If you don’t get past the surface details of Phish’s sort-of-latest-release(1), the fact that it contains revelatory, standalone versions of “Split Open and Melt” and “You Enjoy Myself” and a number of stunning segues taboot, it’s easy to ignore just how important this quiet salvo from up north is. Live Bait Volume 4 is an oasis in the desert of archival releases from the band. It is a signal that the band’s approach to the release of their prodigious live output might shift away from whole show releases to smartly curated cuts from the nether regions of their catalogue. Live Bait Volume’s 1-3 hinted at the potential of this approach but with Volume 4 they have found their stride.

In a way that’s a very keen move on the part of their Archivist,. Kevin Shapiro, and well get to why that is so in a second.

First indulge me in some brief commentary.

The dawn of the Google spreadsheet that contains links to audience recordings of 82% of the band’s entire live output is the most revolutionary thing to happen to Phish’s catalogue, ever. It consists of 1,311 shows all available with a few clicks of your mouse. If you have followed this group at all for a long time and collected shows you will understand just how staggering this is and, if not, count yourself lucky. Imagine a world where you see the band on New Year’s Eve and then wait for 8 months only to find a grainy tape of just the first set from someone you barely know in your 10th grade chemistry class. Or you are just burning to relive your first show and you wait fully 8 or 9 years until you track down a burned CD-r that was clearly ripped from a tape that had seen a few generations. Just 15 years ago those moments were Valhalla for the fan. Now you would find yourself complaining if you couldn’t find a decent copy of the show you just saw a week out. Now anyone has access to any show at any time and can be listening to, say, 10-22-95 in 15 minutes time. Thanks to technology and some very enterprising fans you can be listening to virtually any show they have played, for free, in the amount of time that it takes to hard boil an egg.

This doesn’t even take in to account that the band itself releases every show they play, a few hours afterward, on soundboard, for a nominal fee, a portion of which goes to the Mockingbird Foundation.

The hidden gift of this freedom of access is that it is no longer difficult to find the great ones. Tracking down the Hampton 97 shows, or 6/18/94 from the UIC Pavilion is no longer a matter of relying on a like minded, knowledgeable fan to trade with. We don’t need Kevin Shapiro to release whole shows anymore in that context. We can find them just fine on our own thank you.

What we do need, and this gets back to the point of why the Live Bait series is a smart move, is someone who knows where to find the hidden gems in Phish’s catalogue. Every hardcore phish tape collector has one in their back pocket. Every time you find yourself talking shop with fellow fans someone will say something along the lines of “Dude the Hood from MSG 95 is, hands down, the best Hood ever” and you find yourself saying “Yeah, you think so, well the one from the MAC center in 94 kicks its ass.” It’s a tried and true formula, Fan A espouses the merits of a relatively common shows version of song and you counter that by hyping a different version of song a played in the sticks somewhere. It’s the “My knowledge of Phish runs deeper than yours” game.

It takes a special kind of fan to know where to find all of those versions played in the sticks, and which ones are truly worth pointing out. Enter Kevin Shapiro, a man gets paid to listen to all of these random shows and evaluate them. Does anyone know where all of the great improvisational moments from May of 92 are stashed? Has anyone really listened to every “Weekapaug Groove” from 1994? I know I haven’t. I’ll bet Mr. Shapiro has.

What he has done with the four hours worth of tracks contained on Volume 4 is to give us a wonderfully composed and varied collection from Phish’s past that would take the average fan a long, long time to put together themselves. You might have time to go back and listen to the 12-6-97 “Tweezer” because your older brother’s friend, who saw the band in ‘89 (man!), demands that you have to. But do you have the time to track down the time they composed a cute little segue from “My Friend My Friend” > “McGrupp”? Have you listened to every “Divided Sky” played from every summer tour that has passed us by and do you know the version that might have been a little overlooked despite its transcendence? Live Bait Volume 4 has done the impossible in the sense that it has gone against that exponential curve of the speed of phish show procurement and given the phish fan something he can’t get on his own in fifteen minutes.

It’s easy to gain cursory knowledge of Phish’s live catalogue and even to dig a little deeper takes little effort and only the time it takes to listen to all of the shows. There is little cachet to that type of familiarity anymore. What Kevin Shapiro, and few others have, is a deep, deep knowledge of the hidden nooks and crannies of bands live catalogue, and the perspective to rate it. And that is something you can’t get with the click of a mouse.

(1) They dropped Live Phish vol. 5 as I was in the middle of writing this piece which engendered equal parts of frustration and excitement in me.

(2) I’ve been pulling this,obnoxiously I’m sure, with the Reba from 6/19/95 for years. Seriously, check it out, it will kick your favorite Reba’s ass.

(3) One time I had 12th row tickets to see the band in Albany at the old Knickerbocker, and next to me and my friend sat a stocky man, by himself, sporting a substantial 5 o’clock shadow and a purple knit vest. We struck up a conversation and it came out that the reason he was by himself, with such choice seats, was because he had gotten the tickets from Mr. Shapiro. They were old friends, and would be hanging out after the show. Naturally, our eyes lit up and we simultaneously told him what a great job we thought it would be to helm the Phish archives. He shot back with an somewhat harsh admonishment “You know, everyone thinks his job is to just sit around and listen to tapes all day but IT’S-MUCH- MORE difficult than that, it’s a tough job man. You guys have no idea how difficult it is handling all those different things for the band.” Now, I’m sure there was an element of truth to that but, we didn’t speak much for the rest of the night.