[Take the Bait is spirited deliberation centered around the hyperbole of Phish’s music and fandom, passionately exuded via the written words of phish.net contributors @FunkyCFunkyDo and @n00b100. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of phish.net, The Mockingbird Foundation, or any fan… but we're pretty sure we’re right. Probably.]
Funky: Magnaball, Big Cypress, The Great Went, IT - the big cheeses of in-house Phish’s festival circuit. Oswego, 8, Lemonwheel - the, uh, Ritz crackers of the circuit - they exist in the same universe, and are all good and stuff, but are not spoken about in the same breath. Uh, cheese and crackers, Funky.... Yeah yeah please don’t point out my obvious metaphorical flaws this early. And please don't take away my Tom Robbins metaphorical fan club card. No one wants that, in any reality. They want judgement!!
Set 4: Ambient Jam
Undoubtedly, fans who attended the latter three festivals might be clenching their fist and giving us an, “Oh yeah?! Come here a minute!” to defend the undoubtedly awesome time they remember, or at least re-manifesting what they might have undoubtedly remembered, at those events. But for the rest of us, who may not be so familiar with the festivals, beyond recognizing their names, why is it that they do not jump out at us like Magnaball, Cypress, Went, or IT?
A note of importance that must be addressed before the torches and pitchforks are distributed: the festival experience goes far beyond the music. I have been to only one, Magnaball, and that’s when, and only when, I got it. The magical environment that Phish creates of art and food and entertainment and visuals and camaraderie and community and the ferris wheel(!) … and I haven’t even mentioned the music yet... is like what Disneyland creates for children before they set foot on a ride (who I am kidding, I love Disneyland - I may be getting older but I’ll never grow up). Anticipation and a more fun variety of anxiety radiate like sunlight from and to each face you see. There is palpable magic in the air and a high voltage electric current that surges through the campgrounds, Phish onstage or not. Just being there is something of an utopia. Feeling the presence of so very many people - like-minded, relatively tuned-in (to the Phish frequency, which is a real thing - if you've been to a show, you've felt it), and incredibly excited. It’s amazing to be a part of. A completely unique communal experience, with the music nearly becoming secondary, ironically, as the music is the reason this is all happening in the first place..
Having not been there to experience our “forgotten festivals,” or any other outside of Magnaball, precludes me from passing well-rounded judgement on them as an experiences. So, that much of it we will not address. BUT. We do have ears. And eyes. And an obsessive ritual of checking phish.net’s forum... once every 78 seconds… for the last decade or so...
So it comes of some surprise that some festivals just don’t get the fans’ proverbial limelight that others do. I am sure that “magic” element was, probably, somewhat comparable across all. So, what does that leave us with as a discerning factor between them? The music. Like Phish’s entire catalogue, their music exists on a quality spectrum, ranging from my lowest score ever: Seven Thumbs Up; to the highest marks I can give: Immediate Pantslessness. The festivals, even though they are festivals, are not exempt from this spectrum - especially for the 99% of us that were not in attendance and thus do not have that delightful thing called "attendence bias." So, perhaps, the music is the reason that some festivals just aren’t as well-known… perhaps, festivals can be ordinary in some ways. Perhaps.
n00b: Here, let me clean up that opening metaphor for you, Funky. Think of the Phish festival going experience like eating at a steakhouse. The Big Four festivals you identified (and quibble all you want, readers, I’m confident those would be the top four vote-getters of any poll of favorite Phish festivals, with maybe the Clifford Ball sneaking in there) are like the biggest cut of prime rib, one of those joints you get with the bone in it like you’re in The Flintstones or some shit so your dog can have a treat when you get home, and are truly a dining experience unlike any you’ve ever had. The lesser festivals are more like a thinner cut, perhaps not quite as kick-your-privates-out-your-back amazing as the bigger deals, but more than worthy of tucking into and savoring for its tender juiciness (even Festival 8 has the acoustic set and Superball has the Storage Jam, for example, both of which are non-negotiable parts of the Phish fan experience). And then there’s Coventry, which is like if the waiter picked up your steak, flung it directly into your face, and then burst into tears because it turns out he’s been addicted to opiates for years.
Having not been to a festival yet (both Magnaball and Curveball - RIP - were decidedly out of my price range unless I wanted to climb the Watkins Glen International Raceway fence and sleep behind a Port-a-Potty for 3 days), I too am only able to judge them on their musical merits, and let me say this - honestly, I think the festivals that have the big reputations versus those that don’t are fairly parceled out. Think about how the Big Four are positioned in our mind. The Great Went is an absolute feast of improvisation from one of Phish’s undeniable peak touring years, anchored with one of their most widely beloved jams in Night 2’s Bathtub Gin. Big Cypress is the fabled end-of-the-millennium (it wasn’t really, but let’s go with it) all-night party, containing maybe the band’s greatest gimmick and most beloved set of them all. IT is the unquestioned high water mark of 2.0 (it’s that or 2/28/03), possibly the most astounding festival from a purely improvisational standpoint, and contains one of the band’s most challenging and rewarding listens in the Tower Jam. And Magnaball stands proudly as one of the peaks (still THE peak to some) of the modern era, three days of magnificent improv, sheer fun, and thrilling moments all throughout. Between those four festivals, nine shows, and twenty-five sets (hope I did that math right), you have just about the entire Phish experience after 1996 wrapped up into one expansive package.
And then you’ve got the other festivals, which (again, outside the Clifford Ball, which scores nostalgia points for being the first festival and musical points for its beloved Night 2 Set 2) don’t have quite as much to sell as the Big Four. There are certainly great jams, but every festival has those (even 8, although it might have the least of them all; certainly Coventry has them, and that’s all I’ll say about that). There are certainly moments that stamp all of them as events, even if it’s just through a major improvisation like the Ambient Jam (although Oswego was basically just part of the Summer ‘99 tour instead of a tour finale like every other festival, an odd choice that gets odder the more you think about it). But when you get down to it, none of them quite have the combination that the finest Phish spectacles have, which is why they’re not quite as firmly fixed in the memory as the Big Four are. It’s ever thus with Phish - basically the same reason why shows like 12/30/93 and 7/25/17 suck up all the air in the room, only to a much larger degree.
Which brings us to our next series of columns - we here at Take The Bait Industries Ltd. (that's right, we formed our conglomerate in the UK) want to talk about those “lesser” festivals, for the purposes of bringing the air back into the room, and to see if maybe we missed something in overlooking these festivals in favor of spinning 8/2/03 III or 8/22/15 II for the 500th time. And we’ll be kicking off with 1998’s festival, aka Lemonwheel, whose toilet situation NBA writer Jason Concepcion compared to one of World War I’s grisliest battles here.Take it away, Funky.
Funky: You should write for Cliff’s Notes.
Musically, Lemonwheel was what we persnickety fans call standard-great. That is to say, Phish played well. If you were there, you’d be dancing and high-fiving and having a really, really good time. There was nothing better than what you were doing right then.
If you are listening, having not been there, you’d be satisfied, nodding along and some moments giving a fistpump or two, but, ultimately, revisiting very little of it compared to what else is out there. This is fine. Really. Using myself as the goat - of the 75 shows I’ve been to, I regularly listen to probably 5-10% of the music I saw live in those shows. Now, keep this in mind: At 73 of the 75 shows I saw, I exclaimed, unequivocally, that THAT show was the best show I’ve ever seen. Maybe 74. It’s good to be me. Lotta strands in old Duder’s head. And of the shows I haven't been to, despite really trying to hear it all: magnificently less than 1% of Phish's catalogue, with any sort of regularity, goes into my ears. If you knew me in real life you wouldn't believe this, but it is the truth. And I didn't even give you my coat! So let's get to what has been long since forgotten.
The first set of the first night was as standard-great as it gets. Great flow to the set but nothing mind-blowing in selection. Solid, fun, straightforward versions of all songs, save a smoothed out, groovey, rolling-hillside version of "Simple."
Set 2 brought the night’s highlight in “Gumbo.” Funny thing about this, there are some mp3 files I have transferred from computer to computer to computer going back to college, 14 years ago. Some of those files still go by their name upon my discovery of the jam. Lemonwheel “Gumbo” is “Gumbo 8.15.98 - thick percussive booty funk.” Still extraordinarily accurate. Heavy cowblock and tribal Fishman drives a brakeless funk train - Mike is the engineer. It rolls downhill and does not stop until it crashes rather jaggedly into “Sanity.”
“Tweezer” had a good opening salvo in the jam, funky and dancey, but the jam ultimately got lost in Trey’s noodles. Very solid, emotional versions of “Chalk Dust Torture” and “Slave to the Traffic Light” (especially “Slave”) closed the set. Good set, weird flow, with a great “Gumbo.”
The third set is something of sleight of hand by the band. A real treat that sneaks up on you, and not where or when you expect it. On paper, it looks rather, uhm, slow and inconsistent for the third set of a festival. I thought that too. But of course, we have to listen to make an informed opinion.
It was a slow and inconsistent set. When it ended, I was like, “That’s it? Oof.”
Heavier on the ambience and calm - “David Bowie’s” 8-minute extended intro; “Strange Design;” “Brian and Robert;” and a more melodic “Limb by Limb.” It was just so deliberately slow. Weirdly so, even for Phish (sometimes). But... there is an explanation. At the very end of the encore, Trey starts talking about something they have planned. I was maybe 10 seconds away from pressing the skip button to get the “Ambient Jam” which came next. But I didn’t.
Instead, I hear a wildly creative, lucid, proud Trey telling the crowd about the late night set they had planned. About how the fans are the proverbial sparks/fire that keeps the Phish burning bright (as an aside, the song "Fuego" is about this exact thing, “Inside your [fan’s] Fuego, we [Phish] keep it rollin” I really love the continuity here). He explained the metaphor of fire they used at the Great Went, burning the art they had all created together, saying how they want to keep that fire burning tonight. At Lemonwheel, he explained, there was a candle-making station for fans to create their own candles. Those candles were then collected by the staff, and given to the band, who, along with the staff, were arranging them onstage for the late set. There would be no light show, Trey said, no setlist, no songs, just jamming to the lit candles in an ambient fashion for ambient music.
Boy did they deliver.
The ambient nature of the set was surreal. It sounded like the third set, all homogeneously melted together. “Brian and Robert’s” ethereal feel mixed with “Strange Design’s” dreaminess and wove into the “Bowie” intro’s spaciness. It even had a couple sections of rock and jazz. The third set, in my opinion, was the band dialing in their “vibe” for the “Ambient Jam. It made me appreciate both, much more, in terms of effort, execution, and result. The Ambient Jam, especially, a cascading triumph of improvisation.
n00b: So yeah, that’s a pretty cool moment indeed, and a great opening to the Ambient Jam. Having written reviews for both of these shows, I went back and took a look to see both how I felt about the shows and if our highlights matched up, and I was pleased to note that we had a lot of overlapping opinions (although I liked the "Tweezer" more than you). And yeah, that first set really is about as standard-great as that phrase connotes, and the "Gumbo" really is the standout jam of all three sets from the opening night. It’s such an odd show when you really give it a full listen, especially in the context of Summer 1998, which had sacrificed a not-insignificant amount of the otherworldly precision of Fall ‘97 for a more markedly Johnny Good Time party vibe. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course - one listen to something like the Vernon Downs 8/15 show or the majestic 7/17 Gorge show makes it rather clear that the band had only lost a little off their Randy Johnson-level fastball - but it does make for a rather different experience, and one that can lead to good-but-not-great shows like this one.
That said, good-but-not-great does take on a different meaning when we’re talking peak-level Phish, and the highlights here really are darn sweet. I wanted to touch on the "Limb by Limb" a little bit, since you didn’t very much in your section (neither did I in my review, I’d note) - it’s a really lovely version that briefly touches on some minor-key sentiments out of the verses before hitting a neat peak, and instead of going back into the usual "LxL" ending the band instead starts to play a little bit softer now (“Shout” style) before coming to a Page-led gentle close. Aside from that, I don’t know that there’s anything else that needs to be touched upon (the "Bowie" is wider than it is deep, so to speak), so let’s talk a little bit more about the Ambient Jam.
So there was an Instagram post or something like that that went around the day Curveball was cancelled that noted that the big mirrored ball on the grounds was meant for the band to play in for the secret set - and it also noted that the secret set, like all the others, would be made up of pre-planned chord changes. At first I was gobsmacked by that (being the naive sort about certain things), but then it made sense the more I thought about it - yes, the band is remarkable at improvisation, but they still need structure to make their longform improvisations work, else it just float off into the ether or devolve into squawking noise like what people imagine free jazz to sound like (and shit, even Ornette Coleman’s "Free Jazz" and John Coltrane’s Ascension, the twin pillars of free jazz, had mode changes suggested by the musicians or pre-planned structural shifts built in). My admiration for the great festival secret sets has not diminished one jot, and honestly has become even greater with the knowledge that they could have gone in different directions but settled on what we got for those four mammoth jams.
And that leads me into the Ambient Jam, the very first of its kind and the most meaningful in that sense, and also the one that actually led to a true shift in direction by the band. The gorgeous floating grooves led by Page; moments of odd and discomfiting darkness; Trey’s loops swooping around the stage like the bird noises in Tomorrow Never Knows (actually Paul McCartney’s laugh played backwards - you learn something new every day); the occasional hushed quietude almost entirely unfamiliar even to an audience who had gotten used to minimalism being Phish’s improvisational calling card - all of this, combined with their usual ability to build to massive peaks, pointed the way forward for Phish in 1999 and 2000, and even to a certain extent Phish in 2003 (maybe not 2004 as much...). I still stand by the jam not being perfect or even entirely interesting throughout (which is not an issue with the other big jams, but hey, gotta crawl before you can walk), but it’s still a monumental achievement all the same.
Funky: It seemed as though they got their yah-yahs out the first night. I think the nervous courage it must have taken to perform Phish a la carte - sans lights, sans setlist, late at night, surrounded by, literally, things your fans made for you - was probably just a bit distracting during the preceding three sets. And one can hear that very clearly in your articulation of the Ambient Jam.
Another very standard-great first set springs open the second night, with my personal highlight being a star-twinkle, extended version of “Ya Mar.” One sentence on the whole first set? Yeah, I mean it would be redundant to repeat what I wrote earlier about “standard-great” Phish, but hey, it’s a perfectly serviceable reality to have an even-keeled, fun little set.
The meat of Lemonwheel came in 8.16’s second set. A heavy, funked out “Down with Disease” strutted and sashayed with confidence and attitude. There was no anxiety here, no nervous tension. Phish went for it and delivered big time mixing currents of filthy dance music on top of energized murk. A frenzied, furious, psychotic “Piper” is juxtaposed by a dreamy, Ambient Jam-y “Ghost.” Reprising many of the ideas from the night, or morning, prior, “Ghost” weaves and blends through languid cosmos. A brilliant, even if mellow, display of jamming. “Fluffhead" adds an exclamation point to the stunning trio of songs. This is worth your time, every time. The rest of the set is akimbo, as it loosely tapers off after “Fluffhead” and is ultimately buttoned closed by a hot “Run Like an Antelope.”
The third set of the second night, much the the third set of the first night, just looks weird on paper. And while I eventually found the mechanism driving the slowness of the N1S3 in the framework for the Ambient Jam, I simply couldn’t find one for N2S3. Perhaps fatigue. A great “2001,” but not totally-adventerous despite its length, again, reprising much of the Ambient Jam and “Bowie” intro is all you’ll need to sink your teeth into, and the rest of the set, encore included, felt like… well, it all felt like an encore. It didn’t even reach an hour in run-time, but I supposed that is fairly offset by the hour-and-forty minute second set. Still, it wasn’t all that noteworthy any way you try to cut it. Lastly and most importantly given the nature of the festival, I am sure the spectacle of seeing the fire-lit pathway wind through the crowd during “Baby Elephant Walk” was a mind-blower.
As I review the words I have written, they appear rather mundane and subdued. Yet, I find myself wanting to change no mood or tone. Lemonwheel, to someone who wasn’t there, isn’t entirely forgettable, but it also isn’t all that memorable. It is quintessential “standard-great” Phish on either side of an apex, career moment in the Ambient Jam.
To me, it almost seems as though the festival was built entirely around the Ambient Jam. From Trey’s passionate, all-in story about the candle making, tying in Great Went, and the fire from the fans metaphorically and literally surrounding the band in the Ambient Jam - it just feels like this festival existed so Phish could celebrate their fans. And that is pretty dang cool.
It is as though the 6 sets of “standard” Phish are supplemental to the Ambient Jam, and true focus of the weekend, the fans. How can anyone, even your most judgemental author, criticize such a harmonious and genuine display of affection and appreciation? I can’t and I won’t.
Perhaps, Lemonwheel might be overshadowed (read: forgotten) musically, both by festivals and normal shows within the Phish catalogue. But after experiencing it start-to-finish through my speakers, 21 years after it happened, 3,000 miles away from where it happened, I am filled with happiness and joy on what Phish did for the fans in attendance. And that will never be forgotten. It was selfless and caring, music from the heart that melted the brain at times, but touched the soul throughout. It was a passionate “thank you” to Phish fans, at that point in time, the likes of which had not been expressed by the band, with that magnitude.
n00b: That’s a really beautiful sentiment, man. And now, here comes some wry analysis!
I really see no point in adding to your analysis of Night 2 of Lemonwheel, which I basically agree with, so let’s go with this. Go back and look at the setlists for Lemonwheel and The Great Went from the year before. What are the major standouts from Lemonwheel? Night 1’s "Gumbo," "Tweezer," and "LxL," and Night 2’s "Disease," "Piper," "Ghost," "Also Sprach Zarathustra," and a "Hood" with a dope jam attached. And from the Went? Night 1’s "CDT," "Ghost," "Wolfman’s," "Simple," "LxL," "Llama" (and that’s only a partial list; seriously, 8/16/97 has a real good case as the greatest show they ever played), and Night 2’s "Tweezer" -> "Taste," "Disease," "Gin," "2001," "Hood," and "Mule". Now, setting aside that the Went has considerably more highlights, of the overlapping songs between the two, how many from Lemonwheel would you say outdo their Went counterparts? The "Ghost?" Maybe? I know that seems like an unfair comparison to make - at least three of Went Night 2’s jams are among the most beloved of their kind - but it’s a comparison that suggests itself, and is incredibly stark when actually made. Lemonwheel is a great deal of fun. The Went is a great deal of fun AND contains some of Phish’s benchmark jams. Bit of a difference.
And I guess that gets a little bit at how Phish fandom works, now that I’m thinking about it. I can hear people grumbling as I type this - “What’s the point of comparing the Went with Lemonwheel? Why not just take 98’s festival on its merits?” Well, let me answer with my own question - how often, on average, will you play some random 2009 or 1995 show over your favorite jams or sets, spread out across your entire lifetime of being a fan? Favorites don’t become favorites because you’ve heard them once - they become favorites over wearing out your Maxell lying in bed at night, or burning CD after CD of a show you love for your B&P tree, or (ahem) putting a jam on repeat on your iPod wandering around your law school library stacks looking for that one treatise on contract law you need to write your midterm paper on the Statute of Frauds. And at a certain point, unless you embark on one of those full-tour listening endeavors for all of their tours, you’re just not going to listen to their entire catalog, and you surely won’t listen to every show the same amount. I enjoy 7/16/13 a lot, as anybody who’s seen me write about this band knows. I don’t enjoy it as much as 12/7/97. I just don’t.
To which I return to the original point about Lemonwheel - yes, I don’t doubt it was a fun and lovely time for the folks that were there; yes, that pre-Ambient Jam speech is really touching; yes, the band showed a great deal of affection for the fans that were there. But that was 20 years ago, and those fans have those experiences forever, but only for themselves. For the folks that were there, at the end of the day, all we have are the recordings of the show. And what I hear on those recordings, good as they are…….well, I’m gonna reach for the 8/17/97 "Also Sprach Zarathustra" over the 8/16/98 version; shoot, I’m gonna reach for the 12/29/98 version over it. C’est la vie.
That said, you all really should hear that jam out of the 8/16/98 Hood. It’s neat as hell.
Authors' aside: Have a great time in Mexico this weekend - pro tip: wear fewer pants.
If you liked this blog post, one way you could "like" it is to make a donation to The Mockingbird Foundation, the sponsor of Phish.net. Support music education for children, and you just might change the world.
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Phish.net is a non-commercial project run by Phish fans and for Phish fans under the auspices of the all-volunteer, non-profit Mockingbird Foundation.
This project serves to compile, preserve, and protect encyclopedic information about Phish and their music.
The Mockingbird Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Phish fans in 1996 to generate charitable proceeds from the Phish community.
And since we're entirely volunteer – with no office, salaries, or paid staff – administrative costs are less than 2% of revenues! So far, we've distributed over $2 million to support music education for children – hundreds of grants in all 50 states, with more on the way.