party Time” followed, and a festive mood was set for the night. After “Axilla” and a very-good-but-not-quite-transcendental “Reba,” we were treated to crisp versions of “Free,” “Mound” > “Walk Away,” “NICU,” “Back on the Train” and “Gotta Jibboo.” A palate-cleansing “Roggae” set the stage for a “David Bowie” closer, a strong version notwithstanding their failure to stick the landing. Regardless, it was clear that a different band had shown up this night. This band was tight and engaged. The grooves were effortless and infectious. The case for a Webcast Effect was beginning to crumble.
The second set was pure fire right out of the chute. There is not much that could be said about the “Crosseyed” > “Light” > “Sneakin' Sally” > “Crosseyed” opening sequence that hasn't already been written, so I won't belabor the point. I know it's trite to say, "You had to be there," but in this case the cliché is apt. Being inside the room with Kuroda's lights was an essential part of the experience. The buildup and explosion at the point where “Light” drops into “Sally” – the feeling of electricity from 8,500 virtual desks flipping simultaneously – will forever be seared into my consciousness. It's the dragon that each one of us chases when we walk into our next Phish show. It's the reason why webcasts can never be an acceptable substitute for being there.
Barely catching their breath, the band stretched their legs with solid versions of “Theme from the Bottom,” “Rocky Top,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” “Meatstick” and “Bug,” before embarking on an almost obligatory set closing “YEM.” After the encore break, Page seemed a bit emotional as he thanked the audience and expressed hope that they could return to the venue soon. As the opening keyboard notes of “Ride Captain Ride” started wafting though the room, the audience was grinning with anticipation for the "San Francisco Bay" line. The only thing left was for the band to triumphantly reprise the first night's “Tweezer,” punctuating a set for the ages with Phish's signature closer. On video, you can see bursts of glitter and streamers blowing across the stage at the beginning of the “Tweeprise,” the ecstatic emissions of the dancing unicorns that spontaneously materialized in the room (like I said, you had to be there). The Webcast Effect had been thoroughly and convincingly debunked.
If you've never been to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, it's a pretty interesting venue. Completed in 1916, the building is part of the historic Civic Center complex built after the 1906 earthquake. The venue is laid out like a ballroom, with a U-shaped balcony that doesn't extend to the floor. With a full-sized stage at one end and the soundboard riser nearly against the back wall, the room seems wider than it is deep. The result is great sight lines but tricky acoustics, particularly on the side balconies. The good news is that nearly everywhere on the general admission floor is "front of board" and Garry Brown had it sounding pretty good up there last year. Check out Taylor Caine's excellent vintage Schoeps recordings from the run and you'll get a good sense of what it sounded like. So that's your second pro-tip: the good sound is on the floor and in the back balcony.
Another remarkable feature of BGCA is the spacious lounge on the lower concourse with a big bar, couches, hi-hat tables, remote speakers and flat screen TVs. During the 2012 run, the lounge showed the webcast each night so you didn't have to miss a single note. Naturally, the bar served a nice selection of California beers and wines. This feature alone has me hoping for another webcast this year.
As far as getting to the show, there's a BART station two blocks away. It's also walkable from Union Square hotels, bars and restaurants but you have to walk through the Tenderloin, which is not the most scenic part of San Francisco (to put it charitably). Still, the walk is eminently doable in daylight, and we didn't have too much trouble finding a cab back to our hotel after the show.
If I could choose only one run to see this Summer, it would be San Francisco. There is so much to do, see and eat, that the shows almost become an afterthought. If you're into sailing, consider heading over to the Embarcadero to see the America’s Cup racing on the Bay while you ponder the odds of Phish covering Christopher Cross. Personally, I'm hoping for a bustout of Tom and Trey's, "Sailboat Man."
For the Deadheads among you, this year's Days Between festivities offer plenty to cheer about, including a Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration featuring Warren Haynes and the San Francisco Symphony (8/1-2), the 11th Annual "Jerry Day" at Garcia Amphitheater in McLaren Park (8/4), and Grateful Dead Tribute Night at the San Francisco Giants game (8/5). While you shouldn't expect Phish to tip their hats to Jerry or the Dead during this year's BGCA run, neither should you be surprised if they do. And don't sweat the webcasts.
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March 27, 1993
25 years ago
Set 2: Buried Alive > Halley's Comet > It's Ice > Bouncing Around the Room, Chalk Dust Torture, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Hold Your Head Up > Cracklin' Rosie > Hold Your Head Up, Poor Heart > Golgi Apparatus
 Beginning featured Trey on acoustic guitar.
 Fish on trombone.
 All Fall Down signal in intro.
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