The Night Phish Rocked Beta

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Before they played venues like Madison Square Garden, the band from Vermont debuted some of the biggest hits from their canon right in the living room of the Beta Theta Pi house.

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.

“I think Putnam was like a real music guy,” said Ben Miller ’90, the then social chair of Beta. “He was really dialed in. I think his brother-in-law was in Blues Traveler or something.”

“My brother went to college with [Blues Traveler bassist] Bobby Sheehan at Harvard,” said Mike Putnam ‘90. “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.”

To read the full recounting of the evening, click HERE

Granville, OH

SET 1: Possum, Ya Mar, Fee, Walk Away, Tweezer[1], Uncle Pen[2], The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony > Suzy Greenberg, Take the 'A' Train > Runaway Jim[1], You Enjoy Myself, Good Times Bad Times

SET 2: Funky Bitch, Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Jesus Just Left Chicago, The Lizards, Split Open and Melt, Contact > La Grange, Rift, Cavern[1], Highway to Hell, If I Only Had a Brain[3]

ENCORE: Carolina, Sweet Adeline[2], Whipping Post

[1] First known performance.
[2] First known Phish performance.
[3] Fish on trombone.