Freshwater Phish is a recurring column on The Young Folks about the band Phish, their music and cultural impact.
Like other musical acts with vast back catalogs, Phish is can be an imposing group for a newcomer to get into. Apart from perhaps A Live One , there is no obvious introductory point to the band.
Phish is famous for their live shows, but new fans may be lost as to where to start with the band’s staggering catalog of concert tapes, official CDs and box set. If not, they’ll almost certainly curious to know which specific concerts are held in especially high stature by the fanbase. Luckily, there is something of a consensus around the shows featured in a 20 volume series the band issued after the turn of the millennium.
Although Phish has had a reputation of being a superlative, must-see live band since at least the late 1980s, they didn’t release any official live albums until after the release of their fifth studio effort. However, the band soon made up for lost time and began regularly releasing live albums on a regular basis, culminating in the early 2000s release of the Live Phish series. Those albums are a significant part of the Phish discography, and acts similar to Grateful Dead’s famous Dick’s Picks series
In this installment of Freshwater Phish, we’ll be overviewing the history of live Phish albums, with a focus on the Live Phish series. We’ll be taking a closer look at six Live Phish albums that make a good introduction to the band.
A brief history of live Phish on Elektra
Fan-recorded tapes of Phish concerts were freely circulated around their fanbase, and over the early internet, before they were signed to Elektra Records in 1991. For their first several years on the major label, Phish only released studio albums. When fans asked when they were ever going to release “a live one”, they responded with an album titled exactly that. The 1995 2-CD set A Live One featured selections chosen by the band members themselves from various concerts from their 1994 fall tour (as well as one performance from the previous summer), and was structured somewhat similarly to their actual concerts.
Although tapes of the full concerts A Live One was created from were available then and are still available now, the album showcase these performances in their full soundboard quality for the first time. A Live One remains much loved by Phish’s fanbase, and was many a fan’s introduction to their strengths as a live concert act. The record remains one of Phish’s highest selling and most popular releases.
In 1997, the band released their second live record, Slip, Stitch & Pass, which greatly differed from the format of A Live One. The songs on the album were taken from a single concert the band had played in Hamburg, Germany earlier that year, and was only a single disc. This record showcased the funk sound that Phish famously experimented with for much of the late 1990s. Once again, an unabridged recording of that Hamburg show circulates, but Slip remains highly popular with fans.
It wasn’t until 1999 that Elektra finally released full, unabridged recordings of Phish concerts on compact disc. That year, the 6-disc box set Hampton Comes Alive arrived, and featured the complete soundboard audio of the band’s two November 1998 concerts at the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia. Despite a steep price tag, as to be expected from such a large set in the heydey of way-too-expensive CDs, Hampton was a smash with the band’s fanbase. The set remains a must-hear for newcomers, as those two concerts are considered some of the best of 1998.
A month before the release of Hampton Comes Alive, Phish released the soundboard of their concert from October 31, 1990 on the website eMusic, the first time that a Phish show had ever been available for purchase online.
A brief history of Live Phish on Elektra
In September 2000, Phish began a hiatus that would ultimately last until December 2002. To bridge this gap, the band and their label launched the Live Phish series. Each of the 20 installments released between September 2001 and May 2003 featured one of the band’s most popular concerts in their entireties. These volumes are not intended to be listened to in order of their spine number, nor are they even chronological. After Phish reunited at the end of 2002, they released seven further Live Phish volumes, none of which were numbered. These were three popular concerts from 2003 (released that year) and all four stops on their 1998 Island Tour.
Following the release of these Live Phish albums, the band began releasing live CDs and downloads a regular basis, which continued after they left Elektra to form their own label JEMP in 2005. The band had broken up in 2004, and the JEMP releases proved to be a bridge between their final concert and their 2009 reunion. Phish would eventually use the Live Phish name to denote all downloadable releases of individual shows that were not tied to a CD box set, and eventually to their own online music store and streaming service.
Where to start with Live Phish
By highlighting these six albums, I am by no means implying that the rest of the Live Phish series is not recommended for new fans. Instead, these are albums that I consider to be both can’t miss highlights and particularly accessible to newcomers. They also provide a good understanding of how the band’s concerts are formatted, in terms of how setlists are constructed, how songs can segue between one and other and the variety of musical styles Phish perform.
Live Phish Vol. 1: 12/14/95 at Broome County Arena, Binghamton, New York
The show featured on Live Phish Vol. 1 is from December 1995, considered by many to be the best month of Phish’s entire career. Throughout the month, the band delivered consistently fantastic performances night after night, and several of those concerts rank high on Phish.net’s all-time ratings list.
As the lone representative of December ’95 among the original Live Phish volumes, the Binghampton show stands out as one of the best in the whole series. It may not be the best show of that month, but it’s certainly up there. Vol. 1 is fairly welcoming for newcomers of the band, as 12/14/95 is a solid example of how Phish formats their shows and how their famous song segues work.
The highlights in the first set include a powerful rendition of “Llama”, an expertly played version of the intricate prog-jazz number “Foam” (one of the hardest songs in the Phish repertoire to master) and an incredible “Split Open and Melt” that build’s upon the song’s famous intensity. While “SOAMelt” has been part of the Phish repertoire since 1989, it took until 1993 for the band to really figure out how they were going to jam it and what directions they could go with it; Once they did, they never looked back. “Melt” is one of the band’s most frenetic live numbers even now, and good one like the version here should refute any notion that Phish are “merely” a laid back hippie band.
The second set of the show is dominated by a monster “Tweezer” jam that stretches over 20 minutes, and includes a cover of Josh White’s blues number “Timber (Jerry the Mule)” inside of it. Later on, the band stretches “Halley’s Comet”, a song they have been playing since the 1980s, past the 10 minute mark for the first time in a jam that goes from upbeat pop to discordant acid rock.
December 1995 is considered to be the best month of Phish’s entire career, featuring a string of absolutely superlative performances leading up their New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden. That show itself is one of the band’s most popular in their entire career. Brian Brinkman, the co-host of the Beyond the Pond podcast, recently wrote a six-part essay series for Phish.net on three of the band’s December tours (1995, 1997 and 1999), and the two parts on December 1995 are essential reading for those looking for background on this era.
That New Year’s Eve show was released as New Year’s Eve 1995: Live at Madison Square Garden, which is one of the most newcomer friendly live albums the band has ever put out. Not only is it one of the best shows the band ever played, but it serves as the perfect introduction for how important New Year’s Eve has become for Phish). Live Phish Vol. 1 serves as a great follow-up listen to that release, as well as a superlative for those interested in checking out the incredible high-point that was December 1995.
Live Phish Vol. 4: 6/14/00 at Drum Logos, Fukuoka, Japan
Phish performed outside of North America only on occasion during their ’90s heydey. They toured Europe every so often, including stints as an opening act for Santana and the Violent Femmes. This show is from one of their few excursions to Japan, shortly after the release of Farmhouse and a few months before they went on a two-year hiatus.
The Fukuoka show is well loved by fans of the band for its psychedelic energy in the first set and the free-flowing, often ambient, jams in the second frame. This concert showcases the group as a psychedelic rock powerhouse as much as other shows highlight their strengths in performing funk, jazz fusion and progressive rock.
The first set includes a range of fan favorites played fantastically, from the hard rock opener “Carini” to a near flawless version of “Gumbo”. Even “Heavy Things”, the band’s biggest pop hit, shines with a ’60s Grateful Dead influence it doesn’t have in many other performances. The version here is the definitive live version of that song apart from maybe Big Cypress in December 1999.
As great as the first set is, Fukuoka’s second set is probably the best hour of Phish from the year 2000. It is is highlighted by an incredible, exploratory version of “Twist” that extends into an ambient jam, one of the few times that band has explicitly ventured into that musical style. The ambient mood continues after “Twist” is finished, with two unique jams where the band experiments with a spacey, late ’60s Pink Floyd-esque playing style. At one point, the band segues out of their jam into a cover of “Walk Away” by Joe Walsh & The James Gang before resuming their ambient improvisations. A beautiful version of “The Squirming Coil” in the encore solidifies the show’s reputation.
If you’re a fan of neo-psychedelic rock bands like The Flaming Lips or King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, 6/14/00 is probably the best place for you to start with Phish.
Live Phish Vol. 7: 8/14/93 at World Music Theatre, Tinley Park, Illinois
August 1993 is another favorite month of Phish fans. Like December 1995, nearly every showed they played that month is worth your time, and the Live Phish series features one representative show that gives you an idea of their specific strengths from that run.
The early ’90s was an era where Phish seemed to play with almost limitless energy and intensity, particularly in 1992 and 1993; It’s no surprise that these were the years where the fast-paced “Split Open and Melt” really came together for the band. August ’93 is a prime period for “Melt” and this Tinley Park show, sure enough, features one of the best versions from the entire month. This version doesn’t go into the discordant free-jazz routes that Phish usually took with the song, instead featuring some nice, subtle and melodic guitar playing from Trey Anastasio that works well with the song’s fast pace.
The first set is a treat for fans of A Picture of Nectar and Rift-era material, opening with a powerhouse rendition of “Chalk Dust Torture” and boasting spectacular versions of shorter tunes like “The Horse/Silent in the Morning” and “Cavern” [As an aside, this also includes my favorite version of my favorite Phish song “Guelah Papyrus”].
August ’93 is one of the best showcases for Phish’s strong chops playing jazz fusion, a genre whose importance to the band’s sound was especially prominent in the early 1990s. At this Tinley Park show, that style is highlighted by versions of “The Divided Sky”, “Esther” and “It’s Ice” that showcase the quality and precision at which the band played Anastasio’s intricate jazz fusion-inspired compositions. Newcomers who are interested in checking out how the band performs their lengthier songs that are rarely jammed out, like those three, in concert should check out those performances.
The second set is dominated by a startling half-hour version of “Run Like an Antelope” that includes performances of The Who’s “Sparks”, The James Gang’s “Walk Away” and The Mighty Diamonds’ “Have Mercy” inside of it. The band was beginning to experiment with these larger, sectioned medleys inside larger jams in 1993, and they would continue to do so over the years (witness the “Tweezerfest” that takes up the bulk of the second set on Live Phish Vol. 18).
Like December 1995, August ’93 has been well documented on the band’s official live albums. Vol. 7 gives listeners an idea of what to expect from the rest of the month, in terms of its mix of fantastic energetic jams and high quality performances of shorter first set numbers. Recorded while the band were still primarily playing theaters and performing arts centers before their graduation to arenas, Vol. 7 is a terrific snapshot of Phish’s sound just before they became a national sensation in 1994 and 1995.
Live Phish Vol. 9: 8/26/89 at Townshend Family Park, Townshend, Vermont
While their work in the 1990s and 2010s are the primary discussion points for Phish fans, the band’s concerts from the late 1980s are absolutely worth a listen. This era is arguably the most underrated part of their career, and the best shows from 1987, 1988 and 1989 capture their starling growth from a good bar band to one of the most impressive live acts in all of New England (helped by their marathon jam sessions off stage).
This show, the only 1980s concert that appears in Live Phish, captures the band at their proggiest. The setlist is full of the band’s longer, composed songs like “Fluffhead” and “The Divided Sky”, that are lengthy by design and are usually not jammed out. Almost all of those songs are strongly influenced by classical composition and progressive rock bands like Genesis and King Crimson that are just as big of influences on Phish as the Grateful Dead are. As a result, 8/26/1989 is the proggiest release in the whole Live Phish series.
The band runs through much of their pre-1990 repertoire here, with great early versions of “Harry Hood” and “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent”/”Fly Famous Mockingbird” among the highlights from the three sets. While nothing, bar “David Bowie”, goes particularly out there, the concert showcases just how good the band was and how much of a musical rapport they had built with one another before the turn of the ’90s. 1990 was the first year that the band really began touring widely across the United States, so Live Phish Vol. 9 captures them at the end of an era where they were primarily a local New England band.
If you’re someone who usually picks a band’s debut album as the first album they’d listen to by them, then this would be the show for you. It’s also a solid entrypoint for progressive rock fans, and those who are curious to hear what Phish sounded like near the start of their career.
Live Phish Vol. 11: 11/17/97 at McNichols Sports Arena, Denver, Colorado
Like Fukuoka, 11/17/97 is a favorite show of many hardcore Phish fans. For a long time, it was the second highest rated show on Phish.net, behind only the legendary eight-hour Big Cypress millennium show on 12/31/99.
This Denver show is loved for a variety of reasons. Of course, the playing is top notch, but the two sets also a feature of ton of extended jams. Like Vol. 1 and Vol. 7, Live Phish Vol. 11 is part of one of Phish’s most acclaimed and famous tours, the fall 1997 “Phish Destroys America” tour. Renowned as one of the most consistently great series of shows the band ever played, this tour is another popular starting point for new fans.
The Phish Destroys America tour was at the height of the band’s late ’90s “cowfunk” era, in which they brought a heavier emphasis on the funk influences and elements in their sound. Most concerts from 1997 and 1998 often featured several songs and jams performed in new psychedelic, jazzy-funk style. Trey Anastasio famously used the term “cowfunk” to describe this jamming style in an oft repeated quote from Richard Gehr’s 1998 The Phish Book:
What we’re doing now is really more about groove than funk. Good funk, real funk, is not played by four white guys from Vermont. If anything, you could call what we’re doing cow funk or something.
Phish’s cowfunk era peaks with the April 1998 “Island Tour”, a much loved four-stop mini-tour featuring two concerts performed a piece in Uniondale, New York (that is, Long Island) and Providence, Rhode Island. Cowfunk is also heavily featured on the band’s 1998 studio album The Story of the Ghost, particularly on songs like “Ghost”, “Meat”, “Birds of a Feather” and “Shafty” that had been premiered by the band over the past year.
11/17/97 captures the band in the middle of the Phish Destroys America tour, and the extended funk jamming that came with it. There are just five songs in the first set here, one of which is usually 14 minutes anyway (a stellar version of “Reba”) and two more songs go over 15 minutes. Both the opening “Tweezer” and the famous version of “Ghost” near the end of the set impress with slow-moving, methodical, psychedelic funk grooves. The “Ghost” here is also probably the consensus pick for the best version of that song period.
The cowfunk sound also appears in the jams of the excellent renditions of “Down with Disease” and “You Enjoy Myself” which bookend the second set. Aside from the funk, the second half of the show has a superlative version of Los Lobos’ “When the Circus Comes”, one of Phish’s best cover songs. The upbeat pop tune “Olivia’s Pool”, which was eventually slowed down and renamed “Shafty”, also makes a good showing.
Live Phish Vol. 11 captures not only one of the best stand-alone shows in Phish’s career, but is a great introduction to one of their most important eras. If you’re a music fan who likes to start with a band’s most acclaimed release, this should be a show you check out early on.
Live Phish Vol. 19: 7/12/91 at Colonial Theatre, Keene, New Hampshire
Live Phish Vol. 19 is taken from the band’s 1991 summer tour, in which they performed with a three-piece horn section they called the Giant Country Horns. The trumpets and saxophone added a new dynamic to their songs, and sometimes gave them a jazzy energy that they never had again.
This concert in Keene, New Hampshire demonstrates both the band’s jazz fusion chops and the quirkier side of their music. In a way, early ’90s Phish was not too dissimilar from some of the offbeat alternative bands who would become their labelmates on Elektra (Ween, They Might Be Giants) or on other Warner imprints (Barenaked Ladies).
The horns add much to the band’s jazzier tunes like “The Landlady” and “Fee”, and add fun punctuation to “Bathtub Gin”, “AC/DC Bag” and “Tweezer”.
Nothing really gets jammed out in this show – that “Tweezer” only clocks in at about 10 minutes – but jams aren’t neccesarily why fans love these Horns shows. the lack of far-out jams means the band can pack in plenty of impressive performances of shorter, quirkier tunes with Horns adding a new dimension to the songs on which they appear. “Gumbo” and “Suzy Greenberg” are arguably way better here because of their saxophone and trumpet than they are without them at a myriad of other shows.
The shorter songs, quirky selection of material and quality of performances make Vol. 19 an ideal first or second show selection for new fans, especially those that might be apprehensive to approach a concert with a 20 minute “You Enjoy Myself” or “Runaway Jim”. Here, the band’s impressive skills as a performing unit come to the forefront, with the Giant Country Horns adding an extra dimension to their sound.
This Colonial Theatre show is a load of fun, and should be the place to start if you love pre-Nirvana college rock and want an idea of how Phish could fit in with that subgenre.