An Overly Deep Dive into the History and Development of ‘McGrupp and The Watchful Hosemasters’ OR “How I Try to Get More McGrupp Jams Put on PJJ”

Every once in a while it is fun to take a song and really go deep with it, listening to every version that Phish has ever performed in order. Some may find this type of exercise pointless, tiring, ridiculous, boring, or even insane (or more probably a combination of all of the above and more)  but to me it offers a great way to track the development and progression of a song over the years as the band has worked through it and altered its course. There are some songs where this can get old pretty fast, particularly when the variation comes only in the few bars of Type I improv that come out of an otherwise standard performance for the tune but in many cases the song as debuted once upon a time has changed significantly over the course of time, sometimes adding or removing parts and other times becoming something entirely new along the way. One song that has had a fairly intriguing evolution (well, to me at least) is McGrupp And The Watchful Hosemasters (for the sake of brevity following this reference the song will be shown by its shorthand fan name ‘McGrupp‘), a song with a long history, connection to the Gamehendge saga, and just enough performances to make this little exercise worthwhile without becoming tedious.

 

In full disclosure, I will admit that some of my motivation in going down this path was in looking for the song on the wonderful resource that is www.phishjustjams.com I was shocked to discover they had only picked out a minuscule THREE performances of the song for inclusion in the jam files. Now, while the song is definitely not a big, open-jammed juggernaut I maintain that that list needs to be expanded a bit even if they don’t agree (hi, Verno!) with all that I write about the song’s jam and its 114 known performances, not to mention the four versions of the song as Skippy The Wonder Mouse (hereafter referred to as “Skippy”) before the name change and lyrical overwrite. Part of the complication here stems from the PJJ mission statement apparently forbids inclusion of anything pre 1993 and while I respect that and the reasoning behind it I will absolutely be focusing a lot on the progressions made with McGrupp in the years prior to that if for no other reason than 63 of the 114 versions of the song (plus those 4 Skippys!) occurred prior to 1993. To ignore all of that here would kind of defeat the purpose and really conflict my obsessive nature, people.

 

So where to start. Well, the first thing you should do is check out the Song History on phish.net which goes into a lot of the detail about how the song came to be (and check the brief Skippy Song History too since you are visiting .net). You might also want to take a gander at the Jamchart for the song as others have gone down this road before in their own way so if you find my nerdiness to be lacking check out someone else’s! Really cannot say enough about how privileged we are to have phish.net and other resources to help feed these obsessions of ours. Support them however you can!

 

With all of that out of the way let’s dive in! Fair warning, as I haven’t written much of late you can probably expect this one to be lengthy. I have some pent up prose to use here, people.

My Little Docking Pup: Early Formation of Skippy and the Watchful Wonder Mousemasters

As you can read elsewhere, the music that eventually became the substance of the song McGrupp stems from a composition Trey and his mom Dina put some weird, childish lyrics to some time before Phish was a thing. There are four known performances of this song with three being in circulation…

12.01.1984  –  As far as we can tell, the fifth ever Phish show (and the first at Nectar’s Upstairs which eventually became known as Club Metronome) included its debut along with that of several other songs, most notably Slave To The Traffic Light, Fluffhead, and Cities. This version includes a long, drawn out introduction of The Dude of Life as he came to the stage to sing the Skippy lyrics (along with those for Fluffhead afterwards). Musically, the seeds of McGrupp are there albeit in a loose, almost jazzy version played under the DoL’s singing before they hit on the composed section that most will know from the song it becomes. Then, where eventually the ‘jam’ section will reside there is a brief bit of instrumental frenzy ahead of a reprise of the lyrics and the DoL egging the band on in the closing segment before they drop out into that Fluffhead debut. This is interesting as a time capsule version but otherwise not one you will spend much time with, frankly.

03.04.1985  –  According to the notes on phish.com about this show, the 13th ever Phish show, this was an African Relief Benefit for OXFAM and a dance party connected to a local radio station’s fund raising radiothon. The song is the same as the prior version but apparently Tom had recently sent the poem that became the lyrics to McGrupp to Trey so he intoned those over the music instead of using the less, ummmm, “serious” (??) ones from Skippy. This would be the way McGrupp would be “sung” for a while with each version getting creepier (somehow) and on this night the Dave mentioned in the lyrics was in attendance which is nice. Following the composed part the band takes this version out for a very engaging dual guitar attack (keep in mind that at this stage Jeff Holdsworth was the fourth member of the band as Page would join later in the year), stretching well beyond the framework of the song in a way that today we would call a “bliss” jam (though never fully paying it off) with Fish pushing the tempo before they return to the composed theme and wind down the song. For an added bonus check out the In The Midnight Hour that follows here as the jam is purely a Lovelight jam. I would consider this version one to check out if nothing else for the uniqueness of the band’s sound with two guitarists and no keys of any sort.

03.16.1985  –  This is one that we have no tape for, only the notes on phish.com about this 15th ever (!!) Phish show. It sure would be nice to hear one of the last Skippy versions ever… along with that “Lydian Jam” noted on the setlist

04.06.1985  –  This is the first version of the song that is titled as McGrupp (bear with me, as the crossover between the two songs at this stage gets a tad murky) and another night full of debuts (which tends to happen when you have only ever played 17 shows to date). Again, no tapes are in circulation so all we have to go on are the notes on phish.com which mention it being another one where the lyrics are narrated and not sung.

05.03.1985  –  These days it is weird to think of Phish NOT including Page but here we have the first ever time their “friend Page from Goddard” sat in with Phish. That sit-in started as a set here but has lasted now for quite a few years. Still only the 23rd show the band had ever played, it is pretty remarkable what they accomplish here, particualrly in this third set that goes Scarlet>Eyes>Whipping Post>McGrupp>Jam>Makisupa>Jam>The Other One. Seriously??? Could you imagine the heads that would explode if that set dropped today? Anyway, the McGrupp is missing from the tapes I have found but apparently they exist as this note from the jamcharts mentions: “Page sat in as a guest for this show, and he begins make his presence felt, adding color to the excellent, guitar-driven jam, which has moments that sound similar to ‘Drowned’ ” so check it out if you can find the tape.

09.26.1985  –  This was a radio promotion gig and the first official appearance by Page as a member of Phish. Tapes exist as the DEG from this was in the Bonnaroo 2009 FTA but I have not found the McGrupp so we will just move on.

09.27.1985  –  As with above, this is another one where the tapes don’t circulate widely so nothing to see here except the note about Trey jokingly calling McGrupp “Love The One You’re With”

10.17.1985  — Here we have the first version with Page that is in circulation and following the then standard creepy intoned lyrics and composed section they take another guitar-led jam that feels like it could fall into St. Stephen (of all songs) at few points. Pretty cool version that is worth checking out as one of the final ones where Page is not the focus of the end jam.

10.30.1985  — This is the last of the ones titled Skippy (and with the lyrics from it) and it is a biggie at that. You can hear Page’s contributions as he adds color behind the dual guitar attack for an extended jam that weaves in and out of the song structure. There are several minutes of pushing and pulling as they work back to the composed reprise to finish the song. The jam is fairly meandering but not like a version you would hear today so check it out.

04.01.1986  —  For what would be the final version of the song with Jeff Holdsworth Trey goes weird with his intoned delivery of the lyrics and then they jump off into a spirited if much more brief jam with a lot of similarities to the one from 10.30.85 and an even more assertive Trey before they move out to Alumni Blues without going back to finish the song.

 

The Grime of Countless Work Dogs:  Song Development in the Post-Jeff-Pre-Jam-Era Time Period

The next phase in the evolution of this song came in the months after Jeff Holdsworth left the band, solidifying Phish as the four piece outfit we have become accustomed to over these many years. Versions in this time period follow the same template as the song now has what we know as its final structure but there are subtle variations between versions that hint at the band’s tinkering with it the live setting.

10.30.1986  —  The lyrics are still spoken (and tonight Fish adds to the oddity with a falsetto reading behind Trey) and then the song takes off with an uplifting jam where for the first time we get the cleaner tone of Page playing piano, though still only the electric in this time period as the baby grand wouldn’t be available until Spring 1993.

12.06.1986  —  For some reason the version from this show is not on the circulating tapes even though the tracks that surround it in the setlist are.

04.29.1987  —  The intonation of the lyrics keeps getting more odd as they alter the pace to match the tension of the content. The jam is in the same uplifting mode as others in this period with some hints of familiarity for a song still to be written…

08.09.1987  —  Yet another one not in circulation

08.21.1987  —  Here we have the first version where the lyrics are sung rather than spoken! The harmonies need some work but we are getting closer to the modern version here. The jam after the composed bits again hints at that familiar theme and in case you haven’t picked it up yet this is to me an early inkling of Chalkdust Torture or, more specific to this time period, the Dude of Life song Self which eventually leant its iconic riff to the now famed Phish classic. This jam gets quite spirited as all four band members connect well before Mike introduces a new idea that takes them to a Stir It Up jam and eventually Makisupa.

08.29.1987  —  Structurally similar to the previous one with a jam that is kind of the generic jamband template stuff, setting up the rocking move to Possum in a perfectly expected way.

10.14.1987  —  Instead of a McGrupp jam the band segues to Clod, one of the pieces of the Fluffhead suite, making for an interesting if perhaps not really notable version of our subject song. Interestingly, McGrupp also came OUT of another song in its infancy, Divided Sky, here just a small form of what it would become.

10.31.1987  —  You can pretty much copy the prior performance’s notes here. Same three song grouping as the nascent Divided begat McGrupp which begat Clod.

11.19.1987  —  Page shines brightly here with his piano playing out front in the first version where this really feels like it is HIS song. We again get a McGrupp jam, a patient one lacking the direct energy of prior versions but closer to the versions from the modern era. Trey eventually comes in towards the end to help steer things towards a nice move to Sparks but this one is all Page until then.

02.07.1988  —  This is the first version where we hear the full drop into the jam accompanied only by Mike’s bassline before Page solos over it. Prior versions fall right into it, mainly with Trey continuing to play right out of the composed section but here Trey steps back and gives that moment to Page. The jam is relatively short but now we ostensibly have the template upon which the modern version of the song is based.

02.26.1988  —  Unfortunately the part of set II that would include McGrupp does not circulate.

03.12.1988  —  On this night McGrupp cemented its place as part of the Gamehendge saga, providing the lead-in bridge from our world to that of The Lizards (after the debut cover of the wonderful Jump Monk by Charles Mingus). Page’s piano solo transitions perfectly into the backing track for Trey’s narration, becoming The Lizards before you realize it. This is a beautiful version but serves mainly as gateway to other places.

03.21.1988  —  With that recent Gamehendge performance now behind them McGrupp returns to its standard form. Page gets a brief solo section but it is almost of the blink-and-you-will-miss-it variety between the two bigger composed sections.

 

Encased In Orange Rinds:  Messing Around Within the Form

By mid 1988 the general structure of McGrupp was set. There was an intro, lyrics sung over the melody, intricate composed section, jam section, and (usually) a return to reprise the composed theme and close the song. I say usually as we have seen many that never returned to the song above. But overall, this is the structure we know today (and I think I basically mirrored the description of such that is in the Song History on .net). This did not mean that the band was content to leave the song as is. No, that wouldn’t be very Phish-like if they did, would it?

05.15.1988  —  Following the longest gap in the song’s history since its debut (18 shows! the prior longest gap had been 13 at this stage) the song returns with a new wrinkle. Ahead of the song starting Trey introduces Fishman as the “second best trombone player and drummer in all of Vermont” (with Page adding “and some parts of New Hampshire”), foreshadowing the drummer’s contributions to the McGrupp to come. In the midst of the lyric section Trey and others interject by imploring the crowd to “check this out” (quite hilariously in my opinion) and then the song proceeds as it typically would. Well, I suppose that is until the jam where Fish drops out completely, leaving Trey and Mike to keep the rhythm going as Page solos. Suddenly there are these trombone fills that are surprising in the least and off putting at times before they shift towards the end run and he returns to the kit. I’d say this one was unique if it only happened once.

06.15.1988  —  This one might include the trombone stylings of Fishman but I wouldn’t know because of the unbelievably jarring cut into Fluffhead on the tape I listened to. Too bad, because it sounded like Page was going to hit some nice stuff there…

06.19.1988  —  Perfectly uneventful version that stays true to form, includes a nice if not overly interesting Page solo, and not much else.

07.11.1988  —  Similar vibe to the prior one though Fish does come in mid-jam with some less abrasive trombone fills. This show is more notable for being the show after Trey got his degree which is nice.

07.24.1988  —  Page really takes charge of the jam here and Fish has found the “proper” amount of trombone fill to add behind him. Still has the feeling of WTFery to hear the horn bleatings on this otherwise quite beautiful version though.

07.29.1988  —  Fish takes over on trombone more than he had in prior versions. Page is comping underneath but this one is more about the horniness than anything. It even includes a stop/start bit where the rest of the band is all but mocking him musically so there is that.

08.04.1988  —  Much like the previous version from the same venue on this Colorado run Fish takes the trombone solo over Page and the rest of the band though overall this one is truer to form.

08.22.1988  —  no tapes for this one though the show notes indicate Fish again played trombone here

09.13.1988  —  Page is more direct in adding flourishes within the composed section and then as he begins the solo. He drives this version (perhaps imploring Fish to stay at home on the kit) and it is all the better for it. The band joins in with Trey adding some sustained bent notes as they climb up to a peak run that shifts to the eventual close of the song. This is the type of Type I version that will become the norm.

09.22.1988  —  Another setlist cobbled together from anecdote, there are no tapes that circulate

02.07.1989  —  Stays mainly true to form with some back half trombonery putting this one in the weird pool (imagine witnessing that upon checking this band out for the first time on a cold Tuesday night in Burlington?)

03.03.1989  —  Fans join in with some clapping as the jam starts and Page tinkles away in a not really notable version

03.30.1989  —  Meandering Page-led jam here that kind of crashes back into the reprise

04.15.1989  —  sadly, I cannot locate this tape which the show notes say included Fish trying out a new electronic drum machine thing during McGrupp

04.20.1989  —  not much to write about here

04.30.1989  —  about as standard as standard can get

05.05.1989  —  Sparser playing in the jam with Mike and Page giving us one of the earliest “clean” bass/piano jams. Fish comes in eventually with the trombone though in a very subtle manner.

06.10.1989  —  Trey out front due to the tape but nothing major happening here. We appear to have exited the trombone phase with this song

06.30.1989  —  breezy playing by Page with Trey comping along but nothing out of the ordinary

08.17.1989  —  Well this is new. following Page’s lovely solo Fish comes in on trumpet (!) switching up his brassy accompaniment from one horn to another. As far as I know this is perhaps the lone version where Fish does this. Even with that I wouldn’t consider this to be a version you need to hear unless you really like random trumpet calls

09.09.1989  —  Back to the more ‘normal’ version of the song here. Nice enough but nothing special.

 

Who Do? McGrupp Do!:  Nothing Borrowed Nothing Gained (Literally)

Some time in the Fall of 1989 Phish was trying to figure out what to do with this “Fluffhead” thing. They had “shelved it” following the famed Townsend Park show on 08.29.1989 (released as LP09) and over the next 40 or so shows the only presence for the song was in some of its individual parts being played either on their own, tucked into other songs, or in the case of the Who Do? We do! (WDWD) section, as something of an end coda to our subject song here. The irony of this is that after tearing the song apart they put it back together in the same format without any noticeable alteration so it could have simply been one of those cases of Phish being Phish and fucking with their fanbase.

09.21.1989  —  This first example has the full McGrupp with jam and outro reprise but then drops right to WDWD

10.01.1989  —  Similar to the previous one, WDWD is simply done right in the wake of McGrupp but not until Page and Mike lead us into a darker part of Gamehendge with the McGrupp jam. It isn’t a long excursion but things get a tad creepy before the triumphant release of the reprise.

10.10.1989  —  no tapes! and even further, phish.com only recollects Reba from this night while phish.net has a more robust setlist with some notes. so not really sure what is what here…

10.21.1989  —  before I get to McGrupp, please do yourself the favor of listening to one of the few versions of the witty Phish original In A Hole that precedes this one. The song exists now only as anecdote (see the encore banter from 08.31.2014) but I honestly think it is one that they could really have some fun with were they to actually bring it back. Anyway, McGrupp here has NO jam segment or final reprise with WDWD replacing it entirely.

10.22.1989  —  The very next night they played McGrupp again but tonight there IS a jam segment and reprise before the move to WDWD

11.02.1989  —  A playful bit of Page on electric piano leads to a crowd clap-along as the pace quickens. Things progress as usual from there with WDWD finishing off this well played version

11.09.1989  —  Page is even more creative here (and there are more claps to be heard!). This is a solid Type I version on the way to WDWD (and perhaps the best sounding example of that combo from this period)

11.10.1989  —  things progress as they have been here with WDWD following a nice bit of Page in the solo (and after the reprise). the fun note from this one is Clod then follows WDWD as the band seems to be working back towards performing the entirety of the Fuffhead suite together again.

12.08.1989  —  the final version in the “WDWD Era” is quite similar to the ones that preceded it. Not much else to mention here ::shrug::

 

He Looks Too Much Like McGrupp:  The Middling Years

Following the December 1989 performance of the song McGrupp then saw its longest gap to date come as Phish waited another 32 shows before bringing the song off the shelf (keep in mind that with the frequency of their performances in this era and the relatively small songbook of the period this was a notably long gap at the time). Notably, 53 of the 118 versions (including Skippy but not the 09.26.1985 radio promo gig) happened pre-1990 so from here on out the gaps get longer and the song becomes a bit more of a special occurrence than it once was. The average gap for McGrupp pre-1990 is a scant 6.47 shows while since that has ballooned to 22.2. Once back, the song was in something of a rut with not much to speak of in terms of unique versions (aside from a few teases and some jammery here and there) but that doesn’t mean we will skip them! No way!!

02.25.1990  —  the only things notable here are the request/dedication to the crew banter leading in, the Sailor’s Hornpipe (or the theme to Popeye if that rings more of a bell for you) tease and the quite fun, extended Makisupa that follows.

03.10.1990  —  oddly enough, even after Fluffhead had returned in full we get another McGrupp with the WDWD “coda”. This was also the final stand alone performance of WDWD.

04.09.1990  —  there’s a lot to like about the sparse playing and quiet atmosphere from this Telluride version. Page goes lounge lizard, playing classy piano jazz lines that would have all the divorcees cozying up were he in a smoke-filled dinner club on Long Island instead of a classic live music venue in a mountain town.

04.19.1990  —  exists as a footnote only since there are no tapes from this first ever performance at the Boulder Theatre

05.23.1990  —  the McGrupp here is perfectly average good but listen to the A Train that follows for a quick tease of McGrupp by Trey (around 2:37 on the circulating tapes)

09.20.1990  —  here at the Lawn Boy release shows in Somerville, MA McGrupp joins all the “new” songs for a swinging good time, some big ol’ woo hoos out of a few (probably overserved) audience members, and more of that clapping the kids back then liked to do.

02.14.1991  —  there is a pattern forming here as McGrupp seems to have a tendency to go into hibernation in the latter months of the year in these pre-jam years and often to then experience the then longest gap for the song. This one comes in after a 56 show gap and has a Jeopardy Theme tease by Page in the jam though most who know this show at all will recall it for the band giving away the minivan during IDK.

05.10.1991  —  well here is something a bit different! Fish drops out as they hit the jam and takes up the vac for a brief bit as Trey complements Page’s sparse playing before they hit the build towards the reprise.

05.19.1991  —  a tad flubby in the return to the reprise and a funny Page banter after (during a break to deal with some techinical difficulties) where he promotes the discounted t-shirt prices at the merch table

10.13.1991  —  not a lot of meat on the bone here even in the second ever Gamehendge set (something I think a lot of people figured there would be more of frankly) as this version – like the first time the suite had been performed live – provides the coda to the proceedings

12.31.1991  —  hey look at that they broke the cycle I mentioned in the 2.14 show! whole lotta swagger on display from the drop into the jam here by all band members. pure, unadulerated, Type I goodness

05.14.1992  —  even with that New Year’s Ever performance the trend of long gaps into the next year continues as a full 50 shows goes by before the song returns to the stage. Trey is more up front here in his rhythm playing for the jam giving it a chugging, rolling feel that Page highlights with the piano fills. Mike is quite present in this mix as well such that you can really hear his wonderful contributions throughout as they build to the peak and return

07.15.1992  —  Page takes charge from the get go, romping through a classic take on the jam. nothing overly special but just the type that would have me (personally) kinda going ape shit in person/ Trey also adds a nice melodic line to it as they head back for the reprise

11.27.1992  —  Page starts the jam by replaying the descending melody of the song before Trey and Mike join. He comes back to it again as Trey comps along before eventually soloing over the typical groove (with a few more stabs back at the descending melodic line).still firmly Type I but this is a divergence from the standard jam. Check the Bowie intro later for a McGrupp tease (and of the I Walk The Line sandwiched between McGrupp and Bowie not to mention Ring of Fire)

 

Managing to Save:  McGrupp Grows Up As Page Gets A New Toy!

Between the end of 1992 and the start of the Spring 1993 tour a few things happened that would have lasting impact on Phish’s music. The overt one was the release of their fourth album “Rift” (okay okay fifth if you include “The White Tape” in the chronology here even though it was not exactly something you could buy in a record store) which came out on 02.02.1993, the day immediately preceding the start of the tour. The second – and frankly more relevant piece here – was the addition of a real live baby grand piano to the touring setup, allowing Page more freedom to play actually piano sounds rather than relying on the electric piano they had lugged around up to this point. Considering the song we are discussing here, the addition of the baby grand to the sonic palette had immediate and lasting impact on the progression of McGrupp and the music Page could create within the construct of the song. Perhaps not coincidentally, this time period represents one of the most robust periods for the number of performances of the song with 13 in 1994 alone (the third most in any year behind the 14 in 1988 and 20 in 1989)

03.16.1993  —  after the now requisite extended year end break for the song McGrupp *finally* returns more than a month into the tour (and a full 49 shows later) but not without a bit of a head fake first. In the wake of the “awww that’s cute…” performance of You Gotta See Mama Every Night by his step-grand father (read more here as I have touched this subject previously) Fish starts in with the Possum beat and Trey “well actually”s him away, wanting to play one “for Page” which is basically him saying “hey let’s hear McGrupp with that new piano!” the sound of this theatre-in-the-round performance is interesting as you can pick out Fish’s tom fills clearly but the beauty lies in that baby grand. Trey sustains a note as the jam starts to give Page space and boy does he take it, tinkling those ivories like we’ve never heard in this song before. It’s all “in the park” fun but quite compelling considering from whence we came.

03.22.1993  —  Less than a week later Phish threw down the third ever Gamehendge set, wonderfully full performance of the suite. Tonight McGrupp provides the outro to it (as opposed to the intro for the one from 03.12.1988), acting as coda to the narrative proceedings laid out over the hour or so preceding. Page shines even brighter here as he gets more used to this song being “his”, so to speak. If you really want to go digging, check out the full band teases of McGrupp a few nights later in the 03.28.1993 Possum as Trey interjects it into the first verse

05.03.1993  —  after a face-paced opening and composed section Page brings it down to pin-drop silence with his solo. Mike is still there doing his thing, adding flourish where Page allows for it

08.07.1993  —  Falling in one of the most lauded months in the band’s storied history, this version is one of the best, evidenced by its inclusion on Live Bait 4. Coming out of an extended MFMF jam the song pops from the get go. After a flawless run through the composed bits Page and Mike drive this one with Page attacking that baby grand like it stole his sandwich. Fish comes in with some washboard during the swell but Page takes another round of soloing before Fish rat-a-tats it back for a rousing reprise which precedes a shockingly sincere version of Purple Rain. Well, before the vac solo of course…

12.30.1993  —  The second ever performance of the song in a New Year’s Eve Run gets a swinging vibe in the jam section which eventually settles a bit as Page solos over Mike’s bassline. Trey joins in and we go to the predictable finish after a fun run through

04.08.1994  —  Ever since the baby grand joined the solos for McGrupp have gotten longer and this first of 1994 is no exception. Page rides out the crowd cheers and Trey joins before they casually slide into the reprise, sans fanfare. Notably, this version precedes one of the best versions of It’s Ice. Ever.

04.30.1994  —  This McGrupp (much like many of the songs in this show) is flavored with teases of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The jam is mostly typical but listen for the subtle Lion Sleeps Tonight phrasing by Page right before the return. Oh and the Possum that follows has some McGrupp in the little tease medley Trey performs (as does the Walk Away from the famed 05.07.1994 Bomb Factory show if you are really liking the McGrupp teases)

05.13.1994  —  practically raucous for a McGrupp, the band all connects mightily in this one for a grand up swell of energetic playing throughout the jam. this version is a great example of the power of this song when the whole band pushes it even if only within the context of the song itself

05.22.1994  —  back to a more “normal” template version here

05.29.1994  —  must have been something about being at Laguna Seca Daze because this one breathes and flows patiently with no sense of urgency or intention to be anywhere but right there

06.18.1994  —  quite nice but nothing atypical here though Mike’s contributions are perhaps a bit undersold on this (and many other) version(s)

06.24.1994  —  a fairly creepy version with the lyrics sort of half-sung-half-whispered, even falling out a bit. Page’s playing in the jam is appropriately creepy as well right up until the return where all of that darkness is shaken off for the release

06.26.1994  —  the fourth ever full Gamehendge Set happened on this date in a show known widely as the “GameHoist Show” due to the first set being Gamehendge and the second the entirety of the then recently released “Hoist” album (and still the last show the band has performed in West Virginia). Proving out the notion that this thing is not exactly a standardized script or anything, tonight McGrupp comes in the latter part of the story but not as the coda similar to the 03.22.1993 show. Instead that role belongs to Divided Sky tonight as McGrupp serves to help close the story with narration on both ends moving the story forward more than the music itself does. This is not to say the performance is lacking in any manner — far from it! — but that it is elevated by the context of the playing more than anything else

07.02.1994  —  Okay, I’m just going to go ahead and admit that I was definitely a part of the crowd at this one who thought clapping along to McGrupp would be a good idea (if you spin this whole show you will hear several attempts at crowd/band interaction by the fans (seriously, spin the Maze that follows for a whole lotta clap) though this was all waaaaaay before most of the stuff that goes on now like Hood chants and woos). It is a fun, bouncy version fit for the outdoor shed it occurred in and even feels at times almost akin to a Landlady jam (which we will see becomes a bit of a thing for a bit)

07.08.1994  —  not even two weeks since the last one Phish dropped *another* Gamehendge set, the fifth ever and second of the year (and last to date), this time at Great Woods. This version fits exactly the same role as the one just above, providing the bridge from story to the end coda filled by Divided Sky on this night.

10.20.1994  —  Page gets trill-y in his solo to the approval of the crowd (why do we do that when they play a bunch of notes really fast?) then drops back down to up the tension as they hang in the pocket for a bit. The payoff from the build is big as Fish crashes in and we are off to the reprise

11.30.1994  —  coming towards the end of a quite legendary set and directly out of an amusing Catapult (Fish adds colorful comments throughout) Page takes a somewhat extended solo, adding some bigger flourishes than typical before they head to the reprise

12.09.1994  —  Page shines (yet again) in this one and even gets very close to a tease of Long Tall Glasses (an oft-teased song by Leo Sayer) in this second to last show of the quite long and impressive Fall 1994 Tour

 

The Teeth Of Time:  McGrupp’s Golden Years

Following the banner year that was 1994 McGrupp starts to become more of a setlist rarity, appearing no more than five times in a single year since that last high point

06.17.1995  —  Falling in the wake of one of THE big Tweezers of Summer 1995 (look it up, they were kind of a big deal that tour) this McGrupp emerges organically in the aftermath of the return to Tweezer and acts as the cool down from that hotness. Page keeps things sparse and on the contemplative side, giving everyone a chance to catch their breath after that massive Tweezer

10.11.1995  —  Probably the most notable aspect of this McGrupp is that it is the first one that provided the “meat” to a Mike’s Groove sandwich.

10.27.1995  —   Page goes a bit off script here, repeating the same descending line a few times before really turning it on, filling the room with all the notes as they crash into the reprise. it is a quite stunning version

12.11.1995  —  At the start of the jam the band falls into the normal place but Page immediately goes off script, soloing and trilling seemingly in opposition to Mike’s baseline. Trey adds some flavor and they comes back to the main mode eventually but this is a nice derivation from the norm for a bit.

12.29.1995  —  How do you follow up one of the canonical versions of one of your most loved songs? Well, if you are Phish and that version is THE REAL GIN (Bathtub Gin->The Real Me->Gin) then you just do a full segue into McGrupp (obviously!) with Page kinda teasing the melody to Love Reign O’er Me along the way, naturally. What transpires in McGrupp is its own kind of awesome as well. Starting out quite patiently, Page introduces a theme with a Middle Eastern vibe, not exactly quoting A Night In Tunisia or anything but definitely with a similar feel. Compared to the unbridled energy of the Gin that preceded this has a dark and creepy feel until Page instead of Mike brings in the main McGrupp melody as Fish plays rolling fills and they head into the reprise. Hilariously, and as only Phish can do, they blast into the proto-punk of BBFCFM to sandwich our dog

07.23.1996  —  A full two years after the first time it happened, Page takes this McGrupp to Landylandland (not to be confused with the website for the band I just now heard of from google called Ladyland), putting that swing on this thing. The crowd at this German venue that will become MUCH better known to Phishies after a certain show happens here the following March catches on and we are off on a dancing good time as the play everything but the Trey lead line of Landlady before coming around to the reprise

08.12.1996  —  This McGrupp is largely what one would expect but the placement and sequencing around it is unique as it is the only time the song has ever emerged from Prince Caspian (which in 1996 was a breath of fresh air considering that Fuckerpants wasn’t exactly a song people were clamoring for) and one of only two times that the band has followed it up with Run Like An Antelope. Even more, there are only three shows ever where all three of these songs even appear in the same setlist (the others are 07.03.2010 and 07.02.2011) . So yeah, that’s kinda neat I guess especially since that Antelope freaking smokes.

10.26.1996  —  Speaking of McGrupp coming out of other things, here we have another that is largely “standard” but for the fact that it comes out of one of the best jams of the entire Fall 1996 Tour, The Charlotte Simple which I have written about before. Aside from the slick segue right into McGrupp the other notable aspect here is the crowd swell that happens in the middle of the jam here, something I have yet to find out the reasoning for from people who were at that show. So if you know, please inform me because I’d like to know too.

11.15.1996  —  The final McGrupp of 1996 came in a very unique set as Phish got funny and played a bunch of songs all either beginning with the letter “M” or having a title that featured it in some fashion. Trey gave a nod to his mom’s Sesame Street background by saying the set was “brought to you by the letter M and the number 420” (real clever, Trey). McGrupp has a patient sort of jam tonight but nothing that you will fall to your knees in amazement over

06.25.1997  —  Maybe it was something in the water over there in Lille, France or perhaps it was due to it coming in the wake of the debut of Meatstick or maybe it was just because Phish is weird (and for that we love them) but *something* went left with this McGrupp. After a cowfunky Disease that sandwiched Piper they chug back into the jam with Meatstick being sung over the groove, eventually dropping into the most unique intro to McGrupp ever. Trey plays the melody for the song while the rest of the band is… somewhere else, playing music almost funky and almost reggae-ish. Trey intones the lyrics similar to the way the original arrangement was “sung” over music closer to Makisupa than McGrupp and then leads a call and response bit with the crowd for the “looks too much like Dave” lines. After some more weird in the composed section it drops into normal form for the shift to the jam. They take it low to quiet space, eventually the clappers latch on, and after a few minutes of Type I exploration Fish slams into the rat-a-tat return for the reprise. The jam itself may not be the best one ever in this song but getting there is something you need to hear. Plus there is a dark, brooding transition to Makisupa at the end which is pretty cool. I call this one the “Dubby Space McGrupp”

07.31.1997  —  the first stateside McGrupp of 1997 came at Shoreline in the midst of a flowing, energetic affair full of highlights. The version here is largely “normal” though some hear a bit of MLB (Mind Left Body in case you haven’t been following along over the years here) phrasing. I will admit that I haven’t caught it on several spins but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

08.13.1997  —  A couple of weeks later McGrupp popped up again, again as a mid second set tune, and tonight for the only time out of an oddly placed Sleeping Monkey. It is the only time the two songs have ever been paired together in a set. The jam is fine enough with Page taking a measured approach and hinting towards the final build throughout but nothing really noteworthy in the grand scheme of things

11.26.1997  —  This McGrupp sounds a lot like the one that preceded it though the build gets a bit more bombastic in the return

12.30.1997  —  Following one of the finest examples of the once-upon-a-time jammed versions of ACDC Bag, Phish used McGrupp for the cool down tune in this highly lauded show from the famed 1997 NYE Run. Page is playful here with Mike very present in the mix as Trey matches his bassline behind Page. Page plays the main descending riff a few times as well and Trey plays along too, following Page as he tip toes around in the jam. His input here really shapes the mood of the jam and adds a flavor to it not always found in McGrupp. Their interplay continues on to where we would typically get the return, instead winding down and providing the space for a classic run through Harpua to commence. This is a wonderful version even in its compact, sub 10 minutes form

04.05.1998  —  In the final show of The Island Tour McGrupp got its time to stretch out, much like many many other songs over the course of these four legendary shows. Page takes us to the lounge for an extended bit of lovely piano stylings, never leaving the song but painting a nice soundscape as they patiently work back to the reprise and eventually out to the Bathtub Gin that follows

07.05.1998  —  This show from Prague is posited by some as a “drunken mess” of a performance which may or may not be true though perhaps the Green Fairy was at play (legends of my own absinthe soaked nights in the Republic come to mind here). no matter what was the issue, McGrupp is a tad sloppy until Page takes his turn in the solo section, offering up a contemplative bit of playing before the reprise. the truly notable bit from this one is the 98 style outro jam which is parts ambient and parts reminiscent of a nursery rhyme before they slam into Axilla. For what it’s worth, the next night here is the one to spin for the big jammers.

07.19.1998  —  For the second year in a row the next version following a lone performance on the European leg of tour happened at Shoreline. The main song is fairly standard here though similar to the one in Prague they connect to the song following with jam space, tonight in the more familiar ambient 98 mode while hinting back somewhat to the McGrupp (which does not occur in the 07.05.1998 version). These five plus minutes are pure Phish bliss with tinges of Allman-esque playing by Trey and a full bridge to the high energy Disease that ends the set. If you are the type of person still wondering what people mean by “ambient Phish” then check out this jam because it is a prime example of the form.

10.29.1998  —  The final version of the “prime era” for McGrupp came in the first show of the Fall tour from the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. The jam here goes ambient while staying in the song as Page paints broadly and the others accent (particularly Fish with his newish toy, the trash can crash cymbal – a personal favorite part of the sonic palette). The jam that results is easily recognizable for the year in which it occurred, something one cannot generally say for McGrupp as a rule.

 

A Rhyme Now Stowed:  McGrupp’s Relegation to One Off Status

Since 1998 McGrupp has taken a back seat to, well, pretty much the whole catalog, becoming a once-a-year-if-we-are-lucky sort of song. Some of this is the expansion of the song list and some of it was the move away from more composed songs (at least in later 1.0 and 2.0) and there’s probably a bit of Gamehendge weariness at play as well. The unfortunate result for this exercise is that we are nearing the end of my review but more importantly that the song has had little opportunity to progress any further due to its current status. Where once McGrupp was a song that offered up the chance for something new or different now it exists as a novelty, a song to be chased, a bust out if you will. Fans who have come up in the 2.0/3.0 eras have never experienced seeing the song more than once or twice in a year (let alone a single tour). Indeed, the shortest gap for McGrupp in this period is 16 shows which once upon a time would have been considered a quite lengthy gap for the song. And while the band has given us some admirable additions to the song’s history their own lack of familiarity with playing the song with any frequency has set the course for the song. McGrupp was never one of the band’s main vehicles but it did offer a glimpse into where they were at that moment be it as a young dual guitar attack, a band on the rise showing off their composition and weirdness, or as a band at the height of their powers showcasing one of the oldest numbers in their song book. So unless that Broadway production of Gamehendge The Musical ever happens we are where with McGrupp and that is not a bad thing even if some of us pine for the days when the song could conceivably pop up anywhere, offering 9-10 minutes of oddity amongst the relative normalcy of everything else.

10.07.1999  —  Capturing the feel of the year, this version from Nassau Coliseum isn’t super clean in the composed section (though not nearly as bad as one may hear from those who decry ’99 as a horrible year for the composed stuff) but the jam goes places. Page and Mike start out in a quiet space with Trey joining in with subtly bent notes. Page teases the return before allowing it to fall back to the not quite ambient mode and then they build to the grand finale once more. Similar to the 10.29.1998 one you can really get a feel for the year in this version

09.18.2000  —  As Phish headed towards Hiatus they trotted out pretty much every notable song in the catalog at least once, offering the fanbase little nibbles of goodness along with the big bite of nothing we were about to feed on from Phish. On this night in Blossom that included a four song second set which included one of the longest takes on McGrupp ever. They build the jam patiently, more akin to something like Hood or Slave than how McGrupp generally travels, resulting in a stunningly beautiful jam. Put this one on the required listening list for certain

07.29.2003  —  Since the song was now a bustout, it makes perfect sense that it would show up in one of the best big bustout shows there is. There really is nothing special about this version except for the fact of it having been played at all, the lone performance of the song in 2.0.

06.16.2009  —  In the Year of The Return, it seemed like almost every song that was once prime Phish got brought back to the stage at some point. McGrupp didn’t make it into the opening weekend festivities but only a few shows into the summer tour it was played as part of a three song encore in St. Louis. At this stage we were all pretty much just happy to have them back on stage so the real critical analysis was secondary to the fact that we had new Phish to digest again. That said, this is an admirable run through McGrupp where Page takes charge of the jam, bringing it to an energetic peak and showing what a lot of us knew in that he was the one who most quickly got back to form in the new era.

11.01.2009  —  The second version of McGrupp for the year is wholly unique being that it is the lone acoustic version of the song ever. For one of the few times in the band’s history Phish played a full set “unplugged”, providing the perfect setting for a daytime spent on the festival lawn in Indio. Most of the songs in this set are shorter or more lyrical in nature which gives credence to why this ended up being the closer for the main set of songs. The instrumentation allows for Page to be fully out front, showcasing that baby grand in a bouncy jam that shines as brightly as the sun did that day.

07.03.2010  —  The composed section is not the cleanest ever but that is forgivable when Page brings back the Landlady phrasing at the start of the jam for the first time since 1996. The rest of the song progresses as one would expect but that was a neat little callback.

10.20.2010  —  It is not too often that people talk about a show more for what happened in the first set than the second but the Guyutica show is a notable exception. Tucked in the midst of all the teases and little jamlets in and out of songs is McGrupp, serving almost as cool down tonight amidst the madness. The pace is a touch quicker than the other one from this year and Page hops on the wurli instead of the piano, changing the feel from lounge Phish to funky blues bar Phish as they speed through a high energy romp in the jam.

07.02.2011  —  Festivals allow for something of an exhale by both the fans and crowd as we are all able to relax and just be with our people (and no one else!) for a few days. The Indio version mentioned above has IT and this one from SuperBall does as well. The band is loose, connected, and flowing as they build the jam easily to the peak.

06.28.2012  —  On one of the hottest days of a quite hot summer Phish came to Deer Creek and played a pretty hot show in response. After a quick second set opening Mike’s Song they drop into a spirited McGrupp which includes a somewhat rare full band jam instead of the typical Page showcase. Trey in particular is adding stuff unheard before in this one as they wind around the song’s theme on the way to the final build and reprise.

08.26.2012  —  This is a perfectly fine version but really nothing outside of normal unless you are into the band really going for it and connecting on all levels. In which case you may like this one a lot.

07.26.2013  —  When you only play a song one time in a year you tend to stay close to form and here is a good example of that. There is nothing “wrong” with this one but that doesn’t make it a “good” version either. It simply exists as setlist fodder.

07.09.2014  —  see immediately above

08.15.2015  —  The crowd sure enjoys this one and it is definitely a solid run, faithful run through the classic. It is nice but not a world beater

07.20.2016  —  This might be one of the shorter takes on the song in the last however many years but being part of another bustout set I guess that gives it merit. It is short, sweet, and well played but not one you will go back to very much unless you were at this show and love respinning it.

08.01.2017  —  You might think that McGrupp showing up in The Baker’s Dozen where the jams came freely and often that it might mean this song would get some extra sauce as well. Unfortunately that does not occur though you do get to hear Trey implement the use of the echoplex, a toy he did not have for much of the song’s history, nicely in the composed section and then as accent in the jam.

07.24.2018  —  Maybe after playing the song at the same venue in 2016 (BGCA in San Francisco) Phish wanted to improve upon that version. Or maybe it just came up in the nightly setlist roulette wheel (that’s how Trey picks songs each night, right?) and thus made it to the stage. Either way, when Page hits that Landlady phrasing you know something is going to happen and the crowd knows it to as they cheer for his gleeful comping. Trey adds in some dark wobbly tones ahead of the return and boom our last version of McGrupp heads to the close. Sad really.

 

All Times and Seasons: Well shit. Now what?

When I originally started thinking about putting together this post my main goal was to listen to all of the versions of the song to put together a list for our friends over at PJJ to maybe get a few added to their site. But in the doing I discovered a lot about this song and its evolution which I hope I was able to convey (even somewhat) above. Now that I have done all of this I am left with a sense that this was in the end a highly personal exercise in breaking down a song I personally adore which may not be as universally loved by the wider fanbase (but let’s not put this on the level of, say, Spread It Round which I acknowledge being one of only like five people who will openly admit to liking). This song like many many others in the Phish catalog is one that has changed and grown over the years though perhaps not as drastically as some have. Simply by plucking a few versions from each of the eras I have identified one can get a glimpse into who Phish was during that time. So maybe this won’t be a list of jams that should be added to some big list as much as a time capsule journey through the life of McGrupp. Some of this will be recapping from the slightly longer summaries above but this list is culled down to the ones I think you will want to hear to fully get your McGrupp on. So shall we?

 

My Little Docking Pup (1984 debut through Spring 1986)

12.01.1984 because we have to include the debut, right?

05.03.1985 and then we have to include the first one with Page of course

10.17.1985 the dual guitar attack produces a jam you could never hear today

10.30.1985 alas, the last of the Skippys

04.01.1986 the final version to include Jeff Holdsworth

The Grime of Countless Work Dogs (Fall 1986 through March 1988)

04.29.1987 did you figure out what song is hinted at here yet?

08.21.1987 the first one fully sung and not just intoned

11.19.1987 Page really owns the song for the first time

02.07.1988 here we get the first “template” drop into the jam

03.12.1988 the first inclusion in the Gamehendge Suite

Encased In Orange Rinds (May 1988 through Early September 1989)

05.15.1988 first time Fish adds trombone to the mix

07.24.1988 probably the best version with trombone

09.13.1988 sets the overall template for the song going forward

Who Do? McGrupp Do! (Late September 1989 through end of year)

10.21.1988 WD?WD! replaces the jam in full here

11.02.1989 just a great version all around

He Looks Too Much Like McGrupp (1990 through 1992)

04.09.1990 lounge lizard vibe

05.10.1991 first (only?) vac-aided version

10.13.1991 second inclusion in the Gamehendge Suite

12.31.1991 oh so much swagger on display

07.15.1992 melodic romper room

11.27.1992 so much going on here

Managing to Save (1993 through 1994)

03.16.1993 first version with the baby grand piano

03.22.1993 third inclusion in the Gamehendge Suite

08.07.1993 superb version from a superb month

04.30.1994 lots of Lion Sleeps Tonight teasery

05.13.1994 big time power in this jam

05.29.1994 relaxed vibe from a festival setting

06.24.1994 it’s freaking creepy, man

06.26.1994 fourth inclusion in the Gamehendge Suite

07.02.1994 first hint of Landlady in the jam

07.08.1994 fifth inclusion in the Gamehendge Suite

11.30.1994 extended Page soloing

The Teeth of Time (1995 through 1998)

10.27.1995 raucous energy

12.11.1995 trilling and letting loose

12.29.1995 jam goes to the Middle East

07.23.1996 first “proper” Landlady inclusion

06.25.1997 Dubby Space McGrupp

12.30.1997 fantastic version all around

04.05.1998 back to the lounge while on the Island Tour

07.05.1998 included more for the outro jam than anything

07.19.1998 included for the ambient outro jam

10.29.1998 the ambience comes into the jam itself

A Rhyme Now Stowed (1999 through present day)

10.07.1999 showcasing the seeds of the Millennial Sound

09.18.2000 extended with a patient build akin to Slave or Hood

11.01.2009 acoustic daytime set fun

10.20.2010 you got wurli in my jam!

07.02.2011 full band swell

06.28.2012 unique bit of full band jam and dissonance

08.01.2017 echoplex’d

07.24.2018 Trey’s rig provides even more dark wobbliness

 

Well, that is probably enough out of me on this topic. Thanks as always for reading along. See you the next time a song gets a hold of my brain for a bit…

 

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