As many of you already know, last Tuesday, the Phish vaults opened, unearthing for the first time a series of high quality recordings that rank among the greatest treasures in the Vermont quartet’s live catalog. Say what you will about Phish, but until you’ve heard (or attended) performances such as these—taken from the storied and transitional Fall ’97 Tour—it’s difficult to form an opinion of a band that’s true potential has always been reserved for the live setting.
Phish: Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97 presents a run of three entire concerts from November 21 & 22, 1997 at Hampton Coliseum Hampton, VA and November 23, 1997 at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, NC. The recordings, taken from sound engineer/guitar luthier Paul Languedoc’s stereo soundboard mix and remastered by sound guru Fred Kevorkian, pay justice to these coveted tapes with 7 great-sounding CDs that also include unreleased soundchecks from both venues.
But what separates Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97 from the band’s previous live output, is the release of three consecutive shows from one of the most loved periods in Phish history. As lore will tell, the fall of 1997 is not only a consensus milestone of the bands touring career, but also one of the most unique and experimental. For, in this time, the transition of Phish’s sound toward a more groove-oriented approach had come full circle—akin to that of Miles’ band from the late ’60s to early ’70s—propelling the band into one of their greatest creative high points. While this period defines itself on its own, it also acts as the catalyst to what would occur in the years the followed.
Set between the abstract psychedelia that stretched from 1994-1996 and the cosmic rock that formed between 1998 and 2000, this phase marked the largest upending in Phish’s career since they graduated from playing Grateful Dead and Wilson Pickett tunes in the 80s. The inspiration for this transition came while performing the entirety of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light on Halloween ’96, gradually taking hold over the following year, and finally coming to fruition during the fall of ’97.
In Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, he notes than an enlightened individual will be drawn to subtle patterns and tones, as oppose to things presented more elaborately. During this tour, Phish embarked on a path representative of this philosophy. Guided by the collective group ethos of African artists such as King Sunny Aide and Manu Dibango, the transition resulted in the presence of groove-based jams and a greater use of effects and looping techniques. For a change, bassist Mike Gordon, who is much higher in the mix than usual, can often be heard leading the band while guitarist Trey Anastasio reverts to wah-laden karate chops in place of his usual chow-mein solos (although there are still plenty of those).
On Novemeber 21 at Hampton Coliseum, the opener—an ambitious debut cover of the Stones’ “Emotional Rescue”—catches an early glimpse of Anastasio’s recently added looping rig with decaying sirens peaking out from beneath the groove-based improv, carefully crafted layers of sound and colorful textural tones present in the undercurrent. Drummer Jon Fishman keeps a riding jazz beat as Gordon lays out coiling, high ended lead phrases and McConnell adds synthy washes of sound beneath. The jam carries away from the loose “cow funk” label into a four part space journey that ranks as one of the highlights of the entire box set, largely setting the tone for the next three nights. And that’s just the opening cut (of the first night).
During the second set, on “Ghost”—a staple of the tour—Anastasio and McConnell lead the rhythm at the start of the jam as Gordon throws out trebly bass leads, experimenting with his arsenal of effects (a hint at the direction he would take in the years following). Anastasio begins a simple melody that raises the tempo, and then continues to gradually fall before the jam transports into a charging, cosmic sound quest. McConnel remains on piano for the first several measures, providing a haunting eeriness to this particularly dark segment of improv. But after a while, Anastasio reconfigures the jam with some bright major chords and trills, jumping into one of the first lengthy version of “ACDC Bag” on the tour. It’s another juggernaut from this performance depicting the improvisational fluidity of the band, while also marking the period’s shortened setlists in favor of more lengthy jams.
The second performance from Hampton Coliseum contains many exceptional moments of improv, including the unexpected “Mike’s Groove” opener and, especially, the much-loved second set “Halley’s Comet.” The latter of these is another extended sound quest, beginning with a typical (for the period) journey into the world of space funk before carving out a segment of calm, spontaneous compositional beauty. This is why “cow funk”, as this type of jamming is often labeled, is often misrepresentative of the period. Many, if not most, of the strongest moments on Hampton/Winston-Salem ‘97 are also the mellowest. However, the tight groove-based experiments act as a launch pad for these moments, allowing the band to travel deeper through the pulsing beats and layered soundscapes.
All three concerts here have their own rewards and the way to fully enjoy this box set is to sit and listen to each in its entirety, seeing the evolution of the sound play out over the three shows. Each night is another experiment. You can hear the band’s excitement to explore, such as with Anastasio calling out “Stay on ‘F’” to Gordon before the “Halley’s jam” ensues, or with the emergence of the funk instrumental “Black Eyed Katy”—the only song to appear twice on the box set.
On the third night, the band switches venues, but the move fails to impede their creative flow. Fueled by the previous two performances, the November 23 show from Winston-Salem carries a distinct energy that seems almost tappable. The first set gets the full treatment with a one of the furthest explorations of “Black Eyed Katy,” and a far reaching krautrock jam on “Stash.” But, as with the many shows on this tour, there is a central highlight of the night, and in Winston-Salem that highlight is the 30 minute second set “Bathtub Gin.” Anastasio’s midrangey, wah-heavy guitar riffs lead the jam through a wailing solo for several minutes out of the gate, but eventually, as with the funk, the music reaches for the cosmos and a near-ambient space groove emerges. A different launch pad is used to reach a similar place, and before long another segment of spontaneous composition emerges with the band riffing off Anastasio’s octave-dropped melody, while setting the coarse for the astral trails. The level of interconnectedness shows Phish at one of its tightest points, and it’s clear by now that the transformation has fully taken hold.
This is why Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97 is an essential piece of not only Phish history, but recorded improvisational music: adventures as far-reaching as these have rarely been seen on the rock stage. They were still operating with the same vision of the past, but were realizing it in an entirely new way and seeing how far they could push it each and every night. Before a year would pass, the band would be exploring a new sound built off the foundations of this one, and with these three consecutive performances we see this transitional phase at its peak. An understanding of Phish can only be known through the heights reached in their greatest live concerts, and Hamton/Salem ’97, for many fans, represents the apex of that.