Phish's "glory years" have always been pinned to the era of the mid 1990's. The ferocity of playing in 1994 & 1995, the expanded exploration in 1996, the "cow funk" of 1997, and the loop jams of 1998 have long been the sought after shows for listeners and collectors. Those attending shows in the era came to love the unexpected - not knowing what Phish would do next was the suction to the vacuum. Brand new material, first time played covers, unfinished songs, monster segues and overly extended jams (all things that Phans beg for in 3.0) were the show-to-show norm. Then came 1999...
In 1999, a new Phish seemingly emerged from the phased out delay loop jams of swirling high pitched circular patterns and slow building funk. The end of 1998 showed signs of a more dissonant type of jam, an "ambient style," that was either a telltale of the future or an exercise in ambivalence on stage. The band changed the stage setup for the first time in their career: Trey moved to the far side stage left (Fishman's reg spot), Fishman moved toward the center (Gordon's reg spot), Gordon moved closest to Page (Trey's reg spot), and Page stayed in the same spot but moved his piano and keyboards into a different arrangement.
Image: 7/7/1999 Charlotte (musicgods.com)
The band seemed poised to take their music to the next level, but not necessarily in the direction that Phans had expected. At the time, the general consensus among Phans was that Phish was going to create more defined "space like" jams with richer (more modern) keyboard sounds, clearer more unique guitar loops and riffs, disco "untz-like" rhythms from Fishman, and bigger bass bombs with more effects (as Mike had been going through a personal phase of adding and defining his tones for certain songs and jams). The band had a different idea altogether.
In March of 1999, the final "Album Masters" were completed on The Siket Disc. The Siket Disc is an album of little note to most Phish fans, but of great influence on the band itself. Mike Gordon has said in interviews that the Siket Disc is the only Phish album that the band itself regularly listened to as a group (Cohen, Jonathan. Phish Swims Again Billboard. December 21, 2002). Frequently playing the album as after party music backstage and on the tour buses in 1999 and 2000.
Engineered and mixed by John Siket after recording March 11-15 and September 29-October 2, 1997 at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY, The Siket Disc is the only all instrumental Phish studio album ever released. After being mixed in October 1998, the album was finally mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Studios in March of 1999. The "Compilation and Digital Editing" of this album was done by keyboardist Page McConnell himself... clearly a sign that this album "3-years in the making" was a labor of love for the band.
Phish seized the moment and attempted to recapture the ambient jams and sounds that inspired The Siket Disc during rehearsals for their upcoming tour. They relearned and practiced a number of the songs from the album that would be played throughout 1999 with the heaviest hitters "What's the Use?" and "My Left Toe" getting the most attention. More important than the emergence of these songs was the spark that ignited a full blown change in jamming style. Gone were the circular delay loops over cow funk beats, while fuzzy, feedback-drenched loops with artistic rhythmic signatures provided the backdrop to new sonic landscapes for the band. The "Ambient Jam" phase of Phish was fully realized.
1999 is often considered the "lost year" of Phish. The bulk of Phans at the time had little use for these bleak sonic landscapes and seemingly aimless jams. Looking back, many of us wish this "phase" had lasted longer and given us a greater vault from which to draw new ideas and inspiration. In the coming weeks and months I will be reviewing ALL of the 1999 concerts and rating them on an "Ambient Jam" scale of 1-10. The higher the number, the higher level of "Ambient Jamming" prevalent in that show. By definition, all ambient jamming is Type 2, but these jams are far different than almost every other Type 2 style of jamming in Phish history. I wish to inspire greater interest in the "lost year" and hope that Phish chooses to release the remixed soundboards of these sonically extraordinary concerts. The culmination of my review of 1999 will be a full blown "Ambient Jam" scale review of Big Cypress and NYE 1999/2000.
Tá Ceol Saol,