Phish Fall 97: Remembering November 28th In Worcester
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 Umphrey’s McGee lighting director Jefferson Waful’s essay about the show that took place on this date in 1997 at Worcester Centrum Centre in Worcester, Massachusetts. If you enjoy our article, please consider donating to the Mockingbird Foundation.
The Moment Ends
It felt like the end of an era. Between 1993 and the fall of 1997, word was beginning to spread and what was once a cult-like following was slowly becoming more mainstream. Gen Xers had come to identify with the Guitar God posturing, the inside jokes, and the wry commentary on pop culture. On the surface, these seemed like silly antics, and most of the media dismissed them as such, but a deeper look revealed an intelligent parody of everything wrong with the music industry at a time when glossy music videos still ruled the world. But as the national audience grew and the creative juices slowed, it was time to go in a new direction. At 8 p.m. ET, MTV aired the series finale of Beavis And Butt-head. It was November 28, 1997.
In that same moment, Phish was taking the stage at the Worcester Centrum to deafening cheers and a palpable hometown energy. Just up the street from the band’s former office in Lexington, Massachusetts, and a short commute from bassist Mike Gordon’s hometown of Sudbury, Worcester doesn’t offer much in the way of aesthetics or culture, but none of that mattered once the lights went down. The quartet was firing on all cylinders, on a groundbreaking fall tour, which fans affectionately dubbed Phish Destroys America.
Phish Deconstructs Phish
Two weeks earlier in Salt Lake City, the band members implemented the “No Analyzing Rule” in an effort to be less critical of each other’s playing and more absorbed in the present. Set break would no longer be an extension of the practice room with band members discussing technical imperfections. While crucial to their development and early songwriting, Phish’s impressive work ethic was now getting in the way as the focus shifted from technical chops to free-form funk.
1997 represented a seismic shift in the band’s improvisational dynamic. Trey Anastasio’s guitar was no longer always the lead voice and drummer Jon Fishman was creating more space, leaving room for Gordon to add his own rhythmic flare. Suddenly there was a sensuality to their interplay and emotive funk anchored the ship while Page McConnell’s sly clavinet sputtered over the top and Anastasio’s eerie delay loops whined whimsically in the distance.
At the time of its release, the perfectly-mixed multi-track recordings of 1995’s double-album, A Live One, represented the pinnacle of Phish’s improvisational arc. Hand-picked by the band, the compilation contains the single greatest live performance of “Stash,” which culminates in a seemingly accidental peak so orgasmic experiencing it live at age 18 may have actually altered the trajectory of my life (says the 42-year-old still writing about it 24 years later). This frantic tension and release – recorded at Great Woods in 1994 – was Phish at the top of their game. The precise, rapid-fire 16th note exchanges between Trey and Fish juxtaposed with the haunting dissonance of McConnell’s rich, murky textures and Gordon’s quirky counterpoint had reached its zenith. For a band that had always strived to reinvent itself, where could it go from here?
Before The Destruction
On Halloween in 1996, I flew to Atlanta in a toga. I had no pockets, which was fine because I had no cell phone. I also didn’t know a single person going to the show. There was no plan. No hotel room. No pre-show meet-up. Just a dorky college kid in a toga hoping they’d play “Julius.” This was a solo mission to see the band’s famed musical costume up close and personal. Remain in Light was an interesting choice because it features many elements that were historically foreign to Phish: sparseness, uneven punk rock, rhythmic layering, repetitive New Wave melodies and a deep dive into the complex and nuanced world of funk.
The following September, Phish returned to Bearsville Studios in New York, where they had recorded Billy Breathes utilizing a freeform ensemble exercise known as “The Blob.” They would continue recording with a similar improvisational approach that featured fewer notes and less thought. Both lighting director Chris Kuroda and Anastasio have talked about their philosophy of “no mind,” a line from The Last Samurai that refers to the quest to remove one’s internal dialogue. The first thing the band recorded during this meditative session was a funky instrumental called “Black-Eyed Katy,” which was debuted in the fall and, along with “Ghost,” came to represent the infectious “cow funk” of 1997. The band would later add lyrics and change the name to “The Moma Dance.”
Phish: Wrecking Ball
By the time the tour reached Worcester, the momentum was nearly tangible. It had the feel of a homecoming of sorts, being right in our backyard for three nights. The concrete parking garages of Worcester are indistinguishable from those of other regional arenas in Providence, Albany and Hartford, but the feeling of Thanksgiving weekend seemed unique. Similar to a New Year’s Eve run, there is a pent-up energy that comes from spending the holidays at home, doing normal, civilized things overwhelmed by anticipation of what’s to come.
Backstage, there was such a jovial, familial vibe, the weekend spawned what would later become The Betty Ford Clinic, an open bar set up for the quartet’s growing inner circle. The goal was to transform the sterile backstage areas of arenas and sheds into something more akin to the party happening in the audience and less like the practice room, where analyzing would typically occur.
For fans, the Centrum was a familiar space due to the NYE show there in 1993, which was broadcast live on WBCN in Boston and yielded crisp soundboard recordings that circulated regularly. Portions of “Down With Disease” from that night are also featured in the band’s lone music video, directed by Gordon and mocked by Beavis And Butt-head.
When I think back to that weekend, what strikes me most is the feeling that this was all our little secret. Sure, Phish was selling more tickets than ever before, but with the internet still in its infancy, the band wasn’t exactly a household name. I had spent the previous two nights at home on Cape Cod for Thanksgiving, catching up with high school friends who had no idea why I was so excited about the impending weekend. My parents actually went to the Sunday show, narrowly missing Saturday’s 59-minute “Runaway Jim,” which may not have been as generation-spanning as the first set “Loving Cup” they enjoyed on Sunday.
As the house lights went down on November 28th, and ecstatic, youthful cheers filled the room, there was no feeling more blissful in the world to me. It’s hard to imagine now, 20 years later, working as a professional lighting designer. It is this same moment of anticipation and uncertainty that causes the most stress on a given night on the job. But it was that initial feeling of magic and wonder at age 22 that led me to pursue a career striving to recreate it for others.
While not technically flawless, the loose and playful feel of “The Curtain” and the surprising, early placement of “You Enjoy Myself” got things off to celebratory start. The first improv of the night occurs at precisely the halfway point of the 24-minute “YEM” and it’s the perfect snapshot of the band’s newfound jamming style. Gordon, who earlier that year switched to a punchier Modulus bass, locks in early with Fishman’s kick drum creating a tight percussive attack. Meanwhile, McConnell is steadily chugging along leaving ample room for what comes next. Hovering above are Anastasio’s delay loops, which circle aimlessly like lost seagulls on a windy day, and never quite sync up with the precise pulse of Fishman’s high hat. This subtle, rhythmic cacophony creates an ethereal backdrop for the flowing funk excursions that would define 1997.
After a slow build, Trey begins coyly toying with the melody of Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed And Painless,” a passage he still references regularly today. His solo builds slowly and non-linearly. In years past, there would have been a deliberate build to a crescendo, but here, there are detours into James Brown rhythm vamps, extending the journey along the way. Each time Anastasio pulls back, the energy builds, with each member speaking eloquently in succinct paragraphs. When Anastasio changes his tone and introduces a new theme, McConnell anticipates the shift, moving instinctively to piano without missing a beat. Phish was no longer discussing music, but the non-verbal communication had never been more fluent.
The articulate conversation continues in “Black-Eyed Katy” and “Ghost” with a blend of both the new style of jamming and the experimental psychedelia we had grown to love. One could argue that there is no song of greater importance to the evolution of Phish’s sound than “Ghost.” Just 11 days earlier in Denver, the band played a version so transcendent the recording had been played nearly every night since, with the members of Phish literally hosting late night dance parties on their tour bus with Denver as the soundtrack. According to Anastasio, it was the first time they had ever listened to one of their own recordings for pleasure. As he would later tell Richard Gehr in The Phish Book, “We became our own influence.”
With all those late-night listening sessions still fresh in their minds, you can hear Fishman’s “here we go again!” excitement as he sings the final chorus to the Worcester “Ghost,” squealing delightfully at the prospect of another extended funk jam. Gordon’s slap bass intertwines seamlessly with Fish’s snare and McConnell’s Hammond B-3, before the arrival of Anastasio’s oscillating delay loop and subsequent octave-pedal noodling. Then, one of the show’s highlights occurs right around the 15-minute mark as the band teeters on the edge of Type II jamming, with a glorious duel between Anastasio and Gordon. With Trey’s use of the octave pedal and Mike playing so far up the neck, it’s difficult to distinguish the origin of each note, the ultimate example of two musicians perfectly in sync, seemingly finishing each other’s thoughts. After a brief pause, the rest of the band joins in and we’re off to the races once again.
It’s important to note that in 1997, Phish was not yet the cultural icons they are now. While still satirized by a portion of the mainstream, today much of the industry recognizes the band’s place in history and respects their unconventional business model, one that many were forced to embrace after the recording industry’s collapse a decade later.
Art isn’t created in a vacuum (sorry, Fish). What transpired in the fall of ‘97 was a result of every experience that came before it: every tour bus party, every inside joke and every bad review. Most importantly, it was the realization of a new way of improvising, one that caused audiences to dance like no one was watching, while the band strove to perform as if no one was analyzing. Ironically, 20 years later, Fall ‘97 is perhaps the most analyzed ever.
While Beavis And Butt-head were strolling off into the proverbial sunset, Jerry Seinfeld was deciding to end his #1 show on NBC. He wanted to walk away on his own terms, while the show was still at its creative peak. It’s a similar feeling the members of Phish would experience three years later, as they left the stage at Big Cypress, bewildered and elated after an all-night New Year’s celebration marking the symbolic dawn of a new millennium. Unsure of what could ever top the experience, the members of Phish were stumped. As the comforting sounds of The Beatles played over the PA, serenading the dazed masses with “Here Comes the Sun,” the band walked off stage with an unknown horizon.
In 1997, Phish still had something to prove.
Thanks to Waful for sharing his memories from 20 years ago today. Be sure to donate to The Mockingbird Foundation if you enjoy the series.
DCU Center [See upcoming shows]
3 shows — 12/31/1993, 12/28/1995, 12/29/1995
8 songs / 8:00 pm to 9:17 pm (77 minutes)
6 songs / 9:57 pm to 11:07 pm (70 minutes)
14 songs / 10 originals / 4 covers
12.5 [Gap chart]
The Curtain, I Didn't Know, Rocky Top
The Curtain - 57 Shows (LTP - 2/20/1997)
Junta - 1, Rift - 1, Billy Breathes - 1, Misc. - 7, Covers - 4
30 °F Mean Temperature
Capacity 14,198 Attendance 14,198 Ticket Price $25 as per Pharmers Almanac
Elsewhere On November 28, 1997:
- Widespread Panic at the Warfield in San Francisco, California (Audio)
- Steve Kimock at 4th Street Tavern in San Rafael, California (Audio)
- moe. at Electric Factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Audio)
- The Rolling Stones at Kingdome in Seattle, Washington (Setlist)
- Max Creek at The Webster Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut (Audio)
- Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals at Roseland Ballroom in New York City, New York (Setlist)
- Hot Tuna at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, New York (Setlist)
- Guster at Irving Plaza in New York City, New York (Audio)
- Blues Traveler at Strand Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island (Audio)
- 311 at The Armory in Rochester, New York (Audio)
- MTV airs final episode of Beavis And Butt-head.