When it comes to Phish, the less said about Gamehendge — the mythology that Trey Anastasio created pre-Phish, and built many of the band’s earliest songs around — the better. Many of us have Dungeons and Dragons, or similar hobbies, in our past; most of us don’t form rock bands with those obsessions as the foundation. Then again, Gamehendge is central to the Phish tale. For a while the studio recordings of those songs were like a Holy Grail for Phish’s fanbase (a fanbase that, by the way, loves Holy Grails, once treating each live show like one). And they were a good portion of the songs Phish was touring behind when they were nobodies from Vermont driving to Colorado to tour, baby steps that eventually led to the organic growth of the rabid fanbase that made the band not just stars but a larger-than-life phenomenon.
Colorado ’88 is three discs of music recorded at five shows during that first cross-country tour. It’s obviously aimed at those rabid fans, at listeners who would never question the liner-notes assertion that these were “magical shows”. But this is where it all begin for the Phish phenomenon. And it all began with Gamehendge… or, at least this collection does, as Disc 1 is heavy on those songs. Now, some of Phish’s absolute best melodies are from those early songs, but sometimes that means the melody is also carrying the heavy load of a bulky fairy tale. That’s always been the push-and-pull circumstances of “The Lizards”, for example: a jawdroppingly good melody saddled to a “say what?” storyline. Unfortunately other songs — like Colorado ’88‘s trio of “The Sloth”, “Icculus” and “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” — lean even more on the awkward story part of that equation. There’s nothing worse than a singer interrupting a perfectly good song to fill you in on its characters, as Anastasio does here during “Icculus”.
Then again, “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” eventually glides into “Fly Famous Mockingbird”, a piano-led ramble that has the purity of style, and the upward motion (as if the musicians were trying to lift themselves off this earth) that represent another hallmark of Phish’s music — one more important to my like for their music than the fantasy milieu (or, for that matter, the social scene that was built around the band). This is the style that occupies much of their debut album Junta, what makes that album stand out from the rest of theirs in some ways. (It’s the album were they let loose the most, which means that for every silly lyric there’s a gorgeous, unleashed instrumental passage that goes on longer than it should, but not as long as you want it to in the moment.)
That style is graceful, melodic, rolling improvisation, with all band members playing off each other, but with Anastasio’s Santana/Allman Brothers-esque guitar leads often rising above. In these recordings they play in this style just as crisply, and in some places even more vibrantly, than on Junta, though they’re also occasionally more showy in their playing, bassist Mike Gordon especially. Listen to “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday”, portions of “You Enjoy Myself” and “Run Like an Antelope”, even parts of the mostly unbearable cat-dog fight song “Harpua”, even. Here there’s places where they glide so casually that you can hear the way their music does try, and maybe even succeed, to emulate the grace of nature. Sometimes those moments are stuck in between clunky blues jams, or over-the-top lyrics (either in a hippy-dippy “I sure got some powerful pills” way, or a trying-too-hard-to-be-clever way), but that only makes them all the more breathtaking.
The quartet’s raw musicianship is evident throughout Colorado ’88. And even more so, their ambition. It’s in those attempts to build a singular mythology, and it’s in the diversity of both the originals and the covers. That range is what makes this set ultimately bear the stamp of a group meant for bigger things. Few groups have the whatever-it-takes to cover Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and the Hebrew prayer “Avenu Malkenu” and Alan Toussaint’s “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” and Talking Heads’ “Cities”, and pull them all off. Well, I’m not sure they entirely pull that last one off; they play it with an awkward blues strut, as they’d continue to do for the rest of their career as a band.
That they’re full of surprises is part of the myth of Phish (the notion that “you never know what they’re going to do next” was once the dominant fan-led hype about the band), but it’s also true in some ways. Strip their career back to the start, back before they were playing to fans’ expectations, and surprise is a key part of the music’s appeal. So is a playful, sometimes painfully corny sense of humor, and an enjoyment of excess, of taking their music to its furthest limit. But also present is a real ability to sometimes take their music in an unexpected direction: creating an extraordinarily comforting mood, or stretching beyond that even, towards illumination. Or even further beyond that, towards the transcendence that the musicians obviously seek, and their fans obviously desire. Colorado ’88 is a baby picture — rough in that way — yet all of those features are evident.