It’s hard to explain Phish to those outside the cult.
Part of the challenge is that the band is difficult to categorize. In concert, the four musicians from Vermont famously eschew genres, moving from bluegrass to free jazz without so much as a set change. If they have a musical parallel, it would be the Grateful Dead, with their shared penchant for long, exploratory songs that loosen the shackles of their studio form. There’s an ethos match, too, with both bands’ extensive touring, spawning an ecosystem of homemade goods, bootleg tapes, and narcotic-enabled self-actualization.
But with due respect to the Dead’s wardrobe of tie-dyes and jean shorts, Phish has always been quirkier. The drummer wears a muumuu and occasionally plays a vacuum cleaner. Band members sometimes jump on trampolines while performing. They sing barbershop.
All of this eccentricity was on display during Phish’s show on March 28, 1990, in the living room of Denison’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity house. The band was eleven months removed from its first studio release and touring incessantly, playing 147 shows in 20 states that year. Six months after the Beta show, Phish would release its second album, Lawn Boy, which would eventually get picked up by major label Elektra in 1992, at which point the group graduated to playing to crowds of more than 10,000 at civic centers and amphitheaters. They concluded 1994 with shows at Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden. Phish was fast becoming a common cultural icon.
But before that, they were just four guys from Vermont in their 20s, lugging their own gear and a makeshift rig across the country, playing shows in bars and the occasional fraternity house living room. Humble venue aside, the 1990 Beta show at Denison was a significant one in the band’s history, with five concert staples making their debut in the Phish canon: “Runaway Jim,” “Tweezer,” “Cavern,” and covers of Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” and the barbershop classic “Sweet Adeline.” (Collectively, the songs have been played in concert 1,551 times since that night.) For Phish fans, this was equivalent to watching a 19-year-old Elvis play his first show at a Memphis park in 1954: It was a historic moment, but at the time, no one would have realized it.
What follows is an account of that Beta show, as told by the Denison alumni who witnessed it—and who tried their best, 27 years later, to piece it all back together.
JAMIE ANDERSON ’91 (Delta Chi): My generation was, in many ways, reared on videogames, MTV, and ’60s and ’70s throwbacks. My particular interest was The Doors and Led Zeppelin. But a lot of us, by ’84 or ’85, got turned on to the Grateful Dead. 1987, ’88, and ’89 were really hot years for the Dead. And we were all in our late teens with driver’s licenses. A lot of us went on tour. … So you had this backdrop of third-generation Deadheads, and we loved jam music.
JAMES DIXON ’91 (Phi Gamma Delta/Fiji): The year before Phish came, Blues Traveler played Fiji. And then, four months later, one of their hits broke. I think Fiji house had Dave Matthews, too. And then, all of a sudden, the Dave Matthews Band was huge. And I always wondered how it was that we were getting bands like this. I know there was one guy, Mike Putnam, who had a connection.
BEN MILLER ’90 (Social chair, Beta): I think Putnam was like a real music guy. He was really dialed in. I think his brother-in-law was in Blues Traveler or something.
KYLE BAIRNSFATHER ’90 (Phi Gamma Delta, Co-director of fraternity security): I think Mike’s sister dated and then married the bass player.
MIKE PUTNAM ’90 (Beta): My brother went to college with [Blues Traveler bassist] Bobby Sheehan at Harvard. And my brother was engaged to his sister. I went to high school in Maine with Ben Hunter. Ben was Phish’s first manager. He was booking their first tour out to Ohio, so he was looking for dates to play and a couple filler shows. And I was social chairman at the time at Beta. … I knew that Ben was looking to fill some tour dates, and I helped put it together.
Ben Hunter, Phish’s first manager: Mike Putnam and I graduated from high school in ’86. We hadn’t been in touch for years, but we were still mates. I love the guy.
BAIRNSFATHER:There was a meeting that I was at, and Mike was pushing for this really cool band, but they were too expensive for one fraternity to sponsor. So the proposal was made: Is it better to have 10 parties with 10 okay bands, or to have one totally cool party with one killer band and then have no money for anything else? … I sided with the one killer band. Mike had some promo material but that was not very impressive, but he put in a tape and the music was really expansive and cool. I was sold.
DIXON: It was a joint Fiji/Beta party. We had to pool funds in order to afford the band. That makes me think that some of the guys knew that Phish was going to be good if they were charging more than the other bands.
PUTNAM: I would guess it cost a couple grand, maybe a bit more.
MILLER: We probably paid them four or five grand.
DIXON: Phish wasn’t Phish then. They were just this weird band from Vermont.
Hunter: Phish had just played a New Year’s Eve show at the World Trade Center in Boston. There was a lot of buzz. They were regularly playing for 1,000 to 2,000 people. But in Colorado, in the spring of 1990, they were already big. It wasn’t like there was saturation everywhere. They couldn’t go to, say, Las Vegas. It was pockets of support. And that’s how it started. Places like Skidmore or Cornell or Hamilton—the college kids started talking to each other. And trading tapes. The thirst for material was gigantic.
PUTNAM: We were pretty close with Fiji, and it was decided that we would split the cost. And then we invited three sororities, and had a rager on a Wednesday night.
ANDERSON: It wasn’t, “Hey, Phish is playing at Beta.” It was “Beta has a band.” It was unusual to have a band playing at Beta.
PUTNAM: Beta was not known for hosting bands. It was not very well set up for bands. Aside from formals or something, we generally didn’t have bands. Fiji would have bands. But we didn’t have a lot of bands or a lot of theme parties.
ANDERSON: They were kind of like a football frat.
DIXON: I was a member of the Fiji frat, which was next door, and we were very close to our neighbors. Not just in distance, but in friendship. We were typically at their parties, and they were at ours.
PUTNAM: The Beta house was the jocks. They had a clean-cut image. Fiji was more of the Grateful Dead house. But there was always an open-door policy between the two houses.
MILLER: A U-Haul pulls up, and all these guys just pour out.
John SCHNEIDER ’91 (beta): They needed someone to help move all their equipment in. As I remember, I think I got like $150. I’m guessing it was $150. I know it was very generous. … I found it strange, some of the equipment I was moving in—including minitrampolines. I couldn’t envision what they were for.
PUTNAM: They drove this old Dodge passenger van. There was no one else in terms of crew.
Hunter: When you tour in the U.S., particularly when you are driving in a van with a bunch of guys, you try and do the shortest distance between two places. It’s not like England where you can travel across the country in five hours. You try to fill in the blanks with shows in different cities and towns.
PUTNAM: They were hanging out in my room, and we got them some food and whatnot. I played intramural hockey, and we had a playoff game down at the gym. And they were like, “Oh, you play hockey?” So I said, “Hey, want to come?” So Trey [Anastasio, lead singer] came and played hockey with us. We had him wearing a Beta greek letter shirt. We lost. … He wasn’t bad. He wasn’t embarrassing himself. He was having a blast.
DIXON: Trey Anastasio also spent some time either before or after the show showing off his guitar, which was custom-made by his sound board guy. It had a mother-of-pearl inlay of Trey’s dog in the neck.
SCHNEIDER: We put them through the Beta workout. We made them do the same exercises that our pledges do. We had them doing burpees. We were like, “No, if you’re going to be in our house, you’re going to do it.” They were great about it. Very friendly and open. I found out that the keyboard player [Page McConnell] and I went to the same pool in Basking Ridge, N.J.
ANDREW TUTHILL ’90: It was a Wednesday night, it was springtime, and the weather was starting to turn, and everyone was getting out.
BAIRNSFATHER: The concert was in the Beta living room; usually their parties were in the dining room.
BAIRNSFATHER: There were small trampolines, and we looked at them like, “Why are there small trampolines in front of the band?”
DIXON: You walk in the front door, there’s a small foyer, and to your left is their living room. As soon as you walk in, you’re 20 feet away from the band. I walked to the edge of the landing and saw the band members bouncing on their minitrampolines.
KIM HILLNER ’90: When I walked in and saw the band, I remember turning to my friend and asking, “Are they on trampolines?” I’d never seen anything like it. I do remember [one of them] fell off the trampoline and turning to the same friend and saying, “And that’s why you don’t play guitar on a trampoline.”
ANDERSON: The most memorable moment was when they were jumping and fell back into the drums. And I remember thinking to myself, “They didn’t stop playing.”
PUTNAM: [Trey] did fall on the drum set.
BAIRNSFATHER: From the security point of view, there were no problems, no overcrowding, no aggression or any negative behavior. It was actually the opposite: people socializing, dancing, and grooving and having fun. Their lyrics were funny and surreal, the drummer wore a man-dress, the sound quality was amazing, and they jumped to the beat on the trampolines and jammed out. It was kind of funny.
ALEXIS KARAGEORGE ’92: They were so tight. I just have this very vivid memory of looking around the room and wondering why more people weren’t there. There’s [drummer] Jon Fishman, wearing this muumuu. My memory is that it had a spiral on it. So then he pulled out this Electrolux vacuum cleaner, and he’s playing it.
PUTNAM: They were blowing the doors off of the place.
Excerpt from live recording:JON FISHMAN: “That was the first public appearance of that song.”
PUTNAM: It was the first time they had ever played “Runaway Jim.” I think it was the first time they played “Uncle Pen,” too.
Excerpt from live recording: TREY ANASTASIO: “Well, we’re very excited to be here, our first time ever in Ohio. The Buckeye State.”
BRIAN O’CALLAGHAN ’90 (Beta): It was sort of the perfect vibe. No one really knew about them. I think it was a weeknight. Those guys played for hours.
TUTHILL: I just remember sitting there, thinking, “These guys are going places.” They had the place rocking.
Karageorge: We were just dancing away. It was an amazing night. I remember them playing till 3:00 in the morning. I think they may have played a song from the Wizard of Oz, “If I Only Had a Brain.” I remember hearing that song, and it felt surreal.
MOLLY STRACHAN ’91: So, I think it was about 3:00 a.m. by the time I showed up. There was no stage; they were set up on the floor. I’m sure it was loud because why would I have wandered in at that late hour? Can’t be sure.
ANDERSON: I can’t remember if it was packed early. But I distinctly remember that—certainly by the end of the second set—there were like half a dozen of us there. There was much more space on the floor than there were attendees.
Excerpt from live recording: TREY ANASTASIO: “That was dedicated to the Beta intramural hockey team. A sad end to the season.”
PUTNAM: That recording is from me. Before the show I plugged my cassette deck into the soundboard and then gave the guy a couple Maxell tapes. I still have one of the original tapes. I think some of those recordings have gotten around. A good friend of mine, who is a huge Phish fan, said, “You gotta find that tape.” And he spread it.
Excerpt from live recording: TREY ANASTASIO: “This next song goes out to … [someone in the crowd yells ‘Beta!’] … The Beta intramural hockey team. We’re very proud of their season, even though it went straight down the tubes today.”
PUTNAM: If you look at [set list database] phish.net, the show is listed as an intramural hockey team party. That is not the case. It was a Beta party. The reason why it was listed as the hockey team party was because of this reference.
SCHNEIDER: Their songs are still in my mind. “Runaway Jim” was one. It was one of the best things I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been to hundreds of concerts. They just kept playing it and playing it. It was the right song at the right time.
ANDERSON: Phish for us was just one of those really enjoyable moments of college.
SCHNEIDER: I know they let us jump on the trampolines as well. I know they played a ton of songs.
MILLER: It was a great party.
Miller: Waking up the next day, there they are in their boxers, eating Cap’n Crunch. Then they got back in their U-Haul and probably went to the next show. … Flash forward a few years, and my brother tells me, “Hey, I’m going to see Phish at Madison Square Garden.”
MILLER: I just remember thinking, “These are just cool guys.” And then they are hanging in our kitchen, and I went to class, and they got in their U-Haul.
O’CALLAGHAN: I will always know them as those guys who played in my living room, no matter how big they get.
DIXON: It was just another band coming through. There was nothing noteworthy about it that it made us think that it was something special. It wasn’t until six months or a year later when Phish broke out that we knew we had experienced something special.