30 December 2008

Nedstalgia: 15 Years Ago

Tis the season to be Phishtalgic!! Yesterday, I had the pleasure of going over to livephish.com and streamed the sublime 12/29/97 to endorphin-releasing effect. That second set was the kicker of arguably the best New Year's run of them all. But that was last year's flashback, I wrote about it here at length.

Today, I'm looking 15 years back, which may or may not be the best NYE run, but it certainly is my absolute favorite of all time. Why my favorite? Well, of course, there's the music: Phish 1993 saw the band undergo a quantum leap in quality while maintaining that raw, we're-still-learning-how-good-we-can-be edge. [Of course, I saw a crapload of Phish in 1993, so I'm probably biased, but it still does it for me. See here (2/4), here (4/23), here (4/29-30), here, here and here (5/6-8) as well as here (7/15) for much music and blathering.]

But these shows were more than just 4 great 1993-era Phish shows strung together. No, looking back 15 years and recounting that stretch, it was more like an epic postmodern tale, a brilliant David Foster Wallace novel with multiple themes weaving together, blending the music to the musicians, the musicians to the audience, the stage to the venue, the venue to the world and its goings on outside the venue... and of course, me personally: who I was with, where I was standing, how I got from point A to point B and how I and we connected to the rest of the audience and the venue and the musicians and the music. Yes, it was the various themes and the way they played off each other that elevated a jaunt from Washington D.C. to Worcester, MA to something worth telling your grandkids about.

And pretty much all of these themes were there for the reading by the time the first song of the first show had finished. We had the weather, the recent death of Frank Zappa, the decoration of the stage, the front couple of rows and the people contained there, the fact that it was New Years, the first NYE where the band had moved from theaters to arenas culminating in a sold out Centrum, by far the biggest room they had carried on their own; and the music. It was not one moment or one song or one event, but broad strokes of ideas and feelings, swaths of Phish smeared across 4 venues in 4 cities in 4 nights.

The first night we found ourselves in Washington, D.C. on the campus of American University. The weather was godawful: a mix of rain and sleet and freezing rain that we had to stand in to get inside. By December of 1993 I was a certified front row junkie and there was no doubt that even though we were well back in the line, we would be standing right up there for showtime. Thankfully, this was an era when such a thing was possible without pissing off barely a soul -- somehow the magic of the front row was still a secret. But before even getting up there, I remember distinctly getting my ticket ripped, walking into the small arena and looking straight at the stage, seeing how it had been decorated and realizing that all of the excitement doing somersaults in my stomach had not prepared me for the next 4 nights. Glee. Utter, unabashed, "19 years old and not a care in the world" glee. The stage had been mocked up like it was an aquarium. Everything was brightly fluorescent with fish up on tracks in the lights which moved back and forth and seaweed and coral arranged amongst the amplifiers. In the middle was a gigantic clam shell. For this New Year's the guys in Phish were going to be fish! Later years would see more elaborate get-ups, but I'm not sure they set the stage on the 1st of 4 nights like that and remembering the low-rent version of the Famous Mockingbird they had done the previous year (see here) made me realize how much energy they were putting into these shows. Good lord, I was elated and they hadn't played a single note.

We easily settled in up front and were chatting with the guys there. I believe this was group 2 of about 5 that I got to know just from hanging up front. Of course, we're all geeking out hardcore (no surprise), and inevitably the conversation turns to what they'll open with. A lot of the old standby's are thrown around and then someone makes the "Peaches En Regalia" call. Zappa had died earlier in the month and that was the one Zappa song that had been in regular rotation at all in Phish's past. This wasn't to say it was a wise call, they hadn't played it since 1989, but somehow a consensus coalesced. They were opening with Peaches. We were sure of it. Finally, the band takes the stage and with a grin from the fishes, they busted into the first Peaches In Regalia in nearly 500 shows. Fantastic. This was going to be a good run. The cold rain and snow outside were forgotten for a couple of hours and we were underwater.

That first night is remarkable mostly for one or two things. Really, this was the warm-up; a standard 1993 Phish show. Plenty of solid moments and really a pretty good setlist. Besides the Peaches, though, there is one thing that continues to stand out from that night. It may surprise you to hear me say that it was the "Fast Enough For You." It certainly surprised me. It came about in the middle of the second set and I saw it as a breather moment. But then Trey got a hold of it and just blazed a superlative solo through the end section. It flat out blew me away the way the band crushed that thing: like taking a knife to a piece of driftwood and carving an intricate sculpture out of it. I am quite confident in saying that 12/29/93 is the best version of "Fast Enough" I've ever heard and maybe ever. It's the little things that persist.

From Washington, it was up I-95 to New Haven. The wintry mix segued into a full bore snowfall: not the first or last snow storm I've driven through. The New Haven hit was no general admission and the only night I knew I wouldn't be within two rows of the stage. The fact that I was back in the seats on the side of the Colesium probably colors my memories of that night. Really, the first set was about as standard issue as you could find for the era. Well-played, sure, but this was safe Phish at its finest. The only thing to distinguish the first set was squeezing in a repeated Peaches between the opening Runaway Jim>Foam cliche opening. Things loosened up a bit midway through the second set with a sweet Fluffhead>Antelope followed by a wicked, wild Big Black Furry Creature>Walk Away. Even at their safest, you couldn't hold these guys back for long. Still, this isn't a show I go back to too often.

Post show we walked out into a freezing cold ice-and-snowscape. We were supposed to stay at a friend's place nearby and got into the car, quickly exited the parking garage and made our way to her place. There we sat in the car and waited and waited... and waited. Now this is a classic "if we only had cell phones back then" moment. Cause we were waiting a good long while and it was freezing cold and we were packed in the car with the motor running. Turns out they had much more trouble getting out of the parking garage than we did and probably had moved a couple of inches in the time it took us to get over there. It had to be at least an hour, maybe more before we finally said "fuck it!" and decided we would get back on the road. It was my, The Big Squeeze, Brother Liffy and one of his high school friends, so I don't take full responsibility for the decision to get back on the road during some of the worst driving conditions imaginable. As we shuffled our way back up I-95 the highway was like a 4-year-old's play room with trucks and cars scattered at all angles along the side of the road. Except these weren't toy vehicles, but jackknifed tractor trailers and spun-out automobiles littering the New England night.

It took us a long, long while, but we made it to Portland as the sun was coming up. It was the kind of day where "crisp" doesn't quite describe the air. I remember it well. The sun conspired with the fresh snow to achieve near-blinding brightness and your nostrils pinched together in pain with every breath. It was cold! We parked the car in the garage next to the venue and figured we had a couple hours to kill before we could conceivably start waiting on line. We found a nice diner and filled up on bacon, eggs and the like then discovered the Portland Children's Museum where we decided to act like children for a bit. That became boring quickly and we walked back over to the venue, it couldn't have been later than noon, we got on line. We may or may not have been first, I can't recall... we were stupid. Freezing our asses off, we waited on that line in anticipation of the show that night. More and more people came and the excitement built from the near zero of our sleepless, bone-cold zombie state to a total state of delerium. I've waited outside of many a Phish show and as ridiculous as all that time spent seems looking back at it now from my adult perspective, I don't think my enjoyment of the whole experience would have been a fraction of what it is without that time there. Standing there, conspiring and commiserating with your fellow fanatic, knowing you're going to be standing there on the rail when the lights go down and that it didn't come for free. I have no qualms saying that some of the best moments I've had occurred in the front row of a Phish show. Like 12/30/93 for instance.

The thing about that night in Portland, that cold cold night, is that they were a little late in getting going, so with all that waiting, we had to wait even more than we thought. It's a nerve-racking thing waiting like that. Over the course of that year I'd discovered that with a little effort, I could get a song played by the band by the simple act of screaming. the question always was: what to shout for. I had been listening to this old show from the Front in Burlington where the band plays a goosepimple-raising version of Slave to the Traffic Light. It moved me. I knew that they had brought it back over the summer. I needed to hear it. I was able to convince everyone around me that that was the song that we would get that night. They were on board. It was the cold that did them in. As the hours passed I remember we broked out into an impromptu version of "I Didn't Know" except the lyrics we were singing were "I didn't know it could get this cold..."

Finally, they let us in. The problem sometimes with waiting out like that even with hours and hours of due dilligence, there's no guarantee that you'll be in the spot that you want. That spot for me was FRT (front row Trey). When we finally got inside the Cumberland County Civic Center, it became clear that there was another entrance on the other side of the building and there were people coming in from that. Shit! Bad news. Also... good news: a large portion of those filling in the front row were buddies from college. Excellent. I filled them in on the Slave thing. Ah sweet warmth. We were back in the aquarium.

Now 12/30/1993 is easily a top 10 Phish show for me. Maybe even #1 when it gets down to it. If you do not know why this is the case, please go find a copy and listen (I'll wait); I suggest the awesome matrix version floating around. I think someone might have even done a 5.1 version of this. Why would someone put that kind of effort into a Phish recording? Cause the music it contains is otherworldly. It is fucking good shit.

The band comes out and Trey's wearing a hat. A baseball cap. I believe he is wearing it backwards. That is weird. Has that ever happened before? He wore that thing the whole night, up until a critical point that we'll get to in a bit. But at the beginning, there it was. So now, he's underwater in a fish tank with a hat on. Curiouser and curiouser. Lights down, crowd up, cold forgotten, from that moment we're screaming for "Slave! Slave! Slave!" but we're just planting seeds at that moment. First: cymbals.... tss, tss, tss, tss... David Bowie. Oh shit, this really is going to be good. From the minute we rolled into Portland, maybe even from the moment we decided to get back on the road, it was clear that this was the night. I don't know how it was clear, but everything pointed to the Cumberland County Phish show on 12/30/1993 being the show of the run. Predestined. And then they opened with David Bowie and the truth was revealed. Monster Bowie, no farting around, no warm-up, just dive right in, the water's fine. The band was glued together, epoxy style and they were gyrating as a unit with such a force that the entire crowd was pulled in by the gravitational field. When the Bowie broke, the crowd erupted and it was clear that this night wasn't going to be one for the faint of heart. When the band lapsed into Aerosmith's "Dream On" mid-Bowie, it was glorious. Just the way they did it, so smooth, so perfect. Classic Phish tease.

The energy in the room that night was unbelievable. On the floor it seemed there was no space between each person and no one seemed to care one bit. Pulses would fire from one side to another so that waves of people would ripple back and forth and you'd just be swaying around without any control over where you ended up. Such fun. The whole show is a gem, great Forbin/Mockingbird with a nice acknowledgement about the freezing cold. Then the ice turns into water and we're all surfing. But the real goods are in the second set. The Also Sprach > Mike's song was a total out-of-body experience. The lights go down for the set, the rumble of the music as the smoke starts to fill the room. Purple beams of light slicing through the fog as the electric piano begins. Then the Mike's. I love this version of Mike's Song. The next semester when I had this on cassette, every day I would listen to the 2001>Mike's from this night. It was the perfect length to get me from my apartment to class. Then rewind it and do it over again. Excellent. In the then and there, though, it was utter mayhem. The orderly cascade of flesh that pushed back and forth became a full-fledged mosh pit... or at least the friendly Phish-version of a mosh pit. It was total, glorious chaos. The gentle Phish aquarium became a nasty, fun shark pit and the band did nothing to allay the madness. You can listen to this sickity shit on tape, but you can't experience the craziness that went along with it in that room.

As the smoke cleared on the last nutty Mike's Song of 1993, the crowd simmered and Brad Sands appeared with the acoustic-guitar-on-a-stand that Trey was playing that year for a couple songs. He would expertly slide his Languedoc behind him and segue to the acoustic and then back again. Here he was transitioning beautifully into a nice Horse/Silent in the Morning. I loved the way he played the crowd, building to a frenzy and then relaxing it for a moment. Just a moment. Next up was a nice PYITE>McGrupp before back into Weekapaug. All quiet nice. But don't take my word for it.

Shit was so jacked up, almost forgot about getting that Slave to the Traffic Light. But when Purple Rain came to a close, we saw our moment and pounced. "SLAVE!" Now, as usual, who knows if they would have played it otherwise, if we had anything to do with it. But play it they did. Oh, and how!! Note for note, glory, glory hallelujah! Everything about it was just perfect and when Trey got to the jam and started building, I'll never forget: his head just rocking back and forth, feeling the music, working on a building and then, like it was holding him back, he remembers that hat and reaches up and throws it off, almost in disgust. Hat gone, he really lets loose and explodes the golden hose. Crowd goes nuts. We got our Slave and so much more. What a freakin' set!

And it's not even New Year's yet. After the show in Portland, we did not drive on. We were at a hotel and utterly exhausted. Barely a wink of sleep and some monster Phish to digest. Still, even if we weren't in that state, I'm not sure we wouldn't have been totally useless. We spoke in grunts and half-phrases: "Slave!... Er. Sick! [belch]"

On to Worcester. On 12/31 all the themes came together. Flash back to earlier in the fall when the shows were announced. The Centrum. That's huge. We decided we'd go to Worcester, get bracelets for ticket onsale and then drive back the next day to buy tix. This seemed like a smart move until we realized, too late, that this didn't guarantee anything. We got good seats, not great. Luckily for me, there was a guy there that I had met at a couple shows who was 1st in line. Out of the kindness of his heart, he traded me a 2nd row seat. Nice. So, there I was, by myself, but still in perfect position, 2nd row just to the left of Fishman (who was on the right side at the time). Very nice.

While 12/31 wasn't the best overall show of the run, it featured some of the best versions of the run, the year and, frankly, ever. Reba, Tweezer, YEM, Harry Hood -- all are superlative versions. The great thing about that night was how they brought together the whole Peaches thing: teasing it at every moment that they could. In the middle of jams, in between songs, etc. there was the Peaches theme. Everyone was in the game.

I really love the Reba from this night. There was a moment when the jam was about to kick it up a notch, a guy appeared on stage, and before anyone could notice had jumped into the crowd. It's kinda ridiculous, but he had the thing timed out perfectly. It was very fluid, he didn't stop moving, just walked up through the middle just as the jam was beginning its ascent and then disappeared over the edge. I will never forget that. You can hear it on the recording because the crowd gives a roar and then the music just goes batshit sickness.

The second set was kinda ridiculously good. The Tweezer is a swift, concise clinic in the brilliance of Phish circa 1993. The entire band clicking, no wasted motion, not a note out of place. That Tweezer > Halley's Comet (my first) was a great way to open the set. The YEM to close it was equally brilliant and equally up to the task. This was a band that was on fire, no doubt. The vocal jam that came after was marked by the band singing while getting into wet suits. That's right, wet suits being donned in the aftermath of a monster set. Only at a Phish show. Only at a Phish show. Of course, with the pink and green fish floating overhead, it wasn't too hard to figure out where this was going. "We're going to go on a little excursion here..." Trey says as the big clam that had been sitting in the middle of the stage opens up and the band crawls inside.

As midnight neared, all of the sudden you hear the voices of the band, but don't see them. Then -- look up! There were four guys in wet suits being lowered by ropes onto the stage. It was quite clear that they were "stunt doubles." Then the countdown begins with this deep monster voice and the clam starts moving again like it's the thing that's calling out the countdown. Then the band appears sans wetsuits and plays Auld Lang Syne. Totally bizarre, but the fun's just beginning. They immediately bust into the Down With Disease jam like guns ablazin'! No one has heard this before so it's an interesting moment. And as the jam is heating up a Frank Zappa look alike walks onto stage and raises his arms to the crowd. Whoa! Was this some Zappa jam? Maybe. It was wicked fun, though. Later I remembered how the band had announced they were filming the video for their new song that night, your likeness may be used, blah, blah, blah. That made more sense. Not sure where the Zappa dude fit in, but all those themes that had popped up from the first night through the 31st were tidily packaged in that whole New Year's shebang. And all the while, I was just dancing my ass off.

Third set is always bonus, but this one was continuously solid. My 1993 Phishperience had started back in February and was marked by the most gorgeous Harry Hood I've ever heard, so it was appropriate that this show featured an almost equally magical version near its conclusion. May I never tire of listening to these shows. But, the real theme for all of 1993 was Amazing Grace and so, the last song of the night and the run was an a capella version to send us out into 1994 and beyond.

In conclusion, the NYE run of 1993 was my favorite NYE run.

Thanks for reading...


Liffy said...

Well put. Other random remembrances:
-the hat I threw onstage to Fish in DC, it said I'm OK you're a shithead, and I attached his HS yearbook pic to the brim, he wore it for the encore.
-the PA music during the breaks was a mix of all "water" songs, Black Water for example. Only time I've ever heard them play something other than a straight up album
- I swear we were singing Tweezer outside of Portland, but maybe it was both that and I Didn't Know
- I also thought the guy you thought was Zappa was just another fan running on the stage, maybe not
-the Mike's in Portland had the beginnings of Simple in the jam
-kind of random, but I remember stopping at a rest stop to get a little rest on the way to portland and we turned on some college radio station at like 3-4am and they were playing Sun Ra, then the DJ went on some late night rambling about Sun Ra.

Anyway, I agree, best New Year's run ever, best run ever period all things (re)considered.

neddy said...

Good calls, Liffy. Totally meant to include the "hat" incident but got lost in the shuffle.