In their heyday, Phish advanced their style of play on a tour-by-tour basis, constantly refining their past while adding facets to their game. Their progression through the groove paradigm of the late-‘90s has been well documented on this site, but the first peak of the band—the years between 1993 and 1995—followed an evolutionary path as well. New Years Eve ’93 in Worcester was the culmination of Phish’ early years. Demolishing The Centrum with arguably the most impressive performance of their career to that point, Phish had peaked out their musical style. 12/31/93 represented the apex of the band’s tight and frenetic “speed jazz” approach to jamming. Most often within song-structure and communicating far more like jazz musicians than the psychedelic rock colossus of later years, the band had honed this style from their earliest days, and it came to a notable head during 1993’s Summer Tour, specifically in the month of August. But after the year came to a close in Worcester, Phish had to find a new path. In a very similar dynamic to their year-end show at Madison Square Garden only two years later, the walls of their musical style could be pushed no further, and the band needed a new focus. The answer to this year-end dilemma of ’93, interestingly enough, would put Phish on a road directly to December 31, 1995.
As the band stepped into the touring year of 1994, in was inhuman to think they could jam any tighter or faster than they had in ’93, so it was time to loosen up. Just a bit at first—and then a whole lot more. Phish’s “speed jazz” jamming of ’93 could be generally described as pushing a musical structure as far as it could possibly go within it’s boundaries. In 1994, the band traveled an outward path, loosening up first over Spring, more over Summer, to Fall where all structure would be obliterated. Along this path towards abstraction, Spring ’94 represented the beginning of the “contortion of structure” phase that intensify throughout the Summer. During Spring tour the band was just starting to bend structures, while their playing was still clearly rooted in the jazzier approach of their previous years. As they took their first steps towards musical deconstruction, Instead of “speed jazz,” Phish began to play “psych jazz.”
With this shift, the band became more adventurous. They were more likely to fully leave a set course of a jam to pursue a sonic tangent. Jams often carried abrupt, stop-start cadences, and carried angular feels. These were the days of centering “Antelope” and “David Bowie” in the wheelhouse of the second set, jams that spurned intricate, conversations with band members playing closely off each others phrases, either repeating or responding to each other in the jazz tradition. There were no effects, no soundcsapes, just straight playing.
While pointing towards the open-jamming that would infiltrate the band’s live shows in the Fall of the same year, the playing of Spring ’94 was still only months removed from the band’s year-end shows of ’93, and things don’t change in an instant. And therein lies the beauty of this tour. It sounds like balls-out, classic Phish, but with a dash of exploration sprinkled throughout.
Come November Phish would be undertaking, long-form jams such as the Bangor “Tweezer,” Bozeman “Tweezer,” Minneapolis “Bowie,” Providence “Bowie” and many more iconic explorations. One can clearly trace this outward progression from the beginning of Spring ’94, through Summer and Fall, all the way to Summer ’95—Phish’s most abstract tour. This Spring, they were just scratching the surface of this direction, and for this reason I can see why this tour holds a special place for purists. And the tapes don’t lie.
Today I have put together a Spring ’94 “psych jazz” playlist. (I will do another for Summer.) These jams illustrate the first step away from structure in Phish’s movement towards becoming the most proficient, whole-band improvisers of all time.
“David Bowie” 4.13.94 II, New York, NY
A late-second set “Bowie” from the first of three nights at the Beacon Theatre.
“Run Like an Antelope” 4.14.94 II, New York, NY
A ferocious, centerpiece “Antelope” that set the tone for the many versions to follow on Spring tour.
“David Bowie” 4.17.94 II, Fairfax, VA
“Bowie” jams have started to expand already, as the band many versions early on in tour.
“Bathtub Gin” 4.18.94 II, Newark, DE
A short, but sweet “Bathtub Gin” that jumps out of theme.
“David Bowie” 4.24.94 II, Charlotte, NC
And this “Bowie,” from the Grady Cole Center, was the version to which all the others were pointing.
“Tweezer” 5.7.94 II, Dallas, TX
The Bomb Factory “Tweezer” represented a big turning point in the band’s willingness to let things move far outside the box.
“Run Like an Antelope” 5.8.94 II, Bee Cave, TX
Phish’s mojo was still working the night after the Bomb Factory, as evidenced by this centerpiece “Antelope.”
“Split Open and Melt” 5.13.94 II, Tempe, AZ
A “Melt” from the desert
“Run Like an Antelope > BBFCFM > Antelope” 5.16.94 II, LA, CA
The now-legendary “Big Black Furry Antelope” from LA’s WIltern Theatre.
“Tweezer” 5.28.94 II, Monterey, CA
Spring ’94 ended at Laguna Seca Daze festival along the central California coast. Phish played two-setters each night. This was the “Tweezer” from the first night.
“Split Open and Melt” 5.29.94 II, Monterey, CA
And the “Split” from the tour-closer.