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. Today, we begin with Charlie Dirksen’s essay about the tour opener, which took place on this date in 1997 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. Charlie Dirksen is a lawyer and a volunteer board member of The Mockingbird Foundation, and also helps manage Phish.net. If you enjoy our article, please consider donating to the Mockingbird Foundation.
It didn’t take long to get to Vegas from San Francisco, overnight, with Bill driving. We left town late, and 560 or so miles later, after a stop at Whiskey Pete’s in Primm to check out the car Bonnie and Clyde were killed in, we arrived on the strip around 6 a.m.
Phish’s first show in Vegas at the Aladdin (less than a year earlier) had been fantastic, so we chose not to miss their second show in Vegas, despite it being on a Thursday and our thin funds. Phish also hadn’t played Halloween, of course, and hadn’t played since The Great Went (other than on Late Night With Conan O’Brien on November 7), so the thought of driving over 1,100 miles round trip to see only one show in Vegas still had considerable appeal.
We stayed at the hilariously awful The Frontier, which thankfully no longer exists. I roomed with “Disco Saul” Rosenberg, Drew “Second Mike’s Jam” Hitz (who coined the term “Fuckerpants”) and a person whose privacy shall be maintained (lest he have me killed for violating it). The Frontier exhibited miserable employees, permanently disfigured from life in smoke-filled environs, slogging along in a haze amidst decaying seniors gambling their savings away mindlessly at the slots. Vegas was the first place I’d ever been where the closer you looked at something, animal or plant, alive or inanimate — even something that appeared ridiculously majestic from a distance, like The Luxor’s pyramidic structure — the more cheap or vulgar or lurid it was. To be fair, my perception was impaired (in part due to lack of sleep), but regardless, The Frontier smelled equal parts overflowing ashtray and soiled undergarments and I knew I’d never stay there again, despite its low price and its somewhat beguiling state of decomposition.
My seat at the show was on an aisle a few rows up behind the tapers, straight out from Mike. It was an excellent seat for both lights and sound given the room’s 20,000 person capacity. My review posted to Rec.Music.Phish a few days after the gig began with, “If this show is any gauge, Phish is going to close 1997 the way it closed 1995: with shows so glorious we’ll be begging for more, more, more — and soon, soon, soon!!!” As everyone now knows, Phish did in fact close 1997 in spectacular fashion, yet while my prediction 20 years ago about the tour proved accurate, it was an obvious observation given the opening night’s highlights.
After a vigorous “Chalk Dust Torture” opener, the first set featured the debut of “Black-Eyed Katy,” a funky instrumental that I immediately loved (I’m one of the people you can hear yelling on the tapes within its first 30 seconds, as I was near the tapers’ mics). “BEK” was a crowd favorite right from the start, eventually becoming “The Moma Dance” in 1998. The improv in “Theme From The Bottom,” “Split Open And Melt” and “You Enjoy Myself” was also quite good in the first set, with “YEM’s” jam grooving and soaring and peaking in a bedazzling way for almost 10 minutes.
And the second set was no slouch either, opening with a 20+ minute “Stash” that had some compelling improv to be sure, venturing for a spell into trippy deep-space before Trey artfully returned to the theme. “Fuckerpants” was also superb, and the set concluded with a remarkable “Mike’s Groove” that exceeded a half-hour. The second jam in “Mike’s” contained textural, repetitive, melodic, mesmerizing, and gorgeous themes, one of which hinted strongly at “Born On The Bayou” for several measures (not “Green River,” as I wrongly said in my RMP review). It’s a transcendent performance of “Mike’s” that you need to hear if you haven’t yet done so. The “I Am Hydrogen” that followed contained a lot more improv from Trey in it than usual, making for an atypically long (and flubby at times) performance. “Weekapaug Groove” ended the set brilliantly, however, even raging at practically double-time for quite awhile. It’s a magnificent, awe-inspiring version of the song, with Trey, Mike, Page and Fish all killing it.
My ancient review of this show on RMP 20 years ago concluded with an amusing sentiment that, in light of the ‘97 Fall Tour’s significance in Phish history, seems appropriate to restate today:
I have a feeling, though, that this show will be relatively unremarkable by the time January 1, 1998 rolls around … [Y]ou ought to make whatever shows that are near you this Winter. If you thought Phish peaked on 12/31/95, think again. I don’t think it is that simple anymore.
Thanks to Charlie Dirksen for sharing his memories from 20 years ago today. Be sure to donate to The Mockingbird Foundation if you enjoy the series.
Thomas and Mack Center [See upcoming shows]
17 songs / 14 originals / 3 covers
3.44 [Gap chart]
I Am Hydrogen - 12 Shows (LTP - 7/31/1997)
Junta - 1, Lawn Boy - 2, A Picture of Nectar - 2, Billy Breathes - 4, Misc. - 5, Covers - 3
58 °F Mean Temperature
Capacity: 12,000 / Attendance 10,634 / Ticket Price $23.75 as per Pharmer's Almanac
Elsewhere On November 13, 1997:
- The String Cheese Incident at Neon’s in Auburn, Alabama (Audio)
- Blues Traveler at Savannah Civic Center in Savannah, Georgia (Audio)
- Max Creek at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut (Audio)
- Guster at Stone Coast Brewing Company in Portland, Maine (Audio)
- Disney’s live action musical The Lion King debuted on Broadway.
- Major League Baseball player Ken Griffey Jr. was unanimously given the American League MVP award.