The early consensus on last night’s show in St. Louis is that it was a scorcher. But one jam is capturing the most praise: the 13+ minute Limb by Limb in the middle of the second set. It featured what, for some, is the perfect one-two punch: first, the surprise of extended exploration in a song that usually sticks to form; and second, the fact that that exploration is really freaking awesome.
In OPT’s review, Rory called the version “one of the best versions of the song ever.” But was it the best? I wanted to know, so I revisited a few top versions of yore. I couldn’t hit all the classic versions for this post, so I decided to listen to all of the versions that were longer than last night’s, which clocked in at 13:24. If you’re looking for more great Limbs, check out phish.net’s Limb by Limb jamming chart. In addition to the ones that appear in boldface, I highly recommend the 6/19/04 SPAC version.
08-16-97 Limb By Limb (Limestone, ME)
Expansive, relaxed in the way you can’t be unless you’re on a field on a retired Air Force Base in the northern tip of Maine. It keeps pushing on, building force, and Trey just gets deep in the zone. Finally, they let the air out, and it’s sparse and lovely.
12-03-99 Limb by Limb (Cincinnati, OH)
Regular LxL peak, followed by a mellow section – one might call it proto-plinko. Trey creates a bed of loops that’s fairly beautiful, which lasts several minutes before they return to the theme. If you like ambient Phish, you’ll love this essential version.
11-02-98 Limb By Limb (West Valley City, UT)
After a careful, well-played Type I section, Trey sets some loops, and lays down some excellent licks over the ethereal space these loops and the band have created for him. This one isn’t quite as inventive or as powerful as the others. Not to take away from it – it is well worth the listen – but it’s probably the weakest of this top tier of Limbs.
10-09-99 Limb By Limb (Albany, NY)
The only version on this list that I witnessed live, this Set 2 opener hits a nice initial peak. Trey then plays an almost Golden Age-like lick over the Limb beat. Makes for an interesting combo. Some really cool moments put this version in the must-hear category, but it’s a stretch to call it the best.
02-18-03 Limb By Limb (Denver, CO)
Maybe the most experimental of all of these versions. When Phish 2.0 was on, it was quite a thing to see, and this version includes some excellent examples of that exploratory power. Though some moments work less well than others, this is easily among the top versions of the song.
08-28-12 Limb by Limb (St. Louis, MO – link will be added when available; for now, listen on the LivePhish app or at crunchygroove)
This version goes Type II more quickly than any of the versions above, which means that even though it’s not the longest version, it may have the most exploration. After a spacey bit, Trey hits on a funk-rock lick, which the band picks up. This is a far more groove-based version than any of the versions above. The groove ambles along for a bit, but Trey just lays into it around the 10 minute-mark, and it’s game over from there. The man spits fire for the next 180 seconds. The return to Limb felt a little forced, but after the triumphant jam that preceded it, there’s not much reason for complaint.
The other Limbs on this list are much more similar to each other than any of them are to this Limb. You’d think the jam came out of a Ghost or a Gin. For that reason, it’s much harder to say this version is objectively better or worse than any other. It is, without a doubt, deserving of a spot on any “best of” list for this song. To my particular ears, the Cincinnati and Denver versions are more pleasing simply because they’re so unique and beautifully executed. But your ears might be calibrated differently, and it certainly wouldn’t be any kind of a stretch to call this the best Limb ever. I just won’t be the one to call it that. But it’s right up there.