Best Phish Run March Madness – A Look Back on the Opening Round

The Basics

The opening round was filled with blowouts, upsets, nail biters and over time thrillers. We saw expected outcomes and some surprising first round exits by quality runs. Although the majority of first round winners were higher seeds, one 9 seed, one 10 seed, one eleven seed and two 12 seeds advanced to the round of 32. A lack of upsets? Maybe so. Maybe not. Five lower seeds beat higher seeds, but our tournament does not have any Lehigh’s, Norfolk State’s or Ohio’s (13 seed or lower advancing to the round of 32 or further).

It is possible that the OPT selection committee did a great job ranking the seeds. Or maybe the comparison of Phish runs is a black and white science: all runs are NOT created equal (that’s a pretty harsh Phish outlook, but there is some truth to it). However, at the end of the day, some years are more popular, certain tours stand out, and specific runs are more celebrated. Fans have their personal favorites, and it has been reflected in the outcome of several match-ups, but it’s hard to overlook and disregard the prominence of the “best” runs.


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An Overview of the First Round

Every run seeded 1 to 4 advanced to the second round. There were some close calls, but they were relatively decisive wins. Two 5 seeds lost to 12 seeds, one 6 seed lost to an 11 seed, one 7 seed lost to a 10 seed and one 8 seed lost to a 9 seed.

Although a 9 seed beating an 8 seed and a 10 seed beating a 7 seed are not dramatic or upsets, 2/26-2/28/03, the 9 seed in the South, beat the 8 seed 4/16-4/19/92 and in the East region the 10 seed, 7/2-7/6/98 beat the 7 seed  7/13-7/16/94.  Not only is 2/26-2/28/03 the only “2.0” show to advance, but it is the only show after the initial break up to move onto the round of 32. Neither of these “upsets” (if you want to call it that) should be surprising. 2/26-2/28/03 are probably the best back to back shows of the ’03 February tour and feature more improvisation and depth than its April 92 opponent. The Europe ’98 run of shows, 7/2-7/6/98 beating 7/13-7/16/94 are a little more of an upset, but not all that shocking. This string of European shows might be the cream of the crop from that ‘98 tour. While 7/13-7/16/94 is no slouch, they did not have enough firepower to overcome the European funk onslaught.

11th seeded 12/2-12/3/97 upset the 6 seed, 6/28-7/1/2000, in the South region. The way I see it ‘97 will typically trump 2000. Fall ‘97 (and even Summer 97) tends to reign supreme over most tours. In fact, every run from ‘97 made it out of the first round. This isn’t much of a surprise considering ‘97 is comparable to the Big East in its prime or this year’s Big Ten (arguably the strongest conference throughout the season).

As far as the 12 seeds go, I had an inkling that the 12 seed, 7/19-7/21/91 would upset 5th seeded /29-8/3/98 in the South. The summer ‘91 shows with the Giant Country Horns are fan favorites. Summer 98 ain’t bad, but Phish accompanied by horns makes all the difference here. Trey with an orchestra is cool, but Phish with horns, well, that’s a whole new ball game.  The other 5 vs. 12 upset was 12th seeded 11/27-11/29/98 over 5th seeded 6/10-6/13/94. Phishdisplayed a lot of patience in their playing in ’94, compared to earlier years, but not in comparison to ’98. ’94 might be the best year for the Holy Trinity (Hood/Slave/Reba) but the complexity of improv and jams increased dramatically as Phish matured.

Some final notes

“3.0” did not fare well in the opening round. A lot of the “3.0” runs are important in the band’s modern day history and redevelopment; however, in the grand scheme of things the majority of “3.0” runs do not stand toe-to-toe with the prime Phish runs. Dick’s and UIC had a shot, but came up short. Hampton ’09 was a monumental run, but did not display ground-breaking music. Superball IX and Fest 8 were baller, but do compare to the festivals of the 90’s or even IT. Years from now we might think about the early years of “3.0” have a nostalgic moment, but for now we love them because we were at the runs, enjoyed the shows, and were happy because Phish was getting their sea legs back.

’97 is this bracket’s elite power conference. All eight ’97 runs advanced to the round of 32 and they all have a shot to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. There isn’t much debate – ’97 is probably Phish’s greatest year and it is reflected in this tournament.

The majority of the runs in the tournament are from Phish’s strongest years 93-98. By ’93 Phish had most of their act down pat. They had a style, a fanbase and a good number of tunes.  In the mid 90’s, Phish began to really explore improvisation. Once Jerry died, Phish exploded and their music started to push boundaries. While we would have liked to have an even more diverse group of runs in the tournament, the prime years of Phish touring are essentially the major conferences and have a heavy presence in the tournament.

While nearly every year of touring starting in 1988 (aside from ’89) was represented in the opening round of the tournament, the only runs to advance to second round were between 1991 and 2003. In addition, not a single “3.0” run advanced, only one run from 2003 advanced (both ’04 shows lost), and only the Clifford Ball advanced from ’96. Every New Years Eve run advanced aside from ’98; however, only three out of the six festivals got out of the first run. The Great Went, Clifford Ball, and Big Cypress live on while Superball, Fest 8 and the Lemmonwheel are at home listening to game tapes of other shows.

Tomorrow begins the Round of 32. So come back, vote, read and let’s heat up this tournament.

In the mean time, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the opening round. So please share!