In 1997 Phish set out to destroy America. All those who witnessed their late fall run are well aware that they triumphantly succeeded…
by: Michael Shields
Describing Phish, and what makes them special, has always been an ambitious undertaking for those already initiated. Because of this, a dissection of one of their tours, and a phenomenally celebrated one at that, might not translate well to fringe fans or those on the outside looking in. But often, and definitely so in this case, it isn’t about making a deep, often cultish, passion accessible to others, but rather about celebrating art with those in the know. What follows can be described best as a fan-centric celebration, and an excursion into the heart of one of the most transcendent and important tours that any band has ever embarked upon, Phish’s twenty-one date 1997 Fall Tour — the one in which they “Destroyed America.” On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Phish’s commencement of a fiery and impassioned romp across America, where the seasoned jam-band could be found nightly wielding their improvisational psych-rock at the absolute peak of their powers, a deep-dive into what made that tour so very important in the scheme of “Phistory” is in order. So what is it that provokes so many die-hard fans to still wax poetic about a month-long tour now twenty-five years in the rearview? Why do these moments in time still stand so tall in light of all the musical grandeur that occurred prior to this run, and all that would occur throughout Phish’s prolific thirty-eight year career thereafter?
Like most compelling and enduring pieces of art, there are multiple factors at play when examining their brilliance, and also a whole lot of happenstance, as is the case here. Bands, like professional athletes and other elite performers, get into grooves. It happens. But undoubtedly, what unfolded in the late fall of 1997, was heightened by the emergence of deep, accessible, and often employed “cow” funk grooves that enriched Phish’s already extraordinary and profoundly innovative setlists that were, throughout this storied fall, often terse in song quantity, “jam-filled,” and always consummately exploratory. This fall tour was a culmination of a pivotal year in Phish’s career, one in which a European tour that occurred in the early summer, between June 13th and July 11th [Phish’s second European tour of the year, the first taking place between February 13th and March 2nd], found the band unveiling a slew of new songs that would effectively invigorate their already exhilarating offerings. Songs such as “Vultures,” “Ghost,” “Dogs Stole Things,” “Limb by Limb,” “Wading in the Velvet Sea,” “Dirt,” “I Saw It Again,” and “Olivia’s Pool,” were unleashed upon Europe (in companion with mirthful “worm” banter!) as the band honed their sonic madness in intimate and unique environments. An epic summer tour where these new songs were seamlessly melded into their setlists followed, which culminated in another successful tour-concluding festival [The Great Went – the last time they took the stage, except for a Conan O’Brien appearance on November 7th where they rocked a “Farmhouse” and a”Mike’s Song” riff]. Building off these blistering tours and inspired by this remarkable songwriting outpouring, everything found itself in its right place as fall tour came into focus.
Regardless of causation, what occurred as Phish set sail from the west coast of the United States in mid-November was a tour where when you attended a show you knew it wasn’t going to simply be amazing, but wholly transformative. This was a seminal run where, for many, a love of a band that was by that point fully developed, was entirely sealed into a lifelong obsession. Phish’s Fall Tour in 1997, a tour that fulfilled the musical dreams of many, began in a place where countless dreams are shattered to pieces: Las Vegas, Nevada.
11.13.97 Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV
When their tour (“Turr?”) kicked off at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, Phish came equipped with a new weapon in their already stout arsenal. This puissant armament, “Black-Eyed Katy,” was a song whose deep, thick funky groove would help define and mold the fall tour into what it would eventually become: a month long funk-rock psychedelic extravaganza. The reveal of “Black-Eyed Katy” on the tour’s opening night, placed purposefully in the two-slot after an opening “Chalkdust Torture,” is a huge deal anyway you slice it. Not only did “Black-Eyed Katy” work its way into set lists throughout the entire tour in both standard and peculiar (looking at you Hampton!) fashion, but the song in time, like a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, transformed into something more evolved —“The Moma Dance”—which became a staple of the band’s rotation and a hell of a good time each and every outing. “Black-Eyed Katy” is a gooey, all-embracing groove, and a song that had those on the east coast of the United States salivating for their chance to experience it, myself included [In an effort at full disclosure, I did not attend the first four nights of this tour, but was present at the remainder of the run]. Surely this Vegas opener was about far more than a simple debut, a fact highlighted by a remarkable “Y.E.M.” in the first set and the determined Mike’s Groove that closed the second set. But we must not gloss over the show’s second set “Stash” opener, coming in at over twenty minutes, where tension was built to a fever pitch through a series of psychedelic whirlwinds, only to let loose to a release that remains awe-inspiring to this day. It is a sleeper of a “Stash,” remaining far too unheralded for its prowess, and the song became a sign that the boys had come to play, and that there was much, much more ahead.
SET 1: Chalk Dust Torture, Black-Eyed Katy*, Theme From the Bottom, Train Song, Split Open and Melt, Beauty of My Dreams, My Soul, You Enjoy Myself, Character Zero
SET 2: Stash, Punch You In the Eye > Prince Caspian > Bouncing Around the Room, Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove
Encore: Loving Cup
11.14.97 The “E” Center, West Valley City, Utah
“I love the Eeee Center. I love this place” — Trey Anastasio
When The “E” Center is brought up around Phish fans, one thing repeatedly comes to mind — that fateful evening in 1998 when Phish unleashed Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon upon a well-shy of capacity crowd (making ‘em pay!), but that shouldn’t be the situation entirely, and the case in point against that line of short-sightedness is the second night of Fall Tour 1997. While the shows first set features a strong opener (“Runaway Jim”), and an always powerful set closer (“Antelope”) coupled with a captivatingly meaty middle progression of “Gumbo” > “Maze” > “Fast Enough For You” (don’t sleep!), things truly became wild when the lights went down post-setbreak. The second set, a “four-pack” (a term that will be employed on multiple occasions throughout the article!), is one of legend. It opens with a funky as all hell “Wolfman’s Brother” which effortlessly segues into “Piper,” a “Piper” that serves as an emphatic reminder of just how dizzying of a ride the song can be. Slowly and methodically, “Piper” eventually segues into a potent version of “Twist Around” that stuns to this day. It is “Twists” such as these that lead directly to the version birthed amid 1998’s Island Tour — the peak of the song in many people’s mind [Although many will mention the Fukuoka version- 6.14.2000.]. This version of “Twist” is flat out beautiful, and psychedelic ambience at its very finest. Many speak of the funk that encompassed so much of the tour’s vibe in ‘97, as they should of course, but there was a plethora of psychedelic brilliance that occurred along the way, and this is one of those moments. The “Slave” to follow was epic and rife with the sort of ethereal bliss that is defining of the song. Everything was clicking for the band, and a two-night stand in Colorado that was to follow would make it crystal clear that something very special was happening.
Set 1: Runaway Jim, Gumbo > Maze > Fast Enough for You, Also Sprach Zarathustra > Funky Bitch, Guyute, Run Like an Antelope
Set 2: Wolfman’s Brother > Piper > Twist > Slave to the Traffic Light
Encore: Bold As Love
11.16.1997 and 11.17.97 McNichols Arena, Denver, CO
We have all heard the term “no regrets.” We have all also heard the term “go fuck yourself.” Well, I believe people who say, or even believe, the term no regrets should go fuck themselves. I kid of course, but I have regrets. I am sure we all do. Life is messy, it’s unfair and it doesn’t always work out the way we want it to. It’s full of highs (Fall tour 97) and lows (Sugar Blue / Coventry). And — truth be embarrassingly told — many of the regrets I live with have to do with shows that I wasn’t able to attend, and not being in attendance for the two nights at McNichols in 1997 has always irked me (most of this regret has to do with the version of “Ghost” that occurred but more on that to come…).
The first set in Denver introduced another posse of eager fans to “Black-Eyed Katy,” a gift that wouldn’t stop giving, and featured a version of “Taste” that is as powerful as it is sonically mind-bending. It also posed a unique question to fans: Who the fuck is Pete Wernick? [Wikipedia reveals his nickname is “Dr. Banjo” – thanks Corey Sheridan for setting me right here!] But regardless of who joined the band on stage during “Scent of a Mule” and “Poor Heart,” the story here is, as is usually the case, the second set, which commenced with the band creating a soundscape that was unbearingly spooky, enough so to make your skin crawl. Soon after, “Timber (Jerry)” revealed itself, offering a contrast to the fairly campy and light first set and segued eventually into a mean “Simple” and the “Wilson”> “Hood” [Featuring a slow intro with playful interludes by Page and Mike!] > “Izabella” that followed was a strong way to close the set. It was a night filled to the brim with engaging segues and darkness, and in a Phish world so often chock-full of “Rocky Top” encores and the like, a “David Bowie” to close the evening down was surely one hell of a treat.
The second night of McNichols 1997 was rife with the sort of ambient psychedelic funk that made many families of Phish kids wonder at one point or another if their kids loved the band more than they loved their grandparents or girlfriend or boyfriends [This joke is courtesy of one Paul J. Gutkowski – all praise due.], forging enthusiasts that would chose a night in an arena with a band over family holiday or vacations each and every time. In this case it was the “Down with Disease” > “Olivia’s Pool” > “Johnny B. Goode” non-stop action of the second set, with the jam-out of “JBG” being of particular note, that assured the show’s overall success…but (FOMO…setting…in) it was that absolutely filthy first set “Ghost” that will forevermore define the legacy of this show. To return to the earlier point made about how laborious it can be describing Phish, how unique is it to exclaim, as is occurring here, that the fourth song that a band plays one evening lives on as a pivotal piece of that band’s live musical legacy? But Phish is just that unique of a beast, and so many of the pieces that make Phish great are blissfully present in one place within this version of “Ghost.” The funk, the bliss, the build, the come up, the come down, the in-between and the upside down, and the triumphant crescendo build to a bone-chilling but inspiring peak are all present and accounted for in this song. It’s the absolute real, and an exemplifying cog in the machine amidst a power-packed two-night stand. What’s weird though was, in many ways, the band was just warming up.
Set 1: NICU > My Soul, Black-Eyed Katy, Farmhouse, The Old Home Place, Billy Breathes, Cars Trucks Buses, Scent of a Mule*, Poor Heart*, Taste, Hello My Baby
Set 2: Timber (Jerry) > Simple > Wilson > Harry Hood > Izabella
Encore: David Bowie
* w/ Pete Wernick on banjo
Set 1: Tweezer, Reba, Train Song, Ghost > Fire
Set 2: Down with Disease > Olivia’s Pool > Johnny B. Goode > Jesus Just Left Chicago, When the Circus Comes, You Enjoy Myself
Encore: Character Zero
11.19.1997 Assembly Hall, University of Illinois, Champaign, IL
It is hard, even in the scope of simply delving into each show of this tour in succession, to not look ahead to the two-night stand Hampton, Virginia at this point. However, en route to “The Mothership” (Phish fans affectionate name for the Hampton Coliseum, which resembles an alien spaceship) the band dropped another four-pack (there’s that term again!), furthering the realization to all that something unique and unreal was going on. It was becoming clear that every night mattered, that every show was going to be momentous and what happened at Assembly Hall in Illinois cannot be dismissed. This show (both sets) killed, and even — brace yourself — the “Fee” kind of crushes (don’t hate, remember your roots!) and segues into a fiery, set-closing “Antelope.” The second set is flush with exploration, funk, and sonic darkness, and I believe this gem of a show is far too often overlooked, due of course to the considerable shadow cast upon it by the sheer excellence that unfolded two days later in Virginia.
Set 1: Julius, Bathtub Gin > Llama, Dirt, Limb By Limb, Funky Bitch, Theme From the Bottom, Ginseng Sullivan, Fee > Run Like an Antelope
Set 2: Also Sprach Zarathustra > Wolfman’s Brother > Makisupa Policeman > Taste
11.21.97 and 11.22.97 Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, Virginia
While Hampton Comes Alive [A live release of Phish’s performance at Hampton Coliseum on 11/20/98 and 11/22/98.] often gets all the shine when it comes to Phish performances at The Mothership, what occurred in 1997 needs to be regarded as one of the greatest two-night stands in Phish’s storied history. From the first jaw-dropping echoing bass lines of their cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue,” which featured bassist Mike Gordon’s inspired falsetto (eat your heart out Bonnie Bear), to one of the most impassioned, tense, and tight “Split Open and Melts” ever performed, there was something special in the air. As the first set ultimately came to its final conclusion, lead guitarist Trey Anastasio arranged a dizzying looping effect that was left swirling in the air as the band walked off stage. It was clear Phish knew exactly what they had just done, as their stunned and energized fans were left to wipe generous gobs of sweat from their brow, a heaping of dance-induced perspiration usually reserved for the conclusion of second sets.
Phish returned to the stage for their second set that first evening with a swagger that was almost daunting, and flat out intimidating. The four-pack that was to follow, featuring rousing versions of “Ghost,” “AC/DC Bag,” “Slave to the Traffic Light” and “Loving Cup,” was absolutely jaw-dropping in its quality, and the set can aptly be described as perfect from top to bottom. When I sat down as a teenager and wrote out dream Phish setlists in my notebook at school (which I would, all high school – real talk) I would never have been so bold as to write out something this beautiful. The song progressions and quality of music that evening in Hampton was simply immaculate.
The second night of Hampton ‘97 is beyond reproach. It is one of the best Phish shows to ever occur, a fact I will debate until blue in the face, and it all began with a “Mike’s Song” that I lovingly and nerdily refer to as “Mike’s-Eyed Katy,” as the song is infused with concentrated odes to “Black-Eyed Katy,” fashioning it one of the funkiest “Mike’s Song’s” on record. While this “Mike’s” is remarkable, the crowning achievement of the evening is most certainly Phish’s version of “Halley’s Comet” to open the second set. This “Halley’s” belongs in the company of the greatest singular song performances in Phish’s prestigious history (along with Providence’s “Bowie,” Lakewood’s “Ghost,” Tahoe’s “Tweezer,” Randall’s “Chalkdust,” Baker’s “Lawn Boy,” Albany’s “YEM,” Nassau’s “Roses,” etc., etc.). The soundscapes present throughout this mind-boggling “Halley’s” can be looked at as ambient mind control power kinda shit. The jams throughout are all-consuming, multi-layered and ever-evolving, and after such an epic sonic adventure Phish dramatically segued into an absolutely banging version of “Tweezer.” I get chills just thinking about it. Phish then proceeded to crush versions of “Piper” and “Antelope,” to the point that twenty-five years later, I still can’t get over that set.
What was so great about Hampton, besides the quality of music, was that it was still early in a tour that was, for all intents and purposes, completely on fire. The buzz that accompanied the shows at the time was intoxicating, as those who had the privilege of being in the building on any given night knew they were witnessing live music history.
Set 1: Emotional Rescue > Split Open and Melt, Beauty of My Dreams, Dogs Stole Things, Punch You In the Eye > Lawn Boy > Chalk Dust Torture, Prince Caspian
Set 2: Ghost > AC/DC Bag > Slave to the Traffic Light, Loving Cup
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
11.23.1997 Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Winston-Salem, NC
It is hard for me to not look at this show in Winston-Salem, just across the border from Virginia, as an extravagant dessert to the world class entrees served at Hampton. The fact that a live recording of this show at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial was released coupled with Hampton’s recordings as the Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97 7-CD Box Set exemplifies this idea. The evening’s second set is remarkable, featuring fifty filthy minutes of “Bathtub Gin” and “Down with Disease” with some “Low Rider” fun sprinkled in. But the first set cannot be overlooked, and the “Theme” > “Black-Eyed Katy” which took place within it was flooring. It was at this point in time when the magnificence of this fall tour came cleanly into focus, forcing fans to ask themselves how the fuck the band kept cranking show after show like they were. The question was difficult to comprehend then, and combing through the tour meticulously now, it is even harder to fathom.
Thanksgiving Break, and then back to it…
Set 1: My Soul, Theme From the Bottom > Black-Eyed Katy, Sparkle, Twist > Stash > NICU, Fluffhead > Character Zero
Set 2: Bathtub Gin > Down with Disease > Low Rider > Down with Disease, Bold As Love
11.26.1997 Hartford Civic Center, Hartford, CT
In 1997, Thanksgiving fell on the 27th of November, which was problematic in many ways. For many, this fact directly pitted Family vs. Phish in what many would wager to be a heated battle. But at this moment in time it was a lopsided-victory for Phish. A blowout even, and all who pulled themselves from their holiday obligations early to make it to Hartford were rewarded expeditiously by a potent “Tweezer” opener. Of the ridiculous amount of songs available in Phish’s arsenal listed at Phish.net, there remains no better way to light the fire at a show and get things cooking like the opening notes of a “Tweezer.” In addition, the first set contained three of my all time favorite songs in “Melt,” “McGrupp,” and “Horse>Silent” (yup!-huge fucking fan). As Phish began their New England leg of the tour, it was apparent that this prodigious run wasn’t losing any of the steam that it had built up.
While the first set at the Hartford Civic Center was indeed special, the real story here is the monster “Character Zero” that took place that evening, as Phish took this rocking power anthem for a ride. Trey, as the jam took off, employed the use of an effect that created a sound evocative of a whale vocalizing under water, a thick and dark tone that was bone-chilling to behold, fashioning an eerie atmosphere to the building. Things got weird that night in Hartford and “Character Zero” led pointedly to the preeminent version of “2001” of the tour, followed by an always welcome “Cities” and concluding with the cherry on top that is “Tweeprise.” It was another brilliant outing for Phish.
Next up was the glory that was to be Worcester ‘97. So buckle up and grab some knee pads and a helmet. Personal protective equipment is most certainly in order…
Set 1: Tweezer > Sparkle > Gumbo > My Soul, McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters, Dirt, Split Open and Melt, The Horse > Silent in the Morning, Taste
Set 2: Character Zero > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Cities > Ya Mar > Punch You In the Eye > Prince Caspian, Poor Heart > Tweezer Reprise
11.28.1997, 11.29.97 and 11.30.97 Worcester Centrum Centre, Worcester, MA
It can easily be argued that what occurred at the Worcester Centrum over the years in terms of transcendent Phish performances is equal to, or greater than, anything that has happened in any venue Phish has ever played at. I am not going to make that argument, but it is important to note that this argument could be made. This claim can be substantiated with hard proof: facts, setlists, personal accounts, and the like. 1993’s New Year show is one of the better New Year’s performances on record (listen to the 2nd set if ever able, as Phish rung-in 1994 with a “Disease” jam into “Melt” – and 1993’s “Melts” were insane!). Phish’s 12.28.95 performance at the Centrum is amazing and 12.29.95 has its moments (“Bathtub Gin” > “The Real Me” > “Bathtub Gin”). Also, fans will never forget the insane glory that happened in Worcester in 1998 during the Buried – Wipeout set. Like I said, I am not going to make this argument (and after this year — what could possibly touch the Garden?!), but it is not an insane statement to make. And much of that has to do with what happened at the Centrum in the Fall of 1997, beginning the day after Thanksgiving.
I have always had a deep affinity for fall tours. The crisp air, bundled up on lot with a beer in hand only to shed all the extra layers within the warmth of the venue, the initial parts of one’s ritualistic pre-show preparations. An arena fashions itself as an embracing, affable fireplace in fall, one eager to ignite once the band hits the stage. There is little that’s more festive than seeing a Phish show the day after Thanksgiving, especially amid such a triumphant run that was unfolding. The first night of Worcester made it clear that the three-night stand there wouldn’t just be memorable, but epic. When the evening’s second song played turned out to be “You Enjoy Myself,” a collective here-we-fucking-go feeling filled the room, yet what followed was a very different version of the song, one that was in parts extremely experimental. Instead of the bass and drum segment at the song’s end, the band engaged in the always welcome start-stop funk that could be found dotted about all tour. Later in the set, after a fiery and tense “Maze” and a soothing “Farmhouse,” fans were treated to one of the tour’s finest “Black-Eyed Katy’s” which came in at over ten minutes, rivaling LJVM’s version for the best of tour.
It is remarkable to consider that “Timber (Jerry)” anchored many of the major sets this tour, as it did on night one in Worcester. This is somewhat confounding, as the song was so elusive beforehand, and also because it is such a dizzyingly insane ride. “Timber (Jerry)” often becomes haunting, and gets weird as fuck, and Phish certainly got weird with it on many occasions this illustrious fall (Denver, Worcester, Nutter Center, and Penn State!). In hindsight, the employment of “Timber (Jerry)” throughout can be looked upon as one of the reasons 1997’s fall tour was so memorable. This evening’s version was particularly absorbing, actually tighter than most as the band didn’t take it too far off the rails, but they sure as hell did in regards to the “Ghost” at the tail end of the set, an absolute gem of a version rife with funk, high-intensity thrashing, and a spiraling, unique wind-down that is both dizzying and beautiful. The entire evening held in it a quintessential balance of psychedelic rock, funk, and shrewdly executed classics fashioning it as a splendid jump-off for the three night stand.
The second night in Worcester in 1997 was about one thing and one thing only: Phish taking one of their classics, a song that is honestly beloved by all, and just letting go. They took a song with an already stout, built-in, and satisfying jam and decided to let things go where they may. That evening’s performance was all about “Runaway Jim,” which Phish jammed away at for almost an hour. That happened. That “Runaway” was a great deal of things, but mostly it was undoubtedly exploratory and peculiar as fuck. It was tense as the band searched for grooves and tried to make things happen, and it eventually led into a high powered and extended “Weekapaug” jam, but before that it went so many places (even a brief “Crosseyed”-esque thing) and left the entire arena asking themselves post show: “Did that really just happen?”
Without a shadow of a doubt, the third night of Worcester is my favorite of the three performances — and to many that might be a bold statement. But those many may have possibly forgotten about the thirty minute long version of “Wolfman’s Brother” in the first set (preceded by a stunning “Funky Bitch!”) containing a ten minute heavy-fucking-metal jam that whipped the Centrum into a headbanging frenzy. When the song’s repetitive meaty chords (what unfolded was essentially the same hardcore rift for ten plus minutes – and there is nothing wrong with that) began, Trey dropped lyrics from “Sanity” and then “Esther” respectively, ensuring that things were as weird and devilish as possible. Soon after, Trey called on Phish’s lighting designer Chris Kuroda to kill the lights (“Chris turn off the lights for a second so we can do this here in the dark”) and then Phish just continued to shred. The moment was epic, and it was only about thirty-five minutes into the show when this mayhem was occurring. Phish has of course gotten ultra heavy on numerous occasions, something fans love very much (red lights!), but this…this was a touch out of character in the most incredible of ways.
The second set continued on impassioned, and the “Stash” contained within it is dark and deranged, yet entirely rocking. I love where the song goes right at the thirteen-minute mark, but the whole thing is so damn potent. The “Free” that follows is also a classic, and it is distinctly Fall ‘97, as Trey inserts some funk within the heavy “Free” rifts we all know and love. He even does the impossible and sneaks in some “Black-Eyed Katy” within the groove of Mike’s heavy bass thumps. This occurs right around the 5:45 mark. Remember, “Black-Eyed Katy” was that fresh new pair of kicks bought especially for the Fall 1997 season. It was highlighted and inserted often, but how it weaseled its way into a “Free” that evening is stunning and what transpired was an amazing all around show to close a brilliant three-night run.
Worcester ‘97, one for the ages….
Set 1: The Curtain > You Enjoy Myself > I Didn’t Know, Maze, Farmhouse, Black-Eyed Katy, Theme From the Bottom > Rocky Top
Set 2: Timber (Jerry), Limb By Limb, Slave to the Traffic Light > Ghost > Johnny B. Goode
Encore: My Soul
Set 1: The Wedge, Foam, Simple > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, The Sloth, Ginseng Sullivan, Saw It Again, Horn, Water in the Sky, David Bowie
Set 2: Runaway Jim > Strange Design > Harry Hood > Prince Caspian, Suzy Greenberg
Encore: Buffalo Bill, Moby Dick > Fire
Set 1: Guyute, Funky Bitch, Wolfman’s Brother > Love Me, The Squirming Coil, Loving Cup
Set 2: NICU, Stash > Free > Jam > Piper > When the Circus Comes, Run Like An Antelope
Encore: Them Changes
12.02.1997 and 12.03.97 CoreStates Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA
The CoreStates Spectrum will alway hold a special place in the hearts of Phish fans as many a legendary show has occurred within its confines, and the two-night run in 1997 is surely no exception. Night one commenced with zest, emboldened by a stirring pairing of “Buried Alive” and “Down with Disease.” I’ve always, as many fans do, felt that a “Buried” opener means big things, and this evening reassured me of this notion. The crux of this evening’s storyline though revolves around a “Mike’s Song” that rips at a blistering pace for over twenty minutes. All the “Mike’s Song’s” throughout the tour (Vegas, Hampton, Bryce, Albany) were special, but this version surely takes the cake as it’s an absolute stunner.
Night two at CoreStates was bolstered with a sequence of songs that worked perfectly, with “Bowie” > an unforgettable “Possum” > “Caspian” blissfully mated together. It is amazing to examine the progression of the tour here and consider that Phish somehow kept the level of play up after that Worcester run (but it was equally amazing to see them do that after Hampton and before that after McNichols). What occurred in Philly was another triumphant two-night performance, leaving yet another city in ruin as Phish continued to Destroy America.
Set 1: Buried Alive > Down with Disease > Makisupa Policeman, Chalk Dust Torture, Ghost > Divided Sky, Dirt > Taste, The Star Spangled Banner
Set 2: Mike’s Song > Simple > Dog Faced Boy > Ya Mar > Weekapaug Groove, Bouncing Around the Room, Character Zero
Encore: Ginseng Sullivan > Sample in a Jar
Set 1: Punch You In the Eye > My Soul, Drowned, The Old Home Place, Gumbo > Also Sprach Zarathustra > You Enjoy Myself
Set 2: David Bowie > Possum > Jam > Prince Caspian > Frankenstein > Harry Hood
12.05.1997 CSU Convocation Center, Cleveland, OH
A fresh blanket of snow was on the ground and the light dusting of flakes continued as fans poured into the Convocation Center for the first of a three-night midwestern jaunt. Everything about the venue was green: the seats, the corridors, etc. The venue felt ready to explode pre-show with anticipation. But I must be blunt here in stating that this was my least favorite show of the tour, and notably was the first time I left a Phish show without that awesome post-show feeling. The first set was, however, rife with winning moments, specifically with the treat of a rare performance of “My Friend, My Friend,” but something about the second set didn’t quite click into place right. I guess every show, even in 1997, can’t be perfect, and maybe someone here can set me straight in regards to this show and enlighten me as to its greatness, but for now — onto Michigan and the Palace!
Set 1: Ghost > Wilson > Funky Bitch > Black-Eyed Katy, Sparkle > Runaway Jim > My Friend, My Friend, Ginseng Sullivan, Limb By Limb > Character Zero
Set 2: Stash, Bouncing Around the Room, Julius > Slave to the Traffic Light > The Lizards, Loving Cup > Chalk Dust Torture
Encore: Bold As Love
12.06.1997 The Palace of Auburn Hills, Auburn Hills, MI
Anyone who grew up loving the NBA is very familiar with the Palace of Auburn Hills formerly located at 6 Championship Drive. This is where the Bad Boys and one of the greatest basketball players I have ever seen (I am speaking about Joe Dumars here…for real for real) did their thing. One of the fun things about traveling around the country following Phish or any other band is getting the opportunity to see a few stadiums and venues you have watched notable televised events at. I remember vividly watching all those NBA playoff games at the Palace as a kid, and thus it was exhilarating to take in the venue in person, on a night when Phish triumphantly threw down.
The Palace up to that point hadn’t seen that much action since Michael Jackson’s three-night run in ‘88 during the BAD tour, or when Jimmy Page survived an assassination attempt there in 1995 (during the “No Quarter” tour). What transpired in Michigan was an absolutely legendary night where a term was coined that would forever remain in the lexicon of Phish fans: Tweezabella [An obvious combination of “Tweezer” and “Izabella” – both songs which were played to absolute perfection that evening.]. That evening’s “Tweezer” was bloated with deep, thick funk, and the “Izabella” that followed was extraordinary. The band was having so much fun as the jams took shape that they could be heard yelling throughout, and a dazzling “Twist,” a ripping “Piper,” and a potent “Tweeprise” put a bow on a perfect set. “Rocky Top” was actually a relief of an encore that evening, as the energy spent rocking in the second set was consummate. I was spent. Encores, often, are for people who took their drugs too late (get your timing right!). It is also a well-conceived and fairly documented notion that Phish plays a “Rocky Top” encore when they are fully aware they have just laid siege to another city while continuing to Destroy America! This was one of those exciting nights.
Set 1: Golgi Apparatus, Run Like an Antelope, Train Song > Bathtub Gin > Foam, Sample in a Jar, Fee > Maze, Cavern
Set 2: Tweezer > Izabella > Twist > Piper, Sleeping Monkey > Tweezer Reprise
Encore: Rocky Top
12.07.1997 Ervin J. Nutter Center, Wright State University, Dayton, OH
The Ervin J. Nutter Center is small in the scheme of things (11,000 crowd capacity for end-stage shows). There are no seats behind the stage, as the band is backed up against a huge white concrete wall, and the venue is not multi-level — just one tall section in a U-shape all the way around. Because of this layout, it’s an excellent venue for a concert, large enough for the arena rock experience to be had, yet small enough to feel intimate and special. It’s fun when recollecting this legendary evening at the Nutter to regard just what made the show so distinguished. Unlike what Phish did with the previous night’s “Tweezer,” in Dayton they didn’t take songs places they’ve never been before (well, I guess you can argue they did with “Tube!”), and in fact the longest jam of the evening was the bliss that was the “Reba” chill (“Reba” clocking in at around fourteen minutes). Furthermore, the “AC/DC Bag” was only five minutes, but this is around the time when the show really began to take off, as Phish masterfully transitioned into a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” whose presence ignited the crowd fantastically. The second set’s performance of “Timber” came in at only nine minutes while the “Wolfman’s” to follow was merely seven (but ushered in the triumphant return of Phish’s cover of “Boogie On Reggae Woman!”). It wasn’t about numbers and length of jams at this show, and what occurred that evening was a dance party (heightened by that monster “Tube”!) accompanied by some rarities, some light-hearted fare, and some true classics. That evening’s performance floored all in attendance, and is widely, and appropriately, hailed as one of the greatest shows not only from this tour, but of Phish’s storied career.
Boogie On Psycho Tube. Amazing.
Set 1: AC/DC Bag > Psycho Killer > Jesus Just Left Chicago, My Mind’s Got a Mind of its Own > It’s Ice > Swept Away > Steep > It’s Ice > Theme From the Bottom, Tube, Tube Jam > Slave to the Traffic Light
Set 2: Timber (Jerry) > Wolfman’s Brother > Boogie On Reggae Woman > Reba, Guyute > Possum
Encore: A Day in the Life
12.09.97 Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State University, State College, PA
In terms of quality and intensity, the first set at the Bryce Jordan Center could easily be looked at in the spirit of a second set of an incredible show. This can also be said of so many of the classic shows from this tour, starting at the second night of McNichols. All ardent fans have come upon many a show where the first set is just a straight warm-up, offering simply the opportunity to stretch and get loose for the main event. But this night in Pennsylvania was no such evening, as Phish came out swinging, squeezing a “Chalkdust” and a monster “Stash” into the warm embrace of a heated “Mike’s Groove” and closing the first set with a “Horn” > “Loving Cup.” That’s enough to provoke a wide-eyed fan into waving a white flag in surrender right there. In fact, the start-stop funk started a mere ten minutes into this show, making this “Mike’s” feel very Hampton-esque (with a touch less “Katy” of course). Nevertheless, Phish was playing with unadulterated fierceness from the onset of this evening’s first note.
“Julius” crushed this tour, something that feels funny to write or to say out loud, but nonetheless true. LJVM, CCC, and the Bryce Center were all high-powered performances, but this one on campus at Penn State opened up the second set with full-fledged intent. Furthermore, the “Julius,” “Simple,” “Timber” trio that evening was astonishing, with the “Simple” far and away being the focal point of the night, and one of the song’s most heralded moments.
One day off before the home stretch, War Memorial > the Pepsi…
Set 1: Mike’s Song > Chalk Dust Torture, My Soul, Stash > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Dogs Stole Things, Beauty of My Dreams, Horn > Loving Cup
Set 2: Julius > Simple > Timber (Jerry) > Contact, Axilla > Harry Hood
12.11.97 Rochester War Memorial, Rochester, NY
If forced to, I would be at a loss to choose my favorite show from this triumphant tour. While I can allow the various shows to live on as unique pieces in my retrospective examination, I most certainly look at the larger tour as one rare and remarkable piece of art. With that said, I can safely respond that the show that was by far the most surreal for me was — without a fucking doubt — Rochester. I say this because this show was targeted in the filming of Bittersweet Hotel, Todd Phillips’s film about Phish, and there were cameras scattered everywhere throughout the building, most notably an oversized jib mounted with a camera casting its gaze across the stage early and often. It made fans feel they weren’t just watching a (Phish TV) show, but a part of it.
What is remarkable to think about in remembrance of this evening, one that featured a terrifically exclaimed and storied second set, is that this show was as much about the first set “Down With Disease” as it was about anything else. It was a ferociously impassioned version, and the band ripped through it in centerpiece second set fashion. This “Disease” was pure fire, and it lives fortuitously on in snippets within Phillips’s film, including exaggerated Trey face in all its glory.
This evening was the sixth time the band played The Who classic “Drowned,” and with this performance they truly went for broke. This barnburner of a rendition, while scintillating in its own right, also had the distinct pleasure of ushering in the first ever “Roses are Free” (a Ween cover, of course), a song that would become a fabled part of Phish’s legacy (Exhibit A – The Island Tour). The light nature of “Roses,” however, took a dark turn really quickly when they transitioned into “Big Black Furry Creatures From Mars,” during which Trey went full rock star, brandishing an intense metal face and swinging his guitar around like an ax while running countless loops around the stage. It was a sight to behold, and the relief of the hinting notes of “Ghost” were a welcome respite from the madness. Invoking the first set’s exquisite “Disease” to cap off the “Ghost” was pure genius, and another masterful stroke amid a night of many.
One last two-night stand remains. Off to Albany…
Set 1: Punch You In the Eye > Down with Disease > Maze, Dirt, Limb By Limb, Loving Cup > Rocky Top
Set 2: Drowned > Roses Are Free > Big Black Furry Creature from Mars > Ghost > Down with Disease > Johnny B. Goode
12.12.1997 and 12.13.97 Pepsi Arena, Albany, NY
Walking into the Pepsi Arena as the final two-night stand of the tour commenced was odd in a very unique way. For those who arrived well before Phish took the stage were treated to the sound of live music emanating from within. While Phish does not utilize opening acts to warm the stage, on this night they did, in the form of J. Willis Pratt & We’re Bionic — which is strange on a myriad of levels.
Albany on this evening was absolutely fucking freezing, but fortunately what occurred inside the arena was consummately heated. “I saw It Again” is a brilliant song featuring deep funk grooves and a haunting tone. It’s always a treat to behold, and never was this more the case than in Albany in 1997. This is the one, its greatest moment, when they took it way deep. There is no version that can compare, and it crafted the opening night in Albany into an instant classic, with a second set that flowed seamlessly with a segment (“Swept Away” > “Steep” > “Prince Caspian”) laden with the sort of delicate bliss that only Phish are able to invoke.
Night two found the band immediately comfortable. I believe what occurred within the “Yamar” first set opener sums up so much about this fall, as there were no limits and everything was worthy of exploration. All tour you had no idea exactly where the heat would be coming from. The fact that the “Yamar,” ten minutes into the song, makes a right turn into a deep funk groove that ventures about for some time shows exactly what the band was capable of on this tour. The set also featured a determined “Theme from The Bottom” and a funky “Tube” (Did They Jam Out Tube? – yup, all fall!) setting the stage for an absolute behemoth of a second set.
The “Ghost” – “Mike’s” one-two punch that anchors this evening’s second set was off the hook, and it is imperative to discuss the lunacy which occurred within the “Mike’s,” as this is the one where they brought the “dude” — the dude in this case being gooey and heated funk. The band, playful as I have ever beheld, began to encourage each other to bring then dude (“Cactus, you shall bring the dude, Michael!”), egging each other on (“Page, Page, Page…bring me the dude!”), offering one another the opportunity to shine in the spotlight. It was a remarkable moment, highlighting Phish’s playful nature while invoking the grooves that this tour was built upon. In this second set, in this moment and in the “Harry Hood” that closed the set where Kuroda killed the lights for a length, it felt apparent that Phish knew exactly what they had done on this run. It seemed as if they were able to take stock within the midst of the mayhem and perceive the grandiosity of the moment. They were well aware of the destruction they’d emphatically laid across the country.
Set 1: Funky Bitch > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Camel Walk, Taste > Bouncing Around the Room, Tweezer > Train Song > Character Zero
Set 2: Saw It Again > Piper > Swept Away > Steep > Prince Caspian > Jam > Izabella, Tweezer Reprise
Encore: Guyute, Run Like an Antelope
Set 1: Ya Mar > Axilla > Theme From the Bottom, Ginseng Sullivan, Strange Design, Sample in a Jar, Vultures, Tube, Good Times Bad Times
Set 2: NICU > Punch You In the Eye > Ghost > Mike’s Song > Llama, When the Circus Comes, Weekapaug Groove > Catapult > Weekapaug Groove, Harry Hood
Encore: My Soul, The Squirming Coil
The evolution of this tour is a thing of beauty to behold, and examining Phish’s 1997 tour is fascinating to consider with twenty-five years of hindsight. The way the band and their sonic offerings grew, as well as the risks they took was mind-bending. I am not saying later shows were better than earlier shows at all, they were all different and brilliant (well…CSU?), but this progression cannot be denied. An evolution, defined by the confidence birthed through so many successful risks, that led directly to inarguably two of the finest runs of all fucking time: The New Years Eve Run ‘97 and The Island Tour (Spring ‘98). This tour deserves all the hype kids give it. Probably more.
There are moments, runs and shows, that stand out amongst Phish’s illustrious career. We all know the moments — December 1995, The Island Tour, the Japan 2000 run, Big Cypress, Summer 2015 (which culminated in the excellent Magnaball), and The Baker’s Dozen to name just a few — but their Fall ‘97 tour demands to be held in the highest of regards, and celebrated with the best of the best. Each and every night, fans were given more than they could have possibly imagined. And in this way it was an absolute gift, and a moment in time like no other. This was a big deal. A really big deal.
What a tour.