Tales of Mental Tangle: Indoor VS. Outdoor Shows

The Skinny
In closing out the August tour with three shows in Chicago’s UIC Pavilion, Phish gave us a rare opportunity to see them in indoor and outdoor shows in close succession. UIC’s indoorness was palpable: many fans noted the extreme temperatures inside the venue, while others chalked up the shows’ intimate energy to the enclosed space, rather than the small size.

Just before the tour started, Aaron and I debated the advantages of indoor versus outdoor shows, in anticipation of the hybrid tour. Now that it’s all over, we’ll publish the debate, and leave it up to you to decide, in light of all the summer’s offerings, what’s better: indoor or outdoor shows?

The Mental Tanglers
Arguing for outdoor shows: The Relentless Communicator, Aaron Hawley. Favorite indoor show I’ve seen: 4/3/98. Favorite outdoor show I’ve seen: a toss-up between 8/9/98 and 7/29/03.

Arguing for indoor shows: Guy Forget. Favorite indoor show I’ve seen: toss-up between 4/3/98 and 2/28/03. Favorite outdoor show I’ve seen: 8/3/03 (with all due respect to 8/2/03).


Guy ForgetAaron, you’re usually the one emphasizing the full variety of factors that make up a Phish show, while all I care about is the jams. But this time around, your approach is dead right. Because while we could just try to do a scientific debate, where we list, say, our top 25 outdoor shows and see how they stack up against our top 25 indoor shows, I don’t think that would do this debate justice.

What it comes down to is that the intangibles are why I prefer indoor shows. Now before I get into what those intangibles are, a couple disclaimers.

First off, there’s no better feeling than standing in the summer sun in your shorts, T-shirt, and sunglasses, waiting for the band to come out. No better feeling than watching the sun set over a Phish show. Than the relief of a late-evening breeze as you’re getting covered with sweat from grooving so hard. Than getting drenched from a downpour, and not giving a shit, because the Maze jam is blowing your mind. Simply put, I love outdoor shows.

Second, I saw seven indoor gigs before I saw my first one outside (7/12/99 Great Woods, for the record). So for the first two and a half years of my show-going career, arenas were synonymous with Phish shows.

All that said: if Phish tells me they’re going to play one show next year, and I get to choose whether it’s at a random amphitheatre in July or a random arena in November, I’ll take the arena. What it comes down to is the sound and the energy. Both are trapped in by, and reverberate against, the walls of an indoor venue. At outdoor shows, the sound can travel in every direction, and so everything is looser than in an arena, where everything is trapped.

Aaron Hawley
Well it seems like I’ve already won this debate, since you want to lead with how awesome outdoor shows are! That said, I agree, but the reason that they’re superior to indoor shows is this: they’re different. Each set is its own unique creation, and the dynamic between the two is palpable in every note played. In an arena show, you get two similar sets, with little change in dynamic from first set to the second. Sure, it’s nice to be in from the cold, but that’s about it.

Some folks hate on the first sets, but that’s precisely why I love outdoor shows. The sun’s still shining, the breeze is blowing and things are just getting started. I would be a liar if I said that didn’t impact the band’s playing. Sure, things can be mellower, but it doesn’t mean the jams don’t get going (see, Camden 99’s Chalkdust). That said, there are some tunes in the songbook that just don’t work in the dark. Ya Mar, Mellow Mood and Let Me Lie come immediately to mind.

The impact of the environment doesn’t stop when the sun goes down, either. Go grab a copy of 8/9/98, personally my favorite outdoor show to have attended. Fire up the second set and listen before AC/DC Bag while Trey tells the audience to all turn around to check out the full moon. Those who were in the house that night know that the moon trumped even the light show. The epic second set that followed is the band’s response to such a bucolic setting.

Now, of course, being out of doors does mean that there are some risks involved. I’ll be upfront, since some folks who read OPT know me as “the guy who hates camping,” I won’t pretend to be “the guy who likes watching shows in the rain.” I hate it. It is a risk, and it’s a risk that I’m willing to take (especially in my old age as I find myself on the lawn less and less). Again though, despite the discomfort to phans, dramatic weather can lead to dramatic playing. Check out either 7/3/00’s Bathtub Gin or 7/23/99’s Ghost > Free for examples of torrential jams inspired by torrential downpours.

I’m not saying I’d rather watch in the pouring rain than in a climate-controlled arena, but I am pointing out that the sense of risk can be palpable and have a dramatic impact on the band and the phans. I consider myself lucky (knocking on wood now) to have avoided downpours since the boys came back. I know it’s only a matter of time though. At the heart of it, I like the outdoors because it makes each set different. If there are no other factors, should indoor first sets sound like second sets?

Obviously, while I’m advocating for the outdoors, and you the indoors, neither of us will turn down a ticket to the other’s show. That said, when I look back on my life following Phish, to me Phish equals summer. While it might be unfair to include non-show factors, the Phish experience just feels complete in the summer time. When people say, “the lot,” they mean the lot outside of an outdoor show. Often those indoor venues are in densely populated urban areas and the scene gets disjointed. It’s in the lots outside places like Deer Creek, Alpine and Star Lake that phandom hits critical mass, and I think that too advocates for the outdoor show experience.

Guy ForgetWell, in this debate, everyone’s a winner, because as you say, if you love Phish, you won’t turn down an outdoor show or an indoor show. Or maybe that makes everyone a loser. Regardless, I take your point about the distinctive nature of outdoor first sets, but I’ll turn it around on you: at a summer show, you have a pretty good idea of what the first set is going to hold. The vibe will be laid-back, a little slower paced, and summery.

At an indoor show, on the other hand, it’s dark as soon as the show begins, so you never know what you’re going to get. Take Denver ‘97: 11/16, the first set was 11 songs, only one (Taste) over 10 minutes; you’ve got some bluegrass, some funk, some blues, and some a cappella. But the next night, the first set was 5 songs, including two huge jams (Tweezer and Ghost), a stellar Reba, a brief cool-down with Train Song, and an exclamation point with Fire.

That’s one of the most appealing parts of an indoor show to me: the feeling that anything can happen. Things can get darker than they’d ever get outdoors – could 12/29/94 Bowie or 11/14/95 Stash have been played outside? – or they can be triumphant and joyous, like that Denver Ghost. Now I don’t want to sell outdoor shows short on this front; after all, some great summer jams, like the Ghost or Waves from It, get pretty evil. But the Went Gins and Camden Chalkdusts of the world definitely outnumber those darker moments.

I also see your point about associating Phish with summer. To me, it’s not just about the lots and the shows, but the roadtrips, too. All that said, there’s nowhere I’d rather go to escape the cold than to a winter Phish show. When thousands of fans have been freezing their asses off all day long, there’s a release of energy when they enter the heated arena that’s powerful. I mentioned the energy that’s created by an enclosed space before, but I think that the warmth only compounds it. Mix all of these factors together, and people start waves. They start spontaneous audience-wide cheers long before the band goes on. The anticipation builds for the moment when the venue goes from fully lighted to pitch black – something that doesn’t happen at an amphitheatre, when shows begin before sundown.

Anyway, I know we’ve been talking more about the experience than the shows themselves, but I thought it would be a fun experiment to list a few of our favorite outdoor and indoor shows and see how they match up.

Some of Guy’s Favorites
Outdoor: 8/17/97, 12/31/99, 9/14/00, 8/2/03, 6/20/04
Indoor: 11/30/94, 12/31/95, 11/17/97, 11/22/97, 4/3/98, 9/14/99, 2/28/03

A couple things stick out at me: first, my favorite outdoor shows happen at festivals; second, I’m not much of a fan of summer tours before ‘97 (which I think is a tremendous tour, and I easily could’ve picked a few other shows for this list).

I would dispute your point that first sets outside have to be laid back. Sometimes, this summer in particular, the band seemed to barrel out of the gates with more energy than they seemed to have in the second set. Also, while a lot of this summer’s first sets were song based, they often stretched into marathon affairs including a heaping slice of the Phish songbook. The energy level when the band walks onstage is often the high point of the night, with this summer’s introduction of “wheel of sign requests” that energy level is ratcheted up another notch. The explosion of energy when Trey whipped around his chosen sign was something to behold.

While I understand the common defense of indoor shows’ superiority is “two sets in the dark, with light show”, again, I just don’t think it’s that important. While the work of CK5 is integral to Phish, it’s not essential, and some of the most visually stimulating moments in Phish come with no light show at all. Think about first sets at the Gorge and Red Rocks or the sun coming up at the end of the midnight set at Cypress. Then ask yourself if Phish has ever created sights that awesome inside a hockey arena. The answer is no. Sometimes, mother nature has what it takes to take it to the next level. That’s why I prefer the outdoors to the indoor.

Some of Aaron’s Favorites
Outdoor: 8/9/98, 12/31/99, 7/11/00, 7/29/03, 6/27/10
Indoor: 11/22/97, 11/23/97, 4/3/98, 12/11/99, 10/31/10

Which do you prefer: indoor or outdoor shows?

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