Tuesday 12/11/2018 by howard_roark


© Phish, by: C. Taylor Crothers
© Phish, by: C. Taylor Crothers

In the 1.0 era of Phish there is no year more hotly debated, more controversial, more divisive, and more celbrated than 1997. To some, it represents a sublime and ethereal peak moment where the band shed their skin and reinvented themselves as a minimalist, groove-oriented machine that embraced jamming with open arms, and turned their shows into infectious dance parties, where prewritten songs no longer mattered. Others view it with an air of indifference, a sort of boring sidetrack from the pure origins of the band; a moment when, for the first time, the band showed signs of laziness, and, instead of pushing themselves further, relied on simple grooves, and extended jams to get themselves through a tour. Still some see it as the moment when Phish lost track of who they were, allowed drugs, the scene, and the bigness of what they'd become, take precedence over their music, and began the slow downward spiral to the bottoming out of 2004.

Whatever way you look at 1997, one thing is certain: the music Phish created throughout the year represented a distinct shift in styles from everything that had come before, and would alter the course of their craft, and the band, in a multitude of ways over the next twenty years.

VI. At Their Core, Improvisation

Born in the origins of the band, was a goal to create organic music in a live, improvisational setting, which displayed a linear communication between all members, giving them the sound of one unified instrument, rather than four individuals. Harnessed for the first time during the brilliant month of August 1993 when the band embraced their "Hey Hole" practice technique and incorporated it into their live performances. A concept whereby the band locks into a specific groove - be it a riff from Trey or Page, an outspoken beat from Fishman, or a combination of the two from Mike - and then one member alters the groove slightly. Each member follows the leader down the new path, until another member offers up their own idea and the jam rotates. Used for years in practice, it wasn't until 1993 that the band felt both confident enough in their own mastery of their music, and comfortable enough to step out of the boundaries of their songs without a net. Heard in a multitude of jams throughout the month - from the Cincinnati "You Enjoy Myself" to the August 11th "Mike's" to the Murat "Gin," the Tinley Park "Antelope," and the Louisville "Stash" and "Tweezer" - August 1993 was packed to the brim with jams that exceeded the limits of Type-I exploration which had been the band's cornerstone for the past four years.

The year 1994 only built upon the improvisational achievements of 1993 as the band saw their determination and hard work pay off in droves, resulting in the longest stretch of high-quality, mind-bending music of their entire career from August 1993 through December 1995. The Bomb Factory "Tweezer" on May 7th provides the first of many high water marks throughout 1994 as the band displayed an urgency in exploring the variety of diversions and depths their music could go, devoting whole sets sometimes, solely to exploration. "Tweezer" and "David Bowie" became the go-to vehicles whenever the band yearned to go deep, resulting in a number of experimental excursions throughout the summer. During the Fall tour, when the band opted to traverse the West rather than conclude their tour in the Northeast, they stretched their arms out even further, pushing their jams so far into the unknown that they failed to return to their origins. The Bangor "Tweezer," Ann Arbor "Simple," Minneapolis "Bowie," Bozeman "Tweezer" from November 28th, and the infamous Providence "Bowie" from 12/29 all strode further and deeper than any jam had in the live setting since at least 1988.

Continuing with their exploratory inhibitions in the Summer of 1995, the band threw all caution to the wind, seemingly ignored the fact that they were playing in front of an audience, and spent whole sets engulfed in a search for connection through live improv. The Red Rocks "Mike's," Mud Island "Tweezer," Atlanta "Bowie," Raleigh "Runaway Jim," Fingerlake's "Tweezer," SPAC "Down With Disease -> Free," Jones Beach "Tweezer," and Sugarbush "Bowie" all exceeded 25 minutes - the "Tweezer's" took the prize with lengths of 50, 42 and 30 min respectively - and all displayed the lengths Phish was willing to go to achieve their goals.

Taken as whole pieces, each jam can seem far too intimidating for casual listeners. Yet, the true power of each is found deep within, after lengthy improv, failed themes, and diverted paths; when each member essentially stops thinking, relinquishes his ego, and allows the music to carry them. The 22 - 33min segment of music produced in the "Tweezer" from 06/14, and the 6:45 - 11:50 section of the SPAC "Free," are preserved as probably the best examples of the sheer beauty and brilliance of Summer '95; when it mattered little what song was played, just where it went and what barriers were eliminated. While this approach was slimmed down during the Fall tour that followed, the external forces explained in the last post, along with the band's ferocious energy and desire to continue to push their improv, resulted in probably the greatest tour and month we'll ever see out of Phish.

At the end of 1995 however, the band appeared to be lost for the first time in their twelve year career. Simply put, they'd climbed the mountain. While they'd exceeded expectations numerous times before, little could be explained for the fact that they'd just completed their longest and best tour, capped off by a near-flawless performance at the most famous arena in the world on New Years Eve. It was a moment that required some serious reflection about what had just happened and what was to come next. The band dispersed for the winter, before reuniting at Trey's barn/studio in the Spring of 1996 to begin recording a new album. The result, Billy Breathes is the most patient, contemplative and organic of the band's fifteen offerings.

Entering the studio with only four live-tested songs - "Free," "Theme From The Bottom," "Taste" and "Prince Caspian" - forced Phish to develop alternative means to craft new songs. The most notable was "The Blob," an organic musical experiment by which each member recorded one note on any instrument in rotation until a cohesive idea was formed. It forced them to step outside of their own ego, shell, and creative patterns, and gave birth to a linear style of music, wholly balanced in full-band communication. While the experiment only materialized in parts of "Swept Away -> Steep," it buried an idea in the band's mind that if they could minimize their musical ideas, they could in fact recreate the best aspects of "The Blob" in a live setting.

The Summer and October leg of their Fall tour saw the band struggle between relying on the crutches of their Trey-centric rock shows they were known for, and the experimental, whole-band jamming, they were trying to adapt. While there were certainly moments of greatness throughout the first half of their touring year - the entire Red Rocks run, 08/13/1996, Hershey Park's demented first set, The Clifford Ball, the two night stand at MSG, the Charlotte "Simple," and the Tallahassee "Mike's" - the year was certainly lacking the consistent other-worldliness that had defined the band since August 1993.

All this changed essentially overnight with the band's Halloween performance in Atlanta of The Talking Head's Remain In Light. An album rooted in rhythm, infectious groove, minimalism, and funk, Phish discovered the porthole through which they could accomplish their goal of whole-band linear musical communication. "Crosseyed & Painless," "The Great Curve," "Seen & Not Seen" - all these songs offered a variety of ways for Mike and Fish to take a commanding lead of the rhythm, and for Trey and Page to engage in intricate melodic conversations and atmospheric washes, all blending together to create a sound that was wholly original, highlighted each member equally, and still retained the lively and punctual grooves which had been their calling card.

Heard first in the "Simple" from the 10/31 Set III, the band incorporated this revolutionary shift throughout the rest of 1996, from the 11/02 "Crosseyed" to the Rupp "Gin," from the Knoxville "Mike's" to the 11/18 "Simple," Seattle's "Down With Disease" and the "Weekapaug" from the phenomenal tour finale in Las Vegas. Awash in a newfound spirit for jamming, the band used the same logistical advantage of the 1994 Fall Tour in 1996 as they left the comfort of the Northeast, and spent essentially a month out West.

And yet, as monumental as the musical accomplishments of November 1996 were - and really, this writer would encourage ALL of you to dive deep into the run, as it’s one of the most underrated months in Phish history - nothing could compare to what would happen when the band crossed the Atlantic for their first headlining tour of Europe in February 1997. Playing to tiny clubs in ancient cities, in front of small crowds - a few dedicated Phisheads, but mainly, curious Europeans - with a newfound musical concept to toy with; it all added up to two weeks of some of the most original, experimental, and straight up different music the band had ever made.

It was as if someone had hit the reset button on the band's career. Through February 1997, they performed with a curiosity and a dedication to full-band communication in ways they'd never before. Beginning in earnest during the second set of Amsterdam's 02/17 show - the first of three legendary performances in the city of canals during 1997 - the "Squirming Coil -> Down With Disease -> Carini -> Taste -> Down With Disease" hour-long sandwich represented a new approach for Phish, where any and every song could be transformed at any time into a deep and prodding excursion into the unknown. Wielding a more stripped down and industrial sound, they played with a gritty and ferocious drive, all the while allowing more space within their notes. Their jams breathed with new direction and inspiration, and avenues of musical thought that simply couldn't be traversed before were suddenly being actualized on a nightly basis.

Other highlights surfaced in even more unique places throughout the tour, from the Florence "Run Like An Antelope -> Wilson -> Oh Kee Pa> AC/DC Bag> Billy Breathes," the entire second set from the phenomenal Stuttgart show on the 26th that mixed jams and bustouts to create an all-around classic, to the Berlin "Drowned -> Prince Caspian> Frankenstein> David Bowie," to the "Wolfman's Brother -> Jesus Just Left Chicago" from Hamburg, which was not only the jam of the tour, but helped convinve the band, once & for all, to continue to give any and all of their songs the chance to jam, something which would help to shape the course of 1997.

© Phish, by: Danny Clinch
© Phish, by: Danny Clinch

Summer brought a return to Europe, except this time the band came totally prepared. Armed with the biggest batch of new material they'd had in years, along with the knowledge that space, minimalism and the groove were their new calling card, they tore their second European Tour apart with focused determination and a looseness that would characterize each show in 1997.

All the rules were tossed away. Jams could appear and disappear and then reappear at any time. First sets were no long reserved for straight renditions of songs. By the fifth show in the tour, in Prague, they spent the majority of the first set wielding an unending jam that read "Taste -> Cities> Horn -> Ain't Love Funny -> Limb By Limb -> I Don't Care> Run Like An Antelope." The tour is probably the loosest and most relaxed the band has ever sounded. Teetering on the edge of slop at all times, the thing truly that characterizes the tour is the fact that songs meant nothing. All that mattered was when the band found a way to segue into a thick, murky, locked-in groove out of whatever song they happened to be playing.

"Down With Disease -> Piper -> Down With Disease -> Meatstick -> McGrupp & The Watchful Horsemasters -> Makisupa Poiceman" // "Jam -> Timber> Bathtub Gin -> Cities -> Jam" // "Stash -> Llama -> Wormtown Jam -> Wading In The Velvet Sea" // "You Enjoy Myself -> Ghost> Poor Heart" // "Bathtub Gin -> Jam -> Bathtub Gin> Llama -> Jam -> Wading In The Velvet Sea> The Lizards Jam" // "Julius -> Magilla> Ya Mar -> Jam -> Ghost -> Take Me To The River," these were the kind of unending jams that exposed unknown nuggets of gold within their songs that had never been unearthed before. It was a tour filled with artistic success, a tour that reinforced the goals they had in mind and their path to achieve them. It sent them back to the US with a plethora of confidence, the likes of which they hadn't had since Fall 1995. And with the setup of each tour - both Summer & Fall wound around back east for their respective finales - the logistics were established to support two massively successful and artistically victorious tours.

From literally the first note of their US Summer tour opener in Virginia Beach, it was clear to anyone who hadn’t yet heard the funk transformation over the past seven months, that Phish was a very different band from the one who’d closed out 1996 in Boston.

Ghost” provided the welcome back moment for both band and fans alike, and the sharp, rhythmic, groove-heavy swagger of the song reintroduced the band in a way they’d never done before. In the same way that “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Good Vibrations,” “Thunder Road,” and “Zoo Station” unapologetically ushered in new eras for The Stones, Beatles, Beach Boys, Springsteen and U2, “Ghost” blew the doors down of what anyone previously understood as “Phish.”

It must have been a shock to any in attendance, particularly those who hadn’t yet heard the musical experiments from Europe. During the mid-to-late-1990’s, it could take weeks, if not months for tapes to reach large segments of the fanbase, meaning there was a legitimate chance that over the half the fans in attendance at their Virginia Beach Tour Opener had never heard this new sound Phish had conjured up.

Two nights later, the band would set the standard for all “Ghost's” with a 27-minute, fiery onslaught of funk grooves and machine-gun-Trey, summoning in the “Summer of the Ghost” and transforming their funk revival once more to a sound more American in nature: liner musical communication with elements of heroic, anthemic rock.

As the tour wound across the south into the desert and up the Pacific coast before crossing the plains into the Northeast the band only got tighter (read: looser), treating each show like a reformation on the proud state of their unified sound. Stretching out jams ala June 1995, the thing that most separates their Summer 1997 jams from previous years is the clear listenability of the music. Where in years past, many of the jams contained large swaths of wholly noise-based experiments meant to push the band further into the unknown until they reached a sublime plateau, the jams of 1997 accessed these same untapped passages through music that was at once pleasing to the ears while remaining uncompromising in its goals.

Highlights abound, there were two clear peaks of the tour. The second set during the first night of Deer Creek where “Cities” was unveiled as show-stopping jam vehicle, relying wholly on simple riffs and builds from Trey, moving into a rising arena rock theme before seamlessly exploding into “Good Times Bad Times.” From there the set took the road less traveled, as the band segued the Zeppelin heartbreaker into an egoless space jam, before rotating instruments - further separating themselves from their musical personas - ultimately ending up in the rare Fishman-penned “Rock-A-William.” Closing the set with an extended and exploratory take on “David Bowie,” it proved the band's increasing ability to craft a set that relied wholly on improvisation and communication, yet wouldn't lose the audience's attention.

Then, during the second-to-last-set of summer, during the band's second-annual summer-tour ending festival, The Great Went - this time relocated even further northeast from Plattsburgh, NY to tiny Limestone, ME - they played a set that has remained one of the signature peaks of Phish's storied history. Reading: "Down With Disease -> Jam> Bathtub Gin> Uncle Pen, 2001 -> Harry Hood," the set features literally every aspect of Phish's 1997 sound, all of it performed at the highest level. There's not a single lull throughout, the set essentially flows in two parts, yet is generally viewed as one fully-flowing masterpiece. While the acid-fueled, Band Of Gypsies-esque funk rock of the "Down With Disease," and open-ended grooves of "2001" certainly stand out as defining pieces of the era, it's the "Bathtub Gin" that takes the honors not only as the jam of the show, but as one of the most impressive pieces of live, linear communication the band has ever played. Taking the "Gin" thematic solo on a wild ride, the band flows down one unified path, never changing keys, simply building the theme of the "Gin" to an explosive peak of radiance, energy and inexplicably beautiful music. Only the introspective rise of the "Hood" to close out the set could begin to rival the simplistic beauty and transcendence of what's come to be known as "The Went Gin."

Closing out the summer tour with a set and a jam that featured the band on the same page, wholly dedicated to the same musical goals, reinvigorated by two boundary pushing tours of Europe, and a revivalist swing through America, they stepped back into Vermont for their second recording session of the year in preps for what would become a legendary tour, one that would end up rivaling the peak of December 1995.

VII. Linear Musical Communication

From the second night of tour in Salt Lake City - save for an ethereal "Stash" one night prior in Las Vegas - the band rode eastward on a mission to destroy America through a combination of Hendrix-inspried psychedelic funk/rock jams, a condensed catalogue that forced them to think outside the box with all of their songs, and most importantly, a unified energy and wordless communication which allowed them to create some of the most high-octane, linear music they ever have.

Highlights adorn each show of the tour; there are simply too many to list. It's the only tour - aside from late-Fall 1995 - where literally every single show has a moment/jam/segue/song you MUST hear. From the Vegas "Stash" to the entire second set of Albany's tour finale, and everything in between, it's a tour for the ages, a tour that displayed the converging darkness and light of the entire Phish dichotomy. Transgressive in nature, the tour certainly created some backlash among some of the band's diehard fans for its seeming abandonment of the "pure" Phish from 1985 - 1996. Complaining that the band had taken a lazy approach in moving away from the complex, high-energy sound that had defined them, the music became unlistenable to some for its over-reliance on groove, and suspicion that the music was nothing more than a result of some of the members increasing habitual reliance on partying.

© Phish, by: Danny Clinch
© Phish, by: Danny Clinch

When listening to any of Phish's music, it's clear that drug experimentation plays a part in the creative process behind many of their classic songs/jams/shows. In their best moments, the band is a conduit of energy, releasing themselves and the listener from the self-conscious place in the here and now, offering a feeling that allows the band members and their fans alike a plane of unified communication and celebration. In their worst, they're sloppy, unstable, and unable to access the higher planes of music that they've spent the last 30+ years working towards. While both the best and worst moments of Phish are few and far between - the former being that intangible show or jam that fans spend thousands of dollars, minutes, and miles searching for, and the latter being most predominant in the 1999 - 2004 era of Phish - the band has made a career of finding that place in between greatness and failure, and making the best of it.

This is not to suggest in the slightest that their entire legacy is one of mediocrity, more so to say that the idea of relying heavily on improvisational music for success means one will fall on their face often, and that the exploration of that feeling of riding the thin line between success and failure is one worth visiting in the wide spectrum of music. It's why they spent the summer of 1995 traversing as far out to the reaches of music as they could, abandoning songs in favor of live experimentation. It's why they traveled to Europe for four months to figure out a way to jam as a singular unit. It's why they spent the Fall of 1997 building on this unified sound, and ultimately perfected it in a way we'd never hear from them again.

In a lot of ways, it's unfair to categorize December 1997 as predominant to November 1997. Really the entire month in between the 13th of November and the 13th of December is one singular month in Phish history. However, for both the purposes of this blog's initial posts, and the fact that the New Year's Eve run that year proved to be on par, if not better overall, than 1995's, the sole focus of these pieces is the music created in December. Though, November 1997, you shall not sleep on. No sir. Salt Lake City's "Wolfman's -> Piper> Twist -> Slave," Denver's "Ghost," and the entire second set, Champaign's "Wolfman's -> Makisupa Policeman," Hampton's EVERYTHING, Winston-Salem's EVERYTHING, Hartford's massive "Character Zero," Worcester's hour long "Runaway Jim…." it doesn't even begin to compile a comprehensive guide to an incredible two-week stretch that wound its way from Las Vegas to Worcester, MA.

From literally the first show of the tour, the band was on fire and tore the shit out of America. Phish Destroys America is what the tour is known as to their most ardent fans, and really, there's not much else that needs to be said in regards to it. From Salt Lake on, there isn't a single show not worth your time. Jams of 20 - 60 mins, with many leaning towards the 30 min category, all featuring a patient, matured, confident, badass-motherfucking-quartet, on a mission to manifest energy through some of the simplest music ever invented.

In the same way that December 1995 benefitted from a month of consistent music preceding it, December 1997 is the product of what happens when Phish just keeps going. From Philly to Cleveland, Detroit to Dayton, State College to Rochester to the finale in Albany, the nine shows of December 1997 were the coronation of 1997. Add to it the NYE run from Maryland to MSG - particularly the middle two shows - and you have a month of 13 top-tier shows that would stand up to any month in Phish's history this side of December 1995. With a plethora of memorable jams and shows that rank up with the best in their history, the month is full of literally everything that makes Phish Phish, yet here with the added edge provided to them by their stylistic mastery of the funk sound, and their fully locked in, linear musical communication.

(Come Back on Thursday For Part II of The Three Decembers - 1997)

Brian Brinkman is the Co-host of the Beyond The Pond Podcast (@_beyondthepond) and can be found on Twitter at @sufferingjuke

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, comment by youenjoymyghost
youenjoymyghost CAN I GET AN AMEN! haha It's crazy that anyone would not be into 97. I'll take groove over noise any day. I can see why it might have been hard to accept for the die-hards at that point but the great thing about phish is that they defy expectations. If I could go back in time I would go back to late 1997 and follow the band to every show.
, comment by shaunfunk
shaunfunk Incredible writing and links. A+
, comment by lysergic
lysergic I'm loving this series. Thanks for writing.
, comment by ColonelPlorbin
ColonelPlorbin Love these. Great post. Thanks for linking the referenced jams too. I kept a post-it from your last posts with all the shows you've referenced and have been plowing through them getting significantly jacked up for the NYE run.
, comment by dipped
dipped So good. Please more.
, comment by DoobsandMoogs
DoobsandMoogs well....that was the tits....
, comment by JMart
JMart It's funny.
If I'm honest with myself I will recall how after I saw 11/21/97, I was like "what the fuck was that shit?" And not in a good way. It was, as described above, just so entirely different from the Phish I'd heard before. As my friend is fond of saying, we all forget that at the time, people were like "what the fuck? They just drop into the same groove during every song. And they play My Soul every fucking show." True.
It took the rest of us a little longer to figure out what they already had: that they were focusing all their talents down to one single laser beam of energy, like a record needle, and the cosmos was the record, and they were letting fly with whatever came out. The concentration and trust it must have taken to completely abandon their sound and trust that people would follow along...the only comparison I can think of is the Beatles.
Once every single .netter out there has personally PM'd me to say they've listened to the Limb By Limb from 12/11/97, I'll let it go. Until then, Happy 21st Birthday Best 10 Minutes of Phish Music Ever.
, comment by krivraq
krivraq Bravo!
Getting chills and smiles all over again as you list certain songs, sets, and shows as highlights and "best of" Phish moments I was fortunate enough to experience. For you to pull individual highlights from such a juggernaut of a chapter of Phishtory while I relive them briefly enough to make mental notes and unpack my DAT collection and get down and do it again is a job well done. Great read!
, comment by Svenzhenz
Svenzhenz What an incredible testament to the ultimate consistency and brilliance that was Phish in 1997, that while the December shows that comprised the fall tour proper represent perhaps the greatest run of shows Phish has ever played, when looking at the current list of the top 100 shows, only 4 shows from the December Fall run make the list, while 16 OTHER shows from February 1997 through the Island Tour in 1998 are also ranked. Ridiculous!
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