XVIII. Something More Than Phish?
While Phish's 1997-1998 foray into linear musical communication produced exceptional results in terms of whole-band unified jamming, and led to a musical peak in 1997, there were a few casualties of the controversial era.
The band's dedication to precision playing, particularly with their composed pieces, took a back seat to their nightly dives into the unknown. The tension & release jams which had been their bread & butter for twelve years nearly faded from existence, as the band opted for mellower, less peaky jams with which they could communicate on an even plane. Being as the music they were making had to be completely egoless to work, Phish's guitar-extraordinaire stepped behind the shadows, and many of the jams, which in the past had lived and died with him, became far less reliant on his output. Sure, no one could have replaced him, but it was necessary - by Trey's own admission - that he reduce his role in leading Phish, thus giving Mike and Page a chance to step up and lead the band.
This diminished time in the spotlight took its toll on the natural band leader, Trey, and in the Spring of 1999, he embarked on his first solo tour, in effort to not only get his kicks as a front-man again, but also to test out potential future Phish songs in a live setting.
His decision in early-1999 to pursue a solo-tour in his free time was a monumental shift for the band. No longer would all the band members' time be dedicated to pushing Phish forward. For the first time, it appeared, the band might need a vacation from itself.
Phish suddenly became a part of Trey's life, not his whole life. This new world for both Phish and their fans has become the norm some twenty years later, as fans have come to expect that Phish will play only when they're recording or in the immediacy of a tour, and the rest of the time will either be dedicated to family or side projects. In 1999, however, it was just another in a growing line of reasons, that proved to many fans, that the band was on rocky ground, and was, in a lot of ways, adrift for perhaps the first time since Trey's suspension from UVM in 1984.
XIX. Change, But To What?
When fans strolled into Sandstone Amphitheater, just west of Kansas City, on June 30, 1999, the first thing that must have caught their eye, was the stage set-up which was drastically altered from the way it had been since the mid-80's. Whereas for the first 15 years of their history the band had been arranged on stage in a horizontal line - Page, Trey, Mike, Fish, from left to right, respectively - which spoke of their goals of linear musical communication, in 1999 Mike and Trey switched places, and Fishman moved behind Trey and Gordo. A clear sign that the band wanted to sonically emphasize the rhythm within their music, the shift would have a direct impact on the music they made over the following two years, while at the same time, symbolically represented the growing divisions that would ultimately tear the band apart twice over the next five years.
When looking at pictures of the 1999 - 2000 stage set-up, what's most interesting is that Fishman is not located directly behind Mike, ala a generic rock band. Positioned slightly ajar, with an opening towards Trey, the band appears to be a trio, with Page off to the side. The new set-up would have its effects on a growing division between Trey and Page, with Trey conferring with Mike and Fish about song selections, directions of jams, and Page being left in the dark for much of each show.
Wasting no time displaying the effect their new stage set-up had on their sound, Phish opened 1999 with a twenty-minute "Bathtub Gin" which ushered in a tour, and a year, that would see them move even further from a regimented playing of their songs, consistently favoring improv and the unknown.
Prior to the start of the Summer Tour, Phish released The Siket Disc. A compilation of instrumental song concepts from The Story Of The Ghost sessions, The Siket Disc was the product of Phish toying with ideas out of extended jams, rather than composing any songs proper. These songs debuted throughout the summer, adding a new element to the shows, as many fans who either hadn't heard the record, or weren't following the band on the road, simply thought they were extensions of jams. "My Left Toe," "The Happy Whip & Dung Song" and "What's The Use?" received the most play, each of which added to the loose style with which the band was playing, where any song could catch a groove and set off on a twenty-minute excursion. What's more is that the songs further emphasized the minimalist and ambient style the band had been experimenting with throughout 1998, pushing the band to continue developing their sound through a more noise-based approach.
Much like three of their last four Summer Tours, Summer 1999 lives and dies on its improvisational jams. What's truly incredible about the tour - and really, the year overall - is that through all of the unknowns, through any of the conflict, through any of the slop, the band is still capable of crafting unique, mind-altering improvisational music. Retaining the groove-based nature of the 1997 revolution, the sound of Phish in 1999 is even more spacious, and even more focused on the abstract. Their best jams emanate from simple grooves set by Mike and Fish and allow Trey and Page even more freedom in painting melodies over the tops of a rhythm section that has essentially been training for this moment for three years.
Increasing his arsenal of effect pedals, Trey continued to remain in the background of many Phish jams, though by year-end, the best jams would have built upon linear musical communication, only to be fully realized through colorful melodic riffs from The Bad Lieutenant. What's most unique about the Summer 1999 tour, is that it's the one tour where the band's exhaustion & apparent drug usage seemed to really show - just listen to 07/24/1999 - AND was a good thing.
The whole summer sounds like a band that's over the crest and is just playing on pure instinct. First sets were mostly compiled of songs that wouldn’t have coexisted in any other year - 07/08/1999, 07/13/1999, 07/24/1999, 07/25/1999 - and yet due to jams and segues, work somehow in an effortless way. Second sets, much like the last four years, are full of stunning excursions into the unknown. Only this tour, with a more spacey and contemplative approach, emphasize the space between notes, and the mellow moments in between the rage, creating a dream-like effect throughout the entire tour.
Standout shows are found in Camden, where the band embarked on one of the first extended jams out of "Chalk Dust Torture -> Roggae" with stunningly blissful results in the first set, before taking "Tweezer" and "Birds" to ambient, groove-based realms in the second. The second night of Great Woods is remembered for the sublime "The Curtain> Halley's Comet -> Roses Are Free -> NO2" segment in Set I, a monster "Wolfman's> Piper" in Set II, and a fitting one-time performance of "Tuesday's Gone" in the encore, concluding their first two shows at Great Woods since 1994, the latter of which stretched into Wednesday morning. Holmdel, NJ's two nights featured the closest shows the band had played to Trey's hometown of Princeton, and Page's Basking Ridge, in five years. The first night contained a jam sequence in Set II that has lived on as one of the lasting soundscapes of the era. Reading "Meatstick -> Split Open & Melt -> Kung -> Jam -> Bouncing Around The Room," the jam is nearly 55-minutes of unabridged improv. The fifteen-minute jam out of "Meatstick," and the post-"Kung" jam prove to be two of the most equally sublime and unnerving moments of the entire tour.
The Oswego Festival granted fans a third set on 07/18 which read "My Soul> Piper> Prince Caspain> Wilson -> Catapult -> Icculus> Quinn The Eskimo> Fluffhead," thus bridging stunning improv with their age-old gimmicks. As the tour wound into the Midwest towards its conclusion, Columbus's second set of "Ghost -> Free> Birds Of A Feather -> Meatstick> Fire" provided one of the most fluid sets of the entire tour, displaying the band's grasp on groove-oriented, spacious jamming, regardless of the fact that Trey clearly stumbled through the lyrical section of "Birds."
For as controversial a show it is among the legion of Phish's dedicated fans, 07/24/1999 at Alpine Valley still retains some of the most surreal moments of the tour. The 18-minute jam that unfolded from the second song "Fluffhead" is a completely unprecedented moment in the band's history, resulting in a blissful jam in the least likely of places. The Second Set's 18-minute "Mango Song ->The Happy Whip & Dung Song" provides yet another completely atypical jam of the show, and the encore of "Glide> Camel Walk, Alumni Blues> Tweezer Reprise" will set the standard for years to come in terms of what an incredible encore is.
The following night at Deer Creek is probably the best show of the entire tour and is on the shortlist for the show of the year. With an absolutely classic first set that opened with a six-song segment "Meat> My Friend, My Friend -> My Left Toe -> Whipping Post> Makisupa Policeman -> Happy Birthday Chris Kuroda" that was as out of place as it was stunning, the show is a microcosm of 1999. Loose, jammy, a bit strung-out; the music crafted is the kind you'd expect a band to craft in the wee hours of the morning.
After six months apart from each other in early-1999, the band dedicated the last six months of the year to Phish. Thus, only a month and a half after the conclusion of the Summer Tour, they embarked on a month-long Fall Tour that saw them spend more time on the West Coast than any point since Summer 1997.
Inherently understanding that their songs had gotten away from them over the course of the last two years, first sets began to resemble the recital type sets that would become commonplace over the next fifteen years. While there'd still be jams regularly contained within for at least the next five years, a clear structure was being implemented, whereby the band would play themselves into shape over the course of a tour, through essentially rehearsal-esque first sets, and then use Set II as a platform for exploration. It wouldn't be until The Baker's Dozen in 2017 that this trend would be broken in any lasting way.
Fans of Phish's extended-improv have more than their fair share of choices in 1999, as the Fall Tour is littered with standout jams that feature even darker themes, deeper spacious exploration, and an emphasis on electronic beats that would come to define their sound over the next year-and-a-half. The Portland 'Ghost', Boise 'AC/DC Bag -> Gumbo', Chula Vista 'Boogie On Reggae Woman', Memphis '2001 -> Down With Disease' and 'Mike's -> Catapult -> Mike's -> Kung -> Mike's -> I Didn't Know', Minneapolis 'Piper', and Albany 'Limb By Limb -> 2001' all stood out as the top-tier jams of the tour.
The 09/14 "AC/DC Bag -> Gumbo" resides in its own separate category. A jam that displayed the interwoven communication 16-years as a band creates, the "Bag" wove through blissful ambiance, beat-driven electro-funk, and noise-laden soundscapes over 27-minutes, crafting a jam for the ages, fusing sounds of 1995, 1997 and 1998 in a compartmental vehicle that could have only been created in 1999.
XX. The Long Gig
Along with their career-long goal of establishing a sound that allowed them to play as one unified instrument, Phish had long talked of a desire to play what they called "The Long Gig." In their ideal world, the band would surprise their fans by locking the doors prior to show time, give everyone in attendance one phone call, and then play for as long as they desired, be it overnight, or over the course of multiple days. The idea was an experiment, to see how their fans would react to not only an onslaught of Phish, but also the psychological effects of being locked in a room for an extended period of time with no clear ending. Musically, the band had always wanted to see what kind of music they would be creating some 10-20-30-hours in if they embarked on an unyielding journey of exploration. Unfortunately, with the age of modernity that birthed us cell phones, frivolous laws that prevent trapping people, and the monetary needs of a venue which relies on the turnover at the gate on a regular basis, the idealized Long Gig would have to be altered to be plausible.
With the millennium celebrations fast approaching, Phish realized that by combining their New Year's show with their festivals, they'd have the opportunity to fulfill their Long Gig, at least in part. A massive Phish-blowout was in the works. Located in the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, the show would allow the band to emulate their summer festivals while celebrating the literal, once-in-a-millennium event. Phish would play three-sets on the 30th, an afternoon set on the 31st, and then emerge just before midnight and play through the night, a seven-hour, unending set, one that would go down in infamy as perhaps the most unique, special, and incredible gag/show of Phish's entire career.
The December 1999 Tour was announced as a run-up to The Big Cypress Festival. Just three weeks in length, it gave the band a chance to tour their home turf, seeing as 1999 would be their first ever NYE run outside of the Northeast. Building upon the improvisational accomplishments of the summer and fall, the December 1999 tour is probably the best example - aside from their June 2000 tour of Japan - of Phish fully realizing the groove-based-ambient jams they'd been working towards over the past year.
Maybe it was the cold weather, maybe the anticipation of an entire night of live music, maybe the cement structures which always seem to bring out a darker side of Phish's music, maybe it was the sheer fact that they'd been playing almost continuously for six months. Whatever it was, the improvisational music crafted in December 1999 resides in a category with that of December 1995 and 1997 as some of the most original they have ever made.
This is not to suggest that the greatness of December 1999 is somehow comparable or equal to the greatness of 1995 and 1997. It's not.
For starters, a number of the overall shows in December 1999 are weak, and in some ways, complete throwaways. As with much of 1999 (and 2000, and 2003, and certainly 2004), the jams are what make or break a show. Overall the energy of these shows was certainly lacking, most likely due to song selection and performance. Unlike December 1995 and December 1997, December 1999 is not a peak month in Phish's history. What it is - for all of the negativity brewing within the band and for all of the ominous darkness hovering over the scene - is a shining example of the band immersing themselves in their music, crafting jams that are original, and completely true to themselves, using a minimalist style to further push linear musical communication.
XXI. The Jams of December 1999
In a month so reliant on its jams, selecting a few to sum up the overall sound is a bit daunting. Each show contains at least one exploratory excursion that would be worthy of selection, be it the 12/02 'Bathtub Gin -> 2001', the Cincinnati 'Limb By Limb' and 'Split Open And Melt', Rochester 'Meatstick', Portland 'Halley's Comet', 12/8 'Piper', 12/11 'Ghost -> 2001', the 12/13 and 12/16 'Sand', Raleigh ‘Tweezer,’ the Hampton '2001> Sand', or the Big Cypress 'Mike's', 'DWD', 'Rock & Roll', 'Crosseyed', and 'Drowned.'
Yet for as remarkable as each of those jams were in both their musical merits and their ability to embrace the sound the band was seeking to emulate, there are three jams which just capture the entire era of Phish with more ease and authenticity. The Hartford "Drowned," the Big Cypress "Sand -> Quadrophonic Toppling," and the "Roses Are Free" that brought on the first sunrise of the Millenium standout as THE jams of December 1999.
On the day after Trey's Grandfather passed away, Phish took the stage in Hartford, CT, and unleashed a Second Set jam out of "Drowned" that turned the tide of The Who classic in a shape-shifting manner, and which altered all versions played up to now. Leaving the song proper, guns blazing, Trey absolutely dominates the torrential jam like few of 1999 right up to 14:28. From there, the band embarks on a beat-driven, dance-heavy jam that builds off a rock-solid foundation from Mike and Fish, and features interwoven licks from Page on the clav, and Trey alternating between guitar and his own keyboard.
Moving through various rising themes, the jam pushes into its own realm, away from the arena-rock jam in which it originated, as each member trimmed the fat and moved into more simplistic rhythms. At 20:19 the band crosses a plane, leaving the dance-heavy mid-section of the jam, as Trey hits the sirens and they move into more abstract territory. It's here that we hear the massive influence of Mike, who emerges from his back-up bassist world and directs the jam around pseudo-dance-beats which emphasize space over notes. Trey follows suit, while Page moves to his synths to cultivate a wall of sound, and Fishman keeps the jam afloat atop a subdued, electronic beat. The last six minutes of the jam are spent in atmospheric space, as Trey allows the layered loops he's established to continue, and his guitar becomes more of a destructive force, in conflict with the beat. Concluding with an ominous tone before fading into "Prince Caspian," the Hartford "Drowned" embodies literally everything about 1999. Combining blissful Hose with dance-heavy breakdowns, atmospheric noise, and minimalist influences, the jam is a stark image of where Phish was in this latter era of 1.0.
Three weeks later, and three hours deep into their all-night set at Big Cypress, Phish kicked into the song that had come to define December 1999, "Sand." Born out of Trey's solo band, "Sand" was built on a incessant beat from Mike and Fish, staccato dance melodies from Trey, and ambient washes from Page. While it jammed consistently, it rarely diverted from its theme. It thus provided both a sustained groove-based dance party for their audience, and further ample reason for their longest-surviving fans to continue criticizing them for laziness. All this changed on 12/31/1999 (well, 3am 01/01/2000, to be technically correct) when the band followed a straight-up fiery peak of the song's theme with one of the most unique jams they've ever embarked on.
At 17:41 Trey stays locked in to the fatty and distorted tone he'd used to emphasize the jam's tension & release segment. Only here he follows Mike and Fish by pushing their poppy rhythms forward, diverting the expected return to "Sand". Moving into a melodically demented realm, the band locks up rhythmically in a jam that sounds like a combination between an early-morning dream, and the last few hours of an acid trip. As the jam flows into a more twisted and melodic soundscape, the recorded voice of Mike Gordon appears, repeating the phrase "Quadrophonic Toppling." A short sample on The Siket Disc, the song's title is repeated, much like it is on the recording, though here, over far different music. A jam, a tease, it's unknown really what inspired the band to inject the snippet into the "Sand" jam, other than to just fuck with the crowd, three hours into a mind-bending set. Emerging from the demented jam Mike and Page take the lead as an organic dual ensues with Page on the grand piano and Mike twisting bass lines around his "Squirming Coil"-esque patterns. Trey and Fish are thus left to enrich the jam with ambient washes through effects and cymbals, crafting yet another dream-like state, only this time, far more at peace.
Three hours later, just after 6am on New Year's Day, Phish kicked into the fan-favorite Ween cover "Roses Are Free." Since the "Sand -> Quadrophonic Toppling", the set had struggled to remain fluent. While there were certainly memorable moments within - "Reba", "David Bowie", "Drowned", "Piper" - each of these jams popped up in between filler songs, compromising the structure of the set in favor of continuity. A song that had only been extended twice before, many expected "Roses Are Free" to follow the route of the last couple hours. A welcome surprise then when Trey held out the final chords of the chorus, the band followed suit, and they embarked on a totally unprecedented 35-minute jam that brought the sun up on the new millennium.
Initially dominated by blistering Trey riffs juxtaposed against Page's experimental jazz diversions, when Trey backed off at 8:30, the jam opened up, allowing Mike to join the fray. Over the course of the next nine minutes the band embarked on a loose and weaving, subdued psychedelic jam that featured Page in the spotlight, while Trey and Mike backed him up with minimalist noise. All this changed at 17:54 when Trey, who had begun searching for a melody to build off of, began looping a lilting riff that would see him take control of the jam, littering over the top of the base set by Fishman's traversing drums, Mike's equally bouncy bass, and Page who began incorporating ambient washes into the jam. Around 20:04 Page started forcing an ominous tone onto the jam, increasing his atmospheric noises, and pushing the jam into more abstract territory. The excursion resided in a conflicting zone over the next six minutes as Mike and Page underwrote the jam with intensifying noise, while Trey continued his blissful and sublime riffs.
A sound that, at first listen, could have been accused of being offensively out-of-synch, when put into the context of the performance it's an incredibly fitting jam, displaying the interwoven musical relationship of the members of Phish, here crafting the experience of dawn through music. The final nine minutes are akin to a prayer of thanks, as they play out like a direct mental projection of the band's state of mind after six-and-a-half-hours of near-continuous playing. Building to a driving force, the jam ends with little fanfare. Simply concluding mid-jam, it shows the finite nature of improv, and displays the organic style with which Phish sought to embody in their 1997 - 2000 period.
XXII. The Shows of December 1999
If anyone were to compile a list of the best shows of December 1999 it would read like this: 12/02/1999, 12/03/1999, 12/08/1999, 12/11/1999, 12/16/1999, 12/18/1999, 12/30/1999, and, of course, 12/31/1999. Each of these eight shows reigns supreme over the rest of the month, and provide a snapshot of the best full shows the band played during one of their most unique months.
Yet, if one were to select two shows that summed up the overall sound, the overall goals, and the overall mood of December 1999, those two shows would be 12/03/1999 and 12/31/1999. Providing a diametric perspective on one of the most controversial and misunderstood months of the band's career, these two shows embody the improvisational sound, the lost sensation and the heralded place in their career December 1999 ultimately was.
On the second night of the tour, Phish crafted a full show in the minimalist style they'd spent the previous year pining at, displaying the sheer brilliance of it in the context of their music, while also proving its negative effects on their overall performance and relationship. The entire show was thus blanketed under the style that had overtaken their improv, altering the band's approach in typically guitar-slinging songs like "Wolfman's Brother," "AC/DC Bag" and "Possum." The shift is most successful in a second set that reads: "Sand> Limb By Limb, Bug> Piper, Harry Hood."
Opening with one of the theme songs of the 99-00 Phish era, "First Tube" relies on a forward pressing, simple beat from Fishman and Gordo, while Trey and Page flitter over the top with walls of sound, and layered melodies, creating an electronic/dance feel. It's a song that would become a commonplace opener over the next year, adding a burst of energy right out the gates, here, ushering in a show that would seek to emulate its musical philosophy.
In the first set, "Wolfman's," "Bag>Possum," and "Slave" were transformed and built like "First Tube." Each relying on extremely simple, repeated riffs from Trey, accented by washes from Page, all over a steady beat from Mike and Fish, they fully emulated the minimalist approach the band was undertaking in 1999.
Was this approach good for a rock concert? That's, in part, up to the listener to decide. Many of the band's oldest fans have long complained about the simplistic, groove-driven style Phish engulfed themselves in in the late-90's, something which drained energy from what was once the most high octane, energized show out there.
From this writer’s perspective, they're right to a certain degree, and wrong to another.
While it is apparent that the band's performance on 12/03/1999 does lack some of the energy one might find in 1993 or 1995, that's the thing. It was 1999, not 1993 or 1995. Phish's sound has always been about evolution. Even in today's era, you’d be hard-pressed to find a devoted Phish fan who claims 2013 sounds like 2015 which sounds like 2017 and 2018, etc. And the fact that, by this point, they evolved from such an individualistic and isolated brand of music to a band who sought emulate the music of their time displays the musical prowess of Phish. The fact that "AC/DC Bag" and "Possum" can be reinvented, in the moment, from a guitar-driven, straight-forward rock song, to a patiently building minimalist dance number reveals more about Phish's diversity than any apparent laziness, regardless of any apparent influence drugs and alcohol had on the band at the time.
The second set is without question one of the premiere examples of the 1999 sound fully working for the band. Flowing with ease, jamming with purpose, the "Sand", "Limb By Limb" and "Harry Hood" all stand out as moments where the band fully hooked up under the guise of the minimalist style they were seeking. "Limb By Limb" in particular, which leaves its theme at 7:50, entering a rhythmic and melodic dual between Trey and Page, before journeying off into the unknown, is a clear example of Phish hugging this style in the same way they did funk just two Decembers prior. It's the kind of solemn and peaceful jam that could only have occurred in the 1998 - 2000 era of Phish, where the conflicts of the time mixed with the linear musical communication they'd established, crafting music that was as simplistic as it was advanced.
At this point, really the only thing left to say about 12/31/1999 should be said by the band in a series of interviews, be it for a book, or for the - hopefully - expected DVD to come about their Millennium blowout. Every fan has said their piece, as has every blogger.
At this point, all that can be said is that it is without question the peak event in Phish's 30+ year history.
This is not to say it is their peak musical moment. That came on December 31, 1995. What it is though, is the event where Phish realized all that was possible with their music - and with the culture they'd help foster and push forward - and played a concert that was totally their own. Afterward, all Trey and Fishman could do, was look at each other and say, "We should quit."
After musically reaching their peak four years earlier, then shedding their skin and completely reinventing themselves in 1997, they'd finally discovered a moment that they knew they simply couldn't top. Nothing Phish has done to this point, or ever does in the future, can, or will, ever top it, even if they try to do it once more. Big Cypress was, and is, the greatest concert experience Phish has ever conducted. Not because of the music they created, but because of how they fully-realized the power their music conducted.
From a musical perspective, the most fitting thing about the show is that the 1999 style fully matched with the band's goal of playing all night long. Whereas their 1993-1995 sound would have been too intense for an all-night gig, and their 1997 sound would have been too reliant on Trey's Hendrix-esque onslaughts, and four-part funk breakdowns, their sound in 1999 was so mellow, so patient, so melodic that it created a dream-like state for everyone in attendance, and everyone listening over the past nineteen years.
Crafting a completely surreal feel to the entire show, 'Down With Disease', 'Twist', 'Crosseyed & Painless', 'Rock & Roll', 'Sand -> Quadrophonic Toppling', 'David Bowie', 'Drowned,' 'Piper,' 'Roses Are Free', and '2001' are all pushed forward with an effortlessness that could only emerge from a band so intuitively aware of each other as Phish was in 1999. The exhausted sensation, the "we made it" feeling that emanated through the concert field by daybreak sums up Phish in 1999 like no other show could. While they played together for another eight months before taking a 26-month hiatus, Big Cypress was the symbolic top of the mountain for the entirety of Phish.
A year completely built on conflict, 1999 sees Phish producing some of the simplest, most connected, most linear music of their entire career, all while struggling with some of the more complex issues they would have to confront as individuals, and as a larger unit.
A scene that had ballooned to proportions they could have never imagined, the negative effects of drugs and partying seeping into their lives, overall exhaustion to keep pushing forward, while disagreements among each other which had always remained below the surface began billowing out. Ultimately, confusion and miscommunication over the band's overall direction became paramount issues like never before.
Through it all, the band continued evolving musically over the course of the year - and in parts of their final 9 months together. While there were certainly glaring issues due to their lack of practice and the personal conflicts that began to dominate individual members, the fact that Phish was able to craft profoundly new music which both pushed their songs in a new direction, and reflected the current era, is an accomplishment that should rank with their 1989-1992 tightening-of-the-ship, 2003's deep and prodding return from hiatus, 2012's overcoming of 3.0's rediscovery period, 2016’s Fall revival, and 2018’s post-Curveball build to Kasvot Vaxt. Proving that their best music doesn't always come from periods of sustained happiness.
Sometimes, conflict and uncertainty are the best mediums by which to produce music. While in hindsight, one could certainly argue that Phish should have kept their house in order so their personal issues didn't nearly derail their career. One could certainly also argue that they should have practiced more in 1999. The music, however, speaks for itself in its rawness, nakedness, and stark simplicity that is completely unique in comparison to all other eras of Phish.
Whereas December 1995 was a peak celebration of everything the band had worked so hard to accomplish to that point, and December 1997 was a shocking reintroduction to the overall concept of Phish as well as the unlocking of linear musical communication, December 1999 heard the band struggle against an increasing weight of their world while reducing their sonic approach to its minimal qualities. Over the course of four years, the band peaked as a musical unit, reinvented themselves, and saw their world begin to cave in on itself, all while pushing their sonic reinvention further and hosting the greatest event of their entire career.
It's a testament to the four individuals that make up Phish that, not only were they willing & able to push themselves further even when they'd appeared to peak, but also, could turn their impending darkness into an art form all its own. This ability to craft darkness - as well as light - into art is something that doesn't necessarily make Phish unique in larger Rock History. However, the path they've charted in the years since put them at the forefront of a movement in modern rock that, as recently as the late-1990's, seemed untenable.
While their 2.0 era of 2003-2004 would feature even more slop, and would culminate with the band's break-up in August 2004 & Trey's arrest in December 2006, their March 2009 return & ten years of health, prosperity and growth since, connect Phish with a growing subset of modern Rock Stars who see health and longevity as the best path forward for creativity.
Since 2009 we have seen the band essentially rebuild themselves from scratch. Dick's 2012 proved to be the first major breakthrough for the band in the 3.0 era as communicative jamming regularly returned to their gigs. Fall 2013 was perhaps the most consistent & celebrated tour since Summer 1998. Summer 2015 saw the band reach another level of post-peak greatness, pushing even further to find connections in their improvisation. Summer 2017 and The Baker's Dozen rival only Big Cypress for BIG events the band has hosted that seem to summarize everything they are as a unit. Fall 2018 featured a Phish cultivating another band's (fake) legacy in order to inspire their own creativity. Every time you think they've peaked creatively, or have little left to motivate them further, the band unveils some labored-over surprise that pushes them into another phase of their art project with seemingly no bottom.
What's more, we've seen them debut three albums, cover three more, and, through shows such as 8/7/09, 10/20/10, 7/3/11, 8/31/12, 10/25/13, 7/27/14, 7/31/15, 9/4/16, 7/25/17, and 10/23/18 - among many others - tap into the energy that pushed them in the 1990s to continue searching through the unknown future for moments of connection, communication, and evolution to keep this whole creative project alive and churning.
While the spoils of the 3.0 have, for the most part, failed to compare to those of 1992-1999, the band has continued to display the innate traits that made them so successful and compelling, to begin with. Namely, an insatiable drive to see what's around that corner, to see what's next, to try and connect as four humans on a simple, linear plane. The hope, for this writer, for the fanbase, and for the band themselves, is this search never dies, and this story of a band from nowhere who went on to define a genre, break down a number of barriers, and become one of the biggest bands of their time, is not yet near its conclusion. Perhaps all they need now is a December Tour to showcase a forward-thinking style built upon the foundations of the past, which can further solidify their current state on the level with the best music they were making just twenty years ago.
Thanks to everyone who has read, shared, and commented on this essay series! Thank you to Phish.Net & The Mockingbird Foundation for hosting!
If you liked this blog post, one way you could "like" it is to make a donation to The Mockingbird Foundation, the sponsor of Phish.net. Support music education for children, and you just might change the world.
You must be logged in to post a comment.
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.
Phish.net is a non-commercial project run by Phish fans and for Phish fans under the auspices of the all-volunteer, non-profit Mockingbird Foundation.
This project serves to compile, preserve, and protect encyclopedic information about Phish and their music.
The Mockingbird Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Phish fans in 1996 to generate charitable proceeds from the Phish community.
And since we're entirely volunteer – with no office, salaries, or paid staff – administrative costs are less than 2% of revenues! So far, we've distributed just about $1,500,000 to support music education for children – hundreds of grants in all 50 states, with more on the way.