It was a cold Friday evening, the day after Thanksgiving, in Chicago on November 25th 1994, as nearly 10,000 fans descended upon the UIC Pavilion in the heart of the city. Phish was playing, returning after that summer’s extraordinary performance at UIC. Needless to say, it was prime time for the band and expectations were high and exceeded nearly each night of the Fall Tour, having played a show almost every night since October 1st, including the infamous White Album Halloween show at Glens Falls. One month later, Phish would have their national television debut on The Late Show with David Letterman.
So here we are, back in Chicago towards the end of the tour, at what could be considered the cresting wave of Phish’s popularity. The waiting crowd grows anxious and suddenly the lights go out and the band takes the stage as the crowd roars… frenetic guitar rifts, drum roll, cymbals and organ: “Llama”.
When the band kicks off a show with the song “Llama”, especially one as piercing and raucous as this performance, I’ve learned to expect a loud, violent, ambitious show… something like a cross between a hurricane and a ship run aground. And this show is no different.
After “Llama” we get “Guelah Papyrus” followed quickly by “Reba”, which the band takes to new heights almost immediately. “Reba” comes together with extremely tight, synchronized playing around Trey Anastasio’s slow notes and Mike Gordon’s aspirational heart-beat tempo. For a moment, the band shrinks down to almost nothing before slowly spiraling back upward with help from Fishman’s drum rolls. The music soars seemingly ever-upward and concludes with one last final note from all members leaving the room in silence for just one pure moment before the crowd roars and Phish whistles the theme to close.
After a short “Bouncing Around the Room”, we move onto “Split Open and Melt”, which quickly finds its deep, dark groove, down, down, down, down… dizzy, maybe drunk, meandering at high speeds, clamoring, spiraling, stumbling, as if feeding on the angst and anguish underlying the entire set, we can only wait for the inevitable head-on collision of the song’s studio version, but instead we land at the circus that is “Esther”, extending the rather sinister vibe of bizarre anger, danger, and frustration as a hush filed the chapel and people looked mean.
“Julius” and “Golgi Apparatus” conclude the first set.
In a long, ambient introduction “Also Sprach Zarathustra” opens the second set – as it does a fair amount of shows in the few years following it’s premiere in the Summer of 1993 – then quickly gives way to “Mike’s Song”. This is where the real magic begins: the deep bass notes with effervescent high hats point the way for the guitar and organ to feed and steal from each other. All four band members roll and tumble along until peaking with high guitar notes, tumbling down again and falling back into the song’s groove, which seamlessly transitions into “Simple”.
This performance of “Simple” is awesome, undeniably awesome. Highly regarded by fans and critics alike, the song peaks quickly, easily the apex of the entire show, ultimately losing control and imploding, falling, melting, into a droning guitar that fades into minimalist, ambient jamming: a slow, dark and dangerous motif, replete with a spooky, ominous catcall from one of the band members, “You-hoooooo!”
The bizarre vocalization is hypnotizing, as if to lead us into the forbidden, haunted house for treats offered by a dangerous siren… we’re drawn in, closer and closer, and just as we reach the threshold, a sharp wake up call: an acapella “Om pa pa, oom pa pa, oom pa pa, oom pa paaaa…” And we’re saved by “Harpua.”
With narration concerning happy green love beams and angry red hate beams, this “Harpua” is widely agreed to have inspired the very first glowstick war that has since become synonymous with the band’s live shows. And perhaps just as interesting about this performance may be the exasperated scream that occurs: fitting with the narration of a banished mountain who’s frustration and anger is boiling over, the band and the 10,000 in attendance let out an angry, aggressive bellowing scream. This is not a yell, or a roar… the arena fills with a ghastly, incensed, even wrathful scream. It’s cathartic. In the song’s continued narration, the scream unfortunately kills Jimmy’s cat, Poster Nutbag, collateral of the violent shedding of an underlying disquietude and trouble.
Now free, and cleansed the band launches into “Weekapaug”, fast and furious right away, Trey works the jam with Page but ultimately bows out as Page McConnell hammers away on the grand piano. Page then moves to the clavinet and picks up the tempo. With an unparalleled speed and precision, he double-times the bass and drum combo, pushing everyone into a frenzied race, a funky staccato sprint down the track. Some claim sparks flew from Page’s clavinet keys. Though short-lived, this jam is a must-hear.
A new heavy bass riff calls the guitar back into the fray and after our speedy jaunt, we’re back in dark jam territory, moving and grooving, not pausing once. Eventually, Trey finds the melody for “The Mango Song” sending us into the lightest, sweetest part of a very dark and heavy show.
“Mango” is appropriately fun and easy, a nice segue into the obligatory “Harpua” cover song for which McConnell opens with on piano. It’s “Purple Rain”, Fishman on vocals and vacuum. And while these days “Purple Rain” would be quite the bust out, back in 1994 Phish played it with some regularity, and during 1993’s Summer Tour they plated it 14/33 shows.
Nevertheless this performance is one for the record books, as Fishman pulls no punches while singing, “I never wanted to be your weekend lover!” and subsequently nails Prince’s high guitar notes on his vacuum. A 60-second “Hold Your Head Up” follows as Trey rolls and crashes on the drums celebrating Fishman who runs from side stage to side stage.
The band quickly regroups and concludes the set with the high energy of “Run Like an Antelope”, starting small and quiet, slowly rising into the atmosphere, the troposphere, the stratosphere… pairing down to a simple guitar riff before Mike Gordon’s quick bass joins in, some vocalizations, building again to a crescendo that can only echo the unbridled scream of Harpua’s character on the mountain.
Returning to encore with Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times”, Phish concludes a whirlwind show, rife with angst, perhaps a reflection of the band’s mood? Here they are, one month after their now famous “White Album” Halloween Show, and one month prior to their national television debut on “Letterman”. Here they are, perched uneasily on the precipice of celebrity and a scale of fandom yet unknown while performing to a crowd, an army 10,000-strong shooting off green love beams and angry red hate beams, a first for all, undeniably signaling change, a transition, a baptism by fire, by glowsticks, by one single, sustained, primal scream shared by all.
There would be no going back. No one on the mountain would ever return to the village. We now had a division in history: everything before, and after, Friday, November 25th, 1994.
Set 1: Llama, Guelah Papyrus, Reba, Bouncing Around the Room, Split Open and Melt,Esther > Julius, Golgi Apparatus
Set 2: Also Sprach Zarathustra > Mike’s Song -> Simple > Harpua > Weekapaug Groove -> The Mango Song > Purple Rain > Hold Your Head Up, Run Like an Antelope
Encore: Good Times Bad Times