, attached to 1997-12-09

Review by waxbanks

waxbanks Jesus! I never did give this show a proper listen, just a 'Yep another great Fall 1997 show' spin back in those glorious Maxell XLII days, but thanks to the Demon What Is Called the Internet, I'm finally digging this special outing.

The first thing to say (first point to belabor?) is that no Phish tour can touch Fall '97 for overall, across-the-board quality. Of course all four guys were better musicians, individually and collectively, in 1997 than (say) 1995, as you'd expect. But the music itself had changed too, in ways that go well beyond technical facility. In late '96 and early '97 they'd hit upon a solution to the problem of what to do next after the stylistic exhaustion of Fall '95, and their shaggy-minimalist funk approach led to deeper improvisations, more fluid and gradual transitions between jam 'movements,' and more tightly integrated generic elements throughout their performances. Fall '97 featured more patient improvisation than ever before; Trey stepped back from his onstage leadership role a little, letting the music breathe and transform in performance rather than chasing every idea-rabbit that came within view.

So instead of the maniacally experimental jams of 1994-95, Phish '97 would flow organically from dance rhythms and ambient washes to open improvisatory spaces that preserved familiar or at least accessible elements, preserving the emotional pulse of each jam's source material (i.e. the Song) while still responding authentically to each new musical impulse of opportunity.

The best-known Fall '97 shows - 11/17, 12/6, Hampton, Dayton, the Jim Symphony - are Phish scripture at this point. This one doesn't feature a set-long run of segues, but it certainly deserves to be talked about in the same breath as the best shows of that canonical tour. Like 11/30 Worcester, this is a free-flowing affair in which all four musicians are wholly in tune with the Moment and with one another from the very first note. Even with a half-hour Simple in the middle of the second set, the show isn't dominated by a single jam - it's all of a piece.

The specifics seem less important than the feel of the whole thing, but that's not to say the songs simply blend into one. The jam out of Mike's Song rises from stripped-down cow funk, crests, fluidly changes key, then recedes quietly - making way for Chalkdust via a sparse dancefloor outro and an eerie solo breakdown from Page. Chalkdust is explosive as always, with Trey's solo breaking cleanly into two parts (listen for the lightning-quick Alumni Blues tease). Everyone's listening closely, keeping technique in check, playing quickly as the music demands but never overbearing...Stash is 'unfinished,' which is to say it flames out magnificently, then cools into a crystalline ambient interlude from which H2 emerges. The playing is so empathetic and restrained, especially for a first set! But that's how Fall '97 was - there were so few 'warmup' periods, and no wasted spaces or throwaway notes...

The rest of the set is just as well-played (Weeeeeekapaug!). Presumably no one feels as strongly about Dogs Stole Things as about, say, Mike's Groove. The meat of Set II is the 37-minute Simple > Timber, a completely *seamless* multipart improvisation that evolves from the delicate Simple outro form to a more assertive one-chord rock-anthem groove and beyond. After one of those nervewracking funk grooves that so often acted as bridging passages in those days (the way complex ambient spaces have lately served as musical glue in 2009-10), the jam cools back down. Fish suggests Bowie; Trey has other ideas; amid the resulting engine-room noise Fish transforms the Bowie hi-hat line into the Timber drumbeat, the whole band picks up on the suggestion, and we're right into a slightly mutated take on that song. The Timber jam is, as ever, an eerie minor-key stomp - and it ends wonderfully, in quiet.

Hood must be heard to be believed. I can't quite bring myself to talk about it in any detail, but that's OK. For what it's worth, it's one of the finest renditions I've heard, a closely-held late-autumn secret that's miles away from (say) the joyous, spacious Great Went version of just four months prior. When your friends ask why you need forty live versions of the same song, try playing those two versions for comparison - or forget it, just grant yourself the indulgence of a private smile, turn inward/outward and away, let this singular music welcome you as it always has and will...
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