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.

Show #43: 3/12/88

Saturday, 03/12/1988
Nectar’s, Burlington, VT

Set 1: Jump Monk[1], McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters > The Lizards > Tela[2] >Wilson > AC/DC Bag > Colonel Forbin’s Ascent[2] > Fly Famous Mockingbird > The Sloth >Possum, Run Like an Antelope

[1] First known Phish performance.
[2] First known performance.

One of the problems in reviewing a band’s career in retrospect is you know what happens next. In addition to the problems reviewing 3/11/88 that were explained in that post, there’s also the anticipation for a bigger show that’s just around the corner. Such is the case for 3/12/88. The importance of 3/12/88 is that it marks the first live The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, or Gamehendge. The story of this gig is so much more though. The entire band, by all accounts, had previously gone to see Frank Zappa play Memorial Auditorium, just a few blocks up Main street from Nectar’s. At some point during the show, someone had thrown a Phish t-shirt on stage. Frank held it up and the crowd went nuts. Maybe with the knowledge that freaks were out and about that night for the FZ show and that letting their freak flag fly would be par for the course, or that Trey knew he would have a large audience to unleash it on spurred the decision. Regardless, the band decided to go for it.

This would also prove to be an extremely important decision for the band’s future as well. That night, local band Ninja Custodian had a friend in town named John Paluska. Ninja Custodian insisted that they head to Nectar’s to see Phish. He walked in and caught the Gamehendge set and thought they’d be great for his Zoo house parties at Amherst. This ended up with him booking them for April and they quickly built a following in western Massachusetts, the next enclave outside Burlington to take to the band. Paluska’s success lead to him begin asked to manage the band later in 1988. Paluska’s Dionysian Productions would manage the band from that day until the band’s “breakup” in 2004. You can read more about Paluska’s experience on with the “This Month in Phish History: March 1988” entry.

As for the recording itself, we only have one set. Luckily, it’s the Gamehendge set and if you’ve ever heard the studio recording, it’s very similar. However, the narration is a bit clearer here. Trey sounds less scripted and more off the cuff. The set opens with Charles Mingus’ “Jump Monk”, a jazz cover that would only be played once more; which is a shame because it’s very well done in the same manner of later cover “Donna Lee”. Quickly though, we get to the main event. The band launches into “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters”. This is important because “McGrupp” was actually the poem that launched Trey into writing the “TMWSIY” story. It’s odd that other versions don’t use it again as this is the only rendition that opens with “McGrupp”. “McGrupp” closes, which I don’t think is as effective. “McGrupp” sets up the tale much better. Over Page’s outro solo, Trey begins to tell the tale of Gamehendge, which I will narrate here as well. “Once upon a time, there was a man…” That man turns out to be Colonel Forbin, a retired military man who stumbles upon a door in the middle of a field. He opens the door and begins making his way down the corridor found within. In the corridor, he finds Rutherford the Brave. Rutherford begins to tell him about the strange land he is now in during the song “The Lizards”. This “Lizards” is pretty note perfect. It doesn’t even have much of a pause between the verses and the “If I Were A Dog” outro. With Rutherford having drowned at the end of “Lizards”, Forbin doesn’t have much time before being spotted by Tela and her two-toned multibeast. Forbin is instantly smitten with here and contemplates this in the song “Tela”. The version here is much longer than other versions and it does drag for a bit because of it. Still sounds great though. Tela and Forbin ride to the rebel camp and Trey describes Errand Wolfe, actually in more depth than in his senior thesis. We learn more about Errand in his singing of the song “Wilson”. We then get a song from Wilson in “AC/DC Bag”, which the crowd loudly cheers. Forbin realizes that the only way to help everyone is to get help from the wise and knowledgeable Icculus, who lives on the mountain over the land. Forbin climbs the mountain in “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” and Icculus’ response is to fly the Famous Mockingbird to get the Helping Friendly Book from Wilson in “Fly Famous Mockingbird”. Much has been made about the narration between “Forbin” and “Mockingbird”. Recently some said they wished the one from the JEMP truck set on 12/31/13 was too short but here, in the first ever rendition, the narration is also very short. The playing is also amazing here. The band just nailing it like a well rehearsed Broadway pit band. The Famous Mockingbird successfully gets the Helping Friendly Book and Forbin returns to give it to Errand. Errand, now consumed with power, kills Wilson with the help of “The Sloth” but also puts Forbin in jail. The “Forbin in jail” story isn’t repeated here. It really does’ thane an ending except for Icculus’ musings captured in Possum. This version of Gamehendge is also the only live one that ends with “Possum” and really isn’t as neatly tied up as others. How do you follow that up? With a scorching “Run Like An Antelope”. Not as powerful as the previous night but still a lot of fun until the recording cuts off. A historic evening at Nectar’s indeed.