Is it time, yet? Has it spent long enough fermenting in the ground that we can take it out and do something with it, again? For a bunch of humans who pride themselves on their ability to appreciate the present moment and all the ephemeral beauty it has to offer when the course is uncharted, we sure do enjoy swimming around in nostalgia, don’t we? As I get older this once indulgent tendency of mine has waned and I see the irony of hoping to relive the moments that were only so beautiful in the first place because of how fleeting they were. That perfectly placed note on the crest of a crescendo that just as quickly comes crashing down on the other side. How long can you stay surfing when you’re busy talking about the wave you caught last week? But you know, as I get older time starts to feel a bit more like an illusion, and sometimes we do find ourselves at these milestones and it feels appropriate to check in on what history has to tell us if we put our ear to the dirty, sticky ground. So if I can be permitted the indulgence, let me take you back to the Summer of ’99, and a string of shows I caught twenty years ago, from July 12th to July 21st, and see how a window into that moment in time might help us appreciate this one that much more.
I was a month away from turning nineteen in July 99, and fortunate to have first caught Phish as a fourteen year-old in my hometown of Montreal. All the festivals and a couple New Years runs sprinkled with a few random shows here and there meant I wasn’t exactly a noob going into the run, but this was the first time I found myself with the time, motivation and ability to actually go out on tour: two shows at Great Woods (newly christened the Tweeter Center), two in Jersey, the now annual summer festival jaunt, this one closer to home, Phish’s long awaited return to my native Canada, and a cap-off at Starlake for good measure.
Summer 99 was a pretty magical time. Crossing the border in and out of the US, and generally driving around the east coast interstates wasn’t the somewhat ominous endeavour it would become (even for a Canadian) a few years later in a post 9/11 world. I don’t want to say there was a sense of innocence necessarily, but as the millennium approached and rave culture collided with our scene, there was the sense of participating in a collective intergalactic party the likes of which had never really been seen, and our four wandering minstrels played a big role in ensuring the soundtrack matched the cosmic magnitude of it all.
Detractors of the 99 era might argue that this is the year jams could start getting a little sloppy or indulgently frenzied, but to me every era has its strength and styles, and a few less interesting tropes. Though maybe not as cohesive and consistent as the couple years that preceded it, to my ears, the high points jam-wise of 1999 mark the pinnacle of a 4-year improvisational arc from 97-00 that you’d have a hard time convincing me weren’t the band’s best.
I hadn’t heard anything yet from the tour going into the first show at Great Woods, of course. We weren’t even really burning CDs yet at this point (I think some of these shows were the first I ended up burning to CD, actually). A buddy of mine who hopped on the tour a show earlier ensured me the “Chalk Dust” they had played in Camden was a keeper. “Chalk Dust,” hmm? Interesting. To date the “Foreplay/Longtime” that opened the show is one of the most instantly gratifying I’ve witnessed. A nod to the Boston area and to the fact that it had been a while since the band had visited what was at this point a significant venue in their history, with consecutive summer shows from 92-95, including the last Gamehendge performance in 94. Phish was coming out of the gates blazing this tour, with stunning first set jams in songs like “Fee,” “Birds of a Feather,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” and attempted the same here with a pretty fiery “Down with Disease.” This version didn’t quite hit some of the heights as its first set counterparts but is an interesting case study in the anatomy of 99 jams: aggressive machine gun frenzy that busts open into millennial space. “Disease” boasts some great jams in 99, and if you enjoy this one you’re encouraged to check out two from December to which I’m partial: 12/8, and 12/31. Phish was also taking their Siket Disc material out on the road for the first time which was a treat. An all instrumental spacey improvised ambient record? I’m still not sure the band has ever officially released anything cooler from the studio. “What’s the Use?” was my first taste and it’s the only track that has really maintained a presence in the rotation over the years, though I sure wish “My Left Toe” would resurface. More on that later. The rest of the first show in Great Woods had some fine moments, including a monster “Bowie,” but it’s not one that stands out or which I’ve gone back to frequently over the years.
The first set on 7/13 however, is a keeper. Packing a punch with a kind of double-opener, “NICU” and “The Curtain” quickly set a classic tone before the band knocked my socks off with a stunning jam in “Halley’s Comet” that wastes absolutely no time in shifting gears into a patient, pulsing, melodic masterpiece. This is ‘99 at its best, that swirling delay loop, Fish and Mike locked in and able to take the tempo anywhere at any time, Page full of intuitive texture, and Trey just possessed with perfect vision and the chops to match. The stretch at the ten minute mark is a thing of beauty. The jam settles down and sounds like it’s going to go into “Ghost” but instead shuffles into “Roses are Free.” The “Roses” doesn’t do much but it does go into spacey territory that would eventually bust out into “NO2,” another nod to the Gamehendge set of ’94. The “Reba” from this set is also a true stunner and briefly steps outside the standard “Reba” jam. Similar to the night before, the second set didn’t quite live up to the potential laid in the first, but though I didn’t appreciate it as much at the time, the “Wolfman’s Brother” does go to some pretty interesting ambient places towards the end before fading into “Piper.” Phish was trying all sorts of things in 99, playing around with texture and tempo to varying degrees of success. They’d knock it out of the park on the following night.
After the two shows at Great Woods staying at a friends place in Boston after driving down from Montreal, hitting the road for Holmdel was the first moment that being on tour really set in. Driving out to Mansfield is one thing, but navigating the guts of Trey’s hometown state of New Jersey felt more legit. I think few of us camped out in someone’s yard once we got there but I really don’t remember. I do remember a half dozen rowdy friends hilariously practicing the Meatstick as an ensemble post show.
The first night in Holmdel might have been the best show I caught on the tour, and I wish they’d release it from the archives, as the AUDs are a little lacking. You can’t really go wrong with a “Punch” opener, and “Ghost” was in its absolute heyday. Every “Ghost” from this tour is worth hearing. This one may not be the best (I’m looking at you, 7/23), but it’s still slick as all hell and put the crowd on notice early. The “Farmhouse” that follows is also a bit of a hidden gem with some beautiful soulful work by Trey; don’t sleep on it.
Going into the show word had been circulating about the “Meatstick” dance that the band was teaching crowds at shows, with the apparent intent to break a Guinness record at the Oswego festival coming up on the weekend to come. I was handed a flyer in the parking lot with the dance moves laid out with stick figures. The band opened the set with “Meatstick,” and after a brief explanation of their scheme for a big group dance, and a demo, launched into what I still think is the best jam the song has produced. Something about their jamming style in this era and the pops and swells of the song made for the perfect storm to create some bouncy, sexy millennial ooze. I still think “Meatstick” is an untapped jam vehicle and this version is my go-to example. If you’re listening boys, maybe it’s time to finally take out the “Meatstick” that was buried in '99?
As if that wasn’t enough, the “Split Open and Melt”->“Kung”->jam was the perfect fireball counterpoint to the wide open space the Meatstick had created. The “Split” itself settles into ambience before a downright demonic Kung becomes the catalyst for eighteen minutes of everything: blistering fire, digital disruption, chill out vibes and more. They would use this vehicle, pairing SOAM with a sung-overtop absurdity to similar effect at the end of the year with the 12/31 “Split Open and Melt”->”Catapult.” They’re very different jams, and I prefer the “A Love Supreme”-esque everglades calypso of 12/31, but you know, you don’t have to choose. Anyway it was a good night.
I don’t remember much from the second night in Jersey: a forgettable first set, a solid “2001>Groove” to open the second, but for the era, nothing to write home about. Unless you count Tom Marshall doing his best Bruce Springsteen impression in the encore.
Oswego was an absolute blast. This was now my fourth consecutive summer festival with more or less the same group of friends, and I didn’t know at the time that it would be the last of the era. But other than the usual traffic jam getting in (which caused us to arrive halfway into the “Tube” opener), this one was easy, intimate, and full of musical highlights taboot. The “Tweezer”->”Have Mercy” is probably the first night’s highlight, an atypical jam for the era, laid back with lots of legs.
Oswego was also the only festival to really feature a bunch of guests musicians, not only onstage but also after hours, with a lineup of other artists playing on the actual festival grounds. I don’t remember catching any of these acts, but it’s funny to think at the time that a dozen years later I’d be working with Brad and Andrew Barr from The Slip (who were among the lineup) to release their self-titled debut as The Barr Brothers on the label I helped start in Montreal in 2005. I don’t work in the business anymore, but if you’re not familiar with the Barr Brothers I highly recommend you rectify that pronto.
In any case, the Son Seals sit-in wasn’t exactly my cup of tea (I slightly preferred the bluegrass component with the Del McCoury band the next day), but the “Wolfman’s”->”Sneaking Sally”>”Timber” and a solid “YEM” was more than enough to chew on to close out the first night. The real meat of the festival was front loaded on sets two and three on the next day, though you’re urged to hear the first set Reba from 7/18, which easily rivals the version from Great Woods five days earlier.
A fantastic “Runaway Jim”->”Free” felt like a Summer 95 recall, only sprinkled with a little more economy, precision and melodic vision. The “Jim” doesn’t quite match the heights of the version from Starlake the summer previous (still the best they’ve played, imho), but it gets the job done. I remember floating on something I had consumed at set break, and having the landing into that “Free” make me feel pretty liberated, indeed.
A couple other non-musical memories stick out from this show. The first was an absolutely beautiful girl walking through the crowd at set break with nothing on put a pair of panties and a backpack. Call it cliche, but to this 18 year old at the time I was very impressed with her figure, and her composure. The other is a different kind of juicy. The summer previous at Lemonwheel, during one of the set breaks a guy was walking around selling blow-pops out of plastic bag for a buck apiece and seemed to be making a killing, and for some reason my friends and I decided this year to get a bunch and try the same. Problem was we weren’t really the entrepreneurial types, and at set break, floating as we were, we were more inclined to just give them away. And so we started to toss them to people, and then other people caught wind who were ten, twenty feet away and would want one too. We had a lot of them and threw them all out and by the end of it we were surrounded by a lot of fans all sucking on blow pops. I got a kick out of that.
Set three is your classic grab bag of Phish at their full-package best: a pulsing 25-minute jam out of “Piper” that echoed the “SOAM”->“Kung”->jam from 7/15 somewhat, and a readIcculus medley coming out of “Wilson.” Sure it might not make for the best listening experience now, but at the time that “Icculus” was a pretty big deal for us.
The other kicker about Oswego was that we were all used to going home after the “Hood” and the fireworks once the festival was over. This time we were only sort of going home, heading back to our native Canada for Phish’s first show in the country since the first time I had seen them five years earlier in Montreal. I still lived in Montreal but with some of my closest show buddies calling it home at the time, it was close enough as far as home town shows go. As I write this I’m on the train to Toronto a couple days early to catch the band’s third appearance there since then. I didn’t make it to the show in 2000, travelling in Europe at the time, but have fond memories of the 2013 return (despite the snafu of the last minute show cancellation/rescheduling; man, that sucked). This summer’s tour has a couple 2013 throwbacks with Toronto and Bangor on the docket, both of which I caught. For some modern day recommendations I suggest you check out the 7/3/13 Antelope and the 7/22/13 “Disease,” both excellent atypical versions deserving of a listen.
Alright, back to the nineties.
The 7/20 show in Toronto doesn’t disappoint. There were some placements and pairings that were feeling a little standard by this point, seven shows into my tour, but the highlights are absolutely worth investigating. Exhibit A is another lively first set “Ghost” which the fine folks responsible for the Live Bait series were kind enough to drop this summer on Vol. 16 of the series. The AUDs absolutely do not do justice to just how engaged and lively Mike is in this jam, especially towards the end. They are just locked in, going off, and having a blast. The “YEM” is a notch above too, showcasing a decidedly funkier feel the band was carrying out the other side of the laid back vibes in Oswego. And give me a second set “Train Song” between “What’s the Use?” and “2001” any day. To this day I’m not sure exactly what inspired the “Misty Mountain Hop,” but for some reason I got it in my head at some point that the “they asked us to stay for tea, and have some fun,” had something to do with Canadian promoters getting the band back to Canada. I could be completely making that up. Toronto isn’t exactly a Misty Mountain either, but whatever, this isn’t just a fun cover; the band takes it out for a menacing jam, getting into “Disease”-like territory and well away from the Zeppelin refrain. How about bringing this one back as a nod to the twenty year anniversary?
You would have thought that we’d have called it a tour after wrapping things up back in Canada, but for whatever reason (maybe it was the Jim from the previous summer?), we elected to catch one more and head back across the border for a finale at Starlake. On 7/21 I’m sure glad we did. The Pavement fans among us were pretty pumped to hear “Gold Soundz” out of the blue in the first set, but by now you should know it’s the “Simple”->“My Left Toe” that has this one logged in the history books. Of all the Summer 99 jams mentioned above this may be the one I’ve gone back to the most. The “My Left Toe” is airy and gentle, and the jam is just this blissful, patient, seemingly scripted climb to glory that would foreshadow a similar jam out of “Boogie On” in September in Chula Vista later in the year.
Yes there was still a lot more to come in 1999. The band didn’t let up at all in July, with highlights all over the shows at Columbus, Alpine and Deer Creek. “Meatstick” would come back from Japan forever changed, the band would open their early fall tour on the West Coast of Canada, and play some memorable shows with Phil Lesh. I didn’t catch them again until a pair of incredible nights at the CCCC, and then at Big Cypress for the big one, where we all buried the meatstick of the millennium. Anyone know what the plan is for that time capsule?
Time for the meatstick, bury the meatstick, take out the meat stick.. time.
Shocks my brain, man.
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