As we pulled into the Star Lake Amphitheater parking lot, each pulsing beat of "Crosseyed and Painless" from the legendary 11/2/96 West Palm Beach show raised our excitement level higher and higher. This was the first of a four-night run that would lead us to the Great Went. We were all well aware of the magic ensuing on the '97 Summer Tour and couldn't wait to plug back in to the source. The three of us (Mike, Molly and myself) had been lucky enough to attend the 11/2/96 show together and therefore remain forever linked by the "Crosseyed Bond."
After pulling into our space, we hopped out of the car and frantically started making a sign. We are not the sign-making type of fans, so there had to be some unique inspiration for such an action. The simple message read "STILL WAITING." To our disappointment, we were not allowed to bring the sign into the show.
Molly rolled it up and hid it in the bushes just outside the gate. We soon forgot about it as we motored towards the seats focused only on getting the best spot possible. Phish opened the show with one of the most beautiful, unexpected "one-timers" they've ever played, Elton John's "Amorina." Page's voice was heavenly as he sang us the song full of lush imagery like "she dreams of crystal streams, days gone by, you and me...." After a "Poor Heart" , the show really began with "Stash." This is my favorite "Stash" of all time. As the jam started to unfold, Trey quickly reminds us that "this is Summer '97" and nothing is taken for granted. Big Red unleashed his noodling voodoo, the signature sound-tapestry-weaving technique that separated '97's magic moments from all others, taking this “Stash” into an ominous, yet not overly dark realm. The tension swelled through the burning lights surpassing the breaking point a few times over before setting us free with the climactic refrain.
As much as this set was about big songs, it was also about very appropriately chosen interlude songs. The next would be the old, slow version of "Water in the Sky." Six years later I am still vibrating as I prepare to mention the "Gumbo" that followed. The fifteen or so minutes of this "Gumbo" contain some of the best, most creative jamming of Phish's career. It is so representative of everything that makes '97 such a special year. The band is playing together in such a balanced way, everybody drawing from a seemingly endless source of brilliant ideas. Trey and Page have a field day, manifesting the sonic equivalent of skipping through a meadow of wildflowers while holding hands. Trey lays down some licks that end up opening huge passageways to the most uplifting melodies. He even delves into a cool variation on the "Franklin's Tower" groove, integrating yet another thematic flight in a very tasteful way. At some point when we are pretty sure this can't get any better, Page decides to load the audience into his cosmic pinball machine, boinging us from bumper to bumper with his over the top barrage of funk effects. Still only in the middle of the first set, we're a pretty happy audience at this point.
The boys can do no wrong as they segue right into the always blissful "Horse>Silent." Next was a lot of people's least favorite song, "Beauty of My Dreams." Since then I have held a place in my heart for "Beauty" because I will always associate it with being the predecessor of a truly miraculous moment. It was that silent time right before a song is about to begin. Everybody is holding their breath wondering if this could be a life-changing song or a good excuse to go to the bathroom. In the blink of an eye, we were suddenly immersed into the reality of "Crosseyed and Painless." They were playing "Crosseyed and Painless”! This was the ultimate moment of "I can't believe this is happening!" Molly and I turned and looked at each other with bug eyes and jaws on the floor. Sadly we had been separated from our partner in crime, Mike, but we would pick that part of the celebration up at set break.
The phenomenon of Phish choosing to play "Crosseyed and Painless" at Starlake on that fateful evening in '97 remains one of the wonders of my world. The fact that we made the sign, didn't get it in and they still played it leaves me shaking my head to this day. We were clearly communicating on some deeper level. I've heard people knock this version of "Crosseyed" but I don't think they've really listened. The pace is slowed down, which works well. Fishman sounds good and Trey pulls some heat out of his bag of tricks. There is one particular line during his dominant solo that kills me every time I listen to it. Continuing the dark theme, "Cross-eyed" goes into "Wilson" which at the time was still a novelty.
Needless to say I was pretty darned shell-shocked after that whopper of a set. With the power trio of "Stash", "Gumbo", and "Crosseyed", the first set of Starlake easily finds its way into the top five best first sets in my opinion. Set II had a tough act to follow. The band couldn't quite conjure up the magic flowing so freely in the first set. Nevertheless, Set II was still excellent. The song selection was great. It was the good old days of "Izabella." "Sleeping Monkey" nestled comfortably into a rare mid-set appearance. The highlight came in a joyful romp through "McGrupp" > "2001". The overall vibe was very bright and playful with blue lights flooding through the air.
A "Theme" encore sent everyone off very satisfied and amped for Darien and the Great Went. I remember people running straight to the pay phones to tell the world what they had just witnessed. One guy was shouting, "They just hosed down Starlake!" Boy did they. With the craziness about to ensue at the next three shows, they definitely set the tone right from the get-go.
Molly and I strolled back to the car floating on air. As we approached, our hearts practically stopped as we saw a sign resting on the windshield. It screamed back at us, "STILL WAITING."