Something was in the air at SPAC on those June nights five years ago. In the woods of upstate New York, Phish would throw down the gauntlet one more time before calling it quits. Sure, Coney Island was a great time with the huge movie broadcast, the baseball field, and Jay-Z’s appearance, but musically, nothing from ’04 can compare to SPAC. Deer Creek and Alpine would go on to provide us with fabulous music and moments, but it was in the intimacy the New York forest where the band last dipped their golden ladle. On June 19th and 20th, Phish delivered the last opuses of their career.
The 2004 summer run was surrounded by a bittersweet aura. Knowing this was gonna be it, we wanted to savor every last drop, but that unspoken feeling of imminent loss lingered. We didn’t want to mourn something that we still had, but the knowledge that this would be the end of the road wouldn’t disappear. After two exciting nights in Coney Island, the caravan headed north to Saratoga Springs for the first time since Summer ’95. Following issues with management, the band was not invited back after until nine years later under new ownership. The whole community knew that these shows would be special, but we didn’t know the half of it. Once Phish hopped onstage in the beautiful northern setting, the magic hose would be turned on, and left on full blast for two straight days. Phish would tap into the universal spirit more coherently than any other time in 2004, providing the audience with two final nights of cosmic communication to hold in our hearts.
While all four sets of this weekend were out of hand, this is a story about the second sets of 6.19 and 6.20, two of the greatest, if not the greatest, post-hiatus frames of music created by the band. Whether it was the light at the end of the tunnel or just the the inspiration of performing their final run, Phish dug in and played their souls out.
As the lights dropped signifying the start of the second set, we assumed our places. After a stellar first half, highlighted by an opening “Reba” and a sublime ambient jam bringing “Walls of the Cave” into “David Bowie,” we knew that what was about to drop would be special, yet how special, we didn’t know. Launching the set with the opening drum beats of Undermind‘s “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing,” Phish chose one of their most sought after new songs to sculpt into a masterpiece. As soon as the song started, everyone knew the jam would be huge, but the sheer perfection of it would be uncovered slowly. After an abbreviated first-set “album version” at Coney Island, this second-set opener would clearly take a different course.
Following Trey’s Hendrix-esque guitar solo, the jam began in earnest, and one could tell it was on. The twisting and sinister music soon settled into a space where the whole band hopped into a collective jam rather than merely supporting Trey. This is where the shit began to go down. Improvising on the future epic for the first and only time, Phish created a menacing, yet uplifting, jam that would immediately vault into the annals of Phish history. The exuberance of hearing the band absolutely slaughter this new favorite, combined with their absolutely locked and flawless playing, resulted in one of my top Phish experiences ever.
The band connected several directed sections of improv, building a monstrosity. By merging hard groove with searing evil psychedelia, Phish created a beast we had never seen before. About half-way through the jam, the band snapped into some collaborative playing that set the table for the unbelievably spiritual jamming that would follow. This is where the magic began to blossom at an alarming rate, infusing the menacing piece with a sense of redemption and hope. The band garnished a serious Pink Floyd vibe at this point, creating a beautifully intense soundscape that was led to a cathartic release by Trey’s surreal and triumphant melodic licks. This jam defines epic; for those looking to start listening to post-hiatus, start here. As the only improvisational version of the song, Phish went all out and created a masterpiece.
As the twenty-minute jam closed, Phish moved directly into the opening of a superbly unique 32-minute “Piper.” Using the popular jam vehicle to blow out any of the song’s conventions, the band took the momentum from their opening jam and kept it rolling. As “Piper’s” scorching path left a wake of fire in its trail, it wasn’t long before the band broke down the jam into a more percussive place, stirring more musical creativity and diversity into the mix. Bass-led grooves began to boom as Trey initiated some highly-addictive rhythm licks; where were we headed? The pace slowed a bit, allowing for more spacious improv from all band members. Following minutes of this polyrhythmic playing, Phish settled the music down again, creating an ominous tone before dropping into an “Tweezer Reprise” themed jam. Starting with slow infectious patterns, the band built a completely unique jam into a straight dance-a-thon. Gripping us with their imagination, the entire venue was soon bumping to the otherworldly rhythms. Infusing an edgier tone to the music, the band built towards the Tweezer-laced peak. This was heaven; one of those times where you danced so hard you knew not where you were, and you smiled so hard that your face muscles began to cramp. This was IT, plain and simple, and everyone knew it. IT was unmistakable. With Trey wailing with the enjoyment of 1995, we all seemed to jump into a time warp to a place where things were firing on all cylinders again. Were they really stopping in a month? That didn’t make any sense now.
As if the “Reprise” peak wasn’t high enough, the band eventually morphed into the third section of this “Piper.” Peeling away some of the layers of sonic residue, the band stripped the music down to some heavy drum and bass patterns. Soon Trey and Page jumped into the mix and the band was locked into another infectious piece of improv, this time a down-tempo bulbous groove. At this point, everyone’s minds were shattered to smithereens. We were 40 minutes into the set and the entire time had been filled with some of the best Phish improvisation ever. Before we knew it, we were coaxed into a funky and accented rhythm that delivered us right into the bouncing beginning of “Jibboo.”
At this point, we all knew we were in the grips of the Phish on an incredibly special night of music. The jam stemming from “Jibboo” provided the us with the tight and uplifting candy-grooving that was much-needed after such a long and ominous period of improv. Returning our brains to some sense of normalcy, this “Jibboo” was placed at the perfect point in the set, bridging the dark and the light. With none of their impeccable tightness lost, Phish lept from their melodic relief into a late-set “Limb By Limb” that turned into yet another indelible 6.19 memory. Transcending the general path of Limb jams, this version blossomed with patience and beauty into some truly delicate Phish. As the jam reached its midpoint, the music gained some swing and built into something far greater than an average Limb peak. In a geyser-like eruption of melody, Trey led the band towards spiritual apex that echoed of The Grateful Dead’s rolling melodic peak of “The Eleven.” This was pure hose, and it was good. Perfection, beauty, and symmetry are all words that could describe this musical arrival, putting an exclamation point to this set of utter insanity.
With the classic set closer of “Cavern,” everyone’s brains came back to earth and realized the enormity of the Phish they had just experienced. This was a perfect set; the type that didn’t come around all that often in the post-hiatus period. As the set ended and Phish came back for an encore, there was nothing they could do to upstage what had just happened. Fully cognizant of this, they elected for one of the classiest encores in their repertoire, “Wading In the Velvet Sea.” Reserved for post-epic situations just like this one, Velvet Sea provided the perfect reflective denouement to a show that no one would ever forget.
And this was only night one. To be continued…
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DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
Dipping back into Phish’s oft-overlooked Europe ’96 tour, this show was their last headlining gig, and a fan favorite from the tour, A standout show from start to finish, this should fill in a gap in many collections.
I: AC/DC Bag > Foam, Theme From the Bottom, Gumbo, Scent of a Mule* > Down With Disease > McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters > Stash, Hello My Baby
II: Also Sprach Zarathustra > Runaway Jim, Loving Cup, Sparkle, Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Bike, Slave to the Traffic Light
E: Rocky Top
*Contained an a capella solo by Trey.Tags: 2004, Post-hiatus