[This post is courtesy of user Mgolia6 (Matthew Golia), who will be recapping the Friday SPAC show in a week for this blog. -Ed.]
A Quick Level Set
We all have a different relationship with Phish. Each is personal, subjective, and influenced by a multitude of factors. Some fans are pure music lovers. Some love drugs (there is a veritable Silk Road pop up shop on every tour stop). Some come solo. Others roll deep with a lively crew. Some drag people while others get dragged. The draggers oft times were once draggees. For some it’s their first show. For some it’s their first show sober. For some it’s their hundredth. For some it’s their 46th and this is significant because they believe that at that show they will not only get a “46 days” but a chartable one to top 8/3/2003.
Some are lopes (that’s short for antelopes- term of endearment) that herd near the merch tent with their modified reinforced yoga mat holsters; waiting for the tour posters to go on sale so they can ask the clerk for the 46th numbered copy (same kid from above…lol). I once thought that these holster slingers were hardcore yogis who took mat protection to the next level and had a planned communal yoga sesh at setbreak. Turns out I was wrong.
Some are stat geeks, with a preternatural awareness of gaps, trends, anomalies, silly little factoids. Some are railriders, pit goers, pav seekers or lawn lovers. Some are twirlers, while others sway. Some use only their arms to dance, while others only their legs. Some know how to avoid an oncoming party, others don’t, some purposely don’t avoid. A choice few are stoic and statuesque (but break stride to rock out and orchestrate a blistering Zero using an invisible conductor's baton). Some share space others covet and horde it.
Some are called (or self proclaim to be) wooks, noobs, custies, kids, heads, narcs, jaded vets…some don’t say a word, others won’t shut up, some overindulge, some tend to the overindulgent. Some overindulge and won’t shut up. Some chase jams. Some chase songs. Some chase “Harpua” and are happy to share what tour obstacle caused them to miss it, and what they would give to hear it (a left poster nutbag). Some hate hijinx. It takes away from the jam. Boy loves cat, dog kills cat, boy wants dog. End of story. Next song.
There is one commonality amongst this hyper diverse set of fans, they all think of their opinion as Church. For example, everyone knows that ‘97 porn funk Phish was the greatest era ever (Fall ‘97, mic drop)! But everyone also knows that those ‘99-‘00 ambient loop jams that disappeared my consciousness into the ether were when the band really hit their peak (case in point Big Cypress). But everyone also knows that ‘98 was the perfect fusion of the funk ambient groove that finds the pocket and posts up (case in point 7/15/98).
From the eye of the beholder, each fan has IT right. BUT…The fact of the matter, each of them is wrong. And, no, not because I say so, but because for every position there is a counter; arguments being made to the contrary. A philosophical debate stretching to the end of time! Well, all are wrong, except for the one with the soapbox and the megaphone. And today, that’s me motherfucker…LOL! So kick back, grab a cold beverage, alcoholic or otherwise, an edible if that’s your fancy, put on something comfy, spread out on the couch, or post up on the toilet if that’s your preferred throne, and let’s get this show on the road.
Let’s get it out of the way…there will be no more (sorry for the title) overtly obvious puns dropped, Mike bomb style, so don’t expect to find the following: SPACtacular, SPACtastics, “that was SPACial.”
Now as I settled into the realization of having to review one of these SPAC Benefit shows, I decided to do some research. While I have seen a bunch of ‘em live (PH) SPAC shows (I mention this not because I think I am worthy, but because I just might be qualified), some are coming up on their 20 year anniversary and the dust collects, memories fade, and I wanted to be prepared, learned, and informed on all that has transpired.
So, I did what I thought any sensible human would do: a chronological deep dive listening to all of the shows in order, from start to finish. I painstakingly assessed the re-listenability of the songs and shows in hopes of providing some of that as a bonus (for those who are interested). And what happened…well I opened a barrel of monkeys (think opening scene to Toy Story 3).
To be clear, I focused on modern day Phish, as there were three shows played prior to the hiatus, all coming before 1995 (one was a one setter opening for Santana in 1992). Because within this subsection of the Phish cannon, I found a treasure trove of gems. I even expanded on some of the stats brought to us by David "ZZYZX" Steinberg and ihoz.
What I realized is that there was more here than just one little show recap. Looking at venues the band has played the most in their career, SPAC is ranked fifth (note: I removed The Front and Nectar’s)! Imagine if they hadn’t been banned (more to come on that)? What was I to do? Well, this write up, leading up to the actual review is what came of it. And if you are reading this, the kind folks at .net have allowed it to see the light of day.
So here goes…
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more controversial fan/band-venue relationship than SPAC. Situated in beautiful Saratoga State Park, amidst 2,379 pristine acres, SPAC is all at once one of the most beautiful northeast outdoor music venue settings and also one of the most annoying. Of the 19 modern era Phish shows that have taken place here, I have attended 12 and I am pretty sure I have parked in 12 different parking lots.
Depending on which road you take to get to Saratoga, you will inevitably be on one side of the massive state park, a veritable Gamehendge at first glance. Avenue of the Pines, North-South Rd, East-West Rd, RT 50, I’ve taken them all. Each of these gets you closer to the venue, but aside from RT 50, your escape is another matter entirely. Some lots are paved, others are grass, some are gravel. Some abut the venue, others have a skybridge to bring you over to the party, or away from it, (at max traffic this bridge starts to undulate slightly), depending on how rowdy that lot gets. You could be parked along one of the holes of the golf course found within the confines of the park, or near the Spa, one of a few swimming pools, or in the shadows of some of the historical architecture found near the Hall of Springs.
Because of the size of the park, the bottlenecks come hot and heavy from the get. Turn into the park at any of the entrances and you are already at a crawl doing a cool 5MPH (if you’re lucky). Once you have parked, you would think, with thousands of acres around you, that things would loosen up. But, nope. If you are parked on the east side, start walking towards the aforementioned skybridge, down that dirt path alleyway on the backside of the venue, the bottlenecks start to rear their ugly heads.
Getting into the actual venue is no cake walk either; I know many a fan, myself included, who have missed an opening song or three stuck in dense cattle herd type queues trying to squeeze their way into the venue. The list goes on and on. Whether you are at the RT 50 gate on the west side or the Hall of Springs gate on the east, backups abound, sweaty bodies collapse upon this section just prior to the show and the crowd gets so thick that any visible gating is quickly swallowed up and you just hope you are in the “right” line.
Once inside, I learned early on that the lawn here was “not” always the place to be, owing to the fact that a view of the stage is nearly impossible, due to awkwardly placed sky bridges and shitty sight lines. The hot box that is the upper section of the pavilion drops so far down that the gap between the ground and the bottom of the pavilion gets squished and makes it hard to see from the lawn; yet another bottleneck. The upper deck inside the pavilion gets wicked hot and on occasion the sound sways and can feel like a bowl of mush to the ears.
Then there’s the history, (check out @jackl & @KatMama’s intro to their recap of N1 2019 for more on the venue history), the controversy, the ban placed on having fun, Footloose style, for almost a decade. First SPAC bans marshmallows from the venue (apparently, they were found conspiring with graham crackers and chocolate bars and deemed to be too deviously delicious), then they ban bands. The Grateful Dead had a 3 year ban after their show that saw over 40,000 Deadheads descend upon Saratoga Springs. The traveling circus overwhelmed security and overpopulated the venue, which led to a laundry list of safety issues and eventually the ban. While there is very little evidence regarding the ban that kept Phish from SPAC on the ISH (believe me, I asked Jeeves), from 1995 until 2004, Phish did not play a single show here. Then, and we’ll assume capitalism is to blame, SPAC caught wise and let them back in. But still no marshmallows. Which leads us to…
While the venue itself can be drive concertgoers to a series of expletives, so too can the music SPAC produces. On relisten and thorough recollection, Phish plays, on average, an above average show at SPAC (some will cite 2016 as all very well below average). Though reminiscences, late-night respins, and digging through the show recaps and reviews can help jog even the most sedentary of memories, let’s let the stats, the metrics, the almighty math do the talking…
There have been 19 modern era (2.0 to present) shows played at SPAC generating 53 hours, 23 minutes, and 58 seconds of music. 404 total songs have been played (182 unique songs) across 38 sets and 19 encores. The average song length clocks in at 7 minutes and 57 seconds while the average show length comes in at 2 hours, 48 minutes, and 28 seconds. The shortest show (WEDNESDAY 07/03/2019) was just 2 hours and 35 minutes while the longest (SUNDAY 07/08/2012) was a whopping 46 minutes longer at 3 hours and 22 minutes.
2012 was the year of the highest song count, as every show had 27 (FRIDAY 07/06/2012, SATURDAY 07/07/2012, SUNDAY 07/08/2012). While 2004 was the year of shortest song count, averaging 13.5 across the two shows (SATURDAY 06/19/2004, SUNDAY 06/20/2004). We even got that coveted 4 song second set (without some sort of weather impact)!
Jams, yeah, well we got em…From the get-go, "Piper" 6/19/2004 goes the distance and is still in contention for best "Piper" ever. Of the 5 versions played, all are double digits (sort of) and though the 2004 version weights them heavily, the average "Piper" length at SPAC comes in at a cool 16 minutes 16 seconds, second only to “YEM.”
“YEM,” yes SPAC enjoys…well you get it. 6 versions, averaging out at 20 minutes and 17 seconds, “YEM” ends the set or the show in every appearance. All are worthy of a respin, but SUNDAY 06/20/2004 really hits that sweet spot.
Let’s talk fire and ice…or specifically, “Fuego” and “Drowned." Fuego gets the (fire)works on FRIDAY 07/04/2014 clocking in at just shy of 20 minutes (I believe the first jammed out version, though 2014 has 3 top shelf versions including: Mann 7/8/14) and averages a steamy 16 minutes 1 second in its two appearances. And…6/20 is the date for top tier “Drowneds” (2004, 2010). The 2004 version is just pure hose.
In total, 25 songs have gone 15 minutes or greater in the 19 modern era SPAC shows. Which is saying something for a song heavy venue with seconds sets reading a little like bloated first sets (2004 being the outlier).
Surprisingly, what appears to be the best SPAC year lies in stark contrast to the remainder of that same year. It might be said, that the last great shows of 2.0 were played at SPAC. In fact, I think it is being said and is true. If Coventry was the death of 2.0 Phish, then Cooney Island and SPAC were the DMT release to the gorde prior to expiration. 6/19 set the stage with a monster second set only to be outdone the following evening with that rare and wholly engaging 4 song second set. Pure Porn Phish with the "Seven Below"->"Ghost"->"Twist">"YEM." FUDGE ME.
As you can see, there is a lot to unpack at SPAC. I think I might have scratched the surface here and, in preparation for the upcoming shows, you can dig further using the links below as well as the SPAC STATS spreadsheet (compiled by yours truly…sorry the pivot tables got wonky in conversion to Google sheets) that delves into the metrics of all the music born of this dearly beloved (and some-times loathed) venue. Additionally, this Phishy Article seemed to have the same idea as me, so even more to chew on. See you in a few days!
Phish.net Setlist Links
.NET Recap Links
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