Vocals: Trey (lead), Mike, Page (backing)
Historian: Dan Purcell (sausagemahoney)
Last Update: 2016-03-08
Is it a nail-biting tale of a daring nighttime rescue mission, or a surreal yarn about a camping trip gone horribly awry? Whichever, the dependable set-closer “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 it has settled into a comfortable role as a set-closer or encore, initially it was much more versatile, appearing just about everywhere in the setlist. But since 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.
”Cavern” – 4/5/98, Providence, RI
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 necessarily thrilled singing the phrase “penile erector” every night. 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.
Particularly suited to a horn arrangement, “Cavern” was a standout of Phish’s performances with The Giant Country Horns in summer ‘91 and elsewhere. Since then, even when the full horn section hasn’t been available, “Cavern” has featured sit-ins from trumpeter Carl "Geerz" Gerhard – see 11/20/91, 3/24/92, and the 11/20/98 version from Hampton Comes Alive – and the stellar 11/14/94 version offered the dual trumpets of Gerhard and former Sun Ra sideman Michael Ray. Although “Cavern” almost never jams, the band has been happy to play around with its infectious groove. See, for example, the bluegrass interpretation from 4/6/92 (the show that gave us the must-hear “Make Your Own Guacamole Jam”) or a rare split version on 5/5/93, sandwiched around “Take the ‘A’ Train.” On 11/27/92 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. And since “Cavern” almost never jams, that means it sometimes has, on very rare occasions. The extended versions from the second Dublin show on 6/14/97 (later honored by Kevin Shapiro at one of his Super Ball IX From the Archives sets) and the closing night of the Island Tour on 4/5/98 (out of a smooth “Possum”) are highly recommended.
”Cavern” – 9/1/13, Commerce City, CO