(Click on the photo to purchase Colorado ’88 at LivePhish.com)
I’m back at last! I went to Vegas and it made me think hard about this blog. I almost pulled the plug on it. Halloween was such a historic moment for the band that you really can believe there is still a lot of history to write about Phish. It was a career game-changer. That’s how important I thought it was. Let’s back up a few steps though. Prior to this, I decided to try a new feature called PhishNow, where I’d review the current tour. I got one entry in and it felt wrong. It felt like a “cash in” move. If you follow the blog, feel free to write in if you think I should move forward with the PhishNow feature. But the reason was that I was dedicating the time I would listen to the next show to listening to the show from last night instead! That was one reason why I almost called it quits.
The second reason is Halloween. When you’re writing a history blog about a living subject, it’s daunting how much more there will be to write about. Even more daunting is when the subject creates a new historical moment that lives up to everything they’ve done in the past. In my mind, Halloween was one of those moments. At the same time, they both honored tradition and threw it out the window. It made me think, how many more shows like this can the band have in them? They’ve already peaked so much that I thought it’d be a nice burnout to the last gig. Phish is playing for all-time now. To take one of the most exciting nights of the year and play an album that’s really just a thinly veiled set of new instrumental music is unprecented. What Phish did on Halloween is something music hasn’t seen since the days of the Beatles and Pink Floyd. To take sound effects and create music on top of them is not only risky, but very avant-garde and old school. It completely adds to Phish’s mythos and make what I’m doing seem impossible. If they intend to play for another 30 years, the potential is limitless. No band, 30 years into their career, plays a mind-blowing set of NEW music like that. It was astounding. I didn’t think about the blog since then really. It sat in cobwebs, waiting for my next move. I started to get notices of a few fans and then I checked the stats that people are finding this in searches and actually enjoying the content. So, I’m back; trying to be one of Phish’s unofficial historians.
Today we’re hitting a subject that has been well covered, the band’s 1988 trip to Colorado. The problem with writing this after 2006 is that many of the tapes that circulate have been released officially as Colorado ’88. The album itself is a wonderful look at a very important turn in the band’s career. The problem arises in now those tapes are an official release and the shows as they stand were forced to be taken out of circulation, leaving me with a lot of odds and ends. I’m going to focus this part on the official release as it does some to contain the best of the best. Phish played a total of 6 shows in Telluride, Colorado: 5 at The Roma on July 28, 29, 30, August 4, and 5, and 1 across the street at the Fly Me to The Moon Saloon on August 3. There’s also a listed August 6th show at the Aspen Mining Company but no further info. Tapes of that show seem to just be a mislabeled August 5th show.
Mike Gordon describes it best with his retelling of the circumstances in The Phish Book. He says that his fiancé Cilla Foster made the shows happen. She was a waitress in a bar owned by local magnate Warren Stickley in Telluride. After some back and forth, Stickney promised a cross-country tour to take a month between Vermont and Colorado. Six months passed and with a week before the start of the tour, Stickley told the band it all had fallen through but that could still play shows at his place for $1000 dollars. They took a vote after a show at Nectar’s and loaded into a windowless box truck for the journey west. “We didn’t even stop at a rest area for forty hours, so the truck got pretty disgusting,” said Mike.
Apparently Stickney had a reputation around Telluride as not paying workers or taxes. Posters were up around town with Stickney’s picture saying “Baby Huey go home”. Phish, in turn, would try to use this to their advantage with their own flyers stating “New England’s Most Naive Rock & Roll Band. We drove 2,000 miles because Warren Stickney promised us a thousand bucks!”. Mike maintains that the band got their $1000 anyway. Stickney’s reputation would however affect this gigs. Attendance at the Roma shows were poor. One night, according to Jon Fishman, a patron approached the band and asked why don’t you play a gig at Fly Me to the Moon saloon? Everyone wants to see you and we’re not boycotting it.” So on the band’s lone day off, they lugged the equipment across Main street and played to packed house. The night was so successful the bar ran out of alcohol. Sticky would land the band a gig in Aspen on August 6th. That night, the band had their money stolen but other than that, Phish had secured themselves a Colorado fan base.
As for the music, if you’ve been following along, it’s similar to what has come before but definitely has a fresh edge. You can hear Trey’s excitement for “fresh meat”. Nowhere has this been emphasized then how this compilation starts with Trey asking the audience like a proud Philadelphian, “Do you want with or without?”. Trey is not however ordering cheesesteaks but introducing the all important “The Curtain” and in this case, the crowd wisely chooses “The Curtain With”. Also of note is this was the last “Curtain With” for 12 years. It’s the perfect into because you can hear the tightness that all the practicing is paying off. It’s maddening that it was dropped as it was just hitting the right gear. It’s clear also that having just graduated from Goddard, Gamehendge is still fresh to the band. We get 4 tracks in a row from the project. The highlight of these being an extremely delicate “Fly Famous Mockingbird” that shows how much Page and Trey were being to almost move as one.
One of the stories adding to the Colorado shows lore was that on July 30th, the 3rd night, Fishman decided to take acid and go hiking. They got a little lost on the way down and got stuck high above a 1,000 foot cliff. As a result of having to backtrack and descend, Fish would miss the first two sets. In order to continue to play, Trey would use his childhood drumming skills to back Page and Mike on “Jazz Odyssey”, playing jazz standards as a trio. The lone taste of this is a take on Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and gives a glimpse of an alternate Phish universe. I love it and wish that more of these jazz standards would have made the set if the master cassette still exists. Fishman does return, still on a headful of acid and still lays down a fine beat. This is most apparent on “Run Like An Antelope”, which also has a fun interlude where Trey pokes fun at his drummer’s predicament. Page turns in another solid version of Traffic’s “Light Up or Leave Me Alone”. The band also turns in one of the top early “Lizards”. “Camel Walk” goes for a tight walk that does the other way of the Phish pendulum, showing Mike and Trey almost moving as one unit.
My favorite song on the album is “No Dogs Allowed” and it might be my favorite Phish song of all-time. Granted, it’s mostly because the majority of it would end up in “The Divided Sky” but I like the “No Dogs” intro better. It also has it’s own composed solo section before the now famous “Sky” outro. Trey clearly had played the tune in private a lot by this time as he nails all the sections perfectly, even better than 7/23/88. We get a nice early Mike’s Groove. Nothing earth-shattering but forming nicely. We then get a very nice combo from 8/5 with “YEM>Cities->Dave’s Energy Guide->Cities”. This is of note because “Cities->DEG->Cities” would be a staple for the rest of the year. The set ends with a lovely thank you to two crew members who tagged along, sound engineer Paul Languedoc and lighting director Tim Rogers.
The CD set ends their but LivePhish.com has offered up a few bonus tracks. The bonus tracks are not as polished but still shine brightly. A very subdued “Sanity” despite the excited intro. A fun romp through “Dog Log”, which Trey amusingly calls an “old Phish song”. Interestingly enough, this would be the band’s only performance of the song in 1988. A very good “Slave to the Traffic Light” and “Harry Hood”, which amazes me that they left both those epics off the final cut. The bonus tracks end with a wild take on “Tela” that’s unlike any version I’ve heard yet.
The impact of the Colorado shows would be sudden as we’ll see in the rest of 1988. While they didn’t establish the band nationally from an industry standpoint, it did ultimately confirm to the band that what they were doing was culturally significant and could be successful. Interestingly enough, while these tapes would circulate heavily in Colorado, to the point where the band would return to larger crowds in ensuing years, they didn’t make their way out of years. The Colorado trip would make the band’s history in most write-ups but a look at Volumes 2-4 of The Pharmers’ Almanac (years 1996-1998) shows that the only shows with known setlists are August 3rd and August 5th. The July 30th show began being listed in The Pharmers’ Almanac Volume 5 and even then it had a snowflake rating indicating that it was very rare to obtain. So, while we know how important the shows were to the band, Colorado ’88 was a huge milestone for letting fans finally hear a large portion of the master tapes from that tour. An interesting note from Ernie Greene in The Pharmers’ Almanac reads “I sometimes hear that a few Telluride fans have this entire week’s worth of shows on tape. If the few sets in circulation-plus the “Jazz Odyssey” comments made during set two on 3/17/91-are any indication, this is a treasure worth uncovering! (I’ve also heard that soundboard masters were stolen from a house in Telluride sometime around 1990, so we may never hear these lost shows. Damn.)” Well Ernie, luckily they were not lost and you were right. They are a treasure work uncovering.