Slip Into The Dark of Night: A brief exploration into Phish 2.0

I could write a whole book on this era, but since I will likely dive into more of these shows individually throughout the life of this blog, I am keeping this to an easily digestible crash-course.  

Phish fans have a lot of opinions, and no band has ever had the polarization amongst its internal fan community than Phish.  

We Phish fans are a funny breed.  We are essentially patchworked dance-moms who struggle to look objectively at the stage.  Approximately 44% (by my calculations) of the Phish constituency refuses to acknowledge that anything after 10/7/00 is actual music (The Jaded Vets).  Similarly, 46% believe the band didn't exist before 3/6/09, and that time Trey sharted in melody in 2018 just might be the best thing the foursome has ever done (The Noobs).  These two species are fundamentally different on nearly all fronts, but there is one thing they can agree on:  That 2.0 fucking SUCKS!

Note:  For clarification, "Point Oh's" are the three eras of Phish's history, demarcated by times the band has voluntarily stopped playing together.   Realistically, there are many different aural periods for this constantly evolving band, but the "Point Oh" system is the easiest reference point based solely on time.  In an effort to appear as an intelligent contrarian, fans, often newer ones, tend to call out this system, noting that the band's sound is fluid, and ever-changing.  My response would be, "Yea, no shit, noob."  

Phish 2.0 is the relatively small period between the end of the band's return from hiatus on 12/31/02, and the their "final" shows at the largely disastrous Coventry Festival.  What makes this chapter in Phish's story so unique is that since it is such a small amount of time bookended by two long periods of inactivity, the sound is very much its own. Rather than hearing a new sound slowly grow out of evolving jam styles, 2.0 is a standalone.  Sonically, it is best observed for Trey's uncompressed guitar tone and use of Fender amps; creating a dirtier sound very unique and representative of the band during this period.  

Musically, what makes this wrinkle of time so divisive is also what gives it its cult status.  The band made its hay on loose and risky jams.  After the razor sharp virtuosity of the early to mid 90's, and the spacey dance grooves later in the decade, Phish took a more spaghetti-at-the-wall approach, jamming until a theme presented itself.  Straddling the line between danger and tedium, Phish would drone for several minutes, trying to find a jump-off point. The style would later be known as "Oxyjams," named for Trey's (and most likely other members) use of opiates during this time.  The results are far more varied than their more ubiquitously agreed upon legendary tours; sometimes a jam would wander into the ether and dissipate into time better spent in the beer line.  Sometimes, though, IT happened.  The foursome was able to connect and reach an improvisational terrain unimaginable at the beginning of the jam.  Phish pushed themselves and their audience with challengingly eerie psychedelic soundscapes.  Phish were akin to psychedelic pilgrims venturing across the sea;  sometimes they sank, and sometimes they discovered new land, but they always took the ship beyond the horizon.  IT wasn't always pretty, but the music of 2.0 goes down as some of the most intriguing and poignant music of the bands career.

2.0 started out on a fairly bland foot. The band returned from their hiatus with their now usual New Years celebration at MSG, followed by a three day run at the legendary mothership, otherwise known as Hampton Coliseum.  There were a few neat jams, but the band struggled to connect in a meaningful way.  While maybe there was some foreshadowing of their inevitable fate, Phish's improvisational dynamic often leads to some opening night rust.  

IT returned early on in their February tour.  After a hot show in Los Angeles, Phish returned to Vegas and burned it to the ground.  Vegas was filled with highly improvisational jamming, highlighted by the now famous Vegas Piper, aptly nicknamed "Viper," beginning a truly exceptional year for the song (Note:  I've had a couple of beers as of this writing, but I really can't think of a better year any Phish song had than Piper in 2003).  As the band made their way across the country, the new style of jamming was ringing more and more clear to the audience.  The four members were really testing the waters.  The band finished off the tour with three legendary shows in Worcester, Nassau, and Greensboro.  The Nassau show has now gone into the books as one of the best two set shows in the bands history, and arguably their best Tweezer ever.

Heading into summer tour, it was a very fun time to be a Phish fan; especially one on the road.  We were grateful that the band was back, and playing their brains out.  It might be hard to explain for some of my younger friends and readers, but it was still the old-school scene.  We still, by and large, traveled in cars, using maps.  There were no cell-phones or GPS.  We met new people, and exchanged addresses so we can trade tapes; we would bump into people at shows.  It was FUN! The adventure, exhaustion, and eventual accomplishment of tour were all very real.  There was no bigger thrill than seeing the bumper stickers blurring down the highway, and knowing you are part of the same band of gypsies; the smiles at the rest areas acknowledging that we're all in this together.  This is a different topic for a different post, but the advancement of technology, combined with the overall commodification and acceptance of Phish, has changed "tour" irrevocably, and not really for the better.  I am an oldie now, and don't do tours anymore, but I kind of feel bad for the kids who do...they are missing out.

July saw the beginning of summer tour, starting in the West, and we were all-systems-go.  The Taddy's were going down easy, the dudes had their fattest hemp necklaces, and the ladies were looking fine in their handmade smocks...Let's go!

The tour began with a warmup in Phoenix, and wasted no time, by the their third stop of tour, they were already dropping monster jams.  The band was firing, and the improvisation was fearless.  Phish, twenty years into their career, were jumping from the sonic high-dive, and the results were paying off.  As they worked their way up through hallowed grounds of the Gorge, and into the Midwest, Phish were performing exploratory magic across the country.  The jams were exciting; so tenuously held together.  I remember the Split Open and Melt from Deer Creek; there were so many times when it almost fell to pieces, but something held them together to create IT in the end.  The music was often sloppy, but is some of the edge-of-your-seat jamming of Phish's career.  

Following the band's superb Deer Creek and Alpine showings, Phish made their way down south where they continued to shock the crowds with their Type II exploration.  After fantastic showings in Atlanta and Charlotte, the band hit their first speed-bump with their ill-fated Raleigh show (Shows on Kuroda's birthday tends to have their ups and downs).  Ready to regain themselves, Phish dusted themselves off in Pittsburgh, and began what would be one of the best week long runs of their illustrious career.  

Pittsburgh is one of the Phishiest shows I have ever been to.  The relatively small 2.0 song cannon was exchanged for a plethora of bust-outs,  and to cap it off, the band jammed their asses off on several songs, including their multifaceted take on Crosseyed and Painless; a top shelf jam of any era. The band then ventured up to Camden, NJ, where they upped the ante, providing two nights of magnificent improvisation.   The band were loose and connected as they headed north to Maine, for their "IT" Festival.

I will not go into IT too much, because I know I would like to save it for its own post in the future.  This was, without question, some of the best music I have ever heard in my life.  Phish took all the tactics they have employed through a year of jamming, and released them in seven absolutely flawless sets.  The four members of Phish reached incredible levels of euphonic communication; and responded to one another patiently and poignantly.  There was no planned destination to the music, and no rush to get there.  It was just four guys seeing how far they could push as a single unit.  There were tenuous moments, but ultimately the foursome pushed through and broke new ground with each challenge.  Phish walked off that festival stage with a new sonic trajectory.  It might not have been for everyone, but the depths of jamming was unparalleled and the stage was set for Phish to celebrate their twentieth anniversary with a rejuvenated sense of fearlessness and confidence.  

After breaking for a few months, the band had very short East Coast run to celebrate their twentieth anniversary in the cities where they sharpened their musical teeth (Long Island, Philly, Albany, and Boston).  This was the time when cracks began to appear in the facade.  The greatness of Phish 2.0 never lied in their precision, but their ability to instinctually navigate; pulling themes out of nowhere, and seeing where it takes them.  Now, instead of delving into the sonic unknown, they droned on with little inspiration or direction; noodling.  This is when drugs were becoming a more discernible issue in the band.  It is also worth noting the drug scene was different in 2.0 for the fans as well.  While entheogens and psychedelics (and weed, duh) have always been part of the culture, opiates and pharmaceuticals were now omnipresent on lot, creating a much grimier air on Shakedown.  The free-for-all that was welcomed in the late 90's was now getting out of hand.

Fortunately, the band redeemed themselves mightily in Miami during their New Years run, with four shows percolating with raw energy and thoughtfully deep jamming.  (Phish, please return to Miami!).  Fans rode the Miami wave into a hopeful 2004.  

Then.....Vegas happened.  I was lucky enough to be living in Hawaii that semester, and did not attend these shows.  Vegas was, literally and figuratively, the sound of a band breaking up.  Trey (and others rumoured as well) were now visible addicts, and the three night run was an utter disaster.  These were the worst shows the band has played. They could not complete composed sections or finish lyrics, let alone string together a jam.  It was sad.  Shortly after the the band returned from Vegas, the memo was released...for Phishheads, this will always be a "you'll always remember where you were" moment.  After twenty years, the band decided to call it quits.  They will finish up their summer 04 tour, and say their final farewell at their Coventry Festival; back in Vermont where it all began.

There are many reasons as to why Phish decided to hang it up.  Drugs are the easy answer, and probably the most on target.  The reality, though, is that there were rumblings of goodbyes after Big Cypress (Phish's epic and unprecedented millennium show, featuring a transcendent seven hour second set on NYE).  The band simply felt they outdid themselves that weekend in the Everglades, and didn't know where they could go creatively speaking.  There was also the pressures of the Phish Inc. machine becoming too big, especially for four nerds who just want to play music.  

Summer 2004 was broken into two legs, the first being multi-day runs in New York (Brooklyn and SPAC, respectively) and the famous Midwest sheds of Deer Creek and Alpine.  This first leg was a fairly good representation of the Phish climate. Lots of jamming, some of it inspired, some of it directionless. The main outlier would be their two shows at SPAC, which has gone down in history as some of the groups best jamming, 2.0 or otherwise.  These shows are two incredible diamonds in the rough, and an absolute MUST-HEAR for any fan. Either way, the band finished the leg fairly inspired, yet seemingly ready for the finish.

The second leg of the tour was an exhaustive (more for the fans than the band) traverse of the Northeast, beginning at the legendary Hampton Coliseum leading up to Coventry, with little rest days in between. By now, the band had seemingly lost their spark; addiction and fatigue rendered the band a shell of their former selves, and the road from Hampton was essentially a funeral procession (although they had a bit of a resurrection on 8/12/04 in Camden).   The Phish universe collectively limped into Coventry, as the clouds surrounded and the rain began to fall...

Coventry is the perfect microcosm for the end of Phish.  It was chaotic and messy.  A monsoon swept through the Northeast, and the festival grounds could not support the cars. Traffic was insurmountable, and security were now turning people away at the gate.  But, Phishheads are not casual fans, and we are not missing our goodbye to our band, and our culture; we abandoned our cars, and walked, some people over ten miles, through the rain.  We left what we couldn't carry and slept in the mud.  It was a true testament to what this band meant to the fans.  It was a beautiful moment, but also an omen that this is ready to end.  

Now, to say anything good about Coventry is kind of like saying Harvey Weinstein isn't really that bad of a guy.  The mere utterance of Coventry is met with vitriol.  And, for the most part, it is warranted; the two shows were sloppy and depressing.  By now, Trey's opiate addiction has come into full fruition, and he was a mess; he couldn't play his own songs, and the composed sections were absolutely botched.  Hell, we were all a mess...It was a poor goodbye.  When T.S. eliot wrote "Not with a bang, but with a whimper," he may have been listening to the Coventry Glide.  However, looking back, there are introspective and  compelling moments that can only happen during a tearful goodbye.

On Monday, August 16th, 2004, Phish fans woke up in their usual haze, the lucky ones in tents, and the not-so-lucky ones (like myself) on the ground, and blearily rubbed their eyes to a new Phishless world.  It wasn't a pretty end, but it was the perfect au-revoir to the final tumult of tour.  Phans took their last lap down Shakedown, and gave their final hugs before heading to their cars.  We were ready to go home.

Like I said at the beginning, the one things the noobs and the vets can agree on is their aversion to 2.0.  Most of the hostility has to do with the representation more than the music.  These were the darkest days of a scene that prides itself on shining bright.  But we know how the story ends; hell, Trey is pulsating with love and light now; he says so himself.  It is time for all fans to dive into and appreciate the grit and grime of  this very idiosyncratic and extraordinary period in Phish's history.  

You've successfully subscribed to Culture Boof
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to Culture Boof
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.