Phish Fall 97: Remembering November 17th In Denver
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 Steve Siegel’s essay about the show that took place on this date in 1997 at McNichols Arena in Denver. Steve administers the Chicago live music website Tomorrows’s Verse. If you enjoy our article, please consider donating to the Mockingbird Foundation.
After the thrilling summer of 1997, fall Phish shows were not just desired, but necessary. However, we Chicagoans would have to hit the road in order to make that happen. While a handful of tour dates dotted the Midwest, my eyes quickly scanned to a pair of shows in Colorado to round out the “driveable” slate.
Twenty years ago, as now, Colorado beckoned the Phish-inclined with mysterious allures. Of course, Red Rocks loomed large – its four shows the previous summer were instantly mythologized. Crazy tales and crispy tapes from the ’80s runs through mountain towns established the Rocky Mountain State as not just another stop on an endless tour, but a destination – a home-away-from-home. Not only was the landscape impossibly beautiful, the people and culture seemed to foster an attitude that signified: this state gets you. My fate was sealed.
The pair of shows at the McNichols Arena would be the 28th and 29th of my burgeoning Phish career – numbers that may appear laughably small given the garish show-counts of 21st century fans, but it was well-earned, emboldening experience in the ’90s, especially as more and more folks entered Phish’s orbit, searching for meaning in a musical environment that sometimes required a little extra effort. Armed with a portable Sony D8 DAT recorder, plenty of road miles and lot time under my belt, I approached these shows as somebody who thought they knew a thing-or-two about a thing-or-two.
What I had witnessed over the course of the prior 27 shows was nothing short of extraordinary – but what would occur at that 29th borders on indescribable. It’s that feeling when you think you know something as much as you know yourself, and then realize you’ve just scratched the surface…possibly on both fronts.
Since I had first seen the band in 1994, Phish was characterized by a ceaseless upward trajectory from an artistic standpoint – because of that (and other reasons), the band’s growth followed closely. It was a period of fierce and constant reinvention and exploration of sound. With heavy injections of new road-tested material, the band could seem totally different from tour-to-tour, show-to-show, sometimes even from song-to-song. I got this. I was prepared for it. I embraced it.
A pair of shows in a major city’s NBA arena was actually quite the anomaly — with fall tours falling for the most part in college arenas. While Denver wasn’t quite the same “hey, look at us” step as, say, Madison Square Garden, it wasn’t nothing either.
It occurs to me, only upon reflection, that these shows were actually a Sunday and Monday night – another choice seemingly out-of-time with today’s touring template. And thus, I’m pretty sure neither was sold out. There was no ticket mania. A surprising number of people I knew were there given the circumstances. It was an all-are-welcome type situation for what probably amounted to the onstage moment which may indeed represent Phish’s most significant step forward in their entire career.
Let’s face it, we’re here to celebrate and discuss Fall 1997 as a thing. And I would argue that Fall 1997 officially became a thing with the first notes of “Tweezer” on November 17th.
By my count, it was only the 10th time that song had opened a set, and the only time it had opened a first set. With its huge, anthemic riff filling the massive space, two things were telegraphed. First, this band was going big, swinging for the fences, acknowledging that they were in control of their myth-making on a bigger (literally and figuratively) stage. Second, anything goes. Don’t just expect the unexpected, immolate those expectations entirely. If you’re on this ride to be surprised, buckle up.
And then the “Tweezer” happened. A platform for improvisation and experimentation since its debut, here it provided the canvas for an in-the-moment evolution of the band’s very essence. Funk is the word that gets tossed around – and clearly there are elements of that in Phish’s Fall ’97 sound – but the music contained here is singular. Purposeful, driven, melodic and danceable. A whole show’s worth of ideas condensed into the 18-minute opener.
Then, “Reba.” A one-two punch crafted out of pure delirious Phish fan fever dream.
“Train Song” provided a brief three minutes of normalcy before “Ghost” dropped. A highlight of so many of that summer’s shows, it was an obvious call and a glorious execution. Containing silly amounts of peaks and transcendental four-member communication, over the course of 20 minutes the band first aimed to get our feet moving, and through a series of tonal shifts, broken down beats and a seemingly endless array of bad-ass Trey riffs, get right into our heads. Trey verbally acknowledges that this is for our “dancing and listening pleasure” before crushing “Fire” to close things out. Gulp.
The band had flirted with high-jam, low-song second sets a few times over the last couple of years. But here we were, through the looking glass: a five-song first set. All the controls were pegged to the highest settings.
Through a little over an hour of perfect first set music we had plumbed multiple deep improvisations, thrilling composition, arena-filling majesty, delicate spaces, groundbreaking soundscapes and an impeccable cover, the only thing that hadn’t yet been attempted were impressive segues.
Phish: “hold my beer.”
By now, the November 17 second set has achieved its due recognition, but if you were looking at Andy Gadiel’s Phish page on November 18, it’s possible you might have shrugged your shoulders at set two. A typical “Down With Disease” opener followed by a throwaway ditty (“Olivia’s Pool,” which I’m confident we called the more obvious “Oblivious Fool” back in the day) and a trio of fairly innocuous covers. Then a perfunctory “You Enjoy Myself.”
A big bag of “so what” on paper — which is exactly why this set breathes so much new life into the entire Phish experience. Though, I’ll argue that there were no more levers to pull, no more buttons to push. Everything was already maxed out, every card held was played. What came next was out of their hands and left to the whims of the universe.
The big room was rapt – there was no denying where this music would take us. Phish stood their ground while blasting nuclear riffs in “Disease” effortlessly and then existing uncannily in their wake — they were destroying and creating at the same time. Like falling down a flight of stairs gracefully and landing on your feet, why wouldn’t they somehow mine “Olivia’s Pool” out the chaos? A totally out-of-left-field but basically a perfect did-that-just-happen? two minutes, it was a crazy-stupid in-the-moment choice that couldn’t possibly go wrong.
As if compelled during this creative process to dive into rock’s most primordial swamp, they emerged with a few balls-to-the-wall minutes of “Johnny B. Goode,” but used it as a springboard to leap headlong into space — slapping five with everyone from The Rolling Stones to Brian Eno, Sun Ra to James Brown along the way — during the 12-minute improvisation that followed.
A smooth, patient “Jesus Just Left Chicago” played its intended role by blurring the line between everything else I thought I knew about American music – white and black, Northern and Southern, jazz and blues. When Phish is not running on conventional fuel, there’s no running out of gas, and a “You Enjoy Myself” that perhaps contains the truly funkiest jamming of the night, and would be the legit highlight of most shows, is bestowed upon a crowd who has already experienced an embarrassment of riches.
They were trying so hard that they weren’t even trying anymore — the music they were producing must have seemed genuinely out of the control of even its creators. They had become an object moving with such clarity and precision, it just had to be.
Welcome to Fall ’97.
It was a vein that would be tapped a number of times over the next few weeks, and a plateau essentially maintained over the next four shows – easily some of the greatest Phish of all time. But here it was birthed. In Denver, a city far from their home-base yet somehow uniquely tuned into the Phish wavelength. In a huge arena, a harbinger of the massive success they would find to close out the decade. Making relative vets feel as pleasantly baffled as their first show.
That was the magic of this tour.
Thanks to Steve for sharing his memories from 20 years ago today. Be sure to donate to The Mockingbird Foundation if you enjoy the series.
McNichols Civic Center Building [See upcoming shows]
1 shows — 11/16/1997
5 songs / 7:56 pm to 8:59 pm (63 minutes)
7 songs / 9:37 pm to 11:04 pm (87 minutes)
12 songs / 8 originals / 4 covers
8 [Gap chart]
All except Train Song, You Enjoy Myself and Character Zero
Oliva's Pool - 17 Shows (LTP - 07/29/1997)
You Enjoy Myself - 23:09
Oliva's Pool - 2:18
Junta - 1, Lawn Boy - 1, A Picture of Nectar - 1, Hoist - 1, Billy Breathes - 2, Misc. - 2, Covers - 4
34° F Mean Temperature
Capacity 17,650 / Attendance 12,985 / Ticket Price $25 - $27.50