Historian: Craig DeLucia
Ever notice how words often mean different things inside and outside the Phish community? Take “Magilla,” for example. To those unfamiliar with Phish, he’s a Hanna-Barbera cartoon character from a 1964 series that bore his name. Cartoon aficionados will remember him as the gorilla that was always returned to the pet store because he ate everything in sight. True Happy Days fanatics (or those who enjoy watching the re-runs) will notice a reference to “The Magilla Book of Records” in the episode where Fonzie’s cousin tries to gain fame by flipping quarters off of the back of his elbow and catching them. But to the Phish faithful, it is a piano-based jazz instrumental that represents Page McConnell’s first original song contribution to the band’s repertoire.
“Magilla” debuted with a batch of new songs on 9/13/90, far from the confines of Mr. Peebles’ Pet Shop. The band must have taken a liking to him, as it was played at the first five shows of that fall tour. Indications are that the band tinkered with the song before then, though. Pick up a copy of 2/22/90 and, during “Caravan,” you’ll hear a tease of the “Magilla” melody, over six months before its debut.
The song remained a relative concert staple through early 1991, usually occupying a spot in the second set where Phish had once played jazz standards like “Caravan” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Quite a few of these early appearances featured guests on various brass instruments. Carl Gerhard produced a few memorable versions, including 2/8/91, 5/17/91, and 11/20/91 (complete with a Flintstones theme tease). Other guests included Paul Guinness on trombone (4/16/91) and Dave Grippo on sax (5/12/91). Given the way the horns complemented the song, it was no surprise that “Magilla” was a regular on the 1991 Giant Country Horns tour.
“Magilla” began appearing less frequently in 1992 and, after a semi-breakout on 3/25/93, seemed to again be returned to the pet store. Fans heard a tease of the song in the 8/13/93 “Bowie” and at intermittent soundchecks but “Magilla” was not played on the live stage for the rest of 1993.
The re-emergence of horns in early 1994 seemed to bring “Magilla” back for a short while. Of its five appearances in 1994, three were accompanied by either the Giant or Cosmic Country Horns. These 1994 versions are notable for being played in a more shuffle style than previous, straight-jazz versions. Still, “Magilla” apparently devoured everything in sight on 5/4/94 and was sent back to Mr. Peebles. As in 1993, “Magilla” was sometimes let out of the cage at soundcheck, but he remained locked up during the shows.
Then, in 1997, a funny thing happened on the way to the pet store: “Magilla” grew up. Phish launched into an inspired version in Stuttgart on 2/26/97 inside of a raging “Mule” duel and “Magilla” suddenly became a minor jam vehicle. Most versions since then have evolved from particularly strong versions of other tunes, such as 7/10/97 out of “Julius” and the brilliant 7/21/97 Creature Double Feature of “Wolfman’s Brother” into “Magilla.”
“Magilla” remains a concert rarity – one appearance in 1998 (plus a strong tease during the 12/31/98 “Simple”), none in 1999, one in 2000 (plus a live version on the Mark and Bryan radio show), and one in 2003 (plus a tease on the 7/8/03 "Hood"). To date, Phish has not let the gorilla out of his cage since returning to the stage in 2009, though Trey played the song three times on his February 2010 "Classic TAB" tour.
In fact, over the last fifteen years, “Magilla” has appeared far more often at non-Phish shows than at Phish concerts. Acts such as Jazz Mandolin Project (6/10/93) and the Gordon Stone Band (5/24/01) have covered “Magilla” with members of Phish present. It has also popped up in the setlists of side projects like Bad Hat, Eight Foot Fluorescent Tubes, Vida Blue (including a Mike Gordon guest appearance on 4/11/03), and Trey’s solo tours. Trey’s version from the 11/2/02 soundcheck appears on his first live release, Plasma.