a) well-documented and oft-lauded tour highlights (Hampton, Dayton, Auburn Hills, etc)
b) a terrible looking second set
is doing themselves a SERIOUS disservice.
The Ghost opener is 17 minutes of ferocious full-band communicado: Trey explores his wah pedal with comp-type chording for the first half of the jam, no direction given, no direction taken. It's REALLY relaxed, and the crowd erupts 12 minutes in for no apparent reason other than to say, "as an opener, this will do just fine." When Trey finally does solo proper, its in the hallmark '97 style, all serial-abduction Stevie Ray Vaugn riffs over a bed of chirping alien birds courtesy of the delay loop.
A pair of funk tunes to showcase the new direction, a short breather, and then a crazed Runaway Jim: around 8 min in, things get so heavy that I was convinced this was some sort of mountain-pass test, we were all climbing into thin air and only with some serious skill and a little (ok a LOT) trepidation would we make it down the other side. Ay 10:00, we clear the last pitch, and Trey quiets things down to begin a descent with eerie nimbled ease. The drone still pulses, we're not sure if the mountain has broken free from the glacier or not, it's ALMOST an actual segue into My Friend, Fish is playing a swing beat for chrissakes, down and down and then....
Then the segue to the first and only My Friend, My Friend of the tour! The first on US soil in a year! Not sure why these guys were able to get SO DARK during this tour, but man, this thing is spooky! Trey's laughing at the slowness of this version, but it loses none of its strange medieval-cum-heavy metal charm.
Fans of Limb by Limb should give this a spin, it's equally dark as the Jim and just as celebratory in it's resolution. During this tour (and a few others during the peak years) it seemed as though every song was an opportunity to make a grand musical statement. Whether the thing stated made any sense or was successful wasn't really the point, as we'd soon find out a few songs later. It really felt like the whole band was soloing in unison, drawing on a jazz heritage that often gets lost in the wake of recent shows.
Now, the second set. Stash as an opener was strange to me, even if it had been done once already on this tour. But as it unfolded, and I found a new spot illuminated atop the upper section stairway platform, I made the connection that this song (perhaps more than any other in the catalog) is the perfect synthesis of the phish sound: polyrhythmic, tension-filled, plumbing, a vehicle for top-flight improv. And so it was.
With Bouncing, then Julius, I began to worry about the quality of the song selection for what could have otherwise been a really strong show. Ah, but the band had other ideas for Julius on this frigid December night. Of all the songs that received a "treatment" in 1997, this was the one I would've never foreseen. And for good reason: it hadn't been hinted at before this show and it hasn't happened since. It's trite to say "best Julius ever", not because there are better performances but because fearless exploration and wide-ranging improvisation isn't everyone's cup of tea. Some will say it seems forced, that the gospel blues of Julius doesn't really lend itself to funk, or jazz, or reggae. But to iterate: this was a different time, when no song was sacred, when no basic building block of music couldn't be deconstructed or subverted in some way.
Julius proper ends some 7 min into the 18 minutes that make up this monster. Fish has been yelling his approval for the entire coda, and it's no wonder: he leads the band into a rag-time version of the song first, as an entry point into what becomes a multi-genre affair. A quick jump back to double time, a wall of noise, and a standard Trey eruption, the thing could end here and it would still be talked about in the various Phish nerd web forums. But it doesn't end. Trey picks it up with a staccato strumming, steps on the wah, and perhaps because Mike never strays from the walking bass line of Julius, this doesn't just become another in a litany of funk jams. Instead, it's a strange hybridized thing, with a reggae beat emerging 14 minutes in! Trey cuts everything out for some "Bring the Dude" action, Fish belts out his dancehall reggae yell, and things just get weirder. Scofield-esque blues, strange Page tones, another beat change, and they somehow bring things to a close with Slave.
It's worth noting that this Slave is also FAR from typical. Maybe because of the huge leap of faith everyone just took, this Slave is so patient, so far back in the pocket. Both its reggae rhythms and its bleak, technophobic breakdowns never sounded so raw. Trey really pushes his hollow-body, and these little mini-scapes are just hints of things to come. Once the jam rises up to its typical majestic conclusion, Page instigates a tidal wave of sound that really seemed like it was going to wash us all away. The truest incarnation of Trey's "My Bloody Valentine / Sonic Youth meets Brian Eno" influence, I didn't hear this kind of pure NOISE again until 12/30/98 (out of Coil, no less). The closest sonic analogy would be a shuttle lift-off.
So yeah, it's easy to forget this seemingly de rigueur show. It's far from conventional, and the only thing typical about it is that, like it's Fall '97 brethen, it's typically brilliant.