Debuted at the classic Lowell 5.16.95 show, with an assortment of new material, “Free” grew from a song many fans were initially skeptical about into a fan favorite over the course of a few years. Using metaphor to describe birth, its earliest incarnations featured Page-led piano based jams, with the band diving into soupy
and often amorphous textures (Check out SPAC 6.26.95, Jones Beach 6.29.95). The addition of Trey’s mini drum kit in Fall ’95 took the guitar out of the mix, and the jam seemed to lose direction at times, but it was working its way into the regular rotation. When a reworked studio version appeared on 1996’s, Billy Breathes, it had lead guitar lines not previously played. This new format helped transform the song when Phish shifted towards funk in 1997, taking on a whole new character and danceability. Featuring a crowd rousing Mike bomb section followed by a Trey led group jam, It continued to be a staple until the end. Below are five of my favorite Free’s- I’m not trying to argue them as the “top 5”- just five I love. Read a mini-review and listen to each standout version of the song, or download all five versions below.
1. BONNER SPRINGS, KS: 6.30.99: Like a freight train driving into your skull to open the tour, this Free highlights the second set of the first show of 1999. With the huge Bonner Springs open-air sound, Mike in the middle for the first time, driving the course of the jam, and with smoke machines pouring against the blood red lights blanketing the stage, this Free was as nasty as they come. Amidst this scene Trey swoops in like a hawk with a nasty scowl and rips a dirty melody to initiate his solo line. This massive militant mixture of darkness and groove evokes the very essence of what Free’s jam is all about.
2. MCI CENTER, DC: 12.15.99: It is always a debated decision among fans whenever Trey picks up an instrument other than guitar. Yet, this Free contains extended precise rhythmic and melodic use of his late ’99 keyboard. Trey on keys, begins a drone pattern, that sets up a playfully large and bouncy jam with Mike playing some totally unique bass lines. Minutes later, Trey then he hops off keys and begins to shred infectious guitar melodies over the top of it all. This Free is a multi-faceted jam during the climactic two-week run of December 1999- only two weeks before reaching the mountain top at Big Cypress. A unique 15+ minute version that diverts from its usual format, this Free comprises half of the centerpiece of the second set with the beautiful Reba.
3. UIC, IL: 11.9.98: This first set Free on the third night of an epic Chicago run was an instant classic. The heavy crunching groove factory opened as soon as the jam commenced. The band industrially chugs together, as Trey begins coloring the groove with accented rhythm licks. This is straight Phish crack. Page comes in with some masterful symbiotic clav melodies as he and Trey communicate over the plodding beat and bass bombs. Truly a whole group gem, this one stood out immediately after the show, and after not hearing it in years, it really shines and reminds me why I used to listen to it constantly.
4. Columbus, OH: 7.23.99: Far heavier and thicker than Polaris ’98’s light summer funk of Curtain > Free; this version is the ending point of an aggressive set-opening Ghost, and a boisterous stop off before some exploratory jamming in the Birds that follows. Basking in the hugeness of the moment, jumping and stomping around while playing searing walls of tone and sound, Trey left his delicate rhythm and funk licks for another night. Shredding in commanding fashion, Trey wails heavily in the post bass-bomb section of the jam. This Free brought the amphitheatre to insane levels of energy amidst a second set that would end in a torrential downpour. Massive in both shape and sound, this is a “can’t miss” raging version of the classic song.
5. Darien Lake, NY: 8.14.97: Somewhat of a dark horse, this first set version is one of the early great funk-based > guitar solo shaped Free. Trey uses delicate rhythm chords to set up the texture of the jam, and then begins to weave tales over the top with great melodic phrasing in his classic ’97 tone. Mike and Fish are holding down a deep pocket as the band moves into a directed adventure in groove. This version totally rips, strewn with raw Summer ’97 funk, and often gets overshadowed by the second set Bozo-laced journey to Gamehendge.