Vocals: Trey (lead), Mike, Page (backing)
Historian: Craig DeLucia, Dan Purcell
Either the nail-biting tale of a daring nighttime rescue mission or a surreal yarn about a camping trip gone horribly awry, “Cavern” is one of the most frequently played songs in the Phish songbook. This much is clear: the protagonist is venturing into strange territory where grave danger awaits. His friends admonish him to have one for the road before he leaves. When he finally departs his home base, he faces various unforeseen perils: “primal soup,” “porthole pirates,” and “sanctuary bugs.” But wait: before you start deploying phrases like “fifth-level Magic-User” and “+2 mace,” this isn’t just some arrested-adolescent Dungeons & Dragons fantasy; far from wielding a mighty sword, our hero is armed only with a hedgehog’s spine and his friend Rick’s trusty fork. And in the end, it all would’ve worked out if only he’d taken care of his shoes.
Except for some early lyric changes (no longer does the narrator attack with an unwieldy knife and leave his poor victim in a pile of excrement, and no more does the chorus mention an Austin Powers-style enlarger pump), “Cavern” has been a rock in Phish’s rotation since early 1990. While most fans have become accustomed to the song as a set-closer or encore, initially it was much more versatile, appearing just about everywhere in the setlist. It was only beginning in 1992 that the band began utilizing it in its current role. In fact, beginning in fall 1992, well over half of the performances of “Cavern” have come either at the close of a set or during an encore. And no wonder: the song’s straight-up rock feel and fist-pumping climax make it a fitting exclamation point on the end of an evening of more excursionary jamming.
The early lyrics have returned to the live stage on a few occasions (see 4/4/94, 11/26/97, 4/5/98, and 6/13/00, to name a few) but have largely disappeared. Some have speculated that at least one band member wasn’t enamored of singing about a penile erector. Whatever the truth may be, the replacement lyrics became quite important, providing the band with the title of its third album and major-label debut, A Picture of Nectar.
Over the years, “Cavern” has often featured special guests. It is often played when trumpeter Carl "Geerz" Gerhard is around – see 11/20/91, 3/24/92, and the 11/20/98 version from Hampton Comes Alive. The most intriguing guest version to date, though, saw both Gerhard and Michael Ray accompany the band on 11/14/94. For a non-jamming song, “Cavern” has produced some fun variations and versions. See, for example, the bluegrass interpretation from 4/6/92 (a show that also features a “Make Your Own Guacamole Jam” that must be heard!) or the “Cavern” sandwiched around “Take the ‘A’ Train” on 5/5/93. Another favorite version is from 11/27/92, where the band celebrated Jimi Hendrix's birthday by peppering "Cavern" with teases of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and "Purple Haze." Of course, the granddaddy of all quirky versions is from the loose 7/13/94 show at Big Birch, where the band sang “Wilson” over the music to “Cavern,” and then returned to the latter’s final chorus to close the medley. For an interesting twist on the intro, visit 8/8/98, which sees Trey providing the solo intro theme in place of Fishman. Finally, for a rare, jammy “Cavern,” check out 6/14/97 or the aforementioned 4/5/98 (out of a smooth “Possum”).
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