Featured Column:The Show Ill Never Forget
Early this week, I picked up a new book called The Show I’ll Never Forget. It’s one of those essay anthologies that seem to be coming out once a month lately. A cynic might suggest that these books serve mainly as advertisements for novels by lesser-known writers. From a more generous perspective, they also give the opportunity to put a few intriguing stories down for posterity. And they make readers think about their own stories, in this case regarding concert experiences.
I don’t know if I could write an essay based only on one show. However, when the news came later this week that Trey Anastasio could be facing an extended time-out, it prompted thoughts of my past experiences with him and his former band. If the editor of this anthology had allowed me to meld my twelve Phish shows into one six-year show (you thought Big Cypress was long?), I would have had an essay ready to go.
My first show was Columbus, 6/22/94. The first set was album cuts; the second set was mostly a blur to me because I wasn’t yet familiar with Phish’s unreleased material, which at that point included “Mike’s Song.” Later, when I became versed in Phish arcana and heard the set on tape, it sounded amazing. My other memories are snapshots: the four guys in a line, two standing and two sitting, in a far smaller room than any future venue where I saw them, Trey leaning into the mic to get “Bundle Of Joy” out during the pre-climax of “Fluffhead” and strutting around during the Big Ball Jam, and the crowd looking like a bunch of polite prep school kids. Which is how I would continue to look for all subsequent shows, even as the audience became increasingly comprised of neo-Deadheads.
Next was Deer Creek, 8/12/96. I was going to be seeing them two nights in a row (“Aren’t they just going to play the same show both nights?,” my dad asked when I mentioned this to him), and for some reason I found myself thinking earlier that first day of songs I wouldn’t like to see. One was “Esther.” I didn’t hate it, but I was indifferent to it, and the thought of them investing nine minutes of a set on it seemed a bit of a shame. So the show got off to a fine start with “Ya Mar” and “Split Open,” and then they played “Esther.” Kevin Shapiro made a wise decision later to include “Ya Mar” and “Split Open” as bonuses on a CD of the show the following night. That being said, my other mental snapshot of this show had me thinking that I was waiting out an unsurprising night, and then the band fell over dead. Phish could always sneak something over when you were in an unsuspecting state.
In 1997 I went to the New World in Tinley Park, IL. This venue was the site of Brent Mydland’s final shows with the Dead, and I have read more than one internet commentator saying that he could imagine shooting a lethal dose of heroin into his arm after playing three nights there. Phish played a good show there in 1993, but it was not to be in 1997. The following night at Alpine Valley, it was like a different band walked onstage. That fall in Champaign they played probably the best of my 12 shows, although I later heard that audience/police problems of some sort led to them not being able to return to that city.
1998 to 2000 were shaky years. After a great show at Alpine, the rest of my shows were uneven. My prominent mental snapshots of those shows involve the weather: overcast and drizzly at Deer Creek 98 and Alpine 00, stultifyingly hot at Alpine 99. The weather suited the music. Alpine 99 had the highest peaks of those shows, but also the most worrying lows, and left me wondering if Trey was headed in the direction of Jerry Garcia.
My last show was the second night of Rosemont 00. My main snapshot of that night is of the band bowing in unison and running off stage at maximum speed at the end of both sets. This was not something I recalled from any other shows, and it seemed to be a passive-aggressive raised-middle-finger to the crowd in response to the glowstick wars. It was a shame that this was the end, but life was catching up with me at that point. My own band’s schedule kept me from catching the superior first night at Rosemont that year, and when Phish returned there one last time in 2003 I was on my third night living in a parking lot in Florida with that band. (That story is for another time.) Jesse Jarnow kindly offered me the chance to see their final Deer Creek stand in 2004, but getting out to Indiana at that point seemed more trouble than it was worth.
Aside from bringing back those mental snapshots, thinking over those 12 shows reminds me just how much of a challenge it is to bring improvisational music to a large crowd. It requires a sharp band, a well-trained audience and a tolerant, buzz-supporting venue. As with the Dead, it’s easy to let the times Phish didn’t bring it off overshadow the successes, and the burden seems to have taken its toll on the frontmen of both bands. However much of a bummer it was, it seemed to me that splitting up the band was the sort of aggressive step Garcia should have taken and never did, and if Trey ends up with a heavier punishment for his chemical transgressions, here’s hoping it yields better results. And thanks, Trey, for a set of shows I’ll never forget.