FOUR YEARS AGO TODAY
Three years ago tonight Phish ended “the breakup” with what will forever remain a seminal concert experience for me and about 14,000 other people. The hardest ticket to ever obtain, one of the longest waits ever (nearly 6 months), and more anticipation than probably at any time in Phish’s career surrounded the event. While the quality of this video is far from great, I think it does a good job at illustrating how out of control and loud the room was. There have been many better shows before and since, but this moment - seeing them on stage, hearing that first note reach out to us from the Languedoc - can’t be touched. FLUFFHEAD!
If you follow this blog, then you are not going to be surprised by this review. Like thousands of other Phishheads, I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. Today is the official release date for the 7 CD box set from Phish: Hampton/Winston-Salem ‘97. It covers every note (and then some) of the 11/21/97, 11/22/97, and 11/23/97 shows. The first two shows are from Hampton Coliseum and the third is from the LJVM Coliseum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. These shows, especially the two in Hampton, have been some of the most requested shows for an official release from fans.
I can’t deny that if Phish were to release any show from this Fall ‘97 tour, I would also give it a stellar review. Fall ‘97 is my favorite tour. It’s the Honey Badger of Phish tours. I was able to attend three shows on this tour - the three shows from this box set.
I was in my third semester of business school at Virginia Tech in November 1997. I had just met the woman of my dreams in March and we were planning to spend Thanksgiving break at my parents home in Florida. It would be the first time that my girlfriend, and now wife, would meet my folks. But there was one small issue. My girlfriend’s Thanksgiving break didn’t start until the day before Thanksgiving. Virginia Tech’s break began the Saturday before Turkey day, which was November 22nd, 1997. I didn’t have any Friday classes, so my break started a day earlier on the 21st. Hampton is a 4+ hour drive from Blacksburg and Winston-Salem is a bit closer by an hour or two. What a perfect mini-tour before the holiday.
Our crew left rainy Blacksburg Friday morning. My buddy Babar drove his car, which only had one working windshield wiper - on the passenger side. It was pouring down rain on I-81 just as we left. For a few minutes there, I didn’t know if we would make it to Roanoke alive. Thankfully, the skies cleared and we arrived in Hampton hours later. We met several buddies from Richmond on the way to Hampton, which delayed us a bit. We finally rolled into the mothership during the end of the opening “Emotional Rescue”. The 17 minute version of the Stones classic is an instant classic. It immediately sets the tone for the weekend. I’ve always really liked the “Split Open & Melt” that followed, but now that I’ve listened to the official release version several times, the “Emotional Rescue” is the hands down winner of the first set. Trey does work the crowd in a quick frenzy at the end of Split, but then Phish cools things down a bit with two songs that don’t get much “air time” these days - “Beauty of My Dreams” and “Dogs Stole Things”. “Beauty of My Dreams” has been played only twice since the hiatus in 2000 and “Dogs Stole Things” has only been played three times since then. The rest of the first set is solid with an unfinished “Prince Caspian” to close it out, but I would rank this set 5th or 6th out of the 6 sets from this release.
After a scare in the first set when one of our crew passed out and lay unconscious for a few seconds, we regrouped for the second. I was aware of the four-song sets that had occurred during the first week of Fall tour and I wasn’t sure I would dig it. Keep in mind, I had not listened to any of the shows on the tour yet. This was 1997. I wouldn’t get my hands on a CD-R or cassette for weeks. Phish opened with a new crowd favorite, “Ghost”. I had caught a scorching version to open the North American leg of the Summer tour just down the road in Virginia Beach a few months earlier. While this “Ghost” stretched out to just over 15 minutes, it quickly was overshadowed by a monstrous “AC/DC Bag” - a 25 minute Bag, which is the highlight of the second set. After a solid finish to the set, we were treated to a “Guyute” encore. That doesn’t happen often. As I was listening to this show again from the official release, I found myself breaking out the air guitar to some songs that I haven’t enjoyed for years. Case in point - the night one closer, “Loving Cup”, which was a nice bookend to the show, given the opener.
Overall, the first night was a good, solid start to the run. I have to rank it third out of the three shows, but it’s not far behind the other two shows.
I forget where we stayed that night, but it was some hotel off the main strip - the only time I’ve stayed off Coliseum Drive. Oh well, I was a Hampton rookie at the time. What did I know?
There is nothing better than waking up and the only thing on the agenda for the day is to see a show that you don’t have to travel to, especially a Phish show. That was November 22, 1997. Before making it into the lot, we discovered a local dive - Harpoon Larry’s - for the pre-pre-game. Many crawfish and beers later, we parked in the lot and started the festivities for the evening. There was one small twist. It was football season and the Hokies were playing. Instead of the usual tunes, we had the Bill Roth and the Hokies on the radio, but unfortunately they fell to Pittsburgh 30-23. Oh well. I wasn’t frustrated for long. I had night two ahead of me, and what a night of music it was.
I’ve seen some good openers at Phish shows over the years. The “Tube > Drowned” from 11/2/98 or the “Sanity, Highway to Hell” from 10/31/96 come to mind. But I always point to the “Mike’s Groove, Harry Hood” opener from 11/22/97 as my favorite show opener. With the exception of that 11/2/98 opener, I’ve never been to a Phish show where they totally unleashed the goods from the first note like they did on this night. I know the “Mike’s Song” is not regarded as one of the best, but I’ve always enjoyed this “Weekapaug” more than most. Maybe it’s my vivid memories of being on the inside during the opener, but it lights a fire under your ass. And then Phish delivers the knock-out punch early. I think everyone expected some sort of cool-down song. Not so much. “Harry Hood” begins and the high energy opening continues. Even though this set is remembered for this sequence, the rest of the set works really well. I saw @YEMBlog post a tweet last week that if there was ever a good time for two cool-down songs in a row, it would be after this opening sequence on 11-22-97. That analysis is spot on. The “Train Song” / “Billy Breathes” combo were placed perfectly. Just like the night before, the two “take a breather” tunes don’t get much love in Phish 3.0. I hope that changes. To end the set, Phish took a different direction than the night before. They decided to rock the shit out of the mothership with two covers - the first (“Frankenstein”) more well known than the second (“Izabella”), but they both delivered the goods. The first set was over and as I’ve told many people over the years, one of my buddies started to head for the gates. He thought the show was over. The first set was that good.
How could Phish top that? How about the best “Halley’s Comet” of all-time? A 25 minute “Halley’s” followed by a tame (in comparison to the “Halley’s” before it) “Tweezer” that sequed into the third “Black-Eyed Katy”. “BEK” is the only song that appears twice on the box set. It was only played in 1997 - six times on the fall tour - before it developed into “The Moma Dance”. “Piper” follows and my immediate thought when I heard it again was that this is the way “Piper” should be performed every time. It’s all in the slow build. Please Phish, bring back the slow-building Pipers. The closing “Antelope” was a complete mind-fuck. I recall CK5 lighting up the mothership like I had never seen before.
The only disappointing point of the night was the song selection for the encore, but nobody cares/cared. We had just seen of the best two-set Phish shows ever. It’s my favorite of the three shows from the box set.
Unfortunately, we had to drive back to Richmond that night. Although that made for a shorter drive on Sunday.
The 11/23/97 show definitely gets overshadowed by the Hampton shows the nights before, but it contained some serious tasty treats. Before I get to the music, I’ll share some of my hazy memories of the scene. Lot scene - don’t really remember one at all. I think everyone was arriving late from Hampton, and for good reason. I do recall trying to score tickets to see moe. play an “after show” at Ziggy’s, which is a well-known venue in the South that is within walking distance of the coliseum. Unfortunately, it was sold out. That would have been quite a double bill of music. Inside the venue - Very casual, which Daddy liked. GA seating and get this, the venue had a Gumbo vendor. Of course on any other night, I wouldn’t dare spend cash on Gumbo in a basketball arena in the middle of North Carolina, but 11/23/97 was not any other night. That Gumbo was a delicious pre-game appetizer. We settled in to our seats directly across the stage in the lower level. Perfect location.
In addition to the gumbo, LJWM Coliseum served up a fantastic night of music. The first set was highlighted by “Black-Eyed Katy”, a repeat from the night before. I’d like to know how many times since 1995 Phish has played a song in back to back nights. I don’t know if hearing it once before had anything to do with it, but this version is jammed out a bit more than at Hampton. The “BEK” was the lift-off point for the Winston-Salem show. After a standard “Sparkle”, Phish once again delivered a solid first set by ending with “Twist”, a 17 minute unfinished “Stash” that dropped right into “NICU”, and then “Fluffhead”. While lift-off had been achieved, we ventured into hyperspace during the second set. A 31 minute Bathtub Gin kicked off the second set. Like the night before, Phish decided that the second set opener would be the pinnacle of the show. Three months earlier, Phish treated us to a legendary “Down With Disease” > “Gin” combo at The Great Went. Now we were getting a tasty sequel in reverse, as the band decided to follow this monstrous “Gin” into “DWD”. However, Phish had some different plans for this “Disease”. The unexpected appearance of “Low Rider”, which developed out of “DWD” would serve as the biggest bust-out of the three-day run. But, even better was the return back into “Disease”. They could have easily ended the show on that climax. Instead, another Hendrix cover (“Bold as Love”). Nothing wrong with that. The encore was “Julius”. Not bad, but the encores from the three shows were definitely the weakest parts of the shows. Like I wrote above though, no one cared. We easily got our money’s worth and then some.
So in conclusion, I give the Hampton/Winston-Salem ‘97 box set an A+. I had high expectations and it met them, but I knew the material before hand (thank you tapers). If you didn’t pre-order it, I highly recommend you invest your hard-earned cash and purchase a copy for the holidays. You won’t be disappointed.
Today in Live Music History:
Phish - November 21, 1997 - Hampton Coliseum - Hampton, VA
I: Emotional Rescue > Split Open and Melt, Beauty of My Dreams, Dogs Stole Things, Punch You In the Eye -> Lawn Boy > Chalk Dust Torture, Prince Caspian
II: Ghost -> AC/DC Bag -> Slave to the Traffic Light, Loving Cup
 Phish debut.
 Emotional Rescue quotes at end.
 “Anti-drum solo.”
Today we salute you, anti-drum solo, Emotional Rescue dropping quartet from Vermont!