Welcome to Tales of Mental Tangle, a brand new feature on OPT where a rotating cast of distinguished thinkers in the Phish community will go head to head in a battle of wits over a variety of Phish topics. Today’s debate pits two classic shows from December 29’s past against each other. Links to download each show appear below. Also make sure to vote in the poll at the bottom of the post, and share your thoughts on these shows in the comments.
December 29 is up there with Halloween and New Year’s Eve on the list of sacred days on the Phish calendar: 12/29/94 with its gargantuan Bowie, 12/29/96 and ’98 with their unforgettable second sets, and 12/29/03 with its blazing Piper opener. We didn’t choose those shows for today’s discussion, but that doesn’t mean we think they’re any less worthy than the ones we did choose: 12/29/95 and 12/29/97.
The Mental Tanglers
Arguing for 12/29/97: Guy Forget. You know me–I post news, the occasional opinion piece, and plenty of downloads for OPT.
Arguing for 12/29/95: Poster Nutbag. A 14-year veteran of Phish, Poster lives in Philadelphia and will argue for the supremacy of 12/2/97 until the day he dies.
The Hard Evidence
12/29/97: LivePhish, mp3, flac, soundcheck (highly recommended, though it’s not part of this debate)
Set 1: NICU > Golgi > Crossroads, Cars Trucks Buses, Train Song, Theme > Fluffhead, Dirt, Antelope
Set 2: Down with Disease -> David Bowie, Possum, Tube, YEM
Encore: Good Times Bad Times
12/29/95: mp3, shn, Real Gin SBD
Set 1: My Friend, Poor Heart > Down with Disease > Taste That Surrounds, NICU, Stash, Fluffhead, Llama, Sweet Adeline
Set 2: Makisupa > Cars Trucks Buses, Gin -> The Real Me -> Gin -> McGrupp, BBFCFM, Bass jam (w/Mike’s bass instructor, Jim Stinnett) -> La Grange, Bouncing, Fire
Opening Statement: Guy
The first sets of these two shows have a good deal in common: they’re both 9 songs and a bit over 70 minutes. Both start with five short tunes, and both include Fluffhead and NICU. So pound for pound, who wins? Well, while ’95’s Stash could put up a good fight against ’97’s Antelope, and Disease could take on Crossroads. The tiebreaker has to be ’97’s Theme. A standout version of the song that simply doesn’t have a match in ’95’s first set.
Another similarity between the two is they both have great flow, with each song packing a good punch and getting things started. One thing I like about ’95 is that it is a little more varied than ’97. ’97 is straight rock, but ’95 mixes it up a bit, starting with MFMF (rock), Poor Heart (bluegrass), DWD (arena rock), Fog That Surrounds (whatever genre that is. BTW, the original Fishman verses make this Fog, not Taste, right?)
But this isn’t a tale of mental togetherness, it’s a tale of mental tangle, so let’s get to the differences. The Stash in this set does something that doesn’t happen in 12/29/97 Set 1: it serves as a launchpad for the rest of the show. It’s one of those moments that occur in certain shows where they kick it up a notch somewhere late in Set 1, and never turn back until the show is over. A couple other examples: 12/10/99 Birds, any number of Antelopes, including 11/19/97. In this Stash, you can feel the energy build throughout the song and once they peak, the show becomes an entirely different thing.
However, that being said, the first sets in both of these shows are a push.
Guy’s Final Thoughts on Set 1
Technically I think it’s Taste That Surrounds (aka “Tasty Fog”), since it’s a hybrid of Taste and the pure-Fish Fog That Surrounds which surfaced in early Fall ’95. The phish.net song history page is excellent and has the full story.
I agree with you on Stash kicking the ’95 show into high gear. But Antelope does the same for ’97, although it was more of a gradual gearshift: Theme and Fluffhead had already pushed things to a comfortable cruising speed. Trey’s roaring guitar work during the main ‘lope jam would be enough to make this an above-average version, but the extended funk outro, with Mike slapping his bass so ferociously that it must’ve turned black and blue, earns it a place, I’d say, on the outer reaches of a best-of Antelope list.
Opening Statement: Poster
The second set is where we can separate the men from the boys. While I find 12/29/97 one of the most eminently listenable shows there is, it doesn’t have what 12/29/95 II has: an epic jam of epic jams. Sure, the Tube, DWD, Bowie, Possum, and YEM (I mean, come on, sick setlist) are all stellar, and the Tube is in discussion for “best ever.” But it does not have the Real Gin. The Real Gin is one of those Phish moments where you shake your head and say “did that really just happen?” At no point in 12/29/97 does that happen, which is what catapults 12/29/95 into the stratosphere. Guy, is there any moment in 12/29/97 that you would take over the Real Gin?
You ask a good question. Before I get to that one, though, I want to tackle a question you hint at earlier on: can a set with one transcendent jam be better than a set that’s consistently great, but has no single shining moment? It’s a compelling question, and one that I suspect most fans would answer differently depending on the day of the week you asked them. But unfortunately for 12/29/95, I think it’s a question that would be more appropriate for a battle between 12/29/97 II and 12/29/94 II. In my opinion, 12/29/95 II is not a set with a transcendent jam; it’s a set with a transcendent segue.
Now before anyone whips out the flame-throwers, let me elaborate. I think the Real Gin is awesome. And while the transitions from Gin to The Real Me and back are among the greatest in Phish history, the jamming that flanks them just isn’t. It’s energetic, it’s funky, it’s compelling–but is it Phish at their best? I don’t think so–to my ears, it’s not nearly as energetic, nearly as funky, or nearly as compelling as, say, the Weekapaug or the Mike’s from two nights later. To put it another way: if you were to snip out the entire Real Me section, would this Gin still be mentioned in the same breath as 8/13/93, 8/17/97, 7/29/98? It’s hard for me to believe it would.
In 12/29/97 II, on the other hand, we have a set that starts strong–Trey’s soloing in Disease is furious–and keeps the energy up until the last moments of the encore. Along the way, the band moves masterfully between funk and straight rock jamming in Disease, they inject a dose of Can’t Turn You Loose into Possum, they funk the hell out of Tube, and unleash a monster in YEM.
So to answer your final question: no, I don’t think that any one jam in 12/29/97 II is as good as the Real Gin. But if you remove Gin > Real Me > Gin from 12/29/95 II, I think you’re left with an average set. And I’ll always take a set that’s great all the way through over one that’s just a little greater for 25 minutes, but average for the remaining hour.
Poster’s Final Thoughts on Set 2
I like to think of sets not as separate pieces that can be evaluated without context – which you suggest when you talk about removing the Real Gin from 12/29/95 – but as something that needs to be viewed in its entirety. The second set of 12/29/95 wouldn’t make sense without the Real Gin, both for what it did and how it went into McGrupp.
Also, you argue that a transcendent segue does not a transcendent jam make, which I could not disagree with more. Think of the 11/12/94 DWD>Have Mercy>DWD. Not the greatest jam in the world, but the segue and the sequence viewed as a whole is what makes it so good: the segue is the jam. Or, following your logic, let’s say we removed Possum from 12/29/97 and replaced it with Dogs Stole Things and Circus (keeping with ’97 form). How does that set look? Not too hot, does it? Also, how often is it that you get a segue on the level of the Real Gin? That is what makes it so special.
The bottom line is both shows are great, but ’95 offers something that ’97 does not: they leave the normal confines of the setlist (a siiiiick segue) and enter into some truly unique space where you have no idea what is coming next. ’97 is well played, totally listenable, and a great time, but it doesn’t rise to the level that 12/29/95 does.
Guy’s Final Thoughts
Well like I said, I agree with your final point: the best moment of 12/29/95 is greater than the best moment of 12/29/97. But to continue for a moment on the topic of segues, Phish’s ability to transition between songs is a great example of their musical acuity, but it is not unique to them. Their exploratory jams, on the other hand, are. Or put somewhat less diplomatically, if sick segues were what I was after, I’d go to a Disco Biscuits show.
What do you all think? Vote in the poll below, and post your thoughts in the comments – which show is better, and who won the argument?