Rocky Mountain High: The Untold Story of Phish’s Archival Release, _Colorado ’88_ (Relix Revisited)

Mike Greenhaus on June 21, 2011

This piece originally ran in our February-March 1988 issue_

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July 25, 1988

It’s 2AM and Phish has just finished its weekly gig at Nectar’s, a Burlington bar best known for its cheese fries. Like most Mondays in ‘88, the group has just performed a three-set show stacked with early favorites like “Fluffhead” and quirky stories about Gamehenge, the centerpiece of Trey Anastasio’s senior thesis at Goddard College. It’s been almost five years since Anastasio met Jon Fishman and Mike Gordon at UVM, three years since Gordon added Page McConnell to the mix and only a few short months since Anastasio’s graduation. As Anastasio began fusing his textbook compositional prowess with his knack for free-form improvisation, Phish slowly began pushing outside its pub crawl confines to finally score its first offer outside the Northeast: Colorado. The group is clearly excited about its journey and, on this night, even drops a Red Rocks reference into its popular narrative “Icculus” [This version of “Icculus” is included on the 1992 reissue of Junta ]

“There is a real kindred spirit between folks who travel between Vermont and Colorado,” McConnell says from his Burlington home 18 years later. “People had heard about us in Vermont and would tell their friends out west.”

One friend was Cilla Foster, a future girlfriend of Gordon’s who was waitressing for Warren Stickney, a local restaurant entrepreneur in Telluride. After speaking with Gordon, who served as the group’s first manager, Stickney promised Phish a month-long tour but, as July 25 drew near, he became increasingly harder to contact. Shortly before Phish’s intended departure date, Stickney admitted that there was no tour, but agreed to book the group at his restaurant, The Roma, for a$1,000. The quartet handed over its Nectar’s spot to Ninja Custodian and took time off from their day jobs.

“We gave ourselves a grand sendoff, hopped in this cube van at 2AM and took off,” Fishman reminisces from his home in Maine. “Now I’m married with my third kid on the way and prefer to stay home, but at the time I was living it up, a single guy on the road. We were young and had all the energy in the world. We were spending our life properly.”
“We had major discussions about whether we should go right up until the end,” says longtime sound engineer Paul Languedoc. “We had a vote whether we should go and we all voted ‘no,’ but decided to go anyway. Phish was able to make that leap of faith from the beginning.”

The departure of the more blues-based guitarist Jeff Holdsworth * two years earlier allowed Phish to dive headfirst into Anastasio’s compositions and for McConnell to truly add his fingerprint to the band. “That kind of happened, and had to happen, just as Jeff was leaving,” he says. “I don’t think we would have been able to continue if that weren’t the case.”

Without a guarantee, or a place to stay, the Vermont quartet, along with Languedoc and early lighting designer Tim Rogers, hit the road for a 42-hour journey. Gordon handled the money, while Fishman and McConnell split most of the driving. “We were stuck together, but it was defining,” McConnell laughs. “We’d never had such an intense time together and were flying by the seat of our pants.”

Like any young band, Phish was still working out its kinks and used the empty Roma to try out some of its most complicated material: the big band opus “Flat Fee,” the King Crimson-inspired “Dave’s Energy Guide” (which was stuffed into Talking Heads’ “Cities” ) and the future setlist staple “Split Open and Melt.”

“What marked our existence at that point was that Trey was writing stuff that none of us could play,” Fishman says bluntly. "His conceptual ideas were way ahead of our actual skills and, as time went on, that gap closed. I don’t think you can ever say we were playing below what we are capable of, but towards the end, we just tried to cook a simple meal.
“Our weakness at the time was our inability to play something simply and gracefully,” Fishman continues. “We worked our whole career to improve that, the best example being [1993’s] ‘Axilla.’ Trey came to me with the drum part and I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ The idea was to get over this mental masturbation and really play these simple songs with feeling.”

After playing to an empty room for three nights, Lynch and others convinced the group to try their luck elsewhere. “They said, ‘If you guys go across the street to the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon, everyone will see you’,” McConnell relates, referencing the cover of Colorado ’88. “So, we carried our gear directly across the street and the shows were packed.” Fishman continues: “They ran out of liquor and beer both nights and then we picked up our instruments and went back to playing to ten people at The Roma. That’s how bad the strike was.”

Perhaps Fishman’s most infamous Colorado memory isn’t what he played, but why he didn’t play. “It was the only time a member of Phish failed to make a gig,” the drummer says. “I went to Ajax Mountain with my friends and we tried to come down an alternate route and ended up running into about one thousand feet of sheer cliff. The only way to get out was to go back up the mountain and down the way we came. By the time I got to the gig I had already missed two sets.”

In Fishman’s absence Anastasio sat behind the kit and the group offered a “jazz odyssey” based around Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” While the results were at times less than stellar, the group overcame its follies through humor. “I came waltzing in with a handful of flowers and a head full of acid and Trey told this story about me while I played high as a kite,” Fishman laughs, before pausing to look at the unopened copy of Colorado ’88 resting on his shelf. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a recording where I was on acid before.”

McConnell is quick to point out that, despite its loose attitude, Phish had lofty goals: “You can tell by the songs that we were still spending five or six hours a day working out those arrangements. But what strikes me listening back is how much fun we were having.”

“Even when we had limited material the emphasis was always looking at the new thing,” Fishman adds. "That continued through songs like ‘Waves’ and ‘Thunderhead,’ which we were always trying to incorporate into our set. “YEM” became the flagship song, but we never tried to place it in the set. It was just so familiar we knew when it felt right, like a key play in a football game."

If Phish is known for its wide-eyed eclecticism, the material on Colorado ’88 documents its split roots. “We were real show dogs and good ones at that,” Fishman says. “It enabled us to try out different textures, moods and all these styles. We used to have debates [as to] if, by learning all these different styles, we’d end up being a mediocre band who wouldn’t be really good at any one thing. But now, I think those influences are more reflective of four people growing up in a multicultural, suburban society.”

“These tapes circulated after we left and, when we came back in the early-1990s, we had all these fans,” McConnell says. “Throughout Phish’s career, the size of our crowd was always directly proportional to how many times we played that town.”

Financially, the trip was a wash. “We didn’t make much money at those gigs and the little money we did we ended up having to pay back to the bar because they charged us for our beer and French fries,” McConnell says with a hint of youthful pride. One of Stickney’s checks even bounced. “On the way home, Stickney got us a gig in Aspen where we made some money and stayed on someone’s floor. Then we gave this guy a lift back to Vermont and realized someone took our money. We accused this poor kid, even though it was actually someone at that house, so watch who you accuse.”

After returning home to Vermont, Phish finished its first album, Junta, and its career slowly snowballed. But all four members agree that Phish was fueled by the common bond fostered on early trips like the group’s Colorado adventures. “We used to play along to ‘Cissy Strut” in rehearsal," Fishman says. “No matter how hard we tried, we could never get that tune right, but the point is that we were playing together. We went through a period where we said, ‘No analyzing,’ but we realized that you’re either getting over yourself or some self-consciousness. So, you need the freedom to forgive each other’s human shortcomings, even if that chokes the music. But to not face those shortcomings at all is even worse.”