Tales of Mental Tangle #4: Festival Sets

The Skinny
As anyone reading this surely knows, Phish’s festivals have provided eight of the most iconic and musically riveting weekends of the band’s career. From the jubilant opening notes of Chalk Dust Torture at the Clifford Ball to the magic show the band put on in the Everglades, from the “we’ve still got it” statement of It to the tragic final shows at Coventry, these galas have been nothing if not memorable.

For this edition of Tales of Mental Tangle, we decided to take on individual sets from festivals. Now before we go any further, a caveat: as should be true of any “best show ever” discussion, we decided this debate wouldn’t be fair if the midnight-to-sunrise set were part of it. Its length precludes fair comparison, as does its quality.

The Mental Tanglers
Arguing for 8/16/96 II: The Relentless Communicator, Aaron Hawley. Festivals attended: Big Cypress, It, Coventry. Favorite festival jam: Melt > Catapult from Cypress

Arguing for 8/17/97 II: Guy Forget. Festivals attended: It, Coventry. Favorite festival jam: Cypress Crosseyed. But ask me on a different day and I’ll say Went Gin or one of about 12 other Cypress jams.

The Hard Evidence
8/17/97 II
8/16/96 II
The Clifford Ball DVD Box Set

THE TANGLE

Opening Statement: Aaron Hawley
I’m picking 8/16/96 Set II from the Clifford Ball as the single best set to come out of a Phish festival. No disrespect to the Went, but there simply aren’t any Phish festivals without the Clifford Ball. The Clifford Ball is the middle point on a three point trajectory that launches itself from NYE ’95 to the swamps of south Florida. The gravity of the situation already sets it up as a legendary highpoint for the band and this is my favorite set of the weekend. This has it all: a raging Melt, a beautiful Coil solo, a huge Mike’s Groove and an acoustic set that wouldn’t be seen again at a fest until Festival 8. What’s not to love?

Guy’s Response
Guy ForgetYou’re absolutely right that Clifford Ball was one of the most historically significant events of the band’s career, up there with NYE ’95 and Cypress. If we were debating the Ball and the Went on those terms, the former would win easily. But on sheerly musical terms, I think 8/17/97 II wins by a long shot.

For lovers of Phish jamming, 8/17/97 II is a dream set. It opens up with a 28-minute Disease that goes all over the place: from expansive, funky blues-rock, to a gorgeous laid-back summer-night groove starting around 18 minutes, and finally, beginning around 24:00, to what I’d consider the best extended Trey-Mike breakdown ever (though Page sticks around in the background). This Disease is a fine example of what happens in many of the greatest festival jams: the band takes a path–here, funk-rock that gets its edge from Trey’s liberal use of the pitch-doubling feature of the Whammy pedal–that they’ve followed for the entire tour leading up to the festival, but along this path they uncover a whole plot of new ground. This happened in a handful of jams at Cypress, and it happened in this Disease.

But while the Disease is, in my mind, one of the top 5 versions of the song ever played, it’s not the best jam of the set. The Gin that follows it is considered by many to be the most inspiring jam ever played. No words can accurately describe the jam’s majesty, so I won’t try to find any.

At this point, it’s no surprise that the rest of the set is phenomenal, even if it never rises to quite the same heights as its first two songs. But suffice it to say that 2001 is, again, among the great versions of the song, with sections that sound suitable for a dance floor, and others that would do better in a space ship in its 23 minutes. The set closes with a soaring Hood.

And of course, I haven’t gotten into the moments that translate less well to tape: namely, the Art Jam (and art portions of the 2001), and the Hood being lit purely by the glowsticks that sailed above the crowd for one of the first times at a Phish show. The point is, this set is not only historically significant, but has countless moments that rank among the most improvisationally brilliant in the band’s career. 8/16/96 II has some strong jamming in Melt and Mike’s, but nothing that’s even in the same ballpark as what’s happening throughout the second-to-last set of the Went.

Aaron’s Retort
Here, it seems, is where our inherent tastes differ. I like my jams succinct and with no loss of momentum. It’s hard to get that in 1997, I know. Trust me, I understand your passion for the “big one” as far as jams are concerned, and you’re right, 8/17/97 II has a couple of “big ones”. The Disease and the Gin are both as big as they come, and noteworthy, no doubt. If there are phans out there who haven’t heard them, by all means, click the link at the top of the post. I’ll grant you, 8/16/96 II is not the most “out there” jamming you’re going to hear. The Went has that beat. Heck, even the third set from that same show is a much better representation of that side of Phish. That said, if you’re throwing out the art jam already, how can the best festival set feature a gimmick that doesn’t translate when you listen later? While the Disease and the Gin from the Went are both in the running when you’re talking about best-ever versions of songs, we’re not talking about songs; we’re talking about a set.

To me, a perfect Phish set is like a perfect album. It’s a singular cohesive piece of art which is created when the right songs are performed and assembled in just the right way. To me, the second set on that first night of the Clifford Ball is that perfect storm of Phish. It’s like a play in three acts. In the first act, Phish comes out of the gates with guns blazing with an upbeat Melt, follows it up with a deft Sparkle into a ripping Free, and finishes the first act like they do so many sets, with a long, gorgeous Squirming Coil piano solo.

Then, in the second act, the band shows you a side of themselves that maybe you didn’t even know they had. The acoustic mini-set of Waste, Talk, Train Song and Strange Design follows and reminds you that Phish is a much more versatile band than they sometimes get credit for. It can be easy to whip the crowd into a frenzy, but sometimes it’s much harder to stop and teach them a lesson. Waste and Strange Design are both gripping renditions with their emotional foundations stripped bare for all to see, and it makes for some of the most compelling live Phish you can listen to. They even close things out with Hello My Baby. A gimmick, yes, but another example of the many things Phish can do.

Finally, the play reaches its catharsis in the third act as the band burns through a high energy Mike’s Song and Simple before settling into the goofy bounce of Contact. From Mike’s into Simple, Trey leads the band in full bore rock mode, never missing a beat in the transition between the two tunes. Finally, with Mike’s ode to his wheels behind them, the group charges through Weekapaug to bring a close to a scintillating set of Phish. You can tell from their playing that they are clearly energized by the amazing feat they’d managed to pull off. While the jams may not wander as much as you’d like, they never lack for sizzle.

It’s hard to sum up Phish. Sometimes it seems so impossible that I wonder why we even bother to try. Pop on a copy of 8/16/96 II and suddenly you’ll realize it’s all there. The whole thing. From the multi-metered weirdness, to the barbershop quartet, the soulful ballads to machine-gun Trey, the second set from the Clifford Ball has it all. If you have a friend who still doesn’t get Phish, pop this one in. If you don’t have a convert by the end of Weekapaug, you never will.

Guy’s Retaliation
Guy ForgetYou’re right that these sets represent two different sides of Phish. There’s no way to objectively declare one side better, or to assert that one should be enjoyed more than the others. So I’ll try to enunciate why I find 8/17/97 II superior.

The main thing it comes down to is risk and return. When you play six songs in 95 minutes, there’s a much higher risk that you’re going to fall flat on your face than if you play thirteen songs in the same span. It’s for that reason that the amazing success of 8/17/97 II–and this point could be extended to extended jams more generally–is so impressive.

By comparison, I’d argue that any time the band plays an acoustic mini-set in the middle of a set, people are going to get pretty excited about it. First off, it’s uncommon, which gets us Phish nerds off. Second, it pretty much always sounds good when the band does it–that is, it’s low-risk.

As for the sections of 8/16/96 II that bookend the acoustic third, I think the results are mixed. The Melt that opens the set is really good, particularly when Trey pushes things at the end. But the rest of the pre-acoustic part of the set is standard. After the band returns to their electric instruments, they play a ripping Mike’s with an unusually interesting segue into Simple, and a good Weekapaug. But even the Mike’s pales in comparison with the version from Deer Creek three nights earlier.

Look, I think you make a great point about set flow, and I’m with you on the appeal of a great, succinct version of a song. I just don’t think 8/16/96 II is a beacon of succinct songdom. 8/17/97 II, on the other hand, is the epitome of jam-packed sets.

Aaron’s Revenge
Again, it’s not about which set has the best jams, it’s about what set is the best. Obviously, this is a subjective argument, since we all know that ALL Phish shows are tied for “Best Ever”! That’s why, to me, 8/16/96 II is a perfect picture of what Phish is, and what they can do. You’ve got a couple ragers, like Melt, Free, and Weekapaug, that let Trey straight out rip it. You’ve got the sensitive acoustic set, which spotlights some killer songwriting. Despite the jams getting all the love, this band has some great tunes in their repertoire, and that’s something I want to always hammer home. Hell, this set even has a barbershop quartet song! This set’s got it all.

I wasn’t at the Ball (or the Went, for that matter), so my opinion isn’t based on a personal experience at the show. I fell in love with 8/16/96 II on tape. I got an FM, which in the pre-LivePhish era was solid gold, and this once stuck in my car stereo for years on end. It may not be full of Type II jamming, but I don’t think the best Phish set needs to be. A big honking Type II jam can be a highlight of a set, but it can’t be the whole set. This set has everything you could want from Phish, on one of the high points in the band’s career. That’s why, in my book, 8/16/96 II just can’t be beat.

Guy’s Refusal to Let Aaron Get the Last Word
Guy ForgetI wouldn’t disagree with your argument that 8/16/96 II is a survey of all the things that make Phish great–and a mighty coherent, well played survey, at that. I think my preference for 8/17/97 II is based on two things, though: first, my favorite thing about Phish is their ability to go out and do something they’ve never done before, so a jamfest will always be my favorite kind of set. But second, I think 8/17/97 II arguably has more great jamming than any other set in the band’s history. While I think 8/16/96 II is great, it’s hard for me to see at it as quite as much of a standout.

Which do you think is the better set?

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