Phish Fall 97: Remembering November 30th 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 Benjy Eisen’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.
In the fall of 1997, I had a lot to be thankful for, not all of which I knew or appreciated at the time. As I drove down to Annapolis, Maryland for my family’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, I realized that it was one of very few traditions that I held sacred, and the only one involving other members of my family. Going on about four years by that point, most of my other sacred rituals centered around annual Phishing trips with friends — New Year’s Eve, Halloween, a summer festival here, an autumn weekend there. And, while it only lasted for two consecutive years, the three-night Worcester run during Thanksgiving weekend felt as important as Thanksgiving dinner itself. At the time, it certainly felt like we were making a new tradition.
Instead, we were just making history.
And such was the vibe inside the Worcester Centrum for those three wintry nights in 1997. To give context, the band’s first multiple night stand at Hampton Coliseum was the weekend before and it was instant legend. This was before the Coliseum was known as the Mothership, during an era when the only way of hearing live Phish shows was to trade for them using cassette tapes and the postal service — a process that, even with a direct hook-up, usually took an uncertain two weeks or more.
Phish Nation was small enough and tight enough that word alone of what went down in Hampton had kept the parking lots outside Worcester buzzing with energy and anticipation. The Phish scene was in full bloom, including a cottage industry of fan-wares, a bustling shakedown, and a stacked schedule of collateral shows by startup bands in all the neighborhood bars — including a matinee show that Sunday by the Disco Biscuits, at Tammany Hall, just weeks after they started pioneering their new and improved recipe for livetronica. They were just getting started. We all were.
Inside the Centrum it was a different story. The tour’s title, “Phish Destroys America,” was not a misnomer. The band was on a rampage. There was a feeling that they were unstoppable and, given the facts afforded by hindsight, we can clearly see how the cards were falling in their favor.
The year before, 1996, was the band’s first full year in which they had definitively moved into the arena-rock spectrum. They had tested the arena waters before then, certainly for their biggest shows in their biggest markets, but moving almost exclusively into that domain in ’96, the band tried on their arena-rock gloves full-time to mixed effect. They were picking up more fans than they were dropping off, and at a record clip, but 1996 appeared to be a motionless year for them creatively, compared to what came before, as they adjusted to the bigger scale. This was during a career-long arch in which every tour seemed to carry characteristics and hallmarks unique to that tour, in a way pronounced enough that the trained Phish ear can tell you what year the “Tweezer” is from just by listening closely. They were a different band from year to year and even from tour to tour.
Maybe it was the European club tour at the start of ’97 that lit the fire, but — as we all know — Fall ’97 was a bonfire season of record-breaking cow funk jams and nonstop dance parties. Second sets were very often just four or five songs long, and they were constantly trying to prove to their more stubborn fans that how they played was a lot more important than what they played. (A fact that rings true to this day, as a certain “Lawn Boy” just demonstrated.)
Supporting this notion, the weekend in Worcester already secured a permanent spot in Phishtory books for the second set on the second night, which opened with an hour-long “Runaway Jim.” It was a genre-sprawling, free-fallin’ jam that was unprecedented at the time and still remains unparalleled today as the longest Phish jam of all time. And yet, it’s little more than another gem on the buckle of the “Phish Destroys America” belt, that sat loosely adorned to the hip of Fall ’97.
They encored that night with a rare original (“Buffalo Bill”), a Led Zeppelin bust-out (“Moby Dick”), and a Hendrix punctuation mark (“Fire”). A Saturday Night Special back when that phrase was one of praise instead of dismissal.
By night three, it was like the dessert course at Thanksgiving dinner but also like that time of the evening when you’ve got a grandfather snoring away in front of the NFL game, your sister won’t stop trolling the one person in the room the rest of you suspect voted for Trump (err…Bush), your uncle is telling dad jokes, and your teenage cousin keeps trying indirectly but in increasingly desperate ways to get the entire table to somehow acknowledge that she’s bisexual. In other words, it’s that time of the holiday evening that can quickly get disastrous. But those moments are always the most interesting ones, anyway, and are usually the only ones everyone remembers years later. Besides the pumpkin roll.
And so it was inside the Worcester Centrum that Sunday. The first set was highlighted by an elongated “Funky Bitch” that drove past funky pastures before handing the wheel over to “Wolfman’s Brother” for a good half hour (third song of the first set, by the way). More than 20 minutes into its wild ride — which included impromptu lyrical dives into “Sanity” and “Esther” — Trey asks Chris Kuroda to turn off the lights. While the next 10 minutes are nearly unlistenable on the recording, it’s only because the vibe inside that room got lost in the transfer. People were freaking out. We were in total darkness in that arena, with an evil, heavy metal riff repeating itself again and again … and again and again. It was utterly wonderful, if not entirely pleasant — the thrilling, chilling sounds of an experiment in play. During a tour remembered mostly for its bucolic cow funk, this under appreciated evil nugget came straight from the far stranger spaces of the upsidedown.
When the lights came back on, Trey and Mike were hiding — cowering, perhaps — jokingly behind their amplifiers. It was … a moment. Silly, unexpected, confusing, and above all else, just really entertaining. The band shifted gears into their oddball rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me” (aka “Treat Me Like a Fool”), which Gordon crooned, as if to sooth and to heal and to move on.
While the “Wolfman’s in-Sanity” was no doubt all the talk on lot for the next few days (and is a “must-listen … once”), the second set is where and why this show is worth queuing up 20 years later. A second set “Stash” is divided in half between the song’s characteristic chaos-crescendo jamming and a body-moving second frame in which the band enters a fingerprinted Fall ’97 funk jam. This moves into “Free” — during an age when “Free” could signify a jam — and even though it’s only a couple minutes longer than today’s standards, the band uses the middle extension to further the funk, in a way that lends itself to getting joyfully lost in the moment. Once they wrap it up and put a punctuation mark on it, they launch into a short segment of true Type II jamming, outside the framework of any song, that sees them revisit the more ethereal spaces of Summer ’95.
The band then closed out their first Worcester Thanksgiving weekend with a typically frenetic “Run Like An Antelope” set-closer, followed by a one-time-only cover of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes” for the encore punch. Wam, bam, thank you man.
Three new days and nights to add to the memory bank, filled by going full gonzo, with friends, with Phish, and of course, with all the many zany and oftentimes twisted experiences before, during, and after the shows, as we spilled out into those snow-globe New England nights. Example: Beginning around 4 a.m. that Saturday (err, Sunday) and extending well into the new millennium, I was careful to always carry a pair of unopened chopsticks in my backpack, everywhere it went. Promises made on the spot are always best when the significance is in the memory itself, but I believe that particular episode ended with “We must remember to forget this.” “Yes, let us forget to remember it.” So … onwards …
During the seven-hour ride home the Monday after, my thoughts were centered around the fact that I had even more to be thankful about than just four evenings earlier at Thanksgiving dinner. And I wasn’t alone in that way of thinking, either. We all had a lot to be thankful for.
Thanks to Benjy 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]
5 shows — 12/31/1993, 12/28/1995, 12/29/1995, 11/28/1997, 11/29/1997
14 songs / 9 originals / 5 covers
8.15 [Gap chart]
Them Changes (Buddy Miles)
Love Me, The Squirming Coil, Free, Jam, Them Changes
Love Me & Free - 14 Shows (LTP - 8/14/1997)
Lawn Boy - 2, A Picture of Nectar - 1, Hoist - 1, Billy Breathes - 1, Misc. - 4, Covers - 5
36 °F Mean Temperature
Capacity 14,198 Attendance 14,198 Ticket Price $25 as per Pharmers Almanac