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Review by waxbanks
But some things are worth going crazy over.
(The following is occasioned, of course, by the long-awaited official SBD release of November 21 to 23, 1997.)
The fandom responded ecstatically to the tour at the time, as you'd expect; among other things it represented a sea change in how the band approached show structure (never mind the pornographic music itself) -- some folks were convinced that 'there [were] no first sets anymore,' and given that this show kicks off with a 20-minute funk workout, it's easy to see why. Time has been kind to the tour as well. With the benefit of hindsight we can see how Fall '97 began a darkly generative period for the band (their imaginative freedom nightblooming even as their technical command and professionalism began to falter amidst a rapidly decaying backstage/fan scene), while representing a historic peak of possibility and intensity. With only a couple of exceptions, the band was just absolutely *there* every single night, taking song after song to deep dangerous places.
It was a good time to be a Phish fan.
The best jams of 2011 -- R'n'R at the Gorge, the Tahoe Light, the brilliant 'elements' set at UIC -- seemed to draw some of the same dark energy that powered Phish's late 90s music: layered textures, intricate polyrhythms, effortless group interplay, soaring ambient passages, guitars put to unholy new uses, keyboards much abused, drums caressed and then shattered. Above all, the music flows now almost as it did then, with extraordinary patience and organic inevitability.
But what's missing from Phish 2011 is the black ice that became their premillennial music's center: cool austerity of early 'cow funk,' anxious chaotic 'space jams,' the *scary* quality it had. (Hear the way Izabella comes roaring out of 12/6/97's fog like an angry undead stowaway, or the teeth-gnashing mania of the Hartford Char0 > 2001. A lotta Hendrix in the air, then.)
For all the expansiveness and ambition of the band's Fall '97 work, the tour feels All of a Piece; it all belongs together, the maniacal Hampton/Winston-Salem stuff and the knives-in-blacklight Worcester jamming and the retro-dufus-turned-pornstar goodtimes in Dayton and the astral lullabies in Utah and, and, and oh those sorcerous goings-on and splashings-crashward in Auburn Hills (cloudpiercing peak of a deepwater volcanic island). The same can't so much be said of the new music; ironically, as the band's palette has grown to include more lived-in sounds (and whatever eerily the goddamn 'storage shed' jamming is, when it eerily ever is), they've lost the glasseyed focus of back-in-the-day. They might sound like any number of great bands these days, even Zeppelin a bit when the moon's right, but there was something harrowing and deeply pleasurable about knowing (walking into a familiar room, strangers at close quarters in the dark) that the approach was gonna be, ready set go, THE METERS AND PINK FLOYD ARE TRAPPED TOGETHER FOREVER ON A DERELICT SPACESHIP ALL ECHOES AND GHOSTS AND ALONE AND THEY ARE SAVED FROM COLD DEATH ONLY BY THE WEIRD COSMIC FAVOUR OF PLUNGING SLOWLY INTO AN OCTARINE SUN, GAINING SPEED, FALLING, HOLD ON...
To the matter at hand.
Emotional Rescue isn't a great choice of cover beyond its novelty/comedy value -- the jokey falsetto and sparse texture wear thin some time before the jam starts -- and the jam does feel like a show-opening warmup, which of course it is. But 17 minutes of shambolic Phish funk (climaxing in a transitional few minutes of lovely dark ambience) is a fine easygoing thing, regardless. And it leads into a very nice Split, for which we supplicants are naturally thankful.
Et cetera et cetera, and Caspian (a tune tailor-made for smoky indoor-venue AUDs, by the way) is a strange but appropriate choice for a first set closer: excellent version here, particularly Trey's digital-delay offering to Hades in lieu of those closing rock chords from the album, which...
1. ...fondly recalls the beloved 12/31/95 Mike's, and...
2. ...helpfully signals to the crowd that we are setting our course for darker night in Set II.
The show's back half kicks off seven consecutive must-hear sets (next breather: 11/28 I). During Ghost the players bail on that song's basic funk patterns in favour of a haunting spare passage typical of Fall '97: minimalist assembly, assured group rhythm work, and a patient crescendo and sighing wavebreak into a wry, spry midtempo jog at the outro. 1997 is THE year for Ghost, but this performance trades its standard snap/pop/wah funk for something moodier and more meaningful.
Then yeah, a true segue arrow before AC/DC Bag, and *get ready* for this Bag. Less decisive and authoritative than the canonical 12/30/97 version, but also less linear, the 11/21 Bag takes a few minutes for somewhat clumsy I-IV thrashing (a climax too early, it seems) before settling into a deadly take on the introductory PYITE groove. Fishman slides over to the ride cymbal, Page leaps onto piano, Trey sprinkles some space-jam fairy dust over everyone, and suddenly we're working a slightly ambivalent variation on that I-IV, posing as Triumph while whispering Collapse, Dissolve...and after a twinkling ambient passage, we return to ambivalence: minor-melancholy rock clatter and swerve, Page's piano diagonals zagging at everyone else's zig, or I guess vice versa. 25 minutes of top-shelf Phish, and another true segue into Slave.
Slave, as you'd expect after the foregoing 50 minutes of music, is devastating. Well, it's a 1997 Slave; the mycological languour of late-90s Phish was well suited to tunes like this one.
More Stones to close, of course. They've always killed on Loving Cup. And is there a better, more coherent long-form composition in Phish's catalogue than Guyute? Pure prog mayhem in the encore. Nice.
11/22 gets the press, 11/23 gets the 'underrated masterpiece' tag, and of these now-forever-conjoined triplets, 11/21 is the li'l sibling with -- hey whaddaya know -- some earth-shaking powers of its own. I think you can pass on this first set without feeling TOO bad, if you really don't think you can spare that hour of your life, but that's a swell half-hour you're missing at the opener, and a ringading Caspian to close. The second set, meanwhile, is as good as Fall 1997's usual, which is to say it's a solid hour of deadly focused improvisation, favouring eventide melancholy and dissolution, crescendi desperately imploding or exhausting themselves in gouts of terminal noise, minimalist funk with a mischievous dancing step and slow poison on its blade, visible in the right kind of dark...
Ego-costumes aside, in the end it doesn't matter whether Fall '97 is the 'best' Phish tour. (One hopes the best is yet to come, right? What kind of person *doesn't* hold that hope, or pretends not to?) Those are fun arguments to have, but it's all just circles around imaginary selves, signs that read No Trespass: there's no place for borders like those when the music begins. I'll say instead, quite confidently, that on these nights 14 years ago, Phish reached the windblown jagged top of one peak, bringing thousands along with them; several other peaks would follow, as several had come before, but this one had a Weird light, and everyone why got up there saw something extraordinary. And would you believe it: it's still there. Might I recommend heading up alone some night. Go on: follow the strange glow that won't fade. The dark will keep you warm.