Friday 05/31/2019 by FunkyCFunkyDo

TAKE THE BAIT - EPISODE 14. WHAT IS [_______]'S BEST YEAR?

[Take the Bait is spirited deliberation centered around the hyperbole of Phish’s music and fandom, passionately exuded via the written words of phish.net contributors @FunkyCFunkyDo and @n00b100. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of phish.net, The Mockingbird Foundation, or any fan… but we're pretty sure we’re right. Probably.]

Funky: Wouldn’t you know it, public internet forums can be a place of knowledge and enlightenment. ...instead of, you know, the usual slander, libel, and childish name-calling. Esteemed phish.net user, and frequent reader/chimer-in-er, @JMart, concocted this thread a couple weeks ago, which led to some great, Phishy discussion about which songs were better, or worse, during the 3.0 years.The forum delivered some fine discussion and debate, which got me thinking - we’ve coyly danced around any actual controversial opinions our last few episodes, casually diving into some forgotten about corners of the Phish world, which few people seemed to care much about, but important pieces of Phish nonetheless. Nerdism aside ::pushes up glasses to nose:: we didn’t really deliver anything too contorversial, neglecting to give the fans what they really want: a reason to use slander, libel, and childish name calling... directed at us! No doubt picking a jam’s best years will result in a slew of digital disgust, so let’s get on with it.

First, we should define what we mean by "best years." Simply and extremely controversially stated, we are each defining a song's "best year(s)" as the year(s) when the song had undeniably strong, regular performances within the context of the year as a whole and also its career. Our arguments with each other, now written out for your reading pleasure (or angst), came down not to statistical data like song lengths or segues into/out of or number of times played or placement in a show- or Jam Chart entries - it really just came down to what we feel is the best concentration of stellar, well above-average versions of the song, when compared to, exclusively, its own versions from that year, and then compared to the song's history. We did not use phish.net's Jam Charts as our basis, but did consult them for supplemental information.

BATHTUB GIN

Debuted in 1989 - right, can you believe that?! - “Gin” is as meat n potatoes as Phish gets. Reliable, pleasing, and expandable. That is to say, “Gin” can cover a wide range of crowd-pleasing jamming. More recent versions take on a archer’s arrow approach - straight-forward “peaky/hose” jamming, where Trey guides the band on a graphable, upward slope toward a hot-but-usual peak. In versions from yesteryear, “Gin” can take on jamming styles and moods and tones and sonic landscapes that are chaotic (in a good way) and multi-dimensional - anything but predictable or graphable.

Still, no matter which variety of “Gin” one prefers, it always seems to make fans happy. Noob, n00b, vet, and/or yours truly; shaken not stirred, dirty, dry, groovy, spacey, whatever, “Gin” seems to, somehow, happily unite fans when it pops up in a setlist. Never have I looked around and seen dejected faces or forlorn looks when the chorus rings out, “And we love to take a bath!” Nor have I seen people cinching up their pants when Trey is chasing after that peak. Pants, at that point, become entirely optional. Also, Page does this, which is pretty freakin' rad.

Ha! Enough of this fluffery. We promised the fans divisive opinions… and childish name-calling.

There are twenty-four years in which Phish played “Bathtub Gin,” but only one is the best year, simple as that: 2003.

2003 was a year of great musical exploration from Phish. From my point of view - the greatest year of exploration. No, I am not saying 2003 is Phish’s best year… actually… well, maybe I am saying that… but that’s for another episode. What I am saying, however, is that in 2003, Phish, even for a jam band, was totally and completely unrestrained. I’m going to get lost in the weeds here for a second - go “type-2” on the topic. Yes yes, you can commence with the name-calling.

There were no formulas, no patterns, no predictable jams coming from predictable song selections - [aside: the word 'predictable,' of course, used in the context of Phish isn't used literally, but as a loose, unwritten understanding or awareness of what songs tend to pop up where in the first or second set - it is an inexact science.] 2003 was as purely open-ended and explorational as Phish gets, for better, and (only a few times) for worse. First sets and second sets were interchangeable as jams popped up from any song, at any time. “Calling” a song was pointless, as setlists rarely repeated song placements and “usual” pairings.” Non-existent were familiar patterns of jamming, like the funk of 1997/98, the grooves of 1999/00, and the blissy peaks of 2015/16. There is beauty in chaos because chaos follows no rules; chaos is the ultimate expression of freedom. There is beauty in 2003 “Bathtub Gins,” even though chaotic would never be a word I would use to describe them, but beautiful and free would be. How interesting, the English language. Instead, Phish performed unanchored to a theme or a style: they were free. Years worth of space, and history, behind them, and a untouched canvas ahead of them. They jammed like a Smucker's factory during harvest, baby.

But before we get to those "Gins," one might ask, “Why was 2003 this way? Why was it so different?” In the world of Phish, reinvention and evolution are constants, not exceptions. We as fans, and I would presume the band itself, comes to want and even expect, proactively so, change within the music… to practice and play and will change into existence, show after show, year after year. I would bet that most, if not all, of you reading this have defended Phish on this exact premise to your gawking co-worker, friend, or family member, who inevitably asks, “Why do you keep seeing the same band? Don’t they play all the same songs? Don’t you ever get sick of hearing the same music?” Ha… the word “same,” a word which has no place in the Phish lexicon. “Change,” or perhaps “different,” replaces “same” - that’s why we keep going to shows. In 2003, nothing was the same.

I can only speculate that Phish, after a two and a half year planned hiatus which started in October 2000, was pretty excited to play together again. I surmise this because of Phish had a deliberate, distinct evolutionary curve from 1997-2000. These were four years of improvisationally, profoundly different Phish. ‘97’s thick and heavy“cow funk” gave way to, ‘98’s speedy and industrial robo-prog funk; ‘98’s robo-prog funk melted into ‘99’s ambient, elongated groove/trance dance marathons; the groove/trance of ‘99 downshifted into 2000, with its mellow, perhaps tired, but not underwhelming, exploration of a meld of the aforementioned. Who could really complain or blame Phish at this point in their career though?

Touring extensively for twelve straight years (yes I know they started in 1983, but 1989 is when the show ticker really started to whirl) while constantly rearranging themselves and their music - it had to be tiring. Hence the hiatus. Still, the hiatus from the get-go was impermanent. It was a purposeful, planned end so that there could be a new and fresh beginning. It was a chance for band and fan to re-energized and, for Phish specifically, find new passion and even newer originality with their music.

Trey Anastasio Band was in, arguably, its best iteration during the hiatus. Smoking hot 15-20+ minute jams popped up everywhere Vida Blue, Page's totally funked-out,calypso/zydeco/New Orleans mashup project was swirled like a hurricane drunk on hurricanes. Fish was having fun focusing on the weirdness of Pork Tornado. And Mike started working extensively with Leo Kottke to form Clone, reimagining not just how deep, but how wide and tall the chasms that Modulus could create. There was newness to their music, as collective individuals, but still as individuals, not as Phish. They were all learning and playing independently of each other, with the focus of reemerging together as a better band shortly into the future. There had to have been so many fresh ideas! Enter 2003 Bathtub Gin.

n00b: So me being the sort of asshole that thinks about Phish way too much (presumably the reason why you recruited me for this little project to begin with).

Funky: Now there's the childish name calling!

n00b: A couple of years ago I actually went through all of Phish’s jam vehicles with at least five entries on their respective jam charts and tried to figure out what my favorite years for those vehicles were. I’m not going to link to it, because I’ll be referring to it throughout this particular vein of columns, but it’s good to let everyone reading this know that I, too, enjoy being the brunt of childish name-calling, slander, and libel. Please note, though, I’ve got my J.D. and my bar card, so any actual libel’s gonna net you a big fat lawsuit, you dorks.

Anyway, "Bathtub Gin." I think this is actually the perfect jam vehicle for us to start this series with, and not just because I know that the longer you’d have to hold your unerring and unceasing praise for "Bathtub Gin" in 2003 inside your brain, the more likely it is that you would suffer an aneurysm and bring this series to a tragic end.

Funky: ::gasp:: You really have no idea how much restraint I had to use to make it this far, n00b 2003 "GINS" FOR LIFE!! ::heavy breathing:: WOO!!

n00b: One of the particular debate points I came upon in determining my favorite jam vehicle years was what I like to call the “career vs. peak” argument. Me being a baseball nerd (on top of all the other topics I’m a nerd about), I’ve put *way* too much brainpower into caring about the Hall of Fame and who gets in and who doesn’t. And one of the major arguments people get into is whether a candidate is better suited to the Hall from a “career” standpoint, where you reach many of the hitter’s milestones without necessarily having mammoth seasons, or from a “peak” standpoint, where you have a wonderful career for a few years and then burn out instead of fading away. Someone like Craig Biggio, who put up some big years but otherwise mainly stuck around long enough to amass a strong career*, would be an example of a “career” guy, and Dizzy Dean, a dominant ace for a few years before injuries caused his career to crater, would be a prime example of a “peak” guy.

*don’t tell Bill James I said this - that’s a little sabermetrics joke.

Funky: K. ...because strikeout and agreeme... ah forget it.

n00b: ...right. Phish, I’m getting to it. Take a song like "Simple," for example. If you look at its jam chart, you see seven entries from 1998, all of them quite good, and one (the 11/21/98 "Simple") truly beloved, as it’s the one from Hampton Comes Alive. You also see three entries from 2017, but two of them are highlighted, and those two are among the most beloved of 3.0 jams (7/15’s famed Chicago version, 8/6’s Baker’s Dozen version and winner of the 2017 Jam of the Year tournament). Which one of those years would you take - 1998, with its steady output and occasional peak, or 2017, with its smaller output but absolutely mammoth peaks? Yes, I know, the real answer is “1996”, but I think the example holds as to how you can think about jam vehicle years.

And that takes us to "Bathtub Gin," for a good stretch there one of the premier vehicles in the band’s arsenal (although it’s certainly had some fine 3.0 moments and 2015 was a monster year, albeit mainly for the Magnaball and 12/30 versions). You did quite the job parsing out the sound of Phish’s post-Remain in Light reconfiguration, so I don’t need to get too into that, but for whatever reason "Bathtub Gin" seemed to really strike the band as a really good vessel with which to carry forth the new minimalist sound that they’d embraced. That’s not to say that 8/13/93’s, 12/29/95’s, or 11/7/96’s (quite possibly the only reason that show got an archival release) versions aren’t beloved, as much as it is to say that 8/17/97’s, 6/28/00’s, and especially 7/29/98’s (a very reasonable choice for the greatest jam they ever played) versions are probably more beloved, and those years had numerous versions not particularly far behind. It was a real purple patch for "Gin," is what I’m getting at, and I struggled hard in figuring out which of those years was my favorite from 1.0, only landing on 1997 on the strength of the Went’s, 7/25’s (hey, that show sounds familiar!), the mammoth and sort of forgotten 7/21’s, and the wonderful Amsterdam version from 7/1.

You can say 1998’s year was superior and I wouldn’t want to argue with you; there’s no losers here, anyway...

Funky: ...I mean...

n00b: ..ah, but I’m sure the more careful reader caught that little caveat in the last paragraph - 1997 is my favorite year for "Bathtub Gin" *from 1.0*. Yes, I know the readers dislike it when we agree, Funky, but I’m going to have to do it - my favorite year for "Gin" from their entire career is 2003’s, and that even though I don’t think 2/28’s is all THAT great. It’s a career versus peak argument for me, and 2003’s Gin peak is absolutely astonishing. You’ve got 2/28’s (yes, it’s not THAT great, but it’s certainly not bad at all), the melted-chocolate-smooth groove of 2/14 version from the Forum, a magnificently powerful version from Cincinnati on 2/22, and maybe above all, 7/9’s behemoth and one of the finest (and least laden with the occasional dull part) examples of what 2.0’s improvisational style brought to the table. You could argue that 1997 and 1998 might have their equals in terms of peak - and none of those 2.0 "Gins" I think competes with Riverport’s - but when you put them together, combining them with the lesser-known 12/30’s and 7/25’s entirely fine versions, and taking into account just how much those jams serve as archetypes of 2003’s jamming style, I think that 2003 has to take the crown.

Funky: It’s not our fault we have great taste.

The variety within those “Gins” is amazing - truly astonishing. There is absolutely no overlap from version to version. No repeated ideas, no common themes - just pure, fresh, and outstanding improvisation, completely isolated within itself. Starting in January during the comeback run, 1.2.03’s version, a version which otherwise would cement itself as a top version of just about any year (especially in the 3.0 years) is, somehow, the forgotten version of 2003 “Gins,” that is saying quite a bit.

Then you have what I firmly believe to be Phish’s highest, most sustained single peak of any song ever in 2.14.03. It soars into what I can only describe as divinity. It is as must-hear as I can recommend. An auditory apex of astronomical achievement; A+, 4.0, high five! 2.22.03 features Jekyll and Hyde duality; powerful, bright crests that recede into deep, dark, industrial polyrhythms battling out, good vs evil style. Joy and terror, conjoined. 2.28.03 bobs and floats and ebbs and flows like vacationing coconut husk sunbathing on a Caribbean catamaran. 7.9.03 has some dirty, nasty rhythm section work and quasi-funk grooves which expand and contract, breathing, before eventually going fully cosmic and drifting into the indigo abyss of outer space.

This stretch of five “Gins” just might be the finest consecutive streak of a song… ever. I cannot overstate how strong,and different, they all are. Heck, you could even argue that the streak spills into the 7.18 and 7.25 versions, even though those are more usual fare, which, within this context, still means pretty dang good versions of the song.

Interestingly, however, we differ with our secondary preferences. The long, highly extended 1997 versions are hit-and-miss with me. Some parts are captivating, some parts bore me. For whatever reason, I don’t find them as memorable, although I do enjoy, quite a bit, 7.21.97's funked-out band intros and song "histories." One measly paragraph is all 1997 gets?? And vets everywhere are commencing with the name-calling! Fine, fine, I'll say it. Went Gin. Which I am 100% certain was incredible in the moment, but, was it not just a harbinger of the bliss jams you loathe so much today? [click here]

The real contenders come, like you said, in 1998 and 2000, but, especially 1999, which you omitted… idiot. Those September, October, December “Gins” are masterful! 9.12.99’s patient, mellow, passionate build gives me goosebumps. 9.22.99 one-ups what was built in 9.12 and adds elements of fire and pacing, amplified together, radiating a few lumens more of brightness. 10.1.99 mashes the previous two together to form a beautiful cacophony of chaos.

12.2.99 rages like “Piper” fury, 12.7.99 flies like a space shuttle, and 12.31.99’s peppy, bouncy, up-tempo jam (featuring a vocal jam) is just delightful, These two trios follow respective, defined patterns, much unlike 2003, but, still, they’re good… very good… the stuff we would sell our h3ttiest crystals for in 3.0. 1for3 2for10. C’mon guys, I bathed these in the moonlight last night, g-guy...? This is why I don’t run the accounting team for phish.net.

Still, the highest peak of “Gin’s” career just might be 7.29.98’s disco pulsar freight train Studio 54 dance orgy. There’s your aneurysm, n00b. Not sure how or why I was able to string those words together, but, I stand by them. The breakneck, dance party, Disco Stu eat your heart out, almost EDM-sounding groove of this version is the stuff my pants dream of. “Boy,” they say, “with a groove like that there’d never be a need for us again.” They’re not wrong.

We have 1997’s loose, intrepid, funky exploration; 1998’s singularity of a peak, perhaps Phish’s best jam ever plus, you know, the other ones you like; 1999’s strong building, peaky late-year trios (and supporting cast); and 2000’s lineup of straight-forward, white-hot, high-explosive ACME rockets (if you like 6.28.00, check out 6.23.00.) Still, what these years all have in discernable and catagorical parts (good parts), 2003 has in whole, and I might add, in better quality overall.

The 3.0 years have many good versions that run a linear path to a fun, happy peak, but nothing too adventurous… yeah, even Magnaball’s “Gin” for this listener AND attendee, is pretty “usual” when compared against the grand scheme of “Gins.” That’s not a knock on the Magnaball “Gin,” that’s a huge compliment to the history of “Bathtub Gin” as a whole. There IS one outlier in 3.0, however, coming from a year least expected: 2009.

8.7.09’s omni-morphing, cascading waterfall of a jam is one of the most unique and special pieces of improvisation Phish has delivered in the past ten years Flowing like honey during first spectrum of sunrise, the jam’s peaceful vibe and effortless drift make you feel a warm breeze passing through your hair, current weather conditions notwithstanding. Had it occurred in any year after 2010, it’d be getting a whole other level of attention and praise. But here we are. 8.7.09 as a whole might just be Phish’s best kept secret. ::wink wink::


Well, n00b, as I catch myself fondly reminiscing through the annals of Phish history, I remind myself that we have it pretty good with “Bathtub Gin.” I think we just about covered all the classics, with unbreakable confidence and bravado. “Bathtub Gin” is a special song in its unification of fan and crowd, year after year, no matter how straight forward or off the wall or pantless the jam gets. Everyone digs it. So, what better way to polarize a fanbase than to tell them which versions are the best versions! Remember, we’re usually right. Probably.

Winter 2003, and 2003 as a whole, was a special year for Phish, regardless of what you may or may not know, or have heard. Even if you don’t agree with our choices here, at least go back and check out those ‘03 “Gins” to indulge in a form of improvisation that, to this today, remains unreplicated and untouched with its ingenuity, imagination, and inventiveness.

n00b: Yeah, those "Gins" are pretty dope. It’s actually kind of interesting to go back and think about "Gin" - we all would likely say that one of "Tweezer," "Disease," "Ghost," or maybe "YEM" are the strongest jam vehicles in the history of the band, but I think that you could make a pretty decent case for "Gin" to be part of that beloved crowd. For one thing, it’s been relatively consistent as either a Type I standout (see: 6/23/00, 7/31/15) or a massive improvisational beast (see: uh, all the versions we pointed out in this column, weren’t you paying attention???). For another, precious few other jam vehicles could boast as many benchmark jams that serve as markers on the Phish timeline - 8/13/93’s^, 12/29/95’s, 8/17/97’s, 7/29/98’s, 2/28/03’s, 8/21/15’s. And, like the great jam vehicles throughout history, it often serves as a way for the band to display the finest of that particular year or era’s improvisational palette, most especially so in 2003. That’s a hell of a lot to sell, no?

^one of my favorite descriptions of this "Gin" comes from phish.net user, @MiguelSanchez - “this might have been the greatest jam the band had played at this point in their career.”

So let me sum up. As you noted, the most fruitful years for "Gin" would most likely be the late-90s and 2000 from the standpoint of “the most very good "Gin" jams”, and all of them touch on at least one aspect of what forms the mighty Voltron of Phish’s improvisational style. But 2003’s "Gins" manage to touch on all of those aspects, giving us the full three-course meal and a post-dinner coffee to boot. And that’s the very definition of “career versus peak” - and I’d say that peak wins this round. Let’s see if the next vehicle we touch upon is more a career type of vehicle.

PS: please do listen to that 8/7/09 show if you haven’t, folks. It is what I like to refer to as “the proverbial balls”.

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Comments

, comment by JMart
JMart “Hello, work? I’ve got to call out today. Oh, no nothing BAD happened. Something GREAT happened. I got shouted out on the .net blog so I’m going to have to sit here and jack it to the internet for the better part of the day. If I don’t come in today, don’t bother coming in Monday? Four day weekend!!!”

For me personally the existence of the Riverport and Went Gins automatically make the late 90’s the best era, but I’ve got 7/9/03 cued up.
When you get to hood, I’ll come out with guns blazing for (5/27) 1994.
, comment by MiguelSanchez
MiguelSanchez Geez...you fun boys blathered about Bathtub Gin for way too long before the number "1998" came up.
, comment by n00b100
n00b100 @MiguelSanchez said:
Geez...you fun boys blathered about Bathtub Gin for way too long before the number "1998" came up.
"You fun boys blathered about (x) for way too long before (y) came up" isn't just a handy summarizing of this series, it's practically our mission statement.
, comment by HarborSeal
HarborSeal "This stretch of five “Gins” just might be the finest consecutive streak of a song… ever."

I figured immediately that this couldn't be the case, that Mike's or YEM must have some streak in 94 or 95 that would beat this, or from Ghost in 97...but there's a weak link in any set of 5 I can come up with for any of those. The closest is YEM 10/28-11/18/95, but 10/28 is only very good.

The only counter I've got is 95 Tweezers. Take 6/14, 6/17, 6/22, and 6/28/95 with either 6/8 or 7/2, or pick either sequence of five from 11/30, 12/2, 12/8, 12/14, 12/17, and 12/28/95. I'd put those ahead of the 2003 Gins. But that's it.
, comment by n00b100
n00b100 Can I also say that I appreciate @MiguelSanchez giving us shit even despite the fact that I paid him what I thought was a very nice compliment at the end of this post?
, comment by MiguelSanchez
MiguelSanchez @n00b100 said:
Can I also say that I appreciate @MiguelSanchez giving us shit even despite the fact that I paid him what I thought was a very nice compliment at the end of this post?
Damn. Called out before I could double back.

Read this while at work. Read the first half. Posted a smart ass comment. Got distracted with stupid work. Doubled back to read the rest. Had the “oh shucks moment.” Got distracted by stupid work again. Am just now tripling back. Gracias. What can I say? I love some Gin.

Gonna be real tough to argue against ‘03. Funkys comment about the best 5 song run for a song got me thinking.

First, that’s definitely the best 5 in a row for Gin. Hands down. No contest. Best ever. Hmm...it’s gotta be up there. My first thought was Fall ‘94 Tweezers. There were a few in there I forgot about so it doesn’t stack up as well as I thought. Scrolled a little further. Fall ‘95 Tweezers May gave it a run. Dayton->New Haven->Cleveland->Binghamton->Lake Placid. Hell, you have 12/28 Worcester after that.

The other one that jumped to mind would be mike’s song. You have a pretty big time gap though. NYE ‘94->Red Rocks ‘95->Blossom->MANN->Great Woods. NYE ‘94 isn’t an improvisational juggernaut, but I’m a sucker for a Buffalo Bill sandwich. The Shoreline version in the fall could’ve bookended it the other way, but that one is pretty low on my ‘95 Mikes list.

Yeah...it’s tough to argue against that ‘03 Gin statement. What a stretch.
, comment by MiguelSanchez
MiguelSanchez Oh, this run of Ghost’s may be in the mix.

Alpine ‘97->Star Lake->Went->Denver->Hampton->Worcester

6 hot Ghosts right there.

The stretch of Ghost’s that kicks off ‘98 is no joke either. From the Island Tour to Europe up through Deer Creek. Impressive.
, comment by phishphan97
phishphan97 Piper '98
, comment by JMart
JMart @phishphan97 said:
Piper '98
You misspelled 99 :)
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