Phish Fall 97: Remembering November 23rd In Winston-Salem

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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 Paolini’s essay about the show that took place on this date in 1997 at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. If you enjoy our article, please consider donating to the Mockingbird Foundation.

I wasn’t supposed to go to the November 23, 1997 Phish show. I had moved to Atlanta the previous summer. After having gone to college and lived in Virginia for most of the previous six years, the Hampton Coliseum was a special venue for me. I was fortunate enough to see the Dead, Jerry Garcia Band and the first two shows Phish played at the Mothership. Naturally, when the shows were announced, I got two tickets and couldn’t have been more excited. Alas, a couple of weeks before the shows, it became apparent I wasn’t going to be able to make it. But damned if I was going to miss out on the entire tour, especially given how good the summer was.

Winston-Salem was the only realistic option, and while I wasn’t happy to be trading two shows at the beloved Coliseum for one night at a generic college basketball arena, one show was decidedly better than none. Having been in Atlanta for about four months, I had met a couple of people who liked Phish. I just hadn’t met anyone who liked Phish enough to drive five hours for a Sunday night show and drive back immediately afterwards to be at work on Monday. So this was going to be a one-man suicide mission.

But before we gas up the Honda Civic and get on the road, let’s head over to gadiel.com/phish and check out the setlists from those Hampton shows. Ouch. Crushing. They say you can’t judge a show from it’s setlist, but it was clear I had missed two pretty outstanding shows. Even in 1997 it was hard to expect a show to stand up to either of the two preceding nights.

Since I was by myself, I was able to easily grab a nice spot on the center of the floor between the soundboard and the stage. I was rewarded for my efforts with the opening notes of “My Soul.” There aren’t many openers I’m less interested in seeing, but when you’re only seeing a single show, there’s no time for disappointment. “Theme From The Bottom,” which still felt like a “new” song, was up next and it felt like the show had truly started.

If “Theme” felt like a Phish show, the opening notes of “Black-Eyed Katy” made it feel like a ‘97 Phish show. Though I had not yet heard the new instrumental I had read about on rec.music.phish, it was obvious that’s what song it was. At the time, it was so exciting to see them dig right into the sound that had permeated so many of the jams I had seen the previous summer or heard on tape. The Winston-Salem version would prove to be probably the best rendition of the song before they added lyrics and basically neutered it (with a few exceptions like February 26, 2003 and July 3, 2016).

After a quick “Sparkle,” Trey started up “Twist” or “Twist Around,” as we called it back then. I’m pretty sure that was my first time ever hearing the song. It didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time and, indeed, it took awhile for “Twist” to find its place in the Phish repertoire. This version has a nice little groove-based (but not outwardly funky) jam that becomes minimalist, as if it might go type-II, but instead briefly returns to the groove and abruptly turns into “Stash.”

This “Stash” is long, dark and eerie. The tension builds and then grinds down into a deep churning drone. Even 20 years later, I still vividly remember the red lights shining upward from the bottom of the stage, rotating on and off. Trey plays a melody over the still dark groove and the jam becomes more “Stash”-like, but never builds to a full peak, as Trey instead steers the band smoothly into “NICU.”

“Fluffhead” was becoming increasingly rare, only appearing five times in 1997. Even in 1997 Phish could be sloppy, and you’ll certainly hear a few sour notes in this “Fluffhead,” but by the time it reaches “Arrival” all is forgotten. They seem to ride out the end for a little longer than usual before dropping into the set-closing “Character Zero.” I like to think of myself as being ahead of the curve and I’m proud to say I was firmly in the anti-“Zero” camp in 1997 (and 1996!). But that’s the story of Phish in 1997: they could spot you a “My Soul” opener and a “Zero” closer and still blow you away. Onto the second set!

Often, the best Phish shows are when the band surprises you. Indeed, one of the things that makes Phish so great is their ability to confound expectations, even 34 years into their career. The surprises can take many forms, some big, some small. Some personal examples include watching them “swim” into a clam and debut the then unnamed “Down With Disease” jam or hearing them embrace an entirely new style of jamming at my first Summer ‘97 shows. More recently, I’ve seen Phish spell “Fuck Your Face,” play a set on a flatbed truck in the middle of Madison Square Garden and play “Lawn Boy” for half an hour.

On November 23, 1997, Trey Anastasio tapped into another dimension and performed a “Bathtub Gin” like no other. I could try to give a play-by-play here, but I don’t have the musical vocabulary and, even if I did, I’m not sure words could do it justice. Suffice it to say that Trey channeled Jimi Hendrix and played a “Gin” that had the intensity of the peak of “Run Like An Antelope” for the better part of 20 minutes.

Often, when Trey is at his best, his playing looks almost effortless. His fingers will dance up and down the fretboard in a smooth, almost singular motion. This was not that. My indelible memory is of Trey almost convulsing, violently pulling note after note out of his Languedoc. This was a living example of Col. Bruce’s philosophy of getting out of the way and being a conduit for the music that’s already out there in the universe. Is it the “best” version of “Gin” or even my favorite? Honestly, no. But it’s absolutely the most memorable I’ve seen and remains one of the most powerful live music experiences of my life.

So, how do you follow up something like that? Well, if you’re Phish and it’s 1997, you play a “Down With Disease” that heads straight for the cosmos, veer into the first “Low Rider” in years, and then stick the landing on the “DWD Reprise.” If you count the “Down With Disease” suite as essentially one song (and I do), “Bold As Love” closed the three song set. The “Julius” encore? Best “Julius” ever (well, for a couple of weeks anyway).

So, was November 23, 1997 “better” than the Hampton shows? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I have an opinion, but that’s not really the point. What I’m grateful for is that those Hampton shows are among the very best shows Phish has ever played, yet 20 years later I’m not lamenting them as the shows that got away. I’m just glad I was lucky enough to be at November 23, 1997.

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.

The Skinny

The Setlist

The Venue

Lawrence Joel Veterans Coliseum [See upcoming shows]

2 shows — 4/21/1994, 11/21/1995

The Music

9 songs

5 songs

14 songs / 11 originals / 3 covers

1992

22.2 [Gap chart]

N/A

Sparkle, Fluffhead, Low Rider

Low Rider - 266 Shows (LTP - 7/10/1994)

Bathtub Gin 31:43

Down With Disease (2nd) 3:43

Junta - 1, Lawn Boy - 1, A Picture of Nectar - 1, Rift - 1, Hoist - 2, Billy Breathes - 2, Misc. - 3, Covers - 3

The Rest

52 °F Mean Temperature

KOA #1

Capacity 14,153 Attendance 14,153 Ticket Price $22.50 - $25 as per Pharmers Almanac

Elsewhere On November 23, 1997:

  • moe. at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem, North Carolina [Show Note: “During “Seat Of My Pants” Al opened up a glow-stick thingee and poured it on his face. Some of the liquid got in his eye. Chuck, Rob, and Vinnie jammed for 10 minutes or so. They then took a break and worked things out.”] (Setlist)
  • U2 at Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas [Show Note: “Bono sang portions of “Waltzing Matilda” and “Never Tear Us Apart” in memory of Michael Hutchence, who had died the previous day.”] (Setlist)
  • Blues Traveler at State Theatre in Detroit, Michigan (Audio)
  • Jeff Tweedy at Mercury Lounge in New York City, New York (Setlist)
  • The Philadelphia Eagles, fueled by the golden arm of Bobby Hoying, beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-20.
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