Phish returns this weekend to Allstate Arena. The former Rosemont Horizon has played host home of some memorable shows, including five previous Phish performances dating back to 1995.
Chicago has long been a Midwest stronghold for the band, even more so in recent years as the band has scaled back its touring. And like any region, it’s seen its share of both legendary and (*ahem*) not-so-legendary performances.
As the first fall tour Chicago-area shows in 18 years and the first indoor performances in the metro area since 2011, there’s certainly some potential in this upcoming run. But top ten potential? Possibly. But first we'd have to craft a suitable list...
Although immediately that becomes problematic. Comparing vastly different eras and performance styles across venues from nightclubs to baseball stadiums is crazy enough. But trying to weigh moments – which can be anything from songs, sets, or runs – in the same list, that’s just insanity. Sign me up.
In this list, I tried to consider each moment’s pure musical quality and adventurousness paired with the performance’s importance to the band, its career arc, and evolution in our city and with our fans.
So how’d I do?
10. Cabaret Metro 5/5/92. A co-bill with Col Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit at the peak of their powers. If I could time machine to one Chicago show prior to my first, it’d have to be this one. Back before the Northside venue dropped the Cabaret from its title, it played host to a literal dream pairing.
Plus, it has all the hallmarks of early 90s Phish: a setlist packed with classic material, “Forbin’s” > “Icculus” > “Mockingbird” which references the Rodney King riots that were happening that day (they would be further referenced in “Stash”), curiosities like the ”Band/Crew Football Theme Song”, and even a proto-jam in “YEM”. All of this in a venue known for hosting bands on their way up. Man, did it come true in this case -- from the 800 capacity club, they’d play across the street in Wrigley Field two decades later.
9. The Elements Set. UIC Pavilion 8/15/11. In the summer of 2011, even the we’re-just-happy-they’re-back contingent of fans was getting pretty anxious for some truly epic 3.0 Phish to sink their teeth into. On the opening night of a rare indoor summer three-show run, the fanbase got a peek into what was still possible for a band that seemed to be phoning it in through 2009 and 2010.
The set itself had the makings of an old-school classic, with only a handful of tunes, slickly segued playing and no real comedown songs. Even without a signature improvisational style on display, there were some nice jams sprinkled throughout. Only in retrospect did it seem like there was a “theme”, with each of the song titles containing a single word and vaguely referring to the elements (uhhhh... Undermind? Mined?). They even capped it all off with fives songs in the encore.
Sure, there were other hints a renaissance by the summer of 2011, but this set certainly helped pry the door open for better 3.0 days ahead.
8. “The Wedge” Northerly Island 7/20/14. After a debacle at the same venue in 2013, there was a bit of a redemption quality to the three-night stand in 2014. Each of the Friday and Saturday shows contained a sequence of improv that while not extraordinary, at least showed that they were trying. It almost seemed as if the Sunday show would disappointingly go without when "Mike's Song" yielded a fourth-quarter “Wedge” that pulled out all the stops in the most unexpected place. It has only grown in stature since.
7. “Simple” Northerly Island 7/15/17. This jam gets a tad lost in the 2017 shuffle as it was not part of the Baker’s Dozen run, and represents the first instance of East Coast Bias™ on this list. It's easily the greatest Chicago jam since the 1990’s.
A 27-minute monster, the jam traversed past several places that Phish would have pulled the "ripcord" only six months prior -- mining creative new spaces in each successive minute. It was a window into the type of exploration that would be necessary in order to pull off a no-repeat Baker’s Dozen -- a tactic deployed again on “Jam Filled” night and again throughout that summer. The training wheels were off.
6. UIC Pavilion. The 1998 Run (11/7-11/9). This run (oddly Sat - Mon) represents three shows of such consistent quality, it’s hard to elevate one over the other two (although I’m sure many have tried). If pressed, I might go for the “Bathtub Gin” second set opener on 11/9 as the absolute peak, but you can’t go wrong with a four-song set (11/7) or “Been Caught Stealin’” encore (11/8). An embarrassment of riches.
5. Allstate Arena 2/20/03. Phish’s only 2.0 Chicago appearance and it’s a doozy. There are three jams in the second set that top out at 20 minutes or more (including “Pebbles & Marbles”!?!). And that tally doesn’t count the 37 minutes of “Simple” and “Gotta Jibboo” that close out the first. Sorry 2.0 haters, but give this one another chance.
4. Farm Aid 10/3/98. A festival set at #4? You’re goddamn right. And honestly, you know why we’re here. The Phish/Neil Young collaboration was a revelation – it just felt so right, so destined to be repeated. And yet we’re still waiting 20 years later for Uncle Neil and Phish to cross paths again.
Although the pre-guest portion of the set was fairly perfunctory, you can’t argue with the 30+ minutes of “Runaway Jim” and “Down By The River” with NY, integrating a Phish song with a Neil all-timer. Young strapped on a Languedoc and tapped into the heaviest of Crazy Horse noise rock/improv, something that 1998 Phish could hang with all too easily. The four more traditional songs with Willie Nelson are the whipped cream and cherry on top.
3. The World - Tinley Park 8/14/93. August of 1993 was the true breakout for Phish’s improvisational prowess, and while their stop at “The World” didn’t feature a single ground-breaking jam, the beginning of its second set was emblematic of the restlessness and spirit of exploration that the band was feeling with its material by this point in the tour.
Kicking off (like most sets that summer) with “2001”, the sequence of jamming three cover songs in and out of “Run Like An Antelope” had the. Odd that the band was booked into giant sheds at this point in their career (although would not be out of place in just a few years), but they were already coming up with ways to transition their sound from theaters to the big spaces. Despite this being one of the worst of these types of venues, this show was no exception.
2. UIC Pavilion 1994. I’m cheating and counting the two shows at the same venue five months apart a run of sorts. Hey, they were released together as the Chicago 94 box set. What an exciting time to see Phish -- they were hungry and entered each and every venue with something to prove. Oh, man, did they deliver in Chicago.
The June show featured the “Divided Sky” that Trey felt the need to single out and reference as a peak moment. Both the second is the goods, with a “Mind Left Body Jam”-infused “David Bowie”, “Tweezer” and “YEM” -- all packed into a little over an hour of music.
By November, the band had its fans eating out of its hands… the return featured a “Mike’s Groove” with an epic “Simple” and “Harpua” as the meat. The “Harpua” contained narration about love beams, that prompted thrown glowsticks (the first time?) that to this day I still can’t figure out if was pre-planned. A true mind-fuck for a band that could produce them at will during this period. How would they top it in their next Chicago performance?
1. Rosemont Horizon. 10/31/95. Four hours of music that kicks off with “Icculus” and ends with an acoustic cover of “My Generation” with instruments being destroyed a la The Who. In the middle? Just a solid first set capped off with “Antelope” and “Harpua” (complete with a Michael Jackson fake-out and a Michael Gordon “BABY RACCOONS!” monologue”) and perhaps the most ambitious of all the Halloween cover albums, the 17 song Quadrophenia with guest appearances from a horn section and Dickie Scotland as the Bellboy.
Then there’s the third set. East Coat Bias™ will tell you 12/9/95 “YEM” is the all-time greatest, but this set opening 40-minute leviathan competes on every level, its placement alone has got to earn some bragging rights. Then Grippo (and company) return to put the punctuation on a one-of-a-kind performance, referencing our city “Jesus Left Chicago” and just fucking blowing it out (“Suzy Greenberg” with the full horn section).