As Phish Hits the 30-Year Mark, A Look Back at the Early Tapes

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Phish played the XL Center in Hartford on Oct. 27, 2013. (Nick Caito Photo.)

Phish played the XL Center in Hartford on Oct. 27, 2013. (Nick Caito Photo.)

It’s a special day in the Phish community: the 30th anniversary of their first-ever gig, which took place on December 2, 1983 in the Harris-Millis Cafeteria at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Keyboard player Page McConnell wasn’t even in the band yet (he joined in 1985). At that first gig, guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and guitarist/vocalist Jeff Holdsworth (who left the band a couple of years later), calling themselves Blackwood Convention, played two short sets of classic-rock covers and Grateful Dead songs to a less-than-enthusiastic crowd. (You can listen to the band covering the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain” below.)

Early on, Phish was already thinking about how to organize sets and shows into larger chunks of music, using planned transitions and key changes. A year after that first gig, for example, on December 1, 1984 at a club called Nectar’s in Burlington, they dropped down a whole-step at the end of “Scarlet Begonias” to segue straight into Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” (pretty clever, boys) before repeating this move into the Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain.” They sounded like a decent Dead cover band, with Anastasio imitating Jerry Garcia’s famous triplet figures, and also did a good job establishing a reggae feel.

The influence of the Dead on Phish’s early music really can’t be overstated. One original song, “Slave to the Traffic Light,” was essentially a two-chord vamp (a la “Fire on the Mountain”); it’s already evident that audience members were familiar with (and dug) “Slave.” You can also tell that Phish was already more confident performing their originals (“Makisupa Policeman,” for example) than they were doing covers. The overall sound is soft and weed-soaked, unlikely to veer into anything approaching hard rock.

What covers did they play? The Dead, the Allman Brothers, Herb Alpert, the Talking Heads. Those old tapes capture a great deal of barroom vibe: You can hear the audience shouting out their likes (Prince, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” Jeff Beck, the Butthole Surfers, Quiet Riot, Pink Floyd, Rush, Sesame Street), and someone in the crowd audibly declares, “I’m not drinking anymore.” There’s a terrific jam after the Allman Brothers’ “Don’t Want You No More” (written by Davis and Hardin), where it’s clear the band is locking in (around 4:00).

On that 12/1/84 tape, you sense they could have easily become a full-fledged Dead cover band; guitar solos were performed in a clean tone, with Garcia-like triplets. Holdsworth held down the Bob Weir role, and Gordon could do a great, wandering Phil Lesh impression. But Anastasio takes them back into New Wave territory, launching into “Cities” by the Talking Heads, before a long, laughable Drums >> Space, involving whatever effects they had and Syd Barrett-like guitar glissandos. (The tape cuts, mercifully.)

Traces of later Phish are everywhere. Much of the music for “Skippy the Wondermouse,” for example, an original sung by the Dude of Life (aka Steve Pollack), later formed the bulk of “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters.” The full structure of the final song is nearly in place, even back in 1984.

The band was not immune to the popular styles of the time (nine minutes into “Skippy,” there’s a distinct punk/new wave feel). The first known performance of “Fluffhead” signaled bluegrass via The Byrds. An encore, “Eyes of the World,” is taken at a relaxed tempo (perhaps to allow Anastasio to attempt faster runs on the guitar). It’s a sort of proto-Phish jam; the band is having a blast, stretching out in their limited way, exploring what they probably felt was “jazz.” Anastasio played a few runs of consistent 16-notes (later called “machine-gun style”), even faster triplets, some chromaticism and even a bottleneck on the conclusion of “Eyes.”

The tape record jumps a year and three months ahead, to March 4, 1985 at Hunt’s in Burlington. “Camel Walk,” a funk tune written by Holdsworth, finds them drifting into mid-’80s rock, with some elaborate two-guitar work around 4:30. Toward the end of the song (4:44-4:55), you hear traces of the future Chase section of “Fluffhead.” “Fire Up the Ganja,” with Lamb’s Bread singer Jah Roy, transforms the Dead song into an ode to weed, with added lyrics about New Jersey. And Anastasio recites the McGrupp poem (words by Tom Marshall) during “Skippy the Wondermouse,” marking the first time these words and the future McGrupp music were ever synced up.

McConnell’s first gig with Phish happened on May 3, 1985 at the University of Vermont, when the band debuted “Mike’s Song” (it has essentially maintained the same structure for three decades) and performed “Dave’s Energy Guide,” a King Crimson-inspired counting exercise that would become an important thread through their improvisations. The tape cuts after an announcement that McConnell would join the four others, but finally, around 4:00 of “Scarlet Begonias” > “Eyes of the World” > “Whipping Post,” one hears the first piano noodling on any known Phish recording, the debut of the five-man band sound.

Other developments: Anastasio sounds more confident, and it’s obvious the band’s excited to hear what McConnell could add to the Dead’s material. You sense in the pianist’s attention to detail (he’s the only one correctly playing the B minor chord in the “Eyes” verses) that he wants to get it right, to make a good impression. “McGrupp,” still embryonic, sounds like future Phish. “Makisupa Policeman,” a reggae-based original, contains a verse about “freeing South Africa”; it’s jarring to modern ears to hear anything in Phish’s music that smacks of politics.

On they went, to 28 more years of great music, much of which was thankfully captured on tape by dedicated, thoughtful tapers (hats off to them!). Watch this video montage, which was shown during the setbreak of their 20th Anniversary show in Boston in 2003. And please let me know: what does this early music sound like to you?

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