The Tower

As Phish evolved through the ’90s, one of the most enchanting qualities surrounding their shows was the sheer spectacle of it all.  Between the size of the crowds, the loud mind-bending music, and the fantastical light show, it felt as though we opened the door to Oz every time the lights went down.  Creating a parallel reality at their shows, we felt as if were entering the Phish dimension walking through the portals of basketball arenas.  The band, more than anyone loved a spectacle.  One need not look farther than their New Years’ shows and festivals to prove that.  Whether it was riding a giant hot dog or torching a massive piece of communal art, the greatest show on earth sometimes included much more than music.  One such time was the somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd of August at IT in Limestone, when Phish put on perhaps the greatest spectacle of their career.

photo: Russ Kahn

It had been rumored all day that the annual “late night” set would take place atop the air traffic tower that still stood on the defunct Air Force base.  By the time the show happened, everyone all but knew this would go down after the show, and it seemed a hell of a lot cooler than jamming on a moving truck or the Great Went’s “disco” tent.  Nonetheless, the show happened and all was jolly in post-show partyland when we began to see a light from atop the tower and could hear sound in the distance.  Moving quickly to the tower, we were greeted with an empty field that soon filled, in a sort of “real-time-lapse” film.  Barely visible, Phish bellowed dissonant noise from the sky as smoke poured off the tower against the red concert lights.

Although we knew all day this would happen, it was still utterly surreal- nobody knew it would look like this!  As the band progressed into some more developed madness, it became apparent that they would jam extensively from the darkness of the night, and from the dark side of the universe, as if composing the score of a psychedelic war movie.  And the music was dirty.  Wasting no time with composition, the band aimed an arrow at the heart of experimentation and hit a bulls eye.  Exploring dark, dissonant, and noise-like textures, the band created a sort of evil doppelganger to their more melodic and broadcasted sound check.  Something that seemed pulled from a dream sequence, Phish continued improvising on the most menacing abstract planes, creating music that transcended anything one could hope for from a song-based jam.  Delving deep into the cavern of experimental sound, the band raged an hour of music that was the highlight weekend.  Artistically reaching natural peaks and grooves, the band stood as silhouettes, as smoke, light and sound poured from atop the tower.  Now this was a spectacle!

Leave it to Phish to take it a step farther.  As if this wasn’t enough psychedelia, about two thirds of the way through the sinister sonic experiment, white sheets fell, covering all visible sides of the tower as three dancers from the Bay Area’s Project Bandaloop began performing acrobatics at the top.  They began to gradually descend in front of projected patterns as Phish slowed down, trying to match their music with a beat-less texture.  Amorphously improvising amidst their own late-night circus scenery, Phish had outdone themselves once again; leaving nothing behind them but a trail of smoke and light in the night sky.

As the weekend of IT concluded Summer ’03, Phish had returned.  Killing a festival at the end of their “return-to-glory” tour, things sat well as we left Limestone.  Little did we know in a year, it would be done.  Yet, as we dispersed from tour, with so many new magical memories in our head, none were more indelible than The Tower Set.  As night turned to day, and day back to night, that feeling of standing in a pit of musical mayhem, with colorful smoke and music bellowing from the heavens, did not soon fade.  The exclamation point on a summer of renewed exploration, The Tower stood as a reminder of what was and what could be.

THE TOWER JAM (Great Footage!)

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12.5.95 Mullins Center, UMASS, Amherst, MA < LINK

The second of two shows at UMASS, this show stood out among the first week of December ’95.  The first set contains a great “Free,” and “David Bowie,” while the second set is strewn with classic ’95 improv.  A 20+ minute excursion into “Bathtub Gin” ends in “Keyboard Cavalry,” while a 15 minute Scent lands in “Lifeboy.”  To top the show off, Phish played a magnificent “Harry Hood” that stands out among the best of 1995.  Trey’s guitar run through the Leslie speaker (usually used for organ) creates the most haunting tone.  Enjoy this classic!

I: Horn, Chalk Dust Torture, Fog That Surrounds, Lizards*, Free, Esther, David Bowie, I’m Blue I’m Lonesome

II: Poor Heart, Bathtub Gin > Keyboard Army, Scent of a Mule > Lifeboy, Harry Hood, Cavern

E: Theme From the Bottom, Sweet Adeline

*Dedicated to Dick Vitale.

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