Around the Diamond

7/3/94, Old Orchard Beach, ME, The Ball Park

In the pennant-chasing stretch of summer tour, Phish pitched a gem, featuring a stacked lineup of jams and a bullpen of surprise teases. A middle innings rally of Reba, Bowie, and Melt gave them all the runs they needed to win, even if they subsequently killed the momentum by bunting with Bouncin’. Just when the lead appeared to be slipping away, they called in the setup/closer combo of Antelope and Suzy, who shored up the win with literal fireworks. In the end, the show exceeded its box score, and kept their long winning streak alive.

OK, that’s out of my system, and we’re safe until the Keyspan Park shows 10 years in the future, save for one loose baseball reference as a framing device below. This bug-ridden summer night in a defunct ballpark is either an underrated or an appropriately rated show from the era. But it’s one with a handful of very bright highlights scattered across both sets, instead of a long, flowing suite or a groundbreaking single jam. So I thought I’d focus on the (thematically convenient) four standout performances from Old Orchard Beach, each one with some insight to share about the changes underway in the middle of 1994.

1B: Reba > Somewhere Over the Rainbow > Reba

Overall, this Reba is average-gorgeous, to adapt a phrase, most notable for its early-jam digression into a too-long-to-be-a-tease version of the Wizard of Oz standard. My dogged attempts to research whether this was inspired by an actual rainbow over the venue were inconclusive, but regardless of the inspiration, it’s a special moment. What first sticks out is the natural development of the segue — you can just barely hear Trey fiddle with the melody for a few seconds before the entire band recognizes and falls into it, more or less in unison. Once there, they show striking patience, playing a full chorus-verse-chorus in an impromptu lite-jazz arrangement before sliding back into Reba without pause.

Like the (much clumsier) “Third Stone From the Sun” tease one set later, or even the 2001-ed Weekapaug from the night before, there’s a new sense of care and restraint with how the band explores a melodic idea, even when it’s not their own. Compare to the famed segue-fests of 1993, where the band shows a Girl Talk-like tendency to race through as many classic rock songs as possible in a short period of time. Just as those medleys presaged the segmented jamming to come, these experiments are perhaps early signs of the band’s growing ability to let those digressions bloom before throwing the next curveball (sorry).

2B: David Bowie

Bleeding out of Axilla II like a cut throat, this Bowie gets the longest introduction since the famous UIC version, and one that foreshadows the haunted house prologues to come when they move indoors. But the real action comes in the usual place, and patience is again the buzzword. It starts with one of those great intra-band conversations — right at the outset of the jam, Mike and Trey trade descending licks, then after a moment in the typical Bowie jam structure, Trey expands one of those licks into a longer descending riff, which Mike takes over and uses as the skeleton of the next several minutes of improv.

The melody and jamming around it are very similar to the Mind Left Body Jam of the 6/18 Bowie — though this time around, it’s definitely not MLB — but by appearing in the meat of the song instead of the intro, it gives them an alternate, parallel route to explore. When it slides into the dissonant tangle of so many Bowies from this era, it’s a fresh variant, building and receding three different times, finding an unusually rapid tempo along the way, then exploding with extra vigor into the final section.

3B: Split Open and Melt

In real life, there was a setbreak between the Bowie and this Melt, but listeners at home get no such reprieve. It’s a double-shot of dark jamming, but the underlying rules could not be more different. Where Bowie quickly finds its detour and barrels down it, this Melt’s jam follows its usual structure, in the loosest sense.

My favorite Melts sound like the band are at war with the song, trying out new strategies, seeking the chink in its defenses that will finally disrupt the gravity to keep circling back to its recurring three-note pattern. This version throws every weapon they have at the structure: a Hendrix tease, Trey’s 94 toy box of car alarm noises, a patch of anachronistic cow-funk, even a sneakier, quieter maneuver. This latter attempt subdues the Melt to the point where only Fish’s bass drum keeps the Melt theme alive, but it refuses to die. By the 13:30 mark, they’ve waved the white flag, and the last four minutes crackle with the deranged energy of peak ’93 versions.

HP: Run Like an Antelope

When you’ve grown big enough to play a baseball stadium — albeit a minor-league park without a team — you might as well get into some pyrotechnics, especially on Fourth of July Eve. So Phish brought fireworks to Old Orchard Beach, and the display fittingly kicks off in sync with the start of the second section of this Antelope. However, that’s about where the choreography ends — after the initial salvo, they’re so intermittent it sounds like Brad Sands is running around backstage by himself lighting wicks, and the grand finale doesn’t hit until they’re already into the first verse of the next song (listen for Trey’s laugh).

So I suspect part of this Antelope might be the band vamping, filling time to try and get the big sound-and-light climax that never comes. But that’s just the kind of weird technical mishap that often brings out their best, and this one gives them a chance to show off their “jamming along to fireworks” trick they last used on 7/18/93 (and those weren’t even their fireworks).

You might think this consists of just playing as fast and crazy as your typical Antelope, but starting around 6:00, they figure it out: what is a firework show if not a tension/release jam? Trey returns to his sound-effect tricks to create upward-sliding Screaming Mimis of noise that explode into a flurry of notes from the whole band, going 5 or 6 cycles before the song downshifts into the Marco section and they do it some more (less satisfyingly) minus the underlying fury. Without the fireworks, it’s probably the most “retro” of these four jams, but taking the somewhat poorly-executed pyro into account, this Antelope is testimony for their rapidly-developing big stage showmanship in the clutch.