Chicago ’94 Box Set Review & Photos

Cover Art (ADA Music)

In just over a week, Phish will be releasing a box set that rivals that of Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97 in that of sheer quality and, yes, epic-ness. Depending on your personal preference of Phish styles, this might be the best release yet. I’m having trouble deciding which out of the two I’d bring to a deserted island if I could only tote one, myself. The fact that it’s so difficult is telling: Phish is giving the phans what the phans want when picking shows to remaster and release.

Instead of choosing a run of shows, or just simply two consecutive shows, JEMP released two shows from the same venue in the same year but during different tours. One hails from the incredibly tight summer ’94 tour–a tour that extended the 1993 fire with a heavy dose of musical experimentation–and the other was born among the storied fall ’94 journey. Both shows showcase the impressive improvisational communication between all four members during a year where they started really growing into the larger venues they were booking. With something to prove, Trey Anastasio highlights the six-CD box set with stunning guitar acrobatics. Page McConnell and Mike Gordon accompany with inspired swagger atop a young, fast-moving, and thunderous Jon Fishman. JEMP was kind enough to give Online Phish Tour a preview of the box set before the general public got their hands on it–let’s discuss, shall we?

All six disc sleeves lined up

The soundboard recordings–recorded by Paul Languedoc, produced and maintained by Kevin Shapiro, and remastered by Fred Kevorkian–are truly a gift to the audiophile breed of Phish phan. With every noise being heard perfectly in balance with every other–from the splash cymbals in what many consider to be the best “Divided Sky” ever to Trey yelling “you won’t steal my motha-fuckin’ poor heart” during the “Poor Heart” soundcheck on June 18–this is an absolute must-have in any phan’s collection. These shows have the power to hook new phans and bring them to our side with the well-played and fierce renditions of crowd-pleasers like “Sample In A Jar”, “Wilson”, and “AC/DC Bag”, alongside the depth to quench the improvisational-rock thirst of the most picky phans in songs we’re going to discuss shortly. Also, each show comes with soundcheck highlights. June 18 includes the Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” > Poor Heart and November 25 including a “Jam” > “Dog Log”. 

The show on June 18, 1994 is considered by many to be one of the best two-set shows to have ever been played by the band. The setlist features a near-perfect medley of songs with stunning flow. Within the excellent song choices is even more excellent playing. Starting with a rocking “Wilson”, the band keeps things cranked to 11 as they annihilate “Rift”, “AC/DC Bag”, and a lively “Down With Disease” that comes to a fast finish with Trey trilling all over the crowd. The first-set “It’s Ice” > “Dog Faced Boy” shakes up this rock-centered first set with a passionate interlude. After a couple notable flubs from Trey in “It’s Ice” (no, flubs are not new), the song sinks into a baby-grand-led whirlwind with Trey immediately stepping on his wah pedal for some dirty superfunk. The powerful jam segment is something that many miss in current renditions of the unique song. “Dog Faced Boy” acts as a nightcap to its swanky counterpart before launching into what I, and as previously mentioned many, consider the best “Divided Sky” ever played.

People that think every “Divided Sky” is the same needs to take UIC ’94’s out for a spin. The sounds coming out of Trey Anastasio’s monitors are absolutely jaw-dropping. His fingers so-perfectly execute the pure bliss that was flowing out of his brain, this track should be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Mike has no trouble keeping up with his old-school Languedoc bass all on top of one of the most fierce segments of drumming I’ve ever heard come from a Phish show. Fish, not to be outdone rolls over his kit with unmatched controlled chaos. His arms moving left to right and hitting every tom in sight, every splash, crash, and china he sees all with the precision of Trey’s fingers on the fretboard. Listen to the entire track below:

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The second set of June 18 is where the magic comes to a head though. The entire set is one for the history books. The second half opens with Frank Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia” before pushing off into the abyss of “David Bowie”. This version has a long intro that goes in and out of a “Mind Left Body jam”–something the track listing won’t tell you–the second of only three times ever played. After teasing a “Three Blind Mice” jam and a “Dave’s Energy Guide” jam, the improv becomes dark before patterning arises and they blow into an incredibly high-octane finish! During the breaks in the end segment, Trey slays the crowd with incredibly-placed Voodoo Child and Purple Haze teases. It’s one of the best “Bowie’s” ever performed.

The well-placed “Horn” gave way to a rare second-set “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters” before dropping into an absolutely screaming “Tweezer”. This rock powerhouse brings the set to an impressive musical peak before settling down and slipping into one of the best landing pads ever performed by Phish, “Lifeboy”. “Tweezer” -> “Lifeboy” is a phan-favorite combo of songs that is widely sought after, but rarely seen. In fact, the last time “Lifeboy” served as the landing pad to “Tweezer” was in 1996! To end the fantastic set, Phish blew the small indoor venue up with an explosive “You Enjoy Myself” full of teases–including “How Many More Times”. “How Many More Times” is also teased by the entire band in the set-closing “Chalk Dust Torture”. Thanks to the box set, we now know where these teases came from; they came from the soundcheck.

Llama: 

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The latter half of the box set, November 25, 1994, shouldn’t be overlooked by any means though. This concert, at the same venue as in June, boasts silliness, storytelling,  and impressive jamming over the course of both sets. After a screaming “Llama” opener, the band created a well-crafted first stanza that was anchored with an experimental “Reba” and a dark and yet more experimental “Split Open and Melt”. The “Melt” is a welcome improvisational addition, before a lighter and more summery combo of “Esther” > “Julius”.

The set-closing “Golgi Apparatus” we now know might have been inspired by the fantastic “Chicago ’94 Soundcheck  Jam” -> “Dog Log”. The super-spacey, completely-unique sound of the “jam” that precedes the “Dog Log” is a sublime fixture created by Trey and Mike. Trey’s slightly distorted chords and Fish’s subtle ride cymbal provide a thick layer of music for their eerie “Golgi” quotes–one of which being “saw you with a motha-fuckin’ ticket stub”.

The second set is held together with one of the best jams of the year: “Simple”. The 15-minute “Simple”, contained within’ an enormous “Mike’s Groove”, quickly becomes what many phans describe as “type-II jamming”. The jam is discombobulated but orderly. At some moments it sounds like Trey could bust into “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars” at any point. For good measure, the band adds some “Lassie”-esque whistling and calling that foreshadows the enormous “Bowie” that would come the very next day. After a very special “Harpua” that features Trey talking about “happy green love beams” and “angry red hate beams” during what’s reportedly the very first “glowstick war ever”.

“Weekapaug Groove”, like “Melt” and some of the show’s other songs, is also very experimental rather than it’s typical rocking jam. It’s very heavy-handed and finishes with a fantastic segue into “The Mango Song”. The set’s serious tone is paused for a silly cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain” into the instrumental of “Hold Your Head Up”.

This box set is a perfect addition to your permanent car music collection. There is something on it for nearly anyone that’s lucky enough to be your passenger and it will take a long time to get sick of these jams. I’ve had the 6/18 tape in my car for about six years straight before getting the recording on my iPod–it’s been in my car for over a decade and I’m excited to listen to it more, still!

For a measly $36.00, you can pre-order the box set here. The box set is available in stores and delivery on July 31. Dry Goods gives you the option of bundling it with Pollock-printed Chicago shirts and trading cards, too!