Freshwater Phish is a recurring column on The Young Folks that is intended as an introduction to the band Phish for new listeners, as well as an overview of their music, history and cultural impact. This installments takes a closer look at the band’s Gamehendge song cycle and the newly released July 8, 1994 concert recording.
Every year, Phish releases about five to six archival soundboard recordings of concerts from the 1990s on their LivePhish website. This year’s offerings have been intriguing, including a 1993 show in Santa Fe that did not previously circulate in the fanbase even as an audience recording, and a 1997 concert in which the band were joined by Dave Matthews Band saxophonist LeRoi Moore for a few jams.
The best of these shows was released last week: July 8, 1994 at the Great Woods Performing Arts Center in Mansfield, Mass. Like the 1997 show, this Great Woods concert was broadcast earlier this summer as part of the band’s Dinner and a Movie free livestream series, and was highly anticipated upon its announcement as both a stream and download. There are a few reasons for this: The version of “Stash” that appears late in the second set later appeared on the band’s beloved live album A Live One, and “You Enjoy Myself” features a cover of the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” in the middle. Despite all these worthy highlights, the biggest news surrounding this release was that it marked the first time a complete recording of the band’s Gamehendge song cycle – performed as the entire first set of this show – has been made available for purchase by the band.
A (relatively) brief introduction to Gamehendge
Gamehendge, or The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, is a major part of Phish’s history as one of the strongest connections to their beginning as a proggy Vermont bar band. The gestation of Gamehendge began in 1985, when band lyricist Tom Marshall presented band leader Trey Anastasio with a narrative poem that became “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters”. For its first few performances, “McGrupp” was simply a spoken word narrative piece, but eventually the lyrics were appended to another song the band had been playing and found its way into their setlist. “McGrupp” features most of the characters that would appear in The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, and was followed by a few other numbers over the course of the mid and late 1980s. “Wilson”, an verbal attack on an evil king, debuted in 1986 as the first song to mention the land of Gamehendge by name. Like “McGrupp”, “Wilson” was based on another early narrative poem by Marshall and band friend Aaron Wolfe. “Divided Sky” debuted in 1987, and “The Lizards”, “Col. Forbin’s Ascent” and “Fly Famous Mockingbird”, the most narratively complex songs of the cycle, first appeared in 1988.
By 1988, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday had also taken shape as a cohesive song cycle akin to Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The entire piece was recorded by Phish as a demo, intended to accompany Anastasio’s 1987 senior thesis at the Goddard College, the laid-back Vermont institution that three-fourths of Phish graduated from. By this point, the band had been regularly performing songs from the suite in concert at hometown venues like Nectar’s, colleges around New England and during their famed summer 1988 shows in Colorado.
The Goddard recording of The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday features eight Phish songs surrounded by narration detailing the story, which are accompanied by a soft, lovely guitar piece of the same name. The recording displays Anastasio’s love for 1970s progressive rock through its knotty musical passages and fantasy lyrics.
The story – at least the one that appears on the Goddard tape – begins with Colonel Forbin, a lonely, retired military man who discovers a magical door to another realm while out walking his dog. This door takes him to Gamehendge, where he meets a knight named Rutherford the Brave who proceeds to tell him the story of his people, known as the Lizards. The Lizards worship a god called Icculus, who has bestowed upon them the Helping Friendly Book, upon which they have based their civilization. Sometime in the recent past, Wilson, the evil king of Prussia, took over Gamehendge, locked the Book in his tower and subjugated the Lizards. Rutherford asks Forbin to help him recover the book, but the knight nearly drowns when decides to swim a river in his full suit of armor. After his new friend is rescued, Forbin is introduced to his allies: Tela, her partner the Unit Monster, the grieving father Errand Wolfe, and Mr. Palmer, who is Wilson’s accountant. The story moves forward with “AC/DC Bag”, in which Palmer is executed by Wilson for stealing his money to aid the revolutionaires. In “Col. Forbin’s Ascent”, Forbin decides to climb a mountain to speak directly to Icculus. While on this journey, Icculus appears to Forbin in the rock face and asks his friend the Famous Mockingbird to seize the book from Wilson’s tower. After the book is in safe hands, the allies hire a hitman named the Sloth to kill Wilson. The story’s ending changes depending on the way Anastasio tells it. Sometimes it ends with “McGrupp” as a summation of everything that has happened. The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday album ends on an unusually dark note: First, Tela is revealed to be a spy for Wilson and is later killed. After the Sloth kills Wilson, Errand Wolfe turns on the allies, uses the Helping Friendly Book to take over as ruler of the Lizards and throws Forbin in prison. The Goddard recording then ends with “Possum”, a song that doesn’t have anything to do with plot and isn’t ordinarily considered part of Gamehendge, but features a line that sums up that darker ending: “There ain’t no truth in action, unless you believe it anyway”.
The Gamehendge suite and The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday recording display Phish’s strong influence from 1970s British prog rock, which are as important to the band’s sonic development as their oft-noted Grateful Dead similarities. The high fantasy story has some similarities to Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant novel series, which also centers a lonely man from the modern world who is magically transported to a fantasy land in peril that he is destined to save. It even has a similar love interest and antagonist, although those similarities are mostly down to the stock tropes of the genre than anything else. The Gamehendge suite also bares the unmistakable influence of Genesis, one of Anastasio’s favorite bands, who in their songs and albums often built their own fantasy worlds and complex narratives around them. Songs like “The Lizards” share more in common with similarly quirky, fantastical, and character driven Genesis songs like “A Trick of the Tail” and “Supper’s Ready” than they do with the Dead’s narrative compositions. Even the rockers like “Wilson” and “AC/DC Bag” are more in line with something King Crimson would do than, say, “One More Saturday Night”. Listening to the Gamehedge songs lays these prog influences bare, and shed light on why Anastasio was asked to induct Genesis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a decade ago.
Gamehendge in concert
After Anastasio turned in his senior thesis with the concept album, Phish continued to perform the Gamehendge songs live, occasionally with narration to introduce the saga, its characters and setting to new fans as they built up a regional and then national following. The band even introduced a few more songs that are set in Gamehendge but aren’t part of the Forbin plot: “Llama” tells the story of a Gamehendge battle where llamas are used in warfare by the Lizards. “Axilla” is about a warrior in ancient Gamehendge and is pure Dungeons & Dragons stuff. “Kung” introduces a Gamehendge based chant.
The Gamehendge songs show up a few different ways in Phish concerts. All of the songs have been performed separately and usually without any narration. The one big exception is “Col. Forbin’s Ascent” and “Fly Famous Mockingbird”, which are almost always performed together and almost always with narration from Trey Anastasio that typically depicts the audience being transported to Gamehendge in some fashion. Sometimes, the band would preface a song like “The Lizards” with some additional narration about Gamehendge, but by and large those songs were on their own and new fans had to learn about parts of the narrative that could not be discerned from the lyrics from others.
As Phish’s popularity grew, so did the Gamehendge saga and the bootleg recording of The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday. Nearly every song from the cycle became a concert staple, especially “The Lizards”, “Wilson”, and “AC/DC Bag”. The “Forbin’s”/”Mockingbird” suite also became a fan favorite because Anastasio would improve a new story every night bridging the two songs, some of them quite lengthy and funny. While the band started putting out actual studio albums starting in 1989, no songs from the suite have appeared on any of them, although some scene setting songs outside of the narrative did. For instance, the mostly instrumental opus “Divided Sky” appears on their 1989 debut studio album Junta and “Llama” opens their 1992 major label debut A Picture of Nectar.
Despite the popularity of its individual parts, complete performances of the Gamehendge cycle are extremely rare and have only been done five times between 1988 and 1994. The 1994 Great Woods show released by Phish this month was the last time it was ever performed in full. The other 1994 performance of the song is perhaps better known than this Great Woods one, as it featured not only a complete Gamehendge saga in the first set, but the second set consisted of the band’s then-new studio album Hoist performed in its entirety.
In the mid 1990s, Phish considered releasing the Gamehendge saga as a CD-ROM. The two 1994 shows – GameHoist and Great Woods – were supposedly recorded in 24-track audio for this computer program that ultimately never surfaced. However, the band had those recordings ready when the “Stash” appeared on A Live One in 1995. Now, in 2020, we finally have the complete audio of that Great Woods show courtesy of a recording by Boston PBS affiliate WGBH.
7/8/94 and the Great Woods Gamehendge
While I’ve been referring to this as “the Great Woods show” for simplicity, this is actually the first night of a two night stand at that southern Massachusetts amphitheater, and one of 17 concerts the band has performed there over the years. Great Woods has had various names over the years – the Tweeter Center and its current name the Xfinity Center are the best known – but it’s still usually referred to as Great Woods regardless of who has the naming rights. Of all the Phish shows played at Great Woods, July 8, 1994 is considered to be the best and best-known due to this Gamehendge performance. 7/8/94, like almost every other Phish show, has been available as an audience recording for decades. That recording is linked below.
The concert begins with “Llama”, a much loved show-opener that acts here as a scene-setter to the saga. The rollicking funk-rocker segues into “NO2”, a very strange and experimental Mike Gordon composition about a very trippy visit to the dentist that is full of weird drilling and oscillating sound-effects. Despite, or perhaps because of its bizarre nature, the band stuck a studio recording “NO2” on the b-side of their first retail single “Down with Disease” that was issued a few weeks before this concert. “NO2” eventually settles into Trey Anastasio’s narration, where he introduces the framing device for this telling of Gamehendge: Col. Forbin has fallen asleep in a dentist’s chair and has been transported to Gamehendge that way instead of stumbling on a corridor in the woods. The story unfolds from there with performances of the core Gamehendge songs “The Lizards”, “Tela”, “AC/DC Bag”, “Col. Forbin’s Ascent”, “Fly Famous Mockingbird” and “The Sloth”, as well as “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters” as an epilogue and “Divided Sky” as a finale . As on the studio recording, the narration fills in details the songs do not (Rutherford being saved from drowning by the Unit Monster, who the Sloth is and what he’ll be doing, and so on). Some elements of the Godard recording had fallen out of use by 1994, such as Tela’s betrayal, which is only vaguely hinted at in the lyrics of “McGrupp”.
The first set doesn’t have much in the way of big jams, but that’s not all Phish is about. The performance of the whole Gamehendge suite is flawless, and “The Lizards”, “Fly Famous Mockingbird” and “The Divided Sky” as always contain some of the best longform composed material in the band’s catalog. “Divided Sky” is the band’s compositional masterpiece, a prog rock epic that goes through different movements and features some incredibly intricate playing throughout, particularly on the tricky time-signature changes of the “Palindrome” section.
Other 7/8/94 highlights
Like the first set, the second set also spotlights the band’s best composed material while also featuring one of the band’s best known jams. An energetic “Rift” opens the set that also features a Trey showcasing “Reba” that segues into the Jewish hymn “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav”. “Reba” is one of the definitive Phish songs, starting with tongue twisting near-gibberish lyrics followed by an ornate, fugue-like composed guitar section that leads into a gentle jam that regularly produces some of the most gorgeous improvisational music that Phish has ever performed. “You Enjoy Myself” is featured here in a straightforward but engaging version that builds to the aforementioned “Frankenstein” cover, which sounds note perfect even without the saxophone.
The “Stash” in this set is the best known single song in this concert due to its appearance on 1995’s A Live One, the band’s first live record and the best selling record in their catalog. Most of ALO is taken from fall 1994 performance, but “Stash” is the sole representative from the summer, having been brought to the attention of the band by the Usenet newsgroup rec.music.phish (Usenet was kind of a proto forum, and the popular fan website Phish.net is a spin-off from this particular newsgroup). Because it was track two on ALO, this “Stash” was the first jam that a lot of Phish neophytes heard. The song’s jams often become complex jazz fusion odysseys, and this particular one has an incredible tension-and-release section that really highlights Phish’s Type I jammign style; That is, a jam that follows the regular structure of the song while exploring variations on its melody and chord progression. This isn’t the best “Stash”, but it’s definitely a good representative of what they can do with the song and good introduction to Phish jamming as a whole.
A few years ago, music writer Rob Mitchum wrote about 7/8/94 for his excellent Substack blog, where he is reviewing every Phish concert since 1994. In his piece on this show, he makes a good argument for why he thinks this is the last time the band performed Gamehendge in its entirety: The band had outgrown playing a sprawling fantasy epic once they became renowned for other aspects of their sound, and its audience had grown large enough that Gamehendge references were no longer necessary to spot the dedicated fans in their audiences, once that type of fan became numerous enough to help the band pack stadiums and amphitheaters. Mitchum also notes he prefers the 3/22/93 complete Gamehendge performance, as it feels more off the cuff and a reward for an attentive crowd to be introduced to the band’s self-creative mythos, as opposed to the 7/8/94 performance here which was pre-planned by the band.
I prefer both of these shows. This concert feels like it was, at least for a brief moment when the CD-ROM idea was still kicking about, intended by Phish to be a definitive performance of this material in front of a receptive crowd, so they didn’t have to perform it all as one piece again. It’s very interesting to hear it with this in mind. Was re-writing the framing device to be a dream the band’s way of revising the ending to be less dark?
In his column, Mitchum wonders how Phish would be perceived if this Gamehendge performance had been Phish’s first official live release instead of or before A Live One, which became the primary introduction to this band to many of those who heard it. Maybe issuing a concept album like this would have put to rest some of the Grateful Dead comparisons that had begun to nag the band; Or maybe their Frank Zappa and Genesis influences would have garnered more attention in the press. Certainly, it would have put to rest grouping Phish with their 90s jam scene brethren Dave Matthews Band, whose material had become more accessible to mainstream audiences than even Phish’s poppiest moments.
Overall, 7/8/94 is a welcome installment to the Phish’s ‘90s concert offerings, particularly for finally bringing a crisp soundboard of the Gamehendge saga to digital platforms. It’s also interesting to hear a completely different recording of the ALO “Stash” as well as the other highlights from the second set that get overlooked by the more famous elements of this concert. Phish newcomers would be well-served putting 7/8/94 on their shortlist of officially released concerts to seek out to get a feel of the band’s repertoire.
Previous installments of Freshwater Phish can be found through this link. Have comments, feedback, or suggestions for future columns? Leave them in the comments section below!