- by @SufferingJuke -
Almost the entirety of Phish’s now 36-year history can be summarized in a single statement: when they knew they were in need of seismic change, they changed. Their decision to stop covering the Grateful Dead in the mid-1980’s, the tightening-up in 1988, the Album Costumes starting in 1994, the hiatuses of 2000-2002 and 2004-2009, Trey’s re-embracing of The Grateful Dead in 2015, along with so many more moments of sharp realizations and lines in the sand, all of which pushed the band beyond who they were in the moment, to a previously unforeseen peak that would come to define the band anew. In the larger story of Phish, there is perhaps no bigger moment of knowing they needed to drastically change and changing, than when in 1996 they altered their sound like never before.
As covered in the US Summer 1997 Tour and Fall 1997 Tour essays, following their peak in December 1995, the band went into a brief period of creative malaise in 1996. Wondering what else there was to accomplish, they covered the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light on Halloween 1996. Their performance unlocked a sound the band had been searching for for years. When they traveled to Europe in February, they built upon this sound with sustained focus, resulting in their most transgressive tour in years. All of this peaked on March 1 with a performance in Hamburg that seemed to project everything they’d been searching for sonically. Most notably, the Wolfman’s Brother from that show was played with a minimalist approach, sleek funk grooves, and whole band communication that would come to define the year ahead. When they returned to Vermont in the spring, they engaged in an experimental recording session before exploding with a songwriting renaissance that would equally match their overall sonic shift.
If the February 1997 Tour in Europe represented the moment Phish realized they could alter their sound in wild ways and still retain all that made them special, the Summer 1997 Tour in Europe represented the loosest, most absurd, and far-afield Phish sound ever captured on tape. Over the course of a month, the band toured through Europe with a secret. An era when tapes took weeks, if not months, to reach the larger fanbase, their two tours of Europe in 1997 were relatively missed by the majority of their fanbase, and wouldn’t be fully realized until they played their first proper show on US Soil in six months. The band uses this relative obscurity to push their sound to new levels and moments of wild awakenings. Armed with a batch of new songs - Ghost, Twist, Piper, Limb By Limb, Vultures, Saw It Again, and many more - they infused their shows with a newness not heard in two years, but more so, wholly unprecedented in their larger history. The Summer 1997 European Tour is simply unlike any the band has ever embarked on.
Beginning in Dublin in mid-June, Phish immediately went about re-setting the table, debuting nearly twenty songs across two shows. The first few shows of the tour offered a view of the contrast between the new and the old Phish, as the band cautiously sought to figure out how deep to dive into their new sound. When they reached Vienna, on June 19, they found their rabbit hole to dive into. Stash opened Set II and, rather than follow the traditional tension & release build the song so often relied on, here leapt into a sparse funk jam based around Spanish Moon before segueing into their new toy, Ghost. The following night, in Prague, saw them jam Taste -> Cities, before David Bowie, Ghost and Twist all swam into the minimalist funk grooves. In Strasbourg, Wolfman’s Brother, the song that would come to define the shift the band underwent in 1997, opened the second set with a dimly lit funk jam that sounded plucked out of a dream session between Funkadelic and My Bloody Valentine. The next night in Lille offered a complete second set as Down With Disease -> Piper -> DWD and McGrupp - of all songs - waded in the funk for sustained periods.
For all intents and purposes, the tour peaked with their second and third shows in Amsterdam in 1997. On February 17, they played a one-off show in the experimentally-driven city of canals, resulting in an early standout Set II of the year. A set that must be heard in full, the segment reading: Squirming Coil -> Down With Disease -> Carini (in its DEBUT PERFORMANCE) -> Taste -> DWD is the clearest precursor we have to the directional shift Phish would undergo throughout the year. Four & a half months later, their two-night stand at the Paradiso would prove to be just as influential. The run kicked off with a 20+min take on Ghost that stood as the most exceptional performance of the young song until two nights later in Nuremberg when they played it for 30 glorious minutes. In Set II, they jammed -> Timber, before Bathtub Gin -> Cities -> Loving Cup> Slave closed the set with a focus on the newness of Phish 1997 fused with the best of their past. On the following night, they played a Mike’s Groove throughout the entire first set, jamming on Mike’s, Simple and Weekapaug in the style that had come to define the best parts of the tour. In the second set, they pushed Stash past 30minutes with a jam that felt equally a part of their new sound, while previewing the melodic spaciousness they’d discover in the fall, and would push their evolution even further. Out of Llama came a demented jam segment based around the idea that there were giant worms one could ride through the canals of the city. The kind of Phishy-psychedelia that had been ever-present through 1993-1995 was back, fusing their musical accomplishments with the humor that had been on of their calling cards.
In its final week, the band continued their sonic evolution with dark & funky takes on Free and YEM from Desenzano, Italy, and an outstanding pairing with Bela Fleck during a massive YEM on July 9. The musical heights reached in Amsterdam just ten days earlier were matched again in perhaps the loosest and most demented show of their entire history. July 10 from Marseilles, France is unlike any show in Phish history. What began in seemingly normalcy with a Dogs Stole Things, Limb By Limb, Ginseng Sullivan first quarter, changed completely with a 20+min Bathtub Gin -> Llama -> Wading In The Velvet Sea -> Lizards Jam -> Olivia’s Pool to close it out. The second set was one bizarre and flowing soundscape. The setlist is unlike any fans would ever write, but the delivery is up there with what many hope for each night. Shock and surprises dictated the path forward as 2001 -> Julius> Magilla, Ya Mar -> Ghost -> Take Me To The River charted a set that seemed to summarize all the band was chasing in 1997. A show that fully deserves the official LivePhish release, July 10, 1997 represented the entire Europe 1997 tours and the distances the band would go to push their artistic inspirations forward.
When they returned to the states just ten days later, they were essentially a brand new band to many of their fans. The Summer 1997 European Tour had cracked open something within Phish that would alter their trajectory going forward. From here until the conclusion of Phish 2.0, the goal was pushing their sound in new and weird directions. Jamming ruled all, and their shows were measured by improvisational discovery rather than tightness. While much of this approach would lead to the band’s initial two demises, the courage that it took to shake up their sound so dramatically, would come to define everything we love about them some twenty years later. Without the freedom to explore on their own, who knows where we’d be with Phish in 2019. The fact that they were willing to undergo such a significant experimental shift is much of the reason so many are drawn to them, and their creative project seems to have no bottom even two decades later.