VIII. The Jams of December 1997
Ask any fan what their two favorite jams from December 1997 are, and their answers should be December 6th's "Tweezer -> Izabella -> Twist -> Piper" sequence, and the "AC/DC Bag" from Madison Square Garden on the night of the 30th. In reality, if you only heard two jams from 1997, these are the two that would best give you an understanding of what the 1997 sound was and why it's so revered 20+ years later.
Granted, one would still be on the right track with the Philly "Mike's -> Simple -> Dog Faced Boy -> Ya Mar -> Weekapaug," (Arguably the best hour of the entirety of 1997) "Bowie -> Possum -> Caspian> Frankenstein> Harry Hood," Cleveland "Julius" and "Slave," Dayton "AC/DC Bag -> Psycho Killer -> Jesus Just Left Chicago," "Tube, Tube Reprise -> Slave," State College "Simple," Rochester "Down With Disease," "Drowned -> Roses Are Free," as well as the entirety of 12/12 and 12/29's Set IIs.
Yet, this point isn't made based on the matter of "best." Rather, both the 12/6 "Tweezerbella-> Twist -> Piper," and 12/30 "AC/DC Bag" define Phish in December 1997 in a way that displays the unique sound of the era and its permanance & intrigue ever since. Featuring full-band interaction and communication, they both move past the themes of each of their songs, into a plane of music that is structurally unsupported, aside from the simple fact that the band just keeps playing. From there, both pieces give Trey - the reluctant leader of Phish, and the closest thing the band has to a rock icon - the opportunity to unleash his guitar prowess.
The fascinating thing about 1997 is, the whole reason the band sought to deconstruct their music in the first place was, that, by 1993, their jams had become too predictably structured by, and the anticipations of, what Trey could do with his guitar. Superior in talent to his bandmates in terms of technical wizardry throughout much of the late-80's - early-90's, Trey began the process of stepping into the shadows during their lengthy jams, forcing the other members to step up and take the reins for significant periods of improv.
While the transformation took time, by 1997, the band had found their equal footing, resulting in the overall sound and transformative quality of the year. Yet, what's most intriguing, is that while the sound allowed for a more unified approach from the band, it also gave Trey a new outlet to expand on his guitar work, and strut his stuff like he hadn't in years. No longer burdened with the fear that the band was too reliant on him, instead, he relished in the confidence that it was he who had to step back, mainly because he was too good, and he had helped to push the band to where they were today. Throughout the course of the Fall 1997 Tour, Trey unleashed a series of mind-melting solos that dominated large sections of their jams and paid homage to the guitar legends of his musical past. Like the demented brain-child of Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Robert Fripp, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page, Trey stepped up as much as he stepped back. From the Denver "Ghost," to the Champaign "Wolfman's," the Hampton "AC/DC Bag," Winston-Salem "Gin," Hartford "Character Zero," Philly "Ya Mar," and Albany "Caspian -> Izabella," there's a massive variety of jams that saw Trey unleash his guitar in a ways he couldn't - or wouldn't - over the previous five years.
Nowhere is this clearer than the aforementioned "Tweezer" and "AC/DC Bag." Both follow similar patterns of tight, rhythmic, equal-part jamming that builds into a moment where they all "hookup" - heard most brilliantly from 12:30 - 14:57 of the "AD/DC Bag" - before spilling into a massive and epic solo from Trey, devoid of any expectations, nor hesitations.
It's a sound they would try to mimick during their 2.0 period, and again during the Baker's Dozen in 2017, but it's a sound they haven't reached with as much rawness as they did in 1997. Playing equal-parts imitators, emulators, and honorers of the sacred unleashing of the devil's music that made Rock & Roll so foreboding and revolutionary during its peak, it was an unexpected diversion for Phish at this stage in their career. However, when one listens back to this tour & month, it's clear that this is in both ways the furthest Phish has ever sounded from Phish, and also, the closest they've come to being the true torchbearers for arena rock. Whereas in December 1995 Phish sounded like an amphetamine-laced version of their best selves, in December 1997 they've discovered a portole to classic rock legacy, all while communicating on an equal plane like never before. Two years later, we'd see them once again honor the past while pushing forward in a way only they could to communicating through music as one.
IX. The Shows Of December 1997
What's more about the above-mentioned jams is that they both came during the two defining shows of December 1997. The former was your typical Phish throw-down. Saturday night, in a city that had never really meant anything to Phish, on the heels of probably the weakest overall show of the month, the band came out the gates on a mission. Opening with "Golgi> Antelope" was a sure sign the band was on their game, and when the first set went on to contain a perfect segue from "Bathtub Gin -> Foam," along with a classic combination of "Fee -> Maze," it was clear the show was picking up right from the brilliance of the Philly Run earlier in the week. And as so often happens, the adrenaline and improvisational confidence displayed in a standout first set, bled to the second stanze, one that would become a legendary moment in the band's overall career.
When one reads a setlist and sees that large sections - or even the entire set - went by without a single break, it's a great sign the band was just a medium for musical communication that night. Pouring the energy and ideas of one song into the next - be it an atmospheric fade, a sudden break, or a perfect segue - something unexplainable is usually at work. This is the case with the second set of 12/06/1997.
Reading: "Tweezer -> Izabella -> Twist -> Piper> Sleeping Monkey> Tweezer Reprise" it's the kind of set that just begs to be listened to upon viewing. It's as if the band is channeling their energy and their experimentation through the words on the page in front of you. Six songs. All combined into one unending musical thought. Three of which emerge from each other with such perfect thoughtlessness that it's as if they were written that way all along. The set is made all the more remarkable by the fact that since December 6th, 1997, only a handful of shows have featured this kind of connective flow and interplay displayed in both the quantity of songs played and the quality of their performances. Each song contains a number of highlights, with the aforementioned, intergalactic/Hendrix-swagger of the "Tweezer," surprise funk-breakdown in "Izabella," and the first exploratory "Piper" - which worked in the direct opposite manner of the "Tweezer," yet was just as scintillating - taking home the glory from a masterful night of Phish.
It was a peak show in a tour full of them. Akin to 11/17/1997, 11/19/1997, 11/21/1997, 11/22/1997, 11/28/1997, 12/03/1997, 12/11/1997, and 12/29/1997, it was a full show in every regard, the kind of show Phish had been working to play since their origins, and now was awash in the ability to.
Three weeks later, on December 30, 1997, Phish played what just might be the best Phish show of all time.
It's my personal favorite, for whatever that’s worth.
Never before, and really never since, has the band put on display literally everything that makes them worth listening to all in one single show. From bustouts to jams, to rarities, to stories, to gimmicks, to jams in bustouts, to the defined feeling of "the night before the night," to an encore that blew all others before & since away, the show has everything one could ever want out of a Phish show.
Full essays could be dedicated to the show's entirety, let alone its second set. The jam that emerges out the first "Sneakin' Sally Thru The Alley" since Ian's Farm, 920 shows earlier, kicks it off in style, weaving the Robert Palmer hit into a funk-laced jam that makes you wonder why it disappeared for so long, before finding a home in a down-tempo, more earthly realm which guided the jam into "Taste." The "Stash" and "Chalk Dust Torture" contain such rampant energy, that they threaten to wear the crowd out even before the extended second set. The "A Day In The Life" that closes out Set I proves that while Trey is the front man that will guide Phish into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Page McConnell will forever be the member who can capture the raw power of the Arena Rock voice.
In the second set, the band laid it all out on the line, crafting a masterpiece that nearly destroyed the Garden, and played for so long that they ended up receiving a hefty fine, thus essentially playing "two New Year's Eve shows." A top-tier "AC/DC Bag" jams in the way only '97 "Bag's" could, an ultra-rare "McGrupp" followed by an even rarer "Harpua" which features not only a fictional tale on the origins of the band - something about olive loafs, Lost In Space, French Toast and Pentagrams - but also an appearance by Trey's best friend, and Phish's longtime songwriter, Tom Marshall for one of their most appropriate covers ever: The Proclaimers "I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).”
And that's just the first three songs.
Toss in the "Izabella," a 20-min, unfinished "Harry Hood," mid-set "Sleeping Monkey," and set-ending "Guyute" before which Trey famously mocked the band's impending fine, and you've got a set with the perfect combination of song-selection, energy, jams, gimmicks, spontaneity and novelty, to go home happy.
Phish returned for the encore, already in debt to MSG, and delivered an encore worthy of an entire set. "Carini -> Black-Eyed Katy -> Sneakin' Sally Thru The Alley (Reprise) -> Frankenstein." Featuring the first-ever US version of "Carini," the final "Black-Eyed Katy" before it was reborn as "The Moma Dance" the following summer, a reprise on the jam off "Sally," and a twelve-minute, noise-ladened "Frankenstein" that might have achieved Best Of status, there's really nothing left to be asked for at that point. After a show like that, the band would be better advised to just cancel the next show, cause there are some nights you simply can not top.
Phish wouldn't top their 12/30/1997 performance the next night, and in some people's eyes, they've never topped it since. A perfect show that brilliantly sums up everything that made the Fall 1997 tour one of the best - if not the best - the band had ever embarked on. Musically connected in the linear style the band had been mastering for the past 15 months. Filled with some of the best song placements of their career. This proved what a high-quality Phish show could sound like only after they’d shed their skin from the 1995 pure peak.
X. What's Next?
After fourteen years together as a band, after so much success, after so much work, Phish reached their peak in December 1995. And yet, whereas so many bands would coast on this success, what has always set Phish apart from the vast majority of bands who rise & fall in the industry, is their ongoing quest for continued musical communication and further musical discovery even after mastering a previously set goal. Had they just decided to turn it off after 12/31/1995, they would still be remembered among a group of their diehard fans as the best band any of them had ever seen. Perhaps their legacy would have lived on in an even more cultish way.
Yet, they knew as artists, as musicians, and as friends, that even at that point in their career, they had yet to achieve their ultimate goal of linear musical communication. As a result, the band began a grueling process of searching for inspiration and a key to open the door to a style that would allow them the ability to play as one. They discovered it on Halloween 1996, brewed it throughout the Fall of 1996, built upon its recipe throughout their Winter and Summer runs in Europe, adjusted it & saw initial peaks throughout their US Summer tour, and then relished in it completely throughout the Fall of 1997.
Far different from their peak year of 1995, 1997 is important not simply for their success, but more importantly, for how willing the band proved they were to change completely in pursuit of a larger goal. And yet, as with 1995, the band would spend the better part of the next three years wondering, what's next? While they'd toy with the origins of the sound they discovered through Remain In Light - minimalistic funk and atmospheric gooves - going so far as to push the sound into the depths of the genre in a multitude of ways - from Summer 1998's glossy space, Fall 1998's ambient textures, and Summer & Fall 1999's disjointed, loose grooves - by the time they reached December 1999, they wondered where else the could take their music.
This question of, whether or not they'd actually peaked as a band would haunt them for nearly 15 years. In fact, it would be until late-2012 that the band would again reach a point of new musical discovery and true inspiration like they'd reach in 1995 and 1997. As we explore the band’s final December Tour next week, we'll see what happens when the band attempts to adjust their sound once more, yet this time, life gets in the way, more struggles begin to emerge, and we find Phish in their most vulnerable state yet.
(Come Back on Tuesday For Part I of The Three Decembers - 1999)
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March 27, 1993
25 years ago
Set 2: Buried Alive > Halley's Comet > It's Ice > Bouncing Around the Room, Chalk Dust Torture, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Hold Your Head Up > Cracklin' Rosie > Hold Your Head Up, Poor Heart > Golgi Apparatus
 Beginning featured Trey on acoustic guitar.
 Fish on trombone.
 All Fall Down signal in intro.
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