There’s a problem I’ve been trying to address lately: File and Forget Syndrome. With so much music available online, at used record stores and even in full-priced, shrinkwrapped form at bricks and mortar institutions, it’s easy to get something today, then put it aside tomorrow while searching for something even more important. Now and then, I try to retrieve recordings that have fallen victim to F&F and give them a series of listens. This month’s candidate was a download of a couple years ago from 11/13/97, the first night of fall ’97 Phish.
Fall ’97 is the last Phish tour (at least if you throw in the Island Tour as a brief, delayed coda) which pretty much everyone, including the band, agrees was great: groove breakthroughs, extended jams and a lot that looks good on paper and, often enough, sounds good on disc. It seems a bit eerie that The Phish Book ends in ’97, while Bittersweet Motel makes only a few tentative pokes into ’98. Clues seem to suggest that positivity began leaking from the enterprise just after this point. Certainly, the playing got less inspired.
Phish battled between spontaneity and safeness not only in its playing, but even in its setlists. 11/13/97, like most tour openers, is a bit on the conservative side. The four-song second sets began the following night (a possible future download). Still, the opening two songs of 11/13 are an intriguing combination: "Chalk Dust Torture" (the ultimate safe but satisfying opener, a song which can get adventurous, and does so in a mild but pleasing way in this version, but doesn’t have to) followed by the unequivocal "Black-Eyed Katy." Listening in ’05 to the minimalist funk that opens "Black-Eyed Katy," it’s a bit too easy to remember that the promise of this piece led to the tame "Moma Dance" (captured on Story Of The Ghost, a CD which dealt a severe blow to my affection for Phish). Hearing the quiet "what-is-this" chatter of the crowd as Phish debuts the song, though, I can also relive the moment of the initial promise.
One can draw conclusions about which players took which sides in the spontaneity contests. On one of my listens to this show this month, I heard each improv as a conservative Trey versus a questioning Mike, with Fish holding down the fort and Page sort of sprawling along the sides. Listening to "Chalk Dust" again today, it still seems that Trey chooses guitar phrases to bring the jam back to home base when it threatens, or promises, to deviate, while Mike seems to be deviating most. In poking into the unvaried, vocal-oriented numbers, I also noticed Mike upending a few bars of the "Theme From The Bottom" solo to point to something unusual before the others insist on resolving the tension. However, hearing "Split Open," "YEM" or "Stash" today, I’m not so certain about those assumptions from the previous listens.
If it’s tempting to single out Mike as the most adventurous player at this ’97 show, it’s worthwhile to recall his journal words from an older outing. In the journal excerpt from 8/14/93 included on that Live Phish release, he praises a few songs for having "spurts of variety" in other words, a few set-in-stone vocal numbers yielded brief jams. By 11/13/97, though, the group’s interest seemed to be in jams without variety, improvisations sounding set-in-stone already. In today’s listen, what came out more was layering, the counterpoint between all four players adding up to statements which they sometimes go for long stretches without varying. I was in Mike’s ’93 mode as a listener myself for some time, but now I find those unvaried stretches to be the best a long passage of funk counterpoint during "YEM" (which, ironically if we’re singling out Mike, takes the place of Mike’s bass solo in this version), a calm interlude before "Hydrogen" in an otherwise straightforward "Mike’s Groove," and especially a lengthy spell in space in the middle of "Stash."
Now I will file away 11/13/97 again. What was gained? I know more about the structure of "Black-Eyed Katy" than I used to. I know that this show, though perhaps not as notable as, say, 11/17/97, deserves attention for some stellar improvs as well as that "Black-Eyed" debut. I can take some amusement from the band’s walks on the tightrope of meter-manipulation in "Split Open" and "Stash" and some enjoyment from those unvaried bits. And I can see whether that Mike-centric view yields any insights or not as I listen to more fall ’97 stuff. Which is yet another excuse to acquire still more music.