II. The BIG Months of Phish
In the world of Phish, there are certain months held in a higher regard than all others. Months where the band seemed to tap into an intangible energy bigger than themselves, reach and sustain mediums of connection, and where, simply put, everything clicked.
During these months, Phish wasn't so much playing their music as they were existing within it. Featuring lengthy runs of wildly engaging shows, setlists that read as though they were plucked out of a fan's notebook, and jams where Phish engaged in a lengthy, unending and fully-flowing conversations. These months have come to define the style and sound of the multiple eras of Phish.
April 1992's west coast tour is probably the first example of a sound being defined within a month, when the band allowed the wide open landscape and desolate valleys to influence their developing musical experimentation, while highlighting their zany spirit, unyielding energy and psychedelically twisted humor. The breakout month of August 1993 couldn't have happened without the band's mastery the "Hey Hole" jamming technique. 1994 featured dual gems in June and November. The former of which was an absolute apex of the fire and energy of the youthful Phish—and may represent the purest example of the sound Phish was trying to attain throughout their first eleven years of existence—and the latter, which displayed a band that had summeted the peak of their goals, and, instead of plateauing, experimented within their sound, and, for the first time since the mid-80's, explored what was possible beyond the confines of the structures they'd built and mastered. In this same regard, 1995 gave us two distinct months of brilliance: June, which built upon the experimentations of the previous November, and then took the jams to a realm of no-man's-land that they've only been brave enough to explore a handful of times since, and December, which we'll get to later.
Between 1995 and 2012, it was harder for Phish to produce this kind of consistent brilliance for a variety of reasons.
1. They toured and practiced less which meant they had less time to hone in on a new style and develop it.
2. Their tours were shorter, meaning they had brilliant weeks and brilliant shows rather than months.
3. At times their overall motivation and dedication came into question.
Even still, 1997 gave us the full realization of the funk/minimalist style they'd been searching for since 1995. The Europe run during June, and later, the entire fall tour, featured a band playing with as little effort yet as much intuitive communication as we've ever heard from them.
December 1999 was an epiphany in the late 90's/2.0 era, as the band fused beat-driven jams with minimalism, and combined it with a contagious energy that engulfed the entire fanbase as their millennium shows at Big Cypress approached. Add to it the right amount of darkness fueled by their growing desire to take a break, rumored over-consumption of drugs that had taken ahold of two of their members, and a self consciousness that had begun to creep into their songwriting - probably due to the previous two factors - and it's one of the more puzzling, yet intriguing periods of success in their career.
The short-lived 2.0 era saw the band connect on a deep and dark level during February 2003. A two week tour that looked a whole lot like current 3.0 Fall Tours, they threw themselves into psychedelic jamming which fused 1995 and 1999 with a rawness and emotional dissonance that is wholly unique to the time.
The 3.0 era has produced six months of undisputable brilliance:
1. October 2010 was the first month where Phish seemed to fully shake off the rust of a five-year-break, and embrace what it meant to be Phish again. Particularly from the second night in Charleston on, the combination of small East Coast towns, intimate venues and a resulting youthful energy, the tour was set ablaze with shows chock full of segues, teases, rarities, and some of the most concise, yet expansive jams since the early 90's.
2. With a stated goal of playing 200 different songs throughout their 2012 Summer Tour, Phish not only infused each show in June/July with fresh songs and setlists, but with some of the most diverse jamming we'd heard out of them to that point in 3.0.
3. Their Fall 2013 Tour was treated as a complete 30th Anniversary Party. Similarly to Fall 2010, the band toured their home turf, infused every show with nostalgia, while pushing jams and songwriting forward in a way that would define their trajectory going forward.
4. Following the Fare Thee Well shows in Summer 2015, Trey sounded like a born-again guitarist, and his playing was perhaps the best it had been in twenty years. A new level was reached in 3.0, peaking during their three-night Magnaball Festival.
5. Two years later, they achieved a peak moment in their lives and career, when they called Madison Square Garden home for the Baker’s Dozen—a three-week celebration of all things Phish—filled with crazy covers, extended jamming, and some of the best sets many Phish fans had ever had the opportunity to experience live.
6. Finally, the Fall of 2018 saw the band build upon the successes of the previous five peaks of 3.0, while keenly focusing on their future evolution as displayed through their Halloween debut of the Kasvot Vaxt musical costume, along with the litany of outstanding jams dropped into every show of the tour.
III. The Best Month Of Them All
And yet, here's the thing, as great as all of the above months were in Phish's thirty-plus year history, December 1995 still ranks as the best month of them all. Coming on the heels of 186 shows in 21 months, with essentially three albums worth of new material in their arsenal, December 1995 is the most polished, confident, and driven Phish there's ever been.
Totally focused on improving with each show, in 1995 Phish still retained the youthful enthusiasm that had pulled them from obscurity as a college bar band, to theaters and open-air amphitheaters, to dominating the arena rock circuit in just six short years. With an unyielding conviction in the power of their locked-in, total connection concerts, a picture-perfect memory of their complex songs, and a refined approach to the vast exploratory jams of the previous twelve months, every show carried the potential to be the best show of the tour and year. As a result, there are no less than ten shows in the month that would find themselves ranked quite high in any list of the best shows the band has ever played.
Turn on any bootleg from December 1995 and the first thing you'll notice is the torrid energy bursting from your speakers. Featuring 17 shows in their comfort zone of the Northeast, the crowds that came out to their shows were some of the most dedicated, diehard, and loyal fans that Phish has ever had.
These were the fans that had seen Phish when they were the quirky yet irrelevant bar band in the 80s. These were the fans that had traveled throughout New York State, up and down the Atlantic coast, in small towns throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, all in effort to support the band and spread word of their greatness. These were the fans who'd watched Phish take the seemingly hopeless risk of driving 2,000 miles to Telluride, CO for a month long stand in a boycotted bar, and then become a national sensation within just four short years. These were the fans who packed into Boston's Exhibition Hall at the World Trade Center to witness their 1990 New Year's Eve show, only to now await the band's headlining NYE performance at the most famous arena in the world: Madison Square Garden. These were the fans who'd been there from the beginning, and now, were being treated to an entire month of Phish. A Phish that had reached their apex and was using their homecoming tour to throw a month long party.
Tearing through the southeast and up the Atlantic coast throughout November, every show, and every week while Phish was on the road, seemed to be better than the last.
To claim that December is superior than November is somewhat unfair when discussing the Fall 1995 Tour. November is the overlooked calm before the storm. By all accounts, if the tour had ended on November 30th 1995 in Dayton, OH, it would have been heralded as a success.
From the torrential & relntless energy of 11/11/1995, to Orlando's second set dive into the unknown during "Stash" on November 14th - a jam which built into a take on "Manteca" that just might be the first example of the cow funk entering Phish's repertoire - to the Carolina's brilliant "You Enjoy Myself" and "Tweezer" on back-to-back nights, to the 30+ minute "Free" that took over the second set in Landover, MD on the 22nd, to their first show at the hallowed Hampton Coliseum in Hampton,VA during Thanksgiving week, to Bela Fleck's memorable sit-in in Nashville, TN on the 29th, to the 30th's manic first set that spilled over into the masterful "Tweezer -> Makisupa Policeman -> Run Like An Antelope" in Set II, there were more than enough memories and monumental performances throughout November to end 1995 on a high note.
Yet, this is what makes December 1995 so special: they just kept going.
They'd harnessed the fire, and as they'd proven so many different times, in jams, in tours, and in a multitude of shows throughout the previous 12 years, if they just kept going, if they just kept focused, if they kept searching for the next plane of creative bliss, sooner or later they'd reach it.
From the moment they stepped on stage in Hershey Park Arena on December 1st, to the last note of "Runaway Jim" seventeen days later in Lake Placid, from the first roll of the signature drum pop of "Split Open & Melt" in Worcester, MA on the 28th, through "Johnny B. Goode" in the early hours of 1996, everything Phish played carried a sense of grandeur, a greater collection of energy, and a more meaningful purpose than most anything they'd played up until that point.
Nearly every show is a classic. You can't call any show a bad gig, you struggle to be overly critical of any show at all. Throughout the entire month, it mattered little what songs they actually played. Every song, be it "Down With Disease," "Tweezer," "Scent Of A Mule," "NICU," even "Poor Heart" contained a burst of energy and an opportunity to be explored in a celebratory manner like never before.
For seventeen glorious nights, Phish resided at the summit of the mountain, made even sweeter by the fact that they were performing nightly in front of the people who had supported them throughout their entire rise. There's simply no parallel to the month in any other period of their career. Even December 1997 - a blissful return to the summit, which we'll dive into next week, and in which the band knew they were the best band on the planet - lacked the first-time purity that made December 1995 what it was. While the sound they'd worked so hard to build until 1992 - a sound that they would spend the next three years toying with, constantly one-upping themselves - would linger in some form through The Clifford Ball the next summer, it never quite sounded so rich, so powerful, so expansive and so tight as it did throughout December 1995.
IV. The Jams Of December 1995
If one were to sum December 1995 up into a singular jam, one might suggest the 12/02/1995 "Tweezer" which builds in Type-1 tension & release fashion to a masterful explosion of guitar hose, or the 12/07/1995 rhythmic and soaring melodies "Mike's Song -> Weekapaug Groove." Perhaps they'd suggest the 35-minute "You Enjoy Myself" that engulfed the second set of the December 9th show at Albany and featured such lock-tight connection that they were able to incorporate almost two minutes of silent jamming before reawakening the jam, or even the 31-minute "Down With Disease," only the second time the song had been played since June, and the last true exploratory version until the European Winter tour of 1997.
And yet, for as remarkable, mind-bending, and infectious as those jams were, they are not Binghamton's "Halley's Comet -> NICU -> Slave To The Traffic Light" from December 14th.
Playing the tiny minor league hockey arena where they'd played one of their best shows of 1992 (3/20/1992), the show carried that extra something that lingers in the air at all classic Phish shows. The frigid temperatures outside, the college crowd/forgotten rust belt vibe of the town, its geographic location: 90 miles south of Syracuse on the 1-90 corridor, southeast of the fabled Finger Lakes; the cramped, archaic and swampy conditions inside the venue—it was all a part of the culture that made Phish phish.
On paper the triumvirate doesn't look that out of place - save for the direct segue into "Slave" - it appears as the kind of sequence one would envision happening without much fanfare at any number of shows. The burst into "NICU" out of a :30 guitar build in "Halley's" is none too uncommon during the 3.0 era. However, here, from the moment the lyrics in "Halley's" conclude it's clear the band is on a mission as Trey swiftly directs them away from the bubbly pop of the song into a high-octane charge into the unknown. Traversing through various speed-jazz phrases, Mike takes a step back and opens the space up considerably, before Trey reinvigorates the jam with an infectious and insatiably catchy riff to which each member hooks onto, thus shifting the jam into a rousing display of unity and communication.
This riff, and the resulting jam - just over two minutes in length - represents everything about December 1995 that was so special. In the midst of a jam on a song that is normally treated as a quick punch for energy, the band embraces the unknown fully, allows one jam to develop but then cuts it off abruptly. On a dime they are following each other, waiting patiently, and then, when they know Trey's struck musical gold, jump on his new idea, building a segment of music out of it that features total engagement and sounds as though it were composed over a lengthy period of editing and rewriting. Were it prewritten would take away very little of its greatness. Yet the fact that it's a completely spontaneous event makes it all the more surreal to listen to and contemplate.
From here, Trey directs the band into "NICU," a song that was notable for being something of a rarity at the time, yet one that no one in attendance would expect to find buried deep in a second set. Receiving the same treatment as "Halley's," as soon as the lyrics end, "NICU" goes on a wild adventure from 4:25 until its fade into "Slave." Jumping on the exact same theme from "Halley's," Trey builds the song in much the same way as he did in its predecessor, though this time, instead of following his every note, Page, Mike and Fish add an atmospheric background to his melody, maturing the theme on the spot, and giving it a more well-rounded, structural feel. Deconstructing it after reaching its maximum potential, Page takes the reins on the baby grand and guides the band out of fuzz-rock and into more refined and regal territory, before Trey and Mike return with ambient phrasings, fading into a stirring, patient and ultimately fulfilling "Slave" to end the sequence and the set.
Listening to this segment and it's clear not only why the band selected this show as their first statement piece in their Live Phish release series, but also why so many fans hold December 1995 in the place they do. The trio is classic Phish in the most classic sense. Yet, here, the band proves to know their songs & each other in such a deeply personal way, that they're capable of deconstructing their songs on the fly and rebuilding them as improvisational highlights.
After coming alive in the Murat Theater in Indianapolis back in August 1993, "Bathtub Gin" had cooled considerably, returning to its role as mid-first set Type I clinic in HOSE. Save for the rousing version sandwiched around the bust out of Mingus’ "Jump Monk" on 04/24/1994, the song remained quite contained for over two years. Yet as the band returned to the road on November 9th in Atlanta, they brought "Gin" back into the realm of improv as well. Both the 11/09 and the 12/05 version from Amherst left the "Gin" theme completely, engaging in, first, an anthemic hose section, before stripping away excess noise and focusing on the infectious rhythms contained within the songs origins. The December 5th version then built upon the uncharted terrain, guiding the jam into an obscure, noise-ladened territory, allowing each member to explore the bottom ends of their instruments, while dissonant washes hung overhead.
Following a similar dance-heavy pattern of the previous two versions, "The Real Gin" pushed through various segments of high-octane hose before Trey discovered a tight riff that each of his counterparts jumped on, and dedicated to building the theme ala the Binghamton "Halley's." The riff serves ultimately as a transition into a cover of The Who's "The Real Me." Yet what makes the segment so special is the fact that the transition emerged out of a collective search for communication, and wasn't until everyone jumped on the idea that Trey was trying to communicate that the segue unveiled itself to them.
The perfect match for a "Bathtub Gin" jam, the energy within the room - both onstage and off - reaches almost unsustainable levels of pure joy. The band harnesses a power only previously reserved for the arena rock bands of lore, and, for a moment, epitomizes the entire sound they'd been searching for to accompany their transitional state from clubs to arenas.
It's the kind of music they could have never played in a small theater in 1992. It's the kind of music they could never have played at the Gorge in the summer of 1998. It's the kind of music they could never have played during the winter of 2003. It's the kind of music they could never have played in October 2013 or July 2017.
It's wholly original and unique to where the band was in December 1995, and it represents the kind of elation and sustained energy that had overtaken Phish throughout the month. In the industrial heartland of Massachusetts, in the venue - The Centrum - that had housed one of the greatest shows of their first ten years - 12/31/1993 - two nights before perhaps their best show of all time - 12/31/1995 - at the peak of their power, fully locked into their goals, with a purpose that you just don't see out of a lot of bands once they've "made it," "The Real Gin" represented yet another one of those moments where the band simply became a vessel for tapping into a higher power.
Just listen to the way Trey screams "Can you see the real me?! Doctor?!! Whooooa DOCTOR!!" to a wave of continual cheers from the crowd before the band turns on a dime, breaks the song down to Fish, and Trey then perfectly pivots into the second verse. It's all the more impressive that this occured with a song they'd only played once before - two months earlier - a song that had probably not even been considered for the setlist, a song that emerged from a jam that wouldn't have even happened had Trey not gone forward with a brief idea of his, and had his bandmates not latched onto his idea fully, thus building the "Gin" into "The Real Me."
Then, as if the powerful segue, and surprise performance were not enough, the band took The Who on a wild ride through a torrential guitar solo, arena rock excess, before deconstructing it into a funk-laced jam that emphasized linear communication in its greatest sense.
Finally, in the same way that "The Real Me" found it's origins in the "Gin" jam, Trey directs the band into a rhythmic territory based off of a riff of his that bleeds patiently, yet flawlessly back into "Bathtub Gin." A masterful moment in composition, it is as professional an assertion on the power and command of Phish in December 1995, of both their arsenal and knowledge of each other. A monumental excursion, a clear victory for both the band, and for the world of improvisational music. Proof that, when they're at their best, what they're doing isn't so much "jamming" as it is communicating with the unknown. A jam that has lived on in infamy, known simply as "The Real Gin" to fans, it's yet another example of the power and supremacy that was Phish in December 1995.
V. THE Show Of December 1995
As was stated above, there's really no such thing as a bad show in December 1995. Even the weakest shows by most people's standards - 12/02/1995, 12/08/1995, 12/16/1995, 12/28/1995 - are still really good shows by any other month's standards. More than anything, these four shows have the misfortune of being included in the conversation with December 1995.
This embarrassment of riches creates a problem when attempting to sum the month up in a single show. There are simply too many good shows to discuss when talking about December 1995.
You could talk about the 12/01 explosion of energy, filled with incredible jams in "Mike's" and "Bowie," along with the right dose of Phish mythology in "Col. "Forbin's." Or the rarities scattered throughout 12/07, combined with a unique setlist and timeless jams in "Split Open & Melt," and the "Mike's -> Weekapaug" sequence. You could talk about 12/11's return to Portland, ME, where a gag on "Dog Log" took over the first set, while the second set was dominated by a scintillating and electrifying "Bowie." Or the jam-packed tour finale in Lake Placid which opened with the absolutely torrid segment of "My Friend>Poor Heart>A Day In The Life>Antelope" and closed with a 20 minute jam out of "Tweezer" and led - for only the third time ever - directly into "Tweezer Reprise." You could also talk about 12/29's old school, celebratory explosion - a show that defines the ultimate feeling of a Phish holiday run, and continued the lore surrounding the 12/29 and 12/30 shows on a NYE run. Or you could talk, however obviously, about the pure greatness of 12/31. From the fact that it was their first NYE show at MSG, to the near-flawless performance of some of their classics, to the diversity and multitude of jams in "Drowned," "Runaway Jim," "Mike's Song," "Weekapaug Groove" and "You Enjoy Myself."
Yet, to really sum up the entire month of December in one Phish, one should look no further than the insatiable command, and frantic explosion of energy that emited from their one-night-stand in Philadelphia, inside the legendary Spectrum, on Friday, December 15th.
Opening with "Chalk Dust>Hood>Wilson" is enough to straight blow the lid off the old gal. But to then build the first set through a segment of some of Phish's most raucous songs, refusing to let enough time pass between the conclusion of one song and the start of another, so that the crowd only has an opportunity to react once the next song's started, cultivated a live test in the amount of energy, pressure and elation one could unleash on a crowd before they would explode. "Maze>Ha Ha Ha> Suspicious Minds>Hold Your Head Up>Cars Trucks Buses>Bouncing Around The Room, Free>Possum" concluded a set that, like much of the rest of the month, mattered little for song choices, and instead relied totally on the ferocious output by the band.
Opening the second set with "Tweezer Reprise" carried much of the celebratory vibe from set one to part two, and was sustained through a twisted take on "It's Ice," and a spirited "Bathtub Gin" that evolved into a beautiful "Rotation Jam" before segueing into the only known version of the Fishman ballad "Mallory." Concluding with the classic combo of "2001>Bowie" - the latter of which exemplified the contained, yet exploratory nature of the composition - the show is full of literally everything that makes December 1995 the month it is.
If only to add to the musical mastery of the show was the locale. Born and raised in Princeton, NJ, Trey was a die-hard Philadelphia Flyers fan from a young age. No doubt won over by their back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and 1975 - the first of which featured the first victory of an expansion-era NHL team over an Original Six franchise, when they beat the Rangers in seven to advance to the Finals before beating the Bruins in six to claim Lord Stanley - he grew up playing hockey and made the hour-long drive to Philly frequently to cheer on the great Flyers teams of the 70's.
What's more, is, Trey's first live concert was a Jethro Tull show at the Spectrum. A venue that was held in the highest regard until it's closure and demolition in 2010, it was a favorite of many of the arena rock groups of the last fifty years, and was the kind of venue one showed-up to whenever they'd booked a gig there. Legends were made there, and one did not look lightly upon a performance at a venue like this. Combine this personal history with the fact that the show was their 180th since April 1994, near the end of their greatest tour ever, and it's no wonder such magic was unleashed in Philly this night. It's yet another example of the intangible power and energy that is unleashed during a Phish show. It's a perfect microcosm to essentially sum up what made December 1995 so unique in their history.
Certain venues and cities bring out different qualities within Phish. The Gorge allows for them to be overtaken by the vastness of the surroundings and usually results in shows heavy in experimentation. Deer Creek is their inheritance from The Dead - an intimate amphitheater in the heartland of America. MSG is the pinnacle of their rock star personalities, used to punctuate another year gone by and remind all other bands of that untapped power of Phish.
Philly's Spectrum, however, is what Phish would be if they were a venue. Located in an often overlooked city - Philadelphia - under appreciated by the masses, unpreserved by those in care of it, understood and adored by those who take the time to truly appreciate its intricate nature, and lovable flaws. When they stepped inside of it for each of the nine shows they would play there, the spirit and the energy of the venue overtook them, and - aside from two horrendously weak shows in 2003 - always resulted in one of the best shows from its respected tours.
Their first show at the Spectrum, December 15, 1995 represented a Phish arrived & a Phish returned in equal parts.
In the midst of the greatest month of their history, during a stretch swing through their home turf, this is the band showcasing everything they’d worked for over the previous decade. At the same time, in much the same way Fall 1995 helped to push Phish forward towards the sonic explorations and minimalist communications of the next five years, this specific show showcased a band in celebratory-victory-lap-mode, while also keenly looking to what was possible with their music in the near future.
Fusing the telepathic communication of the members of Phish with the absolute mastery of their technique, the home stretch of their Fall 1995 tour, where its location, their first performance in a venue of their dreams with the holiday season in full swing, and a band that had been touring hard for nearly two years, and it's no wonder that 12/15/1995 produced one of the most memorable shows of the tour and month. What's more though, is how it represents literally every aspect of Phish in December 1995 in a single show, which made that era so special and so unique.
Never before and never since has the formula added up in quite the same way as it did in December 1995. This is not to say that they haven't produced music over stretches before or since that demand listening in large stretch. But there is something to be said about the fact that December 1995 displayed a Phish at the absolute apex of their talents, yet still in search of a larger goal. Turn on any show from December 1 - December 31, 1995 (but more so, November 9 - December 31, 1995) and you’ll be convinced - even if you're wrong - that you’re listening to the best band that’s ever existed.
In the region that bore them and raised them up, it all combined to create the best month Phish has ever played.
(Come Back on Tuesday For Part I of The Three Decembers - 1997)
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