by: John O’ Leary
As Phish prepare for a four night run in Las Vegas leading up to one of their famed Halloween performances, one fan looks back at an unforgettable evening back in 1997…
I was a freshman at St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire during 1997. My friend Chris was also a first-year student at the University of Vermont in the Green Mountain State. Chris and I have known each other since we were kids and we were also lacrosse teammates at Glastonbury High School in Connecticut. I can still vividly remember the early call I got on a cold winter morning from Chris as he was out of breath from running all the way back to campus from downtown Burlington. “Hello,” I said in a raspy voice answering the phone in room 316 of Dominic Hall.
“John, I got them, I got them!” he said excitedly.
“Got what?” I asked.
“Two tickets for the Phish show at the Flynn in March,” Chris answered. “I was walking back from the grocery store when I heard a message on the radio that tickets were going on sale at the box office today. I dropped my bag of groceries and ran as fast as I could. I need to know in the next ten seconds if you can go.”
Despite knowing full well that as a player on the St. Anselm Lacrosse Team that pre-season lacrosse workouts would be starting in March, I replied, “Count me in,” without hesitation.
In the fall of 1996, Phish released their studio album Billy Breathes, and toured Europe twice to promote it. They also cycled through the United States twice in 1996, playing to sold-out arenas like the Hartford Civic Center and Madison Square Garden. The 1996 Phish summer tour ended with a mammoth festival at an Air Force Base in Plattsburgh, New York called The Clifford Ball, where Ben and Jerry, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, joined the band onstage and a relationship between the band and the two ice cream masters was forged. As a result, in 1997, a special one-off U.S. theater show was scheduled for March 18th at the Flynn Theater, with proceeds going to environmental efforts to restore Lake Champlain. Located on Main Street in historic Burlington, the Flynn Theatre has been in the heart of Vermont’s cultural landscape for well over eighty years. From the earliest days of theatrical entertainment to its present incarnation as the region’s leading performance center, the Flynn is recognized internationally for its beautiful ambiance, historic setting, and world-class performances. Phish has performed at the Flynn a few times over the years, but most famously in connection with the U.S. launch of the now famous Phish Food ice cream from Stowe, Vermont based Ben & Jerry’s.
Tickets for this special one-night only show were placed on-sale in February of 1997. It was decided that tickets for this concert would be only be sold in pairs, and on a first-come-first-serve basis. The on-sale date was kept top-secret until it was officially announced on Thursday, February 20th at 8 am on radio station 106.7 (WIZN FM). Needless to say, tickets sold out almost instantly. Those who were lucky enough were given vouchers that required them to return in person on the evening of the show (March 18th), produce valid identification, and enter with the guest they had brought. No exceptions. Phish fans from across the country were specifically thrilled about this special small theatre show in a year when every other Phish concert was already booked at a venue that had twenty to eighty times the seating capacity of the Flynn Theatre.
On the morning of March 17th, a large, maroon-colored Ford F-150 pickup truck pulled into the St. Anselm parking lot outside of my dorm. The door swung open and out popped Chris from the passenger side. “This is going to be an incredible show,” he said as he opened the back and pointed to the small singular back seat.
“I have to ride in there for two and a half hours?” I said, hoping he would offer up the passenger seat.
“Trust me, it will be worth it,” Chris exclaimed as I climbed in and stretched my legs across to the other side.
Leaving campus, we made one stop to the seniors’ house for the St. A’s lacrosse team. I asked one of the captains to cover for me over the next two days since I would be missing the mandatory pre-season workouts. “Just tell coach I am sick, but that I will be better by Wednesday,” I said as we pulled out of the driveway. The drive back to Vermont from New Hampshire was full of anticipation and guessing which songs the band might play. As the truck turned down Main Street in Burlington, we saw the “Welcome Phish” sign on the front glass window of Nectar’s restaurant, a legendary music venue in Burlington that shares a name with one of Phish’s earliest albums, A Picture of Nectar. We knew then and there that everyone who was fortunate enough to go the show would be in for something special.
Phish opened this 1997 “hometown” show with their first ever rendition of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” followed by “NICU,” then dipped into a stirring rendition of “Sample in a Jar,” followed by the always pulsating “Punch You in the Eye.” “Punch” had a uniquely composed introduction with loads of work put in by Phish’s pianist Page McConnell on his electric Rhodes piano. Two more covers, “My Soul,” by zydeco legend Clifton Chenier, and “Beauty of My Dreams,” by the influential bluegrass musician Del McCoury, were played before the band dove fully into “Harry Hood,” which was drawn masterfully into a more incredible than usual all-out jam session. Without interruption, longtime local collaborators James Harvey and Dave Grippo joined the band to add horns to an anything goes rendition of “Cars Trucks Buses” with extended solos by all on stage. The always boisterous “Suzy Greenberg” was played next followed by the straight-forward rocker “Character Zero,” nearing the end of which Trey wished Ben, of Ben & Jerry’s fame, in attendance that night, a happy birthday as they concluded the first set.
Phish launched into the second set with over thirty minutes of continuous music, beginning with “Taste,” and then delving into The Who cover “Drowned,” which flowed into “Prince Caspian” and then “David Bowie.” “Bowie” pumped up the crowd as expected, and a short pause ensued when local blues singer Tammy Fletcher joined Phish onstage in an impromptu guest appearance. After apologizing to her date for abandoning him to sing, she proceeded to excite the Flynn with her booming vocals and stage presence, with the songs “I Told You So” and “Love You Like a Man.” For a brief moment, Phish acted as one of the best backup bands in the music business. Tammy’s participation was unplanned and she has gone on the record stating, “Trey spotted me in the audience and plucked me out so I jumped up on stage.” The second set continued with “Waste” into “Chalk Dust Torture” and finished with the energizing slow build of “Slave to the Traffic Light” to conclude the show. As they ended, Trey said, “Thank you very much for coming tonight to our ice cream bash,” and proceeded to thank Ben & Jerry and everyone present for helping out Lake Champlain. For the encore, the band returned with an acapella version of “Hello My Baby” before closing the night out with “Funky Bitch,” during which Grippo and Harvey re-joined with their horns for the Son Seals song which has been adopted by Phish. This show, with its debuts and special guests, was an instant classic.
Returning back to the St. A’s campus on the evening of Wednesday, March 19th, I was reprimanded by my coach and teammates in the form of circuit training and running wind-sprints at 6 am. In addition, I was given the task of doing laundry for the entire lacrosse team for three weeks for missing two days of practice. It was a small price to pay. ((Thanks, Chris, for an incredible forty-eight hours back in March of 1997 that made freshman year a memorable one.))