Photo by Custynoob
I’m still having a hard time coming to terms with it being 20 years since Phish Fall Tour 1997. For my money, it’s the best tour the foursome ever played. As soon as 2017 started, I wanted to come up with a fun way to honor the 20th anniversary of the tour that went beyond straight essays on the music played. With that in mind, JamBase has been sharing remembrances of each show from people that were there on the 20th anniversary of all 21 concerts.
One question that has been brought up a few times to me since we launched the series is “what did the band think of that tour?” While the members of Phish only grant the occasional interview these days, to hear them talk specifics about an old tour is extremely rare. Thankfully, Fall Tour 1997 took place during a period when the brilliant writer Richard Gehr was putting together The Phish Book. As such, all four members either discussed Fall ’97 or talk about factors that made the tour what it was with Gehr. I’ve compiled quotes from the book (a must-read nearly 20 years after its publication) as well as other quotes from articles published between September 12 and December 28, 1997 I’ve come across in my research. Please donate to The Mockingbird Foundation if you dig this article and you can find Remembering Phish Fall Tour 1997 over at JamBase.
Trey Anastasio: What we’re doing now is more about groove than funk. Good funk, real funk, is not played by four white guys from Vermont. If anything, you could call what we’re doing cow funk or something. I only know that when I’m playing it, I feel like a big ass floating the water. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Mike Gordon: The biggest difference I’ve noticed lately is that Fish has become surprisingly agile on the kick drum. If I’m playing a bass line, he can mimic it on the kick drum instantly. He concentrated on the cymbals a lot more in the past. We now have a drummer who is simultaneously solid and sensitive. Not only can he lay down heavy grooves, but, like a jazz drummer, he can provide rhythmic counterpoint to whatever Trey or Page is doing. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Page McConnell: Tom and Trey got together for a couple more writing sessions and came up with songs like “This Is A Farmhouse,” which we debuted on Conan O’Brien’s show. Then, rather than repeating the approach we took on the second Europe tour, concentrating on new material and avoiding specific older songs, we said, “No more rules. Anything goes.” The most important thing became having a good time out there. The new songs were well broken in and certain material had risen to the top. We wanted to do a lot more improvising and go on stage without a setlist. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Trey Anastasio: The areas of risk and safety switched places between ’96 and ’97. One thing we did different is we instituted a new non-analyzing rule for the fall tour up through New Year’s Eve. We decided we wouldn’t talk about what occurred onstage between sets or after the show, and we didn’t. As soon as we got offstage, that was it. Whatever happened, happened, and on to the next thing. It felt incredibly liberating to me.
Before, we’d play something like “Run Like An Antelope,” come offstage, and Mike and Fish might get into an argument about whether or not the bass drum was supposed to be half-swung. But what’s the point? After fifteen years are we really going to improve the way we play “Run Like An Antelope” by worrying about what Fish does with his kick drum? From now on, we decided, we’ll save the criticisms for rehearsal and just have a good time on tour. And it made all the difference. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Page McConnell: We talk about our playing offstage more than most bands do, I imagine. Historically, we’ll sit in the band room during the break and go through each song and what each of us may or may not have liked about it, venting and pointing fingers. The time for that should be during practice sessions, not on the road.
We didn’t go on tour planning not to analyze it. It was something we came up with the second night, in Salt Lake City. Somebody said, as a joke, “God, wouldn’t it be amazing if we went through a show without analyzing between sets?” And as the tour went on, somebody would start to say something between sets about how we played, and the other three of us would say, “Are you analyzing? No analyzing!” It built and built. The one show we actually did sort of analyze was not the best show of tour – and I’m not going to tell you what it was. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Trey Anastasio: Not analyzing, combined with not knowing what we were going to do until we got onstage, lent every set a sense of possibility and abandonment. We’re overly self-analytic as a rule, and I constantly try to break us out of our patterns. In 1996, for example, I thought I was playing way too many guitar solos. I wanted to figure out ways to avoid so much guitar in the mix, so first I got a percussion set. Then I began to hide behind my amp and wait for Page to play more solos. Neither of those ideas worked especially well. Then, all of a sudden, lo and behold, we’re playing sparse rhythmic music, the other guys are stepping forward, and I’m deeper in the mud. But I sure couldn’t force that to happen. What worked was a general abandonment of preconceptions symbolized by music where we all get out of the way and simply let it pulsate. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Page McConnell: We simply relaxed and avoided going to those places that made us doubt ourselves. It was definitely a confidence builder for certain band members, and for others it was a relief to not have to listen to criticisms. So each of us benefited in our own ways. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Jon Fishman: Everybody knows when we’ve been playing listlessly. We’ve all gotten down on ourselves for not listening as well as we’re capable of. We’ve never just gone through the motions of a set, but if we’re not interacting at our optimum, Trey would take on the role of a coach, ass kicker, or bandleader and say something like, “Every time we go out onstage, I want us to be one of the best bands out there. If we’re not going to play like we fucking mean it, if we’re not going to listen to each other like we know we can, what’s the point of being up there?” I think it’s great when he’s like that. He’s good at it. The few times I’ve attempted to take on the role, I’ve seemed to offend everybody. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Phish Is Their Own Influence
Page McConnell: It ended up being maybe my favorite tour ever. We even started listening to ourselves during these parties we had on the bus. We were listening without analyzing, getting high on Phish, on ourselves. Everything was peachy keen.
If I ever felt as good about a studio album we recorded as I felt about that Denver show (November 17), I’d really feel I’d accomplished something. I was extremely proud of those first four fall tour shows. After thirteen years of playing together, we were making music I’d never heard before. I’d like to make an album where I felt exactly the same way. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Trey Anastasio: I’d never heard anything quite like it before. We had this really cool thing going where my delay loops were out of sync with Fish’s groove. Fish was laying down these heavy fat grooves, and filling in a lot fewer holes, which allowed Mike to come forward. ‘Ninety-seven, after all, was the year of Mike, who came into his own. All of a sudden everybody started talling me, “I’ve never been able to hear the bass before, but now I can, and it’s great.” I don’t think it has much to do with his bass sound, however. It has more to do with how he’s playing, and it always has. The band created more space, he started playing more sparsely, and every note has a chance to develop in a huge room when he’s playing more sparsely. It was no mystery to me.
Phish’s top-heaviness disappeared as soon as we discovered our new rhythmic bed. I wasn’t dragging the jams along anymore. Fish and Mike were carrying the jam while Page and I decorated the top. My delay loops combined with Page’s cycling snythesizer lines began to create an intricate cross-hatching against Mike and Fish’s more solid grooves. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Mike Gordon: On our nights off we’d go out to bars until two in the morning, drag a bunch of people back to the bus with us, and crank up the Denver show really loud. I’d never heard us sound anything like that; the bass and drums were so punchy. We’d bring in strobe lights and everybody would dance in the aisle. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
About That Jim
Trey Anastasio: In Worcester, we played a sixty-minute-long “Runaway Jim” jam. When I listened to it afterward, it sounded as though we were in our living room, just jamming with no concern whatsoever for entertaining people. The concept of playing well or poorly never crossed my mind, it was just playing. What you get when you go down that road is oscillations back and forth between cringe-worthy moments of directionless plodding followed by five minutes of really amazing stuff. And that’s what you get when you let go.
[The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Jon Fishman: Screw-ups have now become opportunities for something cool and new to happen. Practically every excursions we’ve fone on for more than half an hour started with somebody making a mistake. In 1995 or ’96 I could sense a general panic whenever we felt nothing was happening in a jam and we felt obliged to make something happen. But in ’97 we could just site there, not thrash about, and know something would float to the surface.
It Wasn’t All Sunshine & Lollipops
Jon Fishman: We’ve been in this band fourteen years, and half an hour between sets won’t stop us from making the same mistakes: I speed up, Mike slows down, Trey counts off too fast. Everyone still has the same good and bad habits.
[The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Trey Anastasio: There were only two sets the whole tour that I didn’t like. The first set the second night in Albany and one of the sets in Champaign, Illinois. [The Phish Book, Richard Gehr]
Coming Back To Colorado After Red Rocks ’96
Page McConnell: We understand that our fans are different. At a Phish concert there are certain things you have to deal with in terms of crowds and general security that you don’t have to deal with, say, Luther Vandross. We do our best to try and accommodate local communities and create a situation where we have as little impact as possible. The reality is that we flew our security team out to Colorado weeks before the shows to meet with the local authorities, the sheriff, the state police, all those people concerned. We said, “Look, here’s the situation, this is what we think we need to do to ensure we have as low an impact as possible.” [Rocky Mountain News, Michael Mehle]
Page Early In The Tour Starts To Realize Something Amazing Is Happening
Page McConnell: There has been a certain playing style that has developed this year, a certain kind of improvisation that’s the next evolution, hopefully, for us. It’s difficult for me to put my finger on what it is and what it isn’t, except to say that it feels a little different to me the way we’re jamming. [Rocky Mountain News, Michael Mehle]
Page McConnell: We had just moved into arenas for a lot of these towns, so night after night we were in these half-empty arenas, which are generic looking from the inside. It’s soul-less. They don’t have a vibe. They’re big metal buildings with Budweiser signs. And I think that we were starting to let go at that point because we felt, “What does it matter?’ Let’s just try to go for it and make it happen.”
We started to ask ourselves the question, “Why does the jamming feel like we’re always playing the song the same way? Why does it always go like this, when it could go like this?” We asked these questions even though we didn’t have the answers. You can’t plan on this sort of thing – a creative burst. Things were looser. There was less pressure, less big-show hype. There was less everything, and we were all feeling real loose. It helps when you try these things in a smaller club. There’s less pressure. You can’t deny it. [Rocky Mountain News, Michael Mehle]
Phish Isn’t A Studio Band
Page McConnell: I don’t think we’ve made the great album that we have the potential to make. There’s some real talent in the band, and it would be a shame if we couldn’t put together some kind of a different and really unique sounding album. [Rocky Mountain News, Michael Mehle]
Hindsight Is 20/20
Page McConnell: The master plan of the band is to stay together. That’s something bands don’t do. Bands don’t stay together. What do you do to achieve that? You try to keep everyone as happy as possible. And that’s what we’re doing. [Rocky Mountain News, Michael Mehle]
No Pre-Planned Setlists
Mike Gordon: We used to have at least a sketch (of a setlist) up there with us. Lately it’s been nothing, which is great, because it’s more spontaneous. Usually it’s Trey who starts playing a song and everyone else just goes along with him. I’m so glad I’m in one of the only bands around doing that, because it does keep things fun. [The Record, Brian McCollum]
Mike Gordon: Trey will know if we haven’t played a song in a few years and aren’t likely to remember it. But that won’t keep him from playing something obscure. We have the attitude that energy and inspiration is more important than getting the changes right. Especially with our own songs, the older stuff, a lot of times we won’t remember all the notes, but we’ll remember the rhythm and the phrasings. There’s something neat about playing intricate music with a loose approach. Usually when you hear people playing music like that, it’s very precise and technical. [The Record, Brian McCollum]
Mike On Overly Analytical Fans
Mike Gordon: I used to have more of an urge to check out that stuff [books with Phish setlists). It gets to be a little more predictable what people are wondering about. Maybe it’s because I’m a big Woody Allen fan. He never reads reviews. He says he benefits from just working _ he’s a workaholic _ and never going to his own movies.
…It’s not really a problem. It’s true that people keep tabs about a lot of stuff. But I don’t know…I guess it’s flattering that they’d want to. It is kind of silly when they’re making pie graphs about setlist openers. But then, I always liked a good graph. [The Record, Brian McCollum]
Mike Gordon: People who haven’t seen the band will make certain assumptions. I met this girl working at a mall, and she was saying she wasn’t going to our concert because she heard we were following in the footsteps of the Grateful Dead. She said she liked the Dead and wasn’t into a band that was trying to copy somebody else. That’s the worst insult. We used to have that image: to the outside, we seemed derivative. To us, we were doing something fresh.
Another is that we’re into being really zany and cutesy and smiley and overly positive and syrupy. The reason that came about, I think, is that we were in the midst of the mope-rock era, with that not-liking-life attitude. And we’re high on life. So we were perceived as these overly happy musicians. But we really value darkness and scariness. Lately, our jamming has been so dark-sounding that people coming to the concerts would never make that accusation. [The Record, Brian McCollum]
The Beauty Of Live Music
Mike Gordon: For me a good concert is a series of dreams, the different jams. Dreams definitely go into some scary places, and some joyful places too.That’s the beauty of improvisation _ it’s all about connecting. The jazz people say to play what you hear _ if you don’t hear anything, don’t play anything. If you’re doing that, you’re moving as a group, or being moved by the cosmos. So we move in directions together. After a set or tour is over, we get together and talk: “Isn’t it interesting how we ended up playing this way?” [The Record, Brian McCollum]
The James Brown & Talking Heads Influences
Page McConnell: Now more so than ever, the groove is more pronounced in our music. If it’s not there, what is there? We’re listening to a lot more James Brown on the bus these days. We’ve always loved funk music, and it’s something that’s coming out in our music more and more. Mike and Fish have stepped up and taken charge more. [Washington Post, Geoffrey Himes]
Page McConnell: The Talking Heads are not necessarily a band that people connect to us, but that’s the kind of music we grew up with. When they were doing their really good stuff, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, that was when we were finding out about bands for the first time. So it stuck with us. When we’re really playing at our best, things we love just come flowing out. The other night, we started playing “Psycho Killer” in the middle of a jam and that’s a song that’s not even in our repertoire. [Washington Post, Geoffrey Himes]
Page McConnell: I feel we’re a rock band, because we have a rock band’s energy, with screaming fans, a big light show and all the trimmings that go with them. At the same time, our interaction is not so different from jazz guys when they’re playing a modal tune like “So What.” We touch on jazz, but it’s an art form; we have a lot of respect for it and for the people who have spent so many years working on it. You have to have that history to do it right. Plus we like those big power chords and everyone landing on the one.
What we do when we’re up there improvising is unlike other bands because of the listening we do. We’re really connected to each other. We can be playing in one key and if one person makes just a little move, we’ll all hear it, and we’ll all move with him, and pretty soon we’re all in a different key. Or someone might turn around the tempo. The music keeps changing and morphing all the time, as if it were this tightly wound ball of energy we were passing around among us.
A free-jazz band might not be such a tight ball of sound; they might be playing different things against each other so the music becomes more of a wash, whereas we’re always right there with each other. A rock band like the Allman Brothers, on the other hand, gets lots of polyrhythms and harmonies going, but you never get the feeling that the key is going to suddenly shift, or the rhythm will stop and change. We just like to communicate with each other, and when it works it’s very conversational. [Washington Post, Geoffrey Himes]
Phish Was Cookin’
Trey Anastasio: This last U.S. tour was really a great tour for us. All of a sudden we’re just cookin’; you know? So we want to record. There’s a realness to actually capturing a moment. That’s probably what you’re after when you’re putting out an album – a genuine emotional moment, captured on tape. But the standard process of recording albums kind of goes against that.
We were listening back to some tapes of really recent shows – shows from like two weeks ago. There was one night that was particularly good. So we were having this conversation on the bus, and we decided that the next album would be another live album, off this recent tour. Right off the soundboard. We liked the way the soundboard (tape) sounded so much, we figured, “That’s it.’ Now, this week, we’re questioning that, I think, and we’re talking to producers.
We have always wanted to put out more albums. There’s a real pressure from the industry to not put out too many albums. Yet at the same time, what do you do if you happen to go through a prolific period, which we are right now? [Baltimore Sun, JD Considine]
Trey On The Plan Post Fall Tour/NYE 1997
Trey Anastasio: Everything is up in the air. We don’t have any idea what’s going on, except that we decided to do a Europe tour next summer that is completely booked by cities we wanted to hang out in. Like a vacation tour, basically. But other than that, we have no plan. [Baltimore Sun, JD Considine]