My First Phish Show 1994-10-08

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

I backed into my first Phish show well after becoming a fan. I’m fairly certain that I was turned on to the group in High School though it was my first year of college where I began to absorb much of their music. Junta played constantly in our dorms and, as I grew my Grateful Dead tape collection, I began adding a few Phish tapes. But that was the early 90’s and I was still very much focused on seeing as much Grateful Dead as possible. This attitude and my slim wallet kept me away from Phish shows until 1994.

In March of ’94, I had purchased a ticket to my first Phish show the next month at the local college (George Mason University) basketball arena, the Patriot Center. But I soon learned that The Band (at least those who remained in the line-up) would be playing Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Theater that same week. Concerned about having another shot at seeing Levon and co., I sold my Phish ticket to a buddy and bought a ticket to see The Band. No regrets.

Truer Words...

Truer Words…

Flash forward to Autumn. Freshly enrolled in the local community college, making new friends, many of who were Grateful Dead and Phish fans, and Phish was slated to return to the Patriot Center. One of my new friends, Chris, offered me one of his extra tickets and plans were set. I was finally going to see this group.

George Mason is a sprawling suburban university that matches the character of Northern Virginia quite well. Attractive, yet deliberate, green spaces are surrounded by too much pavement and cars are everywhere. We arrived early and, counter to my experiences at Dead shows, there wasn’t much of a scene. A few people were making grilled cheese for themselves, and maybe one guy was selling shirts but, for the most part, folks kept to themselves. I can only assume that the campus housing was a different scene altogether. We picked out a spot with some grass and relaxed in the lovely Autumn afternoon before heading in to the show.

Patriot Center is a round-ish basketball venue. It has no upper deck but reserved seating all the way around and, for this show, on the floor. As we entered, a fan handed me a purple flyer that read, “Phish Is A Really Cool Band.” Indeed.Our seats were on Page’s side, ahead of the board, a few rows above the floor. pretty much perfect. Unless you compare to those of my friend Modi whom we saw bouncing to the PA music all the way up to the front of the floor.

We were pumped.

We were ready.

The lights went down.

The roar went up.

(Listen here via ReListen.Net)

And they opened with “Chalk Dust Torture”. This was pretty much a given, as we were on a university campus. The strong rocked out opener was perfect for drawing in new listeners.

After that came “Sparkle”. I knew this song but I’d never tried to dance to it. I already had discovered that its lyrics unpack to reveal a shattered emotional core but I hadn’t really understood how that breakage is so well illustrated by the frenetic build. The physical challenge of the dancing drove that home. This was not the wildest version I’d see but a good beginning.

New but not new, “Down With Disease” had come a long way from the jamming on the ’93 New Year’s Eve show that I’d heard so many times at this point. This version was standard great and plenty of fun for a first set rocker.

“Guyute” was fresh for this tour as is evident the crowd’s reception in the intro but you hear them winning the audience as the song progresses. It certainly won me over. Complex prog arrangements with gratuitous peaks and whistling? What’s not to like?

As if to counter the new song reticence, Trey pulled out the megaphone for “Fee” and the crowd (including myself) ate it up.

Next, “It’s Ice” showcased Page’s chops beautifully and, on this one, he delivered a great solo. As if to further feature Page, he next sang “Lawn Boy”. The lounge act strolling the stage was amusing and the interlude was a nice break before “Run Like An Antelope”. This was a concise and powerful set closer. I remember being awed by Trey’s guitar-based pyrotechnics and the entire band’s ability to navigate the tension waves of the song. (Not that I’d have used those words as I sat breathless during setbreak. Reactions were probably a bit more on the order of, “Fucking wow, man.”)

“Also Sprach Zarathustra” aka “2001” in its early 90s short powerhouse glory launched the second set and led into a hot version of “Sample In A Jar”.

“Rift”, a favorite from the day the album was released (yes the album version was the first I’d heard) followed. I’ve little doubt that my love of this song drives my adoration of “The Curtain With” but, at this point, I had not heard that piece.

Next stop: My first Mike’s Groove.

“Mikes Song” quickly turned toward the dark side and was heavy with smoke machine/strobe light jamming. This briefly relented as the lights came up on a group of girls onstage singing a soccer cheer (“We Are The Cougars”). What the shit? They were cleared away and the band melted into “Simple”. I was already judging the band for skipping “I Am Hydrogen” when they dove back into “Mike’s Song”! The reprise was brief but it completed the song properly and dissolved into a gorgeous “I Am Hydrogen”. I would not see it again until Big Cypress.

Trey derailed the hot ‘Weekapaug Groove” with some heavy metal chords and it melted down to nothing for a moment. Fish and Page tried to get it back on track but Trey and Mike weren’t ready. This led to some cool clavinet, bass, and drum jamming with Trey keeping up the noise in the background. This soon exploded back into “Weekapaug” which they rode out for a few more glorious minutes.

Wait… There’s more? “Fluffhead”!?!? How could I not be ecstatic at this point? This might have been my first show but it was not my first rodeo. It was however, becoming an amazing ride. Bizarre and intense like a proper “Fluff” should be, this surely cemented my love of seeing Phish.”

Well, if that didn’t, what followed surely would. As I’ve mentioned, I’d spent years listening to Phish and much of the past year collecting and absorbing live recordings. My fairly decent Grateful Dead tape collection had enabled me to find some solid Phish tapes including a handful of fairly recent recordings from the Summer of ’94.

That October evening, as was sat on the grass outside the Patriot Center, we discussed what songs we wanted to hear. I was fairly open to anything but I did have one hope: “Purple Rain”. Fishman had occasionally sung the Prince song, with variable results, but I wanted to experience it first hand.

As “Fluffhead” wound down, Page began playing a familiar set of chords… I flipped out- yelling and leaping into the air. There it was.

“Purple Rain”.

Fish was in fine voice that night and delivered a moving rendition complete with a vacuum solo. I felt that I could die happy.

Then “Harry Hood” happened. This song and I have a special relationship. It stalks me at every turn. The equal and opposing force to “I Am Hydrogen” which I struggle to encounter, Hood is one of my most-seen songs (second only to Chalk Dust Torture) having turned up at better than one-in-three of my attended shows.

That night, in the Patriot Center, a short drive from my home, we were treated to a perfect rendition of “Hood”. It rose, fell, stretched, and peaked in a manner best described as “exactly perfect”. I could carry only this song with me forever.

After that, “Suzy Greenberg” was lighthearted candy to wrap up the set. We bounced about, sang along and had a blast.

Bluegrass Phish

No amount of research, no studying of tapes and setlists could prepare me for what came next. When the band returned to the stage for their encore, they did not go to their usual positions. Trey sported an acoustic guitar. The bass player, Mike Gordon, strapped on a banjo. The keyboard player, Page McConnell, held an upright bass and the drummer wore a washboard that, in a twist both bizarre and perfectly reasonable, had cones akin to a bra Madonna might have worn. The crowd hooted and hollered for a bit and then quieted down.

They were shockingly quiet, in fact.

Then, the band went into a bluegrass arrangement of Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time”. It was both hilarious and dead seriously perfect. I’d had an inkling but was soon to grok that his duality is a large element of Phish’s personality. After that, they moved back to their usual spots and sent up home was a joyous rendition of “Rocky Top.”

I was practically floating as I left the venue that night.

First shows are never discussed objectively. It simply cannot be done by a human. Even Spock would have trouble not gushing about his first show (though, to be fair, I’m pretty sure he did that sun slingshot thing and saw all of Summer ’95. Also, I’m pretty sure he’s probably not real.) I realize that this show is never going to be looked upon as an “all-time great” and, given the context of what else happened in nineteen ninety-four, I get that. But, if you were to look for an example of Phish in that year, one that was more typical awesome than uniquely awesome, I’d point you to this one.

And it was my first.

Thanks, Chris.

And thanks to Phish for all of the great times over the past twenty years.

 Saturday, 10/08/1994
 Patriot Center, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
 Soundcheck: It's Ice, Mound, Funky Bitch
 Set 1: Chalk Dust Torture, Horn > Sparkle > Down with Disease, Guyute, Fee > It's Ice, Lawn Boy > Run Like an Antelope
 Set 2: Also Sprach Zarathustra > Sample in a Jar, Rift > Mike's Song -> Simple -> Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Fluffhead > Purple Rain > Hold Your Head Up, Harry Hood, Suzy Greenberg
 Encore: Foreplay/Long Time, Rocky Top

Setlist Courtesy


Happy Birthday, Jerry

Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia

It’s the first of August once again and today we celebrate Jerry Garcia’s birthday.

This year, I’d like to share with you a video of one of the many great moments I had the fortune to experience live. This version of Shining Star by The Manhattans was performed by the Jerry Garcia Band at Hampton Coliseum on November 19, 1993. It’s a slow song but was deeply moving to be present as the audience sang to Jerry and he sang back to us. Put this on and enjoy.

Megafaun with Grandma Sparrow @ DC9

Grandma Sparrow

Grandma Sparrow

Grandma Sparrow is a new project from Megafaun’s drummer, Joe Westerlund.

It’s a wild, trippy, work that runs more akin to 200 Motels Zappa than what you might expect from Megafaun. Sporting costumes to represent various characters in the lysergic nursery school narrative, Westerlund leads the band and the audience on a wacky journey that must be witnessed.

Grandma Sparrow Flies

The band that Joe has backing him is killer (Canine Heart Sounds from Durham, NC) and their efforts reveal that this is no lark of a comedy show. The music is serious and swings quickly from what could be a psychedelic spin on Alice Cooper, “This Is My Wheelhouse”, to a “Twelve Tone Lullaby”.  Watch for these guys to come around.

Check out a track here.

Megafaun with Justin Vernon

Megafaun with Justin Vernon

Next up was Megafaun. They’ve basically been on hiatus while each guy does their own thing and, aside from these dates this week, that hiatus isn’t over any time soon. So this was special. Their old friend Justin Vernon (Bon Iver (in case you live under rocks)) had pulled them together for a thing this weekend and they turned it a week of rehearsals, hanging out, and three public shows. (Tonight they play Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, NY. If you can go, GO.)
The four piece band took the stage with Brad and Justin switching off bass & guitar throughout the night. I’m not going to pretend to be an objective rock journalist here. I love this band and I’ve gotten to know these guys a little bit and I could not be more biased. They played great songs and they fun they had on stage radiated out into the crowd who was also having a great time and watched rather attentively.

Amid a selection of their best original songs they gave us a great cover of The Band’s “Ain’t No More Cane” and Ry Cooder’s “Boomer’s Story”. The latter featured dual slide guitars from Justin and Phil and was, simply terrific. Late in the set, Matthew E. White was called to the stage. (I’ve raved about his album on this blog and he produced the Grandma Sparrow record for his Spacebomb label.) With White and Vernon on guitar, and Phil Cook manning the keys, the band played through a playful version of “His Robe”, a spacey reading of “Real Slow” and a blistering performance of “Kaufman’s Ballad” to close the set.

Megafaun with Matthew E White

Megafaun with Matthew E White

The five-piece band left the stage and only the three core members returned for the encore. Phil brought his banjo, Brad his Martin acoustic, and Joe brought only his voice. The plugs were out, microphones set aside, adn the band sang a heartfelt version of “Worried Mind” from the stage lip accompanied by the audience for the final choruses.

So ended a special night of music that I, for one, will treasure for some time.


DC9 – Washington, DC

Grandma Sparrow opening

Ain’t No More Cane
The Fade
Second Friend
You Are The Light
Boomer’s Story
Get Right
Unchained (sung by J. Vernon)
Carolina Days
His Robe*
Real Slow*
Kaufman’s Ballad*

Worried Mind^

Justin Vernon on backing vocals & Guitar or bass for the whole show
*Matthew E White on guitar
^Trio only, Acoustic. Phil on Banjo, Brad on guitar.

Worried Mind

Worried Mind

More pictures of Grandma Sparrow: Here

More pictures of Megafaun: Here

Those Other Jams: Television – Marquee Moon: The Intersection of Punk, Art, and Jam Rock

Television, First Avenue NYC 1977

Television, First Avenue NYC 1977

I was turned on to Television in my record shop clerk days by my full-time co-worker and part-time music mentor, Tom S. The band was engaged in a comeback and when their new CD came through, Tom put it in my hands.

“You need to hear this band.” I looked at it. Rykodisc, boring black & white cover, nothing made it stand out. Besides, I was knee deep in my Jazz and Grateful Dead roots studies.

I asked, “Why?”

“This is their new thing which is okay but after you listen to this you’ve got to find their other stuff because it’s basically punk rock with guitar solos. You’d like it.”

“I thought punk rockers hated bands with guitar solos,” I said.

“Listen,” he said.

I took it home and, sure enough, he was right. At a time when I could hardly be drawn to anything with distortion that wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or a shockingly aggressive version of Grateful Dead’s space jamming, I found myself drawn to a punk band. This opened my eyes to the overlapping genres of punk/art punk/garage rock and so much more. Television connected the dots and “Marquee Moon”, though not my favorite Television song¹, it’s definitely the one that changed me.

In 1977, the Grateful Dead played one of their most renowned shows in Ithaca, New York. In New York City, punk rock had broken and was oozing like a blister on the face of rock music. The art crowd had pushed their way into the scene as they always do and groups like The Talking Heads and Patty Smith were leading the way. Television, founded by Tom Verlaine and school chum, Richard Hell, had been around for a couple of years. Hell, it seems, cleaved more closely to certain punk aesthetics including that not mastering one’s instrument and, in ’75, left to form his own group. He was replaced on bass by Fred Smith and from there, things got serious.

In February 1977, “Marquee Moon” came out as a double sided 7″ (it’s far too long for only one side) as well as the title track for the group’s debut album where it clocked in at an unheard-of-for-punk-rock ten minutes. Over several years of on-stage development and a previous studio effort² in the song grew in complexity to become a series of killer riffs and extended solos. Richard Lloyd takes the first solo and Verlaine takes the second with Lloyd’s distinct and creative rhythm playing serving as a dynamic foil along the way.

But the song didn’t peak with the album release. Later live versions (Television was, sadly, not as well documented as a Deadhead would like) include the 14+ minute version found on the album “The Blow Up” which stretches the song to new limits and reveals what Lester Bangs meant when he compared Verlaine’s playing to that of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cippolina.³ In some of the longer versions, the band slows and shifts gears for new and varied ideas to emerge from the solos. This is where the true listening is happening. The band stays together as the soloist draws in new ideas changing the face of the song and then, with a cue from drummer Billy Ficca, they swing back into the ascendant closing groove.

Here collide the raw nerves of punk, the desire to experiment with the form and nature of that genre, and the exploratory drive of without-a-net jamming. It was this that hooked me. Twenty years later, Television remains a favorite.
¹: “Elevation” and “The Dream’s Dream” battle for that title.

²: On the Brian Eno produced demo from 1974, the song clocked in around 7 minutes.

³: See Lester Bangs’ “Free Jazz Punk Rock“.

Those Other Jams: The Byrds – Eight Miles High

The Byrds - (Untitled)

The Byrds – (Untitled)

I thought I knew The Byrds: folk-pop darlings, covered Dylan, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, drugs references in pop songs, Gram Parsons, country rock, reunion in the Seventies… But I was wrong. I had missed a critical piece of the puzzle until a good friend showed me the light.

A few years back, as I sat at my friend’s house, sipping a beer and enjoying the warm fireplace, he got up to change the record. His record collection easily surpasses my own and he often tries to stump me with his selections. This time, however, he did not expect to keep me guessing.

“You’ll probably get this one pretty quick but I should tell you that I’m breaking protocol and starting with side two,” he informed me. Listening to albums is serious business and there are rules. This move violated a key regulation but, it’s his house, and his rule to break. “I just love this side so much,” he continued, “I can’t wait.” He dropped the needle and sat down.

A brisk fade-in revealed a band going at it hard. Uptempo drums drove a blend of jangling and crunchy rock guitars with a rapid yet fluid bass line. I should have spotted the song immediately from the early telltale riffs from McGuinn but a conversation about record playing rules diverted my attention just enough that I did not. Instead, I found myself puzzling over Clarence White’s guitar solo and the subsequent bass jam from Skip Battin. I commented on the quality jamming but I could not come up with the band. My friend laughed, surprised that I didn’t know the album.

I don’t have every record. It’s not possible. But I do pride myself on having a selection of excellent jamming from all over the musical spectrum. Not knowing, much less owning, this record began to gnaw at me as I sat, listening and drinking in that pale yellow wingback chair. And then, nearly twelve minutes into the side, McGuinn jumps back in with an unmistakable riff and Rickenbacker tone.

“The Byrds? This is “Eight Miles High”? What album is this?” I asked, getting up to check out the cover.

“(Untitled),” he responded. (He did not pronounce the parentheses but I include them for accuracy.)

I was blown away by this revelation. The Byrds could jam? They took a cool song and expanded it into a tour de force, A ripping jam that veered well enough away from its source to lose a listener but steered directly back into the groove in time to fit the song neatly on an album side. I was sold and I studied the cover, adding it to my mental record-shopping wantlist.

A new love was born.

JamBand Music – A Difficult Label

Jamband music is often pegged as self-indulgent, drug addled, guitar noodling but that’s not entirely fair.

It’s true that among the bands embraced by Jamband fandom, drugs do crop up both on stage and off. And guitar noodling, seemingly aimless streams of notes in search of purchase, certainly does happen. But to call the jams ‘aimless’ is a disservice to the players. A band like Phish doesn’t simply launch into jams unprepared.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s Phish could arguably have been one of the more well-rehearsed bands on the road. And it wasn’t just songs being worked over in the rehearsal space; they developed exercises to train themselves to listen better and to improvise as a unit. These extended practices carried over to the stage and, come the mid-90’s, Phish began transforming 5 minute songs into half-hour explorations. By the late 90’s, entire sets might be devoted to seamless jams between only a handful of songs.

Casual listeners seem to become fatigued by this sort of jamming, preferring to be entertained by a new song every few minutes. One cannot argue matters of taste. (One can but it’s a rather tedious and pointless exercise that can really kill a dinner party.) But the fact that Phish can also play a set of short songs, as can The Grateful Dead, cannot overcome the bias has, unfortunately, been installed. Those groups ‘jam onstage’ therefore they lose some perceived value to a broad segment of potential audience.

And so, this past weekend, as I enjoyed a relaxing moment of coffee and a record, I realized that it should be noted that most bands jam and many do it onstage. Why should a select few carry a stigma when a broad cross-section of musical groups take to the stage or even the studio and stretch their songs to the limits?

Herein, I shall begin compiling examples of these performances in a list that I’ll call: Those Other Jams.

A Poem

I stood at the Sad
Infinite American
Night’s edge where I blinked

Though fear made me blink
The Infinite surrounds us
Fish can’t fear water

Sadness like a cloak
Dampened by rain keeps us cold
I feared to regret

Unpaved uphill roads
With falling rocks and washouts
lead to gorgeous peaks

Smooth highways beckon
Invent thyself and ramble!
American void

Stare. It won’t stare back
Step forth and wrestle the void
Best hope is a draw

Conventional means
Keep the void roughly arm’s length
Still I probe the edge

Poised on the safe side
Bound by the word I’ve given
Still pushing uphill

Reaping rewards
With the worst of my regrets
vanquished by a blink

Phish – Wingsuit

2013-10-31 Phishbill "Wingsuit"

2013-10-31 Phishbill

On Halloween, Phish eschewed the traditional “Costume Set” wherein the band covers a classic album and, instead, took the bold move of debuting 12 new songs that, they announced, would likely comprise the bulk of their yet-to-be-recorded new album. While writing and rehearsals for the album had taken place over the last year, none of these tunes had been played for a Phish audience. The band hoped that the live experience would add to their understanding of each of these songs as they go into the studio to record with legendary producer, Bob Ezrin, in the first week of November.

“Wingsuit” starts with thin vocals and a refrain that feels tentative, but warms a bit with a strong guitar solo. The lyrics are not ambiguous and sound very much of the 3.0 era, honest and direct about life and how to live it. I suspect that this will grow significantly in the studio into a great piece of audio work. It was followed by “Feugo” which kicks off with a strong instrumental sequence followed by a chanted verse and big, sing-songy, wordless chorus. This song turned around a lot of people who were unsure after the set began with “Wingsuit”. The various segments of “Feugo” illustrate a lot of what Phish does in this era: quick changes, high tempo riffing, and a healthy dose of darkness.

“The Line” pushes the darkness aside and explores fear and facing challenges from a positive perspective. This could be Phish’s pop masterpiece, honestly. The backing vocals are gorgeous, the melody is strong and simple and the message clear as a bell. This is exactly the sort of song Phish fans love to hate but it’s really a great pop song and I can’t help but like it.

“Monica” is an unstoppably catchy earworm with call-and-response vocals that will bounce around in your head for an hour after you hear it. Fortunately, it completely lacks in awfulness. They performed it in a stripped down setup with Trey on acoustic, Mike on an upright bass, Fishman on a stripped down kit, and Page on a simplified keyboard setup. “Waiting All Night” has a bit more of the call-and-response but this time in the electrified, full setup with Trey’s solos gliding beautifully across the mix. It’s a simple song but pretty and a definite keeper with lots of potential.

Continue reading

Phish in Hampton 2013

Hampton by Andrea Nusinov @andreanusinov Buy Prints

Hampton by Andrea Nusinov @andreanusinov
Buy Prints

I walked away from Phish after a show at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2010. I wasn’t disgusted or offended by their playing or whatever faults I might have perceived in the band, I just wasn’t having as much fun. So I stopped attending shows and listened to fewer and fewer of their current recordings. Then, over this past Summer, something changed. The band was exuding the playfulness that I wanted once again. Maybe it was me; maybe not. But it’s not just about jamming or silly gags onstage, it’s about energy. While the band has clearly been enjoying themselves all along, they had stopped transmitting on my frequency. This past Summer, that changed.

Then they announced a run of shows at the Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia and I knew it was time.

Coming about a week after the 19th anniversary of my very first Phish show, these would be my first shows in more than two years when the band returned to . The venue has been a part of my musical life since the early 90s and part of my life’s scenery as far back as I can remember due to growing up in region. It was good to be back to both the band and the room.
(Click here if you want to skip to the summary. I’ll eventually forgive you.)

Night One (Friday, October 18, 2013):

A lovely day for a drive through Virginia and soon enough we’re checked into the hotel and on the lot in Hampton. We met a few friends and went in early enough to grab a great spot, on the rail, just behind Page. From here could see everything that he did, most of what Fish did and every bit of Trey’s turning and geeking out on Page’s solos. The latter happened frequently throughout the evening.

“Wolfman’s Brother” opened strong and got right down to rockin’ and “Runaway Jim” hinted at the band’s eagerness to jam when they stretched it slightly before the first big peak. “Mound” was a particular treat because I’ve somehow managed to not see it since the Summer of ’95. “Chalk Dust Torture” followed, bringing back the rock, and Page gave us a breather with his rather personal sounding ballad, “Army Of One”. The band picked things right back up a bluegrass number, “Nelly Kane”, and then dove into “Stash”. Continue reading