They Pull Me Back In: Remembering Phish ‘The Great Went’ 20 Years Later
In the Fall of 1996 I caught a few of the most “vanilla” Phish shows I’ve seen in my 23 years attending the band’s concerts. After three years of trying to catch as many Phish shows as I could, I thought perhaps my days of such extreme fandom were finished. I was exposed to all sorts of wonderful music beyond Phish, so when the quartet announced their 1997 Summer Tour I wasn’t jumping to see many concerts.
However, I had such a good time at the band’s Clifford Ball festival the previous summer, I decided to hit up Phish’s follow-up, The Great Went. By the time the impressive two-day event was finished I was making plans to see as many fall shows as possible. The Great Went drew me back in as a “superfan” and I haven’t looked back since.
The Great Went began 20 years ago today at the decommissioned Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine. To say that Limestone was in the middle of nowhere and a long drive from, well, anywhere, is an understatement. Once fans got to Portland, Maine there were still 300 miles to go. While the local government in Plattsburgh, New York (where the Clifford Ball was held one year earlier) didn’t want Phish and their fans back, the people and officials in Aroostook County, Maine couldn’t have been any more welcoming. Many locals lined the final leg of the journey on U.S. 1 and 1-A to Limestone to watch over 60,000 Phish fans make the trip north. They were as intrigued by us as we were of them and each local I met was nicer than the next. Most seemed to appreciate the boost to the local economy. While the traffic was intense for the final few miles, I could already feel this would be a very different experience from the Clifford Ball and just as special.
Though early 1997 was the nadir of my appreciation of Phish, I still did check up on the band and was impressed with the tapes I heard from their European jaunts and the start of the U.S. Summer Tour. My biggest issue with the live shows I saw the previous fall were the, “How quick can we possibly play this song?” tempos, the lack of big jams and the number of repeats. In retrospect, I just picked the wrong shows to attend. Had I caught the Southeast run which included Remain In Light in Atlanta or the eventful Midwest run that featured the “M” set in St. Louis or the wild West Coast run with Phish’s ridiculous Vegas debut I probably wouldn’t have been down on the band. But I saw a batch of East Coast shows that had more lowlights than highlights and a New Year’s Run in Boston which didn’t do much for me.
Phish’s two-day Great Went festival had it all from a gorgeous venue, to rarities, to all-time jams, to audience involvement, to killer setlists. The band showed off their goofy side right from the start by beginning the first of three sets on August 16, 1997 at precisely 4:20 with “Makiuspa Policeman.” Out of “Makisupa,” the foursome righted one of the few wrongs at Clifford Ball by finishing the “Harpua” that was left uncompleted in Plattsburgh. After “Chalk Dust Torture,” Trey told the crowd they hadn’t had time for a soundcheck which made the first three songs of the event, in effect, their soundcheck. Anastasio also warned they would be playing for a long time and the first set of the Went was perhaps the band’s longest first set of a multiple-set concert yet.
Yet, it was the second set of Night One that really turned my head. Phish opened with “Wolfman’s Brother” and took their time with not only the composed section of the song but with the jam. This was my first exposure to what Anastasio referred to as “cow funk.” When the “Simple” that followed gave way to an ethereal piece of improvisation that eventually wound into a jam on the Odd Couple theme I lost it. Phish had clearly decided to slow down the speed in which they played their songs. They were performing with much more patience and focusing on finding the groove. I couldn’t believe how different the Phish of 1997 sounded from the Phish of 1996. As the set progressed I loved the feeling that anything could happen at any time that I had missed the previous year. The band pulled off a spot-on transition from the otherworldly “Odd Couple Jam” to “My Soul” and followed the blues-rocker with an extremely unusual jam that featured Mike and Trey dueling while each used octave-dividing effects.
I thought I saw god when out of this wild piece of improv, well deserving of the “jam” designation on the setlist, came “Slave To The Traffic Light.” And what a “Slave To The Traffic Light” it was. Both Anastasio and Gordon worked in teases of the duel they had just engaged in, while the band built the jam to an emotional peak right up there with the best versions of the song. Phish concluded the second set of the Great Went with the rocker “Julius.”
It was unbelievable how different the quartet sounded from just one year prior. Though the band has always been evolving, there was no one-year period in which their sound changed more than from 1996 to 1997. Phish had additional tricks up their sleeves for the third set of the Went. They opened with “Halley’s Comet” and used the song as an improvisational springboard for just the second time ever. Here was more of the “cow funk” that was a hallmark of the era. 60,000+ Phish fans were in the middle of nowhere dancing so hard to the slow and deliberate groove that emerged out of “Halley’s.” Phish patiently worked their way into a cover of “Cities” by the Talking Heads, and while “Cities” has become a heavy rotation staple, it wasn’t so back then. The quartet covered “Cities” just once between March 1, 1989 and March 1, 1997. I never thought I’d see Phish perform “Cities,” so I went wild when Phish transitioned from “Halley’s” into “Cities” and especially appreciated Trey’s lyric change to “Fishman sleeps, sleeps in the daytime.” Phish was playing the song soooooooo slow and I loved every second of it. Eventually, they picked up the pace for a killer segue into “Llama.” Another impressive part of the final set of the first day of the Went was a standout version of the recently debuted “Limb By Limb.” I really appreciated all the new material I was hearing throughout the weekend and knew “Limb By Limb” would be a winner.
At one point of the evening, Trey advised fans to head to the disco late night. I didn’t pay close enough attention and missed the “Disco Set” in which the members of Phish DJ’d at a tent within the festival’s grounds. Unfortunately, I borrowed a tent for my Great Went experience but forgot to pick up the poles that keep it upright. As such, I was stuck sleeping in a car for the entire weekend.
The first “The Wedge” of 1997 began the second day of the Great Went and you didn’t have to be a Phish whisperer to predict the song, complete with its lyrics about “limestone blocks,” would be played. Four “new-to-me” tunes came next as I watched Phish cover Del McCoury’s “Beauty Of My Dreams” and reel off recently unveiled originals “Dogs Stole Things,” “Vultures” and “Water In The Sky.” My favorite part of the fourth set of the weekend was the “Tweezer” which was just the second of the summer. There had been rumors “Tweezer” was being shelved and I was thrilled to get to see the jam vehicle. And what a “Tweezer” it was. Once again Phish patiently and methodically worked through the jam. It was almost as if the foursome picked up where they left off in “Cities.” Trey played more rhythm on the Went version than he usually does during “Tweezer” which gave Page a chance to shine. When Anastasio finally took control, he led a spot-on transition into a set-closing “Taste” after a fun “Simple”-esque bit of improv.
Phish’s second set on August 17, 1997 is one for the record books. The folks at Phish.net notate a stellar version of a song by putting a headphone icon next to the name of the tune. Sunday’s second set features a headphone next to each and every song they played during the set with the exception of “Uncle Pen.” Up first was a ridiculously good “Down With Disease” that covered plenty of ground over the course of 27 minutes. I was impressed at how quickly the band would move from one thematic idea to the other. Phish was locked in so hard and clearly enjoying themselves. One minute they would be rocking a peak and the next it would be back to “cow funk.” There are multiple moments within the “Down With Disease” that I wish Phish would look back on and pull as the basis for new songs. Anastasio utilized this “dirty” tone throughout the majority of the “Disease” which left my jaw agape at multiple points. Duels between Mike and Trey were a hallmark of the Went, so it’s only fitting “Down With Disease” ends with a gorgeous give-and-take between the pair.
What comes next is my second favorite Phish jam of all-time, ranking in my mind just below the epic “You Enjoy Myself” from December 9, 1995. The “Went Gin” is all about one beautiful riff Trey settles in on and varies ever so slightly to great effect. For many, the greatness of Phish jams is all about how far the band travels from the typical structure of a song. I’m not as much enamored by how deep Phish takes a jam, but the feeling I get from the interplay between the four members. The Great Went version of “Bathtub Gin” doesn’t stray too far out of bounds, but the riff Anastasio works into the mix that serves as the basis for the improv is unlike any other he has ever played. Perhaps if this happened in 1996 the quartet would’ve moved on to the next riff quickly, but at the Great Went Phish milked Trey’s gorgeous lead for everything it was worth. Fish and Mike provide such a solid base, while Page accents Anastasio’s playing with powerful organ blasts and euphoric piano trills. Out of nowhere “Uncle Pen” emerged and I’ll never forget sitting down for a few minutes to collect myself after what I just witnessed. Twenty years later, the “Went Gin” still stands among my favorite moments in Phish history that I saw live.
Phish wanted a way to interact and involve attendees in creating art and they provided stations in which fans could paint pieces of wood. These pieces of wood were assembled into a huge tower. During “Also Sprach Zarathrustra,” aka “2001,” Trey and Mike painted pieces that were added to the tower, while Page and Fish painted pieces as Anastasio and Gordon were dueling at the end of “Disease.” Phish first started covering “2001” in 1993 as a way to show off their new lighting rig. The foursome would race through their version of “2001,” which was based off Deodato’s discofied cover of “Also Sprach Zarathrustra,” each time they played the tune through 1996. In 1996 Phish started to extend “2001” and the 20+ minute version at Limestone was extremely inspired. To say a dance party broke out would be a severe understatement.
Four songs into the second set and three of the four tunes played were among all-time versions. Expectations were high when Phish lit into “Harry Hood.” While the music performed by the quartet during “Hood” was thrilling, the version is most notable for the glowstick war that broke out. Back in 1997, it was a new trend for fans to bring glowsticks into the show en masse and throw them around. Trey asked LD Chris Kuroda to turn dim the lights “So we can look at the moon and the sculpture” as the “Hood” jam began. I’ll never forget the sight of thousands of glowsticks traveling through the air as Phish patiently built “Harry Hood” to a rolling boil. The band seemingly got just as huge a kick out of the scene as the fans did. Anastasio had a shit-eating grin across his face and proceeded to unleash a torrent of beautiful leads leading to a massive climax. It just doesn’t get much better than the second set Phish played on August 17, 1997.
After three nights of trying to sleep in a cramped car and after five sets of awe-inspiring music I was exhausted. My friend and I decided to get out of dodge during the encore break so we wouldn’t get caught in any traffic. Our plan was to switch driving duties until we hit any hotel or motel that had a vacancy. We prepped the car to go and found a spot we thought would be ideal to leave from. With that, we headed back into the concert field to take in the band’s sixth and final set of the weekend. Outside of rare versions of “Buffalo Bill” and “Weigh,” there wasn’t much memorable about Sunday’s third set. Quite honestly I was fine with that and we left to the sounds of “When The Circus Comes.”
While I wish I would’ve seen the “Art Tower” burn to the ground during “Tweezer Reprise,” my mind was on taking a shower and getting a good night of sleep. Thankfully we found a hotel with a room in Bangor and after 12 hours of sleep I awoke trying to make sense of what I witnessed. It was clear this was a new age for Phish and I was aboard with the big transition in their sound. The next shows I’d see were a pair of fantastic concerts in Hampton the following November which were just as insanely good as the Went, but that’s a different story for a different time.