Why You Need the Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97 Box Set

Phish has tended to do a good job picking shows for their handful of official releases over the years. Hampton Comes Alive, New Year’s Eve 1995, Vegas ’96, and Slip Stitch and Pass are a few examples of their ability to choose shows that are fan favorites–shows that fans have been waiting to get crispy recording of. However, none of the official releases thus far have had the epic combination of being a three-nighter, a fan favorite, and a perfect reflection of the band during what is often referred to as their best tour ever. None of the previous releases, with the exception of MSG 1995, have been absolute must-haves in the serious phan’s collection. Enter: the Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97 box set.

The music contained in this seven-disc box set will engulf you in a way that other official releases can’t quite accomplish. The two-night stand from Hampton ’97 has been a fan-favorite as long as the recordings have existed–but now we have the remastered and lossless soundboard recording thanks to Fred Kevorkian.

The grooves are truly infectious. From the moment they opened up the three-show run with an 18-minute Emotional Rescue, it’s quite apparent that the “Mothership” was ready to deliver. There was something different about the Emotional Rescue jam though. Sure it was funky–as you’d expect from a 1997 jam–but it was oozing with confidence and relaxation.  It wasn’t an in-your-face funk jam with stop/starts and crazy funky solos. It was pure groove–and that’s what the theme of Hampton was from soundcheck to finish.

The laid-back, no-rush attitude Phish took toward their music can be noticed just by looking at the setlists; five of the six sets this box set covers open up with massive jams that segue into more jamming: 11/21 – Emotional Rescue > Melt, Ghost > AC/DC Bag; 11/22 – Mike’s Song > Hydrogen > Weekapaug, Halley’s Comet > Tweezer; 11/23 – Bathtub Gin > Down with Disease. The shortest song of these opening jams was Ghost at about 15 minutes–and they are all followed up by more jamming. The laid-back funk is sure to infiltrate your ears and put you in a very special place.

“But, Adam, I downloaded this concert off nugs.net in 2002, you don’t need to tell me how good these shows are”. Actually, I do. Aside from the thirty minutes of never-heard-before soundcheck jamming, many of us are already very familiar with these concerts. However, hearing it on these new remastered discs is like a sonic drug. The crispness of everything, from the baby grand over the funky groove during Ghost, to Fish’s high toms towards the end of the Halley’s psychedelic peak, to Trey’s Languedoc peaking in what could be argued as one of the best Slave To the Traffic Lights ever, is absolutely pristine. I suggest giving these discs a run-over with a pair of headphones–for the first time the listener is able to truely appreciate the just how massive the thick funk of ’97 was. It’s almost overwhelming to one’s head. Mike’s bulbous bass licks during Tweezer, after the Black Eyed Katy teases of course, and the stereo recording of Page’s synth towards the end of Bathtub Gin (the stereo is great for Fishman’s drum rolls and Page’s effects) have reminded me 100% of why 1997 was so special.

While not everything is perfect, this release is pretty darn close. As you can see from the images, each disc comes in its own sleeve and each sleeve fits inside of the open-sided box. While I initially wasn’t thrilled by the unimpressive packaging for such a triumphant release, I realized that this is much better for moving to and from your car. You’re able to just move one, a couple, or all discs at a time. While I would have preferred the way they released the remastered versions of shows like Manchester 2010 or Atlantic City 2010 (in the cardboard tri-fold sleeves) or maybe even the more-impressive style that Hampton Comes Alive was packaged, this minimalist take on presentation isn’t anything that should ruffle your feathers too much. My one problem with this release is the fact that it’s not on DVD (well, Bluray). I’m beyond thankful that the people at Phish decided to give us such a beautiful recording of such beautiful shows, but why not go the extra mile and release the video? Releasing the video for this box set would shut up all the fans that complain about Phish choosing to release Walnut Creek ’97 rather than a show that might have better-captured what the year truly had to offer.

Nevertheless, it’s audio of shows like this that remind me just how impressive Phish are. I had forgotten how dark, laid-back, and psychedelic the Winston-Salem Twist > Stash was. The Twist, while half the length of the Island Tour’s, takes the listener to a very similar place in space. Before you know it, you’re in a perfectly-executed Stash that reaches a jam so deep that they never return to finish the song after nearly twenty minutes.

These CDs reminded me of the short Emotional Rescue reprise at the end of the Melt from 11/21 and just how thick and bone-crushing the Tweezer following the more-famous Halley’s Comet is. It reminded me how each set of these shows is about as perfect of a set as Phish can produce.

It’s interesting because, for as laid-back and glossy-eyed the improv during the Friday and Saturday Hampton shows was, Sunday night’s show at Winston-Salem exhibits them returning to the intense-rock/funk fusion that had been highlighted all tour–more intense, in your face, and guitar-driven. Black Eyed Katy was played both Saturday and Sunday night–once at each venue. Hampton’s was much more thick, dancable, and funky whereas Winston’s was blazing hot. The 31 minute Gin that opens the balls-to-the-wall set II of Winston dives into the insane porno-funk that carried fall of ’97–I had completely forgotten about this jam until revisiting it with the box set today and I was blown away. The quality of improvisation mixed with this audio made me feel like I was on drugs (no, I was not).

It’s worth mentioning the thirty bonus minutes of music on the last CD. The two soundcheck tracks, one from Hampton and one from Winston-Salem are a lot of fun. The 18-minute jam from Hampton was about as funky and psychedelic as you’d picture, and the Back at the Chicken Shack from Winston features some fantastic interplay between Page’s baby Grand and Mike’s Modulus.

I could give you guys a song-by-song show review, but I wont. You all know how amazing these shows are. But don’t think because you have a good audience recording, you don’t need this recording–this box set is and absolute must-have for any real fan of Phish. And if you’re reading my long-winded articles on OPT, that means you’re a real phan.

Just in time for Christmas and Hanukkah, this box set will be released on December 6. The perfect stocking stuffer (seriously…even its size) can be purchased (and pre-ordered) here for $36.00 which is just about $5/disc.

BOX SET SAMPLES

11/21 AC/DC Bag -> Slave To the Traffic Light

11/22 Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove

11/23 Them From the Bottom > Black Eyed Katy