It’s Super Bowl Sunday, which, as a football fan, is exciting and, as an Eagles fan, mildly depressing. Football, so they say, is a game of inches. A broken tackle, errant pass or missed field goal often is the difference between winning and losing a game. If Eli Manning doesn’t make two of the greatest/luckiest plays in Super Bowl history, Tom Brady has five Lombardi trophies. The flip side of that is that if Adam Vinatieri was never a Patriot maybe Mr. Bündchen has none.
So, what does this all have to do with Phish? Well, not terribly much, if I’m honest. But I was thinking this morning how most sports fans view football teams by how many championships they’ve won... who came through the most often in the big game. What if we viewed Phish songs that way?
I know, I know, there are no winners and losers among Phish shows. Fair point, but you were warned, this is a tenuous analogy at best. But here’s the thought experiment. Let’s pretend we made a playoff bracket of the best Phish jams for every year and voted on them until we had a “Super Bowl” matchup for that year. What songs would appear in the most Super Bowls? Who would “win” the most? And how would the best jam played on “Any Given Sunday” compare to what we thought of as the “best” song for a given year?
Ok, so that seems like a lot of trouble. Luckily, I’ve gone ahead and come up with some mythical “Phish Bowl” matchups for each year since 1993 (think of the pre-’93 years as the NFL/AFL years of Phish). I’ve also declared “winners” for each year. Now, understand, you can and should disagree with nearly everything that follows. I’ve tried to pick what I think are the consensus “best” jams for each year, even if they aren’t necessarily my favorites. But even doing that is a fool’s errand. (Don’t believe me... name the two “best” jams from 1997. Not easy, right?) So, without further ado, onto the games...
Phish Bowl I (‘93): In the inaugural Phish Bowl, the 8/13/93 “Gin” wins comfortably over the 2/20/93 “Mike’s.” So, that’s our “Super Bowl,” but it would be hard to argue that “Gin” was a better played song over the course of 1993 than “Mike’s Song.” In fact, “Mike’s” is probably the most consistently well-played song of the year with fantastic versions played on 2/20/93, 5/8/93, 8/13/93, 8/16/93 and 12/30/93. Still, it made the big game, but came up just short.
Phish Bowl II (‘94): I have this one scored as 12/29/94 “Bowie” by a touchdown over the 11/28/94 “Tweezer.” Again though, it’s probably hard to make a case for anything other than “Tweezer” being the song of ‘94. Still, we’re matching up pretty well.
Phish Bowl III (‘95): Unlike Super Bowl III, the favored 12/9/95 “YEM” wins this one as Tweezer (12/2/95) comes up short once again. And “YEM” is almost certainly the song of 1995, so we have our first year the PB champ is also the consensus best song of the year. Having said that, “YEM” does have one thing in common with Jets winning the real Super Bowl III... we won’t be seeing it again the rest of this column. Y-E-M! YEM! YEM! YEM!
Phish Bowl IV (‘96): I’m calling this one 11/2/96 “Crosseyed” over 11/7/96 “Gin.” If we were matching up the best songs over the course of the year, though, it would be a nail biter with “DWD” edging out “Simple” on the last play of the game (12/31/96 III).
Phish Bowl V (‘97): Good lord, it was damn near impossible to narrow this one down to two jams, but I’m gonna say 11/22/97 “Halley’s” wins this over the 8/17/97 “Gin.” Remember, I’m trying to nail down the consensus favorites, not my personal favorites (which would be just as hard, but would not include either of those). Song of the year is a much easier pick: “Ghost” by a mile, though none of 7/3/97, 7/23/97 or 11/17/97 had enough juice to make it to the big game, making it two years in a row that the “best” song didn’t win our mythical “Phish Bowl.”
Phish Bowl VI (‘98): 4/3/98 “Roses” wins a nail-biter over the 7/29/98 “Gin.” Personally, I’d flip the result of this one, but people love them some Island Tour “Roses.” “Bathtub Gin” is almost certainly the best played song of 1998, though, with epic versions occurring on 7/20, 7/29, 11/9 and 11/29. It did make it to the final game, though and arguably lost on a blown call.
Phish Bowl VII (‘99): I’m giving this one to the 9/14/99 “AC/DC Bag” over the [insert best jam from Big Cypress here... I’ll go with 12/31/99 “Drowned.”] It’s tough to pick a “best” song of ‘99 (maybe because it’s not my favorite year), but I think I have to go with “Sand,” even if it didn’t debut until the Fall. So this is another year where the “best” song didn’t make it to the final two, although a case could be made that “Sand” was, in fact, the best song from Big Cypress.
Phish Bowl VIII (‘00): Another close one as the 7/4/00 “Jibboo” edges the 5/22/00 “Ghost.” You could argue this one either way but “Jibboo” feels like the closest thing to a breakout song of 2000, so let’s call it the winner (and the second time the “best” song wins the Phish Bowl).
Phish Bowl IX (‘03): Another near-impossible year but I have the 7/29/03 “Crosseyed” coming in as our first two-time champ (who saw that coming?) over perennial bridesmaid 2/28/03 “Tweezer.” For my money I’ll take the Viper over either, but there you have it. As far as “best” song of ‘03, I’d have to go with “Seven Below,” although the tour de force of set-opening “Pipers” from ‘03 make a strong case. Don’t worry, “Piper” fans, its big day will come. “Tweezer” fans, on theother hand, should be worried... their “team” is 0-3 in the Phish Bowl.
Phish Bowl X (‘04): The 6/19/04 “Piper” takes down the 8/10/04 “Birds.” Some would call for an asterisk on this strike-shortened season, but the 6/19/04 “Piper” juggernaut would win many other years comfortably. It’s difficult to pick a “best” song of a year with only 16 shows, but it’s probably “Twist,” with outstanding versions from 4/16/04 and 6/20/04 just missing the cut for the big game.
Phish Bowl XI (‘09): Six years after it’s breakout season, the 11/28/09 “Seven Below” takes the prize over its set-mate the 11/28/09 “Ghost,” dropping “Ghost” to 0-2 in the big game. If we had a rule against teams from the same division playing in the Phish Bowl, the 8/7/09 “Sally” would fill in for the Albany “Ghost.” Either way, “best” song of the year is probably “Light.”
Phish Bowl XII (‘10): The 12/31/10 “Ghost” finally breaks through with a narrow win over the 6/25/10 “Chalk Dust.” Some may criticize the “Ghost” as one-dimensional, but the strengthof its power game on the ground was unparalleled and “Ghost is probably also the “best” song in a year where it’s hard to pick one.
Phish Bowl XIII (‘11): The 8/5/11 “Rock and Roll” edges out the 6/3/11 “Disease.” Amazingly, this is the first time “DWD” has made the big game. Sadly it came up just short, in this matchup of what are also the two “best” songs of the year (and “R&R” wins that one, too). First time that’s happened since Phish Bowl III all the way back in 1995.
Phish Bowl XIV (‘12): “Light is both the “best” song of the year and also our mythical Phish Bowl winner with the 9/1/12 rendition laying the smackdown on what -- amazingly -- has become the Buffalo Bills of this little exercise, the 12/28/12 “Tweezer.” Oh and Four for the mighty “Tweezer.”
If you’ve made it this far, I applaud both your stamina and your insanity. What are our take-aways? In 14 Phish Bowls the “best” song of the year has won the Phish Bowl five times (‘95, ‘00, ‘10, ‘11 and ‘12) and made it to the big game an additional three times (‘93, ‘94 and ‘98). Our only two-time champ is “Crosseyed and Painless.” Does anyone consider that the “best” song in Phish’s repertoire? Meanwhile, heavyweights “Tweezer” and “Bathtub Gin” are a combined 1-7 in the Phish Bowl. So suck on that, Steelers fans.