The Great (Live) Albums: Phish’s ‘A Live One’

The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!

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 A Live One, Phish (1995, Elektra)

Does Phish get a bad rap? The Burlington, VT jam-band big kahunas are inarguably the target of a lot of lazy hipster ridicule, with 90% of punchlines inevitably revolving around the word “patchouli.” But the group is sort of ridiculous: four aging, normcore white dudes armed in equal measure with chops and doofy dad jakes surrounded by an insular community of drug-addled-and-obsessive fan-acolytes.

Comparisons to the Grateful Dead are easy to make—particularly with regard to the groups’ fans. But musically, the two groups are far more dissimilar than you might realize. The Grateful Dead were basically a bunch of NorCal bluegrass nerds who grew up in the 1950s listening to jazz, folk, and early rock ‘n roll and who came of age in the post-Beatles psychedelic ‘60s. Phish, by contrast, are a bunch of collegiate New Englanders who grew up in the 1970s weaned on prog rock and funk, who matured in the 1980s to incorporate sonic elements drawn from college rock and new wave. In short, their DNA is fundamentally different.

Of course, the big thing Phish—guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, drummer John Fishman, and keyboardist Page McConnell—does have in common with Jerry Garcia & Co. is that this is one of those bands that fans insist are better experienced live than on record.

Released by Elektra Records in 1995, A Live One doesn’t seek to capture any single Phish show—which, at the time, it would’ve been impossible to do anyway (Phish shows typically top out at way more than the 70-minute CD max). Rather, A Live One is a representative “best of” sampling of quintessential live Phish moments—including, necessarily, lots and lots of free form jamming.

The album technically contains just 12 songs, the shortest of which clocks in at five minutes and longest of which stretches out over half an hour. But there are way more than just 12 different musical ideas at work here. Every song is divisible into multiple subsections, sub-subsections, and wild tangents—including a few dead ends. The songs were recorded at various dates along the group’s 1994 U.S. tour and capture the band at one of its earliest creative peaks.

 Welcome to the 1990s: (L-R) Page McConnell, Mike Gordon, Trey Anastasio, and John Fishman

Welcome to the 1990s: (L-R) Page McConnell, Mike Gordon, Trey Anastasio, and John Fishman

The two-CD set kicks off with “Bouncing Around the Room,” recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1994 at the Boston Garden. It’s a great opener, beginning with a low-key bass shuffle and minimal drums before warming up to Anastasio’s vocal, which starts as a mellow lullaby before ascending on the line “…and I awoke!” to become a full-on praise chorus. Phish might not be for everyone, but moments like this are—for me—the definition of pure, buoyant joy.

Next up is the slinky Anastasio guitar showcase “Stash,” a playful Calypso-inspired tune largely built around audience call-and-response, with Anastasio’s Santana-doppelganger six-string humbly begging the crowd for handclaps like Oliver Twist begs for a second bowl of porridge. Disc One takes a minor dip with track three, “Gumbo,” which per its name is a relatively dull New Orleans jazz-funk number featuring Burlington band nerds The Giant Country Horns. (Phish, it seems, are not exempt form what I like to call the “Guns ‘N Roses Use Your Illusion rule,” which is: leave the horn section at home!)

All is forgiven with the next track, “You Enjoy Myself.” YEM, as fans call it, is arguably Anastasio’s greatest compositional achievement. Unfolding across multiple movements informally dubbed (on Phish message boards) things like “Pre-Nirvana,” “Nirvana,” “The Note,” “The Second Note,” and “The Change,” YEM weaves its way through a variety of ideas, all tinged with a sense of an escalating chemical buzz. The image that always comes to my mind is that of a gleeful carnival-goer wandering deeper and deeper into the fairgrounds, getting progressively dizzier and more delighted before finally arriving at The Big Tent. All and all, the first eight minutes or so of YEM are borderline transcendent—though your mileage may vary during the song’s funkier second half, which decides swap out its regal awe for dopey a capella silliness.

Disc One closes with upbeat rocker “Chalk Dust Torture” (though the best version of “Chalkdust” is on Live Phish Vol. 6) and an extremely pretty “Slave to the Traffic Light,” which somehow finds a way to make white boy reggae sound sublimely majestic (though not, it should be noted, anything like the white boy reggae band Sublime.)

 Page McConnell performing in 1992

Page McConnell performing in 1992

Disc Two opens with the catchy soccer-chant villain anthem “Wilson.” Then it’s time for “Tweezer”—the single longest song on the album, clocking in at a whopping 30:55. But while the song spirals off into all sorts of fractal version of itself, the bones of the tune remain in tact, built around a propulsive prog rock groove anchored by Anastasio’s busy fretwork.

Is the song too long? When it comes to listening, mainstream pop and rock fans are typically extremely goal-oriented. The hook is the prize, and an economic roadmap to/from is of primary value, if only subconsciously. But for those of us who love this stuff, they key to digesting lengthy jams like “Tweezer” is to observe the peaks and valleys of performance like a NBA game. You have your team who you’re rooting for (Phish), and you’re marveling at their innate talent and physical acumen as they go to work. You watch them score a few easy points, then dismay as they work themselves into a tough spot. “Oh no!” you think, “how are they gonna get out of this one?” But then they do, and it’s glorious. And while “Tweezer” may go on for a few extra innings, it eventually pulls out a W.

The anthemic “Simple” then sparkles like a pot of gold at the end of the long, winding “Tweezer”-shaped rainbow, featuring one of the Muppetish Anastasio’s very best guitar riffs, with lyrics that at first sound total doggerel, but which through repetition are revealed to be an inspirational statement of purpose.

The final two tracks are an excellent “Harry Hood”—a great Phish tune not found on any studio recording—and a lovely “The Squirming Coil.” “Hood” begins as a shadowy noir plod before amping up into yet another upbeat sing along—a fist-pumping moment of catharsis built around the chant, “You can feel good/good about Hood.” And “Coil” is an excellent showcase for McConnell’s dexterous piano playing, as the keyboardist takes an extended coda to close the record.

In the end, it’s hard to articulate just why Phish works so well, when it works. When I picture myself listening to Phish—and especially A Live One—I picture myself outside, staring up at the comets, wearing a poncho made out of Christmas lights. And in this image, I’m exactly as cool as I need to be.

-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)