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Phish – Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97

on December 16, 2011, 8:00am

This is it. This is the one we’ve been waiting for. With Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97, Phish Heads finally get the shows that are among those most often requested for official release: November 21-23, 1997, in all their remastered, soundboard glory.

Fall 1997 was not just another normal tour for Phish, who spent much of 1996 stuck in a stylistic rut. Their salvation came in the form of a funky, groove-based musical language. By late 1997, Phish was fluent in their own unique brand of funk. What’s perhaps most enticing and exciting about these shows is not how funky they are, but how Phish manages to twist that funk into far-out psychedelic excursions.

On the rightly famous 11/22/97 show, Phish opens with “Mike’s Song”, delivering a 17-minute beast. Patience is certainly rewarded, as right around the 8:45 mark, guitarist Trey Anastasio steers the jam onto the next level. There’s a palpable change: It’s still funky, but the heavy guitar filtering and melodic interplay between Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon, along with frenetic fills from drummer Jon Fishman, turn the jam inward, tickling that itch on your frontal lobes. At 13:30, the groove falls apart into slow, airy psychedelia, with Fishman’s light-as-a-feather cymbal work under Anastasio’s bluesy, sustained tones.

Often starting with a pocket of wah-wah guitar strumming over a simple funk groove, these jams take time to grow and mature, but blossom into something magical. At 13:40 on “Bathtub Gin”, the band crushes a section of Talking Heads-styled speed-funk before disintegrating around 26:00 into a blissful, intense jam colored by keyboardist Page McConnell’s warm Fender Rhodes and centered around a perfect Anastasio riff that sounds pre-composed. After a striking funk jam peaks in glorious fashion on “Halley’s Comet”, the band enters a slow section of ambient space around the 19:00 mark that evolves into a seeing-God moment of searing psychedelia. The best jams from this weekend all require this level of patience from the listener, but there has seldom been a run of shows where the big jams are so consistently sublime.

Granted, the recordings of these shows have long been in heavy circulation amongst fans, but listening to the lovingly remastered soundboard versions on this release is like hearing these jams for the first time. It actually changes the sound of the shows, bringing out every note without any muddying, highlighting Gordon’s pointed melodic bass playing, and clarifying the quiet nuances from the entire band.

The box set also elevates the 11/23/97 Winston-Salem show, overshadowed by the previous two nights, to its rightful place alongside the other gems of Fall 1997. The first set is dominated by a version of “Stash” that flirts with a dark and evil, quasi-industrial sound for the last five minutes, shattering the usual structure of the song, while the aforementioned 31-minute “Bathtub Gin” anchors the second set. Additionally, a fantastically lethargic and spacey Hampton soundcheck jam fills out the rest of the final disc. Despite being famous for the monster jams, there are plenty of normally-sized tunes as well, such as the folky ballad “Train Song”, the complex composition “Guyute”, and a standout version of “Chalkdust Torture”.

Even for some Phish Heads, the new sound that crystallized around the Fall 1997 tour was too static, too repetitive, and the jams too long. True, these jams aren’t for everyone, and there are some misfires: The “Fluffhead” is sloppy, and the impromptu cover of War’s “Low Rider” was probably a ton of fun to hear live, but figuring-it-out-as-they-go doesn’t hold up on a recording.

In all likelihood, many Phish Heads pre-ordered the box set and have been wearing out their headphones for the past week. So this review is for the casual fans, the non-believers, the newbs, and the haters, too. Out of all the thousands of live Phish concerts in circulation amongst fans, if you want to hear the goods, you should get this box set, listen to it repeatedly, and finally understand why we continue to love this band.

Essential Tracks: “Split Open and Melt”, “Ghost”, “Mike’s Song”, “Halley’s Comet”, “Stash”, “Bathtub Gin”, “Soundcheck Jam”

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