When someone explains something as “more of the same”, I tend to look at it as a negative review. A review of something that is unchanged or unwavering from the model of the past and wrought with complacency. In the case of the recent Ventura Box Set release, “more of the same” is perhaps the greatest compliment of all.
When it comes to “more of the same” in regards to remastered, archival releases from the fine folks at LivePhish HQ mean 1) improved sound quality 2) release of a show that often had bad AUD versions floating around 3) A unified venue theme 4) some spectacular playing mixed 5) Phish-only antics 6) great filler material and 7) unique, exciting packaging. The Ventura release couples those box set standards to produce a piece of art that fans can be proud to showcase in their collection.
More of the same.
Soundcheck: Twist (with Chuck E’s in Love lyrics), Blues Jam, Makisupa Policeman
Set 1: NICU > Wolfman’s Brother > Chalk Dust Torture, Water in the Sky, Stash, Weigh > Piper > Cars Trucks Buses, Character Zero
Set 2: Punch You In the Eye > Free > David Bowie -> Cities -> David Bowie, Bouncing Around the Room, Uncle Pen, Prince Caspian > Fire
Encore: My Soul
 Take Me to the River jam.
 Simpsons signal in intro.
From the first note of NICU, the exceptional sound quality is noticeable and highlights Mike at the top of his bass laying groove game. Building on that bass groove, Phish drops into a funky pairing of Wolfman’s > Chalkdust that’s anything but your standard early first set rock. As Mike sets the pace and tone, Trey and Page play with and develop their distinctive ’97 tone leaving Fish to wow the room (read: field) with drum fills and technique that is out of this world. Patience is exhibited by the foursome while funk layers build in Wolfman’s, Take Me to the River is teased, the pace increases and they drop into Chalkdust. Again Mike’s bass is clearly heard on this upgraded recording, helping the distinctive guitar riffs drive the crowd into a frenzy. Much of the rest of the set is dotted with songs debuted earlier that year in Europe (Water in the Sky, Piper), more work with tone and pace in Stash and stamped with a Zero set closer.
The highlight of this show for most will certainly be the Free –> Bowie –> Cities –> Bowie that makes up the meat of a set. Simply put, this performance is exceptional Phish jamming, complete with a return to the Bowie theme that so many long for today.
Admittedly not a huge Free fan, the jam out of the composition is where the set gets interesting. Mike continues to lay down thick bass playing while Trey wah’s his way to an extended type I jam that returns to the Free refrain before finding new, Type II ground ahead of the Bowie Cities sandwich. From the minute you hear the Simpsons Secret Language, you know you’re going to be in for a great Bowie. An extra note here or there from Trey is picked up well in the new recording, as goes for the driving sound of the bass and drum beats. Toward the middle of Bowie, the band reverts back to the patience and build of the Wolfman’s > Chalkdust pairing, still within Bowie. In what almost has a staccato and/or Manteca sound to it, the band finds their way to Cities. While straightfoward in a sense, the segues in and out of Cities are what sets this, um, set and show apart.
While the rest of the set is nothing to write home about, Uncle Pen is a great treat at any listen. The My Soul encore gives a bluesy finish to a great piece of Summer ’97.
More of the same.
Set 1: Bathtub Gin, Dirt > Poor Heart, Lawn Boy, My Sweet One, Birds of a Feather, Theme From the Bottom, Water in the Sky, The Moma Dance, Split Open and Melt
Set 2: Drowned -> Makisupa Policeman > Maze, Sea and Sand, Prince Caspian > Harry Hood
Encore: Sexual Healing > Hold Your Head Up, Halley’s Comet
 Several false endings, including a Free Bird-style ending.
 Long, atypical jam.
 Phish debut.
Just 355 short days later, the band returned to the Ventura County Fairgrounds and didn’t waste any time getting after it. In the spirit of other great Gins, notably in the 97-00 period, the jam extends out of the Gin tone with effects from Trey build over the elegance of keys and the splash of Fish. With Went in the background and Riverport in the future, this jam is the band’s definitive use of past as prologue creating HOSE that can be pointed to after other versions knock fans’ socks off.
On paper, the combination of Dirt, Poor Heart, Lawn Boy and My Sweet One probably wouldn’t get anyone’s B+P ready for a tape trade. In the remastered sound the performances are crisp, if not memorable – aside from the Freebird ending of Poor Heart – ahead of BOAF and Theme. The straight funk of a ’98 Moma and all out intensity of SOAMelt bookends the set that was masterfully started with Gin.
In continued reference to the nearby Pacific, set II kicks off with a well-crafted version of Drowned. Not the longest version of the song, it proves yet again that time is often just a number when it comes to Phish jams. Page gets his time to shine in Ventura on keys as the band finds the zone. An almost ominous start to Makisupa sets the tone for the rest of the song, which serves as more than a reggae laugh or two as many-a-Makisupa do.
Some ’98 ambiance leads out of Makisupa, with Fish’s work noted on the new recording before more high octane jamming comes through in Maze and the band further pays omage to the ocean with Sea and Sand, a melodic and deep late-set highlight. Like Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ from another Halloween favorite, Sea and Sand is pure passion from Page on vocals and more than a simple “cover” song. A great Hood completes the set.
HYHU antics, the debut of Sexual Healing and an above average Halley’s make the encore an experience in itself, rather than simply a statement of the previous sound.
More of the same.
In the notes distributed by LivePhish, Kevin Shapiro notes that Trey learned how to surf in 1993 in Ventura. While I’d like to see Trey’s surfing “chops”, the idea of going back to a simpler time (not that 1993 is all that simple) and harkening back to the past with the design of this box set. As I mentioned before, this is more than a collection of great music released to fans – this packaging makes this release a collector’s item.
More of the same.
As if anyone needed to get more excited for the band to hit the stage in Bangor next month, the Ventura release gives fans something to rally around and amp up the energy one notch further.
Just more of the same from Phish.