Phish fans correctly identify certain years or periods in the band’s history as “breakthrough” ones, moments when the band elevated its playing style, improvisation, sound, and song catalog to a new and higher level. Most commonly identified among these transition periods is August 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1997. Others rightly point to 2000, 2003 - 2004, and perhaps 2012 as seminal periods in the band’s musical development. 1988 is rarely mentioned in such company, but should be, and here’s why.
At the time, the band was still largely a local bar band based in Burlington, Vermont, occasionally making a few trips to neighboring states and, of course, one storied excursion to Colorado during the Summer. But during this period, the band underwent phenomenal growth, performing some exceptional music that every fan should seek out, not just for historical purposes, but because even to this day, 24 years hence and roughly 1000 performances later, it is timeless and outstanding music.
The band was at a juncture where it was comfortable taking musical risks, unafraid to try out and experiment with longer and more abstract types of exploration. To some extent, 1988 was a temporary high water mark for the band’s improvisational underpinning. During the ensuing three years, Phish would play hundreds of shows, transforming its stage performances into a well-oiled machine, and would write and fine tune a number of new and improvisationally-oriented songs, such as “Bathtub Gin,” “Maze,” “Tweezer,” “Reba,” “Runaway Jim,” “Stash,” and “Split Open And Melt.” But the band’s more profound musical explorations would in some ways remain in check until the spring of 1992, followed by their well-known burst of creativity in 1993.
Below are some examples of excellent, improvisational versions of Phish classics from this important transition year:
The Curtain With:
5/24/88 - One of the finest versions (top 3), EVER.
7/23/88 - Logging in at 21 minutes, it remains the longest version ever performed, and includes a jarring, dissonant jam, including a -> to “DEG” and a -> back to “The Curtain With” midstream.
6/20/88 - At 16 ½ minutes long, this exploratory version stretches the “type I” boundary at 9:00 mins into it, and then blows through it after 12:00.
11/5/88 - It may be essentially “type I” jamming, but it’s excellent nonetheless with incredible tension building as the jam progresses. Fans would go bonkers if the band played a version anything like this great one today.
9/24/88 - The first version performed that includes the now familiar Trey-led, somewhat-improvisational segment is an incredible one by several measures. Not only is the jam itself excellent with amazing playing by Trey, it also has the second longest jam segment of any version performed up until Halloween 1994. In fact, if you never realized that “Divided Sky” can jam, check this version out and compare it with any of your favorite versions.
2/8/88 - Wonderful version that includes some incredible trilling by Trey.
Jesus Just Left Chicago:
5/24/88 - At 14 ½ minutes long, the second longest performance ever. This outstanding version includes awesome Page jamming on the piano and then the B-3, followed by strong playing by Trey and a band-wide blues kicking jam.
6/21/88 - Some excellent Page on the organ, and ridiculously good, insane playing by Trey.
7/24/88 - The longest version, ever. Trey’s playing is so low down, it’s just plain nasty and awesome.
Slave To The Traffic Light:
7/12/88 - Very good early version with a great peaking crescendo finale.
Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley:
2/24/88 - With John Carlton on drums, Fish busts out the trombone. It may sound goofy, but actually Fish (assuming that it’s really Fish) is damned good. A great version that also has an excellent vocal jam.
7/12/88 - Really great jam section between verses followed by an INSANE vocal jam. Makes your typical “YEM” vocal jam seem pretty tame.
8/27/88 - Your n00b-cherry will be cracked ONLY after you've heard this. In other words, until you've heard this "Tela," you're a n00b and at the Phish you suck.
6/15/88 - Played at a slightly slower tempo than most versions, this one has an excellent jam section that’s every bit as mean and nasty as any out there.
7/30/88 - Arguably the most improvisational version ever. True, there are three versions from 1997 that are longer, but as the 4th longest version ever performed, this one has more movements and shifting jamming styles than any of these. Any fan of “Timber” should have this one in their regular rotation (and an excellent soundboard version can be purchased from Live Phish for $0.99 from the Colorado ‘88 collection).
5/24/88 - At nearly 19 minutes long, it’s the second longest version ever. Jah Roy joins the band and takes over the vocals towards the end of “Ya Mar” proper, leading the band into an extended reggae medley jam-fest.
6/20/88 - 24 ½ minutes and the longest version ever. Jah Roy again leads the band into a post-”Ya Mar” reggae infused jam.
So, please give 1988 a listen if you haven’t done so. And if you have any additional recommendations, please “comment” accordingly. (And thanks also for the corrections!) Thank you for reading.