[Editor's Note, SP] – Continuing a tradition began last year, the phish.net working group set out again to rank the Top 10 shows of 2014 (with Miami being included as part of the 2014 "year" despite bleeding into 2015). Normally this is where I’d caution that any ranking of Phish shows is an exercise in imposing an objective order on something that couldn’t be more subjective. And that’s true! If you really want the lecture, though, here you go. Generally our readers find these posts helpful and informative... or not. If you fall into the latter category, you've at least been warned.
Before we get started, there were some trends that emerged in our admittedly small sample size. We actually ended up with a pretty clear Top 13 that we whittled down to ten. The last three out were 7/20 Chicago, 7/26 MPP and 8/29 Dicks. After that, we were really left with a Top 4 and a Next 6. We’ll get to the Top 4 later, but as for 5-10, these were mostly shows that featured consistently strong playing throughout but perhaps lacked a truly transcendent jam. The group was all over the map in ranking these shows, with any given show as likely to be ranked five or six as it was to be left out of the Top 10 altogether. Now, without further ado, the top 10!
Some shows make the Top 10 for having a beloved jam or even set, while others have several smaller highlights. The second night at Randall's Island is part of the latter group. The first set doesn't offer much other aside from a spirited version of "ASIHTOS." After "PYITE" warms up the crowd for set two, the band starts up "Carini." Many a recent "Carini" head straight for major key bliss. This version heads straight for atmospheric space. While the jam ultimately struggles to find direction, it gets an 'A' for effort and legs out the infield single.
The "Ghost" that follows is a fine version. The jam starts out hinting at similar territory to the Chilling Thrilling "Timber" that would make its debut months later. From there it quickly finds a triumphant groove typical to many 2014 "Ghosts," before inverting into a more ominous, yet slinky, jam. After one of the stronger versions of "Wingsuit," the band opts for the obligatory New York City "Rock and Roll." The "R&R" never so much as threatens to leave the theme, but still gets points from a song selection perspective. As a bonus, they save the best for last, delivering a stellar rendition of "Harry Hood" in a year filled with them. Everyone has a different idea of what "flow" means in the context of a Phish set, but few would dispute that this set has it.
Some of the shows in these rankings were highly controversial, with some of us putting a show in our personal Top 5, while others left it off of their list completely. This show, on the other hand (as well as #9), arrive at the bottom of our list, because that's where nearly everyone had them: a borderline Top 10 show but a Top 10 show, nonetheless. Hitting a bunch of singles and doubles may get you on the All-Star team, but it's unlikely to get you in the Hall of Fame.
"Harry Hood" – 7/12/14, New York, NY (video via @LazyLightning55a)
When Phish took the stage at the University of Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena they were definitely looking to buck some established trends. As laid out in my precap for the show, it was the first time Phish had performed in Oregon since their last show at Portland Meadows on 9/12/99, over 15 years and two periods of unconformity ago. Based on their past history of stellar performances in Eugene I tried my hand at prognostication with regard to setlist and performance quality. Though they certainly had my back with regard to the quality of their tour opening gig, excluding the no-brainer heavy dose of Fuego songs, my forecast for song selection had a pretty low success rate with only three (“Poor Heart,” “Reba,” and “The Squirming Coil”) of the likely to be played songs appearing in the show.
The home court vibe at the show was strong. Familiar faces and warm embraces abounded. Fifteen long years of “Waiting all Night” was finally coming to an end. We had begrudgingly let our lost love wander “Free” and their absence had caused pain to our “Poor Heart.” However, as soon as we had another “Sample in a Jar,” the displeasure caused by the “Strange Design” of their tour schedule during the previous fifteen (it seemed like “555”) years was forgotten and everybody was “Bouncing Around the Room.” With the awkward hugs and “I really missed you guyyyyys!!!” pleasantries out of the way... it was time to get down to business. Though certainly not flawless, “Reba” was soulful and sweet. “Roggae” brought forth visions of booger-bears and the guacamole queen. Notwithstanding a “Magilla” tease from Page, “Simple” largely lived up to its name but did segue with ample lubricity into a blistering version of “Maze.” The set closing “Squirming Coil” features a truly spellbinding concerto-pianissimo from the chairman of the boards... if that outro does not fill your cup with love, I don’t know what will.
The second set opens with an atypically buoyant “Carini” that meanders through its lightness of being and seamlessly into the Phish debut of “Plasma,” the infectious hook of which remained implanted in my mind for days afterwards. “Farmhouse” continued the first set trend of playing songs from Olivia’s pool of favorites... happy wife, happy life. This one was approached with great patience and a delicate touch... an existential state to keep in mind. “Halfway to the Moon” was definitely the make or break point for the second set. Would they turn the rocket around and glide back to an uneventful splashdown on Earth destination unreached? Plot “Twist”... HELL NO! We were going all the way. “Crosseyed and Painless” went extradimensional into an ice cold “Tomorrow Never Knows” wormhole that has resulted in memory loss and associated time gap during every subsequent relisten. Regaining our footing on Mount “Hood,” we explored the wondrous internal beauty of the Snow Dragon Glacier Cave system beneath the Sandy Glacier, then surveyed the familiar slopes of the volcano’s “Rocky Top” from the lodge. Triple encore?!?!?!... enough said. See you in Bend!
"Carini" 10/17/14 Eugene, OR (video via @InnovAsianTravel)
The final show from Vegas has a lot more going for it than just the “Piper.” It has the most exciting version of “Free” in a decade, thanks to “Martian Monster” lyrics that will give you chills when Trey advises that “you’re about to blast off” into a ripping peak. It has one of the more interesting “YEMs” of 3.0, which shows that if you can’t take Fish to a drum solo, you can just take the drum solo to Fish. And it has a “Chalk Dust” which shines when it arrives at a “Wedge”-infused climax (even if it takes a while to establish its identity). These are all strong jams.
But the “Piper,” oh, man, the “Piper.” I have been mocked for my unabashed, rapturous praise for this short-but-glorious piece of music. But the ribbing doesn’t make it any less special. In fact, some day, this jam will help put an end to war and poverty. It will align the planets and bring them into universal harmony, allowing meaningful contact with all forms of life from extraterrestrial beings to common household pets, and... well, you get the picture. Following a breathless gallop on the worm, Trey emerges with an elegant melody, led first by Page and then by Mike, who deploys a bass bomb and a drill scream with a level of precision that gives me chills each time. The 11/2/14 “Piper” is the gem that makes this wonderful show shine. Listen with someone you love.
"Free" 11/2/14 Las Vegas, NV (video via @LazyLightning55a)
The last show of 2014 proper was, let’s face it, a flawed one. The first set amounted to little more than a warmup set. By the end of a compact second set opening “BOAF,” it’s safe to say lots of folks were questioning the wisdom of the inverted new year’s run.
And then “Ghost” started. Once among Phish’s most reliable jam vehicles, these days “Ghost" is a far more uncertain proposition. The soaring “Ghost” jam is quite pleasing, but when it begins to peter out at the eleven minute mark, it feels like not so much a version of “Ghost” slipping away, but an entire New Year’s show. With the jam on life support, Fish and Trey lock into a new groove, the band returns briefly to the “Ghost” theme and then builds it up to a second peak. By the time it’s all over, we have the best “Ghost” of the year.
Photo by Scott Harris
It’s hard to overstate how refreshingly great the ensuing “Theme” -> “Cities” is, in the context of 3.0 Phish. One of the criticisms of the current era is that sometimes it seems like we know where the big jams will be coming, and we know what songs will bring them. “Theme” -> “Cities” turns all of that on its head. And, though each song only contains five-six minutes of jamming, they cover an astounding amount of terrain in that brief time. Setting side Big Cypress because it’s Big Cypress, this is almost certainly the best NYE set since 12/31/98.
Set III is another oddity. We start with the odd Phish debut of “Dem Bones,” which sets up a NYE prank that can charitably be described as underwhelming. As they did in 2014, Phish started out 2015 with a new song, this year “The Dogs.” An exploratory “Tweezer” follows and by the time it finishes, we’re left with quite possibly the best 90-minute stretch of 2014. Given that, you may wonder why this show only comes in tied for #7 in our little rankings. The answer is because there was still an hour left in the show, but Phish retreated to first set form, offering up the song selection equivalent of waving the white flag. One and a half sets of top shelf Phish and one and a half sets of entirely forgettable music. Like I said, it’s a flawed show… but a great one.
"Theme from the Bottom" 12/31/14 Miami, FL
The second set of BGCA2 starts with a “Kill Devil” curveball, jamming out the Joy tune instead of its older cousin, “Chalk Dust.” This type-II jaunt is more propulsive than exploratory, with some Hammond color from Page, some whale-calling from Trey, and a soft landing into “Mountains In the Mist.” “Fuego” follows, and I’ll confess to disappointment that its star didn’t burn as bright this Fall. Nevertheless, there is a pretty, somewhat ambient coda that blends into “Julius.”
But the fourth quarter is where this set tightens its belt and starts to chuckle. “Twist” drifts around at first, but eventually winds its way into a dark, early-Floydian jam that makes makes me shiver. The exquisitely sinister “Twist” is followed by a quick “Runaway Jim,” and then Phish lets loose with yet another amazing “Harry Hood.” “Hood” absolutely OWNED 2014, reeling off nine – count ‘em, NINE – versions for the jamming chart (including eight straight starting with Great Woods). This one might be the best of the bunch. Diving into type-II territory around 7:30, this jam gets gritty and mean before making a neat turn, executing a gleeful “Party Time” dance, and ultimately swirling back to “Hood.” It’s a beautiful end to the set, and cements this show’s place in the top ten.
"Twist" 10/28/14 San Francisco, CA
Coming in fifth in our 2014 Top 10 is the Dick’s edition of “never miss a Sunday show,” the 8/31/14 summer finale. Starting with the unexpected, “The Curtain With” opens a show for the first time since 6/19/88 at Nectar’s or 1,519 shows (though “The Curtain” opened as recently as 11/28/97 Worcester). The set also featured an energetic “Wombat,” the always funky “Wolfman’s Brother,” an “ASIHTOS” far adrift from any shore, and a vibrant “Possum” set closer. Modern Phish shows are not won or lost in the first set, but this was a solid, spirited first half performance. Not even the “Lushington” gag or the horn-infused “Suzy” could save Friday’s opening Dick’s frame, and Saturday’s opener was a poster-child for first set malaise, leaving this the weekend’s best first set if only by default.
If 2013 was the Year of the “Tweezer,” 2014 was the Year of “Chalk Dust.” Outstanding type-II versions of “Chalk Dust” dominate the calendar, with notable offerings at Philly, Charlotte, Portsmouth, Santa Barbara, Vegas and most dramatically at Randall’s Island. This second set opener establishes flight early and maintains a steady cruising speed throughout, declining to ascend toward a dramatic peak or lurch for dramatic shifts, but nevertheless establishing a solid foundation for the set. The “Twist” that follows is easily overlooked if one just looks at the short timing, but what it lacks in expansiveness it makes up for with an attacking aggression from Trey.
Photo © Phish From the Road
A brief run through “The Wedge” paves the way for “Tweezer.” “Tweezer” escapes the main theme and settles into a groove at the five minute mark, downshifting if only briefly before Fishman insists on a driving tempo, leading the way for the band coalescing around a minor peak culminating about ten minutes in. Trey then seizes the initiative with a slick segue into “Sand” that explodes out of the gate. The first half of this almost fifteen minute gem sizzles with a danceable insistence, reaching peaksville before exploding into a brief up-tempo “Tweezer” jam that changes the trajectory… for the emphatically weird! Fishman seemed intent on riding that wave but Trey insists on “Piper” to emerge from the ashes of “Sand.” This “Piper” shoots out of a cannon, establishing a blistering early pace. Trey throws in a “Norwegian Wood” tease three minutes in before yielding the steering wheel to Page, then taking the handoff back ever so briefly and then gliding the jam to a conclusion in deep space.
“Joy” offers a tender respite from the high-octane proceedings, the only breather in this set that was otherwise jam-packed with action. The opening notes of “Mike’s Song” then signaled the set’s home stretch. Trey leads the way to Funktown with an echoplex-driven jam that evoked a modern polish on a style reminiscent of 1997 start-stop. With “Mike’s” second jam in deep hibernation and other innovations few and far between, one needn’t go overboard to call this dance-til-you-drop version the most innovative “Mike’s Song” of the post-breakup era. This style of even-less-is-more jamming would rule on fall tour, but the surprise factor here was clutch, injecting excitement and diversity into a song that, while always pleasing, was due for a breath of fresh air. “Sneakin’ Sally” re-floors the accelerator with only its second appearance within Mike’s Groove (7/9/14 Mann) before wrapping the set with a solid if uneventful “Weekapaug.” A “Loving Cup” > “Tweezer Reprise” encore puts a bow on yet another satisfying run at the fantastic Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
"Mike's Song" 8/31/14 Commerce City, CO (video via @LazyLightning55a)
This #5 ranking is well-deserved, for as we can see the show contains a wealth of riches. That said, this is the point where the 2014 rankings become highly subjective. The first four gigs in our list are locks for those top slots in some order. Beyond that core four of shows heading on to a coveted Champion’s League appearance, any of a half dozen 2014 shows could have easily slotted here without much in the way of controversy. It reflects more on the extraordinary strength of the previous year more than any weakness in 2014, but this show would have trouble breaking any top ten (or even top fifteen) among the exceptional roster of shows from 2013. That said, the reliable first set, and impeccable construction, attention-keeping pace and jamming innovation of the money frame make 8/31/14 a show that deserves if not demands your attention.
The final show of the touring year served as a stunning valedictory statement to the Miami run (fantastic setting with some excellent playing), to 2014 (marked by legitimate exploratory excursions in almost every engagement, and a career creative crest cloaked in a crypt), and to 3.0 thus far. The quintet of classics that kicked off this capstone had an average debut date (2/7/90) almost 25 years old. “Maze” and “Cavern” were high-energy in uncharacteristic setlist slots, but the early highlight was Trey’s triplet trilling in “Divided Sky.” The outro wasn’t a holistic home run, but the band’s intent and empathy were evident early on. Switch speeds to a sultry, swampy, and somewhat surprising “Plasma” (third time ever by Phish) that saturated the arena, a crystalline “Water in the Sky,” and a murky meandering “Melt,” characteristic of the era, and the band covered a whole lot of territory in the first half before ballistically blowing out a “Zero” and heading into halftime.
Of course, the story of this show is the second set, much of which played like a single suite of music anchored only by what seemed to be obligatory stops at actual songs. The “Disease” > “Light” > “Sally” sequence in particular played out like a triumphant tour through the history of rock and roll. The first shots in this huge improvisational sequence were fired when “DwD” almost ended, but instead went full band into tropical changes that, in the moment, we thought could have been some song… that… we couldn’t quite identify. Starting there, Phish masterfully emceed an arena-sized party, improvising through sounds and styles – upbeat, driven; the music clearly playing the band. One could recognize big chords and feel them ready to drop into “Rock and Roll,” “Low Rider,” “Manteca,” “Takin’ Care of Business,” “Simple,” and “Get Back” (for starters) at various points, but instead of landing on the crutch of covering or teasing a known classic, they kept pushing forward, furthur, into a somehow familiar unknown. The jam out of each song sounded more like the jam out of the prior song than anything else, and by the time we arrived at “Sand” and “Hood,” we were deep into bonus territory. It was the kind of night where strangers continually exchanged knowing glances with strangers, nodding the nods we only share with each other, acknowledging “special;” that in this place and time, everything is saved by Rock and Roll.
A “Birds” quote in “Suzy” and an incendiary “Good Times Bad Times” encore informed us all that after four rich nights and a damn solid six year run, They were still in ‘Attack’ mode, getting right after it. As Trey had proclaimed and predicted a couple nights prior, “2014 - Good year! 2015 - Better!!!”
And here we are...
"Down with Disease" 1/3/15 Miami, FL
I think a lot of the Jaded Vets™ among us rolled our eyes at the initial segue into “Back On the Train.” I know I did. A song ripcorded faster than the UIC “Ghost”? You gotta be kidding me! And then the segue back into “Tweezer” turned that frown upside down and made it look silly. The return to “BOTT” revealed that Phish had brought a quiver of arrows to MPP, and I can verify that even from the couch, this “Tweezerfest” was pure delight.
Shows like these are more about playfulness than how the band plays, but there are moments of beautiful improvisation, too, in particular the third “Tweezer” segment and the jam out of “Disease.” But my oh my, how much of a blast is the “Free” -> “Tweezer” -> “Simple” -> “Tweezer” -> “Free?” How awesome is the first “Catapult” in five years? How sweet is the odd jam out of “NICU” that becomes the first “HYHU” since SPAC 2012? And how absolutely HILARIOUS is “Jennifer Dances?” It even included a poke at “Jennifer’s” detractors, and had me laughing so hard I didn’t catch Fish rhyming “song” with “dong” the first time around. Throw in the band marching off stage with the first “I Been Around” in 149 shows, and you have yourself some historic hijinx. That’s without even considering the now-rare “Fee,” “Curtain With,” and “Saw It Again” from the first set. This show is tier one fun, so throw it on when you need a smile!
"I Been Around" 7/27/14 Columbia, MD
Speaking of tier one, we're heading there now. Only two 2014 shows received first place votes in our rankings (for context, six shows received first place votes in our 2013 rankings). In fact, with one exception, this was a unanimous top two.
"Chalk Dust Torture" > "Light" > "Tweezer." Three songs, 56 minutes. Since Phish walked on stage at the Hampton Coliseum six years ago, having a trio of tunes filling up almost an hour has been a rare feat, something that seemed more likely to be found in a monster second set in the mid 90s. Leading the way was a multi-layered "Chalk Dust Torture." Quickly straying off the song's chord structure to chart into jam territory with no turning back, this majestic version had many turns and left me instantly thinking that this was one of the top renditions in the song's 24-year history. With most takes on "Chalk Dust" failing to reach the ten minute mark, the third night of Randall's produced the longest version ever, clocking in at just under 28 minutes and surpassing the old record-holder from IT by two minutes. This "Chalk Dust" has stood the test of time, passing through the haze of immediate post-show hype to stand among not only Phish's best jams of 2014, but also the all-time top versions of the song. "Light" followed "Chalk Dust" with Trey dabbling in a "St. Thomas" tease in the middle of the jam, then an amazing melodic finish before "Tweezer" entered the fray. "Tweezer" had a couple of slow bluesy breakdowns before rising back up to a powerful rush to the finish line, only to return to the melody and slow down to completion.
The first set of the show featured the first "Sand" to ever start off a Phish concert and was followed by a setlist that didn't veer that far off the path with song selection or improvisation and ended with a powerful "Melt." While the second set post-"Tweezer" took an energy dip before finishing off with a tightly-knit selection of songs, all that was lost in the shuffle was dwarfed by the three songs opening the second set; a trio that easily ranks among the best multi-song combinations Phish has put forth in the 3.0 era, sliding right into place with the Albany 2009 "Seven Below" -> "Ghost" in terms of musical blocks the band has put forth.
"Light" 7/13/14 New York, NY (video via @LazyLightning55a)
Your trip is short! They attack! These two phrases are now forever part of the Phish lexicon thanks to one of the coolest "gag" shows in Phish history, 10/31/14.
Phish's Halloween shows have always been draped in secrecy. Sometimes we've been given hints along the way, but the Phish organization has done a fantastic job over the years of maintaining a healthy element of surprise. After mixed reviews from 2013's Wingsuit set, there was a lot of anxiety and wonder amongst people I knew. Trey even indicated the time of covering albums was over. So, what were they going to do this year? When fall tour started, it seemed to be the best kept secret yet. Even the day of the show, most people I spoke with had not a clue. Personally, I had no intention of going to Halloween until we were hanging out with Fishman before the LA Forum show, and he made it very clear that we should come to Las Vegas. Based on hints that tantalized but gave nothing away, we made the trip happen on a couple days notice. All we knew was that it was indeed going to be an album, but not a traditional album cover. And that it was a classic but not in the way an Elvis or Zeppelin album is classic. And the Hot Dog guy was involved in set design. Set design? Oh!
The MGM Grand Garden Arena is a wondeful place to host a run of Phish shows. Staff that has seen everything are quite adept at scene management. In a town that always goes overboard, we were easy for them, I'm sure. The venue had rare in-and-out priviliges, which was truly great. Upon entering, it was apparent this was a special spectacle when you looked up to see beautiful chandelier-like installations hanging above the crowd. For just these gigs. Phish gives in ways you don't often see in popular music, and we would soon see how much intention, effort, money and dedication was put in to this singular night.
The first set was thoughtfully Halloween-y in song selection but gave no real hints. The Phishbill had been let loose so you either knew what the classic Disney sound effects LP was or you didn't. I had the Chilling, Thrilling Sounds Of The Haunted House as a kid, so when I saw the Phishbill I freaked. But I still had no idea really what was coming. As setbreak went along, it seemed like all of a sudden there was a graveyard where none had been. OH! Hello! We were blessed that some friends saved us a spot about seven people back dead center, and that's where we watched the first two sets. I assume you have all heard and/or seen the Haunted House set so you know that it is up there with some of Phish's most memorable musical explorations. A set of brand new, original, instrumental jams with Halloween themes and weird noises and space ships and Chinese torture and attacking birds, played in a circle in a Haunted House in white suits and zombie makeup? Uh, what?!?!? I looked around that set and saw jaws on the floor everywhere. People who would normally be dancing with abandon, mouths agape and smiling at the same time. Wow. They could have walked off after set two and done no more, but in true Phish fashion we got a full third set. I barely remember it, but a rare set ending "Tweeprise" out of "Sand" was a trick AND treat.
"Your Pet Cat" 10/31/14 Las Vegas, NV (video via @LazyLightning55a)
2014 Halloween was certainly one of those special nights. Top Shelf Phish with a lot of thought, practice, and love for where they are now. Ever forward 30 years later is no easy task, but they did it. No, they killed it! Pun intended. There is no resting on laurels. Phish pushes on. What's my favorite show? The next one.
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