For my money, summer 1997 is the best Phish tour. There are others that were great, I have already written about my fondness for Fall 1994 for example, but summer 1997 is a peak unlike any other. There is such a rich mix of styles, from deep funk to spacey jams, to out of no where songs that it makes for some of the best listening in the Phish live catalog.
1997 also represents a great year for me personally, regarding Phish. It was the first year I made the trek from Chicago to Deer Creek in Noblesville, Indiana. I’ll admit, for all of the accolades that the venue recieved, I was a bit leary. The other legendary Midwestern venue that I had been to the previous year, Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wisconsin, failed to impress. I think I’ve attended more shows at Alpine than any other venue and I can say that my opinion has softened, but only a little. The sound in the pavillion is great, and in 1996 the sound on the lawn was atrocious. It has improved in the almost twenty years since, but I would still be disappointed if I got tickets to Alpine’s severely pitched lawn.
Back to Deer Creek; I know since I last visted they have expanded the lawn (and I think the pavillion) but in 1997, it was downright intimate compared to the vastness of Alpine. I got lucky in mail order and had great seats on the Mike side of things (I truly miss mail order.) It was also in the summer of 97 that I was first introduced to the Phellowship, a group of Phish Heads that attend shows sober. It turned out they were all camping near by and it was easy to find so I was in for a great two days. It was the first time a fellow fan would try and convince me to stay on tour until the final shows in Maine. I didn’t, but I was tempted.
Looking at the reviews on Phish.net, the set list was especially diverse and the second set deserves all of the praise that it receives, but I would say that the show starting off with Bathtub Gin was a pretty good indicator that this was no ordinary night. It isn’t the greatest version of Gin but in this case its more about when and not how. The first set rolls along with a great many songs that are personal favorites; Sparkle, Down With Disease, and probably my favorite “short” Phish song Dirt. I particularly love the melody of this song and find Trey’s vocals to always sound heartfelt.
Cars, Trucks and Buses (another personal favorite) and Billy Breathes lead into an absolute must hear version of Split Open and Melt. I’m not a big Melt fan but listening to this version is well worth it. A pretty common theme of my personal jam tastes is when a song goes well outside of its normal boundaries, I’m all in favor, especially if things take a dark turn. I suspect this because so many of Phish’s songs are positive, upbeat and light. A little dark is good. This Melt explores some very dark areas and is just jaw dropping. It’s hard to believe that something like this was in a first set.
The next two songs, Bye Bye Foot and Ginseng Sullivan offered a moment to catch ones breath. In Phish terms, the songs are practically ditties, both ranging in at about 4 minutes. Then the next big surprise of the first set, a Harry Hood set closer. I don’t think at the time I was as surpirsed as I am now looking over the set list. I would guess that even by 1997 a first set Hood was pretty rare.
If you just glanced at this set list and saw the Hood set closer, you might be tempteed to think, “oh, cool, but I doubt it’s anything special.” That would be the wrong assumption! This Hood was no gimmick, it is as transcedent as they come. It may not make the Harry Hood Hall of Fame, but it does belong in the Hall of Very Good (right next to Don Mattingly.)
I remember at the set break Phellowship meeting, after the actual meeting, we were wondering what the band could do to stop such a fantastic first set. We were already treated to two great jams so if the second set was a little bit f a letdown, well that would have been ok, can’t get greedy after all.
I don’t know if the band felt like they had to live up to the first set or if they were just on top of their game that night, but the Cities to open the second set is also a must hear. Every time I’ve seen Cities since I’ve hoped for a version to rival this one. So far I haven’t had any luck. At 7 minutes in, things start to drift away from Cities and by 11 minutes things get into a really good, rock heavy groove, definitely a build to a climax. At points it feels like something out of Tommy; around 15 minutes a mini break down, but Page comes in and keeps things together and then there is a rise, mostly by Trey, leading to a great chording piece, with touches of space punctuating throughout.
Cities segues into Good Times Bad Times, signalling a bit of fun to come. As the band plays out the song, they begin to rotate instruments, culminating with Fish on lead guitar and vocals for Rocco Williams. Like every time Fishman becomes the front man, this isn’t so much about great music as it is about injecting a little humor into the serious business that too often in live rock music. There is no doubting Phish’s musicianship. When these guys play, it is something to behold, even if it isn’t your thing, you have to admit they are accomplished musicians. But one of the great things about them as a unit is the fact that they don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. By bringing in a little humor, they remind us, the audience that this is supposed to be fun.
To wrap up the set, Phish launches into David Bowie. Normally, this would be a highlight of a show, but with the SOAM, Hood and Cities, this Bowie was weakest jam of the four. At the time, I wonder if we were all just too tired to care. On repeat listenings, especially when one treats the two shows at Deer Creek as a whole, this like everything else from this show is pretty spectacular, especially if you like things to get exploratory. Bowie starts out properly, but then goes into an extended dark matter intro. If you like it weird, take a listen to this Bowie. It takes about eight minutes for Bowie to really start. It was almost as if, after the rotation of instruments, the band was thinking, “we’re going to show you what we really can do.” After the intro though, it really is your standard, if a bit extended version of Bowie. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a fine version, but of all the songs from this show, this just isn’t being overlooked. A great way to end the set no matter what.
I’m sure such a good show taints my views on Deer Creek, but all of the shows I saw at the venue, 1997 and 1999 respectively, had impeccable sound and sight lines. It was easy to get to and easy to navigate from the parking to inside the venue itself. I don’t know when or how I would swing it these days, but I would love to go back, if only for nostalgia’s sake. If I were to get back, I just hope they didn’t change too much at the expense of the great sound and intimate feel Deer Creek had in the past.