Colorado '88 is the latest archive release from Phish, available as a three-disc set or as downloads from the band's website (the latter include five extra tracks). It's a set of recordings taken from Phish's first expedition outside of New England, a "tour" of the Rocky Mountain State that didn't work out exactly as planned: the venues that had originally booked the band had fallen into something of public disfavor in the by the time the quartet arrived from Vermont.
These 1988 performances of Phish were mastered from the original analog cassette tapes, belonging to fan Michael Lynch, through the expertise of Fred Kevorkian. They were then compiled by the group's long-time archivist Kevin Shapiro to simulate an evening's performance. Several of the tracks found in the collection have never before appeared on an official Phish release: long-time fans, as is the case with such collections, may quibble with song choices (including a cover of Talking Heads' "Cities among others) and/or sequencing, but for the curious and/or novice listener, this set presents a fairly accurate portrait of early Phish in all their quirky glory.
Having conquered the northeastern college/club circuit earlier in the 1980s, Phish embarked on an adventure out West, playing seven shows in ten days to tiny crowds in small bars and restaurants in the ski towns of Telluride and Aspen. Colorado '88 culls, in chronological order, the best of those shows, providing a glimpse into the group's collective psyche in its formative days, before the three and four-night stands at amphitheatres and arenas where Phish would perform in the years to come.
Including lighthearted, candid photos plus extracts from bassist Mike Gordon's diary, the set is packaged with a black and white cover photo of Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell carrying one of the latter's keyboards across a street before a Colorado mountain backdrop. The listening experience begins in the same self-effacing way, as guitarist Anastasio asks the club audience their preference of material before the quartet plunges into "The Curtain With. It's a mix of tongue-in-cheek vocals and challenging musical changes that illustrates how Phish appealed to progressive rockers as well as fans doting on irony.
Phish's debt to Frank Zappa is pretty obvious throughout, but their gently whimsical persona puts a wholly different spin on the music. The nod to straight-ahead jazz represented by Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage demonstrates the group's willingness to absorb and retool influences. With drummer Jon Fishman absent on a mountain trek, the empathy Anastasio, McConnell and Gordon display here suggest how technically proficient and instrumentally knowledgeable they actually were at this stage of their game. And see if you can catch Gordon's tease of "My Favorite Things on the first of the three, seventy minute-plus discs.
Song selection on Colorado '88 is comprised of an odd and interesting mix of original material and contemporary and traditional covers. As was often the case in the early days, selections from Anastasio's mythic magnum opus, "Gamehendge, such as "Icculus, are accompanied by explanations that to some degree detract from the intense atmosphere of the band's playing. Confirmed fans may find such intervals amusing, but the dilettante will probably declare them self-indulgent, especially insofar as the passage that appears in "Run Like An Antelope is exactly of the type which Phish parodied in later years.
Crucially though, the spoken words take away from the sound and sensation of the band when they play with the forceful unison they bring to a tune such as "Fluffhead. On other tracks like "Timber, Colorado '88 presents flashes of the magnificent improvisational prowess Phish that would evolve over the years, which arguably reached its pinnacle on Island Tour. Here, interestingly, they are but a portion of set lists that stirred devoted enthusiasm far in excess of the audiences' size. That intimate fervor is emblematic of the proprietary zeal (and, honestly speaking, mutual adoration) Phish engendered in its audience even as it grew to mammoth proportions.
Perhaps it's only if you place this recording in that context that you can truly appreciate its music. Hearing the band do Robert Palmer's Sneakin' Sally Thru' The Alley doesn't prepare you for the funk forays of the 1990s or even the way the quartet navigates the quick syncopation of "Camel Walk. As interesting as it is to hear Grateful Dead archives for the way bassist Phil Lesh interacts with guitarist Jerry Garcia, so it is fascinating to follow the interplay between Gordon and Fishman on Phish recordings like this.
But that's a strictly musical virtue on display at any phase of the band's evolution. As Phish's audience grew, the subliminal elitism at play in the refrain of "Alumni Blues became less prevalent than the resplendent segues from "Mike's Song to "I Am Hydrogen or the smooth transition from "Weekapaug Groove" to "You Enjoy Myself. The importance of Colorado '88 lies in how accurately it captures the band in the process of evolution.
If the potential rewards that derive from the explosive likes of Live In Brooklyn overshadow the comparatively fleeting fiery passages included here, that doesn't diminish the pleasure of hearing where the transcendence first began. In fact, hearing this set may be essential in understanding how Phish became what they represented for much of the decade following this series of recordings: the contemporary definition of rock and roll.
Disc One: The Curtain With; The Sloth; Icculus; Colonel Forbin's Ascent; Fly Famous Mockingbird; I Didn't Know; Maiden Voyage; Timber; Harpua.
Disc Two: Fluffhead; Run Like An Antelope; Sneaking Sally Thru' The Alley; Light Up Or Leave Me Alone; I Know A Little; The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday; Avenu Malkenu; The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday; Flat Fee; McGrupp And The Watchful Hosemasters; Alumni Blues; A Letter To Jimmy Page; Alumni Blues.
Disc Three: Camel Walk; Wilson; No Dogs Allowed; Mike's Song; I Am Hydrogen; Weekapaug Groove; You Enjoy Myself; Cities; Dave's Energy Guide; Cities; AC/DC Bag; Corinna; Thank You.
Trey Anastasio: guitar and vocals; Mike Gordon: bass and vocals; Jon Fishman: drums and vocals; Page McConnell: keyboards and vocals.
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