To help you navigate the many difficult choices that lie ahead in the #TourBracket, @SufferingJuke has graciously agreed to help put together these "Tour Guides". First up, Fall 1997 (a.k.a. Phish Destroys America).
Following the peak run in November & December 1995 that maximized the entire sound Phish had been chasing & refining & pushing past extremes for the better part of a decade, the band found themselves adrift for the first time. A chance performance of the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light on Halloween 1996, and two tours of Europe in early 1997 allowed them the opportunity to disappear into their creative instincts - as well as experiment in freeform and transgressive ways - and reemerge stateside in July 1997 essentially a brand new band.
The goal was linear musical communication; for Trey to fade into the background, thus allowing the groove to dictate their jamming direction, and create the space for more leadership from Page & Mike. The result was more than likely, the greatest tour the band has ever, and will ever embark on. The jamming was unprecedented at the time, and listening back twenty years on, it still sounds fresh and brand new, even though it’s now of a specific time and place and creative energy. Set list construction was at its loosest and somehow still resulted in the most fluid and effortless 70 min stanzas of their career. In short, by backing off, the band tapped into a magic that’s still seen as the highwater mark of their finest period.
From the very start of the tour, in Las Vegas, on November 13, the band was in a zone of musical communication that regularly pushed their shows into transcendence. The Stash from the opening night, and Ghost from November 17 in Denver, stand out as the moments where their experimentation over the previous twelve months was revealed with limited control yet precise and ethereal delivery. Often times it sounded as though the music was guiding the band. Elsewhere, their three nights in the southeast - commemorated in the 2011 Box Set: Hampton/Winston-Salem ‘97 - Emotional Rescue, AC/DC Bag, Halley’s Comet & Bathtub Gin showcased a band not simply driven by the “cow funk” the tour is so well remembered for, but by the entirety of their influences: 70’s Glam Rock, Shoegaze, Minimalism, and Hendrix Fire.
The northeastern Thanksgiving run saw them extend songs that never before or since receive the treatment - Character Zero, Funky Bitch - while performing the single longest jam of their career - the November 29 Runaway Jim. As the tour turned to December the band offered an archetypal Fall ‘97 performance on December 3, while the night prior featured the single strongest hour of the entire year. December 6 showcased the song that made all this jamming possible but had sat on the sidelines for much of the year, Tweezer, in a performance that yet again displayed the heavenly shoe gaze approach that is really the crowning achievement of the era.
The tour would conclude with a bust out heavy show in Dayton, which also served to showcase that, despite its relative lack of performances throughout the year, perhaps Tube was THE song of 1997, an impenetrable evening in Rochester, and two wild nights in Albany, the first of which pushed their jamming tendencies to new heights, and the latter which felt like a throwback of sorts. With three nights at MSG to close out the year, December 29 and 30 are two of the finest back-to-back shows the band as ever played. On the 29th the band seemed to directly channel everything about 1997 that was so significant, with a five-song second set that read: Down With Disease -> David Bowie> Possum, Tube, YEM. The next night was akin to their December 30 show four years earlier in that it felt equal parts reflective, nostalgic, and boundary pushing. The Sneakin’ Sally bust out, the fully-locked in Bag, the Phish-origins Harpua, the massive Hood, and the curfew-breaking encore that made everyone feel like they were breaking the rules in the best way possible.
A transformative tour for the band, it displayed their ability to rediscover new styles and sounds with which to communicate within. It’s the rarest of rare tours in that it has its own coda of sorts in the Island Tour. Booked when the band got bored in the winter of 1998, the four shows played in early April will forever be connected to Fall 1997. In their setlist construction that felt equal parts fan service and wholly of the moment, their lengthy jams that sat in the pocket for the duration, and in the monumental Roses Are Free -> Piper that could have just as easily been played at Hampton or MSG. Perhaps none of the cubist jamming we’ve seen throughout 3.0 would be possible without the experience of this tour de force. A catch-22 of sorts; Fall 1997 is always seen as a peak moment that many fans cannot get beyond, yet one that has continued to push the band in ways that continue to inspire.