The Curtain With
Vocals: Mike, Page, Trey
Historian: lumpblockclod, Mark Toscano
Last Update: 2015-10-02
As anyone who has ever ordered a cheesesteak in Philly will tell you, the most important question is "With or Without?" (or, in the local parlance, "Wit or Wit-Out?"). The same is true of "The Curtain". In Philly, "With" or "Without" refer to onions; for "The Curtain", "With" refers to an intricate 10 minute jam (and, as any true cheesesteak aficionado will tell you, it's better "With"). As Trey tells the story, "The Curtain With" was written in the Summer of 1986, when he was living alone (well, other than Marley) in an unheated, one-room cabin in West Charleston, VT. Upon finishing the song, an excited Trey drove straight to Burlington, where Mike, Page and Fish were living, to share the new song with them at a band practice.
Making its first known live appearance on 8/9/87, the earliest appearances of this song all featured the precise "With" jam (according to Trey, "every note is written out and transcribed; it took us months to learn it") and, these versions are referred to as "The Curtain With". Trey’s friend Marc Daubert wrote the lyrics. Although “Daubs” had actually been in Phish at one point – playing percussion at some of their very first gigs – he was no longer a band member by the time “The Curtain” entered the rotation. As for the lyrics, they are darkly surreal, with a few tips-of-the-hat to the absurd. Trey even offers a potential explanation of them at the 8/21/87 Ian’s Farm show, but whether or not you actually believe they’re about Jim Bakker is up to you.
Typical versions of "The Curtain With" can perhaps best be described thusly: an intro, Daubs’ lyrics, a composed section of moderate length, and a repeat of the intro, followed by a two-part instrumental opus. This instrumental section consists of a composed bit and a jamming bit. The composed bit will definitely sound familiar to most fans, as it eventually found its way into the song “Rift,” where it remains to this day. This slowed-down “Rift” segment was then followed by a beautiful and soaring jam, featuring liquid tones from Trey and lots of electric piano from Page. For some strong versions of “The Curtain With,” check out 8/29/87, 2/7/88, 5/15/88, and 5/24/88. Additionally, a studio version of the song recorded in June of 1987 in Mike’s grandmother’s basement was released on The White Tape.
However, on 2/24/88, the band performed a version of "The Curtain" that omitted the long, two-part instrumental. For a short period, the band vacillated between versions featuring the "With" jam and those "Without" (though, it should be noted that versions without the jam are referred to simply as "The Curtain"). On 7/11/88, Phish performed a rendition of "The Curtain With" that can fairly be described as not having the tightest ending, prompting Trey to describe the "With" jam as "a living nightmare." Perhaps not coincidently, "The Curtain With" was performed just two more times (on 7/23/88 in what likely remains the most unique reading of the song and again on 7/29/88) before shelving the song, or the "With" Jam anyway, for nearly twelve years. The 7/23/88 "The Curtain (With)" -> "Dave's Energy Guide" -> "The Curtain (With)" -- still the only version of "The Curtain" to truly wander off the beaten path -- more resembles a version of "Split Open and Melt" or even a frenetic "Bundle of Joy" than the fluid playing that characterizes the latter half of the "With" jam.
"The Curtain" 8/17/96 Plattsburgh, NY
In its post-”With” incarnation, “The Curtain” has usually served as a springboard for other songs. Everything from “Bouncing” (11/4/90) to "Runaway Jim" (7/13/91) to “Tweezer” (many times) to “Julius” (12/28/95) to “Letter to Jimmy Page” (7/5/94) to “Blackbird” (11/22/94) has followed the restrained tones of “The Curtain.” Like many of the band’s older tunes, “The Curtain” has been played less and less in recent years. Following a glut of performances in 1995 and 1996, “The Curtain” made it to the stage only eight times from 1997-1999. In addition to those listed above, quality post-1988 versions include 2/24/89, 11/4/90, 12/11/95, 12/14/95, 8/6/96 and 12/30/99.
"The Curtain With" 6/17/04 Brooklyn, NY (Backstage Rehearsal)
However, after performing “The Curtain” in its truncated incarnation with no deviation since 1988, on 7/12/00 the band broke out the original, big daddy “The Curtain With”. Since then, "The Curtain With" again became the norm, with 9/9/00 and 7/3/11 being the sole appearances of the abbreviated version (with the latter leading into the first "Forbin" > "Mockingbird" with narration since 9/30/00). The band performed "The Curtain With" a couple more times on the tour leading up to the hiatus before breaking it out again on 6/17/04, as memorialized on the Live in Brooklyn DVD. However, the Brooklyn appearance was but a stepping stone for what would be the largest stage yet for "The Curtain With". On 8/15/04, Trey chose "The Curtain With" to close out the presumed "Final Show" at Coventry, explaining that it was actually written just one town over from Coventry. Sadly, the "With" jam was started in the wrong key, causing Trey to restart it. For nearly five years, this flawed version of "The Curtain With" held the mantle as "The Final Phish Song," warts and all.
"The Curtain With" 6/10/11 Camden, NJ
For a little while, it looked like when the curtain fell on Phish 2.0, so, too, fell the curtain on "The Curtain". However, on the third night of their return to Red Rocks (8/1/09) Phish performed one of the strongest versions of "The Curtain With" in years only to surpass it with a near-perfect reading on 8/11/09. For their next rendition of the song, Phish added another degree of difficulty to one of their most complex pieces, performing the song in the middle of their acoustic set on 11/1/09 at Festival 8. As for the results, see for yourself. Though "The Curtain With" remains a relative rarity, recent versions are as strong as ever; both 2010 renditions (10/16/10 Charleston and 10/26/10 Manchester) are excellent and the 6/10/11 Camden performance is among the finest they've ever played. On 8/31/14, Phish opened a show with “Curtain With” for the first time since 5/24/88. And so we wait for the next version, always wondering: will it be "With" or "Without"?
"The Curtain With" – 8/31/14, Commerce City, CO