The Tribe Has Spoken

10/12/94, Memphis, TN, Orpheum Theatre

Think of October 12th, 1994 as a reality show (pretend reality shows were a thing in 1994). Phish, with the dust-shaking first weekend of shows behind them, are settling in for their two-month fall crawl across the country. There’s no new album to push and there’s a 16-track mobile studio following the band around recording their first official live release, nothing’s stopping them from playing the songs that best demonstrate their current strengths. But what songs are those, exactly? The last few weeks of summer found a sweet spot that wasn’t so much song-oriented as set-oriented, seguefests and rock operas and mashups that wouldn’t translate as well in a best-of-tour format. The live album needs to be cleaner, simpler, and, ideally, require less copyright clearance.

So 10/12, stocked full of heavy hitters, is an audition of sorts. Five major contestants show up, all competing for the roses that will keep them in the running as fall features. All of them have long pedigrees by this point, and served as the band’s main squeeze at some time in the past. But it’s a new era, and even with the extra hour afforded by “double album” in the CD vs. vinyl era, Phish knows they can’t include all the old reliables. Tough decisions must be made

First up is Reba, darling Reba, so thorny and complex at first, so soothing and gentle in the end. Few songs with room for improvisation are as consistent, even if that steady hand comes at the expense of experimentation. It also fits the recipe (pardon) of the archetypal Phish song: silly lyrics followed by a preposterously composed instrumental suite, followed by an emotional freestyle climb to bliss…and then some whistling, so you don’t take it all too seriously. Tonight, Reba does its thing well, moving through its jam at a relaxed pace, with conversations between band members forming and receding like waves. It all sounds like a slam-dunk inclusion for the live record — if there wasn’t another, even prettier version of the same package to compete with. Bad timing, Reba.

Then there’s Split Open and Melt, a song which reached a savage peak the year before, even earning a place as a “secret” live track at the end of Hoist. Melt plays an altogether trickier game than Reba, as its jam section doesn’t so much climb as it decays and triumphantly reassembles. Playing around the jam’s structure — most notably, the three-note return that serves as a thin tether to safety — requires an extra layer of telepathy, as the band members play the trust exercise of individually leaving the return with the faith that someone else will stay and keep a steady grip. The 4/21/93 Melt earned its semi-official release at the end of Demand because it was an ideal example of that standard Melt approach stretched to its limit, all four band members buzzing with increasing ferocity while trading responsibility for a steady, if sometimes implicit, axis.

But since that achievement, Phish has pushed Melt even further, now growing bold enough to cut the tether entirely and float off into space like Sandra Bullock. Thanks to this extra degree of difficulty, Melt is the routinely played song that comes closest to free improv at different times in band history, including the current era, where its increasingly rare appearances have provided the most avant-garde jams of 3.0. Back in 1994, they’re still in the shallow end of this pool — at this show, you can hear them drop the return for a hair-raising minute around 7:20, before retreating to standard procedure (not that it gets boring thereafter; the staccato stomp around the ten-minute mark is particularly heavy). So two strikes against Melt for A Live One: it’s already sort of made an official live appearance, and it’s currently molting between developmental stages.

Set two brings three more candidates to the stage, starting with Bowie, which has been having a good year. A version in Charlotte way back on April 24th broke the 20-minute barrier and offered foreshadowing of where the year was headed, while the UIC Pavilion Bowie from June 18th demonstrated that the song’s intro offered additional fertile ground for excursions. The version here illustrates the newish concept the band is increasingly applying across jam vehicles: just because those stretches were “written” to build up to a big climax, doesn’t mean you have to constantly move in a straight line towards the finish line. So while this version stays firmly within the parameters of what we know as Bowie, it’s in no hurry to reach its finger-flying conclusion, regularly zig-zagging like a running back avoiding tacklers, even finding an out-of-nowhere peaceful TMWSIY-ish interlude at 12:30.

It’s actually a tremendous Bowie, and I think it could carry its weight among the monumental performances immortalized on ALO. But it’s not there, and neither is any Bowie, despite the song arguably providing *the* improvisational highlight of fall tour on 12/29. Nobody would expect them to release the cosmic horror of the Providence Bowie upon unsuspecting consumers, but I’m guessing there are multiple fall versions on the (very relatively) more accessible level of 10/12’s. Honestly, it’s a puzzle I don’t have an answer for yet. Bowie too weird, too multifaceted? Definitely not in comparison to the Bangor Tweezer. Too dark/dissonant? The ALO Stash is much more challenging on that score, I’d argue.

Then there’s You Enjoy Myself, the cocky favorite, virtually assured of its inclusion by nature of its most-played status. Presumably the only debate was “which version?,” which raises the reverse question of “why not this version?” The bands’ ears are far pickier than mine, so perhaps there are subtle grades to the composed section of different versions that I’ll never catch. So that leaves the jam, which is pretty good on 10/12, building from a near-silent jam to a very quick embryonic cowfunk segment that flirts with “Superstitious.” But that’s perhaps a little more subtle than what Phish was going for on their big live debut. If you’re already exposing newbies to a 20-minute song that starts with 10 minutes of composition and ends with five minutes of a capella nonsense (and they can’t even see the trampolines or the lights), you might as well go easy on them in the middle with some plain ol’, good ol’ guitar rocking.

Finally, the tryouts reach their final trialist in Harry Hood. It’s a fun quirk of Phish that songs can go on “streaks,” both hot and cold, like a third baseman batting cleanup, and Hood in ’94 was definitely en fuego. There’s much more to write about these Hoods than should be tackled in a single paragraph. But under this essay’s premise, Hood essentially blends the strengths from two of the rejects: the emotional payoff of Reba with the patience and unpredictability of Bowie. The ALO Hood is tremendous, but there’s a deep bench of backups if that one hadn’t happened, including this one, which glides softly through iridescence for a good five minutes before deigning to set off towards its conclusion.

So that’s a rose for YEM and Hood, a “pack your knives and go” for Reba, Melt, and Bowie. Obviously, nobody’s really making any A Live One decisions yet five shows into the tour. And Phish is professional enough to not adjust their approach just because they’ve got a more expensive recording rig preserving every note. But what eventually ended up on ALO is a clue to what Phish thought they were doing well at the time — or at least, a compromise between what they thought they were doing well and what they thought they could sell to a broader audience. Even this early in the fall, that vision is starting to take shape.

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