I don’t know if this will be a regular thing, I thought categorizing my favorite songs was going to work, but what the heck. I’ve enjoyed the past few weeks writing about my diet and I can’t think of many things I enjoy more than Phish. So on Fridays, some Fridays, let’s be honest, I’ll be writing something about Phish. I might review a show, I might discuss a song, I might reminisce about some time on the road. Here is a crazy idea I have already, maybe a friend or two might write something. As the blogging goes, and the podcasting and other writing, having some kind of schedule, some kind of assignment or goal has really turned out to be very helpful. Not the most structured kind of thing, but not playing tennis without a net either. Come to think of it, that is a pretty good way to explain Phish too.
So why this show? It is a great, under appreciated show. It comes from a fantastic tour, Fall 1994. Most importantly, it was my third show and the show where I got “it.” I wrote a little about getting “it” in a post about 6/20/1995, but let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of 11/16/94, shall we?
The Ann Arbor show was smack-dab in the middle of a three show run in Michigan, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and East Lansing. The outlier show in Dayton is fairly well known from 1994. Hill Auditorium is a fantastic venue (is it still there?) as some of the reviewers on Phish.net have shared. Though to be fair, Devos Hall in Grand Rapids is no slouch. It was apparent even from the pre-show music that the sound was going to be great.
I know it is kind of a “hit” song or a throw away, but when a show starts with Sample in a Jar, I always get a feeling that it is going to be a rocking show, kind of setting the tone, maybe it’s just a fond memory of this particular show. On this night, it definitely got everyone up and moving. Foam followed and I’ve never been a big fan of this tune. I appreciate the great composition, but at some point I need the improv. Fast Enough is about the only low energy moment of the set, even with Tennessee Waltz. The addition of Jeff Mosier on banjo gave the end of the set a great finishing energy, especially the Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
The two “jams” of the first set are pretty standard for the time period, especially Fall 1994. Reba is a particular favorite of mine (probably next week’s subject) and this version is very good, with the band stretching things out quite a bit. I find that Reba has slowed down as it has aged. Going back and listening to this version was a little shocking. Maybe it’s the mix, but Trey seemed much further out in front than he is in future versions.
The Stash is an excellent balance to the lightness of Reba. Stash always seems to go to dark places, usually quite untethered from the original form, again very unlike Reba. It, to me anyway, is the most “second set” of the typical first set jam songs, maybe Split Open and Melt. Even so, this version is is worth a listen, just like the entire show. It is a must listen, if you ask me, because of the second set, especially the Simple Jam.
Way back, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and maxell tapes were the currency of of being a Phish fan, the set list read: Mike’s ->Simple-> Jam. It wasn’t until later that it became a Simple Jam. In 1994 it was a pretty new song, just coming on the scene. So, when the thematic structure of Simple dies out around the 6 minute mark, it’s pretty clear something else was going coming.
As the song develops, the quiet build is led by Page, using the grand piano to great effect. At one point it got so quiet I think some of the crowd thought it was over, hence the cheers. About 7:30 the first major riff starts. It is highlighted by Mike playing a very strange stand-up style base. In the almost twenty years since, I’ve never seen it again. It had a base and a bendable neck that affected the pitch. It gave a great, rich sound. As the bass bangs out, the rest of the band falls into the very power-chord heavy riff which leads to some great, intricate work by Trey.
Around the eleventh minute, it feels like things are winding down, until the band begins to pound out a new crescendo, signaling a new direction. Listing to it again, it almost sounds like klezmer music, at least for a minute or so. At this point, if the song was being played today, I think it would have ended. Instead, this is a young Phish, willing to keep trying; picking, pulling, guessing really to find the next move.
As Fish resurfaces after dropping out for a while, he really is driving the tempo at this point, about the 13th minute. No matter where the rest of guys go, Fish stays on the same rhythm. Where does the jam go? At 15:30 Mike starts a “SWAT” theme that Page and Trey play around with as well. It doesn’t last terribly long, and it winds down in the seventeenth minute. Fish finally changes things up to and we come to another trough.
The best way to describe the playing here is…groovy. It has a bop-type feel, listening to it now (and I’m guessing especially then, because I was really into Jazzy Zappa at the time) I can’t help but say, “Yeah, man, wow.” Trey doesn’t stick around for very long, and some spacey effects start coming from the Languadoc. I remember thinking, and being amazed, that Trey was playing with the acoustics of the room. I’m not really sure if that is what was going on, but I remember looking at the ceiling, watching the lights and it all seemed to be working together.
As Trey is playing around with various soundscapes in the 20th minute, it is another point where the jam probably would end in 2014. By the time the band finally finds another theme to play together, around the 27th minute, it feels like the end, a conclusion to a great piece of improvisational music. The final push is triumphant, powerful rock and roll. It finally descends into a peaceful coda, a perfect match for the acoustic songs that follow.
The rest of the show is a lot of fun; the Chalkdust Torture that appears on A Live One, Fee which always is a good show of the band’s whimsy and an Antelope that brings back subtle hints of the Simple Jam. Honestly it could have ended after Simple and I would have been satisfied. As it happened, after the show all I could talk about was that jam. I was Paul after being restored to sight. My girlfriend at the time wasn’t so thrilled, but I was buzzing.
As soon as I could I got a copy of the show from a store in East Lansing called Flat Black and Circular. It was a head shop that would spin shows if you bought the tapes from them, seemed pretty fair. After I got my tapes, I pretty much wore out the second set walking back and forth from my apartment to work, class, or writing my MA thesis. More than the actual concert, I remember those walks with the Simple Jam playing.
More than any other piece of music, 11/16/94, especially the second set, became the soundtrack of my time at Michigan State. When I listen to that show, like I did for this blog, I’m taken back to my first go around in grad school, the one time in my life when I felt like a real writer. It is the show that made Phish mean something to me, more than just another band. After this show, I was simply blown away that musicians could do something like that. Honestly, it felt like I finally found something that I had always been searching in other music. I was ready to follow this band just about anywhere. Even though I never did a full tour and couldn’t escape my innate fiscal prudence, I did manage to go to a lot of great places and see a lot of great shows. I’ll tell you more another time.