“Here comes the joker / we all must laugh / cause we're all in this together / and we love to take a bath.”
Deer Creek is more than just a concert: it’s an event. This is a result of many factors, including the numerous places to camp nearby. It feels like you are camping in the middle of nowhere, while many of theses campsites are actually the private homes of kind local Noblesville residents. These camping locations themselves become the scene, with great vibes and few hassles.
The main reason the venue is held in such high esteem is the caliber of shows that have occurred here in the past. A typical Deer Creek show is never typical. I was lucky enough to see Dead play here from ’91 through ‘94, as well as Phish’s debut in ’95. Inside the pavilion is the best sound, always crisp and clear. While it’s great for the audience, it’s also a favorite among the musicians who play here.
This is a smoking first set that tops most second sets as far as setlist. Four powerhouse jams carry the set with a rare “Bathtub Gin” opener (only the sixth one ever), “Down with Disease”, “Split Open and Melt”, and “Harry Hood”. The “SOAM” has a large, spacey section, foreshadowing versions played in ’99. The “Hood” is one of the best versions of the tour, and one of my all-time favorites. There is a point deep in the jam where Mike’s bass becomes prominent, sounding moody and reflective. This mood eventually changes, and as the music converges you will be feeling good.
We were lucky enough to have second-row seats for this one, but by set break everyone had collapsed the seats of the first five rows and it became standing-room only. The set opened with the Talking Heads’ “Cities”, catching me off guard. We were celebrating, but most people seemed to have no idea what was going on. This song was rare (the first East Coast “Cities” in three years) and after Ventura I didn’t expect to see it a second time on the tour, and certainly not as an opener.
The song starts out with a slow groove, and has a very spatial sound. As Trey develops a solo, Mike pushes the jam along. At six minutes, the song takes a turn as Mike changes the tempo and Fishman tightens up. This jam slowly becomes funkier, as Trey weaves in and out of the locked rhythm section. At eleven minutes, Trey begins to layer his guitar with a sound reminiscent of “Free”.
At fourteen minutes, the jam collapses. Trey then begins to strum a beautiful rhythm pattern, one that I have subsequently heard at other shows in different songs. It is defiantly a semi-composed jam that the band is familiar with. After Trey’s intro, and on cue, Mike starts up a flowing bass line and the rest of the band dive in behind him. Page begins to overlay nicely sparse chords, leading to a long beautiful piano piece over Trey’s rhythm. At twenty minutes, the jam begins to peak. As Trey begins to turn up the fuzz, Fishman breaks down the beat and becomes focused on the one.
At twenty-three minutes, the one smoothly becomes the opening notes of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times/ Bad Times”! The audience went crazy, and the energy in the pavilion was intense. The jam out of “GT/BT” is very similar to the early jam on “Cities”, again with laces of “Free”. At twenty-nine minutes, Page gets up from the keyboards and takes a solo on the Theremin.
The music then turns spacey as Trey sets a delay loop on his guitar, and instigates an instrument-switch jam! In Page’s absence, Trey takes over on keyboards, and Mike takes over on guitar. At thirty-three minutes, Page ends this highly experimental Theremin space jam, and takes over on bass.
Mike soon puts down the guitar and kicks Trey off the keyboards. Trey walks over to Fishman, ready to switch instruments. The crowd loved every minute, and the noise built in anticipation of Fishman coming to the front of the stage. But nothing happened! Fishman just kept drumming, acting as if Trey was not even there. It was bizarre, and felt like we had hit a skip in the record. This moment of Trey hovering over Fishman was stuck.
This is when I started to analyze things, mainly because I had all the time in the world. This was going to be Fishman’s first time to coming to the front of the stage in the fifteen shows so far this tour. Although he had sung “Bye Bye Foot” three times, that’s not a cover song with a vacuum solo! His last cover song performed in the U.S. was Syd Barrett’s “Bike” on 11/7/96. Another thought was Fishman’s dress. He hadn’t worn it all tour. He came out on stage every night in a three-piece suit. Was he looking for respect with this new look? Was he giving up on the goofy cover songs and playing a vacuum?
It is my theory that the band instigated this instrument-switch jam in a sure attempt to get Fishman to the front of the stage. I believe he had no idea this was going to happen, and in retaliation he was contemplating not getting up from the drums. As time passed, I was able to watch the band's facial expressions closely from the front row. Page kept looking over at Mike, both looking annoyed. Their music even begins to convey this sense of annoyance.
“Where I end and you begin / I want to find that line / and cross it back and forth / until it's erased.” So how would this deadlock end? Would Fishman get up and sing? What would happen if he didn’t get up? How long would Trey wait, and just stand there? Eventually someone would have to give, right? I started to think about how stupid Trey might look if, after standing there all this time, he walks back over to the guitar. These were the things I was thinking about, and vocalizing to my friend. You could feel the tension growing on stage. The audience was confused.
Over seven minutes later (at forty minutes), Fishman bows down from the duel and gets up. What had just happened? My favorite aspect of this sequence is that for one brief moment, Fishman was in total control of the band with the other members at his mercy. Although they may have instigated this switch, they underestimated the ease of ambushing Fishman.
To my delight the band broke into “Rocko William”; this is the first time they played it in the U.S. Fishman picked up the guitar while Mike remained on keyboards and Page on bass. Fishman’s humorous singing talents are at their best on this song, and his guitar playing is pretty funny as well. I would give anything for a photo of the band on stage during this song. For most of the song I exaggerated worshipping Fishman to help fulfill his Johnny B. Goode fantasy. It was so much fun!
At forty-six minutes into the set, the song comes to a close and the opening beats of “Bowie” begin shortly. I do not remember this, but from the tapes it sounds as if Trey starts the opening drum beat of “Bowie” before handing over the sticks. This would make sense because this is where things get even more peculiar. Fishman's (and the rest of the band's), first attempt to start the main section of “David Bowie” is purposely flubbed by Trey. I’ll never forget the evil look Page gave Trey, as if to say "don’t involve us in your games." The main section of “David Bowie” just happens to begin with a sequence that is started by Trey. Suddenly it was clear, Trey turned the tables on the band and now they were eating out of his hand. Fishman made a number of attempts to get the song started, but they were stuck in the pre-“Bowie” space babble, with Trey nowhere to be found. At fifty-one minutes into the set, it appears that the song is going to start, but Trey fools them again and the music falls apart.
Over nine minutes later and suspiciously a few minutes longer than Fishman’s previous antics, my theory grows more evidence. In reflecting on these events over two years later, I feel even stronger about my interpretation of the events that happened at this show. Until now, I had never broken down the set by minute and I had no idea that Trey’s hold up of the band was longer than Fishman’s. The music before “Rocko William” and after “David Bowie” is not like normal Phish space segments. There is essentially nothing going on with the band for seventeen minutes of the set. Why would the band waste so much time on this argument in front of the audience? What statement was Fishman making by not getting up? Who was it directed at? And what was Trey’s follow up all about? Was he really getting even with Fishman by outdoing him by a few minutes? Unfortunately, we will probably never have the answers to these questions.
“David Bowie” suffers as a result. Trey sounds uninspired, while Mike and Page carry the song to its end. (The set ends at seventy minutes.) This is one of my favorite songs and this version is still very disappointing. Even more frustrating is the fact that it had the potential to be a monster ending to one of the hottest shows of the year. Although I find the whole shenanigan a little disturbing now that I know they wasted seventeen minutes, at the time of the first incident I was rooting for Fishman and on cloud nine.
The “Cavern” encore seems a little fitting. I have no idea what the song means, or what anything I had just seen means. Oddly, when Trey sang, “Take care of your shoes,” someone decided not to take the advice and threw a pair on stage.