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Monday, December 5

CD Review: Phish - Hampton / Winston - Salem ‘97


Phish - Hampton / Winston - Salem ‘97
Hampton, Va & Winston - Salem, NC
JEMP Records
By: Kevin Kenly

Iconic jam/rock group Phish recently released a seven disc box set that includes three live concerts from arguably the height of their career. The band’s fall tour in 1997 is well known throughout the Phish community, and though many audience recordings of these three shows exist, many fans have longed for officially released soundboard quality recordings for years. The wait is over.

The first two concerts included in the box set are 11/21/1997 and the following night 11/22/1997 from the legendary Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, VA. The final concert included was held on 11/23/1997 at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston - Salem, NC. These three shows are undoubtedly some of the top tier of Phish concerts, and are great examples of the odd quirks and top notch playing that make the band what it is. These shows include a debut cover song, many song teases, and some of the most exploratory Phish you can find.

Disc one begins with the first night of the two night run at the Hampton Coliseum. Phish wastes no time in getting down to business. They open the show with a debut for the band, a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” They have an interesting take on the tune with drummer Jon Fishman, who is not known for his singing abilities, taking Mic Jagger’s falsetto melodies. They give the song the full jam treatment though, taking it in a few different directions. The jam begins with funk guitar strumming from Trey Anastasio, before going into his well know siren effect. Anastasio creates this siren sound with his delay and loop pedals, while adjusting his tone. Bassist Mike Gordon takes control of the jam, and leads it into a decidedly funkier groove before keyboardist Page McConnell adds a spacey synthesizer sound to contribute to Anastasio’s siren effect. The whole band follows McConnell into a futuristic sounding outro jam before ending the song abruptly.

Typically, Anastasio and Gordon take a moment or two in between songs to confer on which song to play next, but after the “Emotional Rescue” opener, they had no opportunity to. Drummer Jon Fishman immediately grabbed the reigns and dropped the introductory drum line to the Phish song, “Split Open and Melt.” The band quickly followed suit and dove into the exploratory and high energy jam. As Anastasio explores the scales, Gordon holds a simple and steady rhythm with staccato bass picking. McConnell plays a very full sounding section on his Yamaha C7 grand piano. Throughout the jam, the tension builds as noticeably as the energy does. Then right as you would expect the jam to climax, the band takes a slower tangent that allows them to stretch out once more and give the song one last piece of improvisation before jumping right back into the composed “big finish.” The song ends with a vocal tease of “Emotional Rescue.”

The highlight of the first night in the Hampton Coliseum comes in the second set with a three song medley. The band begins the second set, and the medley with their funky original, “Ghost.” With how often Anastasio had been using his “siren” effect throughout these three shows, it is surprising that he chose to refrain from using it very much in “Ghost” - a song that typically receives the full siren treatment. Mike Gordon leads the jams again with his staccato style bass picking, while Anastasio adds funk guitar strumming amidst palm mutes. The segue in between “Ghost” and “AC/DC Bag” is as smooth as it gets for Phish. As they slide from “Ghost” into “Bag,” there is no hesitation from any of the four.

After a fairly standard composed into section, McConnell takes the reigns with very jazzy piano fills before Anastasio brings his shredding guitar licks. The energy builds continuously until a break down slows the tempo and allows Gordon and McConnell to shine. With about seven minutes remaining in the twenty-six minute “AC/DC Bag,” the jam turns ambient, and leaves drummer Jon Fishman playing over a synthy progression provided by McConnell. This jam seems almost celestial. After this segment of the song, it takes yet another direction that sounds almost like Phish song “Waves” at a couple places before McConnell makes the initial transition into fan favorite, “Slave to the Traffic Light.”

This version of “Slave” is particularly transcendent. This track is a prime example of the band’s patience in building the song’s beautiful melodies. They don’t need to rush any part of the song, they wait until something builds. The jam features outstanding work on the Rhodes by McConnell that really adds an interesting sound to the song. Between Fishman’s cymbal work and Gordon’s intricate yet highly melodic bass lines, the percussive section offers a lot of sound to the song. The song has a particularly uplifting and soaring quality to it that really takes the mind places. Anastasio’s solo on this tune is one of the major highlights of the first show in the series.

Phish’s second night at the Hampton Coliseum is another well known show in “Phishtory.” The band comes out hot as they open the show with a killer “Mike’s Groove”, which is a three song segment beginning with “Mike’s Song,” which commonly leads into “I am Hydrogen” before concluding in the raging “Weekapaug Groove.” “Mike’s song” featured a well placed “Black- Eyed Katy” tease. They ended the first set with back to back high energy cover songs, beginning with The Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” - which leads into the band’s blazing rendition of Jimi Hendrix tune “Izabella.” This was only the band’s fifth time playing the Hendrix song.

The real highlight of the band’s second night in Hampton comes at the beginning of the second set, and this set doesn’t have the most traditional of beginnings. In attempts to get the band to play their rarely played song “Destiny Unbound,” a tune that had not been heard live since late 1991, the audience tried to loudly sing the chorus to the band as they took the stage. Due to poor orchestration, the band had no idea what point the audience was trying to make. As they get ready to play, Anastasio addresses the singing crowd by saying “That just sounds like a horrible, cannibalistic chant for people who want blood. I don’t know what you’re saying. Is that the human sacrifice part of the show?” They follow this by playing the most inspired jam of the seven disc set.

The “Halley’s Comet” from the second night of Hampton ‘97 is in the top echelon of Phish jams. After the composed section, McConnell kicks off the funky jam with an “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” tease. They really let the song take free form and though their improvisation follows indirect paths, but the band moves with unity. In the extended jam, the song includes a section based on “He Used to Cut the Grass,” by Frank Zappa, who has always been listed as a major inspiration for the band. This jam also features regular use of Anastasio’s siren effect, which serves as a platform to jam around. The best part of extended Phish jams is that while each member is adding their own improvisations, each member has the opportunity to take control and lead the others. This leads to a constantly evolving sound that cannot be replicated. This version of “Halley’s Comet” is a prime example of what Phish is capable of creating when they are patient and allow for jams to occur organically and not try to force or rush any particular piece.

The third and final show in the set comes from the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston - Salem, NC. This show featured fewer bust outs or debuts from the band, but offered solid playing throughout the show. One interesting tidbit is that this show features the second “Black Eyed Katy” in the seven-disc set. This song is the only song the band repeated in the three nights, and the second version - the one from Winston - Salem, is clearly the better of the two. While the first version, which was just played in the second night at Hampton, didn’t stray much from its typical song structure, the version from the next night breaks the mold a bit. The band managed to make a funky dance groove even funkier by experimenting with different tempos and melodies throughout the song. The band’s fascination with creating new and interesting music at every available opportunity is the sole reason why the band has such a dedicated following.

The highlight of the final show in the series comes in the second set. The set begins with an extended take on their tune “Bathtub Gin” which has a lot of interesting changes and patterns. They delve into different jam sections and go back and forth for thirty-one minutes before transitioning into “Down With Disease.” This up tempo song never fails to set up for a high energy and shredding jam section. As the improvisation builds, Anastasio eventually finds the melody to War’s “Low Rider.” This was the fourth time the band had covered the song, and you can tell it was entirely spontaneous because they didn’t get it quite right, but it lead to an interesting jam section before the band finished the ripping conclusion of “Down With Disease.”

After hearing these shows in soundboard quality for the first time, it is very fair to say this box set might be in contention with the Island Tour shows from Spring of ‘98 for the title of the band’s best live recordings. The shows were phenomenal, the sound is crystal clear and well mixed, and the energy is always there. These discs are a piece of history that contain some of the best jams of Phish’s career.

Do your ears a favor and go out a pick up a copy of Phish’s Hampton/ Winston - Salem ‘97 to be released Tuesday December 6th, 2011.