20 Years Later: Phish’s 2004 SPAC Run

In June 2004, the “end” was nigh for Phish as a band. The thought-to-be career-ending Coventry festival was slated for mid-August and all indications at this time was that there was no turning back and to savor every last performance. Before Phish would hang it up though, they graced SPAC with a two-day run over Father’s Day Weekend that featured moments of sheer brilliance, musical flubs that were all too common to this era and a surprise dad of their own that evoked memories of a happier time in the band’s history.

Phish SPAC 2004

This particular SPAC run, only the fourth and fifth times that the band has ever played here, starts off with a bit of a surprise in the form of a “Reba” opener. Phish breezes through the composed sections of this intricate arrangement with ease before a relatively brief but euphoric improvised jam that follows. Alas, there would be no whistle-led ending to this one. Instead the band immediately pivots to a much more traditional show opener in “Runaway Jim.” Trey Anastasio leads the way on this one with some driving guitar fills which continually increase the tempo and depth of the ensuing jam until it comes to a head.

Tonight’s show maintains a relatively old school feel to it early on with the “NICU” that comes next with the “looked back on those days when my life was a haze” and the “Play it, Leo” lines both getting a hearty round of applause from the SPAC faithful. Phish then finally dives into their newer material with “Scents and Subtle Sounds” from their Undermind album which was just officially released last week. There would be no slow introduction for this one though as heard on the album. Instead Phish immediately jumps into the lyrical portion of the song, the first time they would ever do this. “Scents” yields another brief but truly uplifting outro jam with keyboardist Page McConnell pounding away on the piano while he and bassist Mike Gordon bookend it with harmonized lyrics.

Phish SPAC 2004
Phish 2004 SPAC poster by Louis Arzonico

There’s a noticeable break between songs afterwards, perhaps with Phish trying decide how to end this first set at SPAC. It begins with a very slow, almost plodding “Wolfman’s Brother” that the band really takes their time with and certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of funk. The “Walls of the Cave” that follows provides some of the best moments of the first set. After its typical thunderous outro jam, Phish takes it around the block and then some, going into a full Type II ambient/melodic jam that includes guitar riffs from Anastasio that would reappear in tomorrow night’s second set. As the jam slowly peters out, drummer Jon Fishman starts up the signature high-hat intro to “David Bowie” which closes out the first set in grand fashion.

Phish jumps right back into the deep end to begin the second set with the second ever performance of “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” another new selection from Undermind which debuted days earlier in Brooklyn. It showcases the band’s true colors with a rollicking early jam that stays true to the song’s original structure before veering off into another exploratory Type II vehicle that elicits authentic aquatic vibes in its early stages before a slow and gradual reshape back to form.

Phish SPAC 2004
poster by Jason Lees

This sets for the stage for “Piper,” a legendary version that phish.net properly describes as “a multi-section improvisational super heavyweight.” There’s no slow build in this 30-minute plus rendition that some argue is the best one of all time. Phish gets right down to business immediately, ripping through the brief lyrical section before leaping into a ferocious jam that starts off at an incredible pace and doesn’t let up for a while. At one point, the jam starts to ascend in a true “Tweezer Reprise”-like fashion without the song ever actually being played, with Anastasio going full rock god mode and vamping maniacally. It’s all adds up to a “Piper” that rivals the one played at Camp Oswego in 1999 and one that certainly belongs in any “Best Of” discussion.

The groove that develops on the back end of “Piper” eventually rounds cleanly into the beginning of “Gotta Jibboo.” Anastasio has the digital delay loop ready to go and this yields another joyous albeit brief jam that never rounds back into the end of “Jibboo.” Phish instead pivots to “Limb By Limb” with a standout version that features a series of patiently crafted, blissful peaks. “Cavern” then brings the second set to a close, marred a little bit by Anastasio completely spacing on some of the lyrics. Phish ends the first show at SPAC this weekend with a tame and relatively nondescript “Wading In the Velvet Sea.” Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said about their “last” one of these at Coventry later this summer.

June 19 review by Tim O’Shea

Phish – Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) – Saratoga Springs, NY – Saturday, June 19, 2004

Set 1: Reba, Runaway Jim>NICU>Scents and Subtle Sounds, Wolfman’s Brother, Walls of the Cave->David Bowie

Set 2: A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing>Piper->Gotta Jibboo>Limb by Limb, Cavern

E: Wading in the Velvet Sea

In 2009, fans returned to SPAC for what would be a five-years and two month gap between Phish shows in Saratoga Springs, but no one at the time knew this, let alone the band. Having only played SPAC five times between 1994 and 2004, the band found new affinity for the (originally) summer home of the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra. With Anastasio spending time from 2007-08 living in Saratoga Springs while serving probation, return trips to SPAC have been frequent, almost annual events, marking 19 shows since 2009 alone.

But this 2.0 era show stands out (as does the night before) with jam highlights throughout, erasing even if briefly the specter of the band’s ‘final’ shows coming up less than two months later. Never has the phrase “never miss a Sunday show” been more ominous, as for some, this would be the last time they would see the band perform live for many years.

Phish SPAC 2004
Phish SPAC 2004 poster by Ryan Kerrigan

Opening up the first set with an energetic “Rift” that lit the audience up, segueing into “Julius” during which Trey broke a guitar string. Following the repair, the band was joined by Dr. Jack McConnell, the father of Page “Chairman of the Boards” McConnell, who performed “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” for the first time since 1999, even donning his tap shoes to soft shoe on this Father’s Day. This sit-in followed Jay-Z joining Phish just two days later in Coney Island on “99 Problems” and “Big Pimpin’.’

Shirt design by Tripp

The “Waves” that followed had a heavier flow to it, pushing past the composed section and keeping the song upbeat and lively until the end. A funky ‘Gumbo” gave way to a trio of shorter songs – “Water in the Sky,” “Horn” and “Poor Heart,” which offered a break in the action, before delivering a 22+ minute version of The Who’s “Drowned.” You could lump “Drowned” in with the second set jamming that followed, and rightly so – this version of “Drowned” is often overlooked because of the lore that has followed the second set of 6/20/2004, but should not be. Anastasio is in the zone throughout, shredding and leading the way, even working in a tease of Deep Purple’s “Lazy.”

Set two began with Round Room track “Seven Below” that showed early promise on December 31, 2002, and delivered in each appearance until that point. Starting out dark and working the tempo up, “-7” found its way into a rocking version of “Ghost.” This pairing would be found that November in Albany as another substantial “Seven Below” > “Ghost.’

An all-time great jam followed, with the rocking funk of “Twist” getting the balcony bouncing. At 21 minutes long, this deserves a few listens. By 7:00, the first Type II jam has lifted off, and as you listen, every two minutes, there is a fresh section of improv dissimilar from the previous two minutes. The jam from 7:00-17:00 just keeps evolving and developing, with Anastasio once again leading the way, while Fishman and Gordon lay down the rhythm to keep the pace. Locked in, after 17:00, “Twist” shreds until Anastasio pulls out the ‘hose’ and winds the song towards conclusion.

shirt design by Dylan Levene

“You Enjoy Myself” would follow and close the set, offering thunderous approval from fans and giving SPAC the ever rare, and coveted, four song set. An encore of “Good Times Bad Times” was bittersweet and is served as a mantra for that summer’s fateful tour, one that would put the band on hold for four and a half years, but bring them back stronger than ever in 2009.

June 20 review by Pete Mason

Phish SPAC 2004
Phish SPAC 2004 poster by AJ Masthay

Setlist via Phish.net

Phish – Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), Saratoga Springs, NY – Sunday, June 20, 2004

Set 1: Rift > Julius, Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?[1], Waves, Gumbo, Water in the Sky, Horn, Poor Heart > Drowned
Set 2: Seven Below > Ghost -> Twist, You Enjoy Myself
Encore: Good Times Bad Times
[1] Dr. Jack McConnell on vocals and tap shoes

Listen to both shows on Relisten.

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