December ’99: Millennial Momentum

The fall of 1999 was a special time in the Phish universe.  The band had a more rigorous schedule than any fall since 1995, featuring 38 shows split into two tours.  The initial longer tour would traverse the country during the month of September, while the latter two-week run would focus on the northeast in preparation for the most anticipated event of the Phish’s career- Big Cypress.  Throughout this December run, there lived a sense of uncontrollable momentum, building to the crest of the 21st century.  Each show, each jam, each groove inched closer to the band’s ultimate night-long destiny.  A renewed excitement oozed infectiously during an outstanding run of shows, as the band and their community careened toward the millennium.

12.2.99 Auburn Hills, MI

The previous three years had led up to this point.  From the time Phish shifted their playing to a slower, more groove-based style in early ’97, the band had consistently refined and evolved their sound, adding new musical textures each tour, while focusing less on others.  If ’97 brought the funk, ’98 brought ambient psychedelia, and ’99 brought searing soundscapes strewn with dissonance and distortion.  Finding a balance between these elements, Phish entered this December run having notched copious dark adventures over the the year’s two tours.  Building towards a musical peak in congruence with the change of time, there existed a sense of something greater than usual on this tour- a sense that we were all riding the similar wave of fate.  As the world braced itself for Y2K and a goodbye to the 1900s, our course was for the Everglades, as we prepared for what would surely be the most significant event of our Phish lives.

The proverbial ball was pushed off the top the hill on the second of December in Auburn Hills, Michigan.  Launched by a phenomenal Bathtub > 2001 >YEM, we were off.  It all seemed so close now, a few weeks of shows, Christmas time, and then we would all follow the lines going South.  But there was some business to tend to first.  Minus an off night on 12.10 in Philly, Phish created a fortnight of sparkling memories that took us through the Northeast, while making stops in the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic.

Big Cypress – photo: Andy

Over these shows, Phish wove tales of mastery with their fully developed “millennial” late-’99 sound.  Often favoring tonal color and dissonance over solo melodies, Trey enhanced his playing during this year and come these shows, was in full throttle, using jams as his personal canvas for abstract art.  Page followed this trend, favoring effect laden washes and psychedelic sounds that complemented Trey’s avant garde creations.  Improv often passed through periods of groove before climbing into these intensified, distorted realms, catering to the most prevalent song of the run, “Sand.”

A depiction of a dark reality, “Sand,” debuted only months earlier at The Gorge, had already grown into a Phish staple.  All five versions of “Sand” played in these two weeks were immediate tour highlights.  From the millennial madness of Cincy and Portland, to the half-hour dance party in Providence; from the best version in Raleigh, with Trey using his mini-keyboard better than ever, to the “2001 > Sand”  marathon that opened the last set at Hampton, this song was the unanimous MVP.  As these renditions continued to grow in stature, it felt as though they were building to something.  If we didn’t know where this momentum was leading at the time, in the wee hours of the first day of 2000, we discovered.

12.18.99 Hampton, VA – photo: Chris Heppner

As Mike’s bassline pounded through the speaker towers, we knew we were in for something special- something we had been feeling for so long.  Phish initiated the most extended and sublime exploration of groove in their career, resulting in forty-five minutes of absolutely to-die-for music.  Comfortably achieving complex places previously untouched, the band tore through the darkness with some of the most driving rhythmic music of their career, “Sand > Quadrophonic Toppling.”

Along this concise path of musical ascension, 12.11 in Philly and 12.16 in Raleigh proved to be two of the best shows of the year.  With a second set that was hard to reckon with, The Spectrum’s show brought the heat in the ridiculous triumvirate “Sally > Ghost > 2001.”  With some of the best improv of the tour, this was truly a space-aged sock hop.  Both the “Sand” and the “Tweezer” from Reynolds Coliseum upstaged anything the band would drop at Hampton over the next two nights.  Both are colossal pieces of quintessential late-’99 improv, defining the style of music I have tried to describe.

The tour also saw the band’s return to the Phishy venue of Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland Maine for the first time since 12.11.95.  A two night stand in the intimate venue boasted two great second sets- the first highlighted with a gorgeous ambient exploration of “Bathtub Gin” and the second by the aforementioned “Sand” and a very atypical “Piper” jam.

Quite fittingly, the last two shows before Cypress took place at Hampton.  The building that grew to symbolize Phish’s psychedelic power, would host the band one last time in the 1900s, a two-night stand that brought the year to a head.  What started with a big “Bathtub Gin” at Bonner Springs had led up to this, as the band stepped out for their final set.  Gratifying the crowd with the “2001″ that everyone had tasted the previous night during post-Moma jam, Phish launched into an almost forty minute carnival ride of “2001 > Sand,” the ultimate pairing of Phish-generated crack grooves.  The audience delighted in the overwhelming non-stop party.  Closing the set with a heavy Mike’s Groove, Phish provided yet another journey into the shadowed forests of space before resolving with a tour ending Weekapaug> Buffalo Bill > Weekapaug.

And that was it.  Cypress was less than two weeks away.  A brief visit home with our families, and into the nether world we would go, knowing not what to expect from Phish’s greatest mystery yet.  As the entire community celebrated the holidays and prepared for the ultimate, anyone who had seen this run of shows knew the band was ready.  All things were set for the ride of a lifetime.

To celebrate the nine year anniversary of this climactic run of shows, I have put together an extensive compilation of tracks from these two weeks.  Highlighting at least one jam from every show of tour, “Miner’s Picks: December ’99″ totals ten hours of can’t miss psychedelic relaxation.  The tracks and links are below!

Post your own memories of December ’99 in Comments below!

1,2,3. Bathtub Gin > 2001 > YEM 12.2 II Auburn Hills, MI

4. Sand 12.3 II Cincinnati, OH

5. Limb By Limb 12.3 II

6. Split Open and Melt 12.4 II Cincinnati, OH

7-10. Mike’s > Meatstick > H2 > Weekapaug 12.5 II Rochester, NY

11. Halley’s Comet 12.7 I Portland, ME

13,14,15. Baththub Gin > Simple, Free 12.7 II

15. Run Like an Antelope 12.8 I Portland, ME

16-19. Sand, Dirt, Piper > Dog-Faced Boy 12.8 II

20,21. David Bowie > Have Mercy 12.10 II Philadelphia, PA

22-25. Sally > Ghost > 2001 > Disease 12.11 II Philadelphia, PA

26,27. Drowned > Prince Caspian 12.12 II Hartford, CT

28. Sand 12.13 II Providence, RI

29. Free 12.15 II Washington, DC

30. Reba 12.15 II

31. Sand 12.16 II Raleigh, NC

32,33. Wading In the Velvet Sea > Tweezer 12.16 II

34,35,36.  Moma Dance > jam > Bug 12.17 II Hampton, VA

37. Split Open and Melt 12.17 II

38. Harry Hood 12.18 I Hampton, VA

39. Tube 12.18 I

40,41. 2001 > Sand 12.18 II

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