Phish Fall 97: Remembering December 3rd In Philadelphia
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 Michael Cirrito’s essay about the show that took place on this date in 1997 at CoreStates Spectrum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. If you enjoy our article, please consider donating to the Mockingbird Foundation.
And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Most fans of this era remember the moment when they realized that everything had changed. For me, it came in the early spring, a few months before I’d graduate college when I got a copy of the February 16, 1997 Stuttgart show. In just one spin I knew Phish had ascended to another musical plane. The music had this effortless looseness to it, far removed from the frenetic and tight style of play that defined most of 1996. It spoke to me. And I knew in that moment that I needed to be a part of what was unfolding.
Five months and 21 shows later, I was headed from Worcester to Philly for my last portion of the East Coast run. I’d been on and off tour since the magical opening night in Vegas. I would take in two more shows in Philly and head back to California before returning for the New Year’s shows. You might say that December 3rd was the Crossroads of my Fall ‘97 expedition.
I did this leg of shows with a new friend. I met JP just few weeks earlier in Gainesville, Florida during Zero’s inaugural East Coast tour. I should have barely known JP, yet music and Phish have always had a way of attracting kindred spirits. JP was one of those special connections that are so easy to make on tour. Ours was an instant and familiar friendship, and one that endures to this day. That was part of the beauty of 1997. It was an easy decision to jump in a car with a partial stranger and set out on the road for whatever adventures we could conjure.
The Spectrum was 30-years-old by the time Phish came to town. It was grimy and dated, yet oozing with history and character. The Flyers won their first Stanley Cup there in 1974. Perhaps Fishman had that in mind when he decided to don a Flyers jersey? Regardless, by December of 1997 the Spectrum was 20 years past its prime. The venue may have been tattered but Phish was in stride, peaking in every sense of the word. If anything, the band harnessed the grit and grime of the room as fuel for some epic musical moments.
It’s almost unfair to rank first sets from this tour. Denver, Hampton and Dayton all contain opening efforts where the creativity, flow and improvisation stack up with any “greatest ever” second sets. While not quite on par with those gems, the opening stanza of December 3rd would easily be a top tier second set on any 3.0 tour and contains some monumental moments worth a revisit.
After a solid opening duo of “Punch You In The Eye” and “My Soul,” the band drops into their first improvisational excursion of the evening with “Drowned.” Five minutes in and the music morphs from the song’s rock structure to the signature rhythmic grooves that defined the era. Trey falls into a staccato rhythm of 16th notes that become the foundation of the jam. Three songs in and the band is knee-deep in effortless butter-funk. Clocking in at a solid 15 minutes, this jam would make a standout centerpiece of any second set. And the fact that it’s not generally talked about is a testament to the overall talent level of improvisation on this tour. (For my $0.02 it’s the best “Drowned” of 1997 and Top 3 all time.)
After taking a breather with “The Old Home Place,” the ball is placed high on the tee. The band drives the set home with 40 minutes of pure fire with “Gumbo” > “2001” > “You Enjoy Myself.”
”Gumbo” is another bright gem that is easily lost in the herd of G.O.A.T.s that litter 1997. Unlike the lighter, airier “Gumbos” of the summer, this one is as dark and dank as the room in which it was played. The composed section and jam eventually descend into an ambient space. In hindsight, the last two minutes are a harbinger of where the band’s playing would move in 1998.
”Gumbo” eventually gives way to a truly classic staple of this tour: the deep-in-the-pocket grooves of “2001.” Listening closely 20 years later, I’m reminded that “Mike’s Song” isn’t the only tune with a “lost second jam.” This “2001” is high octane and finds Trey channeling his inner Jimmy Nolen. This was an era when you took for granted that Wednesday night first sets could close with “YEM.” Trey’s weeble-wobble dance moves are worth a revisit.
Set Two: Take Me Out To The Ballgame
Pop quiz: what’s the best “David Bowie” of Fall ‘97? The Philly “Bowie” is a downright patient effort. It’s clear out of the gates that nobody has any intention of rushing things. The high-hat intro stretches over five minutes and is complete with “charge!” teases, Simpsons secret language “D’ohs,” and some interesting ambient interplay between Fish on blocks and Trey on lead.
The composed section is executed with effortless precision and gives way to murky minor key exploration. The band is locked-in, stirring the soup, slowly heating things up. By the 15-minute mark, the jam hits phase two and enters a rolling boil mode that eventually reaches a tipping point. Two minutes later, Trey comes over the top and this section obtains full lift off, but not like a traditional “Bowie” — this expands in an altogether different kind of way. Rather than bring the jam to a close, the band spends another seven minutes galloping along the moonscape of full band improvisation. There are hints at a return to “Bowie’s” denouement but Trey strums out some familiar rhythm chords and rather than peaking the climax, he takes a patient left turn to the opening notes of “Possum.”
“Possum” is flawlessly executed with all gusto of this era. After an extended tension and release climax it morphs into an unidentified funk jam that is among the top five moments I witnessed that fall. I recall at the time people calling this jam “Green Eyed Mary,” though the name never stuck. In some ways, the space the band finds here is a reprise of where they were in the heart of “Drowned” in set one. But this is not as straight forward as a “Tube” reprise. Is it a fully composed song? A proto song? Or just a band with telekinetic improv skills who can create music on the spot that sounds like they’ve been it playing it for years? Whatever the case, this jam is an eight-minute demonstration of Phish at their cow funk superpower peak.
Eventually, the groove slows and gives way to “Prince Caspian.” Well-executed with lightning fast soloing and a rhythmic jam closing climax, “Caspian” delivers. Nearly 60 minutes into the set, “Caspian” gives way to “Frankenstein” and everybody in the room is sure this is it, right? Wrong. The night wouldn’t be complete without one more lap around the park. “Harry Hood” is another example of the band being patient with their approach, they seem to treat each section with extra care and feeding. Melodically and thematically, elements pick up right where the Great Went “Hood” left off.
Philadelphia was a geographical vector point for the band’s East Coast run. They treated the Southeast to a trio of cosmically blazing shows in Hampton and Winston Salem, took a brief respite to catch their breath for Thanksgiving holiday, and moved on to destroy the Worcester Centrum with one of the greatest three night runs in any venue, ever. This final night in Philly would be the band’s last big city show on the East Coast until New Year’s. What better way to end an amazing night of music than with a nod to the tour’s East Coast “Crossroads.”
Thanks to Michael for sharing his memories from 20 years ago today. Be sure to donate to The Mockingbird Foundation if you enjoy the series.
Wells Fargo Center [See upcoming shows]
4 shows — 12/15/1995, 12/28/1996, 12/29/1996, 12/02/1997
14 songs / 8 originals / 6 covers
9.5 [Gap chart]
Drowned - 52 Shows (LTP - 03/18/1997)
Junta - 2, Billy Breathes - 1, Misc. - 5, Covers - 6
Mean Temperature 40 °F
Capacity 29,640 Attendance 16,090 Ticket Price $25 - $27.50 as per Pharmers Almanac
Elsewhere On December 3, 1997:
- Medeski, Martin & Wood at Electric Factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Setlist)
- RatDog at The Fillmore in San Francisco, California (Audio)
- Willie Nelson at La Zona Rosa in Austin, Texas (Setlist)
- Hot Tuna at Newport Music Hall in Columbus, Ohio (Setlist)
- NBA player Latrell Sprewell’s contract with the Golden State Warriors is terminated following an incident in which he choked coach P. J. Carlesimo.