The only way the Phish experiment would truly work was if, just once, the band let everything hang out and experienced the effects of pushing their and their audience’s sanity, composition, and patience passed the normal limit, and then see if they still wanted to push on even further. Following the wild, month-long, jam-heavy conclusion to the Fall 1994 Tour, their monumental jam off David Bowie on December 29, 1994, and the confidence that emerged from headlining Madison Square Garden for the first time, Phish was in position to do just that. As a result, their month-long tour across America in June & early-July 1995 is unquestionably the most experimental, free-form, and wildest tour the band has ever embarked on. It would test their resolve and their fanbase’s willingness to follow their inhibitions. It would push their communication and empathy for each other’s ideas beyond what was previously standard, and it would be the clearest sign yet that sooner rather than later, a transformation would be essential for the band to move forward as a long-term creative project.
For the first time since 1984 Phish didn’t tour throughout the winter/spring months, instead spending their time compiling and mixing their upcoming A Live One release, while crafting the majority of the songs for 1996’s Billy Breathes. Following the one-off Lowell show on May 15, the band hit the road in Boise on June 7. From the outset the tour felt different.
The songs they’d written for Billy Breathes: Taste, Theme From The Bottom, Spock’s Brain, Free, Strange Design, Prince Caspian, followed the more mature approach showcased on Rift and Hoist, but were filtered through a bizarre rustic Americana lense. Moreover, the jamming that had expanded beyond reasonable limits in the previous November, somehow felt bigger and even more limitless here. One gets the sense listening to the Theme From The Bottom from June 7, the Tweezer from 6/8, and the Mike’s Song from 6/10 that the band was trying to purposely push their jams as far as they could to test the sanity of their fans, and then keep going. There’s a sinister nature to the jams of this tour that wouldn’t be felt again with as much abandon until Summer 2003.
The tour locked in just a week in and would follow a thematic line throughout its final three weeks as every show from June 14 through July 3 featured at least one jam - and sometimes more - that completely broke from the mold of the song, traversed the cosmos before somehow returning some 20-30min later. These are legendary jams both in their size, scope, and willingness to wander simply to see how far they’d go & what they would learn while exploring. The 6/14 Mud Island Tweezer, 6/15 Stash -> I Didn’t Know and Bowie, 6/16 Runaway Jim, 6/17 Tweezer -> Johnny B. Goode -> Tweezer, 6/19 Bowie, 6/20 Mike’s, 6/22 Tweezer -> Tweezer Reprise, 6/23 Antelope, 6/24 Bowie, 6/25 Mike’s, 6/26 DWD -> Free, 6/28 Tweezer -> DEG -> Tweezer, 6/29 Bowie, 6/30 Mike’s, 7/1 Stash & SOAM, 7/2 Jim, and 7/3 Bowie all share the same desire by the band to break down all barriers holding them in, and to jam with as much of a free form, avante garde approach, no matter how different the results. For, contained within this list are examples of jams where it didn’t work at times, where the band sounded like they were playing in a living room to no one but themselves. Regardless, the act was essential for the band long term, and, when they tapped into the magic that had always guided them, they produced music that’s up there with the best of their entire career.
Moreover, their shows shined as complete pieces during this tour. The June 14, 15, 16 southeastern run is so quintessential of the era, so accomplished, so relistenable, that it’s a crime it hasn’t been released as a box set yet. June 22 in the Fingerlakes contrasts a tightly wound Set I with a Set II that might just read “The Abstract Hour.” The Great Woods run in advance of their second trial festival at Sugarbush is equally thematically connected to the tour as a whole, and fuses wild improv with a classic setlist that felt like a throwback of sorts. Thus far, the band has released June 20 and 26, two shows that must be heard to understand what made this tour so special.
The lingering effects of Summer 1995 were of critical importance to the band’s development. Keenly aware that they’d tested their audience in ways most rock bands couldn’t get away with, they reigned in their sound almost immediately, with the Fall Tour focusing almost exclusively on 15-20min melogic energy jams which exude joy rather than cacophonous insanity. That said, the tour also filled the band with confidence over what they could accomplish when they let loose. Just past 30, now twelve years into a career that had recently become far more successful than they could have ever imagined, an arrogance took over the band which pushed them to work harder and strive for even more ambitious heights. Without this tour, one can’t fully imagine them undertaking an even more drastic reinvention just 18 months later.
In short, it’s one of the most important tours of their entire career, even if it’s not their most enjoyable to the majority of their fanbase. It also happens to be this writer’s favorite tour in Phish’s history. Whatever you think of it, it’s impossible to deny its relevance in why we’re all still listening to new Phish today.