When "Back on the Train” entered the Phish realm, many fans could have sworn they’d heard it before, believing it was a cover of a blues standard; its bluesy groove and catchy chorus recall any number of classic-rock songs, especially Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally.” Its lyrics can be interpreted in many ways. What exactly is the “train” that the protagonist needs a break from and then comes back to after a long respite?
Trey performed the song first on 5/4/99 at the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis, and again on every show of that inaugural TAB tour. On each occasion the song was performed acoustic, like an old-time blues shuffle. Many fans assumed was called “Get Back on the Train” until the release of Farmhouse showed otherwise. The song was radically transformed for Phish’s repertoire, giving it the full-band electric treatment and using everyday noises for some of his inspiration. Not only does the Farmhouse version feature a Fishman drum part that sounds like a train running on tracks, but it is in the key of F – the same as a train whistle! “Back on the Train” made its Phish debut on the first set of the first show of the summer 1999 tour, on 6/30/99, and it has remained in the regular rotation ever since.
Many fans felt the song would be a natural choice for a studio album, and it was included on Farmhouseto no one’s surprise. There, an acoustic guitar part is high in the mix, minimizing some of the “Lay Down Sally” comparisons. It was released as a single and received some radio play, but not as much as “Heavy Things” from the same album. “Back on the Train” did get major television exposure three times in 2000. The band chose to play it for their 6/27/00 appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Fans gave mixed reviews to the raw but energetic rendition; at times it seemed like Trey was shouting the lyrics. It was one of the songs from the 5/23/00 performance at New York’s Roseland Ballroom selected to be aired on VH1’s Hard Rock Live. And it was performed on 7/17/00 for a taping of Austin City Limits, which first aired on 10/14/00. “Back on the Train” also hit the airwaves twice during Trey promotional radio appearances in 2002, with Trey performing the song solo, acoustic on 5/22/02 in Portland, OR and on 5/24/02 for San Francisco’s KFOG.
Before the hiatus, the song rarely deviated from how it was played that first night in Kansas, with a few major exceptions. Its second performance, on 7/1/99 in Antioch, TN, has a strong bluegrass feel thanks to guest musicians Jerry Douglas (dobro), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Tim O’Brien (fiddle). On 6/14/00 in Fukuoka, Japan, it began the second set and its groove sprung a jam that lasted more than twelve minutes, setting the stage for an outstanding set; this version was officially released on Live Phish 04. In the wild second set of 7/11/00 at Deer Creek, the band inserted a “Moby Dick” jam in the middle, one of several songs that night to get that treatment. For strong versions of the standard pre-hiatus arrangement, check out 7/16/99,12/16/99, 5/22/00, 9/17/00 and 9/25/00.
While Phish endowed the song with an electric jolt, Trey continues to perform the song acoustic in his solo endeavors. “Back on the Train” was performed acoustic six times during Trey’s tours in 2001. A unique version was performed at Trey’s show on 8/3/01 at the Jones Beach Amphitheater in Wantagh, NY: Mike showed up for the encore that featured “Mountains in the Mist,” “Bathtub Gin” and “Back on the Train,” with Mike and Trey both on acoustic guitars for the latter. After the "breakup", "BOTT" continued to show up in prominent places in Trey's setlists. At the last show of Trey's first tour post-Coventry with the 70 Volt Parade, Mike joined in on another "BOTT" duet. At the 10/29/06 Phil & Friends show with Trey, "BOTT" emerged out of "Like a Rolling Stone" (and again featured Mike as a guest). Perhaps most significantly, Trey chose "Back on the Train" to open his solo acoustic set at the Rothbury Festival on 7/6/08, his first public show since completing his drug court program.
Appropriately, the song showed up soon after the hiatus ended (the first set of the second show back, 1/2/03), and fans were treated to a reworked arrangement that is longer, slower, and funkier than most pre-hiatus renditions. Like most everything else Phish performed that night, the 2/28/03 version is exceptional, lasting over twelve minutes and highlighted by some fine Trey solos.
When Phish returned to the stage, again, in 2009, "Back on the Train" was again a regular part of the repertoire (and, like its initial post-hiatus appearance, first showed up in the first set of the second show back, 3/7/09). Like many songs that saw significant improvisation during the pre-"breakup" era, 2009 versions of "BOTT" were relatively tame when compared to their pre-"breakup" counterparts (see "Halley's Comet," "Gumbo" and "Runaway Jim" for other 3.0 jamming casualties). Still, there are some versions worth hearing, most notably the 11/1/09 version during the acoustic set at Festival 8 and the 11/20/09 version that segues beautifully out of "Light." Any thoughts that "BOTT" was now a five minute ditty went out the window on 12/30/09. When "BOTT" began midway through the second set, many fans likely thought the show was headed for an early flameout after a bust-out filled first set. What they got instead was the first type-II version of "Back on the Train" clocking in at over seventeen minutes and providing one of the highlights of not just that show but the entire year. More recently, the 12/28/10 "BOTT" is another excellent version culminating in a fantastic segue into "Limb by Limb."
"Back On the Train" - 12/30/09, Miami, FL (Part 1)
"Back On the Train" - 12/30/09, Miami, FL (Part 2)
I went to my first Phish show on 12-28-13 during the New Years run at MSG. I had heard one song previous to the show, Back on the Train. I attended this show with my friend, a huge fan, and when telling him that that was the only song I knew, he responded "They'll play it. They'll play it because it's Phish."
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I did not believe him, and then was pleasantly surprised when it was played during the second set.
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Since, I have learned many Phish songs but BOTT still stands at my favorite. I went to my second show on 7-12-14 at Randall's with my cousin who is also a huge fan. I began to tell him about how this is my favorite song and how they played it at my first concert. He responded saying "Classic Phish." 30 seconds later they began to play Back on the Train. They played the ending of it not just once but three times that night. Pure bliss - the moment I became hooked on Phish.