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When You Were Young aims to reclaim the music of our misremembered youths from the scratched mix-CDs underneath our car seats. Each edition will cover music the writer loved as a teenager before moving on to “cooler” music, whatever that means. This edition covers Phish and their live set Hampton Comes Alive.
I have no recollection of what it was that pushed me into even a casual fandom of Phish. I can’t think of any specific CD I might’ve stumbled across and dug out of a Repo Records used bin, or which middle school friend “turned me on” to the band, or whatever Rolling Stone or Spin review it was that might’ve piqued my interest. All I do know is that before long I had graduated from studio albums to bootlegs, and it happened fast.
At that time, there was a whole network of online message boards to facilitate tape trading. This was in the pre-Napster era when even CD burners were hard to come by, so if you wanted to listen to specific Phish shows, you had to send blank cassette tapes to strangers with the expectation that they would make you a copy of a show from their collection. It seems wildly antiquated now, but this was for real a thing people used to do. To keep everything straight, I had a book of every known Phish setlist, the Pharmers Almanac (you develop a numbness to truly awful puns when you’re in the Phish trenches). I wrote in the margins, ticked off the shows I had acquired and, more importantly, highlighted the shows I wanted (The Bomb Factory! The OJ Show! NYE 95!). I was obsessive in cataloging and organizing my fast growing collection of scribbled-on Maxell XL-II 90s. I can’t think of a single thing that I have ever invested myself in more than I was invested in Phish during those years.
Then came Hampton Comes Alive (dig that Frampton pun!). Collecting two complete nights of shows at Hampton, VA’s Hampton Coliseum, the six disc set(!) was the first uncut live experience that the band put out. It’s true that they had released a couple of live albums before this, but those were just collections of highlights ripped from the larger context of the full show which, every true blue Phish nerd knew, was where it was at. Here were two complete shows, all in one place, presented in some crazy-ass magnetic packaging. It sure beat the hell out of the two dozen or so fourth and fifth generation cassette dubs of audience recordings I had acquired up to that point. The fact that these were the shows that happened immediately after my first show experience had some tangentially associative value, for sure, but the coolest thing about it was just that it existed in the first place.
Looking back, the two shows collected here are weird. Even by Phish standards, this is a strange accumulation of tunes spread across four sets. I mean just glancing at the setlists some inexplicably out-there covers jump right out at you (“Sabotage”? “Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It?!” “Tubthumping?!?”) and, other than the spacy second set of the second night, there’s not nearly as much actual jamming as fans would have been looking for from a late 1998 show, but all that would be relatively boring to break down here. As the first full show they put out there for mass consumption, I can think of at least a few other relatively sublime examples I had on tape from that same year that weren’t nearly as manic in their energy and pacing, but at that point us tape-trading beggars were in no position to be choosy.
All those minor quibbles aside, Hampton Comes Alive soundtracked and influenced so many of my most awkward teenage moments. One of the earliest times I ever made out with a girl happened while “Harry Hood” spun itself out of my Honda Accord’s crappy speakers while we idled in front of her house. I had just driven us back from a poetry workshop at a Barnes & Noble and I made a point to say something about how funny it was that they teased the Leave It To Beaver theme in the middle of “Big Black Furry Creature from Mars,” to which she rolled her eyes, immediately regretting the whole experience. It was because of this here collection of tunes that I ended up singing Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” at my high school chorus class karaoke party, which was absolutely a thing that happened. That’s right: high school age me, having hardly kissed more than maybe two girls, goin all in on lyrics like “I'd like to see you in the raw / Under the stars above” and “I'd like to make love to you / So you can make me scream,” all because I heard that jam on this here Phish boxset. I can knock it now, but at the time the band, and specifically Hampton Comes Alive, was my everything for a year or so.
It wasn’t long until Phish started rolling out dozens of professionally mastered archival releases on CD, the first round of which I dutifully purchased and cataloged in my dog-eared big book of shows. Eventually I passed my tape collection down to a friend (you could say I paid it... PHORWARD?), and by the summer after my freshman year of college I had moved on to punk and indie rock. I still dig back into Phish when I’m lookin for some musical comfort food, in the same way that no one ever really loses that soft spot for the music of their youth, but what I really miss was that obsessive commitment I had made to wade through show after show, always finding new stones to overturn. I probably didn’t see it as such at the time, hell maybe no one did, but Hampton Comes Alive (and the eventual rise of Napster, etc) was the beginning of the end of the uniquely nerdy and unexpectedly magical tape-trading circuit that had helped mold me into the music fan I am today.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.