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Phish: focused ferocious fun on Chicago 94'

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Following the release of last year's seven-disc box set 'Hampton/Winston-Salem '97,' which captured a pivotal funky moment in the evolution of Phish, another thematic archival release has arrived in the form of 'Chicago 94' (JEMP Records), featuring two stellar Phish performances recorded six months apart at Chicago's UIC Pavilion.

1994 was probably the busiest year Phish has ever seen. In March, Elektra Records released the band's fifth studio album, 'Hoist,' a record that helped Phish reach a wider audience with songs like 'Down with Disease,' 'Wolfman's Brother' and 'Sample In A Jar.' As drummer John Fishman told Richard Gehr in 'The Phish Book,' 'Both we and Elektra wanted to have something on the radio, so we tried to write a hit single. But we never committed ourselves to it totally.'

In an unusual move, at least for Phish, they elected not to road-test much of the material before the recording sessions. Instead, they welcomed input from producer Paul Fox during the songwriting process. Keyboardist Page McConnell told Gehr, 'Someone at Elektra's upper management theorized we weren't selling albums because everybody had already heard the songs. It wasn't a bad idea, just wrong.'

Five days after a more refined and conciliatory Phish released 'Hoist,' the band hit the road for the first of 124 shows played that year.

The stage offered complete freedom and an audience willing to go wherever the band felt like taking them. The two shows featured on 'Chicago 94,' recorded on June 18 and Nov. 25 of 1994 at the UIC Pavilion, reveal a band in peak form completely in sync, in good humor and confident that, if one of them fell, the other three would be there to catch them. If the entire band fell, they knew the audience would forgive them.

The intensity and quality of Phish's performances in 1994 convinced the band to begin recording every show on multi-track tape a practice that continues today.

During the fall 1994 tour, Phish began evaluating performances to select tracks for 'A Live One,' their first live album, released in the summer of 1995. Don't let the liner notes fool you 'Recorded live, Clifford Ball, 1994' was an intentional misnomer. Not every venue had signed off on the recordings so the band covered their bases by claiming that the entire album had been recorded during one show. For example, 'A Live One's' famous 30-minute version of 'Tweezer' was recorded at the Bangor Auditorium on a rainy Nov. 2. The actual 'Clifford Ball' the band's first large scale weekend festival - took place in 1996.

Back in Chicago on June 18, 1994, Phish blazed through a tight and rocking first set starting with 'Wilson' minus the opening return 'Wilson' chant, which didn't become standard audience participation at Phish shows until the release of 'A Live One.' Highlights include 'AC/DC Bag,' 'Maze,' 'Down with Disease' (in its original slower album tempo), a unique version of 'It's Ice' driven by a Page McConnell-led jam reminiscent of Traffic's 'Glad' and an emotional 'Divided Sky.'

An intense second set begins with a sweet cover of Frank Zappa's 'Peaches en Regalia' before toying with established form on 'David Bowie' by opening with a jam on four descending chords known as 'Mind Left Body' derived from a Paul Kantner/Grace Slick song.

Phish94A rocking 14-minute 'Tweezer' gives way to a calm and gorgeous 'Lifeboy' before one of the best versions of 'You Enjoy Myself' on record. Controlled and precise during the composed opening segments, guitarist Trey Anastasio shifts into full rock star mode, teasing with quotes from Edgar Winter's 'Frankenstein' and Zeppelin's 'How Many More Times' (jammed during soundcheck, it's included as a bonus on disc three) and a closing vocal jam that quotes Monty Python and 'The Wizard of Oz.'

A stunning 'Chalkdust Torture' caps the set. Punctuated with periodic shrieks from Fishman behind the drums and some blinding guitar from Trey, it's better than the version selected for 'A Live One.'

On Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving, Phish was back in Chicago and proved that lightning sometimes strikes twice in the same spot.

Set one highlights include a blazing 'Llama' opener and a version of 'Reba' that sees the band nailing the song's dozens of complicated changes before a fiery jam. Phish attacks 'Split Open and Melt' by breaking down the song's complex time signature and taking it to new places.

Nov. 25's second set was a segue-fest opening with '2001' then 'Mike's Song' and a beautifully shambolic 'Simple' with a freaky, creepy coda. Without pause, Phish 'Oom pahs' into the beloved 'Harpua' a relative rarity that includes unique improvised narration from Trey in each performance.

On this night, he spun a tale of 'red hate beams' and 'green love beams' (much more fun than it looks on paper) that inspired the first audience 'glow stick war.' During the story, someone in the balcony dropped dozens of green glow sticks into the crowd, which then sent them flying around the arena, much to Phish's delight.

'Weekapaug Groove,' 'The Mango Song' and a Fishman-led send-up of Prince's 'Purple Rain' (complete with vacuum cleaner solo) precedes an explosive 'Run Like an Antelope' closer with Anastasio playing beyond what should be humanly possible.

Part of the show's soundcheck is featured on disc six and offers a reimagined take on 'Golgi Apparatus' derived from a spontaneous moody instrumental and a nod to Paul Languedoc (the band's longtime sound engineer and luthier he built Anastastio's guitar and Mike Gordon's bass) who recorded these shows on 2-track DAT. The unrecorded 'Dog Log' is allegedly a favorite of Languedoc's, and the band would often bust it out for him while he adjusted levels.

'Chicago 94' is a valuable addition to Phish's extensive live catalog, and it's a great value ($36 for six CDs or $17.95 for MP3 download at LivePhish.com).

Keith Richards once said, 'On any given night it's a different band that's the greatest rock and roll band in the world.' 'Chicago 94' is evidence that, for those two nights, Phish could have claimed the title.

Mike Dow is part of The Mike and Mike Show airing each morning on Kiss 94.5. Check him out at www.Facebook.com/MikeandMike and www.MikeDow.net.



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