Review: Fuego

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Depending on your level of intensity as a Phish fan, your take on the band’s 2013 Halloween performance probably fell in one of two camps. The decision to unveil twelve brand new songs – rather than the traditional approach of covering an album from one of their musical influences – was either an inspiring risk in the band’s 30th year, or it was a cringeworthy gimmick that further proved how out-of-touch Phish was from the endless desires of their fanbase.

The divisive nature of conversation within the Phish community is such that grey is rarely a viable color option. Whether or not this is due to its fervent dedication, or its preference for polemics over metered discussions is still up for debate.

(For the sake of clarity and openness, I personally thought Wingsuit was one of the defining moments of 2013. Both for the balls it displayed by the band, and the shift it initiated towards the future of Phish, I unabashedly viewed it as an overwhelming success.)

Regardless the hyper-dichotomy the initial presentation of (what was dubbed at the time) Wingsuit caused within the Phish community, there was one universal takeaway from it. In both presentation and delivery, it’s clear Phish sought to craft an album that captured the energy, equitable playing, and open-ended musical possibilities that have made their live shows so incomparable within the realm of modern rock. That this particular goal is so critical for a band entering their third decade – a band that has both proven their merit within the live realm of the rock universe, while accomplishing nearly every artistic goal they’ve ever strived towards – says everything you need to know about the quality of their studio album’s to date.

To be blunt, Phish’s studio recordings are to their live shows what a burger in SE Asia is to Kuma’s. A tepid imitation that only leaves you craving the real thing that much more.

For as divisive as the initial response t0 Wingsuit was in the Fall of 2013, the leak, and subsequent response to Fuego, has been met with a far more measured shrug and understated grin. New Phish music has arrived, and this is a good thing. Now, much of the community directs their attention to the impending tour where we’ll see just how these ten new songs fit in the ever-expanding Phish catalogue.

Overwhelmingly it seems the Phish community is genuinely pleased with Fuego. The record pops with energy and is sonically weightier than many of the band’s previous efforts. Yet, there’s still a consistent hesitation for many to disarmingly love the record. The reason for this is simple: the task for the band to transfer what makes them special in the live setting into a studio is complicated. It raises questions over what is specifically necessary for Phish to thrive as a band.

Does there need to be an audience present?

Do they need the freedom to play without taking a cut?

How much of an impact does a confined setlist and a time constraint have on their overall level of creativity?

The answers are not simple, and as anyone who’s listened to Fuego can attest, neither are the results.

The record opens with its title-track, a brawny, nine-minute song that has “Set II Opening Jam” written all over it. Recorded live during the 10/30 soundcheck at Boardwalk Hall, “Fuego” is at once the closest representation of live Phish on a studio album, and an absolutely torrid opening statement. Not to mention a veritable showcase for the ongoing resurrection of one Jon Fishman. Throughout, the band sounds confident and adroit. The production is such that the song is left to speak for itself; the levels are simply adjusted here to accentuate the power of each musician’s playing. There’s a franticness to the playing. Listening, it’s as if one can simultaneously latch onto the nerves accompanying the band in the hours before the Halloween show, and, now, as both fans and band anxiously await just how “Fuego” will expand this summer.

The title of the record indicates heat, obviously. By most interpretations, Fuego – in both its phrasing and in the music produced – is a confident assertion from the band as to where they stand in 2014. Whereas 2009 was defined by a communal joy at the simple presence of Phish again, in 2014, nothing short of straight-fire from the band will cut it. By these standards, the album’s opening nine-minutes are as invigorating as they are shocking.

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From there we weave in-and-out of a number of set fillers as the group’s collective songwriting – as well as the individual creations of each member – are put on display. One must point out the overall quality of the songs that make-up the meat of Fuego. Whereas in past Phish records, the ballads and contemplative numbers have tended to be their most disappointing (save for “Fast Enough For You,” “Lifeboy,” and “Thunderhead”) here, these songs shine as individual numbers. Still, there are flaws throughout. Notably, the fact that any concept of flow is essentially tossed to the wayside, and unquestionably each of these songs live and die – in large part – on the production work from Bob Ezrin.

“Devotion To A Dream,” – something of a wizened “Backwards Down The Number Line” – benefits greatly from both the work of Ezrin and a brilliant concluding solo from Trey that hints at his Eat A Peach inspired lead work in the 10/29/2013 “Down With Disease.” Conversely, “The Line” is barely tempered with and is one of the finest overall tracks of the record.

Both “Winterqueen” and “Sing Monica” teeter between overtly cheesy pop and sheer studio dominance. While I’ve never understood Trey’s post-2.0 infatuation with writing as if he were trying to compose Game Of Thrones: The Musical, the spaciousness that hangs within the verses, and the horns that build halfway through, add a completely different dimension to one of the (admittedly) weaker Halloween debuts. Love it or hate it, it’s clear “Sing Monica” is here to stay. If the version from Fuego is any hint though, the reworked solo is going rock live, and could find the most overtly-pop song the band’s written since “The Connection” serving as a reliable Set I closer.

“Halfway To The Moon” – one of the most emotive and mysterious songs the band has debuted in 3.0 – is both sharp and disappointing all at once. Musically, the studio slims it down while equally smoothing out its edges, giving it an even sultrier groove than has been apparent in many live versions. However, the over-production of Page’s vocals eliminates any of the organic quality that has always been key to the song. That it’s always sounded like a haunting mix between Neil Young, The National and Cass McCombs should have been accentuated. Instead, Ezrin drains Page’s voice of any human quality, thus cutting out the personal struggle that is at the core of the song.

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Last week I wrote in depth about both “555” and “Waiting All Night.” While my feelings towards the two as individual songs has yet to change – I fear the production on “555” has swerved into gimmicky terrain, yet am completely blown away by everything about “Waiting All Night” – I find that their placement on the record alters my thoughts towards them ever-so-slightly.

Whereas “555” feels like a proper shift towards the album’s second half following “Sing Monica,” “Waiting All Night” is as awkwardly placed here as it was in it’s two live versions to date. The song is perfectly set up to be an ideal landing spot for a Set II jam, and one can only hope the jarring entrance that’s accompanied it in its infancy doesn’t follow it into 2014.

What’s more is the placement of “Wombat” and “Wingsuit” back-to-back, in the set-up and closing role, only increases the lack of flow that permeates throughout the record. Following the blissful nature of “Waiting All Night,” one has to wonder why we’re dropped into the awkward giddiness of “Wombat” only to then be released in the ethereal and stunning “Wingsuit.”

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A necessary digression:

One of the defining aspects that makes the most memorable Phish shows so transcendent – and so re-listenable – is the presence of flow. Be it due to song selection, or fluid jamming, or an advanced attentiveness to tonal structure and key shifting/uniting within the setlist, Phish’s insistence upon connecting all the separate pieces of their catalogue into linear narratives is something that separates them from most other live acts. One only has to scan the setlists from 2013 to see how setlist structure and flow helped craft some of the best shows of the year, including 07/05/2013, 07/27/2013, 07/30/2013, and 12/29/2013, among others. That so little effort was made to connect the ten pieces of Fuego into something that feels tangible and unified, is one of its biggest disappointments.

The standard of great albums (from Highway 61 Revisited to Dark Side Of The Moon to Sound Of Silver to High Violet to Lost In The Dream) begins and ends with its narrative continuity. Dedicated listeners want to be able to press play and let a record unveil itself to them organically. Repeated listens and interlocking themes, that can only emerge from this kind of listening, tend to materialize from records that flow effortlessly from one song to the next. Most critically, Fuego feels like a collection of songs rather than a linear story.

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A song that was defined by on-stage dancing, an infectious funk-strut, and some of the goofiest, and self-referential jokes that Phish has ever composed, it’s shocking how little fun the band sounds like their having throughout the recorded version of “Wombat.” The vocals are sung without any sense of humor, and the result is an awkward, borderline embarrassing, delivery of a song that clearly requires an all-in mentality. Musically it’s taught and danceable, and the loops that cater the song’s post-explosion will be received with ecstatic praise should they accompany the it this summer.

Whereas Halloween 2013 opened with the blissful airiness of “Wingusit,” Fuego closes with it, and it’s clear this role is far more appropriate for it long-term. (As a side note, for all the issue I have with the overall flow of Fuego, it’s undeniable how perfectly the band nailed their opening/closing selections.)

“Wingsuit” is unquestionably one of the records supreme highlights. The surreal nature and ambient quality that made it one of the immediate keepers on Halloween is ever-present here. And the final break and subsequent solo from Trey is so clearly lifted from David Gilmour it feels like the proper musical nod in its delivery. A song that feels simultaneously like a rebirth and a conclusion, the symbolic nature of it opening 10/31 II and closing Fuego are not lost on this listener. In the same sense, the idea of the song expanding outwards as a Set II Opening Jam, while also working as a landing pad for an extended “Down With Disease” is equally imaginable.

That we have so many structural options with the majority of these songs is a testament to the band’s diverse songwriting capabilities so deep in their career.

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For a band that has always struggled to capture the magic of their live performances within the confines of the studio, Fuego is as close a representation of the true nature of Phish as has ever been put to tape. In it’s best moments – “Fuego,” the powerful solos in “The Line,” “Devotion To A Dream,” “Halfway To The Moon,” and “Sing Monica,” and the ambient bliss of “Waiting All Night” and “Wingsuit” – Fuego feels like a major accomplishment for Phish. And it is.

Never before have they truly come close to honing in on the unbridled energy, and atmospheric spaciousness that drives so many of their fans to travel to see them repeatedly.

And yet, at the same time, what Fuego proves as well is that there’s simply no way Phish can (or will) ever truly recreate the magic that is so ever-present at their shows within the confines of the studio. The issues with flow, the overproduction of certain songs, and the abject tepidness of “Wombat” leave a bad taste in your mouth long after the record finishes. This is not to say the record is a failure in any way. No matter what criticisms you lay on it, it’s unquestionably the band’s strongest record since either Billy Breathes or The Story Of The Ghost.

In the end, it seems clear that even after the applaudable efforts from Phish to craft a studio record that reverberates with the power and energy of their live shows, it may be something of an unattainable goal. So much of what makes Phish’s live shows so unique is polar opposite to what makes a classic album so lasting.

Whereas Phish shows capitalize on the unknown, albums are carefully crafted artifacts. Spontaneity plays such a huge role in every Phish jam, while each moment of transcendence on an album has been labored over for weeks, and sometimes months. The two mediums are neither compatible, nor do they cater to every artist. While Phish ultimately comes up short on Fuego in terms of recreating their live show within the confines of an album, the sheer fact that they took the risk some three decades into their career is reason enough to believe in this band going forward.

The Three Decembers – 1997

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In the 1.0 era of Phish there is no year more hotly debated, more controversial, more divisive than 1997. To some it represents a sublime and ethereal peak moment where the band shed their skin and reinvented themselves as a minimalist, groove-oriented band who embraced jamming with open arms, and turned their shows into infectious dance parties, all but devoid of prewritten songs. Others view it with an air of indifference, a sort of boring sidetrack from the more pure origins of Phish; a moment when for the first time, the band showed signs of laziness and, instead of pushing themselves further, relied on simple grooves, and extended jams to get themselves through a tour. Still some see it as the moment when Phish lost track of who they were, allowed drugs, the scene, and the bigness of what they’d become to take precedence over their music, and began the slow downward spiral to the bottoming out of 2004. Whatever way you look at 1997 one thing is certain: the music Phish created throughout the year represented a distinct shift in styles from everything that had come before, and would alter the course of their craft, and the band, in a multitude of ways over the next fifteen years.

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Born in the origins of the band was a goal to create organic music in a live, improvisational setting, which displayed a linear communication between all members, giving them the sound of one unified instrument, rather than four individuals. Harnessed for the first time during the brilliant month of August 1993 when the band embraced their “Hey Hole” practice technique and incorporated it into their live performances. A concept whereby the band locks into a specific groove – be it a riff from Trey or Page, a outspoken beat from Fishman, or a combination of the two from Mike – and then one member alters the groove slightly. Each member follows the leader down the new path, until another member offers up their own idea and the jam rotates. Used for years in practice, it wasn’t until 1993 that the band felt both confident enough in their own mastery of their music, and comfortable enough to step out of the boundaries of their songs without a net. Heard in a multitude of jams throughout the month – from the Cincinnati “You Enjoy Myself” to the August 11th “Mike’s” to the Murat “Gin,” the Tinley Park “Antelope,” and the Louisville “Stash” and “Tweezer” – it was packed to the brim with jams that exceeded the limits of Type-I exploration that had been the band’s cornerstone for the past four years.

1994 only built upon the improvisational achievements of 1993 as the band saw their determination and hard work pay off in droves, resulting in the longest stretch of high-quality, mind-bending music of their entire career from August 1993 through December 1995. The Bomb Factory “Tweezer” on May 7th provides the first of many high water marks throughout 1994 as the band displayed an urgency in exploring the variety of diversions and depths their music could go, devoting whole sets sometimes to exploration. “Tweezer” and “David Bowie” became the go-to vehicles whenever the band yearned to go deep, resulting in a number of experimental excursions throughout the summer. During the Fall tour, when the band opted to traverse the West rather than conclude their tour in the Northeast, they stretched their arms out even further, pushing their jams so far into the unknown that they failed to return to their origins. The Bangor “Tweezer,” Ann Arbor “Simple,” Minneapolis “Bowie,” Bozeman “Tweezer” from November 28th, and the infamous “Bowie” from 12/29 all strode further and deeper than any jam had in the live setting since at least 1988.

10439088-essayContinuing with their exploratory inhibitions in the Summer of 1995, the band threw all caution to the wind, seemingly ignored the fact that they were playing in front of an audience, and spent whole sets engulfed in a search for connection through live improv. The Red Rocks “Mike’s,” Mud Island “Tweezer,” Atlanta “Bowie,” Raleigh “Runaway Jim,” Fingerlake’s “Tweezer,” SPAC “Down With Disease -> Free,” Jones Beach “Tweezer,” Great Woods “Split Open & Melt,” and Sugarbush “Bowie” all exceeded 25 minutes – the “Tweezer’s” took the prize with lengths of 50, 42 and 30 min respectively – and all displayed the lengths Phish was willing to go to achieve their goals. Taken as whole pieces, each jam can seem far too intimidating for casual listeners. Yet, the true power of each is found deep within, after lengthy jams, failed themes, diverted paths; when each member essentially stops thinking, relinquishes their ego, and allows the music to carry them. The 22 – 33min segment of music produced in the “Tweezer” from 06/14, and the 6:45 – 11:50 section of the SPAC “Free,” are preserved as probably the best examples of the sheer beauty and brilliance of Summer ’95, when it mattered little what song was played, just where it went. While this approach was slimmed down during the Fall tour that followed, the external forces explained in the last post, along with the band’s ferocious energy and desire to continue to push their improv resulted in probably the greatest tour and month we’ll ever see out of Phish.

At the end of 1995 however, the band appeared to be lost for the first time in their twelve year career. Simply put, they’d climbed the mountain. While they’d exceeded expectations numerous times before, little could be explained for the fact that they’d just completed their longest and best tour, capped off by a near-flawless performance at the most famous arena in the world on New Years Eve. It was a moment that required some serious reflection about what had just happened and what was next. As a result, the band dispersed for the winter, before reuniting at Trey’s barn/studio in the Spring of 1996 to begin recording a new album. The result, Billy Breathes is of the most patient, contemplative and organic of the band’s fourteen offerings. Entering the studio with only four live-tested songs – “Free,” “Theme From The Bottom,” “Taste” and “Prince Caspian” – forced Phish to develop alternative means to craft new songs. The most notable was “The Blob,” an organic musical experiment by which each member recorded one note on any instrument in rotation until a cohesive idea was formed. It forced them to step outside of their own ego, shell, and creative patterns, and instead gave birth to a linear style of music wholly balanced in full-band communication. While the experiment only materialized in parts of “Swept Away -> Steep,” it buried an idea in the band’s mind, that if they could minimize their musical ideas, they could in fact recreate the best aspects of “The Blob” in a live setting. The Summer and October leg of their Fall tour saw the band struggle between relying on the crutches of their Trey-centric rock shows they were known for, and the experimental, whole-band jamming, they were trying to adapt. While there were certainly moments of greatness throughout the first half of their touring year – the entire Red Rocks run, 08/13/1996, particularly the phenomenal “Mike’s,” Hershey Park’s demented first set, The Clifford Ball, the two night stand at MSG, the Charlotte “Simple,” and the Tallahassee “Mike’s” – the year was certainly lacking the consistent other-worldliness that had defined the band since August 1993.

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All this changed essentially overnight with the band’s Halloween performance in Atlanta of The Talking Head’s Remain In Light. An album rooted in rhythm, infectious groove, minimalism, and funk, Phish discovered the porthole through which they could accomplish their goal of whole band linear musical communication. “Crosseyed & Painless,” “The Great Curve,” “Seen & Not Seen” – all these songs offered a variety of ways for Mike and Fish to take a commanding lead of the rhythm, and for Trey and Page to engage in intricate melodic conversations and atmospheric washes, all blending together to create a sound that was at once wholly original, featured each member equally, and still retained the lively and punctual grooves that had been their calling card. Heard first in the “Simple” from the 10/31 Set III, the band incorporated this revolutionary shift throughout the rest of 1996, from the 11/02 “Crosseyed” to the Rupp “Gin,” from the Gainsville “Tweezer” to the 11/18 “Simple,” Seattle “Down With Disease” and the “Weekapaug” from the phenomenal tour finale in Las Vegas. Awash in a newfound spirit for jamming, the band used the same logistical advantage of the 1994 Fall tour in 1996 as they left the comfort of the Northeast, and spent essentially a month out West.

And yet, as monumental as the musical accomplishments of November 1996 were, nothing could compare to what would happen when the band crossed the Atlantic for their first headlining tour of Europe in February 1997. Playing to tiny clubs in ancient cities, in front of small crowds – a few dedicated Phisheads, but mainly, curious Europeans – with a newfound musical concept to toy with; it all added up to two weeks of some of the most original, experimental and straight up, different music the band had ever made. It was as if someone had hit the reset button on the band’s career, they performed with a curiosity and a dedication to full-band communication in ways they’d never before. Beginning in earnest during the second set of Amsterdam’s 02/17 show – the first of three legendary performances in the city of canals during 1997 – the “Squirming Coil -> Down With Disease -> Carini -> Taste -> Down With Disease” hour-long sandwich represented a new approach for Phish, where any and every song could be transformed at any time into a deep and prodding excursion into the unknown. Wielding a more stripped down and industrial sound, they played with a gritty and ferocious drive all the while allowing more space within their notes. Their jams breathed with new direction and inspiration, and avenues of musical thought that simply couldn’t be traversed before were suddenly being actualized on a nightly basis. Other highlights surfaced in even more unique places throughout the tour, from the Florence “Run Like An Antelope -> Wilson -> Oh Kee Pa> AC/DC Bag> Billy Breathes,” and the entire second set from the phenomenal Stuttgart show on the 26th that mixed jams and bustouts to create an all-around classic show, to the Berlin “Drowned -> Prince Caspian> Frankenstein> David Bowie,” and the “Wolfman’s Brother -> Jesus Just Left Chicago” from Hamburg, which was not only the jam of the tour, but helped to influence the band to continue to give any and all of their songs the chance to jam, something which would help to shape the course of 1997.

Summer brought a return to Europe, except this time the band came totally prepared. Armed with the most new material they’d had in years, along with the knowledge that space, minimalism and the groove were their calling card, they absolutely tore their second European tour apart with focused determination and a looseness that would characterize each show and their sound in 1997. All the rules were tossed away this tour. Jams could appear and Full-Banddisappear and then reappear at any time. First sets were no long reserved for straight renditions of songs, and by the fifth show in the tour, in Prague, they spent the majority of the first set wielding an unending jam that read “Taste -> Cities> Horn -> Ain’t Love Funny -> Limb By Limb -> I Don’t Care> Run Like An Antelope.” The tour is probably the loosest and most relaxed the band has ever sound. Teetering on the edge of sloppy at all times, the thing that characterizes the tour is the fact that songs meant nothing. All that mattered was that the band found a way to segueway into a thick, murky, locked-in groove out of whatever song they happened to be playing. “Down With Disease -> Piper -> Down With Disease -> Meatstick -> McGrupp & The Watchful Horsemasters -> Makisupa Poiceman” // “Jam -> Timber> Bathtub Gin -> Cities -> Jam” // “Stash -> Llama -> Wormtown Jam -> Wading In The Velvet Sea” // “You Enjoy Myself -> Ghost> Poor Heart” // “Bathtub Gin -> Jam -> Bathtub Gin> Llama -> Jam -> Wading In The Velvet Sea> The Lizards Jam” // “Julius -> Magilla> Ya Mar -> Jam -> Ghost -> Take Me To The River,” these were the kind of unending jams that exposed unknown nuggets of gold within their songs that had never been unearthed before. It was a tour filled with artistic success, a tour that reinforced the goals they had in mind and their path to achieve them. It sent them back to the US with a plethora of confidence, the likes of which they hadn’t had since Fall 1995. And with the set up of each tour – both winding around back east for their finales – the logistics were established to support two massively successful and artistically victorious tours.

From literally the first note of their US Summer tour opener in Virginia Beach, it was clear to anyone who hadn’t yet heard the funk transformation over the past seven months, that Phish was a very different band from the one who’d closed out 1996 in Boston. “Ghost” provided the welcome back moment for both bands and fans alike, and the sharp, rhythmic, groove-heavy swagger of the song reintroduced the band in a way they’d never done before. In the same way that “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Good Vibrations,” “Thunder Road,” “Zoo Station,” unapologetically ushered in new eras for The Stones, Beatles, Beach Boys, Springsteen and U2, “Ghost” must have been a shock to any in attendance, particularly those who hadn’t yet heard the musical experiments from Europe. Two nights later, the band would set the standard for all “Ghosts” with a 27-minute, firey onslaught of funk grooves and machine-gun-Trey, summoning in the “Summer of the Ghost” and transforming their funk revival once more to a sound more American in nature: liner musical communication with elements of heroic, anthemic rock.

As the tour wound across the south into the desert, then up the Pacific coast before crossing the plains into the Northeast, the band only got tighter (read: looser), treating each show like a reformation on the proud state of their unified sound. Stretching out jams ala June 1995, the thing that most separates their Summer 1997 jams from previous years is the clear listenability of the music. Where in years past, many of the jams contained large swaths of wholly noise-based experiments, meant to push the band further into the unknown until they reached a sublime plateau, the jams of 1997 accessed these same untapped passages through music that was at once pleasing to the ears while remaining uncompromising in it’s goals. Highlights abound, there were two clear peaks of the tour. The second set during the first night of Deer Creek where “Cities” was unveiled as show-stopping jam vehicle, relying wholly on simple riffs and builds from Trey, moving into a rising arena rock theme before seamlessly exploding into “Good Times Bad Times.” From there the set took the road less traveled, as the band segued the Zeppelin heartbreaker into an egoless space jam, before rotating instruments – further separating themselves from their musical personas – ultimately ending up in the uuber-rare Fishman-penned “Rock-A-William.” Closing the set with an extended and exploratory take on “David Bowie,” it proved the band’s increasing ability to craft a set that relied wholly on improvisation and communication, yet wouldn’t lose the audiences attention. On the second to last set of summer, during the band’s second summer-tour ending festival, The Great Went – this time relocated even further northeast from Plattsburgh, NY to tiny Limestone, ME – they played a set that for the past fifteen years has remained one of the signature peaks of Phish’s storied history. Reading: “Down With Disease -> Jam> Bathtub Gin> Uncle Pen, 2001 -> Harry Hood,” the set features literally every aspect of Phish’s 1997 sound, all of it performed at the highest level. There’s not a single lull throughout, the set essentially flows in two parts, yet is generally viewed as one fully-flowing masterpiece. While the acid-fueled, Band Of Gypsies-esque funk rock of the “Down With Disease,” and open-ended grooves of “2001” certainly stand out as defining pieces of the era, it’s the “Bathtub Gin” that takes the honors not only as the jam of the show, but as one of the most impressive pieces of live, linear communication the band has ever played. Taking the “Gin” thematic solo on a wild ride, the band flows down one unified path, never changing keys, simply building the theme of the “Gin” to an explosive peak of radiance, energy and simply unexplainably beautiful music. Only the introspective rise of the “Hood” to close out the set could begin to rival the simplistic beauty and transcendence of what’s come to be known as “The Went Gin.” Closing out the summer tour with a set and a jam that featured the band on the same page, wholly dedicated to the same musical goals, reinvigorated by two boundary pushing tours of Europe, and a revivalist swing through America, they stepped back into Vermont for their second recording session of the year in preps for what would become a legendary tour, one that  would end up rivaling the peak of December 1995.

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From the second night of tour in Salt Lake City, the band rode eastward on a mission to destroy America through a combination of Hendrix-inspried psychedelic funk/rock jams, a condensed catalogue that forced them to think outside the box with all of their songs, and most importantly, a unified energy and wordless communication that allowed them to create some of the most high-octane, linear music they ever have. Highlights adorn each show of the tour, there are simply too many to list. It’s the only tour – aside from December 1995 – where literally every single show has a moment/jam/segue/song you MUST hear. From the Vegas phish_1997“Stash” to the entire second set of Albany’s tour finale, and everything in between, it’s a tour for the ages, a tour that displayed the converging darkness and light of the entire Phish dichotomy.

Transgressive in nature, the tour certainly created some backlash among some of the band’s diehard fans for it’s seeming abandonment of the “pure” Phish from 1985 – 1996. Complaining that the band had taken a lazy approach in moving away from the complex, high-energy sound that had defined them, the music became unlistenable to some for it’s over-reliance on groove, and suspicion that the music was nothing more than a result of some of the members increasing addictions to drugs. When listening to any of Phish’s music, it’s clear that drug experimentation plays a part in the creative process behind many of their classic songs/jams/shows. In their best moments, the band is a conduit of energy, releasing themselves and the listener from their self-concious place in the here and now, offering a feeling that allows the band members and their fans alike a plane of unified communication and celebration. In their worst, they’re sloppy, unstable, and unable to access the higher planes of music that they’ve spent the last 30 years working towards. While both the best and worst moments of Phish are few and far between – the former being that intangible show or jam that fans spend thousands of dollars, minutes and miles searching for, and the latter being most predominant in the 1999 – 2004 era of Phish – the band has made a career of finding that place in between greatness and failure, and making the best of it. This is not to suggest in the slightest that their entire legacy is one of mediocrity, more so to say that the idea of relying heavily on improvisational music for success means one will fall on their face often, and that the exploration of that feeling of riding the thin line between success and failure is one worth visiting in the wide spectrum of music. It’s why they spent the summer of 1995 traversing as far out to the reaches of music as they could, abandoning sets in favor of live experimentation. It’s why they traveled to Europe for four months to figure out a way to jam as a singular unit. It’s why they spent the Fall of 1997 building on this unified sound, and ultimately perfected it in a way we’d never hear from them again.

In a lot of ways, it’s unfair to categorize December 1997 as predominant to November 1997. Really the entire month in between the 13th of November and the 13th of December is one singular month in Phish history. However, for both the purposes of this blog’s initial posts, and the fact that the New Year’s Eve run that year proved to be on par, if not better overall, than 1995’s, the sole focus of this post is the music created in December. Tho, November 1997, you shall not sleep on. No sir.

Salt Lake City’s “Wolfman’s -> Piper> Twist -> Slave,” Denver’s “Ghost,” and the entire second set, Champaign’s “Wolfman’s -> Makisupa Policeman,” Hampton’s EVERYTHING, Winston-Salem’s EVERYTHING, Hartford’s massive “Character Zero,” Worcester’s hour long “Runaway Jim,” it doesn’t even begin to compile a comprehensive guide to an incredible two-week stretch that wound it’s way from Las Vegas to Worcester, MA. From literally the first show of the tour, the band was on fire and tore the shit out of America. Phish Destroys America is what the tour is known as to their most ardent fans, and really, there’s not much else that needs to be said in regards to it. From Salt Lake on, there isn’t a single show not worth your time. Jams of 20 – 60 mins, with many leaning towards the 30 min category, all featuring a patient, matured, confident, badass motherfucking quartet, on a mission to manifest energy through some of the simplest music ever invented.

In the same way that December 1995 benefitted from a month of consistent music preceding it, December 1997 was the product of what happens when Phish just keeps going. From Philly to Cleveland, Detroit to Dayton, State College to Rochester to the finale in Albany, the nine shows of December 1997 were the coronation of 1997. Add to it the NYE run from Maryland to MSG – particularly the middle two shows – and you have a month of 13 top-tier shows that would stand up to any month in Phish’s history this side of December 1995. With a plethora of memorable jams and shows that rank up with the best in their history, the month is full of literally everything that makes Phish Phish, yet this time, with the added edge provided to them by their stylistic mastery of the funk sound, and their fully locked in, linear musical communication.

– Jams –

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. Granted, one would still be on the right track with the Philly “Mike’s -> Simple -> Dog Faced Boy -> Ya Mar -> Weekapaug,” “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,” 12/12 and 12/29 Set II. Yet, both of the highlighted jams really define Phish in ways their most transcendent jams always do. Featuring full-band interaction and communication, they move past the themes of each of their song bases, into a plane of music that is completely unsupported structurally, aside from the fact that the band keeps playing. From there, both pieces give Trey – the reluctant leader of Phish, and closest thing the band has to a rock icon – the opportunity to unleash his guitar prowess.

415b330ae05bc5f1d29bc09f1e26fa3d51f94d2fThe fascinating thing about 1997 is that the whole reason the band sought to deconstruct their music in the first place was that by 1993, their jams had become too predictably weighted by the expectations of what Trey could do with his guitar. Superior in talent to his bandmates throughout much of the 90’s, in terms of technical wizardry, Trey began the process of stepping into the shadows during their lengthy jams, forcing the other members to step up and take the reins. While the transformation took time, by 1997, the band had found their equal footing, resulting in the overall sound and memorable 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 an 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 that 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 sections of jams, and paid homage to the guitar legends of his musical past. Like the demented 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 with his guitar in a ways he couldn’t over the previous five years. Nowhere is this clearer than the aformentioned “Tweezer” and “AC/DC Bag.” Both follow similar patterns of tight, rhythmic, equal part jamming that builds into a moment where they all “hook-up” – 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.

– Shows –

What’s more about the above mentioned jams is that they both came during the 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 Philly earlier in the week. Yet as so often happens, the adrenaline and improvisational confidence displayed in a standout first set, bled to the second set. Only here would be one that would become a legendary moment in the band’s career.

When one reads a setlist and sees that large sections, or the entire set went by without a single break, it’s a good sign the band was just feeling it 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, inter-galactic/Hendrix-swagger of the “Tweezer,” surprise funk-breakdown in “Izabella,” and the “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 em. Akin to 11/17/1997, 11/19/1997, 11/21/1997, 11/22/1997, 11/28/1997, 12/03/1997, and 12/07/1997, 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.

0The 12/30/1997 show just might be the best Phish show of all time. It’s my favorite, for what it’s worth. Never before, and really never since has the band put on display literally everything that makes them worth listening to in one show. From bustouts to jams, to rarities, to stories, gimmicks, jams in bustouts, the defined feeling of “the night before the night,” and an encore that blew all the others away, the show has everything one could ever want out of a Phish show. Full posts could be dedicated to the show’s entirety, let alone it’s 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 blew the lid off 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 Pentagram’s – 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 Proclaimer’s “Im Gonna Be (500 Miles)” – and that’s just the first three songs. Toss in the “Izabella,” 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. But as they tend to do on their favorite nights, 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’re some shows you just can’t 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. Just a perfect show that brilliantly sums up everything that made the Fall 1997 tour one of the best the band had ever embarked on.

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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 band’s would coast on their first taste of success, what has always separated Phish is their ongoing quest for authentic musical communication. Had they just decided to turn it off after 12/31/1995, they would still be remembered among clusters of fans as the best band they’d ever seen. Maybe their legacy would have lived on in an even more cultish way. Yet, they knew as artists, as musicians, and as friends that they had yet to achieve their 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 it’s recipe throughout their Winter and Summer runs in Europe, adjusted it 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 successes, but more importantly for how willing the band was to change completely in search of a goal. As we explore the final December in the next post, we’ll seem more of 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 see Phish in their most vulnerable state yet.

December 1999, MSG 2012 Reviews and The Best of Phish 2012 Coming Soon!