At every year, every tour, every moment in Phish history, the fans have included both a progressive and a conservative element. For everything the band has added or improved over the years, something else has also been lost or discarded, and fans have always noticed.
I became a fan in 1993. Some friends picked up Rift when it came out, got hooked, and introduced me to Phish with a big jumble of 4 studio albums and various highlights from "bootlegs" (what we called live tapes back then). I received the Doniac Schvice newsletter for a while, talked about the band's history with my friends who'd gotten there first, and heard them lament how they had all this cool stuff on tape that the band didn't do anymore.
That's right, I was INTRODUCED to Phish in part by laments about how they were changing. In 1993, that went something like this:
"They're doing less audience banter, less of the funny stuff ("secret language" Simpsons quotes, vacuum solos, etc.), and less Harpua. It's like they just get on stage and play, now.
"Also, why aren't they playing the Gamehendge stuff as much as they used to? And that new song Fast Enough For You is weak."
There was also some complaint about larger venues meaning pricier tickets and more difficulty in getting near the stage.
None of this mattered to me at the time; I liked Phish for the way their compositions fused the adventurous complexity of jazz, the textured counter-melodies of classical, and the energy and structure of rock. I liked the epic guitar solos. I liked the fact that the lyrics, while sometimes stupid nonsense, avoided the trite emoting of most pop/rock. I liked the crispness and virtuosity on albums and bootlegs alike.
Then 1994 arrived. At this point, Phish's niche in my mind was based mostly on their albums, and Hoist was a huge disappointment. I could listen to most of Junta and Nectar over and over -- they were the two best albums I'd ever heard, at that point -- and now the band's new installment was crap. Julius and Wolfman's were repetitive, Disease was a poppy sell-out, If I Could was a new foray into bad mainstream lyrics, and they took a dramatic building live song in Lifeboy and neutered the hell out of it (for the very first time, I had to turn off the album and dig out a tape to hear the "real" version of a Phish song). There wasn't a single amazing composition on the album, nothing close to It's Ice or the new live tune Guyute.
Meanwhile, venue sizes and ticket prices in the northeast rose dramatically. In arenas, Phish dropped the jazziest parts of their repertoire; All Things Reconsidered was the latest to follow Take the 'A' Train ('92 staple), Flat Fee ('91 staple) and others out the door. As the guys' average age hit 30, their singing got a little weaker and Fish's rocking out became less furious. At the same time, they started to experiment with what we now call "Type II" jamming, but they weren't immediately good at it -- there was a lot of aimless wandering and chaotic noise. Worst of all, they actually dared to play those crappy songs from Hoist! What was going on? Was this still Phish?
1994 was a year of much consternation for die hards, especially as concerts began to fill with newcomers who actually liked "crap" like Down With Disease. There was much anticipation for the beginning of 1995 -- would Trey go back to writing clever melodic interplays like Foam or complex rhythms like Bowie? Would the band return to their tight sets of razor-sharp segues, or would they continue to noodle around as some jams petered out?
The Lowell show that opened 1995 provided a surprising answer -- Phish would continue writing straight-ahead rock material, but they were getting better at it. Strange Design was better than Hoist's ballads, Free and Ha Ha Ha had great hooks and satisfying punch, and Theme showed it wouldn't be ALL chords from here on out.
1995 was largely regarded as a mixed bag. Acoustic Army was a random stunt to some, but a touching musical experience to others. Some fans loathed the influx of pot-smoking "frat boys" and recently dispossessed Deadheads, while others loved the bigger crowds' energy. The bigger venues sometimes gave Chris Kuroda more opportunities to wow the crowd, and fans began to praise him more vociferously. Some awful Type II jams reared their heads, but there were some really good ones too. The shows seemed less tight and polished, but more dynamic, with a greater range and depth of emotion.
After year's end, word starting getting around that you HAD to hear the New Year's '95 show. Apparently all that mucking around post-1993 had built up to something. Years later (the internet in 1995 wasn't what it is now!) it became clear that the entire year-end run in 1995 had been that same sort of playing. To some old guard Phish heads, nothing would match the intimate early shows filled with jazz and jokes and Gamehendge, but for many others, late '95 was a pinnacle of sorts. The shows had all the best of the new Phish -- exploration and drama -- but also plenty of the old Phish.
1996 was the year that broke many longtime fans. The band's choices weren't that different from 1995, but the decline in certain matters of execution reached a tipping point. Fan complaints of sloppy play had been rising for the last 2 years, and in 1996 the phrase "They don't practice as much anymore" became ubiquitous. Most crucially, 1996 was when Trey stopped writing setlists before shows. This meant more freedom to go with the moment, but it also meant more dead time on stage between songs, and the complete extinction of the already dying Oh Kee Pa > Suzy Greenberg-style insta-segue. As the band members strained a bit more to play complicated parts on their instruments, the vocals continued to decline -- it became more commonplace for someone to miss the beginning or end of a vocal part while focusing on a change.
Along with all this deterioration of the Old, there was little New to replace it -- Train Song, Talk, and Swept Away were fine but unexciting, and Waste and Character Zero offered more of the pop balladry and grating repetition that had made Hoist so unwelcome.
I mention all this because I think it's fascinating to see how much perceptions have changed. In 1996, a huge number of Phish fans were pining for 1993, in the same way that, in 2000, a huge number of fans were pining for 1997. Some still venerate 1995 to this day, while others venerate 1997, and still others can pick shows from 2003 or 2012 as better than either.
Anyway, since I'm writing this for a 1997 show, I'll close out with a recollection of 1997. 1997 drove fans wild and drove them crazy. It was a roller coaster of inspiring and maddening new trends. 1997 started out in Europe, with some gimmicky new tunes, inscrutable covers, well-played classics, and a few eye-opening jams. The band was neither consistently tight nor consistently sloppy, varying from show to show or even sometimes song to song. They seemed to be getting stranger, more unpredictable, and the odds of a really good Type II jam began to rise.
After continuing this in the U.S., they returned to Europe a few months later, introducing a ton of new tunes, and a brand new element: funk. First it was just Ghost, and we loved it for the sake of variety if nothing else, but then more and more jams started sounding like Ghost jams. A few fans may have noted that the funky stuff was nicely danceable, but most longtime Phish fans never had trouble dancing to crazed Trey rock solos, so the funk wasn't really necessary. Most old school fans who heard Trey say in an interview, "Real funk isn't played by 4 white guys from Vermont," replied, "Yes, exactly; please stop."
To many fans, a long jam with a steady beat that never escalated or took us on a journey was simply a waste of show time. For some, that remains true today (although Phish has never overdone it to the point of completely losing old fans the way the Disco Biscuits did).
To the fans who were still more disgruntled by '96 than inspired by early '97, the cow funk was the death knell of a formerly ambitious band grown lazy. Think about it -- the singing often sucked, the lyrics had grown more plaintive and obvious, the sets of classic tunes had been diluted by boring verse-chorus compositions and repetitive vocal rounds, rehearsed transitions were extinct, flubs were common, and it had been 4 whole years since Trey had written a new tune of the type that originally made Phish great. And now they're taking a breather mid-set to poke at a simple funk groove? DONE.
Plenty of new fans were enjoying it, though.
Then, the Great Went happened, the sort of event that even fans who were nearly fed up would kick themselves for missing... and it was great. I think it's sort of a dividing line for Phish fandom:
Anyone who was too troubled by what the band no longer was, and didn't want to haul themselves to northern Maine for their big festival, was probably done as a hardcore fan by then. Such fans probably look back on 1995, or maybe 1993 or 1992, as the heyday of Phish. They're probably not currently logging onto Phish.net and voting up their favorite shows.
Anyone who had adjusted to the band's changes, or resolved to stick with them regardless, or had just joined the party, had their faith reaffirmed at the Went. Whatever Phish was up to, there was plenty to like.
I don't recall much buzz about fall 1997 at the time. The Dec. 30 show was an instant classic, having major appeals to fans of all eras (Harpua!), but aside from that, it was kind of hard to hear any consensus through the noise of "like new Phish"/"don't like new Phish".
In some ways, the end of 1997 seems to me like the birth of the modern Phish era -- one could argue that the band changed more from 1993-1997 than it has from 1997-2014. From that perspective, it's weird for me to see so many current fans opine that the beginning was the best. Or maybe that's normal; maybe that's today's equivalent of a 1996 fan pining for 1993, or a 1993 fan pining for the days before any big venues were played. I don't know. I may have to grab some more fall 1997 "bootlegs" and give it another think.
Thanks for reading!