1993: The Year of Machine-Gun Trey
by Rob Shah
I began an experiment earlier this year in an attempt to better understand what I consider my favorite year of Phish. The helping, friendly Google spreadsheet allowed me to listen to (almost) every note of 1993 from beginning to end, painting a much clearer picture of this special year in Phishtory.
1993 was a year full of raw, unharnessed energy and creativity that was emitting from all four of these ambitious 20-somethings. The Winter/Spring tour was the first of two tours and it spanned 71 dates in just over three months, clocking in as the single, longest tour they would ever attempt. To put this into perspective, this tour was so extensive that 1 out of every 20 shows from their entire 30-year history comes from these three months. The boys lived and breathed Phish and they didn’t have wives or kids yet to distract them from their ultimate, united goal of developing their unique brand and style. They were on fire and they seemed to be getting better every night; but I guess that’ll happen when you’re playing 3 out of every 4 nights for extended periods of time.
Although Phish released their iconic concept album, Rift, only one day prior to embarking on this massive endeavor, fans were already familiar with the material as the songs had all debuted in prior years sans "The Wedge," which was debuted on the first night of tour (2/3/93). Take a listen to an early version of this song and notice the many differences from the version that you’re probably used to. They experimented with “The Wedge’s” structure throughout the 90’s while also periodically shelving it for the first five years of its existence.
This tour marked the final times that Trey would teach the audience “Secret Language Instructions” which explained the musical signals that trigger which specific band-audience interactions. These musical signals could be played by any band member at anytime during a show and they would prompt things such as simultaneous squatting (all fall down signal), turning to the back of the venue and cheering (turn, turn, turn signal), or my personal favorite, singing a random note for a measure (random note signal). Check out this 3-minute Bowie intro that closes out the 1st set of the legendary 3/22/93 Crest Theatre show where Trey effortlessly cycles through four signals in a row.
Phish generally prides themselves on not fitting in typical, mainstream parameters and parts of their music can even be described as experimental or Avant-garde. My favorite artsy moment from 1993 happened during a “Big Black Furry Creatures from Mars” encore on 4/17/93. During this song, each band member takes turns pausing and starting up the song. Two minutes into the song, Fishman takes an obnoxious 3-minute pause, which was relatively standard at the time, as the band enjoyed tapping into their innate weirdness. One minute later, the band takes another pause that lasts for a staggering 4.5 minutes. This second break, however, was not planned and we find out the next night that Trey had screwed up the order in his head resulting in a second, unintentional, super long pause. The next night, Page took a rare leadership role by taking a few minutes during the middle of “I Didn’t Know” to discuss the awkward encore with the crowd. This special band-audience interaction (starts at 11:30 in the clip) included commentary from five audience members, Brad Sands (balloon tech), Paul Languedoc (sound), Chris Kuroda (lights), Mike and Trey.
Phish has always been vocal about striving to make every show unique. Considering there were 100+ shows in ’93, it’s obviously not feasible to document every special moment but here are a few worth sharing:
• 3/9/93: Trey gets super weird and holds a bend for entirely too long during the open jam section of Reba allowing Mike and Page to take center stage. The note clocks in at exactly 100 seconds.
• 3/22/93: This show is the epitome of a “sleeper” show. It was a Monday night at a half full Crest Theatre in Sacramento, CA (capacity of 932) where Phish dropped into their infamous Gamehendge saga 2nd set. This was only the third time they had done this and they would only perform Gamehendge two more times in their career. The band made an effort to seed the soundboard recording after the show and it quickly became one of their most circulated shows between fans.
• 3/24/93: This 30-second excerpt is an epic ending to a lengthy 8+ minute YEM vocal jam. Throughout 1993, I witnessed a tremendous amount of vocal experimentation from all four guys. This increased vocal presence wasn’t contained to YEM vocal jams, but abundantly spread out throughout sets in the forms of humor, sincere excitement, and just straight up bizarre behavior.
• 4/1/93: On this date, the band played an April Fools prank on the fans by starting a rumor that Neil Young was making a guest appearance. Phish took advantage of the fact that this was the second night in a row they were playing the Roseland Ballroom in Portland which helped facilitate the rapid spread of “news” throughout the fan base. During the first set, Trey finishes setting up the prank by teasing Heart of Gold and Sugar Mountain. Deep in the second set after the Big Ball Jam (the perfect time for a sit-in), Trey looks offstage and introduces “Neil Young,” and the crowd goes absolutely nuts. After minutes of applause and confusion, Fishman emerges and proceeds to gently mock the crowd and then stumbles through a line of Young’s “After the Gold Rush.”
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’93 was an absolute killer year for Phish. Come summer tour, they were landing significantly larger headlining shows than ever before and the quality of their music clearly justified it. This rising trend was partially due to playing larger summer-friendly amphitheaters and festivals, but mostly due to the exponential increase in demand to see the band. They were incredibly tight, hungry, and frisky, playing an average of 3+ teases per show. Phish has struggled to match this level of teasing in any other year but interestingly enough, they’re actually on pace to exceed it for the first time ever at MSG later this year!
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I would argue that regarding chops, Trey peaked in ‘93 and I’ve yet to hear him clearly rip faster, longer, and more cohesive phrases than in he did in this year. For a prime of example of this, listen to this 2-minute excerpt of Split Open and Melt from 8/16/93. This was truly the year of “Machine Gun Trey” and it’ll always be home to many of my all-time favorite tension-and-release jams.
Of course, technical skills aren’t the be-all and end-all and for many, the “best” is yet to come. I thoroughly enjoyed maneuvering through two exciting tours and a NYE run (download 12-31-93, my personal favorite show of the year) and I’ve come to realize that this project of mine isn’t ending here, it’s just beginning.
This review wouldn’t be complete without a “Best of '93” mix. I decided to focus my compilation purely on maintaining an extremely high standard of quality throughout each jam. It’s for this reason you won’t see a ton of long, crazy, type II jams on this list but instead, you’ll find jams that are tasty and/or straight-up fire from beginning to end; a best “bang-for-your-buck” if you will. A good majority of these tracks capture “Machine-Gun Trey” at his finest and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.