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Phish rip it up on ‘St Louis ‘93’

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Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish performing on the opening night of their 2014 Summer Tour in Mansfield, Massachusetts on July 1, 2014. Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish performing on the opening night of their 2014 Summer Tour in Mansfield, Massachusetts on July 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Robert E. Klein)

Still wondering what the fuss is about regarding Phish? The band’s newly issued six-CD box set “St. Louis ’93” explains it as well as anything. The collection comprises two complete concerts, performed four months apart, at the 1,700-seat capacity American Theater in St. Louis. 

In 1993, Phish was a relentless touring machine, performing a total of 110 concerts across the US and Canada, including three shows in Maine (the Portland Expo on February 3, the Bangor Auditorium on May 7 and the Cumberland County Civic Center on December 30). 

The first show represented on “St. Louis ‘93” (April 14 1993) offers up pretty much everything that a Phish fan craves – a dream set-list, wildly inventive improvisation, and a healthy dose of the band’s humor (including an appearance from Henrietta Tubman – AKA drummer Jon Fishman - on “Madonna washboard”), all presented with stellar sound quality. 

Both shows represented in the new set were recorded by Phish’s long-serving soundman Paul Languedoc. A Vermont-based luthier when he met the band, he built guitars for Trey Anastasio and basses for Mike Gordon and traveled with Phish from 1986 to 2004, mixing the live sound and capturing each show with an audiophile’s approach to recording.

Recorded on DAT (Digital Audio Tape), Languedoc’s two-track stereo board mixes from the era offer a finely detailed representation of what the band sounded like from the audience’s vantage point. It’s a vastly different listening experience than that of contemporary live Phish recordings, which places the listener onstage with the band. 

The second set of the April 14 show begins with “Roger’s Proposal.” Roger Holloway, a childhood friend of Anastasio’s, joins the band to sincerely ask for his girlfriend’s (Jen) hand in marriage. Fortunately, she said yes and the band dedicated the next two songs to the couple, including “AC/DC Bag” (which references Roger in the lyrics) and the electric-bluegrass tinged “My Sweet One.”

A raging “You Enjoy Myself” (perhaps the Phishiest of all Phish songs) finds Anastasio vamping on some familiar chords during the jam section, which leads the band into a spontaneous take on the Classics IV/Atlanta Rhythm Section nugget “Spooky” before concluding with a vocal jam which actually does get a little spooky. “YEM” segues into an epic version of the rarely performed “Harpua” - one of only six times the band played it in 1993 (Bangor got another one three weeks later).

Phish performed 45 more concerts before returning to St. Louis on August 16, 1993 for another tightly executed show, sharing only four titles with its predecessor (“It’s Ice,” “I Didn’t Know,” “Poor Heart” and “Big Ball Jam” – essentially a spontaneous jam involving the audience, which frequently followed “Poor Heart” during this era. Large beach balls were released into the crowd, prompting a band-member to hit a random note when they would see someone come in contact with one of the colorful orbs. The short-lived stunt was retired in 1994).

August 1993 is rightly-regarded as one of the finest months in Phish history for the simple fact that the band was truly on fire for every performance. The August 16 show offers up a jaw-dropping take on “Reba” - its carefully composed and executed first movement followed by three uniquely different jam sections, capped by a raging tension-and-release crescendo.

Another show highlight is the Fishman-penned “Faht.” This sound-effects-infused instrumental - from the band’s third album “A Picture of Nectar” - was only ever performed 12 times before its retirement in 1995.

Some choice covers performed on August 16 included Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times,” Duke Ellington’s “Take The ‘A’ Train,” The Osborne Brothers’ bluegrass workout “Rocky Top” and an a capella “Amazing Grace” performed without microphones.

Taking advantage of the room’s natural acoustics, the band would move to the lip of the stage (and even into the audience) to deliver the song in barbershop harmony. The sound board recording of that is pretty much what you’d expect – fans shushing each other to get a good listen and tiny Phish harmonies in the distance. 

“St Louis ‘93” captures Phish at an integral point in their development. As the band began moving away from theaters and into arenas and auditoriums the following year, they labored to retain the intimacy with their audience that venues like the American Theater gave them.

This was a time before the business of Phish became an albatross for the people who created it. The stages, stunts and jams expanded, taking them to even dizzier heights, but the lightning in a bottle preserved in this set, presents a band whose sole focus was on the music – four immensely talented musicians sharing one mind. 

Retailing at $29.99 (or five bucks per disc), “St Louis ‘93” is an affordable and endlessly rewarding document of Phish in their prime.

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