- by @SufferingJuke -
It’s difficult from our 2019 perspective to imagine a time when Phish could hide away in a foreign country for six months, make wholly different and transgressive music, and then reemerge stateside with a new sound and a new batch of songs that essentially changes everything we knew about them prior. And yet, that’s exactly what happened in the Summer of 1997.
It’s certainly not abnormal for Phish to go radio silent for the six months between New Year’s and mid-July. It’s also not abnormal for them to return with a new batch of songs that alters our perspective of the band, as well as their own jamming and show quality. That said, what Phish accomplished between New Year’s 1996 and July 1997 is really unmatched by any other period in their history.
The Halloween 1996 performance of the Talking Heads Remain In Light was a breakthrough moment for the band. Their ensuing month of touring the midwest and west coast allowed them the space to explore the hyper-rhythmic jamming they’d tapped into during the set. By diving deeper into groove-driven, collectively communicative music, the band approached their February 1997, and in particular, June/July 1997 runs in Europe as a band rediscovering who they were and who they could be. By the time they kicked off their Summer 1997 US Tour in Virginia Beach, they had a whole batch of new songs to introduce to their core fans, as well as a new stylistic approach to jamming that sounded unlike almost anything they’d played before.
From the moment they kicked off the tour with a 16-minute take on Ghost, to the second set masterpiece on August 17, Phish were guided by a dedication to linear musical communication, and the constant opportunity for a creative breakthrough. Not as sleek as the Fall 1997 take on their new sound, nor as grooving as their 1998 and 1999 varieties, what makes Summer 1997 stand apart from what was to come during the final four three years of 1.0 is the rawness with which they approached their funk breakthrough. Fall 1997 sounds like a band that’s high on a sound they’ve perfected, whereas Summer 1997 feels like that unkempt moment of a creative breakthrough; there is no structure, there is no end goal, there is just the moment of discovery and the joy in the process. More fully realized than the Europe 1997 jams and shows that broke them through the lost period of 1996, here they were, in front of their ever-growing fanbase, taking a leap of faith & landing on most nights.
There are so many moments from the tour that are worth your ears that it’s impossible to list them all, but a brief attempt would be: the second set of July 22, the Ghost from Atlanta, the Gin->Makisupa->Bag from Dallas, the Phoenix Gumbo, Ventura Bowie -> Cities -> Bowie, Shoreline Jim, Deer Creek Cities -> S2 madness, Burgettstown Gumbo, and the Went Simple & Gin. Each of them a diverse representation of a band in the midst of a creative renaissance, each of which sounds like a preview of the various directions the band would take their sound over the course of the next seven-odd years.
The historical importance of Summer 1997 is always the fact that Phish reemerged from hibernation having shed their skin and with renewed focus. There is an alternate history where the band fails to breakthrough their creative malaise, and, instead of reinventing themselves in the winter of 1997, relies on old tricks until an eventual break-up. That they pushed through and wrote a whole new chapter in the unyielding creative project that is Phish is part of the reason we’re all ranking these tours some 22 years later.