Vocals: Trey (lead), Mike, Page (backing)
Last Update: 2014-11-11
"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.” A new dimension was layered on to Phish’s jamming arsenal that fall with the addition of Trey’s percussion rack; no song was influenced more 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 Fish. 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 Fish after his “Rift” gaffe.
Summer 1996 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. Summer 1997 witnessed a slower tempo and the addition of 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.
Phish, “Free” 8/8/97, Tinley Park, IL
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, 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. 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.
Phish, “Free” 12/28/11, New York, NY
The “Ghost” > “Free” combo anchored three of the most highly regarded gigs of the “2.0” era: 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 reliable, danceable showcase in the rotation. 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” opened a 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, 8/2/13 BGCA and 8/30/14 Dick’s. A hybrid utility club in the modern setlist repertoire that finds comfort in both first and second sets, but the role of “Free” as an occasional jam vehicle is mostly a thing of the past.
If there is anything that we’ve learned over three decades of Phish performances, it is to expect the unexpected. On 7/27/14 at Merriweather, “Free” was a prominent part of the outstanding “Tweezer”-fest, providing a platform for a slick segue back into “Tweezer” and then emerging out of yet another “Tweezer” segment before finally yielding to “Catapult.” Phish’s 2014 fall tour featured one of their all-time great Halloween performances, an interpretation of the 1964 Disney classic, Chilling, Thrilling. Sounds of the Haunted House. On the tour’s final night, “Free” provided an unexpected forum for one of those moments. As the band started dropping quotes from the Halloween set’s crown jewel, “Martian Monster” – ”because of the speed of your rocket, your trip is short!” – the crowd responded with an explosion of orgasmic ecstasy through dance… liftoff!
Phish, “Free” 11/2/14, Las Vegas, NV