NYStalgia: Phish at the Forum, 25 Years Later

On a Friday night in late March of 1992, everything changed. March 20th to be exact. Phish had more or less hooked me the prior July and I had worn through my tapes of Junta and Lawn Boy and the handful of bootlegs I had acquired. The band’s major label debut on Elektra, A Picture of Nectar, had just been released in February and that ragtag collection of songs, new and old, was also quickly absorbed into my consciousness. After a couple of missed opportunities, I finally found myself at a real live Phish concert.

Listen along to a SBD courtesy of Phish Tracks.

Back in those days, the days before the internet and instant satisfaction, there wasn’t much available to prepare for such an experience. No Phish.net. No YEMBlog. No YouTube videos. No LivePhish. No listening to the show from the night prior, week prior or many months prior. More or less, I was going in blind.

Nine month’s worth of anticipation and my excitement was bubbling over. Driving to the venue with my friend’s father, who was equally geeked, he was spouting off comparisons to Zappa (over my head) and telling of how he heard they jumped on trampolines in rhythm with music. Taking a pre-show bathroom break, I suddenly was peeing next to a few giggling hippie college girls. They were climbing in through the men’s bathroom window, sneaking into the show. This was an event, this was a happening and it seemed it wasn’t just me feeling it.

The band took the stage in darkness. They broke the silence with a pair of deep monotonous notes, repeated a few times. Then a creepy falsetto “Wiiiiiiiilson” rang out and white lights hit Trey and Mike’s faces from below against the dark background. It was like a scene out of Spinal Tap or reminiscent of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Spooky, theatrical, campy. I knew of Wilson the character from other songs like “Lizards” and mentions of Gamehendge in A Picture of Nectar‘s liner notes and elsewhere, but I had never heard or knew of the actual song “Wilson.” In this light, I was freaked out by this opening sequence. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I loved it.

My newb-iness would shine through repeatedly throughout the first set. Phish had just released Nectar, but it was a prolific period for them and they were already working out the material that would later become their next release, Rift. Though “Brother” wasn’t on Rift and it was heavy in the rotation dating back to the fall, it was new to me. Trey introduced it by making a joke about the orchestra pit in front of the stage. “This is the alligator moat up here, make sure you don’t fall into it.” Later they even changed the lyrics to “alligator pit.” None the wiser, I assumed the name of the song was Alligator Pit. A mistake that lived on months later when I acquired a recording of the show. I can still remember those tapes, with the deep red cover and Jim Pollock artwork, and the third song mislabeled as “Alligator Pit.” Later in the set, they would play the new song, “Maze,” though I thought they were singing “living in outer space” and I can remember my friend and I dancing around the aisle singing along with the final chorus, “we’re living in outer space!” That was also mislabeled on my tape. Another new song, “Mound,” had bassist Mike Gordon purposefully goading the the crowd to clap along to it’s simplistic blues beat before mixing it up and leaving the crowd clapping instead on the off beat. Fooled again! After wild runs though complex and head-spinning material, when they landed on “Mound” I felt a bit of a relief with something a bit more straightforward. But that quickly went out the window when what I thought was a blues number turned into a zany, genre-less romp. It was like a “Mike’s Corner” column come to life.

The first set was stocked full of Phish’s signature intricate instrumental gymnastics with “Reba,” “Glide,” the newly minted “Rift,” “Fluffhead,” “Lizards” and the set-closing “Run Like an Antelope.” Each was executed flawlessly. These are my baselines; when they can’t dismount on those or their ilk, points are deducted. Second song into the show and I was presented with a top-notch “Reba.” My baseline “Reba.” If it isn’t at least as good as this one, it isn’t all that great. And this one was incredible. A jam I know so well I can sing along.

This whole show would serve as my Phish baseline. The versions of these songs would be what I would judge every subsequent version. The energy at this show was the energy I would judge all others. This show, these versions and these memories hold up after countless listens 25 years and 100 shows later. It was a great show with unique touches throughout, setting a high bar to hurdle for future shows. It’s like eating your first barbecue at the Dinosaur BBQ, which I also did around this same time. While it isn’t necessarily the best, it sets an unusually high bar for the rest.

And the care free off-the-wall energy exhibited at this show is my baseline. Drummer Jon Fishman came out to play trombone during “Antelope” and played a bagpipe hooked up to a vacuum cleaner during a cover of Syd Barret’s “Terrapin.” Weird and wild! They ended the show with instructions for a secret language intent on confusing random concert-goers. What in the holy hell?! The language was prompted by musical signals. One of the signals was the theme song from my favorite TV show at the time, The Simpsons, and I was blown away. These guys like what I like! When you’re a sophomore in high school, that is the pinnacle of cool. Another signal had the entire crowd and band simultaneously falling to the ground. I didn’t realize you could smile and laugh so much and so heartily at a music show. These guys were crazy and played by their own rules. And I loved it!

After one near 90 minute set I could have left and been completely satisfied. But it was only half over. And that second set started with “Mike’s Song.” It has been my favorite song to see live for as long as I can remember and I trace it, once again, back to this baseline show. To see “Mike’s” in those days was to see the perfect amalgamation of Phish’s energy, music and wackiness. On this night they opened with a hearty tease of Yes’ “Roundabout.” As an avid consumer of classic rock radio at the time, my heart almost stopped. Would they?  They wouldn’t. But what they did do… oh boy. Here came those trampolines my friend’s father spoke of. The stage was filled amply with smoke. Strobe lights flashed revealing Mike and Trey’s bouncing shadows amidst the white-out. The smoke would engulf the first handful of rows at least and the pounding bass, swirling organ and powerful drumming were your only guides. Some fans these days clamor for the return of the so-called ‘second jam,’ but I would rather see the the return of tramps, smoke and strobe lights during “Mike’s Song”. Trey’s guitar solo was drenched in feedback, bringing the energy to a fever pitch. Heavy, dark and glorious. I think my eyes may have just glazed over. The rest of the set was a blur of more oddball, genre-jumping, rule-breaking signature Phish-iness. Trey was certainly the hero, even if it was Mike’s birthday. But it was a lot of high-pitched noodling to absorb in one night for this sixteen year old. By the time their blistering cover of “Fire” closed out the night, my head was spinning from all the guitar. I had had my fill and was ready to go. But the next morning, I was primed and ready to go again. Fortunately, it would be less than two month’s later that they’d be playing my hometown for show number two.

25 years and 100 shows later and here I am. The sheer volume of music introduced to me through this band, both directly and tangentially, be it Frank Zappa, bluegrass, jazz and so much more, makes this first show much more than just a first show, but a defining moment in a lifelong musical journey.

 

SET 1: Wilson > Reba, Brother[1], Glide > Rift, Fluffhead > Maze, The Lizards, Mound > Run Like an Antelope[2]

SET 2: Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove [3], Sanity[4], The Sloth, The Mango Song > Cavern, Uncle Pen, Harry Hood, Cold as Ice >Terrapin[5] > Cold as Ice, Possum > Secret Language Instructions[6] > Possum[7]

ENCORE: Lawn Boy, Fire