This show might be the most under-appreciated show in Phish's history. Ask any fan about this New Year's Run and they'll go on and on about the wonderful show on the 30th. School bus balloons and a confusing but entertaining movie from NYE will be mentioned. They'll be sure to mention the “Can't Turn You Loose” jam from the 29th. "Yes," the conclusion will be, "that sure was one great run at the Garden."
If the US Air Arena (formerly Capitol Centre) show is brought up at all, it's just to be dismissed. "Sloppy" and "aimless" are adjectives used to describe it. I can't deny that there is some justification for those descriptions, but that's not all that's happening in this show by a long shot. This is far from just being a "warm-up" show. During a New Year’s Run in one of the most popular years of Phish, they managed to play one of their most experimental shows in their career and no one seems to have noticed it. Edgar Allan Poe would be pleased.
I will confess to some bias of my own here. I took my friend Amanda to this show. It was her first show of any jam band and she got it. It was quite literally a life changing experience to her. Maybe I take the maligning of this show a bit too personally, but Amanda besides, I just popped in this show at random this morning and found myself listening to sections over and over again, fascinated by what had just happened.
The show opens with “Julius”. It doesn't crackle with energy (although it does have a nice peak), but instead it's long and groovy. This is 1997 after all, not 1994. In the first of many setlist treats, it segues into “Cities”. Again, this version is slow and groove oriented, but it managed to stay interesting. Especially noteworthy is the end. Trey plays a circular riff on his guitar. In the middle of playing it, he counts "1-2-1-2-3-4" and turns it into the intro of “The Curtain”. It's very slick and earns the show points right away.
I have to tell one quick story here. In the middle of the set, Amanda turned to me and asked, "Where's the angst?" She meant it as a compliment. She hadn't heard music this optimistic in a long time. The only problem was that she asked me this during “The Old Home Place”. The line being sung at the time was "I lost my love, I lost my home, and now I wish that I was dead."
"Runaway Jim" followed. There's a great bit in the mid-song break where they play a line quieter and quieter until it's silent halfway through it. They then slam into the next line just like they've been playing it all along. Through an interesting jam section, this version manages to last for fourteen minutes before just coming to a stop. This foreshadowed the jams of the second set: interesting, melodic, but not the highest of energy.
When “Funky Bitch” came on, I thought I'd show off to Amanda. "Oh this will end the set." Nope. A nice long “Split Open and Melt”. "Well this will definitely end the set." Nope. “Bouncing”. Finally “Character Zero” did, in fact, end the set.
There really isn't much bad that can be said about it. It was long. The setlist was interesting. There were some nice peaks at the end of “Julius” and “Funky Bitch” and interesting jams all over the place. Okay, the “Farmhouse” is one of my least favorite versions, but that's about it. This, by the way, is by far the worse of the two sets.
The second set opener, as far as I know, is a bit of a debut. “Axilla I” was played but with the “Axilla II” ending; I like to call it "Axilla 1.5". The ending of this song is quite extended, culminating in a rather eerie sounding space. After nearly ten minutes of playing, it finally segues into “Simple”.
The “Simple” jam starts out normal enough, but about eight minutes into it, it leaves the normal universe of “Simple” to enter a pretty space. The jam is really atypical for a “Simple”. Unfortunately, it's cut off just as a really interesting groove theme was being explored, due to some feedback that Trey refers to as, "The Ghost of the Machine," in a rather long ramble. It would have been interesting to hear where the jam would have gone, but I guess it wasn't in the cards.
In honor of the feedback, “Ghost” follows. The jam takes a few minutes to get going, but once they speed things up a bit, the it gets quite interesting. In fact, if this show has a weakness, it's that it gets quite hard to explain how every jam goes to unusual spaces for the song, and is quite interesting.
There are so many highlights left in the show though, from the Mike-led jam in “Drowned” that transforms into a rather threatening space, to the “Roundabout” jam in “Scent of a Mule”, to the high-energy jam in “Halley’s”, to the wall of noise effect Jon and Mike create about 9:30 into the “Slave”. to list the songs is to list the highlights. If your reason for loving Phish is that they sometimes throw out the normal ways of doing things and improvise, then this is your show. It might not inspire you to put on your dancing shoes, but there's a chance you'll feel the need to get out pen and paper to write an ode to it. Pop this in your CD player sometime, especially if you were one of the people who went to this show and didn't think it was all that great. You have a surprise waiting for you.