Freshwater Phish is a recurring column on The Young Folks about the band Phish, their music and cultural impact. To read previous installments of this series, follow this link.
As Phish began to grow in popularity in the early and mid 1990s, they also attracted plenty of interest from the media. In this installment of Freshwater Phish, we’ll be looking at a few of Phish’s most prominent television appearances over the course of their career, from highlights that are as essential as their actual concerts to performances that are curios at best.
Hangin’ with MTV, July 23, 1992
I’m not quite sure if this is Phish’s very first national television appearance, but it’s definitely one of their earliest. Hangin’ with MTV was a daily live program aired on the music network for a few years in the early 1990s. Phish acted as the house band for a summer 1992 episode, shortly after their signing to Elektra Records. However, the band doesn’t seem to be treated very seriously by the host or the network. They play a couple songs during the course the program, but none of them are aired in full. The host makes a couple sarcastic jokes about the group, including an almost pre-requisite namedrop of the Grateful Dead. Still, this footage is a very intriguing snapshot of Phish while just as jam band scene is starting to go national.
“Down with Disease” music video, 1994
Phish made the only music video of their career for “Down with Disease”, the first single from Hoist, the most commercial-sounding studio album they had made up to that point. “Down with Disease” is one of Phish’s best songs and it eventually became a dependable, fan favorite jam vehicle as the ’90s went on. Bassist Mike Gordon directed this clip, which sees the band don scuba gear, swim around a fish tank and eventually surface at their 1993 New Year’s Eve show which also had an aquarium theme to it. Focusing their first music video around, effectively, an in-joke with their audience (especially those who saw that show) is definitely a very Phish move. This video definitely gets the quirky hippie side of Phish down well, but it’s maybe not the best first impression for a newcomer to the band. I’m not sure how often this clip aired on MTV, but it did appear in an episode of Beavis and Butthead, which helped the band build name recognition (Even if the show’s cartoon protagonists didn’t seem to like the song or video all that much.)
Late Show with David Letterman, 12/30/94
The most dependable place to see Phish on television in the 1990s was on late night talk shows. It seemed like several late night hosts, particularly David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, took a liking to the Vermont foursome. Letterman especially, seeing as he had the band on multiple times over his tenure. While Hangin’ with MTV might be the band’s first national TV appearance, this performance of “Chalk Dust Torture” on the Late Show is definitely their network television debut. Not many bands can say they first appeared on network TV the night before they played Madison Square Garden for the first time, but Phish can and did. Supposedly, they played “Chalk Dust” at Letterman’s personal request, and they definitely turn in a good rendition here. Other great Letterman/Phish moments include this performance of “Julius” backed by Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra in 1995 and their 2004 Ed Sullivan theater marquee show that will be covered later in this column.
MTV Clifford Ball special, 1996
Phish held the Clifford Ball, their first 2-day festival event, in the summer of 1996. The festival attracted 70,000 people to a decommissioned air force base in Plattsburgh, New York, just across Lake Champlain from the band’s Burlington, Vt. home base. The Clifford Ball was by some estimates the largest concert event in the U.S. in 1996, and there were a couple media outlets who came out to document the proceedings, including MTV. This special definitely leans heavily into hippie stereotypes, but it’s a decent little document of the festival as it happened, particularly two decades after the event.
Sessions at West 54th, PBS, 1998
If you only choose to watch one of the videos in this column, you might want to make it this one. Sessions on West 54th was a music show that aired on PBS in the late 1990s. The show has a bit of an Austin City Limits vibe to it, but in a more intimate setting. For their appearance on the program – taped in October 1998 and aired in January 1999 – Phish performed several cuts from their then-new album The Story of the Ghost. The Ghost tracks are some of the best loved batches of Phish songs in the band’s history, and the band seemed very happy to perform the material on television. Unlike many of Phish’s previous television performances, they were given time to perform multiple songs and even jam them out a little bit (After all, there’s only so much time on a late night talk show for a musical performance). The band played 11 songs – 10 originals and a cover of Neil Young’s “Albuquerque” – but only three tracks actually made to air. Happily, the full taping is available on Youtube. The hour-long recording features some great performances of the Ghost material; “Frankie Says” into “Ghost” is a highlight, as is a flawless performance of the long, technical prog tune “Guyute”. The best performance of the show, however, is of “Taste” from Billy Breathes, the final number, which was performed by audience request. This is a great, fiery take of that song, complete with excellent keyboard work from Page McConnell. The producers of West 54th knew it was great too, as it was one of the cuts that made the original airing. If you’re interested in Phish, this is definitely a good place to start. An insightful interview with the band, conducted by the show’s host, David Byrne of Talking Heads, is also on Youtube.
“Heavy Things” at Big Cypress, 1999
This clip was included in the first installment of Freshwater Phish, but it’s one of the band’s most significant TV appearances, and it would be weird to exclude it. For New Year’s 1999, Phish held Big Cypress, biggest of their festivals to date, which brought 85,000 fans to a Seminole reservation in Florida. By most estimates, it was the biggest Millennium concert in the United States that night. Because of the attention the show had been getting, ABC News decided to take a peak in shortly after midnight, by transmitting Phish’s performance of “Heavy Things” to a national television audience. One of the band’s poppiest tunes to date, and soon to be the biggest radio single they ever had, “Heavy Things” was a perfect introduction to the band that night. Before the live transmission, Trey Anastasio asked fans not clap, but to angrily chant the word “Cheesecake” after the song in order to confuse television audiences. Someone at ABC must have known about this because the telecast ends very quickly after the song is done. After that, the band played until sunrise completing a seven and a half hour show that has gone down as a pinnacle in their career.
VH1 Hard Rock Live 2000
Here we are, five months after Big Cypress, with another major platform for Phish that isn’t quite up to par with some of the other videos in this column. In the spring of 2000, the band had just returned from a well-received and fan favorite tour of Japan, discussed in another column, and played three shows in New York that are okay, at best. This is the last of that trio, a last-minute show at the Roseland Ballroom arranged as a taping for VH1’s Hard Rock Live concert program. The program, which aired in July, features six songs from a full, two-set performance the band played for fans who had scored tickets that day. The songs are edited for time (??!) and one of the numbers featured was a version of “Cavern” where Trey flubs the lyrics real bad. “First Tube” and “Punch You in the Eye” are the best things in this TV edit, and they’re the first two songs. I’m mostly including this because it’s a rare television appearance to feature Chris Kuroda’s wonderful lighting…when they can remember to cut to them. Another, better, Phish TV performance from 2000 is their appearance on Austin City Limits, most of which can be found here.
Late Show with David Letterman, Live from the Ed Sullivan Theater marquee, 2004
Phish would go on hiatus in October 2000, ending the so-called “1.0” era that began with their formation in Vermont in 1983. When the band returned to performing in 2002, they did so as a guest on Saturday Night Live (a very good two-song performance that is hard to find online). Two years later, the band called it quits and announced they would disband after their Coventry festival in August 2004. Before that festival, however, the band played Late Show with David Letterman one more time in June, from atop of the Ed Sullivan Theater marquee. Only one song was actually taped for the show, their new tune “Scents and Subtle Sounds”, but the band kept playing after Letterman signed off. The “2001” and “Tweezer” here are very good, and this memorable Phish performance isn’t to be missed.
“Fuego” on The Tonight Show, 2014
Phish didn’t stay broken up for long, at least for most bands. They reunited in 2009 and have appeared on TV sporadically over the course of the next decade. One of their best is this full, 9-minute performance of “Fuego” from The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in June 2014. This wasn’t the song they performed on the telecast, that was the dream pop-esque “Waiting All Night”. This online exclusive performance shows off how strong Phish sound in the 2010s, and how good some of their new post-reunion material is.
In future installments of Freshwater Phish, we will tackle subjects such as the history of Phish tape trading, highlights of the 2010s, the latest archival releases and more.