Southern Fans, Keep Your Head

10/15/94, Pelham, AL, Oak Mountain Amphitheatre

I’m fascinated by the still-intact regionalism of the jamband scene. In a modern music industry where artists can globally distribute music instantaneously, radio stations are nationally homogenized, and major record labels seek maximal demographic crossover, the idea of a local scene and home-field allegiances seems quaint and antiquated. But in the jam world, the country remains carved up into fiefdoms where particular bands claim pre-eminence.

For instance, Phish, the one band that could have claimed national jamfan unity post-Dead, has receded in 3.0 to their power base of New England, drawing smaller and smaller crowds outside of those markets. The Southeast remains Widespread Panic turf, the West Coast is still dominated by the extended Grateful Dead universe, Umphrey’s McGee has risen to the top rank in the Midwest, and so on. Obviously these bands still play all over the country, but reading the tea leaves of who gets billed over who at the various jam festivals and what venues these bands can fill in various cities gives you a pretty good sense of how the pecking order shifts with the map.

The early 90’s were much the same, beneath the shadow of the Dead’s semi-ambulant corpse. If anything, there was even more competition and balkanization, particularly in the northeast, where alumni of the Wetlands scene pursued a friendly rivalry all the way to the mainstream charts. Phish was both a part of this battle and above it — pulling the alpha move of only playing a handful of HORDE dates in 1992 and 1993 with their peers Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors, and Aquarium Rescue Unit.

But here in fall 1994, they’re still not too big for a little bit of coalition-building away from their core market. Playing the 10,000-seat Oak Mountain Amphitheatre, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, the same week as shows in college auditoriums, theaters, and even a parking lot, band management probably figured they could use a little help moving tickets. So the call went out to the Dave Matthews Band, for their third of six shows as Phish’s opening act in 1994.

The first two shared bills were solidly on DMB’s mid-Atlantic turf: 4/20/94 in Lexington, VA and 4/21 in Winston-Salem, NC. But this Alabama one-off (and the three-show run they share in California in December) seems more like an alliance to invade enemy territory, a market where neither one could yet fill a shed the size of Oak Mountain. Expanding their fanbase horizons was especially important for both bands in 1994, as they each went for the big breakout album with Hoist and Under The Table And Dreaming, respectively.

One of those records successfully crossed over, and it wasn’t the one by this night’s headliner. Under The Table had only come out the month before this show, but its lead single “What Would You Say” wouldn’t reach its peak chart position until the following summer, launching DMB into undisputed national headliner status. But in October 1994, it is assuredly not a two-headliner situation — DMB only get 45 minutes before two full sets of Phish, though Trey is quick to thank them and promise the audience that they’ll “see more of them later.”

Given the relative clout of each band at this point in time, it’s perhaps surprising that their onstage collaborations tend to be covers from the DMB songbook, instead of the other way around. Back in April it was “All Along The Watchtower,” and in Alabama it’s Daniel Lanois’ “The Maker,” both straight-ahead pieces of folk rock with lead vocals by Matthews. The Lanois song feels particularly odd for Phish in 1994, with earnest, spiritual lyrics that they rarely attempted until later in the decade, and a laid-back smoothness that they’ve never deployed (thankfully).

That uncharacteristic timidity seeps into the rest of Phish’s performance as well; perhaps the same lack of confidence that led them to book an opening act also kept their musical ambitions in check. There’s an “intro to Phish” feel to this show that puts it more in line with 1993 dates where the band was playing a town for the first time, or taking a big step up in venue size — a variety of genres, several of the usual gimmicks (trampolines, acoustic set), and concise jams. There’s no pandering to Southern jamband fan sensibilities, as they’re self-assured enough at this point to stick to what they do best. But the comfort level isn’t there for them to experiment in front of strange faces, aside from tossing in a few Parliament and Headhunters easter eggs for any attentive funk fans in the audience.

Whether they’d ever feel comfortable in the deep south is an open question — off the top of my head, the only classic shows I can think of from the region are all from Atlanta. Certainly they’ve given this part of the country some love in the current era, returning to Oak Mountain again in 2012 and 2014, and doing an oddly-routed Southern swing last fall. But low attendance at these shows, and anywhere that isn’t the northeast US or a “destination” run, is a big part of the argument that Phish has returned to regional status in their advanced age. We’ll know for sure if, next time they venture out of New England, they bring back an opening act.

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