Show #76: 11/3/88 – Molly’s Cafe Boston, MA.

Tavern in the Square in Allston at 161 Brighton Ave. This occupy the spot where Molly’s Cafe was in the late 1980s/early 90s.

Thursday, 11/03/1988
Molly’s Cafe, Boston, MA

Soundcheck: Shaggy Dog, Foam

Set 1: Fire,  Golgi Apparatus,  Fluffhead >  Possum,  Fee,  Alumni Blues >  Letter to Jimmy Page >  Alumni Blues,  Good Times Bad Times

Set 2: Time Loves a Hero,  Walk Away,  The Lizards,  Shaggy Dog,  Whipping Post,  Contact, Bold As Love,  Take the ‘A’ Train,  Run Like an Antelope

Set 3: Suzy Greenberg,  Foam,  I Didn’t Know[1],  Big Black Furry Creature from Mars, Harpua,  David Bowie

[1] Fish on trombone.

A theme I’ve been hammering on these last few posts is the fine line between being silly and being professional. As the members of Spinal Tap put it, “There’s such a fine line between stupid…and clever.” And the reason for this is we’re not only seeing this duality right now as Phish expands beyond their hometown crowd of Burlington but I want the readers to know this is a very common theme of Phish’s career. They have such silly lyrics but such serious musicianship that towing that line is very important and will impact the band’s direction for the entirety of their career. I once had a history professor that said the entire history of the United States can be charted on a graph that shows the struggle between Liberty and Security and every moment pulls one way or another. Phish’s career could be marked the same way with Silliness and Professionalism replacing Liberty and Security. I will to use that to put this show into context. At this point, no band from Vermont had really broken into the important regional music hub that is Boston, Massachusetts. So, when Ben “Junta’ Hunter was able to book Phish into Molly’s this November night, there was a lot riding on the show.

The Allston neighborhood of Boston is well known as a music hot spot, so much so that it’s earned the nickname “Allston Rock City”. The place used to be a bevy of clubs due to its proximity to Boston and Harvard Universities and easy spot on both the B branch of the MBTA Green Line and the 66 bus from Harvard Square. This means that its the epicenter of the collegiate world with its low-cost housing and many nightclubs. In the late 80s, there was a huge college rock scene happening in Boston. Many of the bands who were playing the same circuit were Pixies, Mission of Burma, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Dinosaur Jr. But you think of those names and it’s all punk rock/ska/grunge, almost the opposite of Phish. The band could find their own niche here in Beantown if promoted right and Ben Hunter thought he was just the man to do that. He and John Paluska teamed up to work with Phish, Paluska handling Western MA and the Northampton scene and Hunter taking on Eastern MA and the Boston scene for now.

Mosko’s at 161 Brighton Ave in the 1950s. (Photo credit: Dirty Old Boston blog)

Hunter, in an interview with Ellis Godard for The Phish Companiondescribes Molly’s Cafe as “It was the kind of place that had live music only one night a week. If memory serves, they had Dead cover bands and the like on Sundays, and the rest of the time it was a rather, if you’ll excuse the expression, “Euro-trashy” type of dance club.” But, he said “there was a band called Chuck & Helen who used to play a couple of times a week at several Allston (the part of Boston affectionately dubbed “the student slums”) bars (they probably still do). They played some Dead songs and all the other predictable covers – “Love the One You’re With,” “Moondance,” etc… Anyway, they always played to a packed house, which meant a hundred, maybe a couple of hundred people on Friday and Saturday nights. They were a merely adequate outfit and they did very well in terms of people coming out to see them, so I knew there was a market of hungry music fans just waiting for a quality band like Phish. But since they hadn’t played any gigs in the area they weren’t an attractive booking for any local clubs. I thought to myself, Why not just rent a room and tell all my friends and basically throw a huge party with great entertainment? As it turned out, at both those shows there were hundreds of people who showed up.” You can read more of this interview over on Phish.net.

So, the gigs ended up being a success and put Phish on the Boston music map. As for the music itself, Phish.net user Shae_Dougall writes, “This show is unremarkable in almost every way. It’s not bad under any circumstances, but this is nothing that the band hadn’t played before in terms of adventurism.” But I doubt Shae understands the importance of the gig. The move from Burlington to Boston is as important as the Beatles going from Liverpool to London. It’s not the giant jump across the pond to Ed Sullivan but if the Beatles don’t win over London, then rock music would be dead on arrival. So it also goes for Phish’s career. Sure, they might have moved on, maybe tried to make a splash in New York but if Phish can’t get into Boston and its college rock world, it might have been the end. So, if you’re playing your first gig on a huge music scene, do you bust out Gamehendge? No, the talking alone would have killed the room, even if a good chunk is Hunter’s friends. You play your best material as tightly as possible. Even when they do get silly late in the 3rd set with “Harpua”, it’s about the shortest cleanest “Harpua” yet. The play “The Lizards” and the only banter is a dedication to Mike’s girlfriend Cilla for feeding them dinner that night. You lead off with a smoking Hendrix cover and close the first set with a hot Led Zeppelin cover. I’m sure Trey worked hard on this setlist like he hadn’t before, making sure everything fell into place. “Whipping Post” is kept neat with the only jam really being “Dave’s Energy Guide”. “Foam” improves upon its debut. In Phish 3.0, this would be called a “festival set” and derided by many. I think this actually a really strong night of Phish in 1988 and I like it better than 10/29/88. Next it’s out of the bars and back to the college circuit.

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