[Over the next three days we’ll look back on each of the shows included in the new Hampton/Winston-Salem ‘97 box set on the respective 14th anniversaries. Next up: Saturday, November 22, 1997, Hampton Coliseum.]
Saturday, November 22, 1997
Following Friday’s show, we had an interesting evening at the Days Inn. Our string of rooms were on the ground floor and opened to the parking lot. We settled into our spaces, enjoying a few late night beers and having a bit of fun. I remember it was when I found a spot to rest my head that some sketchy tour kid approached Tim who was hanging outside the door. The kid spied a cooler of our beer and was very interested in acquiring one. One in particular, the much sought after “Dank Sammy Smith.” Now remember we have a keg of Long Trail in our trunk, beer supply was not an issue, but Tim was dead set against this kid getting what he wanted. When met with resistance the kid resorted to a little trade proposal in the form of microdots. Now, I’m pretty sure he had a roll of those sugar dot candies because there was no amount he was unwilling to part with. The beer, however, was not for trade. We all began to stir from our rooms just to see what these things were or were not worth. Needless to say no transaction was completed, but at one point I think we could have procured an actual automobile with what he seemed to be offering. To this day, we laugh about The Microdot Exchange on Coliseum Drive.
We spent our day relaxing, definitely with a trip to Waffle House. Those poor waitresses, they definitely weren’t prepared for that morning. The Waffle House was more Halfway House than anything else. But there’s just something so endearing about hearing exasperation in a southern accent. We made our way back to the lot and prepared for showtime.
Saturday’s opener is quite possibly my favorite of all-time. Now it’s probably not the greatest “Mike’s Song” in history but every time I hear it a wave of memories rush to my brain. This and the 12/31/95 version are the ones that hold a special place in my heart. A funky progression to open the jam, it isn’t until the seven-minute mark when Trey begins to hammer out a more melodic pattern. Forward to the 8:30 mark and a robust and vibrant melody explodes driving the jam with its memorable tone. Spacey and brilliant, Fish and Page create a layer underneath Trey that allows him to riff on the theme for a good two or three minutes until he fades back. By the 11:30 mark Trey is building loops and Mike is pushing the beat, adding his part to the forming jam. Page counters with a delicate touch as the rhythm propels them all. Suddenly near the thirteen minute mark the melody becomes much more dreamy and elongated. Playing off all the existing characteristics, the tone is completely transformed. Trey and Page play off one another masterfully through the section with amazing contrast in sounds. Trey caps the jam with one final riff that ultimately is the one I hear in my mind over and over and over, quite beautiful.
The band drifts away into one of the finer segues for “I Am Hydrogen” that my ears have heard. Extending the segue with a beautiful interlude, Trey and Page create a magical layer before beginning the song in its more accustomed form. In most instances “Hydrogen” is a conjunction, just the piece that ties “Mike’s” and “Weekapaug“ together. Tonight it stands on its own. The “Weekapaug Groove” that follows is a perfect ending to the first 35 minutes of the show. The first half, an exercise in tension and release finally providing resolution to the brilliant peaks we heard all throughout the previous night. At the seven-minute mark a new jam opens. Funky and deliberate it carries directly back to the themes found in the “Mike’s” that preceded it and continues until the 11:20 mark, where one of the finest moments in any jam happens: the stop/start. With a sudden and synchronized stop, the band waits for the crowd and then thunders back into “Weekapaug” complete with a fiery final section.
It’s hard to top the start of this performance. It has all of the parts of a great Phish show wrapped into three songs. Simply amazing. As if that wasn’t enough the band quickly side-bards and opens into “Harry Hood.” With a playful and exploratory opening, highlighted by both Fish’s change in tempo and Page’s creepy organ interlude, the energy in the impending “HOOD” chant from the crowd is electric. Featuring a beautiful, intricate jam and a ferocious closing the band caps an amazing opening to one of the best nights in their history.
On paper, to follow this segment up with “Train Song” and “Billy Breathes” seems to be one that would let the air out of the room, but here it’s just so perfect. Showcasing a brilliant segue into “Train Song,” the down tempo tandem provides contrast and continues the optimal ebb and flow of this show. Not ones to maintain this mellow vibe for long, the band closes with a “Frankenstein,” “Izabella” combo complete with the big rock licks required to cement the set in history.
When the band returns to the stage after the break, a group in the front of the venue begin to sing something faint, as the chant begins to build slightly it becomes aware that they are singing the lyrics to “Destiny Unbound.” In a coordinated effort to get the song out of Phish’s vault, the audience planned on dropping the hint with as much participation as possible. Trey’s response referring to the attempt as a “cannibalistic death chat” either pinpoints how out of sync it was or the band’s relative disdain with the suggestion. Mike’s decision to start “Halley’s Comet” cemented the end of the movement as the band launched into a funk-filled exploration for the first fifteen minutes of the set. When people ‘want “Halley’s” to jam’ this is always what I hear in my head. Unfortunately this version is really a by-product of where the band was at this moment in time.
At sixteen minutes the jam slows in a dramatic fashion, turning away from the funk-laden licks into something much more brooding and then delicate as the crowd urges along. The eight minutes that follow are unbridled improvisation. No road map, no structure, just a collision of sound and rhythm. It is in a sense a live Siket Disc session. The structure of “Halley’s” is gone, nowhere to be found and the band is creating on the fly without a guide or a belay. People long for “Halley’s Comet” to have a jam like this, but that hope is largely futile as this is a unique moment in band history. Perhaps the audience chants for an archaic tune like “Destiny Unbound” inspired the best ‘Fuck You’ in history. "Instead of a five-minute country tune we’re gonna play the exact opposite of what you asked for and take it as far as it will go." What a moment.
And how do you follow that up? With “Tweezer,” of course. Putting the pedal to the floor we come back from the depths of improv into the pure rocker. Propelled by the funky drum beat, the band meticulously meanders through jam spaces until finally landing upon “Black-Eyed Katy.” Hinted at in the opening “Mike’s Song,” “BEK” is still relatively new and provides a nice contrast with the style of the previous jams. Listening to it now, I just keep waiting for Fish to sing. With "Moma Dance" still yet to be created, it only can segue into the beautiful slow build of “Piper.” A perfect example of how the song was once built upon the increasing tempo and release of energy.
Continuing the theme of building, the band chooses to close the set with “Run Like An Antelope.” A perfect choice, considering the amount of energy built in the venue over the previous two nights. Then continuing the trend into the encore with the classic combo of “Bouncing Around the Room” and “Tweezer Reprise,” the ultimate release vehicle.
It’s still hard for me to rank shows and experiences over time, because the really great ones just seem to melt together. It seems unfair to pick a de facto favorite, but this show is definitely in this group.
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