Phish Fall 97: Remembering December 12th In Albany
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 Drew Hitz’s essay about the show that took place on this date in 1997 at the Pepsi Arena in Albany, New York. If you enjoy our article, please consider donating to the Mockingbird Foundation.
Seeing the tour closing weekend in Albany was never part of the plan. I had moved to Arizona in August to attend graduate school, so after seeing 17 shows that summer, my Fall Tour was relegated to just Las Vegas plus the four shows on either side of Thanksgiving. But sometimes a plan comes together that just seems like it was destined to happen …
I was a graduate teaching assistant at Arizona State University, so for the first time in my “adult” life there were consequences for me skipping class beyond getting bad grades. I was actually teaching classes now, but I certainly wasn’t going to miss the last night of Worcester. I had to fly back to Phoenix after the show on Monday, December 1st. This was pushing my luck a bit but missing that Sunday show was a nonstarter.
At the gate, they announced the flight was oversold and asked for volunteers to instead take a red-eye in exchange for a free roundtrip ticket. I instantly thought about the Albany shows and ran to the desk to tell them I was interested. Unfortunately, they told me a few minutes later they didn’t need a volunteer so I boarded the flight.
Right before they closed the door I spotted that same gate agent walking down the aisle of the packed plane. She stopped at my row and asked if I was still willing to take a later flight. With everyone around us listening:
Me: “Will I walk out of here with the round-trip voucher or is it mailed?”
Agent: “I’ll hand it to you.”
Me: “So I could use the voucher today to book a flight in just 10 days?”
Agent: “You could use it for a flight today if you wanted to.”
Me: “Well, then hell yes I’ll get off this plane!”
My fellow passengers seemed a little amused when I launched out of my seat and practically skipped down the aisle. This tour was considered epic even as it was unfolding, so I didn’t even try to hide my excitement. I was hitting two more shows. I was going to Albany!
I walked straight through security to the front desk and soon had a plane ticket in hand to take a red-eye to New York City arriving early the morning of December 12 and managed to find tickets to the shows and a ride to Albany before I even got on my flight that night. Not bad considering I didn’t have a cell phone yet!
As for the show, I think it is the perfect example of why Fall ’97 is considered by so many to be one of the best Phish tours ever. In my opinion, December 12 is nowhere near one of the best shows of the tour or of 1997 as a whole. But the highlights are why any of us would take two cross-country red-eye flights in 10 days to see this band just a couple more times!
All of us nerds at Phish.net like to endlessly debate the merits of everything the band has ever played. One of the more interesting subjects that comes up regularly is the discussion of width versus height in any given show or tour. Width refers to greatness from start to finish. Height refers to how great the best moments are. This is not an either/or dichotomy. The best shows in history (including many from Fall ’97) have both height and width in spades.
An obvious example of a show with incredible height is December 9, 1995. You really can’t get much higher than the Albany “YEM.” But that show doesn’t have a lot in the width department, especially considering the context of December ‘95.
An example of a show (or in this case shows) with great width is the Clifford Ball. It can be argued that the only historically elite jam of the weekend is the “Down With Disease,” but all six sets are inspired, well-executed and great.
As Phish tours go, I would argue none has ever equaled the width of Fall ’97. Special moments happened regularly, even during songs or sections of songs which historically tended to be rather perfunctory. There was no safe time to run to the bathroom. I’m certainly not arguing that everything from the entire tour was special. But you just never knew what was coming. You had a feeling that IT could happen at any moment.
One of the main reasons for this is that Fall ’97 is one of the best individual tours ever by three different members of the band. Trey, Mike and Fishman were each at the absolute top of their games. And Page was no slouch, but seemed to hang in the background a bit until December when he became much more assertive. Mike in particular was a beast from the very first notes in Vegas all the way through this final weekend in Albany. It is my favorite Mike tour and it’s not close.
Whether it’s the original Wynton Marsalis Septet, the Empire Brass in their heyday or Phish during the fall of 1997, any chamber ensemble with a majority of its members simultaneously playing at, or near, the peak of their careers tends to lend to incredible art being made on a nightly basis.
Any band playing improvisational music who regularly takes musical risks doesn’t put the complete package together every single show. It’s not how improvisational music works. I think December 12, 1997 is a perfect example of this. The highlights are incredible. But like a well-executed fine meal, the best shows have great flow and this one doesn’t for my tastes.
But in the spirit of Fall ’97 having great width, all of us lucky enough to have been in attendance that night got to witness some greatness in some unexpected ways and places. A lot of these moments don’t equal greatness on their own but you add them all up and I think it defines the magic that is Fall ’97 quite well.
Rather than comment on every song I figured I would just mention a few random moments that left an impression on me that night for various reasons. These aren’t the best things from the shows per se, just perfect examples of the greatness of Fall ’97.
”Funky Bitch” – this gets really interesting during Page’s solo. One thing that sticks out to my ears here is Fishman, who is effortlessly bouncing between three musical conversations at once. He alternately riffs off of Trey’s rhythm, Page’s solo and Mike’s bass line at various points of this song and makes it sound awfully easy. A band with a drummer that communicates on this level should not be legal.
Page then plays the standard “Funky Bitch” closing rhythm, but video confirms he never looks up to signal the end of the tune so the whole band plows right through it. The immediate roar from the quite knowledgeable crowd was a great sign.
During this extended solo section, Page starts repeatedly landing hard on the 16th-note before both the downbeat and beat three which the entire band starts doing together. This simultaneously gives it forward momentum while also feeling very unsettled. And in true Phish tension and release fashion, the whole band releases on the same downbeat, which caused yet another audible roar from the crowd. This “Funky Bitch” is barely a minute longer than a standard version but this kind of creativity right out of the gates is what I’m looking for in a Phish show. It also doesn’t hurt that it drops flawlessly into a 10-minute “Also Sprach Zarathustra!”
“Taste” – 1997 featured many versions of“Taste” where Trey took the handoff from Page’s solo and sounds like he was just fired out of a cannon. Not this one. The handoff is just as spirited as it always is from the rest of the band but Trey doesn’t even come in. The other three feed off of this and begin a diminuendo in the third bar that continues through the eighth bar, after which Trey begins his solo with a much more subdued entrance than usual. This spot in just one of the 30 versions of “Taste” they played in 1997 is a perfect, albeit incredibly small, example of a band operating on another level.
After his very subdued entrance, Trey’s solo quickly goes the traditional route as he shows why many considered him the greatest rock ‘n’ roll guitar player on the planet at the time. All four members played about a million notes during Trey’s solo, as they typically did during “Tastes” of that era. But the miraculous thing is how, in spite of everything being so busy, they are all still listening to and reacting to one another. That is truly next-level musicianship.
There are some famous classical musicians who get in front of the world’s greatest orchestras as soloists and do their thing while the conductor and the orchestra react to them. It can still be brilliant, but it is very much a one-way conversation.
But the truly great soloists, like say violinist Itzhak Perlman, not just the ones who live in big houses but the ones who will be frequently spoken of in 100 years, have a two-way conversation and are constantly taking cues from the orchestra behind them. They are engaged in a musical conversation of equals.
This is ridiculously hard to do when attempting to perform something as technically demanding as the last movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. But it can be done. And as musicians, the members of Phish are on that level. There is a delicate balance as a performer between constantly stating strong musical opinions while also being ready at any moment to have that opinion shaped by what the musicians around you are doing. I feel so damn lucky to have been in the room with these four guys so many times to get to see them communicating on that level and this “Taste” reminds me of that.
“Prince Caspian” – this was my sixth show of the tour and my fourth “Fuckerpants” so I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down at its appearance or at its placement late in the second set. But as I should have guessed, I didn’t have to wait long to have my hair blown back.
The first nine minutes are a pretty standard “Prince Caspian” and featured the usual repeated three-chord riff to end the song. The last chord devolved into a minute-long wall of sound that had the crowd going nuts, which I think inspired Trey to drop the hammer. Out of the cacophony, Trey emerges with a vicious repeated 16th note riff at 180 beats per minute and we were off to the races.
Jams like this one are where the “Fall ’97 is all predictable funk jams” narrative falls apart. This portion of the jam could easily be dropped into an exploratory “Down With Disease” or “David Bowie” from Summer ‘95 and not seem even the slightest bit out of place.
In fact, the last half of this monster “Prince Caspian” is about as unpredictable as it gets for Phish jams. At the 13:00 mark, the whole band drops down to pianissimo which sets up the first of three massive band-wide crescendos over the next four minutes that sound like some kind of primal scream involuntarily rising up from the depths of the tormented. In just eight bars over 10 seconds, the band goes from zero to 100 mph only to almost immediately retreat again in preparation for the next climb.
This is Phish at their free-flowing best. Listening to them in interviews over the years, when jams like this are unfolding, they truly have no idea what is coming next.
As those of us who were lucky enough to attend any of the Baker’s Dozen shows this summer got to experience firsthand, Fall ’97 was a special time to be in the room to witness the musical conversations that Phish was having on a nightly basis. You just never knew what the hell was going to happen next and this show is a perfect example of that.
Every song every night had the potential to live and breathe and many frequently did. Any piece could be affected at any given moment by a simple gesture coming from any of the band members. This was a conversation where all four people were intently listening to everything around them.
During my career, I have had the privilege of performing with a number of musicians like this, ones who are always leaning in to listen harder and whose every musical idea is built upon what is going on around them. There’s nothing more energizing in the world. Sadly, even among professional musicians, this level of communication is rare, so when you have an entire small ensemble operating on that plane, it is electric.
This was four musicians at the absolute height of their abilities, both individually and collectively.
Long live Fall ’97!
(Oh and thanks for that voucher, TWA. It sure as hell beat studying for my finals.)
Thanks to Drew for sharing his memories from 20 years ago today. Be sure to donate to The Mockingbird Foundation if you enjoy the series.
Times Union Center [See upcoming shows]
1 shows — 12/09/1995
8 songs / 8:10 pm to 9:14 pm (64 minutes)
10 songs / 10:03 pm to 11:33 pm (90 minutes)
18 songs / 15 originals / 3 covers
5.78 [Gap chart]
Camel Walk - 22 Shows (LTP - 8/14/1997)
Lawn Boy - 2, A Picture of Nectar - 2, Billy Breathes - 6, Misc. - 5, Covers - 3
Mean Temperature 30 °F
Capacity 17,000 Attendance 17,000 Ticket Price $25 as per Pharmers Almanac
Elsewhere On December 12, 1997:
- Zero at The Fox Theater in Boulder, Colorado (Audio)
- Galactic at Starlight in Fort Collins, Colorado (Setlist)
- Max Creek at The Living Room in Providence, Rhode Island (Audio)
- Prince at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota (Setlist)
- The Rolling Stones at Trans World Dome in St. Louis, Missouri (Setlist)
- Derek Trucks Band at Wetlands Preserve in New York City, New York (Audio)
- Donna The Buffalo at New Cheers Pub in Binghamton, New York (Audio)
- The Flaming Lips host Boom-Box Experiment #3 at Hollywood Theater in Norman, Oklahoma (Setlist)
- Florida Marlins release Alex Arias, the last original member of the Major League Baseball National League team.
- Boston Red Sox sign pitcher Pedro Martinez to a six-year, $75 million contract.