Well, how *DID* we get here?
For many fans, 1999 is a heavy, heavy year.
Take that line however it works best for you because there are several ways to interpret that and all are true. It may have been your first opportunity to really go big and hit a large run or full tour of shows. It may have been when you started to see the fraying at the edges both on stage and off. Possibly you connected with the layered textures of music you heard and dove deep into introspection or something a bit less… positive. Maybe this was the year when you saw how big it all had become and it caused you to shy away — or perhaps that drew you in more fully. These are but a few of the thousands of perspectives on what Phish was in 1999. So how did it all come to this?
By the time Phish got to 1999 they had become the biggest touring entity in all of rock music, something you can read about from far better writers in many other places. If you are here reading this I expect you probably have a good baseline of what got us here so I won’t waste your time on too much of that. Maybe a little though.
In the eleven years before this they had played 1036 shows (~94/yr), peaking at 150 way back in 1990 and playing the fewest at 71 just before in 1998. Even before 1998 the trend to play fewer shows had begun, most definitely the direct result of playing larger venues and having fully arrived as a national touring act that charted some songs and albums along the way. Phish had also pioneered the modern festival, setting the blueprint for Bonnaroo and beyond with The Clifford Ball, The Great Went, and Lemonwheel but also even earlier with their homespun events. Fandom thrived on the nascent internet as tapes spread wide and the word of mouth continued to sow wonder in the minds of a generation of seekers. It felt like whatever they could imagine they could pull off which made it quite inviting to the thousands of curious people looking to be there when it went down. Clearly, Phish was a THING now, a fixture of our culture but one that was always left to exist on the fringe of mainstream popularity.
Even with that relative obscurity the Phish machine was chugging along and they had more time on their hands due to less time spent on the road. This allowed for more time spent doing non Phish creative things (The Story Of The Ghost had been released just that past Fall) and each member of Phish filled their time in their own fashion. Mike played a couple of shows with Jamie Masefield and Doug Perkins, Page played some very important shows in April (along with Trey), Fish played shows with the two bands he always bounced between (Jazz Mandolin Project and Pork Tornado), and Trey played the first shows of what has now been a 20+ year side band with the core of Russ Lawton and Tony Markellis. Out of the recording sessions for TSOTG came The Siket Disc, released online in July after being edited by Page earlier in the year. All this at a time when they had gotten so big but still they kept creating.
And then came Summer Tour. Phish played 20 shows in 13 states (and one in Canada) over 27 days including Camp Oswego, that summer’s festival. Along the way they debuted thirteen songs including a new batch of mostly one off covers, a few of the Siket tunes (MLT, WTU? The Happy Whip And Dung Song), and a couple that would later end up on the Farmhouse album (BOTT, Bug, MITM). As with most tours there were bustouts and big jams and scensters and complainers and antics and setlist trends and a new Trey toy and complaining about the complainers and all that fun stuff. Perhaps this year the complainers had gotten more numerous or at least louder but there were signs that this wasn’t the tightly practiced band of yore. Without going into it all too much I’ll just point out that while the compositions waned in frequency and precision the era of the extended open jam had begun in earnest. And while nailing those intricate compositions is something that brought a lot of us to Phish it is the prospect of the new that keeps bringing us back.
Whatever your thoughts are on the Summer Tour it was over in under a month and before we knew it there would be more shows to catch. But first… after three straight summers playing some shows ahead of the US tour Phish chose this year to make their first visit to Japan for the Fuji Rock Festival. During this trip they played seven sets over three days, not repeating a song and taking several out for long jams. Combining this run with the Summer and layering in all of those side projects before that, you can start to see that things were set up nicely for Phish as they got going for the Fall. The band was connected, in a period of high creativity, and – after a month at home recharging – well rested. Add in some more new songs, Trey’s mini keyboard tinkerings, and the lead up to probably the greatest single achievement in the band’s history and we have a lot to look forward to here.
So with that I leave you to do your homework. I’m not saying you have to go spin the whole May ’99 TAB run (but you could if you want) or skim your way through the summer tour (might not be a bad idea…) or really dive deep with Japan 99 (actually…) or even that you should revisit the April Phil & Phriends shows (okay this you should do). But all of those things plus the Siket Disc surely won’t hurt. Knowing we all are pressed for time these days, I do think you may want to run that 09.09.1999 show top to bottom. Because in a few days we get this bus rolling for real.