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Flying Through The Canyon: Live Phish 01-05

My friend Rachel, who I had the pleasure of sharing my last Phish shows
with, compared Phish to the Grand Canyon. "You can be right there," she
said, "You can stand on the edge. You can even hike down to the bottom and
camp for a month. But you can't really have a clue to the magnitude of what
the whole thing looks like without looking at a postcard, even while you're
standing in the middle of it."

Phish has been gone for a year now, and those who previously stood gaping at
the hole have been forced to back off, at least for the time being. The
entity, whatever you want to call it, still hovers out there somewhere,
though, and we continue to get postcards. The new series of releases out of
Burlington begin to form a picture — a literal one, even, when one
assembles the Jim Pollock-created cover art into a sequence.

Interesting music (and interesting places) tend to produce interesting
writing. These discs give us the opportunity to compare notes. Hell, that
was possible when we were all in the canyon, too, but – now especially – it
is interesting to see what people focus on. The inimitable David Steinberg,
for example, has a sense of the historical, analyzing what particular
versions of Phish's songs mean in their broader context. Pat Buzby, a
Chicago-based musician, takes an extremely incisive look at the way the band
members interact musically. Meanwhile, Mike Barthel appropriates Phish for
his own use, bringing their music into a territory that even the headiest of
heads have likely never gone. These are voices from the crowd.

Phish will always mean something different to everybody. For now, though, it
is interesting to see what it means to them, if we take these
releases as a sign of some sort of official narrative, highlighting certain
aspects of the story. That and they're phatty board tapes, brah.

Jesse Jarnow

Brooklyn, New York

13 October 2001

Index to "Live Phish" reviews

"Live Phish 01" – December 14, 1995 – review by David Steinberg
"Live Phish 02" – July 16, 1994 – review by Mike Barthel
"Live Phish 03" – September 14, 2000 – review by Jesse Jarnow
"Live Phish 04" – June 14, 2000 – review by Chris Gardner
"Live Phish 05" – July 8, 2000 – review by Pat Buzby

Live Phish 01: December 14, 1995

Broome County Forum – Binghamton, New York

review by David Steinberg

For those who pre-ordered "Live Phish" with next-day shipping, the
package had the misfortune of arriving on September 11th. My copy,
like most of them, went unplayed for quite some time. Sunday
afternoon, though, it was time to finally turn off CNN and look for
something more life affirming. "Live Phish 01 – December 14, 1995 – was
going to have to have that burden put on it.

Disc 1 starts off with some energy. Suzy Greenburg/Llama make a
powerful one-two
punch. However, the set really starts to get interesting with the
Makisupa Policeman with its reference to Muammar Gaddafi; remember
when the middle-east
dictators seemed incompetent? The first of many segues in this show
happens as it melds into Split Open and Melt. There are nights
where
this song is kind of boring. This is not one of them. Clocking in at
nearly 15 minutes, it is worthy of that time. The jam stays pretty
close to the usual SOAM theme. It varies enough to stay interesting,
but never loses any energy until some noodling at the very end.

The song after the always-welcome Tela is listed in the liner notes
as
Taste. That’s not quite accurate. Taste went through a lot
of
changes in 1995. This is version three, sometimes referred to as The
Taste That Surrounds. It is similar in structure to what would emerge
as the final version of Taste, but there's an additional bridge
where Jon sings a lot more of the Fog That Surrounds lyrics, while
Trey sings the Taste lyrics over him. After that, it drops into the
usual bridge and goes on as normal.

My Sweet One and Frankenstein round out the set. As first
sets go,
it's a good one. It gives no idea though about what's to come.

The second CD starts with another reminder of things past: the
audience chess move. If this series does nothing else, it'll remind
people that Phish have an interesting history. Between the secret
language that will appear when they release 1992 shows and the chess
moves and the Japanese Meatstick, newcomers to the band
will learn a lot about their sense of whimsy.

Around nine minutes into the Tweezer, this show starts to hit another
gear as the band slams into Timber seemingly to their own surprise.
The Timber is only the first two verses. During the jam they segue
their way back into a long Tweezer jam. The upbeat theme of the show
is kept throughout the jam. It never really gets spacey, just flies
around before landing in the third historical relic – Keyboard Army
(alas, they
rejected the more clever Keyboard Kalvary moniker favored by
rec.music.phish).

A long Split Open and Melt. Three historical curiosities. A
Tela.
A Tweezer > Timber > Tweezer. Surely nothing left in this show can
match that. Actually as it turns out, the best of the show is still
to come.

Halley’s Comet rarely is used as a jam vehicle. This, fortunately,
is
one of the exceptions. Trey starts playing a beautiful theme right
before the six-minute mark and they run with it. They build it for a while,
walk away from it, and then suddenly pounce right back on top of it.
Cat and mouse with a jam. At one point, they leave it, go into a
fast paced jam, and then go back into the theme at the speed they're
playing in. Intense stuff. After about three minutes of this, they go
into one of those melodic space jams only they seem capable of really
pulling off. This eventually evolves into a Wipeout-esque jam which
they toy around with for a while. There are lots of Page and Mike
fills in the jam, which is never a bad thing. The segue into NICU is
surprisingly smooth. They blend the intro with the quasi-Wipeout
theme before launching into the lyrics.

The real surprise comes at the end of NICU. Instead of just ending
the song, they launch back into a jam. This is Phish creativity at
its peak. At their best, Phish make jams that sound like they're
full fledged songs. This is exhibit A of that. The jam drops down
and then Page takes a long, long beautiful solo. It is followed by a
Mike solo. Mike's melodic playing has always been a secret
strength of Phish. Trey launches into Slave To The Traffic Light.

I suppose there are bad versions of Slave out there. If you wanted
to
start looking for one though, this would be a horrible place to start.
Everything from the composed section, to the build, to the peak is
spot-on. At the very end of the song, Trey hits his peak notes one
last time just because he can. It's like a victory lap.

I came into this CD looking to be reminded that there are good things
in the world. For two hours I was able to lose myself in the world
that Phish created in the Broome County Arena. For that, I thank Phish
and I highly recommend this purchase.

Live Phish 02: July 16, 1994

Sugarbush Summerstage – Waitsfield, Vermont

review by Mike Barthel

CD has never been the best forum for mechanical experimentation, at least
for the end user. Records and reel-to-reel tape can be manipulated by hand,
producing many of the electronic effects that come as part of wave-editing
software today; even cassettes could be unspooled and made into loops, or
played at high speed. But try and turn a CD by hand, and all you get is a
blip. Some possibilities are garnered from selective mutilation of the
disc's surface, but there is not much beyond that.

Still, some innovative musicians have encouraged the end user to play with
the conventions of the compact disc to further their listening experience.
The Flaming Lips' four-CD album, meant to be played simultaneously, springs
to
mind. John
Oswald of Plunderphonics fame likes to hide additional material in the "0"
track, to say nothing of his well-known "Greyfolded" disc, which compressed
the entirety of the Grateful Dead's output into a coherent musical whole.
Combined with the ability to cut up already cut-up pieces and superimpose
them on existing Dead albums, this too created intriguing possibilities for
the listener.

And then there's "Dark Side of the Rainbow".

All of this is to say that the possibilities brought into effect with the
official CD pressing of Phish's 1994 performance at Sugarbush are perhaps
previously unexplored. One of the casual listener's problems with going to
Phish concerts, of course, was their length, but with the entirety of the
concert now divided up onto three discs, the novice now has a pleasant
foothold through the device of playing all three discs simultaneously,
making the listening experience much more efficient (ie. a three-hour
concert is reduced to 80 minutes). Like the movie "Time Code," when a boring
moment arises in one iteration, the listener can simply shift his or her
focus to another ongoing thread.

Of course, purists may complain that there is some loss in quality, but this
is heartily compensated for in the new sounds generated, which should come
as a welcome addition to the Phish oeuvre for hardcore fans, and a welcome
respite for novice ones (conveniently, it will also encourage consumers to
purchase more of these live sets, thus increasing the sonic possibilities!).
At times, it can just sound like members of a mediocre band all warming up
in different tempos, but even then it is, at the very least, loud (should
the listener so choose), and in – its more ambitious moments – the brave,
almost
free-jazz use of different tempi and keys is exhilarating.

The Plunderphonics song Mirror (1988) takes three jazz solos out of
their
rhythmic and harmonic context to create what sounds remarkably like a
standard free jazz piece. This effect is also seen here in the first track
of the "Sugarbush" set, Golgi Apparatus/Run Like an Antelope/Harry
Hood. From the left, an audience applauds the sound of a guitar being
manipulated while, on the right side of the stage, members of a band fight
back and forth to establish a groove. The dissonances build in an
unselfconscious way, with the band never leaning too far towards needlessly
harsh sounds, but also refusing to succumb to traditional (even for Phish)
chordal structures. The listener sees him- or herself first facing away from
the stage, perhaps walking to a distant tent to get some water, or
appreciating the trees at this lush Summerstage venue, but soon faces the
stage, aurally speaking, around the midpoint of Contact/Run Like an
Antelope (2)/Stash.

Attention is diverted from time to time and the ears
tend more left, right, or center, but especially intriguing is the way the
listener can, after a certain point (and a certain level of chemical input)
actually visualize different, possibly cloned members of Phish reciting from
the various locales (it is at times like this that the retro purist finds
himself mourning the loss of quadraphonic sound). Later, the possibility
even
arises of seeing other musicians, famous or members of your chosen cover
band, performing with these newfound clones. Together, they are "bad
improvisers" because they don't listen or respond to each other, but in this
context we force them to, and notions of good and bad are stripped away in a
performance that the band members no longer have any control over.

One aspect liable to be mourned is the loss of subtle moments; quiet parts
in various jams rarely coincide (due to the relative dynamic unity evidenced
in these earlier recordings) and so the effect of an aural wash is hard to
ignore. Still, this can be corrected with judicious use of the volume
button; indeed, should one be so inclined, one could station various
compatriots at the different broadcast locales and manipulate the tone,
volume, balance, etc. of each individual disc.

The disc sometimes becomes a kind of "battle of the bands," with each
manifestation of the band battling for control of the overall groove. In
Harpua/Silent in the Morning/Suzy Greenburg, for instance, the
drummer on
the left insistently pounds away at a beat clearly opposed to the groove
already instigated by the band in the center, and – for a while – the vocals
of
the right-hand track dominate, but after these die out (the band apparently
leaving the stage, exhausted) a subtle bass line struggles for control
against an established blues vibe, finally enlisting a vocalist to its cause
and overwhelming the now-mushy jam session on the left. This is also a nice
use of simultaneously clashing genre structures, as a dub/reggae
manifestation faces off fearlessly against a funk groove. Truly, the breadth
of a band (or group of clones) able to manipulate such diverse influences in
such a way as to show the inherent contradictions, but also similarities, of
such ethnically and geographically separated forms is stunning.

The crowd cheers on the right as the band returns to the stage; it all
begins again. We will stay up all night listening, get married, perhaps die,
without these sounds ever resolving, ever repeating. There is the
possibility of madness in this live Phish set from 1994, but it must be
resisted. Go! Remember the musical efficiency that drove you at the outset!
Find it within yourself to halt the manic, twisting experience you have
immersed yourself in! What began as a mess now seems the only way that music
can be. On the television show Doug, the main character's yuppie neighbor
has a device that compresses an entire album into one second of music;
activating the device, he is knocked to the ground by the sonic force. We
have not achieved that level of technology yet, but we can do little but
continue to pursue it.

Live Phish 03: September 14, 2000

Darien Lake Performing Arts Center – Darien Center, New York

review by Jesse Jarnow

It is hard to put into words exactly why I like this music at this point in
time. Certainly, it is not because it – it being the third volume of "Live
Phish", recorded September 14, 2000 in Darien Center, New York – is a great
album, at least in the sense that it is sculpted and ordered. It is not
because it is a piece of great art, entirely transcendent and wonderful from
the word "go".

Phish has been silent for the last year, since a few weeks after this show
was recorded. In that time, there has been endless pontification on the
meaning of the band: where they fit into the scene, as it were, why they
stopped, why they should start again, and on down the line. What I, at
least, forgot during this period (and didn't realize I had forgotten until
putting this music on) was how to listen to a Phish show. Somehow, at
the time, all of these songs – at this show in specific and at every other
show – meant something, through their placement in the set or the tour as a
whole, or their own individual histories. For me, at the very least, all of
those things have faded. I remember their presence, but that is about all.

In listening to these discs now, I feel a sense of magnitude — one which I
think can and will be conveyed to any civilian who hears this show. Through
the first set, the band leaps through a variety of a material: a stunningly
cozy and tasteful Reba, a tender reading of Neil Young's
Albuquerque, a chaotic Carini. There are superficial stylistic
changes between the songs, but there is also a very definite shift in
character. It is obvious that each of these songs was brought into the
songlist at different points during the band's history, even without knowing
the specifics of that history. That each of these songs could coexist within
a band, or even a single set, manages to transfer something broad about who
Phish is.

Like most Phish shows of the era, it is choppy in places. There is a
different kind of choppiness to this show, though, especially on the second
disc. It is not that the improvisation is sloppy, but that the band makes a
move they rarely did in their later years: a jump out of groove-oriented
playing. For that alone, the sequence labeled Drowned > Darien Jam #2,
Crosseyed and Painless > Darien Jam #3, Dog Faced Boy is exquisite.
Subtly and masterfully led by drummer Jon Fishman (if only because the
aforementioned lack of funk), the quartet explores strange and subtle
rhythms through surprising (and pleasant) atonality.

This sound, which – in some ways – sounds like a more thematically mature
attempt at the kind of experimental playing the band engaged in during 1994
and 1995, is incredible. The band moves through a variety of sections,
developing them to varying degrees. For a band that seemed to be casting for
a new direction since at least fall 1998, this sure sounds like one. It is
precisely for this reason, that this show has gotten far more play in my
house than the daring second set from "Live Phish 01", recorded in
Binghamton in 1995. There is promise yet to be realized in Darien.

By the third disc, though, the band has lost itself again. Though it is
competently played, it comes nowhere close to the inspired music the band
explores on the first two discs, sounding – if I didn't know any better – like it was taken from another show. Though, taken as a whole, the show is
far better from most of the gigs played in 2000, the ending is unfortunately
symbolic: what began as poetry ended as rhetoric.

Live Phish 04: June 14, 2000

Drum Logos – Fukuoka, Japan

review by Chris Gardner

"Live Phish 04" offers easily the most intimate glimpse of this set of
releases. Roughly 650 folk file through the doors of the Drum
Logos at the bottom of the Japanese archipelago this June day. It is the
kind of show where you hear the rowdy Flyers fans, the kind of show where
you hear every song request, and the kind of show where you hear a crystal
clear, "Thanks Page!" volleyed up to the stage as the last tendrils of
The
Squirming Coil wend away. Aside from an occasionally cavernous vocal
echo,
the sound quality is exceptional, and the setlist leaves little to be
desired.

A raucous Carini slams through the swinging doors to kick start the
festivities. The all balls crunch on the simple metallic refrain stands in
perfect counterpoint to the vintage complexity of The Curtain that
follows.
The Cities that bubbles up after The Curtain falls still
features the
nimble, gloopy funk we have come to expect between verses, but it is Page's
change to the piano in the incipient moments of the jam proper that sets
this one apart. The melodies seem doomed from the start, fighting for a
voice behind the swamp-bottom bass, yet the piano wins in the end, grabbing
the reins and steering the jam into a silence weighted with inevitability.

The song requests bandied about before Gumbo remind you where you are
as you
plunge into the pot. This Gumbo snaps quickly into a decidedly
un-stewy jam
at the 4:10 mark when the delay loop opens. Mike is in charge, saying as
much with his protracted pauses as he does with his meaty bombs. Trey joins
the fray, leading beneath Page's blanket of siren drones. Fishman's first
rhythmic shift just before the nine minute mark charts a new course which
slowly builds in both intensity and aggression until Trey is tearing jagged
edges into Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’-ish licks that give way to a
set of
notes from Mike that sound like a Free lead in before Trey rends the
veil
and charges down the hill on the back of a snarling Llama in one of
the
show's finer moments.

The spent band and handful of friends then settle back into some fun with
Fee, which includes a nice little outro twist. Trey drops some
choice cuts
on Heavy Things before they close the set with Split Open and
Melt. The
water tight SOAM makes this a set to be reckoned with but offers
nothing
extraordinary enough to supplant the Gumbo > Llama as the peak of the
set.
Trey offers a bit of banter before intermitting and leaves the handful of
folk in the crowd to jabberjaw away on, "Just… how totally sick that set
was, man!"

The second set opener Back On the Train sprawls across the soundscape
without ever jumping the tracks. The jam holds firmly on to the theme yet
still careens, tilting exhilaratingly from side to side as one wheel then
another creates space above the rail like some coal-driven General Lee.
Things don't really get started until the engine whines to a halt and
Twist
begins. Fishman is the epicenter of the Twist tornado-jam – rooting
himself
within the construct as the others dart around in improvisations so
far-reaching that it is almost a marvel to hear Fishman still dropping
Twist
accents eleven minutes later as the band tumbles back to earth. The delay
segues into the first of two non-affiliated jams. Mike and Fishman offer
sporadic shifts on a simple, earthly figure as Trey and Page dash colors
across the expanse above, surrendering nary a lick for several minutes – just colors, shades, textures and drones.

Chords, licks and melodies emerge
slowly over the middle minutes in what feels like a minimalist exercise in
restraint. While some conversations are little more than a group of
babblers clamoring to be heard above each other, this is the often unspoken
discourse of intimates, built on stifled titters, wry smiles and knowing
looks more than audible words. How the conversation came around to the
topic of Joe Walsh is entirely beyond me, but the patient build into Walk
Away is a revelation. The thematic bookend jam is more digestible than its
predecessor but equally tasty. The delicate chords emerging from the
eventual silence of the Walk Away jam presage the Sleep to
come and open
things up to some blissfully rich flavors.

The set closing 2001 (listed as such rather than Also Sprach
Zarathustra) is
so funky you'll have to open a window. This version does not separate
itself as head and shoulders better than any other, but that says less about
this version than it does about the fact that every version is so damn much
fun. The interstellar wanderings drop an exclamation point on the end of
this set and place the pressure on the encore to measure up.

After some brief banter, Trey introduces Sleep as a request and
proceeds to
silence every mouth in the building with a beautifully rendered version
during which the crowd seems to hold its breath. The Squirming Coil
send-off is exuberant and precise, leaving Page alone to send the crowd home
smiling.

On the whole, there is little to complain about here. The echo-affected
vocals are forgivable in light of the extra crispy quality of every other
note, and even the blast of feedback early in Fee is a moment of
levity
rather than a blemish. Jam #2 would sound all the better leading
directly
into 2001 (which opens the third disc), but a third disc of only
encores is
hardly a better option. This excellently chosen setlist has it all:
relative rarities, intimacy and banter, fantastic segues, a sprawling and
gaseous Jam #1, a tight SOAMelt, 2001, and a beautiful
Coil send-off. If all
the "Live Phish" releases are this solid, your bank account is in terrible
danger.

Live Phish 05: July 8, 2000

Alpine Valley Music Theater – East Troy, WI

review by Pat Buzby

When I saw this show on the list for the first batch of "Live Phish"
releases, I was rather surprised and disappointed by the choice. This was
the only show selected that I'd seen, and it was one of the least memorable
of my 12 Phish shows. As I had heard it at the time, the first set was a
near-total throwaway; the second set came close to solidity with the
Piper/Rock and Roll and Tweezer/Walk Away, but then
Twist fizzled and that was more or less it for the night.

I lost interest in Phish for a while between '98 and '00. And, although I
caught half of my shows in that time frame, only the first (Alpine '98) was
completely satisfying. To my mind, Phish seemed to have drawn conclusions
about their earlier successes and failures with which I disagreed, and to
have backed away from the eccentricity that endeared them to me. The things
that seemed to intrigue them the most (the minimalist jams and James Brown
and Neil Young homages) did little for me, and the sloppy playing and
plethora of outside pursuits made me suspect that they were losing interest
in the project.

Funnily enough, though, with this era of the band now over, I have recently
found myself learning to enjoy the recent jams. Sometimes, in my years of
listening, I have found ways to hear music that didn't quite reach me at
first — things like James Brown and P-Funk could go from being uninvolving
to very involving (and sometimes, after a few years, back to uninvolving
again), and I began finding ways to get involved in the Phish jams.
Moreover, after work with my own bands, I began to appreciate how impressive
it was to be as locked in as Phish could be in these jams.

So, I was curious about returning to this Alpine show, and it did turn out
to be a rather different experience on CD than in person. The soundboard
quality helps a lot. This is a subtle show, not filled with outrageous
ideas like many of the '94 and '95 jams. Instead, there are lots of small
things. For instance, early in the post-second chorus Piper jam,
Fish does a three-bar cycle for a while of a groove followed by a downward
fill and two cymbal crashes, a motive which mutates a bit, eventually fades,
and carries its own interest. These things seldom come out at an outdoor
show (maybe pavilion seats would have helped) or on the majority of audience
tapes.

However, my new perspective is probably the main reason why I find myself
enjoying this set. In a review I posted of a '97 show, I commented that the
band should try letting someone other than Trey "lead" the jams. However,
listening to these CDs, I find myself focusing for long stretches on Page
during the Antelope, Mike during Piper, and Fish during
Twist, despite the fact that Trey solos nonstop on all three. Like
Trey, each of them presents small ideas and works variations on them until
they evolve into something else, always working within the spaces the others
leave.

Trey does something similar in the Tweezer. During the jam, he and
the others almost never step out of the blues scale or stress any intervals
more dissonant than the seventh, very much unlike the "Picture Of Nectar" or
"A Live One" Tweezers. Indeed, Trey's improvisations on this song
consist of little more than a series of blues-rock riffs. Despite these
limited means, the band brings things to a boiling point over the 12-minute
duration before moving into Walk Away.

The three distinct 12-bar tunes (My Soul, Llama and Possum)
are also worth noting. Llama is one of the few throwbacks to "old"
Phish with its manic approach. My Soul is the opposite side of the
coin — conventional, but effective, at least in the solos (I suppose the
vocals will always be open to debate). Possum merges the band's new
relaxation with their familiar tension-and-release ideas. With these CDs,
one can study the way the band builds and plays off one another. There may
be other recent shows with more interesting setlists, but I'd be curious how
many there are where the band is as locked-in. No toes are stepped on, no
ideas lost in the shuffle, and each member sounds equally committed.

The show as a whole isn't flawless — Trey makes a major botch at one point
in NICU and skips a verse in Suzy, and there are a few other
gaffes in the composed material (Punch You In The Eye, Guyute,
Silent In The Morning). I'm glad, too, that the band hasn't
forgotten its eccentric days in its other "Live Phish" choices. However,
this show makes a better place for itself in the series than I would have
thought. Now let's hope for a release of Alpine '97 or '98 so we can make
some more comparisons.

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