12/31/97, New York, NY, Madison Square Garden
SET 1: Emotional Rescue > Ya Mar, My Sweet One > Beauty of My Dreams, Wolfman's Brother, Limb By Limb, The Horse > Silent in the Morning > The Sloth, Fire
SET 2: Timber (Jerry the Mule) > Mike's Song, Piper > When the Circus Comes -> Roses Are Free > Weekapaug Groove
SET 3: Also Sprach Zarathustra > Auld Lang Syne > Tweezer > Maze > Prince Caspian > Loving Cup
ENCORE: New York, New York > Tweezer Reprise
Watch (most of the show) on YouTube
Apparently I wasn’t the only one with evolution on the brain regarding Phish in 1997. The Pollock art on the run’s mail order tickets depict the evolution of man, but in reverse: a modern dude on the 28th, a hominid on the 29th, a Tiktaalik on the 30th, a regular ol’ fish on the 31st. Lars Fisk’s midnight-countdown projections depicted, as Richard Gehr describes, “a colorfully absurdist and sexy take on Darwinian evolution.” On the cover of the Winter 1998 Döniac Schvice, you can see some of those images, including clusters of cells forming into a very late-90s CGI Dancing Baby and eventually, the Statue of Liberty.
But here’s the thing about evolution: it’s violent. Peaceful times don’t produce speciation, they just perpetuate the old genes, traits, and behaviors. You need a major disruption to push things in a new direction, and that usually means blood and starvation and mass extinction. Even the survivors might be saddled with the seeds of their own destruction, carrying newly-selected genes that will put them in danger the next time the environment shifts.
So evolution, however appropriate a theme for this pivotal year in Phish history, is also a weird thing to celebrate at a New Year’s Eve party. The final date of 1997 already faced an uphill battle, having to follow up the milestone show that ended just 19 hours earlier, one that perfectly summarized the year and even swiped the usual NYE advantage of staying up past midnight. Even today, NYE 97 has the reputation of an afterthought; a good show by NYE standards, but a middling one by the Fall 97 measuring stick, with a similar phish.net rating to Vegas and the first night in Albany.
I think that’s unfair; there are several excellent jams in this show that, collapsed into a normal two-setter, would make for a dense and crowd-pleasing evening. For two sets, Phish celebrates the more egalitarian jamming style they’ve embraced and embedded within nearly every corner of their catalog. But the night’s festivities end on a weird note, revealing the first cracks in the facade of the seemingly invincible New Phish. It pins an ominous ending onto a triumphant year, an off note without resolution.
But first: democracy! It’s notable that the first three songs of the night feature Mike on lead vocals, two “Leo!” shoutouts, and a Fishman drum solo at the end of Ya Mar. It also starts with the return of Emotional Rescue, a version that might be even better than its Hampton debut. The thrill of surprise is gone – a startling number of people appear to identify it as soon as Fish’s disco beat emerges from a spacey intro fakeout – but the rapid progress of the late 97 jamming style after just 40 days is apparent. Instead of the fun but eventually repetitious party-funk of 11/21, this version dives back into the waters of the previous night’s superb AC/DC Bag, a full band strut and weave with a Prince-as-hell bassline calling their shot for next year’s opener.
Later in the first set, a slinky Wolfman’s and a frisky Limb By Limb accomplish a lot in routine runtimes, and Fire immolates in a chaotic Trey anti-solo – another, more immediate prophecy. The second set’s Mike’s and Weekapaug are white-hot electric holiday show energy, the base 97 funk jam now sharpened into razor wire. The latter features one last call-out to full band equality, as Trey announces “it wouldn’t be fair to not give Fish one of these little breaks,” prompting a reluctant drum solo that sounds like a Clyde Stubblefield sample having a seizure.
Appropriately enough for symbolic imagery of an evolving baby, they choose 2001 for the countdown, and what a perfect choice it is. Both logistically – the only bit of timing they have to remember is to start the second peak a couple minutes before midnight – and musically, playing out the final moments of the year with the singular brand of Phish space-funk it birthed. “We should open every New Year’s Eve show leading up to the millennium with 2001,” Trey said in The Phish Book, “and play it longer and longer until it’s the entire show in 2000.” If only!
But almost right away, the vibes are off – about 8 minutes in, Fish tells somebody (Toph? Some fans?) to knock it off with the lasers. The balloon drop after midnight strikes is kind of a clusterfuck, with not enough crew members playing defense on stage, causing Trey to spend long stretches of the composed part of Tweezer gesturing to the wings for help, and Fishman taunting the crowd by yelling “YOU CAN’T HIT ME!” over and over in the Uncle Ebenezer break. Maybe they planned for the Tweezer to be the big year-capping jam, but there are just too many distractions – what I thought was a brilliant and promising ambient direction over its final two minutes is, upon video review, just Trey trying to pop as many balloons as he can to clear some space on stage.
After that clean-up job, he calls for Maze, the key moment of the show. In his half of the jam, Trey plays one of his most aggressive and freeform solos ever, completely dismissive of rhythm and melody – it’s Peter Brötzmann’s “Machine Gun”, not Jimi’s. It goes so far out that everyone else simply stops playing at 13:14, and it doesn’t sound like a happy stop-start breakdown game. On the video, Trey looks PISSED – standing still as a statue in an era where he was almost always in motion. Eventually, the other three pull it back together and try to bring Maze to a finish, but Trey remains obstinately avant-garde, providing no resolution to the tension, just a fadeout to Caspian (itself not a happy ending to many Phish fans).
The show rights itself for the final half hour, including a charming Page croon of “New York, New York” (learned between sets!) and the never-fail Tweeprise grand finale. But that Maze is what sticks in the craw as Phish’s touring year ends, projecting forward to the dark tides that will lap further and further ashore for the rest of the decade. Even in the usually chipper Phish Book, there are some rumblings of discontent in the MSG-focused final chapter, between Page’s New Year’s stunt cynicism, and Trey’s description of the backstage scene: “our guest list was something like fifteen hundred people.”
In context, he drops that statistic to express his newfound level of comfort at Madison Square Garden; like a wedding, Phish apparently invited everyone they knew to show up and party. But you can’t party forever, and the no-analysis, freewheeling, “Betty Ford Clinic” approach seeded in Fall 97 is also a ticking time bomb for Phish’s eventual collapse. In 1998 – spoiler alert: my #1 favorite year of Phish – they’ll ride hair-raisingly along this edge all year; in 1999 and 2000, they’ll start to lose their grip.
That’s a lot to read into one sour – but still kinda strangely thrilling? – version of Maze at the end of a very good three-hour show and a historically-great MSG run. But in that Trey “solo,” I hear some of the elements that nagged and troubled me as the 90s went on, and that eventually kept me away entirely from the 2.0 years. Somehow, the same democracy and patient intensity fueling jams like Emotional Rescue and Weekapaug also conjure what will become familiar demons, Trey getting so far into his own world that the other three just…give up.
The bad part about a peak is that on the other side is, by definition, a downhill slope. Phish accomplished so much in 1997, it built up an unstable amount of potential energy that would propel them through the next three years at increasingly deranged and dangerous speeds. There’s still a lot of creative joy to be had, but also a lot of heartbreak – part of 1997’s eternal allure is that it’s so innocent, untouched by the darkness creeping in from the margins. It’s a tragedy that’s foreshadowed in the final passage of The Phish Book, an anecdote that read much differently upon its release in 1998 than it did in 2004, or 2006.
“Sometimes it all gets crazy and we talk about taking a year off,” Trey says, mentioning that they discussed skipping the NYE run in 1997. “Somebody said, ‘So what are we gonna do on New Year’s Eve? Go to a party?’ Everybody broke up laughing, and we booked Madison Square Garden.”
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