If you were to ask me what my favorite Phish songs are over the course of time, “Mike’s” would definitely be in my top three. The sinister, evil side of Phish is what I’m all about, and over the years, there has been no more routine vehicle for dark improv than “Mike’s Song.” Including two jams- the first, quasi-structured jam (formerly with trampolines), and the more exploratory “post-power chord” jam (often usurped by “Simple”)– between the years of 1994 an 1998, “Mike’s” was one place where aggressive, full-on improv lived in Phish shows. And it was a beautiful thing. But due to the increased use of “Simple” as a “Mike’s Groove” interlude- cutting off the song precisely where the second jam started- the frequency of second jams, where the shit used to down, began to dissipate and eventually disappear. Let’s track the development of “Mike’s” through the years, with audio examples, and see how it went from an improvisational epic to a short, relatively predictable piece of Phish music.
(Remember, if you like any of the audio clips, just click the orange title to download it!
Traditionally, the raging, guitar-led jam after the drop, backed with tidal organ swells, served as an adrenaline shot directly to the heart, creating menacing bombast and darkness, while the second jam was where the band improvised more collectively. With two sections of improv that went to places of the deep, “Mike’s” was a guaranteed highlight for years. Through 1994, especially 1995, and 1996, some insanely psychedelic jams stemmed from “Mike’s,” and it was the second jam that defined the song and shot you into the abyss. This era defined the “Mike’s” ethos, and many of the all-time outstanding versions still remain in this era. Listen to the audio examples below this paragraph to understand what I am talking about.
12/31/95 MSG ————————–
8/13/96 Deer Creek, IN > Lifeboy (listen only)
In 1997, the song took a funkward turn like most every piece in the band’s repertoire, and saw its structure begin to change. This year usually saw the band indulge in an all-out funk jam before stepping into the heavy guitar-led textures of the song’s “first” jam. More often than not, the band just blew out the first segment into a wildly creative dance odyssey, creating some of the year’s highlights, but rarely playing through to the second half of the song.
8/9/97 Alpine —————-
1998 was “Mike’s” last truly great year, and throughout this year we saw Phish develop the trend of using the second jam to spring into blissful realms, as opposed to furthering the song’s darkness. Many times, including at both The Gorge and MSG on New Years Eve- two of the highest profile shows of the year- Phish featured this type of improv out of the typically dark jam, and both times the results were other-worldly. MSG’s version on 12.31 would be the last incarnation of the song’s second jam, a fitting melodic farewell to what was once the jaws of the “Mike’s.”
7/17/98 The Gorge —————-
11/7/98 UIC ————————-
12/31/98 MSG ———————————–
When 1999 rolled around, the overall robustness of “Mike’s” began to decline. Throughout the year, “Mike’s” included more structured first jams and a noticeable absence of second jams- most often moving into “Simple.” There were still some standout versions- no doubt- but the second jam had been axed in favor of bringing the guitar-led jam to a head using variations of the song’s original closing lick. The ’99 series of “Mike’s Songs” was highlighted by the last version of the 20th century at Big Cypress- an earth-shaking version that noone will ever forget. The swamps saw the band take the song’s “first” jam to places unheard of in one of the weekends undeniable highlights.
7/21/99 Star Lake ——————-
9/22/99 Las Cruces, NM ———————
12/30/99 Big Cypress ———————
After the band began to standardize the song in 2000, the post-hiatus years saw “Mike’s” cropped into the eight-minute, virtually composed, jam that we know it as today. I was hoping that with the return of Phish this year, we’d see the return of “Mike’s.” But thus far in 2009, the four versions have been nothing but eight-minute guitar pieces with unadventurous jams- kind of the opposite of the song’s roots. It would be great to see one of Phish’s greatest jams get its balls back at some point this year, but with a focus on new songs, that just may not be in the cards. Interestingly enough, when planning their 80-plus song list for Hampton, Mike began to lobby against his college composition, saying that he could no longer connect to it and the song had lost meaning to him. He eventually gave in because it was a crowd favorite, but perhaps his band should have listened.
7/31/03 (listen only) ————-
6/2/09 Jones Beach —————-
6/10/09 Knoxville, TN —————–
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
7.17.98 The Gorge, George, WA < TORRENT
7.17.98 The Gorge, George, WA < MEGAUPLOAD
With summer’s second leg approaching, and many planning excursions to George, WA, let’s look at one of the most popular Gorge shows ever. Hot off their European tour, this was Phish’s third show in the states. The second set is the stuff of dreams, and keeping with the theme of the day, has a massive “Mike’s Song,” not to mention one of the defining “2001’s” ever played.
I: Makisupa Policeman, Ya Mar, Gumbo, The Divided Sky, Waste, My Mind’s Got a Mind of its Own, My Soul
II: Also Sprach Zarathustra > Mike’s Song > Weekapaug Groove, Character Zero
E: Punch You In The Eye, Rocky Top