25 Years Later: Phish Hits The Big Time At Philly’s Spectrum: Looking Back at Hometown Game Changer

Phish in the mid ’90s was largely a secret community.  Dorm rooms and high school cafeterias pulsed with talk about Phish… what the hell was Gamehedge?, what do they say in You Enjoy Myself? and why does the drummer wear a dress?  Nothing congealed into a tangible understanding of who this band was, it simply boiled down to gossip.  Never before had a band been shrouded in such strange and nearly impenetrable lore. Without the internet to guide us, the community of Phish remained a secret community, and the only way to even begin to understand it was to see a show.  

Twenty-five years ago on December 15, 1995, Phish arrived in Philadelphia on Friday night at the tail end of a huge, expansive fall tour. This would be their largest audience of the tour and, for Trey, a hometown show of sorts. Playing to nearly 20,000 people at the Spectrum in South Philadelphia, their first time at the venue, Phish was about to invite everyone into their weird world. The secret community would be revealed.

As the lights dimmed and the band came on stage, Trey came out donning a John LeClair Flyers jersey, notable not only for its reference to the hometown Flyers and Trey’s favorite team but also because, like Phish, John LeClair was a proud Vermonter having grown up in the state and gone to UVM.  Trey was making a statement to start… he feels at home here and you should too. At the close of Maze, Trey even stopped to tell the crowd, “This is where I saw my first concert ever, Jethro Tull right here, really excited to be here, always wanted to play here.”  

If you were there, I’m willing to bet this was your first Phish show too. Previous shows in Philly at the Mann or the Philadelphia Civic Center were significantly smaller, roughly 60% of the size of the Spectrum. This was Philly’s largest arena, home of the Flyers and Sixers, and also a regular stop on Grateful Dead tours since the early ’70s. The very next night at the Spectrum, Mike Tyson was to fight his second bout since his stint in prison, a three-round knockout of Buster Mathis Jr that was broadcast nationwide on Fox. The Philly Spectrum was the “big time.”

This particular show had everything that makes Phish unique and then some.  

Rocker openers like Chalkdust Torture, the elation of Harry Hood, the special feeling of hearing 19,000-strong chant “Wiiiiilson” together, the manic energy of Maze… if this was your first Phish show, you were getting the full tour of the wares.

It had all of Phish’s trademark goofiness with Fishman belting out Elvis’ Suspicious Minds while wearing a light up-cape and running laps around the stage… all while Trey-on-the-drums picked up the tempo.

There was secret language teases in the set-closing Possum intro as well, including the Simpsons’ theme and the “All Fall Down” cue that saw the entire band collapse together as one.  

You got to witness the band play chess with the crowd.  Philly’s most famous DJ at the time, WMMR’s Pierre Robert, was the one to make the crowd’s move to start the second set.  

The exceptional weirdness of Phish was on full display in “It’s Ice” with Trey chanting into a megaphone during a brief, but fantastically weird jam.  Even more weirdness, the jam out of Bathtub Gin contained a full rotation jam where each band member traded instruments mid-song only to finally settle into an apparently adlibbed Fishman-on-piano one-timer called Mallory.

You got to see Phish as a barbershop quartet, closing their second set with the acapella classic Sweet Adeline.  Every element of the enigma that was Phish the mid-’90s was on display.

Just before the start of the encore, someone threw a Tickle Me Elmo doll on the stage.  It’s hard to really describe the madness that surrounded these dolls in 1995, especially 10 days before Christmas, but the fact that one could wind up on Phish’s stage was truly hilarious.  Parents were fighting each other over these dolls in department stores all over the country. Picking it up, Trey remarked “I’ve always wanted one of these”. A full-on rocker with Led Zeppelin’s Good Times Bad Times segueing into Tweezer Reprise followed, just so everyone could remember this band wasn’t all-goofiness.

This is one of the best months in Phish history, but this isn’t close to being one of the best shows that month, not by a long shot. That honor likely goes to a different show this month… perhaps it’s the 1st, 7th, 9th, 14th, or New Year’s Eve. But 12/15/95 was an incredible introduction to Phish for a sold-out crowd in Philadelphia, one that launched fevered fandom for thousands in the years to come. 

Playing to the largest crowd of the 1995 Fall Tour, the Phish community was growing every night.  The secret was getting out. 

Setlist 12/15/95

SET 1: Chalk Dust Torture > Harry Hood > Wilson > Maze > Ha Ha Ha > Suspicious Minds > Hold Your Head Up > Cars Trucks Buses, Bouncing Around the Room, Free > Possum[1]

SET 2: Tweezer Reprise > Runaway Jim > It’s Ice > Bathtub Gin -> Rotation Jam -> Mallory[2] > Also Sprach Zarathustra > David Bowie, Sweet Adeline

ENCORE: Good Times Bad Times -> Tweezer Reprise

Trey teased Lazy (Deep Purple) in Chalk Dust. Possum included Oom Pa Pa, Simpsons and All Fall Down signals and a Voodoo Child tease from Trey. Trey mentioned that he saw his first concert (Jethro Tull) in this very venue. Mallory debuted at this show.

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One Response

  1. I feel like it’s worth mentioning that it was the first time Phish lot witnessed the extraordinary amount of available nitrous oxide that exists in Philadelphia. Anyone who was at the Champagne Supernova show a year later and/or the 2 nights in December 99 were witness to this phenomenon.

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