Tales of Mental Tangle #5: The Story of Two Ghosts

From http://zenster.net/phish-photoshops.htm

The Skinny
Since its inception in 1997, Ghost has been a jam vehicle. Much like Tweezer, the song has acted like a musical chameleon, its jams taking on whatever color the band happens to be favoring at any given time. In the tune’s early days, that color was the color funk. Virtually every ’97 Ghost is worth hearing for its unique grooves, and the band’s obvious excitement at being able to lay them down. Here, we’ll focus on two of that year’s giants: 7/23 Lakewood and 11/17 Denver.

The Mental Tanglers
Arguing for 7/23/97 Ghost: Poster Nutbag. Top 5 Ghosts: 7/23/97 (duh), 11/17/97 (duh), 5/22/00 (a classic), 7/6/98 (’nuff said), 12/31/10 (a Ghost that made a statement, a la Lakewood). Honorable mention: 4/4/98 (because it was “really long and really slow), 12/2/97 (just to plug the show), 12/11/99 (another Philly plug, and an integral part of that second set), 7/4/99 (HotLanta Ghost>Slave).

Arguing for 11/17/97 Ghost: Guy Forget. Top 5 Ghosts: 11/17/97, 7/23/97, 7/6/98, 5/22/00, 8/3/03. Honorable mentions: 7/1/97 (“back of the worm”), 7/2/98, and damn near every Fall ’97 version.

The Hard Evidence
7/23/97 Ghost: SBD | AUD
11/17/97 Ghost : AUD | LivePhish


Opening Statement: Guy Forget
Guy ForgetAt first glance, these two jams have a lot of common. There’s the obvious: they both came out of the same song, and, as ’97 jams played in the US, the funk provides a guiding hand to both. Groove-oriented jamming gives way to climax-oriented jamming in both. Finally, what I think sets these two jams from many others with huge peaks is that an unusually interesting, extended theme follows the peak.

But in spite of their similarities, these jams highlight contrasting sides of the band’s improvisational personality. The Lakewood Ghost is frenetic and its climax frenzied, with screams from Fishman and ripping guitar work from Trey. The Denver version, on the other hand, is shockingly patient, with the band–and especially Trey–letting the climax arrive organically, rather than charging toward it. The reason I think Denver Ghost is better is that I don’t think any of the band’s other patient, democratic jams have ever led to such an inspiring place, whereas the unbridled energy behind Lakewood has its match in a handful of other jams.

Poster’s Rebuttal
One of the things that strikes me about the Lakewood Ghost is that no one in the audience knows what it is when it starts until they sing the word “Ghost.” Then you hear a cheer. The intro is driving…the band is psyched to be playing this after that SIIICK PYITE to open the set (seriously, as good as PYITE can get). I should also say that I prefer the ’97 Ghost intro/verse to the more recent incarnations. Gimme a ’97 Ghost ANY day. Another thing to keep in mind about this Ghost is that this is only the SECOND version the American audience is exposed to (and the first one, in Virginia Beach on 7/21, wasn’t too shabby either). Imagine this is your introduction – where can you go from there? Add a little HotLanta Phish flavor and you get…the Lakewood Ghost.

You are exactly right when you say the Denver Ghost is way more relaxed and patient, and that was a key difference between the summer and fall of ’97. I generally tilt more toward the fall ’97 funk, but at around 5:20 in the 7/23 AUD recording, you can hear the crowd recognizing that this is something the likes of which they have never heard before. This is Ghost being introduced to America, and there is something in the air.

The jam is so stark, considering the last time they were on American soil they were playing the Holiday Run of ’96–which sounds NOTHING like this. We share a common first show (12/28/96) so I always feel evenly matched when we square off, but consider this: forgetting what you know now, could you ever imagine the next show you saw after 12/28/96 sounding like this (and, for the record, my second was the Great Went, and the second set of 8/17/97 is one of, if not the, greatest set of all time). It is that frenetic pace, as you call it, that is what this Ghost is about. That is another question for another day, though…how the hell did they get from ’96 to ’97? At least you can hear how ’94 led into ’95.

But back to this jam. At about 12 minutes, you get something you can only find in the summer of ’97: crazy-ass disco funk. Reminiscent of the Went 2001 in its disco-danciness. I can only imagine dancing to this on a hot summer’s night in Atlanta. I saw 7/3-4/99 in Atlanta, and, let me tell you, I need to see Phish there again. They always rock that city. I’d like to see a Denver show too, given Phish’s history in Colorado. But anyway, that is why I think the Lakewood Ghost is superior: it’s so unique in its intensity, in its cohesion despite the intensity, and in its brashness, boldness, funkiness, and all around badass-ness.

Guy’s Rebuttal
Guy ForgetYou’re right, I definitely could not have imagined at 12/28/96 that they’d be playing either of these Ghosts a year later. 12/28 was a great show, but the jamming that night offered no hints of what the following months had in store. Although there were many other shows from Fall ’96 that foreshadowed the ’97 sound, as Raging Mob of Joggers wrote about here on OPT last fall.

I also agree about the PYITE that proceeds Ghost, and want to plug the entire 7/23/97 Set 2 – between the PYITE-Ghost opener and the amazing so-called Russian folk jam out of YEM, which goes into Rocky Mountain Way, this is one of the great sets in Phish history. As is 11/17/97 I. One thing that’s so incredible about 11/17/97 is that the first set’s jams out of Ghost and Tweezer are so patient and democratic, and yet the second set is so wild and Trey-led. I think the definitive biography of Phish would include a chapter about how ’97 was so great because it was the year where these two sides of the band’s musical personality intersected.

But back to these Ghosts. As you said, 7/23/97 Ghost is brash, bold and bad-ass. But so is 7/6/98 Ghost–arguably more so. Yes, 7/23/97 has some things that 7/6/98 doesn’t have; in fact, overall, I think it’s a better version. But my point is that 7/23/97 is not the obvious pinnacle of its style of jamming.

I believe 11/17/97 Ghost is. As the band moves into the major key, Page’s arpeggios are beautiful, Trey’s playing subtle, and Mike’s counterpoint brilliant – if 7/23/97 Ghost gets its inspiration from James Brown, this one gets it from Brian Eno. At 12:20 in the LivePhish version, each band member is floating along like a cloud. And at 12:55, the clouds part: Mike lays a descending line over the riff Trey’s been repeating that could not be more perfect.

If you close your eyes and listen to the lick with which Trey caps things off at 13:25, I guarantee you’ll be able to see 15,000 hippies in McNichols Arena throwing their arms up in the air as Chris bathes them in a sea of white light. This lick is why Trey is the best closer in rock n’ roll history. He is able, with Mariano Rivera-like consistency, to come up with the perfect final phrase to cap off an amazing jam: think Went Gin, 6/28/00 Gin, 9/14/00 Suzy, 6/20/04 Drowned. And what’s so incredible about each of these codas–what is so unfuckingbelievable about this guitarist–is that they are not of a type: far from Trey having some “signature lick,” like many great guitarists, or even a signature method, every one sounds completely different from every other. And every one is perfectly suited to the particular jam it closes. The ecstatic riff that ends this jubilant jam is a case in point.

Amazingly, the jam not only keeps going, but finds a second wind. So many monumental buildup jams reach a peak, then do the sensible thing–namely, end. In fact, all four that I mentioned in the last paragraph do so. But Denver Ghost finds its way to a new, spirited funk groove, and takes it to a surprising and inspired place. This is not an advantage in our present debate – Lakewood Ghost is another of the best examples of these two-humped jams – but it seemed worth mentioning.

Poster’s Rebuttal
You may be right when you say that 7/23/97 isn’t the pinnacle of that style of jamming, but as an opening salvo to that style of jamming, it’s quite impressive and sets a standard that is nearly impossible to beat. This is Phish setting the bar so high on their first try that it’s amazing they were ever able to equal themselves again.

I guess what I was alluding to in my earlier paragraph is that when listening to the Lakewood Ghost, it’s not just about the music (which is really amazing), but the newness and uniqueness of the funk that allow the jam to be greater than the sum of its parts. The Denver Ghost may be more refined than the Lakewood Ghost, but I think Lakewood’s “wow” factor is what pushes it over the top of Denver.

I also wholeheartedly agree with your statement that Trey is the best closer in rock history. Such a great way to put it and it makes so much sense that I am kind of pissed at myself for not using that exact phrase first! No one can close like Trey and it’s his, and the band’s, ability to have the big ending that separates Phish from the rest. The Dead had their way of doing things, but not even they could close a big number in the way that Phish can.

Two slight points to quibble with, though. Trey does have some signature licks, some of which are used in both the Lakewood and Denver Ghosts. If you listen to other ’97 shows you can hear them, and sections of each jam contain elements of jams that have been used in other shows. The other point I want to address was your use of Mariano Rivera in your analogy. Since I am a Phillies loyalist, I would have to substitute a 2008 Brad Lidge for Mo. Lidge had a perfect 2008 that led to a World Series championship – it don’t get more consistent than that! But, given that Mariano is probably the greatest closer in history, I can’t really argue. Plus, this is a Phish blog and baseball loyalties should be kept out of it (that is, until the Phils win the World Series again this year). Maybe I should make a shirt for the Col. “Four”bins to represent the Phils starting pitchers.

Again, like all these other Mental Tangles, there is no clear winner. These debates aren’t black and white, more like shades of gray. But, for my money, if you get to put one Ghost to have on your desert island iPod, take the Lakewood Ghost for its explosiveness, what it represents in the evolution of Phish’s sound, its dance-funk, and its all-around awesomeness.

Guy’s Final Thoughts
Guy ForgetYou make a great point about the “wow” factor introduced by the newness of the funk. It sounds as new to the band as to the crowd; the band is feeding off their own energy. The whole thing reminds me a bit of the Murat Gin – you could imagine them saying to themselves, “Holy crap, I didn’t know we could do that!”

You’re right that Trey does have a number of signature licks (and even signature jams – the funk progression he uses starting around 12:25 in the Lakewood Ghost resurfaces in the Went 2001 and 9/14/99 Gumbo, among others). My point was more that it’s amazing that at the climactic moment of a jam, he so frequently relies on pure improvisation rather than these licks.

I’ll trust you on Brad Lidge. My days as a student of baseball didn’t outlast the era of Dennis Eckersley, Bobby Thigpen, and Lee Smith by much, so my analogies are outdated.

As for desert islands, if I were going to one, I’d be sure to take an iPod that could fit both of these Ghosts.

Rather than just have you vote on the two Ghosts we’ve been yapping about, select your favorite from the list below.

What is your favorite Ghost?

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