Phish 6/20/1994. And so it Began…

Almost twenty years on, what I remember most is the rain.  After that it would be the venue, one of the strangest places I’ve ever seen a show.  The only other one that compares is when I went to see Todd Rundgren at the zoo.  The Phoenix Plaza was on top of a parking structure in lovely Pontiac, Michigan.  I was in grad school at Michigan State and was gradually getting into Phish during the previous year.  I had a few tapes, 12/30/1993 being my favorite and a copy of Rift and the new album, Hoist.  I would go over to the computer lab almost every day to check out rec.music.phish and there was a lot of concern that this new record and the new fans like me were going to ruin Phish, they made a video for god sakes!  I found all the consternation a little much, but it would be the first of many things that were going to change everything, and never for the better.  Earlier in the week I tried to get into the show in Kalamazoo but couldn’t score a ticket.  This intrigued me.  I had gotten pretty adroit at picking up tickets right before a show, more often than not with pretty good seats; The Rolling Stones, Paul McCarty, Roger Waters had all been last second purchases.  Who was this band that no one would give up a ticket?

Ironically, when we got to Pontiac, I had an extra ticket.  After the K-Zoo experience I knew that wasn’t going to be a problem; sure enough my friend hoisted the ticket up in the air and a pack of hippies descended on us like seagulls after a french fry.  I’ve never been one to scalp, but I also wasn’t familiar with the idea of miracles either.  I’ve since miracled a bunch of times, but this time I think we got $10 for our troubles.

I remember wanting to get an official Phish t-shirt, sort of my physical manifestation of being a fan.  I wanted a black shirt with the colorful logo, nothing else.  It made me feel legit.  At this point, I have no idea how many shirts I’ve bought and even though I say, even promise my wife, that I won’t be getting a shirt this tour, chances are a design, or a color, or both will catch my eye.  I mean, I write a blog about the White Sox, how in god’s name can I turn down a ¾ sleeve baseball themed shirt?  Simply put, I can’t.

Inside the venue, shirt bought, skies threatening to rain, the Phoenix Plaza may be the least romantic venue I’ve ever seen.  There was the stage and basically a concrete slab, no greenery to speak of, no grade to the floor basically it looked like they set up shop in a mall parking lot.  When the band came out, almost on queue the rain started.  It pretty much wouldn’t stop until we got back to the car.  At first it was so bad, everyone was resigned that tonight, we were going to get wet.

The show started with a combo that I still love, Buried Alive -> Poor Heart.  Next was Split Open and Melt, a song that I’ve never particularly liked.  I mean it is ok, but it always seems to get truncated, especially in the first set.  After SOAM, something happened.  The band started a song I had never heard, but seeing how this was my first show, nothing strange about that.  Even so, there was a buzz, people were high-fiving, grinning, and scribbling notes in notebooks.  I had witnessed my first bust-out.  NICU hadn’t been played for two years, 249 shows.

The rest of the set was pretty pedestrian, looking back.  This was a time before Down With Disease was monster and the rest of the songs, Silent in the Morning, Punch You In the Eye and Julius were…ok.  There wasn’t much of a jam element, not much in the way of experimentation, just a string of good, if a bit quirky songs.

Did I mention the rain? What had been a pretty steady shower got more and more intense as the second set approached.  By the time the band came out and played Frankenstein, small puddles had become large ones and the rain wasn’t abetting.  I was excited to hear David Bowie at my first show, and it was the first really extended jam I heard Phish play, clocking in around 13 minutes. It was weird, quirky, rocking, and I loved it.  After Bowie petered out, the rain that never stopped, started to add thunder and wind.  I didn’t realize that there would be more jamming to come.  I was happy with seeing Bowie and The Mango Song, Axilla Part II, Uncle Pen (more bluegrass!) was great, a nice way to wind it down.  That wasn’t the plan.

What came next was something new to me as a concertgoer, a second peak.  I had heard the studio version of Tweezer. Like so many of Phish’s songs, the studio version doesn’t do the live version justice, especially in the case of Tweezer.  This isn’t a must have version by any stretch.  I think Charlie Dirksen gave it a C.  Musically, listening to now, it was a pretty pedestrian Tweezer.  One that night though, it was perfect.  The rain had turned into a full scale gale sheets and sheets of water were pouring down, sideways and because it was hitting the concrete so hard, it was splashing upward.  And the band matched the intensity of the storm; the more it blew, the harder they seemed to play; the lights were crazy, fantastic.  I can still see Trey just wailing away, weird sound effects, and something vaguely familiar (turned out to be teases of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.)

Then the music subsided, the rain not so much.  A song I just don’t get enough of, Life Boy (You don’t get a refund if you over pray) eased the mood down to a song that I still find just beautiful, Slave to the Traffic Light.  I don’t know why, I still find it clever that they sang that on top of a parking garage.  The encores were way up tempo, Sparkle and Tweezer Reprise, and it was really cool that they dedicated the encore to a person in the audience.  Even as Phish has gotten bigger, they still make those little gestures that I love, honoring requests from fans on the street, responding to fans signs in the audience and recognizing fans that have been along for the whole tour.  I know I don’t make it to enough shows to ever be recognized from the stage, but maybe this year I’ll make a sign to move my stat page a little bit.

As first shows go, it was pretty memorable.  It was good enough to make me want to see them again.  I wasn’t completely sold, but it was close.  I wouldn’t get the message until November of 1994, but  6/20/1994 got the ball rolling and nothing has been the same since, nineteen years ago.

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