0: The number of days we’ll live without them from here on out.
That’s right, the wait is finally over: three of the greatest shows in Phish history have now been officially released. And while we’re mostly thinking about how meaningless we now realize life to have been up until this point, we can’t help but let one other thought run through our heads: which of these three juggernauts is the best?
To help answer this impossible question, we reached out to one of the foremost authorities on all things Phish: the one and only Mr. Miner. The man needs no introduction, but if you haven’t been to his website, Phish Thoughts, go right away – and then start climbing, because you’re clearly living in a hole. While you’re at it, pre-order his new book Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts: An Anthology By a Fan for the Fans, which comes out this month. If Mr. Miner’s blog isn’t enough to convince you to get it, check out the beautiful photos in his sneak peek, and I’m sure you’ll agree that, in the words of a very wise man, you need to read the fucking book.
GUY FORGET’S INTRO
Fall ’97 is known as the funk tour, but in my mind, its greatest contribution to the world of Phish is the 2nd set-ification of 1st sets. Ask most people for their favorite ’94 or ’95 show, and chances are they’ll name a show with a great 2nd set and a standard 1st: 11/14/95, 12/29/94, 5/7/94, etc. But Fall ’97 came around and suddenly, we were seeing shows like 11/17/97, with a 5-song first set with two huge jams. Fourteen years later, there still are only a handful of shows with two stellar sets. 11/22, which opens with an excellent Mike’s and one of the best Weekapaugs ever, is such a show. And while I believe the second set outmatches 11/23 II (we’ll get to that!) the first set, which is leaps and bounds better, is what clinches it for me.
The most memorable Phish shows are defined by unbridled risk taking, musical adventure, and whole-band improvisation without a net. When the band is at their best they delve deep into uncharted waters, playing in the moment, unconcerned about what song or segue is up next. When the band is fully planted in the moment, passing ideas with airtight communication, the magic of Phish unfolds. Winston-Salem defines this type of show. Centered on intense, non-stop jamming throughout the second set, Winston-Salem features far more exploratory playing with top-notch results than the well-loved, setlist-oriented, 11.22.97. In Winston-Salem, with a focus on the dark side, Phish not only played their best set of the weekend after the break, they also featured several upper-echelon jams in the first set, while crafting a very atypical Fall ’97 show. Shying from the omnipresent funk grooves of tour in favor of seething psychedelic interplay, Winston Salem is not only a more original show—musically—in the context of Fall ’97, it touches on the very ethos of the Phish experiment.
Despite an iconic “Halley’s Comet,” Hampton doesn’t really contain any full-band explorations. Instead of a show focused on improv (like 11.21.or 11.23) 11.22 is a very anthemic performance with a lot of very well played, very polished Phish. However, the second set of Winston-Salem provides far more excitement, unknown adventure, and ballistic jamming than any part of the previous night, less “Halley’s.” Though everything at Hampton was executed with a buttery smoothness, the gritty, aggressive and relentless psychedelia of Winston-Salem provides a snapshot of Phish at their most creative.
One might argue that 11.22 wins out on the merit of its strong first set, but upon closer inspection, Winston-Salem features as much, if not more, masterful jamming in its first frame with a bit less flow. The improvisational creativity present from start to finish in Winston-Salem makes the night before look like a fun-oriented dance party. Winston-Salem represents a bona fide improvisational odyssey—the very reason why we chase Phish all over the globe—and when re-listening to each of these shows, there is no question in my mind that Winston-Salem provides far more musical meat than the glossier, groove-based show at Hampton.
I’m in complete agreement that Phish is at their best when they dive neck-deep into the improvisational swimming pool, and thankfully, that was the kind of swimming they did just about every night of Fall ‘97. But to say that 11/22 featured little exploration outside of Halley’s is like saying the Chicago Bulls had few Hall of Famers outside of Michael Jordan. You can’t just toss aside the MVP jam!
To me, the Halley’s is the epitome of a Phish jam. Its first 17 minutes are totally engaging, and extremely well played; if the jam ended there, it would be a really solid medium-intensity Fall ‘97 funk workout. But the next section is where it breaks out: as Fish taps out a light, persistent pattern on the hi-hat, the rest of the band chords in unison on the downbeat–punctuated bursts of energy that gradually wind the jam’s preceding groove down to nothingness. And out of this nothingness spring seven minutes of pure improvisation, each member shining, but none outshining the others. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t find seven more blissful minutes in Phish history.
The following night’s Gin has inspiring moments, and it certainly has grit. But it lacks the confidence and flow–the sense that at every turn, the band knew exactly where to go next–that the 11/22 Halley’s has. If you break down the jam’s 31 minutes, the first 13 see Trey laying down wah’ed riffs over the Gin jam until, at 13:40, he seems to suddenly get the idea that everything should speed up. It does, and the next 12 minutes consist of distorted, wah’ed out, Hendrix-esque licks over this hyperspeed funk-rock groove. I’m not knocking any of that: Trey’s work is great, and the band never stops rocking. But I don’t think it’s accurate to call any of this full-band improvisation, and I certainly don’t think any of it has the kind of transcendence that was on display the previous night.
I think you see this distinction throughout each show: where 11/22 moves forward with a sure-footedness, not once losing focus, 11/23 has moments of inspiration that aren’t reached without a bit of squirming.
You don’t see the “Bathtub Gin” as whole-band improvisation? I’m not sure how to go forth in this argument with such diverse understandings, but I will try. The entire band is neck deep in a type-II exploration of the dark side for the duration of the “Gin”—and the entire set. As I mentioned earlier, the “Hampton Halley’s” is an all-timer, no one will argue against that, but one jam does not a show make. For the rest of the second set, the band plays through a cliche Fall ‘97 setlist without a hell of a lot of excitement.
In Winston-Salem, the entire second set is an improvisational journey focused on psychedelia. One can break down timings and sections however he wants, but from the moment Phish enters the “Gin” jam, they are on a musical crusade through the end of the set. Yes, the band has a few moments of searching before they find their stride in “Gin,” but from there the entire jam is evil hose that resolves into minutes of transcendence before seamlessly segueing into “Disease;” a stellar piece of music and one of the historically underrated Fall ‘97 jams. The entire band locks into each other’s thoughts and they collectively explore original ground, firing aggressive ideas around the stage at a breakneck pace, for the duration of the set—including a dark horse and infectious funk jam out of “Low Rider” back into “Disease.” And I haven’t even mentioned the furious “Disease” jam, itself! Michael Jordan never got past the Pistons until he had other great players aside him, and while “Halley’s” is an MVP jam—the best of the weekend—nothing in the rest of the set even approaches full-band exploration or contains any semblance of musical complexity. In contrast, in Winston-Salem, the band is improvising like madmen—playing off each other with negligible reaction time and creating completely original music—from moment one of the “Gin” jam through their triumphant return to “Disease.” In Winston-Salem, the band created a stanza of musical adventure to which Hampton’s second set cannot hold a candle.
To back up my assertion that Hampton’s second set is clearly inferior, once the sacred “Halley’s” jam ends, the band moves into the least creative “Tweezer” of Fall ‘97. Trey, essentially, vamps over a single funk pattern until segueing—rather abruptly—into “Black Eyed Katy” before the “Tweezer” jam got anywhere. (In addition, Winston-Salem’s “BEK” crushes Hampton’s version, and in my opinion, is easily the best rendition ever played.) From there on out, Hampton’s set could be plucked from any Fall ‘97 show with a conclusion of “Black Eyed,” “Piper,” “Anetlope.” Stellar song choice, great flow, but not much musical risk-taking going on—just straightforward, smoking Phish. But when the band dives head first into an intensely improvisational set like Winston-Salem, songs don’t matter, setlists don’t matter, it becomes all about the ride into the depths of the unknown. This is what Phish is all about.
To clear up what I was trying to say about full-band exploration: I didn’t mean to imply that all four members weren’t playing well, or that they didn’t reach an interesting musical space together. It’s just that once they reached that space, Trey was leading the way–he spends a good portion of the jam soloing, in contrast to the leaderless four-headed-monster jamming style that the band often espouses.
I’m in agreement on the supremacy of Disease/Low Rider — every part of it is great, and I actually prefer it to the Gin. Although Tweezer’s funk groove, as you say, is pretty by-the-numbers for Fall ‘97, those are still some silky, slick numbers. The segue into Black-eyed Katy is also perfect, and while I agree that 11/23’s BEK is better, 11/22 still rages. All that said, I will concede the middle section of Set 2 to you. The end of the frame, if you’ll allow me to borrow your term, is another story, though – Trey foams at the mouth for Antelope, and Mike earns the Esquandolas moniker that Trey lays on him at the end.
But this is where we come back to Set 1. Because while the setlist of 11/22 I is the stuff of fantasies, so is the playing. Weekapaug, to continue the Bulls analogy, is 11/22’s Scottie Pippen, with some of the more soaring lines you’ll ever hear from Trey, and a ferocious rhythmic groove that start-stops back into the main jam. Mike’s is a powerhouse–Horace Grant, if he traded in those goggles for some psychedelic disco-ball glasses, maybe. Frankenstein/Izabella is your Manute Bol: it’s only in there for 10 minutes, but it swats some shots down before it exits. And the Antelope is Steve Kerr, sneaking in to nail a clutch 3 before the buzzer.
As I said, I love the 11/23 BEK, and the last few minutes of Stash are excellent. But the band frankly feels lost for most of Stash, and disappointingly ends it prematurely for NICU; Twist goes nowhere in its 10 minutes. The rest of the set – Theme, Fluffhead, and so on – are perfectly fine, but nothing near the level of sustained energy with moments of exploration that 11/22 I offers.
I was really trying to work a Toni Kukoc reference in there, but no dice. Maybe you can think of one.
This debate may come down to taste, because I believe Winston-Salem’s “Stash” to be one of the more impressive jams of the three-day weekend. In fact, I believe the “Stash” is better than any jam in Hampton’s show other than “Halley’s Comet.” To be honest, I don’t think the band was lost at all in the jam, and in a weekend where just about every excursion is on point, “Stash” follows suit and shines as one of the brightest. In taking notes while listening to this show for this article, I have multiple exclamation points and bold circles around “Stash,” noting it as one of Winston-Salem’s signature jams that illustrates the band’s single-minded improvisational vigor that defined Sunday night’s showcase. Reaching evil and mechanical realms while also evoking a futuristic spirituality, this “Stash” is one of the greatest examples of fully-synced, open-ended jamming in either show. An incredibly tight rhythmic pocket holds down this increasingly abstract jam, allowing Trey to freely play a spectrum of leads within an ever-darkening canvas. It is this jam that sets the seething psychedelic tone for the entire night, and is another in the string of incredible Fall ‘97 performances of “Stash.” Though I can understand your perspective, I’ve never thought of the segue into “NICU” as premature. The jam had reached profound places and had largely run its course when Trey gradually brought the playful idea into the mix. The band, in fact, segued out of “Stash”— unfinished—in three out of five Fall ‘97 versions, thus in a tour filled with surprises, this was but another.
Although 11/22’s “Weekapaug” is certainly a stellar version that reaches impressive minimalist, percussive interplay, I would argue that not only do “Bathtub Gin” and “Disease / Low Rider” trump this jam, but so does “Stash.” Therefore, your Scottie Pippen is looking more and more like Toni Kukoc in the context of Winston-Salem’s improvisational greatness. And while we are on the topic of creative Winston-Salem jams (as we’ve run out of Hampton ones to discuss) let’s look at the first set “Twist.”
“Twist” was still finding its identity during Fall ‘97, and Winston Salem’s version represents one of the tour’s most intriguing versions. Transcending funk into spacier grooves, this “Twist,” while rooted in ‘97’s sound, already begins to foreshadow the evolution of Phish’s jamming style of ‘98, fusing ambient and rhythmic sensibilities. In fact, when re-listening to this jam, I was surprised by its originality and its impressive, whole-band communication, as it has lived in the shadow of the rest of its show since the night it happened—an overlooked gem of the first set.
In addition to the massive, mind-numbing “Stash” and the forward-looking “Twist,” Winston-Salem’s first set also boasts the most impressive “Black Eyed Katy” of the band’s career and a soaring “Theme From the Bottom” that Trey’s annihilates with a hugely cathartic solo. Thus, when looking at the improvisational output of each first set, Winston-Salem’s opening frame actually has more instances of creative jamming—albeit with less flow—than Hampton’s first set, thus negating your thesis that the first set is what sets Hampton apart from Winston-Salem.
Usually, I wouldn’t mention an encore in a such a debate, nor would I ever mention “Julius,” but in the case of Winston-Salem, the eleven-minute “Julius” is noteworthy. Possessing the band’s rabid energy of the evening and peaking with spirited guitar fireworks, this version of “Julius” serves as a triumphant exclamation point on a phenomenal three-night weekend! Though nothing outlandish, the encore is but another instance of Winston-Salem’s creativity outdoing that of Hampton’s.
Just kidding. I agree with you that Winston-Salem wins the encore battle, hands-down. I also agree that, as most of these debates do, it ultimately comes down to taste. But they’re still really fun and interesting. This one has been especially fun and especially interesting, and on behalf of myself, the rest of OPT, and of course, Toni Kukoc, I really appreciate your taking the time to do it!