The Relentless Communicator: A Modest Setlist Proposal

The other day, I let slip to a non-phan friend of mine the number of Phish shows I’d seen. Like most “normal” people, he was aghast. Because, frankly, most people don’t see their favorite band five times in a lifetime, let alone five times in a year, or a tour. Whenever this sort of interaction occurs, and everyone who knows some non-phans has it happen frequently, the second question is, “How can you see the same band so many times?”

It happens enough that I’ve got a stock answer down, different shows every time, the same song played differently, the adventure in the getting there. You know, the usual. It basically boils down to, “the band keeps us on our toes”. And they do. Later that day I started thinking, what’s the biggest curveball the band could throw us? What would truly surprise us, possibly outrage some but might actually turn out to be cool? Then it hit me:

Play the same song every show, for at least an entire tour.

Now, hear me out.

First of all, playing the same song every night seems to be such the antithesis of what Phish is all about that even the suggestion seems preposterous. That’s the territory of mere mortal bands, not the Phish from Vermont! Bands that are catapulted to stardom by one hit song are tied to it the rest of their career. When that happens, the song begins to own them and breaking new artistic ground suddenly seems off the table and the band seems to never be able to find it’s own footing again. By no means is that what I’m suggesting because, frankly, I don’t think that can happen to Phish at this point. Phish is their own thing, and nothing going to change that. Even if there is a Top 40 ballad on the next record that goes into hot radio rotation, it still wouldn’t have enough pull to tilt Phish’s axis.

Instead, what if the band decided that a tour is entirely dedicated to one specific song, and we’re getting it every night. It could be YEM. It could be Tweezer. It could be a whole tour of Mike’s Songs, Antelopes or Bathtub Gins. Before you say, “how boring”, take a minute to think about what that might mean.

Whichever song was being heard every night would be an exercise in improvisation for the band, because it would have to be. Sometimes songs seem to stagnate, Mike’s Song in the post-breakup era comes immediately to mind. It may be because that song no longer has to grow to earn its keep. We’re only going to get a “big” Phish song four or five times a tour at most. Since this is the case, the sheer fact that song shows up on the setlist becomes an event. The downside is, sometimes the band just goes through the motions before jumping into newer material that seems to energize them more than some of the old standards.

If we were guaranteed to be getting a YEM every night, it would go places we never thought it would. The band would be forced to deliver clearly distinctive versions each time out and improvisation would pop in places we’d never expected. In some ways, the prevailing attitude of letting the jams come out where they may leads to lazier improvisation. Some songs get the goods, and some fall into a rut, and it’s hard to say which is going to be which.

I understand the band has never done this, and probably won’t ever. Even a quick look through Phish.net’s setlist database shows me that on the tours I did, the times it felt like the band was playing the same songs every night, they weren’t. Most notably the Summer of 1999 came immediately to mind. It felt like I was hearing Meatstick every night, even though I wasn’t. Meatstick only popped up seven times in twenty six shows that summer as the band tried to prep the phans for a run at the Guinness Book of World Records.

Imagine if every second set came barreling to it’s conclusion with a hard charging Antelope. Or maybe an entire tour where each second set is a long Mike’s/Weekapaug bookend. I think that a songs frequency doesn’t mean that it’s doomed to be boring and predictable. I think the exact opposite would happen. . There have been plenty of notable Tweezers through the year and they vary widely, from Bozeman ’94 to Atlantic City ’10, there are plenty of great ways a Phish song can surprise. It doesn’t have to be the same way every night, but by playing the same song every night, it would force the band to find a wide variety of ways to individualize each and every one of them. Sure, there might be some times where the band falls on its’ face, but there will be other times where their risk taking pays off. It’s the foundation of what Phish is built upon.

Bruce Springsteen is pretty much required by law to play “Born to Run” every time he goes out. Does the Boss let that ruin the energy? Not at all. I have a friend who laments ever hearing Tweezer at a show, principally because he’s guaranteed a Tweeprise at the end of the night. While he feels like it takes the excitement out of the show to know what the last song is, I’m fine with it. I take it the other way, and see it as a guarantee that the show will end on one of the band’s built-in high notes. I think Phish has risen up to every other musical challenge that faced them, and something like this would just make them stronger.

Look, I’m not necessarily saying that the band should or would do this. I know that if they did the response from the phanbase would be varied to say the least. I just think that playing the same song every night, no matter what song it is, would be the biggest curveball the band could throw us. I also think that, if they did, they would tear their way through new territory, and it would be to great results.