This week at Phish.Net, we're counting down the twenty best shows of 1997, as decided by members of the Phish.Net team. We've finally made it to the end, but if you're just tuning in, you may want to start with the posts linked below. Now, without further ado, the top 5 shows of 1997 after the jump... [SP]
There were some surprises when compiling this list; 12/30/97 scoring highly was not one of them. No matter who you ask, it is seen as an all-time classic. The “Sneaking Sally” opener is one of the all-time great bustouts (a 920 show gap) and not just played for novelty - there is a great little funk jam in there with a smooth segue into a absolutely ripping “Taste.” “Stash” is sneaky good - not the best of 97, but must hear nonetheless! A dark and broody meditation that ends in a very smooth chill-out. Trey shreds the hell out of his “Chalk Dust” solo, and “ADITL” closes out a fun first set.
"AC/DC Bag" -- 12/30/97 New York, NY
But of course, no one who talks about 12/30/97 talks about Set I. On the excellent LivePhish release of this show, you can hear Trey asking the others “Bag?” as he strums a couple licks. They agree, and kick off one of the greatest “AC/DC Bag”s ever. Starts slow and funky, with Page patiently leading the jam on clavinet. The tempo and volume slowly increases. As soon as Trey takes over though, the jam finds another gear. Trey lays down some porno-funk licks but quickly builds to a beautiful anthemic peak. The trip down the the mountain from the peak is just as thrilling, with Mike taking more of a lead. But Trey decides he isn’t quite done, and has a raging final solo that gives the whole band an opportunity to get a bit dark. The jam fades out and into a solid “McGrupp.” Now, if this jam, and the very good first set were all this show had, it would probably still be a top 20 1997 show. But this set just goes on FOREVER. An udderly hilarious “Harpua.” “Izabella”! And an amazing “Harry Hood.” The one misstep - and it is a big one that probably kept this show out of the top three - is the stunning call to segue from the aforementioned “Hood” into one of the worst songs in the Phish catalog, “My Soul.” Not that the segue wasn’t ably executed, but come on, “My Soul”? That’s the type of nitpick we had to make to rank these shows. Anyway, at the show all was forgiven, because they went on to play the best encore ever. Four songs, all amazing, playing until midnight just because they felt like it. It was loose and funky and fantastic, and a fitting capstone to a great year of Phish.
This was my pick for best show of the year. The second set is simply unimpeachable—almost an hour of uproarious hose. Some will complain that the improv doesn’t have enough variety, compared to the twists and turns of 11/21 II or 12/30 II. But how can you complain that the band simply gets it so right and then stays there? I hear this as a more “together” take on the rage jam from the 11/19 “Wolfman’s,” but this set is less face-melting and more focused. The segue in and out of the “Low Rider Jam” adds some extra spontaneity and uniqueness to an unparalleled set with no slow moments.
The first set has one of the better versions of “Stash” in the year (though it would be soundly eclipsed the next week in Worcester) a very nice, if not overly long “Twist,” a smoking “Black Eyed Katy” and a “Fluffhead.” But basically all the first set has to do is give you a keeper or two and not throw up all over itself in order to seal the show as the best show in one of the best years of Phish.
Among the most extreme Phish Nerds (myself included), 11/22/97 has historically been one of the most controversial shows to rank. Its proponents will call it a clear top 5 show of the year, citing the near-perfect setlist and brilliant “Halley’s.” Its opponents make the claim that it’s not even in the top two shows of the weekend. They say the “Mike’s Song” and “Weekapaug Groove” don’t stand out for 1997, and complain about the truncated versions of “Tweezer” and “Black-Eyed Katy.” For more than 17 years of my life, I fell into the latter category.
"Halley's Comet" -- 11/22/97 Hampton, VA
I’m here today to apologize to you, 11/22/97. I had you wrong all along. Instead of celebrating your near-perfect setlist, I used it as an excuse to think others overrated you. Instead of looking at the brilliance of the “Mike’s Song” through “Harry Hood” opening segment as a whole, I chose to break down and nitpick each piece. I refused to acknowledge that closing a first set with “Frankenstein” and “Izabella” likely set fire to the building. I would play your magnificent “Halley’s Comet” and note that it wasn’t as good as the previous night’s “AC/DC Bag.” Instead of looking at the perfect segue from “Tweezer” to “Black-Eyed Katy,” I complained the Tweezer was too short. I had a beautiful forest in front of me, but I couldn’t see it because I was searching for imperfections in each individual tree. 11/22/97, I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me.
Most of the shows at the top of this list are fairly "balanced," offering highlights in both the first and second sets. This is not really one of those shows. The first set isn't bad per se; the competition is way too stiff up here to allow for that. It has a nice second song "Antelope," a cool segue from "Gin" into "Foam" and one of the better '97 versions of "Maze." But the first set isn't why we're here.
"Izabella -- 12/6/97 Auburn Hills, MI
We're here to celebrate probably the best full set Phish played in what many consider to be their best year. To start, the two minutes before the set-opening “Tweezer” begins make me jump out of my chair EVERY DAMN TIME I LISTEN TO IT. “Tweezer” starts off as vintage ‘97 cowfunk but moves through several themes before raging into “Izabella.” Rather than ending, “Izabella” transforms into perhaps the purest expression of the ‘97 cowfunk sound. When someone mentions cowfunk, this is the music I hear in my head. After a fun but too brief “Twist,” Page leads the band into the first-ever jammed out “Piper.” After 55 minutes of pure heat, we get a “Sleeping Monkey” breather before the “Tweeprise” exclamation point closes the set. Put it all together, and one need not employ any interpretive jiggery-pokery to see this is one of the top shows of the year. An unfortunate byproduct of the age of the MP3 is that I often opt for instant gratification rather than listening to full sets (or shows). But when I put on 12/6 II, more often than not, I play out the full set. I’m not necessarily proud of that fact, but it’s one of the best endorsements I can give this show.
The race for the top spot was a runaway. There were a couple of heretics who hate “Jesus Just Left Chicago” too much to give this show its proper due, but most of us bowed to the inescapable. More distance separated this show in our rankings from our worthy, but very back-end heavy, runner-up than separated Detroit and the rest of the top six. It’s not hard to understand why. On the second of two nights in Denver, Monday evening in an old hockey arena soon to be replaced, Phish delivered possibly the best first set of their entire career, and almost certainly their finest first set to that date, highlighted by a “Ghost” that is arguably the finest ever and for most of us on the panel ranks with Atlanta and Radio City and very few others. It’s not even that long by the relevant standard, just 21 minutes, but that’s all the band needs to take you on a tour of 1997, showing you style after style. The set also has a “Tweezer” opener that starts slow and deliberate but lets loose the juice in the latter minutes, plus a happy, spiraling “Reba” to satisfy your jones for Trey’s labyrinthine compositional achievements.
Set two is not the best second set of the year, and is not close. So that’s an argument against it if you’re looking for one. But it does kick off with a “Down with Disease” that does nothing but generate forward momentum in its 16 minutes before the band jumps without looking off the segue cliff into … well, for 20 seconds or so it’s unclear, could go any number of directions. Finally Trey and Fish come to a consensus on “Olivia’s Pool,” the band’s long-lost jump-boogie tune. It’s over quick, and the second it ends Trey engages the turbo and plunges the band into “Johnny B. Goode.” Phish in 1997 still felt a need to prove their orthodox rock chops; you can see it in how so many big, exploratory jams resolved into “JBG” or “Izabella,” as opposed to something softer. “JBG” takes a couple minutes to feel natural but after that it’s cake, eventually going full-on type II excursionary and no slouch as the second-best jam of the night. The “Jesus” is slow and sleepy and patient and I have no problem whatsoever with it and don’t really get why anyone would. Finally: set-closing “YEM,” and – only 90s kids will get this – this was in the era when Trey used to take a guitar solo before the vocal jam.
It’s not for nothing that Phish themselves chose this as the first 1997 show released under the LivePhish banner. Perhaps it’s the obvious choice, and we’re crowning the equivalent of the “Guernica” or King Lear or Citizen Kane, but it’s how the numbers added up. I actually like “Guernica” and King Lear and Citizen Kane, anyway. This show offers wall-to-wall heat with huge peaks and at least one all-time top 50 Phish jam. It was the kickoff show of the single best week of Phish of all time, at least according to the voters in this poll. I can’t complain; it was my choice too.
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March 27, 1993
25 years ago
Set 2: Buried Alive > Halley's Comet > It's Ice > Bouncing Around the Room, Chalk Dust Torture, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Hold Your Head Up > Cracklin' Rosie > Hold Your Head Up, Poor Heart > Golgi Apparatus
 Beginning featured Trey on acoustic guitar.
 Fish on trombone.
 All Fall Down signal in intro.
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