[Take the Bait is spirited deliberation and/or discourse centered around the hyperbole of Phish’s music and fandom, passionately exuded via the written words of phish.net contributors @FunkyCFunkyDo and @n00b100. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of phish.net, The Mockingbird Foundation, or any fan… but we're pretty sure we’re right. Probably.]
The Bait: 11/22/97 is one of the truly great shows of Phish’s live oeuvre, and has a reasonable argument to be considered the finest show the band has ever played.
Set 1: Mike's Song -> I am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Harry Hood > Train Song, Billy Breathes, Frankenstein > Izabella
Set 2: Halley's Comet > Tweezer -> Black Eyed Katy > Piper > Run Like an Antelope
Encore: Bouncing Around the Room > Tweezer Reprise
n00b: One of the things I’ve tried to work out of my Phish vocabulary is the term “best”, because virtually every discussion regarding Phish other than “it’s good Trey’s not on drugs anymore”, to me, involves subjectivity and the biases and preferences of the person(s) having that discussion. So I tend to go with “favorite” instead, because it properly denotes that I’m talking about something from my own personal viewpoint, with my own personal biases and preferences attached. And now, with this preamble, let me say this: 11/22/97 is my favorite Phish show of all time. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s your favorite, too, so I guess we’re going pretty short this episode!
Funky: Loyal reader, may I suggest taking your phone into the bathroom for the next fifteen or so minutes, as this episode is going to require your undivided attention, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, a place where you feel comfortable yelling obscenities at your phone/computer/media of choice. Very good. Now let’s get down to brass tacks here: reading between the lines of your cautious-but-poignantly-worded prose, you think 11/22/97 is the best, er, “favorite” (wink wink) Phish show of all time. An open-and-shut case that even the great Lionel Hutz couldn’t crack (unless you have an Orange Julius nearby… do you have an Orange Julius nearby?) But before we engage in a battle royale of the written word on the matter, let us first explore this question: what is it that elevates a Phish show to all-time/best-ever status? Is it the flow of the music? The quantity and/or quality of A+ jams? Does the show needed to have dusted off a few songs not played in years, or decades? Does it need to be technically perfect? Or, perhaps the most jaded question of all, must its year begin with the number “199?” I can sense a swath of quadraernians and an army of quinquagenarians nodding voraciously in approval of that last question… and an equal number of vicenarians who just learned some new words. Ha! The rich really do get richer!
n00b: First off, I’d love to meet the cadre of septuagenarians out there who enjoy lighting up a fattie and lying back in their recliner to the sweet sounds of 8/22/15. Okay, so, to your question, the short answer is “yes”. But we’re not doing this series so we can give short answers, are we? I think that all of the things you mentioned should play a part in whether that show is merely (cough) average-great or a true all-timer, with the “importance-o-meter” shifted up or down depending on the listener’s perspective - for instance, I put a lot of importance into setlist flow (a reason I love 12/11/99 so much - the flow of Set 2 is immaculate), and somewhat less importance on whether they play a bustout, but your mileage may vary (YMMV, for my fellow older Internet-heads) on that one. As far as the 90s question...well, I’m certainly never gonna tell a younger fan that if they think 7/13/14 is the greatest show of all time that they should reconsider (and that’s a perfectly reasonable choice, IMO), but as I’m the sort that thinks that the baseline for quality starts at a higher level for the 90s than 2009-now, I would personally say that it’s more likely that someone would say that the greatest show/their favorite show comes from the 90s. As I do.
Anyway, back to the original question. You’re with me on 11/22/97, right? Uh, right?
Funky: n00b, I don’t think 11/22/97 is even the greatest show of 1997! I will gladly order 11/19/97, 08/17/97, or 07/31/97 before my eyes even gloss over your entree, but by that time I shall have gorged myself on so much funk that they’d have to hire James Brown as the Chef de Cuisine to get me to take that bait. I just called you an ambulance, by the way, as I assume you’ve just keeled over in shock. For me, a truly great show, a show that might be spoken of as the best ever, needs to contain many of the same factors you listed. The first being impeccable flow, meaning, song and jam placements that harmonize with their neighbors and do not seem out of place or jarring. Describing flow is difficult, as it is entirely subjective on one’s preference in Phish: there are shows that flow with quickness, fire, and precision; shows that flow with meditation, patience, and ambience; shows that flow like a rollercoaster with perfectly placed ups and downs and loop-de-loops. All perfectly valid arguments.
Yet, feeling (or not feeling) a show’s flow seems like something most Phish fans can agree on. When Phish is bringing it, everyone seems to know it, just as how when Phish is “struggling” to find a rhythm, that too is tangible. Since Phish is a lifestyle, not a hobby, for more fans than less, experiencing Phish multiple times over allows for the natural learning and feeling of these ebbs and flows. The unpredictable, improvisational nature of Phish (from setlist construction to jamming) is the allure which brings so many of us into the music, yet, there are, ironically, patterns woven into the unpredictable fabric itself. With time, these patterns become tacit knowledge amongst the fanbase - hard to define, but easy to feel - and it radiates through sets and shows, for better and for worse, as each new song materializes on each new night. These patterns, as nuanced as they are at first, grow more palpable with the more Phish one experiences, and thus, with time, one can feel when a show has flow, versus when a show does not. Is this making sense, n00b, or is my tinfoil sombrero clouding my thought process?
n00b: 11/19/97?????? Wow, okay, this discussion is over. ::walks out of panic room 10,000 feet under the earth’s surface in which we’re typing out our entries to this discussion at our own gold-plated writing desks, slamming door behind me, gets into Maserati, drives away::
-TEN MINUTES PASS-
Okay, fine, I’m back. To your main point above, I would agree with that for sure. Let’s take two disparate examples. Some of us may remember the ill-fated 7/16/14 Pine Knob show, where in the second set the band (or Trey, really) just started bouncing from song to song like a pinball rattling off of some well-placed bumpers, leading to a setlist that looks like they drew a bunch of song titles out of a hat and played them in that random order, with "Tweezer" showing up NINE songs in, and a show that most people will only remember while unconsciously drawing back their lips and showing their teeth. Compare that to the aforementioned 7/13/14 II, which also has a "Tweezer" in it, but a "Tweezer" that a) comes after roughly 40 minutes of absolutely sparkling high-class “the shit Paul Giamatti lusts after in Sideways” vintage jamming and b) also contains its own fantastic jam, closing the door on a 56-minute sequence that easily holds its own against any such sequence from any era. One of those sets is the textbook example of how NOT to craft a second set people will love, and the second is the textbook example of what people like us absolutely crave out of our second sets. And those are two easy examples, but I also agree that with enough reps as a Phish fan (i.e. seeing and listening to shows), divining the true great sets becomes much easier with time.
Okay, enough stalling, fancy pants. Let’s get to it. What’s your beef with 11/22/97?
Funky: And thusly, “11/19/97?????? Wow, okay, this discussion is over,” is the crux of Take the Bait! And who are you calling "fancy pants???" I may be fancy, and... wait, what was the other thing? Here’s the angle, n00b, there is no part of me that finds any particular “fault” with 11/22/97. The first set is the essence of fluidity, with two jams worth returning to in “Mike’s Song” and “Harry Hood.” The second set has an historic 3-song run to open in “Halley’s Comet” > “Tweezer” -> “Black Eyed Katy,” but tempers out with a oddly flat “Piper” and standard-great “Antelope.” Still, I find the second halves of both sets to be good, but good in an ordinary way. With, say, 11/19/97, I find the first set is pure mastery with tremendous exploration in “Bathtub Gin” -> “Llama” and “Fee” - > “Antelope,” explosive supporting jams in “Julius,” “Funky Bitch,” “Limb by Limb,” and”Theme,” and energy consistently unleashed as if from a fire hose. The second set opens with, dare I say, the best “2001” ever, a Jekyll/Hyde “Wolfman’s” (first half is awesome, second half not so much), a deep-space “Makisupa,” and a thundering “Taste” all played in balance of the other. Allow me to refer back to some unfinished business from my previous post.
The second factor, for me, in determining an all-timer, is the variance of jamming. I want a show with a two or three, big, explorative jams that warp spacetime and send me over the moon; two or three “composed” jams that take flight and soar, but do not necessarily need be technically perfect, but also not sloppily or lazily performed; and a handful, or more, of short(er), tight songs that catalyze energy and galvanize the unification of the set/show. 11/22/97 has two all time jams in the second set, “Halley’s” and the Tweezer” -> “BEK” segment. The first set has some thick, swampy funk in an unfinished “Mike’s Song” that integrates seamlessly into a slightly extended and absolutely exceptional “I am Hydrogen” (fantastic Trey in this version), but “Weekapaug Groove” falls flat and noodly for me, a bit overbaked. “Harry Hood,” blossoms from cosmic bud to galactic bloom in delightful fashion, and its evaporation into “Train Song” is something from a dream, especially when joined by “Billy Breathes.” Counterbalanced by a volcanic combo of “Frankenstein” and “Izabella” and, I have just proved I have no good reason to not prefer this show. Yet, here we are. Still, for my money, the only songs first set song I am going back to are “Mike’s Song” and “Hood” and the supporting jams just don’t do it for me despite fitting neatly into the setlist. "Halley's" has segments of transcendent inspiration - parts the jam seems to float amongst the clouds - but, parts of the jam also seem to have it repeating ideas a little too much as they search for the next passage. The highly-suggestive funk of "Tweezer" -> "BEK" is downright filthy and I'd be lying if I said I had a single complaint whatsoever about it, but, unlike you, the "Piper" > "Antelope" duo, for me, almost deflates the dance energy previously created. It's not a bad pair, in fact the song selections themselves are choice, but I just don't think they fit into the set with regards to how they are played. In so many words, despite having exceptional flow, I am only going to listen to a handful of songs from 11/22/97 as "standalones." The standalone jam(s) is/are as important to me as flow, when considering a "best ever" show. While I am most certainly not saying 11/19/97 is Phish's best show ever, I am saying I prefer it to 11/22/97, because I could throw a proverbial dart at 11/19/97’s setlist and be perfectly content on the mark it hits, except "Wolfman's," which, I know, I know... I won't even finish that sentence. But hey, are we defining the art of subjectivity right now or what?!
n00b: Well, you should probably split "Wolfman’s" in half on that dartboard, because I can’t imagine you’d enjoy it too much if the dart landed on the second half (for the record, I don’t care much for it either, although I’d take it over the interminable 11/30/97 "Wolfman's" death metal jam). To briefly address your “variance of jamming” point, I also like it when the jams are diverse from each other (cf. one of my dings against 12/31/99 Set 2 - not as much variance as I’d like from that set), although I don’t know that I’d have my preferences quite that honed; I’ve always been more a Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” kinda guy. But there’s no wrong answer as far as that goes. And to address 11/19/97, I like it quite a bit as well, but I don’t know that I’d take it over 12/2/97 (which has one of my Ten Favorite Ever - Yes, Ever second sets), 11/23/97, 12/7/97, or 11/17/97 (boring choices, I know) from Fall ‘97, let alone from the entire year. I mean, we’re talking degrees here, but we’re also talking degrees when you get to the top range of what you like - there ain’t THAT much of a difference between this show and Fukuoka, 12/14/95 and 8/22/15 and and for me, y’know? But there’s a relatively big difference between this show and 11/19/97 for me (nothing in that first set approaches the "Mike’s Groove;" "Taste" and "Makisupa" don’t really move me, even when they’re exemplary versions, as those are; the second half of the "Wolfman’s" jam is SUCH a turnoff for me), and that’s how I separate the real good shows I enjoy a lot from the true cream of the crop.
So I guess at this point I should explain why this is my favorite show of all time. For one thing, I GRIEVOUSLY disagree with your assertion about the "Weekapaug" (which has some really killer funk in the middle), which pairs with the "Mike’s Song" to create an all-timer "Groove" at least in the neighborhood of the 12/7/95's and 7/17/98's of the world. Toss in that magnificent "Hood" and some great second-quarter song selection, and that basically separates what you hear as a reasonably good first set with what I hear as one of the greatest first sets ever played. I think we’re in agreement on the greatness of that "Halley’s" jam and "Tweezer" -> "BEK" segment; I will say that I think the "BEK" is the stronger part of that second jam segment, since Trey basically spent the latter half of the "Tweezer" jam circling around "BEK" like two eighth graders warily eyeing each other at a Sadie Hawkins dance before he tells the guys to move into it with him. It worked out, though, so hey. I personally think the "Piper" is fine more than flat (it’s transitional, the same way it was transitional between the weirdo "Kill Devil Falls" and filth-and-fury "Twist" in 12/31/15 Set 2), and the "Antelope" is a cut above standard, proof that 1997 "Antelopes" darn near approached the 94-95 peak we usually associate with "Antelope." So, again, a little bit above “ordinary” there, and while I’m fine with a less jam-heavy second quarter, when you get that slice of nastiness in the fourth quarter, it definitely boosts things for me.
I noted that you could find no particular fault with 11/22/97, and that’s the same thing with me - some folks might hear a solid show with no real standouts, and I hear a show with no flaws that’s buttressed by both a magnificent setlist (to quote myself, because I’m that kind of jerk, it basically screams “we are going to jam all night, and you are going to like it”) and some A+ jams, glued together with the absolute purple patch of playing the band was enjoying in that four week span between November and December 1997. So there you go, that’s my argument. I can FEEL you still giving me the stink-eye, so the floor is yours.
Funky: Smell me, you can smell me giving you th… wait, is that how it works? #science. n00b, your breadth of knowledge is as boundless as a Las Vegas buffet, and twice as tempting to indulge. But, alas, I am having a moment of clarity, not gluttony! I am realizing how similar our agreements are when defining our own favorite songs/sets/shows, and how similar our dissections of shows/sets/songs that we prefer less so. An interesting paradox. We like different elements of Phish for the same reasons, and we, well, not dislike, but do not prefer certain, differing elements of Phish for the same reasons. Did we just solve democracy once and for all?! Are we really not so different, you and I? Funky/n00b 2020: Forward Not Backward, Upward Not Forward, and Always Twirling, Twirling, Twirling Towards Freedom! Oh, wait that was Kodos. But before we order our miniature American flags and lawn signs, I noticed another interesting pattern in our conversation about trying to quantify and qualify a best show ever: we’ve only mentioned shows in 1997. Well, I suppose I know that was intentional on your end, but not entirely so on mine. My beloved 2003 “Gins” are mutiny-ing as we speak, but rest easy, jam juggernauts, I was merely making comparisons within the framework of one year, as to set up our beloved n00b and jaded vet alike for the next, and easily greatest episode of Take the Bait: Winter 2003 - Best Tour Ever?
n00b: Wowee, we’re really gonna peak with our third episode, huh? I’ve always thought the only things that separate us are our feelings regarding pants and our feelings regarding 2003, and only one of those topics would pass .net’s muster, so I guess 2003 it is. So to briefly sum up what we’ve learned today - 11/22/97 is my favorite show, you like it fine but wouldn’t have it anywhere near your favorite shows, and that 11/19/97 Wolfman’s really DOES fall apart when the second half rolls around. Now let me return to my hyperbaric chamber to rest up and prepare for something completely different.
Funky: I think my mom is the only person who has read all of this so far, well, besides the .net overlords, who seem to be skulking about stage right with two very large hook-like-apparatuses... so yeah let’s just swing for the fences next time around. As truly exceptional and fluid as 11/22/97 is, despite that “dull spot” in “Piper” > “Antelope,” and a at-times noodly “Weekapaug,” and as complete and varied as 11/19/97 is, despite having some borderline unlistenable +/- 15 minutes that make up 20% of the second set, our discourse has shown that we Phish fans aren’t so different. Although I do not agree, I have no actual qualms with your assertion of 11/22/97 being in the pantheon of Phish shows. Your ideas and insight make sense, yet, I still don't fully subscribe to them. And isn’t that the real prize, civil and respectful debate? No. It isn’t. Being right is the real prize and there are only so many internet pointz to go around. I reject your reality and insert my own, as I would hope you have with mine. Now THAT’S democracy!
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