The first venue to (randomly) come up in our review of the best venues in all of the band’s history is Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, CO, arguably one of the most beautiful venues in the United States. This natural amphitheatre is part of 640 acres of parkland with trails and other sites besides the music venue to entertain those who visit. Opening in 1941, it has since been designated a National Historic Landmark and is characterized by the iconic dual 300+ foot monoliths that project upwards on either side of the venue, providing that amazing sound and allowing for 9,525 people to have a fantastic view of the band on stage as well as the surrounding area including the Denver skyline off in the distance. This is the type of venue that elevates the concert experience not only literally (elevation here is 6,450 feet above sea level) but also spiritually as for reasons that are obvious once you get into this wonderful place both musicians and fans tend to bring their “A” game most of the time. That ‘venue magic’ is evident in many of the shows that Phish has played here and is part of why seeing shows at this venue became a necessity for those able and willing to make the trek across the great divide.
Phish has played Red Rocks a total of thirteen times with the first appearance being a Friday night in the middle of one of the legendary months in the band’s history and the final appearance to date being the capstone show of the four night run in the comeback summer of 2009. In between they have played two night stands in 1994 and 1995 as well as a four night stand on the brief US portion of the summer tour leading up to The Clifford Ball. There have also been several non-Phish visits to this storied venue including five TAB shows, one Mike & Leo Kottke show, a YMSB with Fish show, and one sit-in by Mike during a Gov’t Mule show. But we’re here for the Phish!
Since we are starting a new thing here let’s talk a bit about what this will look like. Rather than give a full recap of every show at a venue I will be listing off each one, cherry-picking notable highlights and identifying the potentially iconic jams that each show birthed. From there we can debate how this stacks up against the other venues on the list.
Before I dive in forthwith, here is a playlist of all of the Red Rocks jams over the years from our friends at www.phishjustjams.com
08.20.1993 Opening with Divided Sky to nod to the rainstorms that passed through the area pre-show is a nice touch but following it with a mythos-building Harpua tale immediately takes this show next level. Trey espouses his adoration for the venue before even getting to the Giant Iguana Red Rocks origin story which is one I highly recommend listening to if you don’t already know it. The rest of the first set progresses as most did in that era with crisp renditions of each song including some solid Page work in Ice, a nice acoustic Ginseng Sullivan dedicated to Brad Sands, and the final “slow” Wedge before it got shelved and reworked (returning 135 shows later just before another show detailed further down this page). The Antelope to cap the set is a wild psychedelic ride that departs the song for a bit before coming back to the big ending we know and love. The second set is full of highlights including a patient early set Slave, a frenzied and fast-paced Melt, and a YEM->Purple Rain that includes Mimi Fishman joining her son on the vac. This show is not the best from that legendary month but is a great example of what Phish was in this time as they began the move out of the ‘speed jazz’ era.
06.10.1994 The next year Phish returned for a pair of shows, again hitting the weekend with the first night falling on Friday as the second show of the summer tour after opening up in Salt Lake City on Thursday. Even in being only ten months since their last visit here it is clear that this is a different version of this band. The release of Hoist in March coupled with the spring tour supporting that release has brought out a ferocious side to their playing, a style that builds off of the speed jazz of 1993 but now includes the machine gun shred and regular dips into more open, psychedelic waters. This first night only offers us inklings of that as they are getting into this new tour but still has some interesting aspects such as the nod to the Iguana Tale in the intro to The Lizards (a song that almost never includes banter like this), a bunch of teases, an entertaining Fish Fun Time segment for I Wanna Be Like You, and a compact yet powerful Tweezer that resolves nicely into Lifeboy. When looking at this 1994 Red Rocks pair the second night is the one everyone points to (for reasons that will be obvious shortly) but this show also has most of those elements that made 1994 Phish so intoxicating for we fans.
06.11.1994 Now relaxed and comfortable in their surroundings, Phish came out for the second night of the pair with a show that is anything but a “Saturday Night Special”. By that I mean it is not just a rock-it-out jukebox set but instead is often held up as a paragon of what Phish could be in this era. Some have called this a “perfect” Phish show which might be hyperbole but the argument for it is pretty compelling. The first set is all go for broke rock highlighted by a wonderful YEM and a short but peaky Stash to close the set. Then the second frame is more of the same with Antelope and Fluffhead cranking the energy up before they blow the metaphorical roof off in a nasty take on Melt and a Maze that gets strong solos from both Page and Trey. There’s also a 332 show bustout for Frankenstein just for good measure. This may not have as many open jams as fans these days want/expect but it still holds as the type of show that you can give to a friend who doesn’t know the band to provide a glimpse into this world of ours.
06.09.1995 Almost a year to the day Phish came back for their third visit to Red Rocks and second straight year playing two shows. Once again the band was working through newer material, this time working on many of the songs that would end up on Billy Breathes when that album was released more than a year later. Again this show fell in the early part of tour as this pair was preceded by only the tour opener in Boise and one in Salt Lake City ahead of these weekend shows. After a one year gap Divided Sky returns to Red Rocks and the first set includes three of those newer tunes in Strange Design, Theme, and Taste (but not the final version of that song). The set is capped by a quite peaky Antelope and then they come out firing with another second set Melt that goes sideways in that wonderful way. Bowie is the dark vehicle that carries this set in the first version of perhaps the best tour for the song overall. As with 1994 this first night is a bit of setup more than the peak of the pair but being summer 1995 it pops with the energy and swagger that the band had on display throughout that year.
06.10.1995 There’s something to be said for a show that starts out with Trey pointing out his grandfather in the crowd before starting up Makisupa Policeman. It pretty much tells you how comfortable they were in their position as the rising stars of Jamlandia, particularly when that Maki keyword is “4:20. Dank” and the crowd goes wild before they dropped from a soupy outro jam into a power packed Llama. Here again we also get another solid mid first set YEM which evolves into a vocal HYHU segue to Fish Fun Time for the final version of Lonesome Cowboy Bill before it would return on Halloween in 1998. The second set is another rager with a Maze opener and a massive Mike’s Groove that eats up more than 35 minutes from the 22+ minute Mike’s through the CYHMK-tinged Paug. This Mike’s is the sort that 1.0ers are always on about when the younger fans wonder why this song is held so highly by older fans and lives up to the billing in all its dissonant glory. For good measure this set is graced with the debut of ADITL in the encore. Between this show and the second night the prior year you can see why fans at this time had come to regard shows at Red Rocks as can’t miss certainties.
08.04.1996 Following their first “real” tour of Europe in the early part of the summer of 1996 Phish returned to the US for nine shows leading up to the first big end of summer festival at the Clifford Ball in Plattsburgh, NY. Four of these nine shows were at Red Rocks and the hype surrounding them was unparalleled in the fanbase due to several factors including but not limited to the demise of the Grateful Dead, the explosion of Phish in the wake of 1995, and a limited US touring schedule for the summer of 1996. Once again hitting here in the early stages of tour after stopping in Utah first, the band comes out strong and rides the energy of the crowd. You can almost feel it listening back on the tape as the band and fans connect to elevate the music beyond the objective criteria one might set. This first set gets a lot of the fist-pumping anthems with the Chalkdust opener, Guyute, a really high spirited Melt, Sloth, Maze, and the Loving Cup closer. Then after a punchy Bag 2nd set opener they lay down a lovely Reba (just watch out for the super abrupt ending!) and take Bowie out for a ride. Page also breaks out his “new toy” theremin for a brief debut of the Theme from Star Trek in the encore. This show is a fun one for the start of the run, the first non-NYE time four show run at one venue, and an odd first night Sunday show taboot taboot.
08.05.1996 The second night in 1996 feels in retrospect like a Clifford Ball primer show with its solid if unremarkable first set and a second set that showcases a couple of different sides of the band in that time period. It also is a pretty typical show for 1996 in general. Starting out with 2001 (which happened in a show at every Red Rocks run except 1995) the band then goes into what will eventually stand up as the best Disease of the year (even including some of those wonderful ones from that Fall tour). This is an atypical take on the song in this era but moves through several phases (including Trey on minikit) before seguing into a wild Ice that you really should spin as it is pretty unique. They come up for air in Halley’s but dive deep here as well until Page surfaces with Somewhere Over the Rainbow on theremin. Following the oddly placed mini-stage acoustic set (including the debut of Talk… yay?) and the a cappella Amazing Grace they wrap up with another strong Mike’s Groove. This one is perhaps not as lauded as the one from the year prior but still will get you moving and grooving. Another thing of note with this show is that it includes one of the first example of fans actively trying to get the crowd en masse to “interact” with the band on our terms as flyers were handed out in the lots to try to initiate a few new responses by the crowd to what the band was doing, akin to the Secret Language responses that the band had employed for several years by this time. One of these ideas was for fans to sit down during the pause in Divided Sky which apparently worked to enough effect on this night to be noticeable above just a few folks getting winded from the lack of oxygen and needing to catch their breath. That one didn’t stick but one from the next night sure has…
08.06.1996 By the third night of this 1996 run Phish and its fans had pretty well overrun the small town of Morrison. A contributing factor was the large number of ticketless fans who descended (or perhaps ascended if we want to get technical with the altitude here) upon the area and did not exactly cooperate fully with local law enforcement. There are several stories out there about what really went down but the impact would be felt for more than a decade (more on that later). The band clearly knew what was going on as they opened with Makisupa and then altered the keyword to the first set closing Lope to be “21 year old Phish Fan Marco Esquandolas” which is a direct reference to a quote from a local newspaper from an oh so clever fan. In between that Trey threw in a U2 (and 07.25.1988 Icculus that made it to the Electra release of Junta) reference by saying “This is Red Rocks. This is the Edge,” in the Rift break section (you know, the part right after the “…slipped off the edge” line), and they played a straight but solid Simple along with everything else. The second set is carried by a strong Tweezer that includes a jam on Norwegian Wood (Trey is very much in charge in this Tweezer) but then the set turns towards the more humorous side of the band as they romp through BBFCFM and then nod to the rainy night with Fish Fun Time for Purple Rain. But with the next song, Harry Hood, the fans joined the band to add “Hood!” in response to the standard “Harry!” line in the song, spurred on by that flyer that circulated and forever changing the song once these tapes got out and spread to the wider fanbase. You may love it but I personally long for the days when the song did not include that crowd feedback. Call me crotchety or whatever but that’s one of my few “back in my day!” things with this band so yeah.
08.07.1996 The final night of the four in 1996 continued the trend with another solid first set as they took Stash out for a DEG-tinged jam, thanked a recent medal-winning Olympian in the crowd, and brought out Colorado native Tim O’Brien for a few songs to end the set (all debuts). I still cannot figure out why they didn’t play Nellie Kane with him but whatever. If you like mando-music this is good stuff for you. The second set starts off with a very engaging Jim that somehow morphs into a full Gypsy Queen jam before coming back to Jim and eventually dropping into a crunchy Free where Trey hits the minikit for a bit. Next up is storytime for another iteration of the Iguana tale (that makes three references in four years), a Life On Mars? that was both topical to current events and nodded back to the tale in Forbin>Mockingbird, and eventually a very nice YEM in the latter part of the set. This show is one of those celebration cappers to a solid run where it is as much about the feel in the room as the music they lay down. The scene was in full bloom at these shows and was about to take another major leap forward with the first true Phish-only festival about ten days away. Though no one knew it at the time this would be the last time Phish would/could play this venue for more than a decade as the poor interactions between fans and local officials made it such that the venue “banned” the band for what we could only assume was forever.
07.30.2009 Time has a funny way of softening people’s views on things, of course, so when Phish returned after The Long Wait and started announcing plans for their summer tour there were rumors that perhaps we had all grown up enough to be allowed back to Red Rocks. Those rumors became reality and Phish came back for another four night run in starting up the second leg of the inaugural summer tour of 3.0. It was difficult to figure out what we might get musically but anticipation was high and tickets were as difficult to come by as any perhaps save the reunion shows at Hampton earlier that year. This was a venue that Phish had ostensibly outgrown in the years since their last visit which played into the demand (and is definitely part of why they have not returned here since, preferring the big crowd and easy venue logistics of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park). Nodding to past shows here they opened with Divided Sky, giving everyone the chance to reconnect with this magical place during The Pause. This opening set is pretty safe as they go but the Stash goes out for a walk even with Trey working out some whale tone in there. The second set is anchored by a fun Ghost>Wolfman’s pairing and the second set closing Bowie is a rocking good time but overall this is a pretty tame Phish show. That is understandable considering it is the first show in more than a month following the Leg One closer at Alpine and 2009 was mainly about everyone reconnecting.
07.31.2009 The second night found the band seemingly more in their element as they got to jamming pretty quickly with the third song Gin. Unfortunately, the energy built by the opening threepack of Jim, Chalkdust, and Gin was deflated when they dropped Time Turns Elastic in the four hole, resulting in a mass departure for the restrooms. The weather played a role in this one as well when the band started up Water In The Sky with rain starting to fall and eventually leading to a wild open jam in Melt during the windy downpour that felt in the moment like the band was ‘playing the storm’. After an extended break to wait out the storm they came back with an on-the-nose Drowned that gets to some quiet space before a nice segue into C&P gets the crowd and band bouncing again. As in the first set they don’t capitalize on the energy as they head into the then new Joy before pulling the yo-yo string again to crank into a much appreciated Tweezer. Unfortunately the ripcord is here too as they bail for BDT#L (let me tell you, it is really weird to be writing about these newer songs after so many posts about shows from eighteen or more years ago!). Pulling the string again they run through a raucous Fluffhead->Piper->ADITL segment to end the set and then after the encores we are left wet and weary and eager for more. There are more good moments here that I recalled but this show suffers from the yo-yo effect that disrupts any cohesiveness.
08.01.2009 By the third night of any run both band and crowd are now fully present and that holds true for this show. The second song in is the return of The Curtain (With) which while only having had a gap of 21 shows waited almost five years to be played again after the absolute trainwreck version from The Festival Which Shall Not Be Named. It was particularly fulfilling to see Trey nail this. Mound was a little bustout (83 shows) and then a fun Jibboo preceded Trey joking about the band using only hand signals to indicate what song would be next (something they continued throughout the set), followed by the high energy PYITE, Guyute section before they started up the end run with a punchy Tube that was big on Page with Trey bending his notes to accent the clav. Antelope punches through for another solid Red Rocks version and then the double whammy 2nd set opening pairing of RnR>Disease got the jams going for real. The RnR has some stop/start action and the Disease includes LA Woman teases which is always nice. There’s an Esther bustout here (89 shows) and a quite heavy feeling Dirt which led to a fun Hood that included teases of both Dirt and Free. This show felt like the one where we were all finally comfortable in the surroundings and musically I think that holds true. The music here has been vastly surpassed in the intervening years since The Return but there are some great connected moments to be found in some of these jams.
08.02.2009 For the final night of this 2009 run the band played things very loose, even opening with the first Roses Are Free of the comeback and then playing a spirited if somewhat disjointed set of music from all over their history. The second set is the gem of this run starting from the jammed out Boogie On opener and working through YEM which dove directly into Undermind when Bill Freaking Kreutzmann came out to join Fish on a second kit. Billy K stayed on for the rest of the set which included a Drums segment that segued into Seven Below, a fantastically groovy 2001, and a quite interesting Waves before the Zero closer. A triple encore put the icing on this one and wrapped up the final Red Rocks show to date. Similar to the night before, the band really found connection in this set and unlike many times when a guest sits in did not lose anything for it. It added another chapter to the ever growing shared mythology of Phish and The Dead while allowing for some creative music as well.
So those are the shows and the base synopsis for each night the band has played this venue. What then is the tale of the tape?
Venue: Red Rocks Amphitheatre
No. of Shows: thirteen
Intangibles: unique, beautiful venue in Phish-friendly Colorado with great acoustics. band has long appreciation for the venue. small(er) capacity adds to mystique in it being a hard ticket to get but worth it if you go. added mythos with band getting banned after 1996 run. classic lot scene with multiple lots and entry points.
Recurring Themes: Trey wove tales of the giant iguana into almost every run in 1.0, adding to it and updating with topical references. Every visit has Antelope, Melt, Coil, and Yem. Rain.
Key Jams/Songs: 1993 – Harpua, Antelope, Slave, Melt, YEM->Purple Rain, slow Wedge; 1994 – Tweezer, YEM, Stash, Melt; 1995 – Antelope, Melt, Bowie, Makisupa->Llama, YEM, Mike’s Groove; 1996 – Melt, Maze, Reba, Bowie, Disease, Ice, Halley’s->SOTR, Mike’s Song, Tweezer, Hood, Stash, Jim->Gypsy Queen->Jim>Free, Forbin’s>Mockingbird, YEM; 2009 – Stash, Ghost>Wolfman’s, Melt, Drowned>C&P, Tweezer, Curtain (With), Tube, RnR>Disease, Hood, Boogie, YEM->Undermind->Drums->Seven Below>2001>Waves
PJJ Ratio: 2.00 (Please see the Shoreline post for details on this)
While I have a hard time believing that Red Rocks will win this competition, it is clearly a venue that holds some great history for the band and fans alike. I must admit that I used to live a short five miles from this venue and grew to love it even more with each show (Phish or otherwise) that I saw there. There is something magic in those rocks, something that you cannot fully explain but once you’ve been there you understand. That magic reflects in the experiences people have and in the music that gets played. It is the type of venue that you remember fondly even after the music fades away.
Where this venue ranks in the overall list is still to be determined. For now let’s enjoy the music that was created in the cradle of the Giant Iguana. What is your favorite memory of Phish at Red Rocks?