Tales of Mental Tangle #9: Best Month Ever

Following a recent twitter conversation about Phish’s peak era – which I’d link to if twitter’s search functionality were, um, existent – Poster Nutbag and I got to talking about which month represented the band’s creative apex. We both agreed that it’s silly to talk about a single peak of their career because, like a camel or many a Fall ’94 Hood, they’ve got multiple peaks. But for the purposes of this Tangle, we each chose to write about a month that stands among the greats.

As we were putting together our write-ups and audio compilations, we noticed that Poster’s month, August ’93, was being discussed by our friends at typeIIcast. They did a phenomenal job recapping it, providing audio samples, and in the case of phish.net’s Brian Feller, who saw many of that month’s shows, telling some great stories. Check out the episode here, and download their “Forgotten Friday” compilation here. In our discussion of that amazing month, we tried to focus on some of the moments the typeIIcasters didn’t get to.

The Mental Tanglers
Arguing for August ’93: Poster Nutbag. Five favorite months (in no particular order): August 1993, December 1995, November-December 1997 (counting the 30-day period from the beginning to end of Fall ’97), June 1994, April 1998.

Arguing for November ’94: Guy Forget. Five favorite months: August 1993, November 1994, December 1995, July 1997, November-December 1997. Honorable mentions to December 1999, June 2000, and June 2004.

The Hard Evidence
November 1994 Compilation (11/2 Maze, Tweezer; 11/3 Disease, Melt; 11/4 Bowie; 11/12 Disease > Have Mercy > Disease; 11/14 Lawn Boy > Cavern, Peaches > Bowie, YEM; 11/16 Simple, I’m Blue I’m Lonesome, Long Journey Home, Chalkdust; 11/17 Forbin’s > Mockingbird; 11/19 Hood, Good Times Bad Times; 11/19b Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms, I’m Blue I’m Lonesome; 11/22 Funky Bitch > Yerushalayim, Jim, BBFCFM; 11/23 Simple -> It’s Ice, Tweezer; 11/26 Bowie; 11/28 Tweezer)

August 1993 Compilation (8/2 Gin > Makisupa > MMGAMOIO, 8/6 Tweezer, YEM > Halley’s > Slave; 8/9 Chalkdust > Who Knows > Chalkdust, Melt; 8/11 Jim; 8/16 Reba; 8/20 Antelope, 2001 > Slave > Melt; 8/26 Bowie; 8/28 Antelope, YEM; 12/30 Bowie)


Opening Statement: Poster Nutbag
What represents Phish’s peak to me? Even though it may not be the true “peak” of Phish on a chronological graph (that title belongs to either ‘95 or ‘97), the run of Phish that ranks highest in my mind is the magical month of August ‘93, with the Holiday Run tacked on as a coda. IMHO, this run of Phish, covering 23 shows, is unparalleled in the band’s history in terms of consistency, outrageous playing, and general awesomeness. There are other 30 day runs that are up there, but nothing hits the peaks that August ‘93 hits. First, let’s break down the month some.

For downloads, check the spreadsheet. True Standout Shows (i.e. shows that on their own would make a “best of the year” list, not just the “best of the month”):

  • 8/2/93 Ritz Theater.
    • This was the bustout show of its day. According to Phish.net, this show had the first Brother in 143 shows, first Dog Log in 284 shows, first La Grange in 311 shows, and first Sparks in 392 shows.
    • Numerous secret language and teases (as was more common back then)
    • Mike’s>Sparks>Curtis Loew in the second set
  • 8/6/93 Cincinnati Zoo.
    • This show was inside of the zoo. How cool.
    • Tequila teases throughout.
    • A second set that is pure hose, with a Cocaine (Clapton) jam in YEM.
    • Oh, and this show marked the return of Slave. First time in 241 shows.
  • 8/13/93 Murat Theater.
    • A first set that doesn’t get enough attention with a MONSTER Bowie to close it.
    • The second set. The Murat Gin and the ridiculously ridiculous ridiculousness that it spawns. Seriously.
    • Side note – the tape I had of this show back in the day had the second set backwards. Side B of my second set tape started with Buried Alive (the set opener). It made listening to an already weird show even weirder.
    • Released as a LivePhish archival release.
  • 8/14/93 Tinley Park.
    • Released as LP 7.
    • Antelope>Sparks>Walk Away>Antelope>Have Mercy>Antelope. I had to catch my breath just writing that.
  • 8/20/93 Red Rocks.
    • This is Red Rocks! This is the Edge!
    • Second song Harpua.
    • The first set closing Antelope. [Guy’s note: you may have wanted to mention that it’s also maybe the best Antelope ever.]
    • 2001>Slave>Split to open the second.
    • YEM>Purple Rain.
    • Encore of Mango, Freebird.
    • A hallmark show in Phishistory.
  • 8/21/93 Salt Lake City.
    • Some dudes named Bela Fleck, Vic Wooten, and Future Man for the balance of the second set on songs like Llama, Bowie, Hood, and the bluegrass staples.
  • 12/28/93 Bender Arena.
    • Peaches opener and teases throughout the show to honor the recent passing of Frank Zappa. Also the first Peaches in 558 shows. On a related note, I am still seeking my first Peaches. Missed it by one night at MSG in 2009. I will get it.
  • 12/30/93 Portland, ME.
    • Dream On Bowie opener.
    • A CRAZY Mike’s in the second set that went as follows: 2001>Mike’s>Horse>Silent>Punch>McGrupp>Weekapaug>Purple Rain>HYHU, Slave. I need a drink!
    • This show is also one of the more unique recordings of Phish I have ever heard. The SBD of this show (and almost all of these shows are in SBD, including the 8/20/93 Red Rocks show) has Mike turned up in a way I have never heard before which makes for a very interesting listen.
  • 12/31/93 Worcester, MA.
    • Out of all the shows I just talked about, this may be the best. And that’s saying a lot.
    • Roundabout (Yes) tease before Ginseng.
    • Amazing Reba, Antelope in the first set too.
    • More Peaches teasing throughout a stellar second set, culminating with a YEM for the ages.
    • The Auld Lang Syne>DWD jam>Split to open the 3rd.
    • Cracklin’ Rosie.
    • A sublime Hood.
  • Other highlights:
    • 8/7/93 Darien’s roller coaster narration.
    • 8/11/93 Grand Rapids’ Mikes>Great Gig>Weekapaug
      • subnote: Kevin Shapiro just posted this link on twitter while i was writing this. http://phish.com/#/tours/dates/wed-1993-08-11-club-eastbrook
    • 8/16/93 St. Louis’s Reba is an all-timer.
    • 8/28/93 Greek Theater’s (Berkeley) YEM>Oye Como Va jam>YEM

So to recap, out of the 23 shows played, I would single out 9 that in any other month could qualify as “best of.” That is 39%. If Phish were a baseball player, Phish would be in the Hall of Fame with those kinds of numbers.

So how did it happen? What made August ‘93 so special? Well, it seems like the band really wanted to push themselves that month and try to make it the wackiest, most balls-to-the-wall month they could. They went through other phases of this, like in the fall of ‘94 where they wanted to push the limits and see how far they could stretch out their jams. Same with Fall ‘95 and ‘97. Those months are representative of what Phish can do when they decide to push the outer limits of their capabilities and see what they are made of. But whereas November ‘94 was “let’s see how long we can jam,” August ‘93 combined elements of out-there jamming, with the quirkiness that Phish was known for back in those days. The combination of the two, IMO, creates the perfect mix of approachability, quirkiness, and jamming to create what I consider the best month (plus holiday run) of Phish ever.

Guy ForgetI’ll get to my list in a second. But before I do, I want to plug one of my favorite shows: 8/9/93 Toronto. The first set opens with a soaring Chalk Dust > Who Knows (Hendrix) > Chalk Dust that came to mind during the Whole Lotta Love sandwich last October; it also includes a Melt that was typically transcendent for August and that slipped seamlessly into Glide. The second set has an amazing setlist, great jams, teases galore in YEM, and a Dude-enhanced Crimes of the Mind to close.

Now, my highlights from 11/94:

  • 11/2 Bangor, ME.
    • An off-the-charts Maze in set 1.
    • The A Live One Tweezer in set 2. Quite possibly the most ambitious, dangerous jam the band had ever played. Some incredible moments, some less-incredible ones, but all in all, an amazing journey, and one that’s worth revisiting over and over.
  • 11/12 Kent State.
    • Down with Disease -> Have Mercy -> Down with Disease, which we’ve established is the greatest sandwich ever.
    • A gorgeous Harry Hood (though not on the level of 10/20 and 10/23).
    • A great bluegrass mini-set in between, including Foreplay/Long Time.
  • 11/14 Grand Rapids, MI.
    • A strong set 1, with a must-hear Lawn Boy > Cavern to close.
    • An all-around great second set, with a monster Bowie and a great YEM.
  • 11/16 U Michigan.
    • The first show with the Reverend Jeff Mosier, including two bluegrass segments and debuts aplenty.
    • A super-extended Simple – the first half of which is an amazing example of that Fall ‘94 psychedelic insanity, and the second half of which is a not quite as example.
    • Again, this show is the epitome of Phish’s ability to switch identities instantly: from the craziness in Simple to the bluegrass mini-set, then to the ALO Chalk Dust, which is one of the best straight-ahead rock jams ever.
  • 11/19 Indiana University.
    • A really fun YEM with Vibration of Life, Spooky and Can’t You Hear Me Knocking teases.
    • A beautiful Hood with one of the most singing closing solos I’ve ever heard.
    • An impromptu post-show bluegrass set in the parking lot with/for fans.
  • 11/22 U Missouri.
    • Second set opens with an unbelievable 31-minute Funky Bitch > Yerushalayim Schel Zahav (which was the filler on Live Phish Vol. 18).
    • Includes Cry Baby Cry and Blackbird from the White Album. The former has only been played 4 times, the latter twice.
    • An awesome Runaway Jim that segues into a BBFCFM that turns grassy at the end.
  • 11/26 Minneapolis.
    • What would arguably be the greatest Bowie ever if not for the following month’s version from Providence. (6/18 Chicago is also a strong contender.)
  • 11/28 Bozeman, MT.
    • The Tweezer. It’s all you need. Arguably the best of the super-long Tweezers of ‘94 and ‘95.
  • 11/30 Olympia, WA.
    • The first set is nothing to sneeze at, but the second set is one of those unforgettable sets where the music and the energy just never stop.
    • The Antelope has some stunning playing. Though 10/29 is fantastic, in my mind, this is the best of Fall ‘94.
    • The rock-n-roll Fixin’ to Die is incredible (the bluegrass version had been played earlier in the tour)
    • The segue from Ya Mar -> Mike’s Song is one of the best segues ever

Now I should note that I picked my list a bit differently from how you picked yours: these are not necessarily all-around great shows; they’re shows with outstanding, even historic, moments. Which I think is fitting for Fall ‘94: although the average 8-minute Disease or 11-minute Stash was fantastic, and every show is excellent in its own way, there was generally only one standout jam per show, or sometimes two or three.

That said, I consider 8/93 and 11/94 to be sister months, with similarities that mirror those between Summer and Fall ‘97. The proggy, frenetic playing and abundance of extended jamming in 11/94 seem more closely connected stylistically with 8/93 than with much of the earlier ‘94 shows. It makes you wonder how the band’s course might have been different if there’d been a Fall ‘93 tour.

But along with the parallels in their improvisation, these months are linked as periods where Phish rapidly honed and fortified their identity. In August ‘93, the band’s spontaneity reached new heights, with the onset of Type II jamming, the prolific teases, sandwiches and other setlist quirks–all of which remain core features of Phish shows to this day. In Fall ‘94, not only did they take the improvisation to totally uncharted waters, but they introduced bluegrass mini-sets, Vibration of Life, and sets that would squeeze all of these elements in, showcasing their versatility.

For this reason, I see November ‘94 as the month where the Phish concert experience came to full fruition: all these tricks they’d been working so hard over the years to add to their repertoire came together. You could see the band drop a jam that broke new ground in improvisational rock, then transform into a bluegrass band, sing a barbershop quartet, and come back to blow your mind once more before it was all over. Even if you prefer the energy or antics of December ‘95 or the jamming in Fall ‘97, it seems to me that Fall ‘94 was when Phish reached the top of the hill they’d always been trying to climb; those future accomplishments were just bonus peaks.

I will give a nod to the bluegrass mini-sets that occurred in 11/94. Those must have been something special, and praise the Brahphecy that we have the Bluegrass Sessions video shot by the Rev. Jeff Mosier. I wish there was more of it. Such an amazing look at the band, life on the road, the bluegrass, and what shows were like in those midwestern college auditoriums during that fall. Speaking of which, if you had to pick a college to attend in 1994, the midwest would have been an amazing place to be. You could essentially call it the Big 10 Tour.

But back to 8/93 and 11/94. The one thing that I enjoy the most about the August ‘93 shows is that they are great all-around shows from start to finish. Is there a full show from November that can stand on its own next to 8/13/93 or 8/20/93? For ‘94, I think you can find shows in June (6/11, 6/17, 6/18) or even in October (10/21 and 10/29) that hold up better as entire shows. The August ‘93s, though, were strong from start to finish, and the sheer number of shows that in any other era could be considered a “best of” places 8/93 (plus the New Years Run coda) at the top of the list of best months of Phishistory.

Guy ForgetI agree–well, sort of. In a certain sense, I think 11/30 Set 2 stands up among the great sets in Phish history (btw, I’ve seen Phishtory, but not Phishistory–a term that saves only an “h” and a space from the words it abbreviates. Maybe we can debate that in the next Mental Tangle, though). The second set of 11/22 is not quite top-tier, but it’s damn close.

But if I step outside my usual evaluative frame, which values sets full of jams that are not only hot on their own, but that are held together by a common improvisatory glue, I see some of the November ’94 shows differently. Take 11/14 Set 2, for example. Here’s the setlist:

Peaches en Regalia > David Bowie, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav -> Slave to the Traffic Light, Poor Heart, Julius, The Old Home Place, Nellie Kane, Sweet Adeline, You Enjoy Myself

Now imagine you’ve never seen Phish before. The band comes out and plays their own arrangement of one of Zappa’s more amazing and more complex tunes. They then go into their own crazy proggy composition, and take its jam everywhere on the map–including to many places they hadn’t gone in the first set–over 26 minutes. Next, they play an a cappella version of a Hebrew hymn, then it’s back to the jamming. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, they pick up some acoustic instruments, crowd around a mic at the front of the stage, and sing a few bluegrass songs. Trying to guess their next move at this point is hopeless. And then come the opening notes of YEM. Which, for good measure, includes this amazing start-stop “Whatcha say” jam.

Clearly, Phish had a whole host of different ways of making a show enjoyable. Their goal in 11/94 was apparently to put all of them to good use–to really put on a show night in and night out. And while this may have occasionally come at the expense of some crazy jams or segue-fests, it’s still an incredible thing to listen to, and was certainly even more incredible to see.

What's your favorite month in Phish history?

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