Imagine being in a band. Friendships are created, ideas are tossed about; some stick, some fade away. Work is put into the vague idea of something; some of it is meaningful, often it feels pointless, like you’re serving some greater good that will probably never materialize. Some people show up for your shows, some come back for others. More often than not, you’re playing to empty rooms. You begin to tour because that’s how you spread your ideas, but life on the road is hard and unwavering. It’s always there, always moving and always the same. One city becomes another city. One twelve hour drive becomes another. You constantly wonder if you’ve seen the same rest stop a thousand times. You eat the same food over and over and over. The idea that America must be driven to be felt begins to feel like a cruel joke. Always though, there’s the music. The music is what drives you. The music is the daily reward. Even when it’s hard, even when you’re not hooking up the way you’d like, it’s still there, inspiring you, and pushing you to go even further down this hole you’ve dug.
For twelve years Phish walked a tough path to success. What began small, as inside jokes among friends, excuses for parties and mini-festivals, grew into something each of the members couldn’t live without. At first they savored their smallness, their relative insignificance. For their first six years - longer than most bands ever exist - Phish was a local oddity, a service for themselves and their close friends. They were a reflection of Vermont and the hidden-in-plain-sight magic of the Northeast Kingdom. Starting in 1989 they made a conscious effort to trim the fat, reign in everything that made them special, and take their show on the road. Over the next five years they’d cross the country nearly ten times, growing from bars to clubs to theaters to spotted arenas in haunts they’d build a dedicated following in. By mid-1993 they were confident enough in their abilities that they began to expand on their sound. This only built in late-1994 and early-1995 when they pushed their sound further than ever before, jamming without any fear or self-consciousness on stage.
The Fall 1995 tour began out west in California, in the shadow of the Dead, just seven weeks out from the passing of Jerry Garcia. From there, the band charted a crooked path eastward, landing in Chicago on Halloween for their second annual musical costume. Here they covered The Who’s Quadrophenia, a statement on their impending bigness and arrival on the national stage. Their crowds swelled with hangers-on of the Dead, and they responded by booking arenas in larger markets for the first time. Shows in Austin, Lincoln, St. Paul, and Louisville showcased a more refined creative approach to their jamming than what had been heard over the previous twelve months. Their jamming was now laser-focused, stop-on-a-dime reactionary, pulsating with new ideas that’d enter the fold, all dictated by a dedication to melody. The initial steps towards 1997’s leveling-out began.
Following a ten day break in early November, the tour began in earnest. I’m not kidding when I say that every single show from November 9, 1995 to December 31, 1995 is worth hearing. Nights like November 9, 11/14, 11/22, 11/25, 11/30, and December - oh, especially December 1, 12/4, 12/7, 12/9, 12/11, 12/12, 12/14, and 12/17 represented both leaps forward for the band in terms of song selection and a command of flow, as well as high-water-marks of their larger improvisational journey as a creative unit. The jams from this period are revered by the entire fanbase, and rightly so. The 11/9 Atlanta Gin, the 11/14 Orlando Stash Sandwich, the 11/22 Landover Free, the 11/30 Dayton Tweezer -> Makisupa -> Antelope, the 12/1 Hershey Mike’s -> Weekapaug, the 12/2 New Haven TWEEZER, the 12/5 Amherst Gin and Hood, the 12/9 Albany YEM, the 12/11 Portland Bowie, the 12/12 Providence DWD, the 12/14 Binghamton Halley’s -> NICU -> Slave, and so many more…. it’s all Phish perfection.
It’s so rare for a band to achieve this level of success, where they sound wholly like themselves, like the idealized version of themselves, charted out in a dorm room or in a garage back when they were kids. There’s no emulation, no larger sound they’re chasing. As opposed to Fall 1997’s total reinvention, what makes Fall 1995 the best Phish Tour is that it’s the most we’ve ever heard Phish sound like themselves, and get high off that very essence of their sound on a nightly basis.
The energy in their delivery, the tightness in their playing, the way they seem to write a new song within every jam, the overall celebratory nature of the entire run; it’s unlike any other tour, and yet it is the most Phish tour in every sense of the word. On December 1 they began a 13-show run up the Northeast corridor of the United States. A victory lap of sorts, the band was at the peak of their powers, the genesis of the band was being actualized on a nightly basis in front of their core fan base. The month was so good it would end with unquestionably the greatest Phish show ever played. The month, & the tour, was so big, so profound, so fully realized that the band would have to tear it all down and reinvent themselves just to continue forward.