The Circus Is The Place for Me – Identifying the Top Tier Venues

Now that I have said I’m going to do this Venue Project thing I suppose I should get to finalizing the criteria for inclusion and letting you know where this is all headed. From there we can begin the process of working through each venue’s shows to make this art compete to determine which venue is the BEST PHISH PLACE EVAR!!

 

After a lengthy culling of the setlist files to pull together all of the variously named venues into one list I have a firm grasp on the probably-mostly-but-perhaps-not-entirely accurate number of times that the band has played each venue over the years. With that in hand I need to set some criteria for inclusion of consideration, otherwise I’ll be here listening and ranking for the next few years (if it only takes that long…).

 

  1. Number of Shows Played at Venue – this is the primary criteria of inclusion. While there may be (and are) numerous venues where Phish has played 1, 2, 4, even 6 good-to-great shows that still leaves us with a list of more than 50 venues to work through here. In the interest of keeping this thing manageable as well as to look a bit at the why behind the reasons they keep going back to the same places year after year I have set the minimum confirmed  appearances by Phish at twelve*. I say Phish because there are several venues that have seen TAB, GRAB, or other band member bands play them. This is not about them. C’mon now.
  2. More on the Number of Shows Thing – Any venue that has a significant number of unknown or partial setlists was downgraded due to uncertainty. For this reason you will not see classic venues such as Hunt’s, The Haunt, Gallagher’s, Slade Hall, or even The Front or Nectar’s on the list for consideration. The next numerical will get into more about why these venues and others like them did not make this list. The other “negative” count factor against some venues was the type of performance played as there are those opener sets for Santana and the H.O.R.D.E fest single setters that generally didn’t bring much in the way of actual jamming. The above alone did not disqualify any one venue but it factors into the conversation.
  3. Timing of Performances – We all came to Phish at various points in their career but I think I can safely say that most of us continue to be obsessed with this band because of the music they create each night. This creativity is most evident in the various jamming styles that they employ and how they approach the music. The type of show that gets LEGENDARY status from the fanbase does so due to the playing of the band or perhaps a particularly flowing/unique setlist. With that in mind, I place a lot more weight on the shows that have occurred since August 1993 (though some would probably just start with 1994) as that is generally accepted as one of the big touchpoint moments for Phish in going from a tight, precision-based group of musical weirdos to one that would invent on the fly.

 

*We can debate this all you want. I went back and forth on this number a lot and in the end it is a good number to use for reasons that will become evident as we progress here.

 

So how do those main criteria impact our list? Obviously, the first criteria related to number of Phish shows at the venue is the most integral to how we proceed. As I looked at the list, it became clear that I would have to set the bar somewhat high so as to not be working through this project for more time than it really needs. Before factoring in the secondary criteria the the numbers are big, like 103 venues with four or more shows or 63 venues with six or more. When you get to this level you start to see some of the venues we know and love drop out (like the Rosemont Horizon, Providence Civic Center and more) but when you compare those to places that have seen upwards of 20 shows they simply cannot compete even if every one of those 4-5 shows is one we love. That’s just math, people.

 

Then once one adds in the secondary criteria related to the type of performance played at the venue as well as whether we even have a setlist to validate the number, the potential inclusions for our list shrinks significantly. After eliminating hallowed early venues including The Front (55 shows but 20 lack setlists) and Nectar’s (43 listed, 20 without setlists) and factoring in the two-sets rule (#3 above) we have 30 venues with 7+ shows, 21 venues with 10+ shows, and 15 venues with 12+ shows. Taking a glance at where this puts us, we have:

venuecount

That’s a pretty fun list but also a bit longer than I want to dive into so where do we draw the line? I said twelve shows above and I think that the venues included in that fifteen can reasonably be argued to be the ‘cream of the crop’ when it comes to Phishy venues even if only based on half-remembrances and anecdotal experience. But this is nothing if not a democracy so if there is a valid argument to be made for including the ‘next tier’ (i.e. locations with 10 or more shows) then we can do that. For the time being, however, I’m going forward with the top fifteen on that list above which includes these storied venues:

 

Madison Square Garden in New York City, NY

Deer Creek Music Center in Noblesville, IN (other names for this venue include Verizon Wireless Music Center and the current corporate moniker Klipsch Music Center)

Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY

Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, CO

Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, VA

Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in Mansfield, MA (other names for this venue include Tweeter Center for the Performing Arts, Comcast Center, and the current corporate moniker Xfinity Center)

Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, WI

Worcester Centrum in Worcester, MA (other names for this venue include the Centrum in Worcester, Worcester’s Centrum Centre, and the current corporate moniker DCU Center)

Gorge Amphitheatre in George, WA

Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD

Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, CA

Jones Beach Amphitheater in Wantagh, NY

Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, CO

Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, CA

American Airlines Arena in Miami, FL

 

Clicking on any of those venue names will take you to the phish.net page for the venue so that you can see what shows have occurred there to start your homework. I’m going to keep you on your toes as to which venue we will (re)visit first. For now, what I want to know is whether there is a compelling argument to expand the list to some of the ones that just missed the cut here or ones I removed for one reason or another.

 

With The Right Device You Can Make A Pattern Grow – The Venue Project

For a while there has been a smaller project that I have wanted to take on, one that seems to get hinted at and asked about in the various Phish social media circles though I have yet to see a full breakdown of the idea in any one place. It is a notion that flows into many conversations that you hear about the band with broad statements like “they always play hot shows at Deer Creek” or “I cannot wait to get back to the Mothership” or “hands down, Dick’s is the best venue for Phish these days and they always slay it there” and the like being so common as to become part of the band’s folklore. But just how true are those statements?

 

In order to figure out a somewhat reasonable answer to this question I propose to take a look back at the venues where Phish has played most frequently and put together some form of summary/breakdown of the music that the band played to see if there really is a connection between the setting and the music as we often think. This endeavor will require some heavy lifting first in breaking down all of the various names both corporate and otherwise to figure out the correct number of times played at a particular place and then diving in headlong to try to make some sense of the history there. We will go about setting some criteria in a bit but some of the considerations that I am thinking about include:

  • setting a minimum number of times played as a baseline – this will obviously exclude some of the fantastic “one timer” venues and places where they might’ve only played a couple of shows but if we don’t cut it somewhere it will end up being a full history and a highly subjective undertaking at that
  • evaluating the music played – this is about as subjective as it can get but at a certain level all of this is so we will try to look at the relative “quantity of quality” in the performances including possibly using outside resources like PJJ to see how others have “valued” the music therein
  • special venues – while I could be swayed by a persuasive argument (nudge nudge, wink wink) otherwise my inclination is to keep festival settings out of the conversation though to be honest most will not qualify for the minimum number of shows if it ends up where I think it will
  • the venue-specific factors – what about a venue contributes to the whole experience? This could include acoustics, proximity of band to crowd and sightlines, slapback, whether they have good nachos or just that goopy fake cheese bullshit, and the like. While perhaps not as important on the surface, these factors can and do contribute to the overall experience.
  • intangibles – this is the stuff people point to that has no objective basis but has become part of the story. Stuff like the prevailing vibe of the crowd in a room, the hype surrounding the shows and venue itself, how hard a ticket might be to acquire, etc. There is some bleed between these factors and the venue-specific ones.

I’m not really looking to get too granular with it such that the overall intent is lost in the details so obviously the primary focus will be the music played. I think this can be a fun little project before heading into another full tour review and also so that I’m not overlapping my way back posts with the new stuff coming out on Fall Tour in just a few weeks. I’ll have another, more detailed post to set about establishing the criteria and putting together the list of venues in consideration but until then let me know what you think in the comments.

 

What is your pick for Phish’s best played venue throughout their history?