Phish Fans Start Wilson Chant On This Date In 1994
Outside the Beacon Theater – 1994 – by Joe Madonna
This essay was originally published on Hidden Track.
Twenty-five years ago today I experienced one of the most life-changing events of my existence on this planet. On April 15, 1994, I went to the Beacon Theatre to see Phish. Little did I know that I’d spend the next 25 years following this quartet from Vermont to the ends of the earth, and wind up meeting nearly all of my best friends through a mutual love of this band.
Let’s first start with how I found Phish. During the summer of 1993, I attended beautiful Camp Westmont in the hills of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Two of my Westmont bunkmates spent that whole summer turning me onto the Grateful Dead with little success. After a while they finally got sick of all their Dead CD’s and threw on Phish’s Lawn Boy. The minute “Reba” came on the boombox my interest was immediately piqued. I loved the quirky lyrics, crazy compositions and the intense guitar work of Trey Anastasio.
When I got home from camp I went out and bought myself a copy of Lawn Boy, the four-piece’s 1990 studio album. I’ll never forget the moment I first pressed play and “The Squirming Coil” hit my ears. I remember the huge smile that spread across my face, as after many years of looking I finally found a band that hit every level of emotion in my soul.
Now, I was 16 years old at the time, so I couldn’t exactly run off on Phish tour. I had to bide my time, and wait until April when Phish planned to play a three-night run at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. As soon as the shows were announced I told my parents of my plan to hit all three nights. They were absolutely dumbfounded that I wanted to see a band play three nights in a row. I tried explaining to them that Phish switched up the setlist every night, but they explained to me that the first two nights were school nights. It clearly wasn’t happening, so I was content enough to see the final show of the run on a Friday night.
I called the Phish hotline and found out that the tickets went on sale while I had Gym class. In a move that I’ll never forget, my mother offered to go to the Ticketmaster outlet at the local West Coast Video and pick me up a pair of ducats. Luckily my mom came through and got me tickets even though all of the shows sold out in 35 minutes. I finally had my tickets, and I was prepared to head to New York City.
Of course, it wouldn’t be so easy. I got home from school the afternoon of April 15 to find my parents waiting for me at the door. It turns out my journalism teacher called and informed my folks that I hadn’t been turning in assignments. After reaming me out for a while my parents dropped the bombshell that I was grounded and couldn’t attend the concert. I was absolutely devastated. My parents saw the look of absolute terror in my eyes and just didn’t have it in them to follow through with the punishment they had just dished out. My folks watched as I had spent the last six months learning everything I possibly could and listening to every tape I could find of Phish. So after deciding to table my punishment until after the concert my mensch-y parents sent me on my way.
My buddy Andrew and I walked to the train station and boarded a New Jersey Transit train heading to New York City. We got to the first stop when Andrew asked if I had the tickets. Panic set in as I realized that in all of the confusion I had left the tickets at my house. Cell phones were extremely rare back then, so we had to get off the train at the next stop and call my folks. As if my mom and dad hadn’t done enough to help me make the show, they drove to the train station we were at to bring us the tickets. Do I have the best parents ever or what?
Andrew and I finally got into the city and headed towards the venue. After a brief trip to Central Park’s Sheep’s Meadow, we made our way to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. All of the sights and sounds from that day are still firmly embedded in my memory. I remember being extremely confused by a guy with a sign that said “Punch You In The Eye,” and from all of the people offering free hugs and veggie burritos. We quickly met up with the guys from summer camp who introduced me to Phish before making our way inside of the theater. The first thing that stood out to me was the gorgeous Minkin paintings that served as a backdrop.
After what felt like an eternity, the lights went down and the members of Phish took the stage. Drummer Jon Fishman started “Llama” and the place exploded. The energy in that room was absolutely nuts, as the crowd burst into applause after each segment of the song. Of course, I hardly knew anything Phish played that night, but luckily I was surrounded by friends who knew the songs and filled me in on the details.
The song “Wilson” was a revelation. As the tune started my friend Brent started yelling “Wilson.” Once again I was confused, but I figured I’d just yell what Brent was yelling. Soon our whole group of friends was yelling “Wilson,” and everyone around us started joining in. Ten seconds later everyone in the whole venue continued the chant.
A few years ago I went back and listened to the 10 versions of “Wilson” Phish played before my first show, and I confirmed that Brent did indeed start the “Wilson Chant.” A chant that would begin every time the band played “Wilson” for the rest of their career. All I knew that night was that it was fun to yell things at the band. Listen to what went down:
Other highlights from that glorious first set include a nasty “Harry Hood,” a spirited albeit brief run through “Down With Disease” and a rockin’ version of “Chalk Dust Torture.” Yet the biggest smile came to my face when the quartet gave me my first “Bouncing Around The Room.” The vibe in the Beacon Theater as 2,800 people bounced in sync with each other was simply joyous.
Andrew and I had seats towards the back of the orchestra, so we quickly jumped on two empty seats in the 10th row that had opened up near my summer camp friends. Just before the first set ended, a beefy security grabbed the two of us by the scruff of our necks and immediately ushered us out of the row. As soon as we were out of the row two older people were directed into our old seats. I noticed they both had laminates that said “Phish Parent.” We crowded in with my camp friends as the band left the stage at the end of the set. I figured I had nothing to lose so I made small talk with these “Phish Parents.” It turns out we were sitting in seats that were reserved for bassist Mike Gordon‘s father and stepmother. Both Mr. Gordon and his wife were more than happy to talk with me.
I was on cloud nine as Phish returned to the stage for the second set. During the first set the energy in the room was light and bright, but as soon as drummer Jon Fishman started “Maze” things took a dark turn. Most of the concerts I had attended up until this point were one set affairs, so it was really crazy to see how different things can be between two sets by the same band on the same night.
As Phish wound their way through “Maze,” I started to focus in on what each musician was adding to the mix. I noticed how bassist Mike Gordon would carve a path for guitarist Trey Anastasio to expertly lay down frenetic runs of notes. Next, I watched as Page McConnell summoned intense swirling organ tones out of his setup. But the thing that stuck out to me most was how all four members of Phish communicated with each other without using words. Every member of the band was looking down, but just as Trey’s solo in “Maze” reached a boiling point the jam stopped on a dime. Up until then I didn’t realize a band could improvise AND be tight.
Towards the middle of the second set Phish started playing the “Oh Kee Pa Ceremony,” a song that usually segued into “Suzy Greenberg.” My mother was supportive of my love for Phish, even though she didn’t understand it for a while. The songs she loved were “Lizards” and “Suzy Greenberg,” so I was really hoping the band would play the tune. Not only did Phish play “Suzy,” but they brought out a six-piece horn section to accompany them. The song commenced and as the first verse was sung the Giant Country Horns started strutting onto stage in quite the choreographed manner. The crowd at the Beacon went as crazy as I’d ever seen the place go when the GCH played the horn line in “Suzy” for the first time.
Luckily, the horns didn’t go anywhere after “Suzy,” and stayed out for the rest of the set. I wound up seeing a second set jammed packed with songs I wouldn’t see again for years and years. “Landlady,” “Alumni Blues,” “I Wanna Be Like You” and “Magilla” would all fade into Phish’s massive repertoire in later years. Trey and Page were clearly excited to be playing with the horns, but I certainly couldn’t get a read of Mike Gordon. It took seeing nearly 100 Phish shows to finally see that guy smile during a show.
I may not have known many of the songs I heard at my first Phish show, but I knew I liked what I saw. From that night forward I always wanted to be there when Phish was playing. I felt so lucky to find a band that spoke to me like Phish did. If I could be anyplace in the world I’d be at a Phish show. I didn’t want to spend my vacations on a beautiful Caribbean beach or traveling to distant locales, I wanted to be stuck in a rundown arena watching my favorite band in the world with my best friends.
I left the show that night, and took the train home to Central Jersey. As I lied in bed, I pondered what had happened that night. I thought about waking my parents up to drive me to the Amtrak station so that I could catch the next show in Amherst. While I decided that wasn’t such a good idea, I did make it to 159 more shows before the band called it quits in 2004 [Ed Note: Yes, Phish did get back together in 2009]. Tax day may not be a happy day for many people, but for me it will always be the most transformative day of my life.
Full Show Audio Taped by Scott Bernstein (unrelated) and shared by FromTheAquarium
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