Early 1988 was a formative time for Phish, with the band playing live as often as possible around Vermont and the Northeast. Trey was about to complete his degree in composition at Goddard College and the band was still self-managed with Mike acting as booking agent. The average month for Phish at the time consisted of weekly appearances at Gallagher’s in Waitsfield, Vermont, runs of two and three shows at a time at Nectar’s in Burlington, and the occasional show at UVM or other nearby venues.
March, 1988 began slowly. The band’s first show of the month was Wednesday, March 9th at Gallagher’s. That Friday, they played at Baso Lodge at Johnson State College. They played a novel version of You Enjoy Myself > Wilson, and Flat Fee (which was at the time known as “Jerry’s Beard”). A spirited David Bowie closed the first set. Set two began with Fluffhead, included Harry Hood and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s The Ballad of Curtis Loew (with special guest on harmonica, then lighting designer Tim Rogers). An interesting note: after years of being a regular staple in the repertoire, the band stopped performing Curtis Loew after 1993. They showed signs that the song is not forgotten by playing it on December 29, 1999 during their Big Cypress soundcheck. The band closed the second set at Johnson State with the combination of AC/DC Bag > Alumni Blues > A Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues > Run Like an Antelope.
The next night, March 12th, was current Phish’s manager John Paluska’s first glimpse of the band. John unknowingly walked into one of the most poignant moments in Phish history, the debut performance of Trey’s senior project known as The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday. John recalls the day as follows:
“I was up skiing in Vermont and staying with old friends of mine from Maine, Ninja Custodian, who were fixtures in the Burlington music scene at the time. They told me we had to go see this amazing band Phish who they had become good friends with. We went down to Nectar’s, where, as usual, there was no cover charge. I think we walked in partway through the first of their three sets. There were a fair number of people set up with taping rigs, which I thought was a little unusual for a small club gig. Next thing I noticed was that the audience was singing the words to a lot of the songs. Here was a band that basically didn’t have any music out-they had a four-song demo out at the time.
“At the time, I was the unofficial ‘social director’ at The Zoo (Humphries House student co-op) where I was living during my junior year at Amherst College. There was a long-standing tradition that dates back to the sixties at The Zoo of celebrating every full moon by throwing a huge psychedelic party, regardless of the day of the week or even if it was during the exam period. I was inspired by that tradition and started using one of the big gathering rooms as a performance area in the old converted fraternity house. We used to get bands to come in and set up at one end of the room, pretty much like a standard fraternity gig except that The Zoo had a completely different sensibility than a frat. People definitely looked forward to the full moon parties-we were the furthest house away from the center of campus and just kind of had our own little scene.
“The second I saw them, I knew that booking them for a full moon party would be a total coup, that people would love it. I was told that Mike was the person I should talk to about gigs and bookings, so he we exchanged contact info and he gave me a promo folder with a list of songs, some news clippings and their original color promo photo. It was the geekiest band photo ever. They also gave me a demo tape that had four original songs — Fee, Golgi Apparatus, Fluffhead and David Bowie — and two live covers, Robert Palmer’s Sneakin’ Sally and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s I Know a Little. The four originals were the first four songs recorded at Euphoria Sound Studios in Revere, Massachusetts for inclusion on what would become Junta. They took several subsequent trips to Euphoria to record the balance of the album, each time using money they had saved from gigs.
“I took the demo back to Amherst and played the music for a few people. Most thought it was pretty cool, some were a little unsure what to think of it but I assured them they were a great live band. I think I got them $500 which was a good paying gig for them and one of the first out-of-state gigs they had played. Just barely three weeks later on April 2nd, they played at The Zoo to rave response. The Amherst/Northampton area ended up being the first market outside of Burlington where the band really built a scene. Phish grew really fast around there after that gig. I got them back for another Full Moon gig that fall and late in the year, they played at Sheehan’s in Northampton and the Red Barn at Hampshire College, which was an incredible show. It was right around the time of the Red Barn gig that Page called to ask whether I’d like to manage the band. I was part way through my senior year and didn’t know what I wanted to do for work after graduation, so I accepted.
“Getting back to the Nectar’s show, they had been working on Gamehendge and had just been recording the project for Trey’s senior thesis, so they were eager to try it out live. For me to walk in cold, not knowing anything about the band, and to hear this elaborate song cycle with narration and all these characters and recurring musical themes was a bit overwhelming. Unfortunately even though their audience was pretty attentive, anyone who’s ever been in a neighborhood bar like Nectar’s knows that, with no cover, people just wander in. It’s not like every person was there totally transfixed watching Phish. The second set that night consisted entirely of a nearly note-for-note rendition of Trey’s thesis, now known as Gamehendge, complete with full narration. I did my best to follow the story line, but must admit I got completely lost by the end of the set. I remember after the set talking to the Ninja guys and debating the pros and cons of performing an elaborate narrated suite in a neighborhood bar — not your usual fare, to be sure. However, I clearly recall thinking that it had been really amazing in a musical sense. The thing that stuck in my mind was the instrumental ‘If I Was a Dog’ melodic outro of The Lizards.
“The show that night was definitely a microcosm of what the scene has become. Literally if you took what was going on that night and expanded it exponentially to what it is today, you could have seen all the elements. If you looked with any degree of closeness and just extrapolated on it, it was totally clear what this thing was capable of becoming. It was very intense. People were really serious about it and for most people, it was not just a casual night out. Clearly the band was doing something that was almost shockingly out-of-place at a no cover bar gig in Burlington, Vermont. They’d written a lot of great songs by then — You Enjoy Myself, Antelope, Harry Hood, David Bowie, Fluffhead, Fee, to name a few. You can’t overestimate the significance of the band having a place in town where they were could play three sets of music three nights in a row, and play whatever they wanted as long as they drew a steady crowd. It was a blessing in disguise on all levels that they had to constantly come up with fresh new ideas and material so people would want to come back night after night. They had to build a big repertoire. It was fortunate that they did these Nectar’s gigs as long as they did because they also had a great chance to just hone their chops. A lot of bands get ‘discovered’ or get a break early before they’ve done a lot of gigs outside the spotlight and they’re just not prepared for it.” March, 1988 continued with a three-night string of dates at Nectar’s on the 20th, 21st and 22nd. The month wrapped up with the band’s first New York City appearance at a club called Kenny’s Castaways, where they played a forty five-minute “happy hour” set to the audience of about thirty-five. Following months saw the band playing a growing spread of East Coast dates ramping up to their first trek west to Colorado in August.