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Published: 2006/11/19
by Mike Greenhaus

Colorado ’88 – Phish

JEMP Records 1001

It’s impossible to please everyone, especially Phisheads. If Phish had stayed together people would have accused the Vermont quartet of becoming a nostalgia act. When the group parted ways, the same fans cried mutiny. In 2001, when Phish issued the first installment in its inaugural Live Phish series, critics claimed that the group’s show selection was too obtuse. A few years later, when the band returned with a handful of more historically lauded performances, the message boards wrote them off as too obvious and readily available. Halloween shows were “too gimmicky,” Brooklyn performances too “in-the-box.” Indeed, perhaps the greatest challenge Phish faces in the afterlife is releasing shows which are neither widely circulated, nor poorly received, historically important, yet largely unheard. But, if there ever was an archival release that should appeal to all facets of Phish’s increasingly wide and ever-critical fan base, it’s Colorado ’88.

A three-disc, 36-track compilation drawn from Phish’s first extended journey outside Vermont, Colorado ’88 falls somewhere between an archival release and a rarity collection. Though its tracks are picked exclusively from the group’s historic shows at Telluride’s Roma Bar and the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon, Colorado ’88 is filled with the type of oddball covers and quirky, lost originals a more conventional band would likely place on a box set, but spliced and diced into a single “dream show” by longtime Phish archivist Kevin Shapiro. And, besides being the definitive document of the group’s Junta-era sound (these shows took place a mere three days after the recording of live tracks on the CD re-release of the group’s first album), Colorado ’88, at times, feels like a posthumous Tupac album — leftovers re-envisioned from the group’s original source material into something entirely new and original.

As the story goes, Phish left for Colorado in the summer of 1988 shortly after being promised a series of ill-fated gigs by a promoter who failed to return the group’s phone calls. So, instead, the quartet booked a series of last minute shows throughout Colorado’s mountain towns. Still struggling to define its sound, throughout Colorado ’88 Phish embraces the eclectic, dipping its toes in swing (the rarely performed “Flat Fee”), traditional Jewish anthems (the High Holiday hymn “Avenu Malkanu”), classic rock (Traffic’s “Light Up or Leave Me Alone,” which was shelved after these performances for another 11 years), blues (Taj Mahal’s “Corinna”), and acid humor (“I Didn’t Know”).

In an attempt to tie together these loose ends, the group throws in large chucks of free form improvisation and choice chapters from Trey Anastasio’s then-new Gamehendge rock opera — small seeds that grew into lauded jamband traditions. For completists like myself, Colorado ’88 also contains a number of previously unreleased songs, including the group’s only known rendition of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and a reading of “I Know a Little,” a throwback to the group’s long forgotten bar-blues past. Both are pulled off with incredible precision, with Page McConnell, in particular, emerging as a lead player. For new fans likely getting this set as a post-Thanksgiving gift, Colorado ’88 is also stuffed with some of the group’s best known jams: an on-point reading of “Fluffhead,” a pubescent “You Enjoy Myself,” and a hilarious “Run Like An Antelope,” as well as rarities like “Alumni Blues.”

But, perhaps, the best part of Colorado ’88 is the insight the live set gives into Phish’s formative years. If the pressure of success is what eventually caused Phish to crumble, then the freedom of failure allows the group to experiment with its songs and use its flubs as fodder for fan/audience interaction. When Jon Fishman fails to show up for a gig (after reportedly taking acid and getting lost on a mountain), Anastasio shows off his drum chops on a jazz odyssey. Later, Fishman picks up a trombone (an instrument he is equally unskilled at playing as vacuum). Mike Gordon banters with the audience, Anastasio throws an odd bit of composition known as “Dave’s Energy Guide” into the Talking Heads’ “Cities,” and the group treats “Harpua” more like a fairytale spoof than a narrative gateway. Likewise, “Run Like an Antelope” unwinds into a spastic narrative about Fishman or, as the case may be, his absence. Young, hungry, and (at least one-quarter) on psychedelics, the quartet’s jams are light and fluffy, while Anastasio’s compositions remain smooth and crisp.

While the Phish documented on Colorado ’88 is far cry from the band who staged the world’s biggest Millennium concert in 1999, many of the group’s tricks remain the same. Gamehendge numbers like “Fly Famous Mockingbird” are still recited like biblical passages, though, as the saying goes, if you recite a monologue to an empty audience will anyone hear it? Similarly, “Sneaking Sally Through the Ally,” a number which would be reenvisioned as a funk vehicle, still functions as a showstopper, though the song takes on an interesting blues variation. Instead of being weighed down by Pharmers Almanac reverence, mini-epics like “The Curtain With” glide quietly enough to hear the crisp, fuzz remnants of Colorado 88’s lo-fi cassette origins. At one point Anastasio mentions that the group has a cassette, presumably the so-called White Tape, for sale. Little did he know that his plug itself would one day be traded, downloaded and, eventually, released.

And, even though being a Phishead might not lend you much credibility on lot these days, there is enough unique material stuffed into Colorado ’88 to appeal to anyone who has ever spent time downloading a Phish show (even if you did a B + P for these shows with some dude you met on years ago). So tell your roommate you’re having someone special over, dim the lights and let Colorado ’88 remind you why you fell in love with Phish in the first place.

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