Why Argue Eras?

Summer ’96 Pollock T-Shirt

Phish fans are always prone to debate. Which version is better? Which show is best? In fact, debate has grown into the very fabric of Phish culture, for any time there are so many people passionate about one thing, disagreements are bound to arise. These friendly exchanges, inevitably, reach the question of what is the greatest era of Phish? (Especially with you fans of different age groups.)  In a recent conversation about the band, this very question was posed to me, point blank – “What is you favorite era of Phish?” The other two people were able to answer quickly and easily – “December ’95.” However, when it was my turn to answer, the cat ran off with my tongue – I couldn’t really say. I began to go over eras of Phish in my mind, going back as far as 1992, but when trying to look at them side by side to declare a favorite, I simply couldn’t. I thought to myself…”How could I possibly like anything better than December ’95? Or August 93? Or Fall ’97? Or Fall ’94? Or Summer’95? Or Summer ’98? I felt like I was in a barnyard, blindfolded and spinning in circles, asked to find the needle in the haystack. What about Summer ’99? This was the unanswerable question. Yet, people spend much time and passion trying to, in some impossible way, prove that one era is the greatest, standing above all others.

Cleveland – December ’95

Any conversation trying to decipher a “best” era in Phish history is inherently rife with humor for me. Trying to place absolute statements on something as flagrantly subjective as music, while fun at times, is a futile effort. More often than not, the pattern I’ve found with peoples’ opinions is that they love the era they saw the most. So many fans are often incapable of taking themselves out of the equation, resulting in asinine statements like “Fall ’97 was easily the best tour ever,” or “Phish peaked in Summer ’93 and went downhill from there,” or “Phish never got better than Fall ’95,” or “Once the band turned to groove, their music wasn’t ever as good again.” Obviously I could think of any number of useless perspectives I’ve heard argued time and time again, but my question here is- “Why?” I understand the fun in debate, and in fact enjoy the exercise myself quite a bit, but at some point, music is music and opinions are opinions, and that’s where it begins and ends. Every single era of Phish, from the 80’s on up has amazing moments worthy of earnest celebration, and in my opinion, Phish has straight killed it from 1992 right through today; killed it in in different ways and from different angles, but they have always been killing it. And to think otherwise is fooling yourself. Sure they lost some steam after Japan 2000, and much more come the fall, but until then, the creativity never stopped cascading, oozing into different shapes and musical incarnations.

Looking at “Tweezer” as the ever-changing lens for Phish’s style of improv over time, how can one truly compare a multi-themed, jam-packed version from Summer ’93 with an ambient, layered space groove excursion from the Summer of ’99? How can one truly compare the extended, abstract experiments in the abyss from Summer ’95 with the dino-funk dance-crack of Fall ’97? Or how can one compare an aggressive, full throttle trip into the underworld from ’94 to the dark, amorphous jamming that characterized post-hiatus? Well, the answer is, not easily. All of these eras are great for what they are – steps on the ever-evolving ladder of Phish. If one traces the band’s career, they will hear elements of the past in each subsequent future, as the band consistently added skills and styles to their musical repertoire; each era building off the last and going somewhere unique. And this is why 2010 holds so much excitement.

Now that the band has their sea legs back, with a full year of back to basics playing under their belt, Phish is primed to step into their next musical era. 2009 will always remembered as “The Comeback Year,” but how will we remember 2010? The band has already progressed through so many styles of improv over twenty-plus years, one wonders how they will carve out yet another, self-referential niche. But, somehow, they always do. With four guys as musically ambitious, talented and passionate as Phish, I don’t believe that they can be content just playing shows and not pushing new boundaries. Many have countered me on this position, claiming that just being “Phish” again will be enough for them. But this band has never been about complacency, and I highly doubt they will start now. So as Phish gets ready to truly launch into their next era, enjoy every moment of  Phish 2010 – it will only happen once. You can debate it later.


Jam of the Day:

Runaway Jim > Makisupa” 7.2.95 II

The beginning the second set at Sugarbush.



Summer ’93 Pollock

8.12.93 Meadow Brook Music Theatre, Rochester, MI < Megaupload

Delving a bit deeper into August ’93, here we find a little known show that took place the night before Phish’s well-known visit to The Murat Theatre in Indianapolis. On this night, the band went big on first set pieces, “Reba,” “Split,” deconstructing and annihilating their jams. The band sparked the second half of the show with an odd combination, as “2001” launched into “The Landlady,” highlighting the band’s precision before swan-diving into an action-packed “Tweezer.” This show is another in the long list of Summer’93 offerings that go unnoticed by much of the band’s younger community, and another that provides a snapshot of the band amidst a superb era. (My desktop is once again infected, and likely on its deathbed, so I couldn’t make a torrent for today’s download or post the recent TAB shows. They will be posted asap. For now Megaupload it is.)

I: AC/DC Bag, Reba, Chalk Dust Torture, Guelah Papyrus, Nellie Kane, Split Open and Melt, The Horse > Silent in the Morning, Poor Heart, The Squirming Coil

II: Also Sprach Zarathustra > The Landlady > Tweezer > The Lizards, The Sloth, Maze, Lawn Boy, Big Ball Jam, Golgi Apparatus, Possum

E: Fire, Free Bird

Source: Source: (F.O.B.) B&K 4011’s

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