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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Phish: At the Roxy

At the Roxy
Jemp Records

Once, at the Further Festival’s stop in St. Louis, I found myself sharing a picnic table with a trio of Baby Boomer Grateful Dead fans. They were testing each other by taking a bible of Dead setlists and quizzing each other. “July 17, 1972 — what song they did open the second set with?” Each question led to a conversation about how surprising or unsurprising the particular setlist was, peppered with reminiscing about shows they went to. Dead fans have their own mythology, their own catalogue of surprising moments from concerts, of what happened when, of which shows were the best. Besides the fashion sense and related communal/cultural activities, that may be one of the main things that carried on to Phish fans from the Dead, along with the notion, true or not, that when the band played live anything could happen.

Phish fans have their own collective hierarchy of shows. As with the Dead, audience taping of shows fueled this, giving individual tapes an air of mystery, making certain shows as coveted as a rare archeological object. But what happens when those live recordings are released officially? It’s a chance for fans to re-hear and re-evaluate, to understand what gave those shows their special status and see if it still seems as special when the recording is easy to get and the sound quality is clear and crisp.

At the Roxy is an eight-disc box set capturing three consecutive nights at the Roxy Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, in February of 1993. It’s one of those show recordings with legendary status, stemming mostly from the second set of the second night, when the band did a freewheeling hour that bookended “Tweezer” around a whole host of other songs, which quoted each other and were woven together along the way. That set seems like one performed especially for the die-hard fans. The set-opening song, “Wilson”, includes an example of the language of signals that the band created to play with their audience. It’s a Simpsons cue, where the band plays a piece of the theme song to the The Simpsons and then everyone, band and crowd, yell “Doh!”. It no doubt worked better live than it does on CD. A live recording that needs an accompanying explanation loses something, especially in immediacy.

The box set’s press materials describe this second-night set as consisting of one of the band’s most experimental versions of “Tweezer”, but while listening it’s hard to recognize this as that same song all the way through, despite the little quotes from it throughout. The set rolls fairly continuously from the song before “Tweezer”, “Reba”, and includes teases of a host of other songs, not to mention minute-long covers of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “My Mind’s Got a Mind of Its Own” and Kiss’s “Rock and Roll All Nite”, the latter with vocals from Jay Von Lehe, an audience member who was dressed as Gene Simmons. It’s a fun set, a channel-changing tour through their songs, with tight if rushed playing and a generally thick, gritty air about it.

The specialness of the set performed that night, the puzzle-like way the songs relate to each other and the surprise factor of it all, doesn’t entirely relate on CD. On CD it happens with more distance, and as such doesn’t feel as special. This is the downside of CD availability: it cements qualities that weren’t meant to be that solid. Even cheap cassettes traded within a devoted subculture seem more naturally aligned with the air of this set than a high-quality, professionally-put-together, commercially-available boxed set. The performance is fun, but there’s something quaint about it at this remove.

The five other sets that make up these three shows carry some traces of the inside-joke approach to fandom that the band cultivates. They do the Simpsons bit each night, and there’s a couple of vacuum solos, another stage-show trick that doesn’t carry on CD. The band’s longer story-songs, like “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” on the first night, don’t play too well on CD either, dragging the energy down.

But there are also plenty of decent-to-interesting versions of the songs from their most recent album at the time, Rift, and the albums before it. The first set of the first night includes some persistent, carefully controlled jamming on “Split Open and Melt”. The second set of that night, on the whole better, has a version of the traditional song “Paul and Silas” that introduces a bluegrass theme, which returns more prominently on the third night. It also has a nice piano solo mid-way through. The first night is more solid than exceptional, the jamming more grounded than reach-for-the-sky.

The second night immediately starts out at a faster pace. The first set has a lot of energy, with a quick “Foam”, a very explosive “Possum”, and an almost manic “The Sloth”. A typically graceful “The Divided Sky” opens a prettier stretch, with “The Horse”, “Silent in the Morning”, and, to a degree, the also somewhat clunky “Fluffhead”.

In some ways, though, the third night is the most enjoyable, because it’s the most care-free. Though there is a “Tweezer” quote towards the beginning of the first set — either a reminder of what they pulled the previous night, or a playful continuation of it — their approach overall seems less geared towards impressing the audience with their prowess, more about playing their songs well. The first set is very tight, and in small ways more surprising and enjoyable than the big tricks of the night before. They play several of their most melodic, pop-leaning songs (“Punch You in the Eye”, “Chalk Dust Torture”, “Bouncing Around the Room”, even “Dinner and a Movie”), and throw an edge on them, their playing sharpened and fiery.

Set Two of the final night they start off just as tough and at the same time light, especially on jazzy but fierce versions of “The Curtain” and “Stash”. “The Lizards”, as always overcoming its awkward lyrics with the force of its great melody, has some great jazz-interplay as well, built around the piano. Page McConnell’s loose yet forceful playing is a fitting representative of the overall feeling of the night. They seem more focused on the music itself, less on the tricks and tools of building a unique rapport with their crowd.

By the end of the show, where they’re joined by their friend Jeff Mosier for a bluegrass hoedown on Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” and some more traditional tunes, it seems likely that everyone’s having a good time: not just the band and the crowd at the show, but even CD listeners at home.

RATING 6 / 10