Tuesday 12/18/2018 by howard_roark

THE THREE DECEMBERS - 1999 (PART I)

© Phish, by: Bart Stevens
© Phish, by: Bart Stevens
XI. Reduction

Minimalist Music got its start in the underground art-rock scenes of New York and San Francisco in the early-to-mid-1960's. Pioneered by such composers as Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve 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 issues. In the 1970'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 catalog. 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 direct description of the world we live in. When electronic and dance music rose to prominence in the mid-'90s, 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, with its stark, motionless melodies, washes of noise, and overall structureless 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 its 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.

© Phish - Live Phish
© Phish - Live Phish

XII. The Next Peak?

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 excitement 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 April 2nd 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 April 3rd 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.

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 another 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 2003 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.

XIII. A Quick Diversion To Complain About The Mainstream Media's Coverage of Phish

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, according to the mainstream rock media - 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, etc.

While it's an endearing tale, it's not totally true. It does not serve any of their fans - nor any casual observers - any benefit by providing just the 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.

XIV. The Darkness Seeps In

By 1998 Drugs had begun to seep into the lives of Phish and their road crew in ways they simply hadn't before. 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 uppers to keep them going. But let’s be real, drugs have been a part of the modern musical lifestyle, since at least the Honky-Tonk and Jazz Age. It’s not as though Phish’s minor experimentations were anything new in rock music.

That said, up until 1998, drugs had taken a back seat in Phish’s orbit 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 when taken regularly, leads to increased paranoia, chronic depression and liver damage.

Prescription drug use isn't believed 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, one doesn't need to stretch their imagination too far to believe parts of the band and their larger crew - each with various connections to fans and dealers - latched onto drugs that increased in their prescriptions in America from 5 million to close to 45 million between 1991 and 2010. Comparable to a heroin addiction, prescription drug abuse takes a vicious 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, in particular, have been rumored to be overtaken by the unrivaled force of drug addictions. Affecting both their own individual lives, the addictions led, most notably, to Trey's bottoming out in 2006 which he claims nearly 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. In 1998 alone, 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 by as early as the following summer, and in full, but 2.0.

All said, 1998 is still viewed 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.

XV. While The Storyteller Speaks, A Door Within The Fire Creaks

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 Dead 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 effect it had on their own music. On October 31, 1994 Phish spent the show's entire second set performing The Beatles' The White Album, an exercise that would be repeated eleven more times - including one 11/02 cover, and three shows where they surprise-debuted three completely new albums - with each offering impacting the band's style and sound in various ways, from songwriting to 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', 'Shine A Light,' ‘Time Loves A Hero,’ and ‘Moonage Daydream’ 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 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 had 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', 'Sabotage' - 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 20 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 now, 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 their Dad. They now sounded like the elder statesman, fully established, with a sound all their own, honoring those who'd come before them.

© Phish, Inc
© Phish, Inc

XVI. Fire Reduces All

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, however, 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, spacious 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', 08/09 'Gin', 08/11 'Jim,' 08/12 'Ramble On -> Slave', and the 08/15 'David Bowie', among other jams. 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 - only Magnaball’s Drive-In Jam comes close - 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 eliminating 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's '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 all over again.

It's a point this writer has been pushing since the onset of this series: 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 kept pushing their music further, if they stayed 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.

XVII. The Turn To 1999

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 NYE Run they've ever embarked on.

While there were certainly more highs in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1997, each featured a show(s) that is generally believed to be a notch below the best of the run. Much is made of the fact that this was the first NYE Run where the band called a single venue their home. A path that would be followed in their 2003, 2009, and 2011-2018 NYE Runs, the 1998 NYE Run is unique in the fact that it didn't from a rusty opening night, and each show featured consistent improv & unique setlists to boot. 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 improvisation.

Concluding the year with the best all-around NYE show since 12/31/1995, the band looked to 1999 as a year of change and future growth. 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.

(Come Back on Thursday For The Final Installment of The Three Decembers Series - 1999 Part II)

Brian Brinkman is the Co-host of the Beyond The Pond Podcast (@_beyondthepond) and can be found on Twitter at @sufferingjuke

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Comments

, comment by spencehammer
spencehammer Thank you for emphasizing the influence of minimalism on our boys. Some of my favorite tunes and jams feature that hypnotic, meta-textural character defined by Steve Reich and John Harrison, not to mention Trey’s penchant for ostinato and beat displacement (First Tube, anyone?) This essay series is fantastic, and I appreciate the scholarship that’s gone into your work!
, comment by 98ghostphunk
98ghostphunk This is why I .net. Thanks!
, comment by User_18346_
User_18346_ I really enjoyed this. Very well-written addressing the dark periods of Phish without skirting the issue of hard drugs. We all know that hard drugs became a problem, but it almost seems a no-no to talk about, and you cover this time period reverently and honestly.
I also really appreciate your introduction with the description of minimalist music.

An all around solid read.
, comment by Patrique
Patrique Outstanding read, great work.
, comment by GreatWent19
GreatWent19 This is very good.
, comment by ekstewie1441
ekstewie1441 It is interesting to compare the writer's assessment of 1997 vs. 1998 with Trey's (and I'm quoting @ProfJibboo 's summary in the linked thread below)

"I know 1997 is beloved....but it felt like 1998 was a better year for us in terms of creativity"

http://forum.phish.net/forum/show/1378235804#page=1
, comment by Nomansjam
Nomansjam Right on!!
Diggin' this series
, comment by NiceGuyMike
NiceGuyMike A fantastic read. Thank you!
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