Guitarist Jeff Holdsworth played a number of shows with Phish as a founding member, and at the beginning, Trey told Richard Gehr in The Phish Book, Jeff was “the most experienced and competent of us by far.” However, he had no interest in pursuing a career as a professional musician, and was apparently frustrated by the complexity of new Trey compositions such as “You Enjoy Myself.” So he left the band in 1986, his last known appearance as a member coming on 5/17/86 at the Goddard College SpringFest. He also did not want to remain in Burlington after graduation from the University of Vermont. According to Dean Budnick’s The Phishing Manual, he became an engineer, started a family, found religion, and stopped playing electric guitar. For 17 years, Jeff did not perform with his old mates despite at least one invitation to do so. Trey has recounted running into Jeff before a gig at the 23 East Cabaret in Ardmore, PA, in 1989 or 1990, asking him to play, and being turned down.
When Phish began planning its 20th Anniversary Run in Fall 2003, rumors that Jeff would join them spread widely. But in fact the band did not try to contact Jeff until the night before the 12/1/03 gig in Albany, NY, when they did so on a whim.
“Conventional wisdom” held that if Jeff were to make an appearance, it would happen the following night, at the show marking the 20th anniversary of the band’s first gig. But as they do so often, Phish defied convention. Halfway through the second set that night in Albany, the band brought Jeff out to a tremendous reception from the crowd. He toted his own electric guitar, casting doubt on (or at least prompting a revision of) the legend that he had sworn off that instrument.
First they played the two songs Jeff wrote that have survived to Phish’s current repertoire, “Camel Walk” and “Possum.” Jeff handled the lead vocals and rhythm guitar on both, and before “Possum” Trey thanked him for writing a song that became a significant part of their history. Next, Jeff sang the first song that the band had performed at their first show, the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.” (In The Phish Book, Trey noted that the sets of the band’s earliest gigs were filled with covers that Jeff taught them, and he sang many of them.) At that point, fans might have expected the nostalgia to end and the serious jamming to resume, but instead were treated to both as Jeff stayed out to play second guitar on one of the earliest Phish originals, “Run Like an Antelope,” which closed the set. To top it off, Tom Marshall emerged to sing the “Rye Rye Rocco” passage, the first lyrics he ever wrote for Phish. Finally, Jeff returned for the encore to play guitar on a cover performed at their first show and many times since, Jimi Hendrix’ “Fire.”
“Ah but yes,” Mike wrote on the phish.com tour log, “It became a detective ploy to track down Jeff Holdsworth. Hadn’t seen him in fifteen years. And his two-note chords still filled out Trey’s single-note lines.” note lines.
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