The Best Set Openers

photo Libby McLinn

8.11.04, Great Woods: photo Libby McLinn

The way a set opened always paved the tone for the next ninety minutes. Whether a first or a second set, an opener was used to get the proverbial party started.  An exciting opener gets the crowd, and the show, going much more quickly than a Get Back On the Train or a Water in the Sky.  Some openers are messages from the band to strap on your seat belt, because the ensuing ride might be a bit bumpy and quite maddening.  Others are clearly used for warm up, or to get the stage sound set.  Bottom line – sick openers, while never crucial to a crazy set, often pointed the initial course for your intergalactic nightly ride in a direction that delivered a message.  In thinking about openers in general, I compiled Miner’s Best Set Openers.  I stuck to songs that were often used as openers- and therefore didn’t list the biggest ten Phish songs as the top ten openers- that would be too easy.  I didn’t consider first or second set, because any way you cut it, these openers meant business for that set of music.  The list is in absolutely no particular order whatsoever.

1.The Curtain: The ultimate Phish opus, dating back to the mid-eighties, this song opened big sets throughout Phish’s career.  The Curtain was not only made to be a great set opener, but it was also a “launch” song, after which you knew something huge was coming-( e.g. Curtain > Tweezer, Curtain > Mikes.)  An adreniline filled song that travels into dark places before coming to a climactic an abrupt peak, this set up a perfect drop into a big song.  Especially in the mid to late 90’s, a Curtain opener generally foreshadowed a big improvisational set.

2. 2001: Originally conceived as a short three minute set-opener to get the rev up the crowd in 1993 and 1994, 2001 was also used as a launch pad much like Curtain.  Yet 2001 was used much more liberally, and transitioned into big jam songs as well as non-jam songs in the earlier days.  As things got later in time, 2001 became a song that could appear anywhere in a set and stretch out to twenty minutes, but when used as an opener, a la Gorge ’98, or Charlotte ’99, it is a fool proof killer.  Every one gets up for this one as Kuroda enters his visual play land to the delight of all.  Pure audio-visual Phish crack- I don’t think there was one person who wasn’t psyched for it every single time. (Though ’93 heads may have got sick of it a bit when it opened something like 15+ consecutive second sets!)

3. Oh Kee Pah Ceremony: While the Oh Kee Pah Ceremony references a Native American rite of passage into manhood, for Phish, it was a college ritual in which the band would ingest massive amounts of mushrooms, lock themselves in a room, and jam endlessly- honing their musical communication.  Famed for their hilarity and their intense off-kilter wackiness, Oh Kee Pah Ceremonies became a part of Phish in the early days.  The short quirky instrumental has been used to open many sets through out the band’s career, always setting up a drop into something bigger, and more rambunctious.  Two-thirds of the time, the band followed Oh Kee Pah with Suzy Greenberg, but they were also known to drop Oh Kee Pah > Bags, Oh Kee Pah > YEMs, and a few Oh Kee Pah > Golgis.  This opener is one that signified the band was in a playful mood, and to get ready for a hot show.

4. Buried Alive: More of an old school opener, this one became a rarity in the later days.  A frenetic instrumental, featuring wails by Trey and some fast, almost nervous- percussion; a musical interpretation of this deathly fate, Buried Alive gave you a desperate tone.  You needed to get that breath of air, or it was done.  A smothering opener, it kicked off many an old school gem, while always holding a place in the hearts of all fans.  The much needed gasp of air came in the song that followed Buried Alive, as this was also a composition used to launch into something more upbeat.  In the early ’90s, this more upbeat song was most often Poor Heart, but as it became less frequently played, it began leading into different songs.

5. Punch You In the Eye: Punch, while being more of a rarity as an opener, was one that stoked the crowds’ fire immediately.  From the pre-start rhythmic scratches of Trey’s guitar to the opening grooves, there is nary a better way to start a show within the non-jam song category.  The fierce rhythms and lyrics generally meant that the band was ready to fire right from the start.  Well-loved by all, Punch was an sinister opener that was an omen of dark things to come.

6. Wilson: Always a treat when coming at the beginning of a set, Wilson set a bombastic tone for the set to come.  Rife with audience participation, and the supported by the myth of Gamehendge, Wilson got the band’s and crowd’s energies moving in the same direction- against the evil King Wilson.  Often giving way to some more heavy “metal” jamming, Wilson was an opener that got the heart pumping right away, and brought expectations of things to follow.  Potentially more powerful as a second set opener than a first, Wilson nonetheless graced the beginning of more than a few setlists during the band’s career.

7. My Friend, My Friend: The rarely used My Friend, My Friend opener is one of the dirtiest, most sinister way for Phish to start a show.  With the almost orchestral beginning segueing into the eerie opening piano chords and verses, if this song opened a show, you knew it meant special things.  A virtual bust-out in the later years, My Friend was always a welcome addition to the setlist, where ever it appeared- but more often than not, it was at the beginning of the first set, signaling the dark debauchery that was about to take ensue.  Foreshadowing a unique set, this song’s popularity never waned.

8. Mike’s: Now we are getting into some powerhouse openers.  I feel ok using Mike’s in this list because it opened 43 sets in its life, again, mostly before the latest era of Phish.  There is not a song that can get a Phish crowd amped like the opening guitar licks to Mike’s Song.  Like an adrenaline shot directly to the heart, this melody causes feelings to stir inside you, preparing you for the dark drop into an evil smoke-filled land that was a mere three minutes away.  If the band decided to open with Mike’s in the latter years, it was a sign of delving deep right off the bat, and a clear suggestion to hold onto your hats.  Especially if it was a second set opener, you could assure yourself of twenty minutes of dark space-groove exploration coupled with some soaring dirty guitar leads and big organ washes, taboot.  It doesn’t get much better than this at the beginning of a set.

9. Down With Disease: Disease became another larger improvisational song that became a staple set opener by the time Phish called it quits.  Starting in 1994, with the onset of the song, it was always used to explore deep percussive realms.  Disease went through a thematic phase in 1996 when the jams stayed within the context of the chord progression, but starting in 1997, this song transformed into one of the band’s biggest, and most divergent, jam vehicles.  The catchy and melodic hooks at the beginning of the song, reeled people in right away, and then the band carried everyone out to sea in improvisational vessels that often took twenty plus minute round trips.   Played abundantly in later years, the band created very different types of jams out of this song, and coming at the beginning of the set- it could very much set the high energy tone for the rest of the evening.


1,2. Oh Kee Pah > AC / DC Bag 11.24.95 Pittsburgh, PA

3. Wilson 8.9.97 Alpine Valley, WI

4. Mike’s Song 11.22.97 Hampton, VA

5,6. Punch > Free 7.9.99 Merriweather

7,8. Down With Disease > Piper 8.16.98 Lemonwheel

9,10. Buried Alive > Reba 12.7.91 Portsmouth, NH

11. 2001 11.19.97 Champaign, IL

12,13. The Curtain > Tweezer 11.12.95 Gainesville, FL



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18 Responses to “The Best Set Openers”

  1. Spencer Says:

    oh kee pa>YEM……island tour! maybe not played to perfection, but stiil!!!!!!

    you knew you were in for it after that opener. After the vocal jam they didnt stop playing until the end of the set and then played the entire second set without pause!!!!!


  2. Greg Says:

    Although I’m sure it’s rare, the best opener I saw was Tweezer 4/5/98 Providence. I knew a Tweezer was coming as they had ended the night before in Long Island with Tweezer Reprise even thought they hadn’t played Tweezer, but it really got the crowd going. I’m not sure how many times they opened with Tweezer though. A close 2nd was the PYITE at Oswego.

  3. Mr.Miner Says:


  4. Zach Says:

    How about PYITE from 12/31/95. An absolutely ferocious rendition set the stage for one of the best shows of all time.

  5. Jacob Says:

    Not the most common opener, but AC/DC Bag ruled when it opened a show or set. Let’s listen to 12.7.97 Dayton’s AC/DC->Psycho Killer or 8.9.98’s second set opening gem. Oh, yeah, almost forgot, 12.30.97 from MSG. Wow, I may go listen to one of these.

  6. Junkie777 Says:

    10/21/95 Pershing Auditorium – Lincoln, Ne.

    Opened AND closed the first set with Tweezer Reprise (even threw in a tease of it during Susie Greenberg).

    It was my first experience hearing Phish at all. My friend insisted I go and I’m glad I did! What a show that was.

    They opened the second set with Also Sprach Zarathustra which I would also have to rank right up there.

  7. Steve78 Says:

    I always loved a good Tube opener.

    Funky and dirty.

  8. Mathew Says:

    I have to go with My Friend I just loved the happy ending and the anticipation of the darkness always made me feel like it would be a great set

  9. PYITE Says:

    4.4.1998 –

    The stage went dark, then Trey was dropped into the white spotlight solo when he hit the first notes of –


    It was also my homboys 20th B-day. What a gift!

  10. Hugh Broughter Says:

    can’t forget how hard Piper raged at 12/31/02 comeback.

  11. Jish Says:

    My Friend My Friend will always be the quintessential set opener for me. Dark, playful, rocking, fun. And in the later days it usually meant a bit of a throwback set. Can’t wait to see the top closer list (coughantelopecough).

  12. shpongleyez Says:

    Amoreena. Enough said

  13. Matso Says:

    My Friend opened both the last show of the summer tour (7/3 Sugarbush) and the last show of the fall tour (12/17 Lake Placid) in 1995. It definitely meant that something special was on the way – the narrative flow of the music in the song provided a sense of the drama that was possible in the ensuing sets. See also Camden 03.

    Zach – I agree about the PYITE 12/31/95 – at the time, PYITE was not in especially heavy rotation and was rarely used as an opener (the last time was in Ottawa Summer 94 and not sure before that). The impact of this version was gigantic and clearly showed that the song could be used to awesome effect in larger venues as it would be repeatedly in the following years.

    Finally, where is Runaway Jim in all this? A classic first set-opener (my life changed during this song on 4/5/94 Montreal, my first show – listening to the mid-section solo of this version where Trey plays his riffs over Mike’s steady bass line still gives me the chills) and then a potential monster in the opening slot of the 2nd set (Sugarbush 95, Worcester 97, StarLake 98).

    Finally, a shout out to Timber Ho! Usually a sign of good things to come (again, Sugarbush 95, Albany 12/9/95, 7/1/97 Am’dam, etc)

  14. ben f Says:

    Makisupa, Ha Ha Ha, Tube, The Wedge.

    Some specific openers that were outstanding:

    12/30/97, Sneakin Sally
    4/3/98, both sets, Mikes, Roses
    8/11/98, Trenchtown Rock
    11/20/98, RnR Part II>Tube
    12/31/98, 1999
    7/12/99, Foreplay>Longtime
    9/8/00, Mellow Mood
    9/29/00, set II, Dinner & A Movie

  15. Hazel Says:

    The tube which opened the island tour had people flying all over the place. It wasnt so much the version, it was the plain fact that it was ‘TUBE’.

    The Hampton 97 Mikes was another one of those ‘oh my this is going to be fun’ kind of nights.. following with H2 Paug Hood…crazy

    Punch you from NYE 95 is a personal highlight to a flawless show

    The 7/21/97 Ghost opener nearly gave me a heart attack…i was so creeped out and excited that things were evolving…

    The Brother with Bob Gullotti from Harford 96 was pretty different..Phish with 2 drummers!!!

  16. uncphishphan Says:

    Hell yea Jacob!! When I saw this topic I immediately thought of the Bag > Psycho Killer from Dayton. That high pitched note Trey loops all the way through Psycho Killer is so eerie but its amazing.

    Im really surprised no one has said anything about the 11.17.97 Tweezer. It may not be the best Tweezer of all time, but it certainly is my favorite, and I dont see how it could POSSIBLY be better executed than it was in Denver. The stop/start jam at the end?? Holy shit! If I was at a show and that was the opener, id probably piss myself! Buried Alive is a great opener, i think its 7/29/98 Set 2 where it gets completely RAGED. The Bathtub Gin show opener is also ridiculous(and LP 17 filler)! Id say that show gets the award for best openers of BOTH sets.

    Lemonwheel Mike’s opener was also sick, and quite rare as it wasnt pulled off as Set 1 opener again until Coventry…

  17. Mr.Miner Says:

    ^^ great call w/ 11.17 tweezer…def one of my favorites…..

  18. Zach Says:

    Also wanted to throw the 12/11/99 Hood into the mix. Surprising opener at the Spectrum, I really enjoyed that.

    I also think 12/31/95 PYITE might be one the best opener’s they ever played. The energy that they brought in that set the ton is exactly what New Years Eve at Madison Square Garden is all about.

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