I probably don’t need to go one too much about the importance of Nectar’s in Phish history. However, it is important to note that this show, one of the earliest bootlegs to circulate, didn’t happen in the main room downstairs. It happened upstairs in the space now known as Club Metronome. The 3rd gig billed as Phish, this show also marked the formal start of the band as many treasured tunes still in the Phish catalog came out of this show. First fan Amy Skelton recalls Phish playing many other shows upstairs at Nectar’s but this is the only one currently on record.
WARNING: This piece is totally subjective and just some thoughts I decided to write down. I also have very little music theory education and therefore concepts may be more abstract. Feel free to send hate mail though.
Phish, to me, has always been the best jazz band on the planet since I learned about them in 1994 and probably historically since about 1989. Sure they rock out from time to time such as Character Zero or Cavern but the truth is Phish’s improvisation techniques are truly in the world of jazz. This makes how they operate different from the Grateful Dead, who were more in the bluegrass/Americana style of jamming, and Umphrey’s McGee, who are more in the progressive rock style of jamming. This is why people get into debates about which band was better, which is a horrible debate and shouldn’t exist because wach band has their own unique approach that are uncomparable. Some might the Dead’s more laid-back style better because there’s an easy living feeling to their jams. Umphrey’s pushes a little harder, making those who need a more “in your face” style, whcih leads some to think they’re better by being more aggressive in jams (especially if you gtew up during the recording industry’s loudness wars). Phish, with their history of playing jazz standards, feels little more rehearsed and calculated, especially now in their 30th year together. I’m not including the Holdsworth years for the sake of this piece because that won’t factor into band chemistry, important for this discussion. This feeling of hesitation, which was not present in their earlier years, has frustrated some fans into thinking that the band’s best days are behind them. In actuality, the best days are still right now. I’m gonna take a look at some things that suggest that.
Phish’s history of playing jazz begins, as far as the record goes, on April 15, 1986. Prior to that point, Phish had really been just playing the usual rock covers and Trey’s excellent early compositions but without the edge the songs have now. Early versions sound a little flat. The first jazz tune is short, only about a minute long, a cover of Miles Davis’ “All Blues” after Trey introduces them as the “Bob Dylan Band”, a fun juxtaposition of the band of a folk singer turned rock star playing a pre-rock era jazz standard from Miles’ 1959 album Kind of Blue. The timing of Phish’s first jazz cover is also interesting because it marks the the changeover from original member Jeff Holdsworth’s influences (The Dead and Allman Brothers) to new member Page McConnell’s influences (Bill Evans and Duke Ellington). Page talks about this transition and his influences if you track down a copy of his Goddard thesis “The Art of Improvisation”. It’s a fascinating read and I can e-mail you the text I have if you like. The transition is obviously not overnight but you can see it taking place in setlists from 4/15/86 onward, especially as Jeff leaves the band a month later on May 17, 1986. More jazz standards and jazzier Phish originals would follow. The whole tone of the band shifted in about 2 years and really created the Phish we all know and love today. Without Page McConnell, I don’t know if Phish would have evolved beyond bar/wedding band. There’s a reason where if I see any Phish tribute/cover band, I’m always drawn to the keyboards because you’re only as stong as your Page.
It was from this that Phish really began to incorporate jazz, maybe even more so than rock music in their most important period of development from 1988–1992, that transition from bars to theaters. It was also during this period, in two seasons Summer 1989 and Winter 1990–91, that Phish played gigs that were just jazz standards as the Johnny B. Fishman Jazz Ensemble with local horn players who would become the Giant Country Horns in 1991. Little is known about those gigs aside from mentions on Phish.com but it is believed they were nights were Phish would go in and not play originals but just play like any other jazz ensemble in Burlington, influenced by the jazz brunch at Sneakers, close to the band’s house in Winooski at the time. The Sneakers Jazz Band was amazing. They’ve reunited a few times and each time, I get really excited. I would go see them at the Discover Jazz festival and it was exciting to see them play as any headliner. Later, in middle school, I’d get to learn so much about jazz from their keyboard player Bruce Sklar that still resides with me this day. He told me that the only place to start is Kind of Blue, helped me learn Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” after I worked on learning it by ear on the piano, and helped me try and get a fraction of the way into playing Charlie Parker’s complex bop. So, when I picked up a copy of Hoist and the swing of “Julius” hit me hard, there was something about Phish that just stood out against Pearl Jam, or Smashing Pumpkins, or Green Day, or the hundreds of other 90s bands I could have become a fan of and, for me, I think that was how big a part of jazz is to the Phish ethos.
So why is a jazz ear so important when listening to Phish and how does it mean that the band is really great in 2016, when to some they seem to not be jamming enough or playing too many songs? I think it boils down to a few points. The first and most important is type I jams ARE STILL JAMS. Jazz has an interesting history where there has always been improvisation, but two eras of improvisation. The first era of jazz improvisation is from its origins to about the mid-1960s. You could consider this Type I jazz, the song’s have a certain chord structure and the soloist plays over it. The second era begins in 1958 with the introduction of Ornette Coleman. His revolutionary breaking of the tradition song structures kicked open free jazz and soon it was all over with Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis joining in towards the later half of the 1960s. This would be considered Type II jazz in the Phish world. But there was a time when both forms exists, especially in the case of Miles Davis, whose seminal album Kind of Blue was begin released AFTER Ornette had already started to make an impression. Type I jazz still exists today. It didn’t have to die because of new forms of expression. It’s also still really hard to improvise over a set chord structure, especially as twisted as some of those important Type I jams are such as “Stash,” “Antelope”, and “Bowie, and even harder to jam on 30 years and many drugs later. They shouldn’t be ignored and, in fact, most likely require more intense listening to find the small quirks that make them so captivating. There’s probably things in there that only the 4 of them pick up on and enjoy and talk about if the backstage no talking rule has been revoked.
The second factor is time and I mean that in two different ways. The first way time is a factor is 30 years of playing is only going to accelerate communication. Phish doesn’t need 30 minutes to hit a great musical idea anymore. They’ve been at it so long, and especially now that they’re 7 years reunited that a 10 minute jam might have the musical ideas they want to express. Take the Portland Tweezer. It’s a great compact Type II jam. Trey hits an amazing musical idea at 5:50 and the jam takes off. They’re satisfied and move on. Sure, some out there might want another musical idea but does that mean it’s a terrible jam? I don’t think so. I’ve replayed it a bunch just on Trey’s ability to find that moment and capitalize. They can do that faster with how much better they are playing as a unit. It doesn’t take as long to punch out an idea. When you listen to jazz recordings, some of the time limit was length of a side but does that make Sonny Rollins’ solo on “St. Thomas” any less breathtaking? No, that’s a performer who is confident on his instrument, laying down a fantastic musical idea. It doesn’t need to be Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing two instruments for 20 minutes. That’s no less great but a little straining at time.
The other issue of time is they’re older. “Tube” is a fun funk tune but it’s chord progression at times doesn’t really allow the band to go out there much unless they force it. So many of those are just Trey funk rhythm wank half the time. It’s fun for dancing but not terrible interesting musically. Maybe they’d rather play “Tide Turns” and say something different to audiences because of where they are as people TODAY. Maybe they’ll catch a musical idea and take it for a walk like “Breath and Burning” at the Mann and may be not. That’s what’s great about improvisation music, anything is in play. Trey soloing on “Number Line” can be as breathtaking (to me at least) at any moment as minute 22 of “Tweezer”. That’s what’s fascination about any improvisation and not just Type I vs. Type II. It’s all improvisation and Phish’s jazz chops shine through to make most tunes captivating. Anyone can be stunned by a Type II jam. It’s almost too easy at this point. Go back and listen to some of the long jams from 2.0 for that evidence. So many times of just taking it long with no real beauty. I’d take a succinct new tune well played over that any day personally.
Also relating to time, Mike also said in an interview before tour began, “Expect the unexpected,” which is actually probably Phish’s modus operandi since they become a major label act in 1991. They released “Down with Disease” instead of the more radio friendly “Sample in a Jar” as the lead single off Hoist. They don’t release “Strange Design”. They made one video and didn’t have someone else direct. They play the most requested cover album in a half-sold show in Utah AFTER the big Halloween show. They play a set of new songs on Halloween. They play a sound effects album of new songs the following Halloween. Why should this be any different? Maybe next “Tweezer” or “Chalk Dust” will be de-songed like Fluffhead and there will be new jam vehicles or no type II at all, like it was way back when. That’s the beauty of Phish, throw your expectations out the window and you’ll find the joy. Maybe find a different band that is still new and trying to establish their presence in finding familiarity. Phish has already done that and might be just trying to keep moving and not going stale. Phish is still the best jazz band on the planet, even if they do a little more rock and roll today. It’s just having an understanding of going beyond looking for Type II jams that make it fun, for me at least and perhaps also to the band. Sure, there’s been bad nights a plenty but a rough night for Phish beats a band just going through the motions. Alright, I’m ready for everyone to shit on me now but thanks for reading.
If you’re a Phish fan, you probably dreamed about Phish playing your backyard. Shows like The Ranch in 1987 and this one here are why people have that dream. Phish played probably in more backyards than we’ll ever know about because less ability for tapers to show up and the loss of the Del Martin tapes. At least with this show, we have a street address so we know exactly where it took place. 320 Spear Street is located on the small strip of Spear Street between UVM’s Redstone Campus and their Paul Miller research center, which is a working dairy farm and equine facility. It’s proximity to campus made it an ideal spot to have a party and also lead to some interesting show banter as Phish knew many of the people at this party.
We join the show in progress with a very solid “Harry Hood”. This “Hood” is fairly typical of 1989 but reaches its usual enjoyable peak with solid fills from Page and wonderful trills from Trey. Some banter about changing monitor levels or positions ensues with Trey asking about too much piano. Still forming the sound in these early days. Trey joking introduces the band as “Phish, from Burlington, Vermont” with a chuckle after hearing it from Mike before launching into “Foam”. The “Foam” is rough around the edges, especially Trey who messes up his part enough to deliver an “Aw Fuck” (not the secret language signal but actual words) midway through the intro. The band recovers fairly solidly but still working out the kinks. The song finishes and Trey informs them it’s about Mike McKnight’s like apparently. Mike then announces that all the cars on the road are going to be towed and they there’s a parking lot down the street. The parking lot is most likely that at Gutterson Field House, the UVM hockey rink. Spear Street is very narrow but often travelled road connecting Burlington to South Burlington and Shelburne and used as a substitute for the congested Shelburne Road. So clearly the city would want the road clear at all times. Fish says that it reminds him of a song and Mike and Trey concur, leading to a sublime performance of “Contact”. The “Contact” has “jump on it, son!” quotes from Mike but I have no idea what brought that…maybe a Jerry Reed reference? Trey tries to get the kids to sing the ending part. “Now that we’ve scared the 4 little kids away,” the band introduces the next song as being one they wrote that afternoon about Molly’s life. Trey asks to wear the hat and she declines. Trey then introduces “She No Are No Nice Gal” and someone brings the band a wallet that was found. Trey mentions “This is the kind of wallet I like, no identification, just cash.” Trey asks the crowd to bound joyously as they reach the trampoline section. After this long banter, they finally go into the song which is just “Mike’s Song”. The “Mike’s” gets super crunchy especially the 2:50 mark where Trey unleashes the first real true showing of his ability to sustain. He holds the note for almost a full minute while the rest of the band takes the opportunity. Fishman hits crazy fills and Page throws around organ riffs like it’s Dollar Draft Night at What Ales You. Tight little jam that I recommend. The Molly theme continues in the groove as Trey says “I Am Hydrogen” was written about Molly’s lighter side. It’s very nicely played except Trey botches the last note. The “Weekapaug” features a lot of fireworks from Trey but not a lot of movement; a lot of notes but no real development. “Split Open and Melt” is dedicated to the pig coming up at Ian McLean’s party on May 28th. We’ll have a lot more about that show soon. The “Melt” is still in its infancy and is nowhere near the heights the tune will reach. Trey attempts a “Mission: Impssible” tease but it doesn’t develop. Mike gets pretty loose with the bass line but seems to get out of step with Fishman at times. Page is barely audible. It’s very sloppy still. Trey notes he broke a B string during the jam. He meant to call someone to bring another one but forgot. Trey’s tone changes as I think he borrows a guitar from Alex. Trey uses this new overdriven tone to pound out the only known version of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” by Phish. It’s half serious/half joking but still worth a listen. They definitely captured the feel of the original. Page makes the announcement that cars are now actually being towed and it’s worth the walk to see if your car is being towed and that’s longer to walk to the Getty station on North Avenue that the car’s will be towed to. No doubt since North Ave. is the other side of town. A fan asks Trey about Tom Waits and Trey responds that he loves Rain Dogs, saying Fish has the bell for “Gun Street Girl” allegedly Trey’s favorite song from the album. They don’t play it though, busting into “You Enjoy Myself”. The “YEM” is a solid effort with odd tone from Trey’s borrowed guitar. The short bass and drums section is fun with solid work by Mike. The vocal jam becomes Zenzile, referencing the poet Phish played with back in 1986 and then evolves into Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla”. Trey’s tone seems to return to normal for the rest of the set, indicating that someone did run home and get Trey’s B string in time for “Ya Mar”. The rest of the set is pretty standard. Apparently we also miss guest vocals by Chris Kuroda on “Alumni Blues” and “Possum”. That would have been very fun to hear. All in all, a fun afternoon on Spear Street with Phish.
“People will come, Trey. They’ll come to Watkins Glen for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. “It’s only $250 per person”. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the field; dance in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have room somewhere along the rail, where they danced when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the show and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.The one constant through all the years, Trey, has been Phish. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But Phish has marked the time. This field, this band: it’s a part of our past, Trey. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh… people will come Trey. People will most definitely come.”
Set 1: AC/DC Bag > Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues, You Enjoy Myself, The Lizards, Wilson, Divided Sky, I Didn’t Know, Possum
Set 2: Bold As Love, Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Foam, Contact, Take the ‘A’ Train, David Bowie, Golgi Apparatus
Encore: Good Times Bad Times
One great thing about being a New England band is the wealth of opportunity for shows. The ability to play in 7 different states within a few hours of driving is helpful. Also helpful is the amount of colleges within the area. Having a base in Amherst, MA only helps with 5 colleges just in that area alone. Of course, there’s a 2nd tier to the Connecticut River valley, the large amount of private schools also concentrated in that area. If you make it big enough on the college circuit, hopefully some of those students have little brothers or sisters who will rave enough about the band that they’ll get booked to play at their school. This is probably the case of how Phish played some private school gigs during these important years, gaining fans that would help propel the rise to success without radio play or hit singles. A college-level band playing your school is a big deal. I went to the Westminster School just outside of Hartford and when Dispatch came to play there, not only was it big for us, the students, it turned out to be one of their most downloaded live shows.
That brings us to today’s show at Northfield Mount Hermon. The reason I’m conflicted about the location of this show is because both Phish.com and Phish.net say it was in the gymnasium. Firstly the school had two gymnasiums on two different campuses at the time this show occurred, as referenced when they announce the buss before “Contact”. The name Northfield Mount Hermon comes from the fact that the Northfield Seminary for Girls merged with the Mount Hermon school for boys in the 70s. Secondly, Trey keeps referencing the field they were playing on, most notably before Divided Sky. So I don’t even think they were in either gymnasium. At the end of it all, they were at least at NMH.
The show itself isn’t particular outstanding to other shows at the time. Highlights here are mostly the banter. This event was billed as “One Last Thing”, obviously the last social event before graduation the following weekend. Trey dedicates “Alumni>Letter>Alumni” to the graduating seniors once again. Trey introduces “You Enjoy Myself” as the “trampoline segment of the show” and that the audience joins in on the imaginary trampoline. Trey says that the band will build an all-trampoline venue with speakers in the floor. I think we’re all still waiting on that one. Trey introduces themselves as traveling minstrels from Gamehendge again and they’ll do a couple songs from their homeland. A fan yells “Wilson Sucks!” and the crowd goes along with it. It’s interesting to hear Trey count off when the band joins in “The Lizards” intro. Trey introduces who Wilson is during the intro to “Wilson”. It’s kind funny because he calls Wilson an asshole and then realizes he’s playing to a high school crowd. It’s also part of the rebel in him reminded of his own days at Taft. “Wilson” also finally gets its own ending back instead of segueing into “Peaches en Regalia”. Trey closes the Gamehendge trio with “Divided Sky” explaining the ritual of praying at the Rhombus but at the same time, some hecklers go on about a towel, bantering back and forth with Trey about this. It’s funny to hear him try to maintain the upper hand. The “Divided Sky” is a sure highlight of this set with blazing playing by Trey and soaring organ work by Page at the end. “I Didn’t Know” is interesting in that the crowd gets surprisingly quiet during Fish’s vacuum solo, like he entranced the audience with his ability. Set 1 ends with a very strong “Possum”.
We meet Set 2 already in progress in “Bold as Love”. Trey continues the trend of mention Rhode Island at the start of the “Mike’s Groove”, the “Groove” itself is solid. Trey mentions that headlights are not the bus going back to the other campus but they are the 2nd-to-last bus back to the other campus, prompting the crowd to yell “Hell no! We won’t go!”. Trey then says they wrote the next song about that bus and also asks them to sign the mailing list, noting that they’ll learn such facts as how much cable it took up to set up the band at that time. That’s an answer I’d like to know right now, actually. The band changes the lyrics to “The tires are the things on your bus that make contact with the road.” “David Bowie” features more hi-hat hi jinx as Trey weaves “A-Train” and the Woody Woodpecker theme into the intro. The band comes back for the encore and someone asks for “Fee for Tim Rogers. I would think that would be the same Tim Rogers that was their former lighting designer as Trey seems to also know Tim Rogers, joking that “We wouldn’t play a song for that guy….”. Did Tim go to teach at NMH after leaving Phish? Hmm, another mystery of Phishtory to crack! They don’t play “Fee” but Trey does dedicate “Good Times Bad Times” to Tim. The show reminds me of 8/27/88 at Mont Alto, with that same “rock show” attitude but with an actual audience. A fun show to listen to but nothing groundbreaking here.
Just want to take a moment to apologize. I’ve been working on other projects and the radio show, but I’m getting back in the saddle here and ready to continue riding along. Helpfully you’re enjoying This Week in Phish on JEMP Radio as well! Thanks for sticking with me!
LawnMemo is doing another Summer Tour 2014 review called 25 in 25. I signed up for the #2 spot, writing about 7/3/14. Be sure to head over there and give it a read! I recommend following it all the way to Summer Tour! Great pool of talent working on this one.
Starting tomorrow, I will be hosting a weekly look at the history of Phish. The show will consist of playing tracks from that week’s shows as well as commentary and other information. The show will air at 2 PM Eastern with replays throughout the week. You can tune in by going to JEMPRadio.com as well as downloading the JEMP Radio app on your smartphone. This week highlights shows from June 21st through June 27th. I sincerely hope you’ll tune in and enjoy.
Set 1: AC/DC Bag, Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues, You Enjoy Myself, Golgi Apparatus, La Grange, Fluffhead, Possum > Foam, Walk Away, Take the ‘A’ Train, Split Open and Melt > David Bowie
Set 2: Suzy Greenberg > Bold As Love, The Lizards, Harry Hood, If I Only Had a Brain, Contact, Fire
Encore: Whipping Post
I have something to reveal to you all. The members of Phish are not native Vermonters. This is shocking and upsetting I know, since they definitely reflect many of the state’s values but it’s true. So when you’re in a band, eventually you might play a gig your hometown if your band didn’t start there. Jon Fishman had the honor of being the 2nd band member to experience that moment as Mike Gordon had grown up in the greater Boston area. Jon Fishman was proudly raised by his adoptive parents Leonard and Mimi in the the Syracuse suburb of Dewitt and graduated from Jamesville-Dewitt High School in 1983. With Syracuse being a big college town, a return trip with the band was inevitable.
The area just north of Syracuse University’s campus is known as Marshall Street, even as is spread down University and South Crouse Ave. Surprisingly for an alumni of Syracuse University, I can’t tell you a whole lot about the bars. Unsuprisingly, I was more of a hang out with friends off-campus and do bong rips/house parties at the Ultimate Frisbee house kind of guy. I do know where the Orange Grove was. It was located on the first floor at the corner of S Crouse Ave. and E. Adams St. above the basement space. More recent alumni would know the space as Darwin’s. As of right now, I believe the space is vacant. The area in its heyday had at least 10 bars in the area and now only has about 4; a testament to the raising of the drinking age to 21 and the crackdown by law enforcement. I went in there once, I don’t remember it being a very large space, let alone where bands would play but several SU alums confirmed this was the place. (Current students would probably think you’re referring to the awful alumni donor space on campus next to the quad nowadays.) One Phish.net member does say this show happened at Hungry Charlie’s, which would make more sense in terms of space. This is also how it is listed in the Phish Companion. Hungry Charlie’s was located downstairs at 727 S. Crouse Ave. under the new bar known as Chuck’s in a space occupied by Funk ‘N Waffles, curiously owned and operaed by Phish fan and Sophistafunk keyboardist Adam Gold. Funk ‘N Waffles continues to serve live music to the SU community in the space.
The show itself was probably exciting for those who had not seen the band but not much here historically besides the above. Trey opened by dedicating “Alumni Blues” to all the recent graduates of Syracuse University as they were playing on Commencement Weekend. A really nice early “Melt” is offered here as well. The “David Bowie” is a must listen as we have kind of the first recorded “hi-hat hjinx” here with Trey weaving “Melt”, “A Train”, and “Fluffhead” into the intro. The “Hood” is pretty fantastic here. Fishman gets a huge yell from the crowd as he comes to the front of the stage. Commenting on how he now gets to embarrass himself in front of his entire high school, one audience member yells “TOO LATE!” which is pretty funny. He busts out “If I Only Had A Brain” to their delight with a vacuum solo. Fishman had arrived. The standout jam through is the “Whipping Post”. Starting around the 8-minute mark, it starts to get off the typical wailing “Post” riff and stays just shy of Type II but they do push it and get ambient around the 10-minute mark, almost foreshadowing future jamming in an interesting way. A rare glimpse of where Phish is going.
Set 1: Wilson, Peaches en Regalia, Ya Mar, Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, The Sloth, Possum, Divided Sky
Set 2: You Enjoy Myself, La Grange, If I Don’t Be There By Morning, Slave to the Traffic Light > Esther > Run Like an Antelope, I Didn’t Know > Nowhere Fast -> I’ve Turned Bad > I Didn’t Know, The Lizards, Bold As Love, Harpua, Whipping Post
 First known Phish performance.
 Fish on trombone.
 First known performance; Sofi Dillof and “Joe” on vocals.
If you’ve ever been in a rock band, the record release show is usually a big deal. You pester all your friends and acquaintances to show up so that it feels like a big deal and also in hopes that they buy a copy of your album. You also flyer the whole town, putting out the word that your band was focused enough to record the music you’ve been playing. This doesn’t feel like that. Sure Chris Kuroda and friend of the band Kiki Colgan spent the afternoon stuffing j-cards into cassette boxes to make sure they had enough copies on hand but, announcements aside, it doesn’t seem too different from any other night at The Front. Probably because Phish knows they have the fanbase who’ll pick up the new cassette handily.
The show kicks off with the “Wilson>Peaches” combo. Helpfully Trey shakes it soon because it’s starting to become stale. Trey takes the audience to the Bahamas, eliciting a single woo from the crowd, and Phish launches into “Ya Mar”. It’s a solid version. Trey then borrows a bit from 5/6/89 saying now “let’s take it away from the Bahamas and take it to Rhode Island!” launching into the “Mike’s>Groove”. The “Mike’s” is short but builds to a nice frenzy structured by Page’s organ layering. They like it so much that they play the ending chords twice with a real nice sustain by Trey in the middle. The “Weekapaug Groove” is excellent though with great bass work by Mike and very fluid playing from Trey ending with solid machine gunning. After the “Weekpaug”, Trey finally plugs the tape that you can now buy at the soundboard and Mike adds that “Junta has no meaning in Nicaraguan.” The “Sloth”/”Possum” combo is fun if not outstanding. The set closes with “The Divided Sky”, which is another solid whole band effort.
“Self!,” Trey calls out to start set two, calling for “You Enjoy Myself”. “This song’s from our first album! This next’s one’s from our first album, available at the soundboard,” says the band. “FOR FREE!,” replies an audience member jokingly. Trey also comments it’s Mike’s birthday, an audience member not Mike Gordon and then Page says later we’ll play something for Chris’ birthday. Trey counts it off and “YEM” begins. It’s solid but highlights are when Trey gets shred at 12:30 before the bass and drums section and a sucking a bone (?) vocal jam and ends with a Fishman bass drum solo brought on by fan and Trey’s encouragement. Mike also teases “Moby Dick” in a nod to Fishman’s drum solo, starting a trend that will last a career. A ripping “La Grange” follows. We get an odd cut and dump right into “Slave to the Traffic Light” in progress and with some quality issues, missing the Bob Dylan cover “If I Don’t Be There By Morning”. “Slave” isn’t very good and doesn’t peak. The non-reaction of the crowd is fitting. “Esther” comes next and has some interesting woodblock coloring from Fishman, keeping time with Page’s organ riff. This “Esther” also is played at a faster tempo than usual and hilarious ends with the rest of the band ending the song early on Trey who’s still soloing. A solid yet average “Antelope” comes next. Antics come to the front in “I Didn’t Know”. Out of Fishman’s trombone solo, he calls “Sing with me Sofi!” Brining Sofi Dillof, Page’s future first wife, and “Joe” who is believed to be a member of Ninja Custodian up to play two Ninja Custodian songs “Nowhere Fast” and “I’ve Turned Bad”. A little punk rock break in the middle? Why not. Phish brings the tempo back down with a nice slow closing reprise of “I Didn’t Know” I didn’t know that I was that far gone takes on new meaning. Chris finally gets his birthday song in the form of “The Lizards” and it’s a solid version, again played at a faster tempo than usual, especially in the “If I Were a Dog” section. That section is also preceded by a tape cut and leads off with just Trey and Fish, which adds to the beauty. “Bold as Love” has Trey shredding but not over the top. It’s a very tasteful version with some hot licks. The well-loved story of “Harpua” follows. Trey begins the story and when introducing Harpua, Mike goes “Tell ’em about the ass.” recalling 4/20/89 when the band jammed on “non-shot ass”, and the band plays the defending riff that used for that version during Trey’s story. This time Harpua has the “twice shot ass”. The fight is underplayed by a jam on the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimmie Some Lovin'” ironically. It’s a good version but nowhere near as amazing as 4/20/89. The show closes with a meandering “Whipping Post”. For a show with some history, there’s not much here that’s historical but a solid effort.
1989 cassette version
Written by trey anastasio unless noted
“You Enjoy Myself”
“Golgi Apparatus” (Anastasio, Tom Marshall, Bob Szuter, Aaron Woolf)
“Dinner and a Movie” (Anastasio, Steve Pollak)
“The Divided Sky”
“Fluffhead” (Anastasio, Pollak)
“Fluff’s Travels” (Anastasio, Pollak)
Part 1: “Fluff’s Travels”
Part 2: “The Chase”
Part 3: “Who do? We do!”
Part 4: “Clod”
Part 5: “Bundle of Joy”
Part 6: “Arrival”
“Contact” (Mike Gordon)
There’s no doubt Phish will go down in history for their live shows. That’s where the magic happens and most of the noteworthy things the band has done. The picture is not complete, however, without including the studio albums. There are some great moments found there as well and are pretty clear snapshots of the musical progress of the band. Not counting “The White Tape” as that feels mostly like demos and song snippets, the studio journey begins at Junta.
Recorded throughout late 1988, it’s amazing that the studio takes are almost more complete and detailed than their live counterparts at the time. For a good comparison, listen to 12/10/88 and then play Junta and the difference is almost night and day but they were working on the album about the same time they played that show. The other thing that’s startling about Junta is that the band produced the album by themselves. Yes, they had a lot of help from studio engineer Gordon Hookailo to get the feeling right. It’s amazing that this polished a work is not only the band’s first studio album but self-produced. That takes a lot of hutzpah. No doubt a lot of the recording was live to tape but there are some overdubs and studio tricks. I wish there was more documentation about the recording of Junta but neither Phish: The Biography, The Phishing Manual, Phish.com or Phish.net cover it in much detail.
The album leads off with “Fee”. The thumping kick drum of Fishman was probably many people’s introduction to Phish after being advised to start with this album in the days before A Live One. A fun note about the recording process is the effect on Trey’s voice was accomplished by running Trey’s vocals through a pair of headphones into another microphone. Trey, of course, would attempt to recreate this effect on tour by singing his vocals into a megaphone. The layers on the studio version are insane. You have the triangle and the guiro on top of Fish’s regular drumbeat. You have the repeating “Fee” harmony line. You have all the added sound effects. The unique instrumentation should grab any listener but add-in that this is the first true studio track from the band and it’s mind-blowing.
Then, the band doesn’t pull any punches and takes it one step higher with “You Enjoy Myself”, considered by the band themselves as THE SONG. The studio version though leaves a little to be desired though. It’s well-layed and mixed but when compared to live versions, feels like they held a little bit back. But a huge difference from the same era’s live versions is everything feels so even, no rushing the tempo for pushing volume. It really hits the 4-man unit feeling throughout even as Trey solos over the top. The “Wash Uffizi” section hits a real groove that also hasn’t translated live yet. It’s just much smoother. I also like that it has a truncated section that keeps the vocal jam feeling instead of some fabricated finish that other bands might have done in the studio.
“Esther” is probably best heard here than an actual live version. With how rough early versions were in late ’88, it’s quite amazing that the studio version came together so nicely. The backing harmonies are just right. Trey and Page weave delicately around each other in the middle “adrift” section. Trey said that just about the time that Phish was starting up the Junta sessions, the band kind of abandoned Gamehendge but it would have been nice to see this bookended with “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters” on this album since the two are very similar. Trey hits an amazing tone on the gorgeous outro solo to close the recording. No live version has really touched this one since, which is amazing because it doesn’t sound like it has many overdubs.
“Golgi Apparatus”, of course, was probably the first “Phish” song ever written with its lyrics coming from Trey and Tom Marshall’s junior high biology class. The bridge solo would most likely come later though. Not much difference here between live versions and the studio version. Just as energetic and tight.
“Foam” is a beast of a song. The fact the band was able to polish it enough for recording and then able to harness all of it on tape is amazing. Mike’s bass hits hard and sharp, setting the tone and helps remain a driving force through the song. Page’s keys and Trey’s guitar trade off leads as it depends towards the verse. The fact that each of the 4 lines is so clearly heard,e even on lower fidelity recordings is astonishing and hats of to engineer Hookailo on that one. You can almost pick a line and listen to it for the entire 7-minute track, even more so on the 192 kHz digital release. Mike also backs off nicely when Page and Trey take their respective solos in the last 2 minutes. The ending descent and buildup is also masterfully recorded as the madness isn’t lost.
“Dinner and a Movie” is a curious inclusion as it’s very short but it’s odd rhythm structure does showcase the band’s ability to get quirky and play fast. The main thing I’d love to know is what the recording is that’s played under the band. It sounds like random sound effects, much a little Beatles recording but knowing Phish it might be themselves played backwards. Nothing has been noted of what was going on during this session either. Inquiring minds want to know. But it’s a fun song to end side one of the original cassette order.
Side two kicks off with Junta’s indubitable centerpiece “Divided Sky”. Captured here in all of its perfectly written glory, this is a masterwork of both Trey Anastasio’s composition and Gordon Hookailo’s engineering. The song, of course, is perfect in its tension and interlocking parts. The 4 move effortlessly through the complicated piece. Adding to that is how perfectly all 4 parts are captured. One doesn’t overpower the other. Even when Trey clearly has the lead, the other 3 parts aren’t merely pushed to the side or turned down to be filler. Each part takes as much equally. Such as the “Christmas Star” middle section, Page’s organ fill rises and falls along with Trey’s lead guitar part and then when Page’s swirling organ drops out, Mike’s complimentary bass line takes its place and moves the piece along just as much, all the while Fishman’s drum part keeps things humming along. It almost feels like Hookailo rotated the other parts’ levels behind Trey to keep you interested on everything at once. Then, it switches to the “Gus” outro” and the 3 parts become almost one, driving everything while Trey plays his fugue lead. It never gets muddy though. While the 3 parts sound together, you can clearly hear them separately and discern who’s doing what. At the end, the 3 rise to Trey’s part and they almost become a whole unit again with each one countering the other, even though Trey’s part remains the lead. The fact that the recording captures this dynamic without making things muddy, again, is a real engineering feat. It’s enough to wish there were isolated tracks, so you could go in and out of each part by itself and it’d be very dramatic. Fish’s drum part alone would be a wonderful story to hear. Clearly a lot of effort went into this song and rightfully so.
For the complete opposite, one only needs to skip ahead one track to “David Bowie”. Even though it’s highly composed, it’s very cacophonous. The band almost doesn’t sound linked up and like the rest of the band’s just trying to remain with Trey as he swoops and dives through parts. It’s nowhere near as polished as “Divided Sky”. You can almost hear the collective sigh as it drops into the jam segment. Also, all the parts sound real muddy hear especially the rhythm section. The lone real jam on the album, Trey and Page almost take it easy with light riffs between each other. There’s also again, very weird sound effects throughout the jam as well, adding to the madness. It’s almost too much. The jam would have been enough without the weird sounds. Again, there’s no record as to why they exist or who thought of this. They also seem like an afterthought and aren’t set at the right levels. The sound effects are usually too loud for what’s going on. I know the band had played with sound effects on “The White Tape” but there’s really no benefit here and I’d love to hear the explanation for this one. The Bowie jam is also pretty typical of the jams at the time, maybe a little slower than the live ones.
“Fluffhead” and it’s counterpart “Fluff’s Travels” are another long suite played to perfection. I think one of the most interesting things about the studio version of “Fluffhead” is Trey is on acoustic guitar for most of the song and then right as it goes from “The Chase” to “Who Do? We Do!” there’s a switch to electric that you don’t even notice until the tone changes. The acoustic also matches Page’s piano really well during their paired parts. Not much room for variation here but it’s certainly tighter than comparable live versions from the same era. Also, there’s less of a release when they build in “Bundle of Joy” and release in “Arrival” on the Fluffhead refrain than live versions. Would have been nice to have some dynamics there to emphasize how big it is when the band arrives in unison to the Fluffhead refrain. It’s a nice switchback that the song ends with Trey on acoustic again, bringing it full circle.
“Contact” ends the album perfectly. I’ve always been a fan of this song since my first show, so I’m definitely biased to it but it really does send out a nice message. Mike’s bass intro is so warm and fuzzy, it’s really inviting. Each member kind of has their own intro into the song, which almost feels like a coda of introductions, reminding you once again of the 4 parts that make up Phish. I also like that Phish really gives the song that “lounge singer” treatment that it deserves on record. I also like that since it’s Mike’s song, the bass is at the forefront of the song and leads the way, not forced to take a backseat in the car. Also, during live shows, Phish would try to get everyone to sing along and the use of the children’s chorus for that effect is a nice touch. Video of them recording the kids can be seen at the 4:21 mark in the 20th anniversary montage video below.
The CD re-release in 1991 by Elektra Records would add two live tracks from 7/25/88, “Sanity” and “Icculus”, and a home recording of an Oh Kee Pa ceremony entitled “Union Federal”. Since those were not on the original album and the 2012 re-release, they are not included here.
Junta remains the gold standard of Phish studio records so far. Their subsequent efforts came close. It’s odd that Phish would never self-produce an album again nor work with Gordon Hookailo either. Maybe that’s a good thing as well since it’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle once let alone twice. Trey moved on from long, composed pieces, besides for a handful, as well but he did the right thing in getting them all down on tape early on, rather than waiting for the next go round or a major record deal. This is Phish at their most refined and raw. An odd paradox that makes for a classic album.
Note: This review used the HDTracks 24/192 FLAC as reference.