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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2004/03/29
by David Steinberg

What Is Real?

Recently I’ve been hearing the most remarkable theory. People are
claiming that 6/11/94 is one of – if not the – best show in Phish’s
history. What makes that such an incredible idea to me is simply
that I was at that show. Admittedly different people have different
tastes, but that was far from my favorite show of the month, let alone
Phish’s entire history. It’s not just me. I went back to Google’s
archives and skimmed rec.music.phish’s reaction to this show. That
was a painful thing to do because I was in the middle of a rather
stupid fight at the time and reading my posts makes me cringe at my
own stupidity, but there was a noticeable lack of interest in this
show. People didn’t hate it by any means, but no one was talking
about it like this was a legendary performance.
It’s not just Phish fans that do this. Ask a group of Deadheads what
the best Grateful Dead show was, and the 5/8/77 show will frequently be
mentioned. I’ve spent quite a bit of time myself in the Cult of
Cornell. Ask people who were there and once again, few walked out
thinking that they saw a mythic concert.
One thing that both of these shows have in common is that incredibly
good recordings circulate. The Red Rocks concert was broadcast over
KBOC a few days later, making it a rare mid 90s Phish soundboard
recording. Cornell was one of the first Betty Boards to circulate.
In that way these shows are avatars, representing a time and place.
That’s what’s so spectacular about these performances. May 19 and 21
were more interesting performances on the Dead’s 77 tour; the OJ show,
the madness of Columbus’s second set, and the infamous GameHoist show
all got the press from June 94. However, what both of these shows
did was take the values of their respective band at the time and take
that as far as it could. When doing a tour, it’s the oddities that
stand out. However, once you get out of that era of the band, any
show from that period is an oddity. The style of the band changes,
songs that were common then fall out of favor, and the bustouts that
got everyone so excited that month become the new overplayed
standards. It’s only when taken outside of the context of the era
that some shows can really stand out.
That’s what raises the question. Which reaction is more valid? I
walked outside of Salt Lake City feeling as though I had seen one of
the best concerts in years. The first night of It caused more
discussion about mud and tiredness than the music. If I’m choosing a
show to listen to though, 8/2 would be popped in first. Which show
is better, the one that blows you away live or the one that you prefer
to listen to after the fact? Is the reaction at the time more or less
important than the reaction years later?
While I can’t answer those questions, I can point out where the
differences lay. Shows that get loved more that night tend to have
moments of spontaneity Bustouts are powerful because no one in the
venue is expecting that song at that moment. There’s no way to
reproduce that effect when you’ve already seen the setlist for the
night. The LA Woman Phish played in Miami was an incredible moment
of the band finding a song and running with it, even though they
didn’t really know how it went. It was a great moment live, but
there’s a reason why everyone who didn’t go to Miami thinks that it’s
awful.
If the live performances are about improvisation, on disc it’s
precision that matters. Sloppiness can go unnoticed during a live
performance or can even add to the charm. When you sit at home and
listen though, it’s less likely that you’d want to listen Jerry mumble
his way through a Stella Blue, no matter how great the mid song solo
is. The shows that get pointed out years later tend to be the more
precise ones. The extended jams call attention to themselves, but it
takes time for the flawless performances to stand out.
While my own personal bias (even on disc) is for improvisation over
precision (e.g. preferring the wacky but sloppy versions of Simple
from Summer 94 to the those when it actually was a song and had
structure), there is a case to be made for the great on cd shows.
After hearing all of the hype, I finally downloaded a version of
6/11/94 a few weeks ago. Did it get my vote for the best Phish show
of all time? No. However, a show that I remembered as being
mediocre at best turns out to be rather hot. I don’t know if my
reaction of being kind of bored at the show is more or less real than
that of enjoying the music a decade later, but I am sure that enjoying
music now is better than not enjoying it.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live
music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His
Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html
He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at
http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

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