Show #98: 4/30/1989 NightStage Cambridge, MA

Sunday, 04/30/1989
Night Stage, Cambridge, MA

Set 1: I Didn’t Know,  You Enjoy Myself,  McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters,  The Lizards,  Divided Sky,  Wilson,  Peaches en Regalia,  Run Like an Antelope,  Terrapin[1]

Encore: Possum

[1] Fish on trombone.

NightStage in Cambridge during its heyday.
NightStage in Cambridge during its heyday.

While Phish certainly was climbing the rungs of the music industry, there had to be a few stumbles along the way. This show really highlights a night that for a lot of bands might have killed their momentum. NightStage was a very successful blues and jazz club just north of MIT at 823 Main Street . Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins all had major gigs there in 1980s, some even released on video. Pat Metheney, Tracy Chapman, and Rick Danko also made stops there. This would seem like a very important gig. It starts off awkwardly with an introduction from the band’s manager Ben Hunter. He stumbles through the jokes, none are hitting the crowd. “‘POOOOJJJ’ McConnell,” owner of the “biggest organ in Boston”, Trey “the mad scientist”, are just two of the cringeworthy ones. Bill Graham, he was not that evening. Then, do you open with “Funky Bitch”, maybe “Peaches en Regalia?” No, the band opens with “I Didn’t Know”, which is fun and maybe loosens them up but it kills the show. Apparently, the band ten played “You Enjoy Myself” but it is not on any available recording. After “YEM,” Trey starts giving a Gamehendge narration. He says that Phish are traveling minstrels from Gamehendge and so they’re going to play some songs from there. He lays out a long description of each on and by the time he gets to asking if people know what a Rhombus is, it’s clear he’s lost the crowd. They just want the music, Trey. Even the people that yell for each song title, which feels like a small part of the crowd are done with the narration at this point. Especially only one song in to the set. At least, wait 3 or 4 songs. The Gamehendge mini-set is quite enjoyable though. “McGrupp” is a little tighter here which is a welcome addition. “The Lizards” is little boring but well-played. “Divided Sky” smokes and you can tell that one got some interest back. “Wilson>Peaches” remains. I also like that this recording is an audience recording because it sounds older than it is. It really sounds like a recording from Nectar’s in 1986, where the majority of the crowd is just there to drink and be social. They’re almost louder than the band. Perhaps, the disinterested crowd was part of the equation. Clearly, there’s still a good chunk of fans there but it’s obviously less than the total crowd. Trey speaks again, trying to thank NightStage and advising people to tip Jim at the bar. Trey asks for a vodka and tonic for Phish. You can hear a little defeat in Trey’s voice. He knows no one’s listening so he backs off and fires up “Antelope”. The jam of the show is “Antelope” as the foursome bring the swirling jam to a boil. They really work the tension here and on the recording, you almost feel in the middle of a twister as your ears rotate through the instruments for flourishes before it all just breaks into the “Rye Rye Rocco” part. It’s a solid early version and the crowd clearly agrees. What next? More Fishman, doing Syd Barrett’s “Terrapin” complete with trombone solo. Again, the crowd talking gets louder than the band. The show loses with a “not that exciting” “Possum.” This show, however, feels important because it probably was a wake-up call for the young Dionysian Productions team. Ben and John had to have seen that the nightclub circuit might not be right for the band and alternate plans would have to come for future success.

NightStage right before it was torn down and replaced with condos.
NightStage right before it was torn down and replaced with condos.
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Show #90: 3/24/89 The Paradise Rock Club Boston, MA

Friday, 03/24/1989
The Paradise, Boston, MA

Set 1: Possum,  Mike’s Song >  I Am Hydrogen >  Weekapaug Groove,  Golgi Apparatus > Divided Sky,  AC/DC Bag,  If I Only Had a Brain,  Take the ‘A’ Train,  David Bowie

The exterior of the Paradise Rock Club before renovation.
The exterior of the Paradise Rock Club before renovation.

I’m just gonna cut right to it. There’s no need for anyone to listen to this recording. It’s all songs, which there are better versions from this year. The songs aren’t even presented in the right order. “I Am Hydrogen” is cut out of the “Mike’s Groove”. “If I Only Had a Brain” sounds like it opens the show despite being in the number 7 slot on the recording. It does have an early vacuum solo, which is cool to to hear and also to hear Page advised Fish “take it around!” for another 8 bars of solo.  A couple of fun “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” teases in “Possum” and “A-Train”. But for the most part, I’d stay away from this recording for a variety of reasons. Big show at the Front tomorrow.

Show #81: 1/26/89 – The Paradise Rock Club Boston, MA

Thursday, 01/26/1989
The Paradise, Boston, MA

Soundcheck: The Sloth > Possum

Set 1: I Didn’t Know[1],  Golgi Apparatus,  Alumni Blues[2] >  Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues,  You Enjoy Myself,  The Lizards,  Take the ‘A’ Train,  Sanity[3],  Divided Sky,  Fee, Good Times Bad Times

Set 2: Suzy Greenberg,  Icculus,  Colonel Forbin’s Ascent >  Fly Famous Mockingbird,  The Sloth ->  Possum,  Contact,  Big Black Furry Creature from Mars,  Foam,  David Bowie

Encore: AC/DC Bag,  Fire

[1] Fish on trombone.
[2] Additional lyrics.
[3] Fast version.

The exterior of the Paradise Rock Club before renovation.
The exterior of the Paradise Rock Club before renovation.

For those not familiar with the Boston music scene, there’s a certain air to the Paradise. It’s not that glamorous a room. It’s long and narrow with the stage on the left side and balcony on the right. Back when Phish played the club, the stage face one of two support columns in the center. Since then the stage has been moved, further back centered between the columns. But the reason the club is such an industry icon is the people who have taken its stage. Opening in 1977, the club hit the national stage as U2 opened for  Barooga Bandit on December 13, 1980 became known as the starting point of the band’s American career. They say only 150 people showed up for their set that night and only 40 remained for the headliner. That following March, they pulled in to play 2 sold out shows at the venue and never looked back. Those 1981 shows would also be some of the band’s first live recordings released on early singles. Everybody in alternative music plays the Paradise on their way up. Some of the acts who had graced the stage before Phish included The Police, Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, AC/DC, Todd Rundgren, R.E.M., and Warren Zevon to name a few. Boston bands that would make their name on the stage include Pixies, Galaxie 500, and Mighty Mighty Bosstones,

Snoop Dogg plays the 'Dise after renovations.
Snoop Dogg plays the ‘Dise after renovations.

Phish had to take that stage to continue their rise. John Paluska and Ben Hunter knew it was the next step. Gigs at Molly’s had proven successful with sold-out shows but this had not transferred to the Paradise’s management. Their talent scout wouldn’t even listen to their demo tape. Planks and Hunter knew that Phish had the talent for the room. So, they decided to rent the Paradise and sell tickets at $5 a piece. Hunter and Paluska promoted the show heavily but it was the strength of Burlington, VT that led to this victory. Tow friends of the band ,Tom Baggott and “Brother Craig” rented buses and charged $20 a head for the trip. The filled two charter buses and helped push the gig to it’s 650-person capacity. Baggott recalls the situation in The Pharmer’s Almanac Vol. 6 as, “It was a hair-brained scheme to get Phish’s Burlington support down to the club. The bus was fucking insane. It was truly a magic bus. The only rule was no glass bottles.” The show was so successful about 200 more people found themselves shut out. Bouncers “who wondered if Phish was a real band” now were stunned at having to turn people away.

The original flyer for 1/26/89
The original flyer for 1/26/89

On the tapes, you can feel the energy in the air. The band sounds excited for the show. Page thanks the crowd after each oft he first few tunes. Mike even gives out a “Thank You, Boston!” before they tear into “Alumni Blues”. This is the first recorded version we have with extended lyrics, taking the song from a simple blues to having an actual narrative about how the protagonist gets jailed but is happy he now has a floor. Another interesting part is during the “Alumni Blues” jam after “Letter to Jimmy Page”, Trey plays the chords to Possum instead, creating a very interesting “mashup”. It’s unclear whether he forgot what song it was or was just so in the moment, it sounded similar. But no one is more excited to be on stage at the ‘Dise than Ernest Guiseppe Anastasio the 3rd. Trey takes a moment to let it sink in and then address the crowd, “Alright well this is pretty wild. (Nervous laughter)”. You can hear the energy in his voice. If you juxtaposition this against 8/27/88, this Trey actually being a rock star. He knows the crowd is hanging on his every word for the first time. The takes the opporunity to thank his mom for coming up, joking that she’s from Ireland. This might even be a subtle U2 reference. Then, it’s time and the band plays a flawless “You Enjoy Myself”. It’s to very jammy but every composed section is nailed. Page takes some great leads here as he also does with his organ part on “Divided Sky”. Trey then takes a moment to acknowledge a fan calling for “Minkin” and pointing out the new backdrop behind the band done by Mike’s mother, artist Marjorie Minkin and that she is in the crowd. Trey and Page also bust out a small tease of Minkin, the only time the song from The White Tape is acknowledged in the band’s career. Another first set highlight is “Sanity”, presented here in its “fast version”. There’s a manic late New Wave feel to the version, released as a single in 1986, it might have launched the band’s career but it was too late as alternative music has passed away from this style. It’s sill a delight to hear here and we’ll see if it evolves at all.

Set 2 was much harder to track down but luckily one torrent exists on Etree.org. Because of this, the quality if not very good. I will say if you proceed to listen to set 2 and the encore, you are at your own risk. We get a really short and succinct “Icculus”, not many jokes in this version either. “The Sloth->Possum” segue is worth the price of admission alone, it’s firmly work by Fishman to keep the beat at such an odd rhythm and Mike his dissonant bass riffs all leading up the driving beat of Possum. It’s really top notch work, especially Jon Fishman. “Contact’ you can hear the rowdy crowd sing along loudly, showing their enthusiasm. In the home of pre-grunge rock, “Big Black Furry Creature from Mars” is given a rowdy rendition. “Bowie” has a “Melt The Guns” tease during the longer intro. All in all, a very energetic night from Phish at their big club debut. Well worth a listen to feel the band taking in the crowd. Mike would say in The Phish Book years later,

“When we started touring in 1988, we played one landmark gig after another: the first time we played the Paradise in Boston, for example, or the first time we played for a thousand people at the University of Massachusetts. When we played the Paradise, we’d never seen 650 people in a room before. Looking out at them through this little window before the gig was one of the most exciting moments of my life. But the show itself wasn’t a peak musical experience at all; I remember it as raunchy noise. The following night (actually being two nights later at Dartmouth College), however, was a music thrill because we’d been relieved the pressure of playing a big rock club for the first time.”

The Paradise show would lead to more bookings up and down the East Coast as word spread throughout the industry. It would also cement the standard of two sets and an encore format that remains today. The band would play 6 more gigs at the Paradise itself over the next few years. It would also mark the beginning of the following Phish phenomena as people who had traveled to Boston realized they were missing out on the band’s growth. It can be clearly stated this is the pivotal moment when Phish went from Burlington bar band to PHISH, from Burlington, VT. This is the first modern Phish show.

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.