by David Steinberg
Featured Column: The Best and Worst Phish Guests
Guest appearances are pretty rare in the Phish world. When they do happen, they tend to inspire fairly extreme reactions, with fans of the guest being incredibly inspired and others feelings like it was a waste of their Phish time. Between the extremes there is plenty of room to argue. Here in a convenient list form designed for everyone to explain to me why I’m completely wrong are the 5 worst and 10 best guests Phish have ever had.
5 The Worst Guests
5) Bob Weir- The three song encore, 10/6/00This was a good idea that didn’t quite work. Starting out with a solid version of “El Paso,” this seemed like it was going to be a lot of fun, but then Bobby seemed to have a lot of trouble keeping up with “Chalk Dust Torture” and then – for some reason – they ended this section with a Jerry song. “West L.A. Fadeaway” isn’t exactly a triumphant encore to begin with, but it’s not a song associated with Bobby. Nice idea, nice start, lousy execution.
4) B. B. King – the last three songs of the first set, 2/24/03Ask anyone who was there. The B. B. King section of this show went on forEVER. If there’s one thing that makes the difference between a good guest and a bad one, it’s how long they stay on stage. A forty-five minute section of a concert with a guest is going to get much worse reviews than a fifteen minute one. By the end of the set, people were about to walk on stage with one of those vaudeville hooks to drag him away. That’s rule number one for a guest: don’t overstay!
3) Jennifer Hartswick – “Girls Girls Girls” 4/15/04I have become a big fan of Hartswick over the past decade. Trey was completely right when he saw how talented she would become. Not only that, she is one of the nicest people you’re ever likely to meet. Therefore, it’s sad that her only Phish appearance was at one of the worst shows in their history, the one that led directly to the breakup. It’s a bit weird putting her on the list because she’s not the problem in the song; her wails and Page’s fills desperately try to salvage it. Still though, this was one of the worst moments in Phish’s history and it would be dishonest to not mention this in the list.Here’s hoping at some point down the line, she gets a chance to ecome out and play again, perhaps this time making the other list.
2) Baby Gramps – “Mice and Bats” 8/26/93I have to confess a personal bias here. As a northwesterner, I’ve been exposed to Baby Gramps’s act a number of times and he just scares me. With a voice that sounds like a cross between Popeye and a child molester, there are few announcements that have the potential to deflate a crowd that’s not in the mood for it than the announcement of a Baby Gramps appearance. In fact, the entire column idea came up when I discovered that Baby Gramps came out twice on this tour.So I wrote this long rant about Baby Gramps and only then I actually listened to this version and… errr… it’s actually not bad. This is the very opposite of Jennifer Hartswick’s performance, where a very strong Phish are able to take a performer than I don’t normally like and distill what’s good about his weirdness without completely devolving into Baby Gramps terror world.Still though, Phish made me sit through two Baby Gramps opening sets in Seattle 1995 so he stays there. Besides, I defy anyone to listen to his verses without getting a little creeped.
1) Kid Rock – last three songs of second set and encore 9/29/00Not only did Mr. Rock violate the overstay rule – I suspect that some of the criticism would have been toned down if he just hadn’t come out for the encore – but his stage presence was the exact opposite of Phish’s. While some people liked the change of pace, especially in an environment like Vegas, one of the attractions of Phish for me is that they don’t point to the crowd to make us sing the choruses and strut around the stage and change the lyrics to “We’re an American Band,” to, “We’ll pull your panties down.” Yeah it’s Cock Rock and yes it has an energy to it, but I don’t really care about Trey’s and Kid’s (invented?) encounters with strippers at the Mandalay. Thankfully, there was no repeat of this.
The 10 Best Guests
OK, let’s get to the good stuff. First let me give an honorable mention to Chief Jim Billie from 12/30/99. His appearance gave Big Cypress some additional mythic points, like an all night concert on native land at the turn of the millennium needed more. However, when’s the last time you sat down and listened to “Big Alligator?” Fun, but just out of the top 10.
10) Tom Marshall – many performancesTom should rank higher here just based on how much fun his appearances have been over the years. He had a great role during holiday runs for a few years where he’d come out during a “Harpua” or “Forbin’s” and sing some bizarre song: “Shine” on 12/31/95, “Champagne Supernova” on 12/29/96, and “I Could Walk 500 Miles” on 12/30/97. Other notable performances were The Who’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” on 10/8/99 (He got to sing, “My name is Tommy.”) and – after a long build up implying it would be Springsteen coming out – “Born to Run” on 7/16/99.Why is he ranked so low? It’s not because of the music. It’s just that calling Tom Marshall a guest is kind of weird when he’s about as close to being a member of the band as you can get without being one of the four. That’s the same reason why Jeff Holdsworth’s 2003 showing doesn’t make the list despite providing a glimpse into what the alternate universe Phish where he never left the band would have sounded like.
9) B. B. King – the last three songs of the first set, 2/24/03Ask anyone who wasn’t there. The B. B. King section of the show is kind of cool, with Phish playing music that they don’t normally play quite effectively. There are very few concerts that are better if you didn’t attend than if you did. Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2009 comes to mind – in that case it was due to sound levels being too low in the oversold lawn to actually be able to able to hear the music – as another one. If you were at the show, give it another listen. It’s better than you remember.
8) P Funk – “P-Funk Medley”, 12/30/03Pure fun! That’s the best description of this. After a quick run-through of some of their funky songs, this evolved into a vacuum led jam. What makes this even better is that they managed to tie this into the set, putting it in the middle of a “Makisupa.” It was just a very long keyword which might have been even better than hearing “Touch Me.”
7) Bruce Springsteen – last three songs first set 6/14/09As mentioned above, Phish played a joke in the pre-Oswego show that Bruce was going to come on stage. A decade later it happened for real. What makes the section so strong is that each song has a different feel. “Mustang Sally” feels like Phish with a guest vocalist. “Bobby Jean” is Bruce Springsteen and the Phish Street Jam. Finally for “Glory Days,” they all work together to form an interesting coequal combination. It started off rough but ends up being led to a pretty intense peak. It’s too bad this got removed from Live Phish at Springsteen’s request.
6) Phil Lesh – last three songs and encore 9/17/99Phil also ran the risk of overstaying but ultimately two things worked in his favor. Everyone was still excited over the Warfield run a few months previous and the show – like Bob Weir’s appearance – was in the Bay Area. In addition to the music he played, Phil gets bonus points for actually jumping on the trampolines during “You Enjoy Myself.”
5) The Dude of Life – many, many occasionsBe it singing “Diamond Girl” in a Ronald Reagan mask, playing his own songs at Amy’s Farm, or declaring, “And most importantly, here’s to 20 more years of Phish!” on the 20th Anniversary Run, the Dude usually comes out for a song or two and just adds a dollop of fun. Bring in the Dude!
4) Jay-Z – “99 Problems” and “Big Pimping” 6/18/04I need to point out my bias here. When this happened, I was not happy about it, as there was so little time left in Phish’s history. However now Phish have come back, making that argument kind of stupid. At the time I would have love to have seen one more “Divided Sky,” or something but I’ve seen plenty in the last 20 months – most played better than any would have been in 2004 – and in exchange, I got to see Jay Z in Brooklyn. My favorite stories about this appearance involve the vendors behind the soundboard. Apparently there were a lot of really bored locals during the show but when Jay-Z came out, they all pulled out their cell phones to make excited calls to their friends. At the time Jay-Z was retired himself, making this an important moment in his career too.
3) Bela Fleck and the Flecktones – Most of the second set and encore 8/21/93Yes that’s a long time for an artist to stay out, but what made this work is that it didn’t take over the set. Phish continued to play their material, just with a lot of extra talented musicians. It was kind of like the GCH, only for a night. While both Bela and the Flecktones have come out on other nights, 8/21/93 rarely gets talked about, especially compared to the night before, but it’s a unique show, one where guests come on stage and are more than able to keep up with Phish. The “Mind Left Body” themed jam in “David Bowie” is especially good.
2) Karl Perazzo, Dave Grippo, and Gray Gazaway – Remain in Light Set 10/31/96I didn’t count the Giant County Horns as a guest because they were part of the band on that tour, but one member did help out for one of the most exciting half hours in Phish’s history. I don’t know if the power of the first half of the Remain in Light set could ever be reproduced even if they brought back the extra members, but for one night, Phish hit a level of textured energy that they’ve never been able to match. “The Great Curve” is one of the best songs Phish have ever played and it couldn’t have been done without the guests.
1) Sharon Jones – Exile Set and encore 10/31/09I was fortunately enough to have seen Sharon Jones before Indio as a charismatic performer on Jam Cruise. This made me excited just to hear the rumors. Sharon’s vocals – along with Saundra Williams – on “I Just Want to See His Face,” “All Down the Line,” and “Shine a Light” really took those songs to a different level. She then did this amazing call and response with Williams during the “Suzie Greenberg” reprise jam.
What elevates Jones to the number one spot was the reaction after the show. It’s rare that I’ve heard that many people request that Phish somehow find a way to somehow convert a guest into a part time member of the band. Sharon Jones created a lot of new fans that night. Feel free to come out at any show I attend.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts atthe Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page