"Free" was one of six Phish originals that debuted at the Lowell benefit concert on 5/16/95. Fans quickly took to the song, which tells of a man who contemplates throwing his wife from the boat on which they sail. In fact, a minor lyrical change from earlier versions was released on the Billy Breathes version of the song and all subsequent live performances; this change from “as we go sliding by” to “as the ship goes sliding by” cemented the song’s imagery.
“Free” has gone through several minor structural changes since its debut. The truncated album version was the most dramatic of all, as the band axed the swirling guitar-based intro. Some feared that the original intro was gone forever, but the band has usually left it in the song’s stage performances (see 7/10/03 for an example of this intro being omitted). As a whole, the music present in early versions conjured underwater images for many that perfectly matches the nautical theme of the lyrics. Post-1995 versions featured a stylistic change that effectively combined the coarse texture of good southern “rock” with the in-your-face sound of loud arena “roll.”
On 6/26/95 the jamming jets were applied to “Free” for the first time in earnest when fans at SPAC were treated to an inspiring second set opening 40-minute combo of “Down with Disease” -> “Free.” The fall 1995 tour brought Trey’s percussion rack to the stage, and a new dimension was added to the jams. No song was greater influenced by the percussion rack than “Free.” Using the rack allowed Trey to lay back in the jam while Page took control; see 11/10/95 at The Fox in Atlanta and 12/30/95 at MSG. The 11/22/95 Landover version was particularly intense, as the song followed an attempt at “Rift” that was aborted after a drum foul-up by Fishman. The Landover “Free” clocked in at over thirty minutes – by far the longest version to date – and included “No Quarter” and “Bouncing” teases, a slick segue into “Llama,” as well as an intro from Trey where he dedicated the song to Fishman after his “Rift” gaffe.
The summer 1996 tour saw “Free” become a spacier number – visit the third set of the wild 7/12/96 Amsterdam gig, or the version from historic Red Rocks on 8/7/96. Phish changed this during the summer of 1997, slowing the tempo a notch and adding a drip of blues-rock inflection. The lyrical reprise of the chorus that had been inserted after the jam was also axed and was replaced by the ending from the album version of the song.
The late 90s were in many ways the golden era for “Free” – seemingly every version was pregnant with possibility and performances were a good bit longer (well over ten minutes on average) than before or since. 1997 is the can’t miss year for “Free” – throw a dart and you are going to hit a good one – but be sure to check out the 7/2/97 Amsterdam encore (or any of the appearances on the summer ‘97 Europe tour, as they are all exceptional), 8/8/97 Tinley Park, and the must-hear 11/30/97 Worcester “Stash” > ”Free” > ”Piper” combo.
1998 contained more highlight-reel material with notable versions performed on 7/15/98 Portland Meadows (released as Live Phish 17), 11/21/98 Hampton (broken up by “Ha Ha Ha” and released as Hampton Comes Alive) and 12/29/98 MSG kicking off a five-song second set that stands among the very best shows in Phish’s long history of New Year’s Eve runs. The last few years before Phish’s first hiatus brought us memorable combinations of “Ghost” and “Free” on 7/23/99 Columbus and 10/9/99 Albany, a spacey, expanded version on 6/30/99 in Bonner Springs, KS, and the oft-debated and sometimes maligned 12/15/99 version featuring Trey on a personal keyboard odyssey – as always, you be the judge.
The “Ghost” > “Free” combo anchored three of the most highly regarded gigs of the “2.0” era, on 2/15/03 Vegas, 12/29/03 Miami and 6/26/04 Alpine Valley. The Miami version included a sublime duet with Mike and Trey, and generated a profound audience demonstration afterward that lasted through the opening of the subsequent “Divided Sky.” During these years “Free” would more often ground a set in the wake of a substantial and expansive jam, rather than providing the jam vehicle itself; visit the “Free” that emerged from “Weekapaug” on 7/31/03 or the 6/17/04 "Moma" -> "Free" for examples.
Since the 2009 reunion, "Free" remains a frequently played song in the rotation and still provides a reliable showcase for Mike to lay down some watery bass tones. That said there's not much to recommend any modern version over another – the song still pleases, though in a manner that colors brightly between the lines in a compact, predictable seven-to-eight minute package. “Free” is a hybrid utility club in the modern setlist repertoire that finds comfort in both first and second sets, and in a surprise move opened the show for the first time ever to kick off the New Year’s run at MSG on 12/28/11; the opening slot was reprised on 6/8/12 Worcester and 8/2/13 BGCA.
For a stripped-down rendering of “Free” be sure to visit Trey’s solo acoustic performances of the song on 11/15/05, 2/19/11 and 2/23/11.
If you check out this video (start at the 10 minute mark) you'll notice that the melody of the unused tune Leprechaun is basically the same as the main riff in Free. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk61NFmnm9w
Same key as well. It's not exact- the riff from Free is six bars long, and Leprechaun's melody is eight- but there's definitely a close resemblance. The disparity in the measure numbers I think is just the band holding some chords a little longer in Leprechaun. Might not mean anything, but I found it interesting.
Is there any source for the assertion that the song is about "a man who is thinking of throwing his wife from a boat"? I had thought that it was a meditation upon Brueghel's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus".
I'll argue that one of the most concise examples of what Phish can do live is found in the Clifford Ball version of Free. I think this clocks in under ten minutes, but starting at the 3:20 mark, the band begins a jam that barely stays in Type I territory which last for just a few minutes before returning back to the song. What Trey is able to do just with his gear while playing his percussion set is stunning. I won't try to describe...just seek it out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFpn9boYprU
Count me as a HUGE fan of the 12-15-99 version. I love that whole show and it's under the radar. That being said, I like Free when it gets weird which pretty much never happens any more. 12-15-99 is very weird.
My first Free on 2004-06-26 still proves to be my favorite along with the USAir '95 freak-out version (referenced above). Also as noted, in 3.0, the improvisational segment that once followed the lyrics now tends to leave little impression, and more often than not ends far too quickly. In fact, the song has reverted back nearer to its original, studio-version self. I hope this song gets reappraised once again, because it holds transcendent potential as a jam vehicle.