Phish Fall 97: Remembering December 11 In Rochester
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Phish Fall Tour 1997, a seminal run in the band’s history. JamBase teamed with The Mockingbird Foundation to celebrate the historic tour. On the anniversary of each of the 21 shows JamBase will publish a remembrance of the concert penned by a variety of Phish.net team members, JamBase contributors and more. We continue with JamBase Editorial Director Scott Bernstein’s essay about the show that took place on this date in 1997 at the War Memorial in Rochester, New York. If you enjoy our article, please consider donating to the Mockingbird Foundation.
After beginning their December 11, 1997 show at Rochester’s War Memorial with a first set that would easily be among the best of the year in any year that wasn’t 1997, Phish had opened the closing stanza with a majestic cover of The Who’s “Drowned” that gave way to their debut cover of Ween’s “Roses Are Free.” As a huge Ween fan and “Roses Are Free” lover, I lost my cool and started jumping up and down with glee, delight and incredulousness when Trey played the first notes of the song. When I composed myself, I saw lots of people staring at me with looks of confusion on their faces. Then, one-by-one a stream of fans tapped me on the shoulder and asked what Phish was playing, including one guy who said, “Is this a Dead song?” While the start of “Roses Are Free” is the moment from that night I’ll never forget, it was just one of many magical moments from the first of three upstate New York shows that closed out Phish Fall Tour 1997.
Before I get into a blow-by-blow of Rochester 1997, I want to give background on why that “Roses Are Free” was so special for me. My older sister has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to music. She was a huge fan of alternative rock in the days when it truly was an alternative to the mainstream. My sister brought me to see R.E.M. at Madison Square Garden in 1989 when I was 12 and she was 16, who does that? Her cassette and vinyl collection was filled with gems such as The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come, The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Pixies’Surfer Rosa.
When I entered high school in 1991, my sister went off to college and I didn’t have her around to be my musical guru. Thankfully, she had turned me on to MTV’s 120 Minutes. Back in the days when MTV actually aired music videos, the cable network devoted a two-hour block to the burgeoning alternative rock genre each Sunday night. I found so many great bands through watching 120 Minutes and one of those bands was Ween.
On February 23, 1993 host Matt Pinfield unveiled the video for Ween’s “Push Th’ Little Daises” by this group called Ween and the song and visual captured my attention immediately. I went out and bought the CD featuring the track, Pure Guava, and was blown away by the many different musical styles Ween incorporated into one album along with a witty sense of humor. About 16 months later Ween issued their next studio effort, Chocolate & Cheese. This one was even better thanks the soul-filled “Freedom Of ’76,” the psychedelic undertones within “Voodoo Lady,” the instrumental Eddie Hazel tribute “A Tear For Eddie” and on and on. My favorite song on the LP was a catchy little ditty titled “Roses Are Free.”
I went to my first Ween concert soon after Chocolate & Cheese came out and was saddened that they didn’t play “Roses Are Free.” Over the next few years I saw a handful of Ween shows and couldn’t believe I kept missing “Roses.” Eventually, I met a few music fans who were as into Ween as I was Phish. They explained Ween had never performed “Roses Are Free.” At least it wasn’t me just having poor luck. In July of 1997 the band finally debuted the live version of the song, but after performing “Roses Are Free” a second time a week later they shelved it again until a show in Hamburg, Germany on December 2, 1997. However, heading into the Rochester show I didn’t know Ween had ever played “Roses” in concert. I would never have guessed the first time I would see “Roses Are Free” performed live would be at a Phish concert.
Phish made “Roses” their own with Trey’s signature tone at the heart of the foursome’s rendition. I explained to everyone who asked that we were hearing the Phish debut of a Ween cover and that Ween never played the song live (oops!). While Phish would use “Roses Are Free” as a springboard toward majestic improvisation during the otherworldly version that spanned nearly half an hour just four months later at Nassau Coliseum, the Rochester version was a more straight-forward affair. Since I love Ween and Phish I always thought there was plenty of crossover between the two fanbases, but if anyone else anywhere near me at the War Memorial was excited to see the pride of Burlington cover the pride of New Hope, they kept that excitement to themselves. The lack of response was so evident that it has been mentioned in numerous recaps of the Rochester show.
So, the craziest part of Phish performing “Roses Are Free?” Their cover inspired Ween to start to play the song again. Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo, Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman & Co. busted out the tune at a hometown show on July 21, 1999 and it quickly became a staple for Ween, making the setlist at well over three-quarters of all concerts the band has hosted since, including at a ’99 gig where Gener told the crowd Ween was reclaiming the song from Phish.
“Now it’s one of my favorite songs to perform live, as the whole band is playing the entire time,” Deaner told Phish.net. “Usually it’s our finale of finales, the last song of the last encore. Phish, by covering it, made it one of our popular and most crowd pleasing tunes. For that we owe Trey forever because it opened up so many people’s ears to the music of Ween and introduced us to a whole new audience within the jam band scene, which never would have happened otherwise.”
December 11, 1997 was a bitterly cold day in Rochester and we planned it so that we arrived as doors opened in aims of spending as little time in the frigid weather as possible. Traffic and ice put us inside closer to showtime than doors, which for the general admission arena meant we wouldn’t get to sit in our normal Lower Page spot. Thankfully, we scored seats a little behind the stage but a stone’s throw from drummer Jon Fishman. It was such a cool view and it wound up being a perfect night for the vantage point.
Phish opened with a ferocious trifecta of high-octane rockers. Up first was “Punch You In The Eye” one of the most surefire ways to get a crowd fired up in the band’s repertoire. What came next was a top-shelf 20-minute “Down With Disease” that would have been impressive enough in the second set, but was downright epic in the two slot. Fish was in fine form throughout as the foursome began the jam with Trey breathing fire out of his guitar. Just about 10 minutes of shredding was followed by a breakdown that led to transcendent music. Each member served up impressive contributions, including extremely inspired melodies instantly composed by Trey, near inhuman beats from Fish, expansive basslines from Mike and masterful work from Page on a variety of keyboards.
“Maze” followed and featured more “Machine Gun Trey” and is a bit unusual in the way the band approached the music underneath Anastasio’s solo. The beautiful “Dirt” gave a nice breather, while “Limb By Limb” is an example of the heights the quartet can achieve while still keeping within the normal boundaries of a song. “Loving Cup” and “Rocky Top” were fun, if nothing else.
Phish came out of the gates with the previously-mentioned majestic “Drowned” to open the second set. The longest version of The Who favorite up through that point, like “Disease” it started with potent and powerful arena rock themes before the band made a move toward more deep, funky and ethereal soundscapes. Again, while Trey got all the glory all four members contributed so much to making the Rochester “Drowned” memorable. Throughout the entire version I focused on Fishman and the Moon-esque fills he played during the beginning of the song and the airy touch he provided during the more open-ended sections. And then came a cool segue into “Roses Are Free.”
The Vermonters continued the set with their heaviest original, “Big Black Furry Creatures From Mars,” which had been missing in action for well over a year. For my money, the Rochester “BBFCFM” is the most interesting in Phish history. McConnell switches between the various instruments in his rig throughout, while Trey employs wacked out loops and delay effects. Around the four-minute mark, Trey plays a heady riff which leads to a throbbing chord sequence Phish connected on to great effect. I woke up the next morning with a sore neck from banging my head during this incredibly cool jam. Eventually, the music fades to just a ringing note from Trey and wild Clavinet riffing from Page before the quartet embarks on “Ghost.”
“Ghost” was still one of the new kids in town, but he was the cool new kid everyone wanted to be friends with. The song was a mere six-months old at the time, yet had already yielded acclaimed improvisation on over a dozen occasions. Again, my vantage point allowed me to focus on how much Fish added to each jam and “Ghost” was no exception. For his part, Page absolutely tore it up throughout every segment of the tune. McConnell led the first seven minutes of the Rochester “Ghost” before Trey went from focusing on rhythmic work to weaving together one powerful lead after another. Around the 10:30 mark the band settles in on one riff Anastasio worked into the mix and wound up riding the melody to glory for about five minutes. It turned out the guitarist was laying the groundwork for a “Down With Disease” reprise that drove the crowd insane. While the reaction to “Roses” was near silence, when Trey hit the “Disease” riff hugs and high-fives were exchanged everywhere I looked.
Anastasio was clearly in guitar hero mode as the quartet transitioned the “Down With Disease” reprise into a set-closing cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” All told, Phish had delivered a masterful five-song second set (let’s not count the “Disease” reprise) featuring no breaks in the action and four well-executed segues. When Phish returned to the stage for the encore they were accompanied by cameramen shooting on film. Todd Phillips captured the Rochester show for his 2000 Phish documentary Bittersweet Motel. While for most of the night the cameramen stuck to the crowd or the side of the stage, one of them stood nearly right next to Trey for the majority of the “Waste” encore.
All in all, as had been the case at most Fall ’97 shows, Phish came up big in Rochester. I got to relive it all a few years later when the documentary first came out. The best scene in the film starts with Phillips and his team taking fans backstage to see Fish, Page and Trey rehearsing “Roses Are Free” in the practice room, while Mike looks on. Todd perfectly synced it so viewers are transported from the practice room to the live stage at the peak of “Roses.” What a night and I’m so glad it was captured for posterity.
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Blue Cross Arena [See upcoming shows]
13 songs / 8 originals / 5 covers
15.15 [Gap chart]
Roses Are Free (Ween)
Roses Are Free, Big Black Furry Creatures From Mars, Waste
Big Black Furry Creatures From Mars - 118 Shows (LTP - 08/06/1996)
Rift - 1, Hoist - 1, Billy Breathes - 1, Misc. - 5, Covers - 5
Mean Temperature 30 °F
Capacity 9,000 Attendance 9,000 Ticket Price $27.50
Elsewhere On December 11, 1997:
- Zero at Quixote’s True Blue in Denver, Colorado (Audio)
- Bob Dylan at Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Setlist)
- Morrissey at Northgate Arena in Chester, England (Audio)
- Prince at Target Center in Minneapolis (Setlist) & at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota (Setlist)
- Galactic at Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado (Setlist)
- Emmylou Harris, Harry Connick Jr., Sinéad O’Connor, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Youssou N’Dour, Jewel and others perform at Nobel Peace Prize Concert at Oslo Spektrum in Oslo, Norway.
- The United Nations adopts the The Kyoto Protocol in Kyoto, Japan.
Tour Dates for