The following excerpt from The Phish Companion is shared not only to encourage you to explore the book, but in light of concerns on the forum about jaded vets. We’re of course thrilled that so many people continue to discover (and rediscover) Phish, and welcome you to a site where connoisseurship sometimes puts praise in the context of historical variance. Previously posted in the earlier (Tumblr) version of this blog, it's now posted here...
There has been such extensive discussion about Phish’s high points that there are common suggestions for best performances (esp.12/31/95), strangest setlists (esp. 2/20/93), and most cosmic experiences (esp. 1/1/00). Much less attention is paid to the “bad moments” in Phishtory. You can find critique (and anything else) in excess in some places on the Internet, but it’s taboo in some circles. Many fans wear rose-colored blinders, or even nay-say about the possibility of mishaps, following the neo-hippie mantra that “it’s all good”. But it isn’t, even with Phish, and discussing that is a necessary responsibility in comprehensively covering their history and music.
To begin with something benign but often misrepresented, consider audience turnout, which neither skyrocketed nor consistently increased throughout Phish’s history. The famous “first show” is said to have had only one fan (Amy Skelton, although in a 11/03 interview in the Boston Globe Trey mentions three fans). But a show five years later is said to have had only two fans – 8/27/88, at the Food Court of Penn State’s Mont Alto Campus. And even five years beyond that, one show was moved from a larger venue to the smaller Tennessee Theater and then another (billed as “Party on the Plaza”) was performed not in the venue proper but its concession area. Even ten years into their career, they sometimes overestimated potential crowds: The show scheduled for July 19, 1993, at Baltimore’s Pier Six Pavilion was cancelled due to lack of ticket sales, major portions of tours in 1996 were played to half-full arenas, and the showing of a mere five thousand fans at 11/2/98 helped prompt the “you snooze you lose” monster performance of Dark Side of the Moon. And Europe was on occasion a total miss, as when the band were booed in Italy in 1996.
Sometimes, it was the band members who didn’t show: Trey was responsible for the “Guitar Player Taking a Leak” jam at Laguna Seca Daze in ’94, although the band covered with a funny little ditty in classic Phish humor followed by a smoking two-song second encore. Contrarily, Fishman (as told in the “bear story” 3/17/91) missed two of three sets on 7/30/88, leaving the band to tool around on standards with Trey on drums. (By the way, they’ve lost more than just themselves: Fishman lost his clothes 4/21/89, and Trey lost a contact lens at Farm Aid while jamming with Neil Young.) But these, too, were all relatively benign, even lending to some fantastically unique moments. Calling any of these “bad moments” may not be fair.
Sometimes, however, the band showed but the venue faltered, and these moments were bad. The 11/5/91 show was cancelled when the roof caved in, and a small flood ended 3/28/92 in the middle of a second set (acknowledged at and compensated on 2/19/93). A fire alarm interrupted the first set of 4/20/89, prevented a second set on 4/22/90, and brought the only “Horse” without a “Silent” on 6/21/94. The lights went out mid-“Melt” at10/20/89 and during “Chalk Dust” at 5/17/91, but the house lights went up 12/31/90 while the band huddled behind the stage selecting an encore. The PA went out during the 12/28/95 “Rift” (with lyrics “silence contagious in moments like these”) and the12/30/96 “Funky Bitch” (which the band “played” through, to the crowd’s delight). The PA also caused problems throughout 7/10/98, even in the roaring (and therefore appropriate) “Down with Disease”, although it mercifully cut short possibly the worst ever “Divided Sky”.
Weather, too, has been a trouble: Rain interrupted the first set of7/14/00 for 26 minutes, cut short the second set of 7/1/99, and moved the 6/8/95 show indoors. And while transportation has improved – from one van (which broke down on the way to 2/10/90) for the whole crew and equipment, to a set of buses and (for some festivals) jet rentals – international borders have been an issue on several occasions (including some equipment arrival to the Great Went), though not with any known impact on the shows.
Instrument problems have thankfully been few and far between. Mike broke a bass string on 4/22/90 and 5/2/91, and had some problems that interrupted the 11/28/92 “My Sweet One”. Trey broke a guitar string 11/29/96 (as did guest Del McCoury 7/18/99) – and his foot during the4/10/94 soundcheck (see show notes for 4/14/94, 4/20/94, 4/21/94, and4/23/94). He also apologized for being out of tune 4/6/85, aborted “Guelah” 12/6/91 due to guitar troubles, and got frustrated enough with his rig that he began kicking it during the 11/8/96 “Simple” (which was followed by “Loving Cup”, with the lyrics “I know I play a bad guitar”). At 11/22/92, Trey said Fish was mad at him because he “fucked up the ending” to “Axilla” – though exactly three years later, Trey accused Fish of screwing up “Rift” so badly they had to abort the song.
Trey has flailed on lyrics more often than notes, such as the last verse to “Fee” on 7/5/98, the first line of “Esther” 7/19/91, key lines of “Wilson” at both 7/19/03 and 8/3/03 (the latter somewhat corrected during the ensuing “Mike’s Song”), and lines from “Cavern” more times than we could count (but of which 5/23/00 is perhaps the most comical, and12/2/03 the most recent). Sometimes he drops only a few words, as in the 12/2/03 “Cities”, or even adds a few, such as an extra “whoa” in “Runaway Jim” (e.g. 8/13/97). But he forgot enough of the lyrics to “Sleeping Monkey” 5/2/93 that he apologized to Tom Marshall (who was in the audience). And he forgot enough of “Lizards” on 2/7/91 that he called the song off during the second verse, and enough on 7/3/95 that Fishman recommended a teleprompter.
But Fishman himself is sometimes out of step, such as starting “2001” when the rest are playing “Melt”, as on 7/15/99 and 7/26/99. And he forgot the lyrics to “Love Me” on 12/30/03, so ad-libbed about his vacuum cleaner. Even Mike, who doesn’t sing much, has occasionally missed a line, as on 11/28/92 when he was distracted and sang, “The tires are the thing on your hood when you get back to your house”.
Technical glitches and slippages aren’t the only ways in which some parts of Phish history have been arguably “bad”. Trey, who left the stage quickly after the first Great Went set, is heard in Bittersweet Motel saying simply, “We played a bad set.” He may be right (as quoted later in that documentary) not to care about missing “the changes”, saying that “it’s all about the energy”. But sometimes the slippage is in the energy itself. While some have argued that a “Friday” encore could ruin any show, even popular heavy-hitters aren’t completely reliable: Limestone hosted perhaps the best version of “Chalk Dust Torture” (at IT) but also perhaps the worst (at the Great Went). And Mike (recovering from the prior night) performed weakly enough 7/12/03 for Trey to “welcome [him] back” halfway into the second set.
Shows often start strong even if they don’t end well, but the weakest opener may have been 9/27/95 or 10/16/96. Among those shows that ended with a whimper, the 1/4/03 encore is commonly mentioned. Sometimes the band has petered out mid-song, such as the aborted “Lizards” 2/7/91; “Rift” 11/22/95; “Slave”, “Bowie”, and “Free” at 7/12/96; “My Friend” 2/25/97; “Guelah” 6/25/97; “Mike’s Song” and “Divided Sky”7/10/98, “Harry Hood”12/31/99, and “YEM” 1/3/03. (The 7/6/98 “Maze” was stopped on a dime – but only for Trey to apologize for not thanking the audience the previous night, which featured flubs throughout, notably in “Fee”.)
Finally, despite Phish’s variation of setlists, improvisational adventures, and expanding bag of antics, sometimes routine sets in and detracts from the wonder. “Golgi” is a great song, and “Rocky Top” a fine cover, but there was a time when they were all-too-common encores. Arguably worse (though also arguably a gimick), “2001” opened ten consecutive second sets in summer 1993, and ten more shows on that 33-show tour!
Though doing so would be unrepresentative, we could also review occasional problems with traffic, bathroom facilities, and ticketing. A focus on reviewing the highlights of Phish history (in terms of setlists, settings, and performances) belies and ignores the empirical variation in the quality of their shows. But I don’t mean to bring reminders of slippage down like a hammer on your warm memories and adoration for the band, much less to imply that Phish is anything less than a godsend. Rather, it is precisely because we love the band enough to have heard them enough to notice and remember these blunders. They remind us that perfection isn’t a given, that Phish are human, and that, when it all does come together flawlessly, it does so only because of a tremendous amount of work, energy, and dedication by the band members and their support staff. Thanks to them, while it isn’t all good, most of it is fantastic, and much of it is unadulterated bliss!
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