Do you feel that feeling in the air? The fireflies at twilight along with that earthy, summer camp smell of woods and grass? The soft evening breeze and the energy of your local amphitheater. That’s the magical, seasonal charm of two powerful forces coming together: Summertime and Phish tour, a fine American tradition.
I’ve been an unapologetic Phish fan for nearly two decades now and there are two righteous truths about Phish fandom: We love to use lists to organize our thoughts about Phish and we love shit-posting.
The purpose of this very article is to do both, much like that SPIN Magazine listicle a couple years ago that promised “All 333 Phish Songs, Ranked” YET SOMEHOW FORGOT “TUBE.”
Look – Phish fandom really isn’t all that different from being a rabid fan of a sports team. If anything, our intent is all for your delight, even if it’s 20x harder to explain to your family why you’ve seen the same band 134 times in every corner of the country.
Sometimes, these two chaotic ingredients come together in pure digital chaos. And my attempt to rank show openers from my favorite band is definitely a shit-post and definitely a part of that overall cultural noise.
A couple years ago I started playing a really fun fantasy game with my Phish show friends. It takes associating a certain level of degeneracy to Phish, namely high stakes betting. We call it The Game. Because we’re all over the country, we talk about it for months on the group chat leading up to the show runs we’re all together at.
Here’s how The Game works: Before the show, everyone picks five songs they think Phish will play that night. You get a juicer pick that’s worth 2x. No songs can be repeated in the group. You pick songs as a snake draft, with positions drawn randomly on the first night. The bigger the group, the harder and more fun the game is. You can see how this gets out of hand, quick.
When you’re in the show together and your calls get checked off, it’s quite a thrill.
The winner pot usually consists of a $20 buy-in or some sort of mutually agreeable betting term for the winner or runner up; One year, at Dicks, the “win” on the first night was free beers from the group for the remaining two shows inside the venue. I won with Ghost, Birds of the Feather, Jim, and Bug, with a Jim juicer and didn’t pay for a beer the rest of the weekend.
‘Cause all I want is a taste for free.
Pro-tip: If you’re playing The Game, have your most trustworthy, least wook, least spunion buddy be the commissioner for the group. It makes for a prompt pay-out after the show. If that’s you, congrats. Also note: It’s very easy for things to go south in the chaos of a show day when organizing The Game. Takes a level of commitment and sophistication from the group organizer, especially in accurately recording picks during the draft.
Anyway – I’ve been thinking a lot about the energy at the very beginning of a Phish show, when the house music lightly plays in the background of a summer night as you chomp with your friends before the music starts. Then, usually about 35 minutes after the posted showtime, the music goes off and lights go down. The place erupts as the Boys from Vermont take the stage.
The magic of that moment is that you have know idea what’s going to happen next. They do, but you’re about to get your ass-handed to you. Something conventional? A bust-out? That song you’ve been chasing as the glorious first song of the night?
Before we get into summer tour mood here at BroBible, I wanted to rank my favorite songs to kick-off a Phish show. I’ve been cataloging my thoughts on the subject for a while. Plus, the jam blog scene doesn’t do a whole lot to get everyone hyped up and rowdy before Phish tour besides aggregating some stuff, so I figure this is BroBible’s time to shine.
These are the anthems that you hear first before everything goes full tilt
And just because it has to be said – we’re talking “common” openers here, as in songs that aren’t total bust outs for openers like Prince’s “1999” on 12/31/98 or the themed-openers from Phish’s Baker’s Dozen run at Madison Square Garden. Phish nerdom is pretty granular, but it’s a fools errand to get that specific when there are thousands of shows to choose from.
I’ll start with one of my hottest Phish takes first: First Tube is song that’s so much better first rather than last. Sure, it finds itself at the end of so many Set IIs and Encores. But when it’s first? Everything is wonderfully inverted and that show is going to RAGE.
Call me a creature of peculiar habits, but first show, Hershey 9/15/00, opened with a First Tube and I’ll never look back on the song belonging anywhere else in a set list other than at the very beginning.
You’ll see an ocean of people throwing themselves up in the air to fall on Mike’s downbeat. It’s Phish’s way of skipping the foreplay and just gettin’ right into it.
Sample In A Jar
“Sample In A Jar” should be Phish’s biggest alt-rock radio single of the ’90s. In an alternate universe where Phish gives a fuck about being on the radio charts in the ’90s, “Sample” is a cultural juggernaut, officially licensed in mid-90s rom-coms starring Cameron Diaz and TV shows a la Friends, before television knew how to handle such nuance. It’s a mini-soap opera in a song. It’s the This Is Us of the Phish catalog.
It’s a woozy power-ballad about a scorned lover with a broken heart; Dr. Seuss meets Ross and Rachel drama on Friends. A lover runs off with two custies with unpronounceable names and, in retrospect, all the signs of this happening were all there. Had Trey and Tom Marshall just called Elihu and Leemor “Chad” and “Brad”, it’d probably be as big of a radio anthem as Bush’s “Glycerine” circa 1994, the same year Hoist came out.
Of course, then it’d lose all its goofy Phish charm.
I love shows with Sample openers because of how cheesy and melodramatic the tune is. It’s finely-crafted for area sing-a-longs, straight down to the song’s bridge where “simple smiles and good times seem all wrong!!!!!”
Everyone screams it. You know that you love starting the night at a Phish show screaming just how wrong it is to have such a good time. And I know a bunch of jaded old vets are probably real salty about how much joy other people feel with their friends during this sing-a-long moment.
And, heck, sometimes it jams! See: 7/26/2017 Baker’s Dozen Sample rager to open the jam-on night.
Kill Devil Falls
There are many old, grouchy Phish fans out there that hate sing-a-longs. I get the frustration, but I don’t agree with it. Yes, yes – Sing-along tunes bring out some bad behavior from chompers. Yes, the band will always perform it their music better than a group of dudes next to you named Mason and Jake, spilling their $14 Goose Islands all over you while they hold them in the air in the spirit of the moment. Fuck Mason and Jake, but – in their defense – why would Phish perform music that’s so damn good to sing-a-long to if you’re no gonna sing along?
Enter “Kill Devil Falls”. It kicks off with a screaming Trey rift, transitions with a bridge about learning your lesson, and ends with a chorus of “OOOOOHHHH!” A wonderful song about looking back at your past with a laugh and ahead with some much-needed wisdom. It’s a hard song to hate.
In terms of setlist positioning, Kill Devil Falls is a powerful opener because it settles everyone in. If you’re still in the beer line when the lights go down, you’re probably not too mad about not being in place for it yet. You can smile and bob your head to it as you head to your seat to meet up with your friends.
Maybe it’s just me, but Kill Devil Falls always feels the most right at the beginning of the show rather than as a “change of pace” anthem in the second set after a filthy 23-minute Crosseyed. No disrespect – it’s their show after-all. But 11 times out of 10, I’m hitting the pisser in the second set when Kill Devil Falls comes after a jam.
Yes this is a second set one but forgive me because it rips.
Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues
Dirty, screaming, old school Phish. For some reason Trey and the boys shelved “Alumni Blues” during the most ambitious years of their career. After being a staple in set lists for five years, Alumni was only played THREE TIMES from 1991 – 2010.
There were a shitload of Phish shows in those years!
I got it for the first time on July 4th, 2012, at Jones Beach. Total bust out, completely out of the blue. Complete high five song – the song where you high five everyone around you because that’s how damn happy you are. I felt like a child – I think I screamed.
I’m glad they resurfaced on night three as an opener for the 2018 MSG run. And I hope I get it again because Alumni rocks.
Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan
I was surprised to learn that “Stealing Time” has only been an opener 14 times out of the 72 times it’s been played since 2009. Then I realized I was at eight of those 14 shows, which has completely warped my perspective on the frequency Stealing Time gets in the opening slot. Guess I got a blank space where my mind should be.
Again, it’s such a great “settle in” song. I wish someone could go full Darren Rovell and calculate how much free advertising Clif Bar has gotten over the years for their inclusion in this masterpiece. I’ve definitely wandered by the Clif Bar display at Wawa or Sheetz and bought a couple for a quick snack just because the song started dancing around in my head. Pairs really well with that generic green tea, too, because it’s impossible to eat a Clif Bar without something to wash it down with. Clif Bars with nothing to drink are a recipe for cotton mouth.
Set Your Soul Free
Probably just lost all the respect of crustie old 1.0 vets, but whatever. I saw the most Phish of my life in the 2.0 era and I love being able to straddle the new with the old.
Song of the summer, 2018. Heard it for the first time when the band sound checked it at Lake Tahoe on the first day of summer tour last year. Instantly fell in love with the jam hearing it bounce around through the Ponderosa Pines behind Harvey’s that day. A couple days later, they opened set 1 with it at The Gorge, marking the song’s official debut. Then it got bumped into the coveted Set 2 opener spot – positioning that only belongs to the most elite Phish songs out there.
I joke a lot about how “Set Your Soul Free” – along with “Everything’s Right” and “Light” – are early ’00s summer camp songs for adults who still enjoy tripping on acid well into their 30s and 40s. I say that partially because I came of age in those peak evangelical years, where songs like this were the norm at evangelical Christian summer camps. Also because those were the years I most aggressively chased Phish around the Northeast.
But, for real – It’s Phish song masked as contemporary Christian rock song. You don’t need to be on a headful to hear it, either. Just throw on any Jars Of Clay album when you’re mellowing out after the show around 2:30AM with your pals (…please don’t do this).
My favorite SYSF from last year was a second set opener. I know that sort of disqualifies it from this list, but man it was a great moment.
Duh dun… duh dun.
Duh dun… duh dun.
Duh dun… duh dun.
The Curtain With
Another song that sat on the shelf for a HUGE span of Phishtory: 1988 to 2000. The first time I ever heard it live was the time Phish could barely get through it at Coventry, intending it to be the last song they ever performed live, despite completely butchering
In hindsight… THANK GOD they’re playing it with the ferocity they used to play it with, often in the set 1 opener slot. Getting it as the night three opener at The Gorge this past year was a pure treat.
Two drawn out chords on the keys (a G minor to a G sharp) and moment that feels suspended forever. It’s not typically a show opener, but when it is, it’s thunderous – For example, when it opened the show at The Mann in 2016 or at Tahoe on the night before the lauded Tahoe Tweezer.
Buried Alive is such a frenzy of a Phish song that it feels like the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting. When it’s the show opener, it’s like the whole band jumps into the pool doing a giant cannonball. Phish has played Buried Alive 13 times since 2009 and nine of those times it’s been an opener, which makes for pure chaos every single time.
Here’s a staggering Phish stat from the Phish.net nerd machine: Julius has been played at 12.04% of live Phish shows. That’s a pretty big ratio! And you might know it mostly as an encore jam, but I love it in the opener position – That’s where it fell at The Forum last year and it OWNED.
This never sucks as a first set opener. Never. I’d like to think that Moma Dance is a song about a journey of your own choosing. The beginning of a pick-your-own adventure story with the deepest of grooves. Beyond Trey’s scratchy wah-wah and Mike’s bass bombs, Tom Marshall’s cryptic nautical metaphors in the lyrics always seem so fitting at the beginning of a Phish show – a reminder of the ephemeralness of it all.
The moments end, y’all.
But back to the ship – Moma has this wonderful ability to pick up momentum as it chugs along, like a huge ocean liner pushing out of harbor for a long, journey. Then it steams into a full throttle funk vehicle, even when they keep it on the short side.
While writing this, I had an insane dilemma bouncing around my head: Some of these songs are very rarely Phish show openers. The Sloth, for example, hasn’t opened a Phish show in seven years, at Bader Field in Atlantic City. That said, my second Phish show of all time – 02/22/2003 in Cincinnati – opened with a nasty Sloth that set the mood for a show with a scorcher of a second set: Tube > Bathtub Gin, Friday > David Bowie, Bug.
So yes, my objectivity at ranking best Phish show openers is blurred my own experience and memories with these songs. But just trust me on this: The Sloth, with page howlin’ away on the B3 and the boys screaming about slicing nipples, is a nips-hard Phish show moment.
There are two distinct but very different reactions one can have to the opening moments of a Phish show: “Okkkkkkkay!!!! I can dig it!” with a smirk and “OHHHHHHH YEAAAAH!!!!” with a hoot. “Simple” falls in the latter when it’s the very first notes on the stage of the night. When Trey launched into the melody at Merriweather a couple years ago, I thought the roof was going to blow off the pavilion from the energy inside. Quite a special moment special moment.
Blaze On has become somewhat of a hymn for us aging Phish fans. It’s an invocation, if you will. A reminder that life’s short and weird, but you only get the ride once, so best enjoy it.
Shows that open with Blaze On always feel like such a weight off the shoulders. Hell yea to all the chemtrails raining down on you. Hell yea, three wrong really can make a right. The good time anthem that’s opened epic evenings at Wrigleys, Charleston, Dicks, and Merriweather in recent years and it picks up steam with every spin from the boys.
Chalk Dust Torture
Again, I don’t even know where to begin on counting epic Chalk Dust openers. It’s another classic that’s pure combustion straight out of the gate. Sure, you’re not getting the huge jams in a first set Chalk Dust opener, but you’re still getting an opener that rips. So many face melters of the years – too many to count on both hands and feet.
I think one of my favorite Chalk Dust openers in recent memory was at Bill Graham in 2016. Phish can play the living shit out of that room and they’re throwing gas to start the night.
An opener that really settles a rowdy crowd in. You know exactly what’s coming for the next twenty minutes, yet you don’t. The crunchy groove of a Mike’s opener always feels like blowing the dust off your dancing shoes – You’re a little rusty, a little awkward, not quite in the headspace where you know you gotta be when the lights go down.
You’ll be back in the groove soon, Mr. Nice Guy.
Without any questions, sits high atop the Mt. Rushmore of Phish show openers. All those great Runaway Jims in the early ’90s fueled many-a raucous evening of Phish magic. A show that starts with a dog named Jim is pure energy, beginning to end.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty: You know there are few things more in life you love hollering “Let’s get this show on the road!” with all your friends at the beginning of the night. It feels a little wrong getting so excited about that blurb when it’s outside the opener spot. Thus, it’s impossible to not put this in the Top 5 G.O.A.T. Phish song openers. It’s a classic Phish being classic Phish.
It’s the song that you’re PISSED at yourself if you’re not in your spot when the house music goes off and boys hit the stage. Mr. Palmer is concerned about you missing songs, Bro. I don’t care how bad getting in the door was. Get your shit together.
A lot of heaters over the years, but I think Mann 2015 opener holds the apple to my eye of wonderful AC/DC Bag moments.
Punch You In The Eye
Yeah, you knew this was going to be either #1 or #2. It’s the ultimate pump up jam. Like AC/DC bag almost feels wrong with PYITE is deeper in the setlist. It’s my game-face song, my Phish “We Will Rock You”. It’s the song I put on before huge career meetings or crank at full blast just to set the mood for gettin’ shit done.
This has caused some interesting situations in office environments with a Sonos, but I play to win.
The indoor PYITES at MSG are probably the most legendary, but I’ll take every single one I can get.
Esteemed readers, you made it this far. It’s over. My futile attempt at power ranking Phish show openers is over. Nothing is more subjective and meaningless than a blogger on a website called “BroBible” listing his favorite Phish show openers. I promise you – Whether you’ve been to four Phish shows or 400, I promise you, nothing is less important. I really hope none of you took this too seriously, unless you’re actually reading this and in Phish.
Then I hope you feel me out here and play many, many Llama openers this summer.
But you can also do whatever the hell you want and we’ll enjoy ourselves just fine.
If you made it this fan, it means your serious about your Phish fandom, have opinions of your own, and you’re about :20 seconds away from shitting all over my picks on Twitter or something (…bring it!). So I’m going to end the #1 spot with MY personal all-time favorite Phish show opener, which is the only correct and true best Phish opener:
Fast LLama, slow Llama… I don’t care. All Llama is good Llama. Do you like Trey ferociously shredding away on the old Languedoc wood-chipper with blistering speed? Do you like your live Phish experience to start with the Chairman of the Boards, Mr. Page McConnell, mashing the upper octaves of the B3 from his keyboard birds nest?
Llama openers are the Ric Flair “WOO!” of the Phish world. It’s a live music blast off experience that brings all the tangy sauce.
My brother took my Mom to her second Phish show ever last year at Merriweather and I’m STILL kicking myself for it because of the Llama opener.
Never miss a Sunday show indeed.
Brandon is the publisher of BroBible.com – Catch him at a Phish show this summer or on Twitter where you can tell him how wrong his opinions are @brandonwenerd.
-Peaches En Regalia
-Soul Shakedown Party
–My Pet Cat