Pinnacles of Perfection: Phish and the Evolution of Jamming
For as much as I love Phish, there is so much music I hadn’t heard until I decided to write this paper. It was almost impossible for me to have lots of experience with all the different periods of jamming they had. I decided that I would listen to and discuss how music from the same band could change so drastically throughout their career, and I think I learned more than I thought I would.
There are many different eras of Phish’s improvisation that make up the entirety of their career. In each of these periods, certain sounds can be expected to be heard throughout most jams. The course of Phish’s career can be broken into four large chunks. These are the dates and titles of each period:
Phish 1.0 (Part I)
• 1983 – 1990 – The College Years
• 1990 – Fall 1993 – The Speed Jazz
• Fall 1993 – Fall 1995 – “Testing The Water”
• Fall 1995 – 12/31/1995 – The Pinnacle of Perfection
Phish 1.0 (Part II)
• 1996 – The Rock and Roll
• February 1997 – “Testing The Water”
• Summer 1997 – April 1998 – “Phunk”
• Summer 1998 – Fall 1998 – The Pinnacle of Perfection
• 1999 – 2000 – Space Cadets
• 12/31/02 – 12/31/03 – The Darkness
• 12/31/03 – 8/15/04 – The Oxy Years
• March 2009 – Summer 2009 – Welcome Back
• Fall 2009 – 12/31/09 – Bringing Back the Jam
• Summer 2010 – Fall 2010 – What is next?
You’ll notice that there are some large gaps between Phish 1.0 and 2.0, similarly between 2.0 and 3.0. From the end of 2000 until 12/31/02, Phish was on a hiatus, figuring themselves out. Also from 8/15/04 until 3/6/09, Phish was “broken up” and had no intention of returning. Luckily they did return, because I would never have had a chance to see them!
Beginning in 1983, Phish was a band that set out to be different. They wanted to take their audiences on a journey through their own minds, and that they certainly did. When Page McConnell joined the band in 1985, they knew something special was happening. The essence of the then-infantile band was improvisation on the same stage as complete composition. On 5/3/85, which is Page’s first show, they open with a powerful combination of “Mike’s Song” jammed right into “Dave’s Energy Guide,” both staples of the band’s repertoire at the time. The music was breathing life and energy into the college crowd; this was, of course, a barbeque at the dorms in which the band lived at UVM. The band was still learning about themselves, and the music reflected it. As a band interested in improvisation, the young guys decided to play a few Grateful Dead songs that night; one of the landmark jams of this time period was played that afternoon. Seeming rather tame today, the 20 minute “Scarlet Begonias/Fire On The Mountain” segment was groundbreaking for the band.
After a few more years of playing in the bars in downtown Burlington and parties at their friend’s houses, Phish decided it was time to take a trip out West. In 1988, Phish went to Telluride, CO to play 10 nights in the bars on Main Street. Overall, they made $1000 and forgot it on the table at the house they stayed in, but what was important about the trip was not the money (Phish, the Biography). Phish has always been a word-of-mouth band, and this trip definitely gave the mouths of the Telluride youth something to talk about. Trading tapes of Phish shows became common practice among the college youth of the late 80’s. Six nights a week, Phish would play at Nectar’s in Burlington, and six nights a week, Phish was bringing something new to the table. It seemed as though this band of misfits and troublemakers was a force that could not be stopped. If Phish was playing the same show night after night, it would have gotten old, but with their always-improving improvisation, they kept the crowds...