Phish Fall 97: Remembering December 9th In State College
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 Polyvamp saxophonist Seth Eisenstein’s essay about the show that took place on this date in 1997 at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pennsylvania. If you enjoy our article, please consider donating to the Mockingbird Foundation.
College in the late ‘90s was the perfect time to discover my love of Phish. I met a ton of like-minded students around the Penn State dorms, resulting in a great network of friends to make scoring tickets, catching rides to shows, and building tape collections easier. Best of all, our favorite band came to town on consecutive Fall Tours in 1996 and 1997! While their first visit to the Bryce Jordan Center in 1996 was a rather forgettable show (besides a great “Scent OF A Mule” and a “Star Spangled Banner” debut), expectations were much higher in December of ’97 as everyone knew the heights the band was capable of reaching nearly every night on that tour.
I had caught two spectacular shows in Philly one week earlier (and drove all night after December 3rd to get back to campus in time to take an exam the next day). Phish had an off day following the Dayton, Ohio show, and the tour buses were spotted in Happy Valley a day early. Lo and behold, while walking back to the dorm from my buddy’s house on West College Ave on December 8th, I had my first face-to-face encounter with a member of the band. We quickly realized the shaggy haired guy we were following toward Cafe 210 West was Mike Gordon, who was heading into the Disco Biscuits show.
Mike was incredibly approachable and happy to chat, and 19-year-old me was definitely freaking out a little bit inside. Sadly, Cafe 210 was a 21+ venue, and State College didn’t look too kindly on underage kids in bars. Imagine my shock the next day when I talked to my friend on the phone and he told me Trey and Fish were also inside Cafe 210 that night to check out the Biscuits, and Trey was buying shots for everyone!! Well, damn! The band apparently had a lot of fun that night.
In retrospect, were the whiskey shots (and maybe a few pitchers of Cafe 210 Long Island iced teas) the reason for what most fans consider a slightly uneven performance on December 9, 1997?
Bryce Jordan was a vanilla college basketball arena with overzealous security. As i recall, at least in 1996, the venue never brought the house lights completely down, and ushers were shining flashlights on folks all night long. There’s no question that had a bit of an effect on the overall energy compared to the no-holds-barred atmosphere of city arenas like Madison Square Garden and The Spectrum. On December 9th, Central PA got hit with a massive snowstorm, so my crew made a beeline from South Halls directly into the arena instead of freezing in the parking lot. I had managed to acquire solid lower level seats a few rows up from the floor, to the right of the soundboard. It was a good view and security mostly left us alone all night.
The band came out with the opening notes of “Mike’s Song” and we were off and running in State College. Toward the end of the “Mike’s” jam, Trey went heavy on the wah, conjuring up a start/stop funk jam which felt reminiscent to the amazing “Jam” that followed “David Bowie” and “Possum” back in Philly. Cow funk baby! Another highlight of the opening stanza was “Stash” – a quality version with a nice jam that followed the final “Maybe so, maybe not” chorus and led directly into “I Am Hydrogen.” “Weekapaug Groove” was a solid, rocking version. Overall the “Mike’s Groove” wasn’t quite on the level of Philly, but it was still great to hear it in the first set.
The rest of set one was pretty basic. A good song selection, but nothing ventured far outside of the box. The “Loving Cup” set closer was welcome, and the collection of hippies, frat bros and PSU students appreciated it.
I was definitely hoping for another hot, improv-heavy second set of music that lived up to high water mark of the Fall Tour to that point. The set opened with a straightforward “Julius” (along with some extra yelps from Fishman), and then the band finally turned on the exploration that we’d come to expect from them all tour long. The State College “Simple,” in my opinion, stacks up to any jam from Fall ’97. “Simple” is one of my favorite Phish songs. As a sax player, the lyrics have a special place in my heart. “What is a band without saxophone?” I even enjoy throwing an occasional “Simple” tease when my band plays, just so the crowd doesn’t forget that saxophone is grand.
This version encompasses virtually everything I love about Phish. “Simple’s” main theme rolled into a blissful full-band jam for several minutes. Around the 13-minute mark, seemingly out of nowhere, Fishman picked up the tempo on his ride cymbal, inspiring some spectacular, soaring guitar from Trey. This eventually cooled down into a great, laid-back funk jam groove – the type of jam that could seemingly only exist during Fall 97. This groove started around 17:45, and Page was really the star here, landing on some deliciously funky clavinet notes.
The monster of a “Simple” finally wound down after some mesmerizing, alien-encounter “space,” and then Fish started up what everyone in the arena assumed was the “Bowie” hi-hat, and the spaceship noises continued. But we were all wrong. Eventually Fish hit a few toms, and finally, 29 minutes and 32 seconds after “Simple” had begun, Trey jumped in with both feet – it was “Timber Ho!” time!
”Contact” followed, much to the delight of many sorority girls in attendance (probably). The middle section featured a super groovy Page breakdown, which my college roommate Alex (who I reunited with at Merriweather years later) raved about afterward for a long time. It’s pretty cool.
”Axilla” was short and sweet and injected some energy back in the audience. “Harry Hood” started up, but Phish wasn’t done messing with us that night. Mid “Hood” intro, Trey suddenly returned to the “Axilla” riff and the band quickly followed, and then returned to “Hood” without missing a beat. We screamed. Oh yes, we did. “Hood” closed a very interesting second set, and while it didn’t quite match the spectacle of the Went version I saw earlier that summer, it’s a pretty strong version overall. The “Fire” encore, as 19-year-old me referred to in a RMP review, was, “Soooo Phat!” Absolutely ferocious. It probably inspired my college band’s cover of “Fire” at the Kappa Sig luau a year or two later.
”Simple” remains a must-hear version and is still one of my favorite 30 minutes of Phish I’ve ever witnessed. The “Hood” with the “Axilla” tease is also highly recommended, and the “Mike’s” jam is worth a re-listen for the cow funk alone. While most folks will return again and again to the big shows of Fall ’97 that surrounded December 9th, there’s plenty of Phish to enjoy from that very snowy State College night.
Thanks to Seth for sharing his memories from 20 years ago today. Be sure to donate to The Mockingbird Foundation if you enjoy the series.
Bryce Jordan Center [See upcoming shows]
1 shows — 10/17/1996
17 songs / 12 originals / 5 covers
9.59 [Gap chart]
Axilla - 59 Shows (LTP - 2/28/1997)
Junta - 1, A Picture of Nectar - 2, Rift - 1, Hoist - 1, Misc. - 7, Covers - 5
Mean Temperature 30 °F
Capacity 11,090 Attendance 12,000 Ticket Price $22.50 - $25
Elsewhere On December 9, 1997:
- Bob Dylan at Avalon in Boston, Massachusetts (Setlist)
- The Rolling Stones at Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia (Setlist)
- Dark Star Orchestra at Martyrs’ in Chicago, Illinois (Setlist)
- Galactic at Inferno in Steamboat Springs, Colorado (Setlist)
- U2 at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia (Setlist)
- Mike Watt & The Black Gang Crew Live on KCRW at Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, California (Audio)