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There is an enlightening article on the dollars and cents of the band Phish at Priceonomics.com. In the article, the author cites spontanaeity as a big reason for the band's success, and repeats a myth often told in Phish circles:

The band has never played the same set list twice...

A setlist, by the way, is a record of the songs played in chronological order at a single performance. Find a (complete?) record of Phish setlists at phish.net.

After Googling around a little bit, it appears there is little consensus about whether or not Phish has ever performed the same setlist twice, though fans seem apt to perpetuate the myth that they have not.

At the phish.net forum, one user rejects the possibility:

simple answer, no. thread closed.

The evidence he presents (none) is less than convincing, and other answerers at that thread are less sure.

At another fansite, phantasytour.com, a user answers the question:

I'd say no, but I agree, 88-91 are probably the years where you might find it.

For reference, some unofficial stats on Phish:

  • The band has reportedly performed 1428 shows.
  • The band has reportedly performed more than 800 songs, including nearly 300 original songs.

The fans have had at it. But what do the skeptics say? Has Phish really never played the same setlist twice?

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how many songs do they have? if it's not that many then it is impossible otherwise it will be very hard to prove –  ratchet freak Apr 18 '13 at 6:38
    
For two setlists to be the same, do they need to have the same songs, or the same songs in the same order? Permutations work wonders... –  Benjol Apr 18 '13 at 8:11
    
If they have only 12 songs, they have 12!=479001600 permutations to play them in. So its certainly possible they make a conscious effort not to play the same setlist twice. –  Nick Apr 18 '13 at 9:34
    
@ratchetfreak They have at least 10 studio albums, and I believe there are no original songs that are repeated between those albums, plus many more original songs that they've played over the years (many of which have been dropped from active rotation). On top of their original songs, they have a huge variety of covers of other performers' pieces that they play with varying levels of regularity. At a guess, I'd say they easily are in the 100's with the number of possible songs. –  Beofett Apr 18 '13 at 12:09
    
@ratchetfreak - I added some unofficial stats. –  SamtheBrand Apr 18 '13 at 14:50
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1 Answer

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The claim is, at best, speculative, and, at worst, incorrect.

The current records for Phish setlists are incomplete, and the earliest sets may never be recovered.

Phish.net is widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive resources for Phish setlists (if not the most comprehensive).

I was able to find one pair of seemingly identical sets:

Feb 1st 1985:

Set 1: Slave to the Traffic Light, Mike's Song > Dave's Energy Guide, You Enjoy Myself, Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues, Prep School Hippie, Run Like an Antelope

and Feb 3rd 1986:

Set 1: Slave to the Traffic Light, Mike's Song > Dave's Energy Guide, You Enjoy Myself, Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues, Prep School Hippie, Run Like an Antelope

Set 2: Tonight, The Pendulum, Babylon is Burning, Dec 1661

It is important to note that the information on Phish.net indicates that it is uncertain whether the Feb 1st 1985 setlist is correct, citing the Feb 3rd 1986 setlist as reason to suspect that it may be a case of it simply being incorrectly labeled. It also contains a suspicious number of first performances, one of which then did not appear again until the seemingly identical set a full year later.

This uncertainty highlights the main issue with the basic claim: there is no authoritative and comprehensive record of phish setlists known.

Part of the difficulty is that the band itself did not keep detailed records of their early setlists, and instead fans are relied upon to fill in the information. In their formative years (the mid 80's), the fan base was small, and not nearly as... dedicated, for lack of a better term... as later fans were. Additionally, the venues for many of their early concerts were extremely informal, ranging from fraternity parties (three in one day, plus a forth show on the same day!), to dormitories, and even college cafeterias. Yet it is these early years that a duplication seems most likely, as the 800+ repertoire was developed over several decades, and therefore the pool of potential songs was at its smallest in their first years.

The author who stated that they have never played the same setlist twice almost certainly was basing that claim strictly on hearsay. No one seems to know for certain what all the setlists are, so therefore no one can say with certainty that there has never been a duplication.

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Thanks for improving the answer. +1. –  Bradd Szonye Aug 15 '13 at 14:37
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