It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…
I backed into my first Phish show well after becoming a fan. I’m fairly certain that I was turned on to the group in High School though it was my first year of college where I began to absorb much of their music. Junta played constantly in our dorms and, as I grew my Grateful Dead tape collection, I began adding a few Phish tapes. But that was the early 90’s and I was still very much focused on seeing as much Grateful Dead as possible. This attitude and my slim wallet kept me away from Phish shows until 1994.
In March of ’94, I had purchased a ticket to my first Phish show the next month at the local college (George Mason University) basketball arena, the Patriot Center. But I soon learned that The Band (at least those who remained in the line-up) would be playing Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Theater that same week. Concerned about having another shot at seeing Levon and co., I sold my Phish ticket to a buddy and bought a ticket to see The Band. No regrets.
Flash forward to Autumn. Freshly enrolled in the local community college, making new friends, many of who were Grateful Dead and Phish fans, and Phish was slated to return to the Patriot Center. One of my new friends, Chris, offered me one of his extra tickets and plans were set. I was finally going to see this group.
George Mason is a sprawling suburban university that matches the character of Northern Virginia quite well. Attractive, yet deliberate, green spaces are surrounded by too much pavement and cars are everywhere. We arrived early and, counter to my experiences at Dead shows, there wasn’t much of a scene. A few people were making grilled cheese for themselves, and maybe one guy was selling shirts but, for the most part, folks kept to themselves. I can only assume that the campus housing was a different scene altogether. We picked out a spot with some grass and relaxed in the lovely Autumn afternoon before heading in to the show.
Patriot Center is a round-ish basketball venue. It has no upper deck but reserved seating all the way around and, for this show, on the floor. As we entered, a fan handed me a purple flyer that read, “Phish Is A Really Cool Band.” Indeed.Our seats were on Page’s side, ahead of the board, a few rows above the floor. pretty much perfect. Unless you compare to those of my friend Modi whom we saw bouncing to the PA music all the way up to the front of the floor.
We were pumped.
We were ready.
The lights went down.
The roar went up.
(Listen here via ReListen.Net)
And they opened with “Chalk Dust Torture”. This was pretty much a given, as we were on a university campus. The strong rocked out opener was perfect for drawing in new listeners.
After that came “Sparkle”. I knew this song but I’d never tried to dance to it. I already had discovered that its lyrics unpack to reveal a shattered emotional core but I hadn’t really understood how that breakage is so well illustrated by the frenetic build. The physical challenge of the dancing drove that home. This was not the wildest version I’d see but a good beginning.
New but not new, “Down With Disease” had come a long way from the jamming on the ’93 New Year’s Eve show that I’d heard so many times at this point. This version was standard great and plenty of fun for a first set rocker.
“Guyute” was fresh for this tour as is evident the crowd’s reception in the intro but you hear them winning the audience as the song progresses. It certainly won me over. Complex prog arrangements with gratuitous peaks and whistling? What’s not to like?
As if to counter the new song reticence, Trey pulled out the megaphone for “Fee” and the crowd (including myself) ate it up.
Next, “It’s Ice” showcased Page’s chops beautifully and, on this one, he delivered a great solo. As if to further feature Page, he next sang “Lawn Boy”. The lounge act strolling the stage was amusing and the interlude was a nice break before “Run Like An Antelope”. This was a concise and powerful set closer. I remember being awed by Trey’s guitar-based pyrotechnics and the entire band’s ability to navigate the tension waves of the song. (Not that I’d have used those words as I sat breathless during setbreak. Reactions were probably a bit more on the order of, “Fucking wow, man.”)
“Also Sprach Zarathustra” aka “2001” in its early 90s short powerhouse glory launched the second set and led into a hot version of “Sample In A Jar”.
“Rift”, a favorite from the day the album was released (yes the album version was the first I’d heard) followed. I’ve little doubt that my love of this song drives my adoration of “The Curtain With” but, at this point, I had not heard that piece.
Next stop: My first Mike’s Groove.
“Mikes Song” quickly turned toward the dark side and was heavy with smoke machine/strobe light jamming. This briefly relented as the lights came up on a group of girls onstage singing a soccer cheer (“We Are The Cougars”). What the shit? They were cleared away and the band melted into “Simple”. I was already judging the band for skipping “I Am Hydrogen” when they dove back into “Mike’s Song”! The reprise was brief but it completed the song properly and dissolved into a gorgeous “I Am Hydrogen”. I would not see it again until Big Cypress.
Trey derailed the hot ‘Weekapaug Groove” with some heavy metal chords and it melted down to nothing for a moment. Fish and Page tried to get it back on track but Trey and Mike weren’t ready. This led to some cool clavinet, bass, and drum jamming with Trey keeping up the noise in the background. This soon exploded back into “Weekapaug” which they rode out for a few more glorious minutes.
Wait… There’s more? “Fluffhead”!?!? How could I not be ecstatic at this point? This might have been my first show but it was not my first rodeo. It was however, becoming an amazing ride. Bizarre and intense like a proper “Fluff” should be, this surely cemented my love of seeing Phish.”
Well, if that didn’t, what followed surely would. As I’ve mentioned, I’d spent years listening to Phish and much of the past year collecting and absorbing live recordings. My fairly decent Grateful Dead tape collection had enabled me to find some solid Phish tapes including a handful of fairly recent recordings from the Summer of ’94.
That October evening, as was sat on the grass outside the Patriot Center, we discussed what songs we wanted to hear. I was fairly open to anything but I did have one hope: “Purple Rain”. Fishman had occasionally sung the Prince song, with variable results, but I wanted to experience it first hand.
As “Fluffhead” wound down, Page began playing a familiar set of chords… I flipped out- yelling and leaping into the air. There it was.
Fish was in fine voice that night and delivered a moving rendition complete with a vacuum solo. I felt that I could die happy.
Then “Harry Hood” happened. This song and I have a special relationship. It stalks me at every turn. The equal and opposing force to “I Am Hydrogen” which I struggle to encounter, Hood is one of my most-seen songs (second only to Chalk Dust Torture) having turned up at better than one-in-three of my attended shows.
That night, in the Patriot Center, a short drive from my home, we were treated to a perfect rendition of “Hood”. It rose, fell, stretched, and peaked in a manner best described as “exactly perfect”. I could carry only this song with me forever.
After that, “Suzy Greenberg” was lighthearted candy to wrap up the set. We bounced about, sang along and had a blast.
No amount of research, no studying of tapes and setlists could prepare me for what came next. When the band returned to the stage for their encore, they did not go to their usual positions. Trey sported an acoustic guitar. The bass player, Mike Gordon, strapped on a banjo. The keyboard player, Page McConnell, held an upright bass and the drummer wore a washboard that, in a twist both bizarre and perfectly reasonable, had cones akin to a bra Madonna might have worn. The crowd hooted and hollered for a bit and then quieted down.
They were shockingly quiet, in fact.
Then, the band went into a bluegrass arrangement of Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time”. It was both hilarious and dead seriously perfect. I’d had an inkling but was soon to grok that his duality is a large element of Phish’s personality. After that, they moved back to their usual spots and sent up home was a joyous rendition of “Rocky Top.”
I was practically floating as I left the venue that night.
First shows are never discussed objectively. It simply cannot be done by a human. Even Spock would have trouble not gushing about his first show (though, to be fair, I’m pretty sure he did that sun slingshot thing and saw all of Summer ’95. Also, I’m pretty sure he’s probably not real.) I realize that this show is never going to be looked upon as an “all-time great” and, given the context of what else happened in nineteen ninety-four, I get that. But, if you were to look for an example of Phish in that year, one that was more typical awesome than uniquely awesome, I’d point you to this one.
And it was my first.
And thanks to Phish for all of the great times over the past twenty years.
Phish Saturday, 10/08/1994 Patriot Center, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA Soundcheck: It's Ice, Mound, Funky Bitch Set 1: Chalk Dust Torture, Horn > Sparkle > Down with Disease, Guyute, Fee > It's Ice, Lawn Boy > Run Like an Antelope Set 2: Also Sprach Zarathustra > Sample in a Jar, Rift > Mike's Song -> Simple -> Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Fluffhead > Purple Rain > Hold Your Head Up, Harry Hood, Suzy Greenberg Encore: Foreplay/Long Time, Rocky Top Setlist Courtesy Phish.net