SET 1: The Wedge, Foam, Simple -> The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, The Sloth, Ginseng Sullivan, Saw It Again, Horn, Water in the Sky, David Bowie
SET 2: Runaway Jim > Strange Design > Harry Hood > Prince Caspian, Suzy Greenberg
ENCORE: Buffalo Bill, Moby Dick > Fire
Phish fans are a pretty predictable breed, especially after you’ve spent a couple decades chatting on the internet with them. And one of their most enduring reflexes, no matter how often they say otherwise, is that “longer = better.” A big double-digit number in the track times can turn the head of even the most enlightened fans adamant that there’s as much value to be found in a 12-minute jam as there is in a half-hour one. The 48-minute Soul Planet last summer showed that, even when the song in question is widely reviled, an extended improvisation can still send people running to the LivePhish app
But after that initial wave of attention, the marathon jams don’t always hold their reputation. Case in point: tonight’s Jim, still the longest live Phish performance of a single song 25 years later, still a hefty 8 minutes clear of second place and 12 minutes longer than anything that came after. One would think that Phish fans never shut up about this jam, and that it would be a measuring stick for more than just the passage of time. One would be wrong: apart from its service as a trivia answer, the Worcester Jim hardly ever comes up, even with a SBD version in circulation since Live Bait 3.
How does nearly an hour of pure Phish improvisation in the middle of their most beloved tour go so undiscussed? I think part of it is the era dislocation I talked about yesterday – the Bozeman, Mud Island, and Finger Lakes Tweezers, the Albany and Rosemont YEMs, the Minneapolis and Providence Bowies, they all feel of a piece with the trends of 1994 and 1995. Even the recent cluster of that Soul Planet and 2019’s Tweezer and Ruby Waves landmarks made sense for Phish’s pre- and post-pandemic attitude of letting jams ride when the mood strikes them. The Worcester Jim, by contrast, is almost double the length of any other jam in Fall 97, where the highlights mostly sit in a 20-25 minute sweet spot.
The Jim jam is also structurally more similar to the 94/95 and 19/21 varietals than its own peers. By my extremely unofficial count, there are 9 distinct sections to the performance – still short of the dozen chapters of Mud Island, but much more than the two or three themes explored in most Fall 97 jams. It breaks out from the expected funk departure point, slows down for a slinkier creepfest, shifts up to a Disease-like rager, then a dissonant jam that would feel right at home in 94-95 before it dissolves into synthy, Siket-y ambient, eventually congealing into a lumbering hard-rock dinosaur. It seems to die a natural death around 42:30, but Trey’s loops won’t let it, and they defibrillate the corpse into some psychotic jazz that Mike and Trey attempt to sculpt into Rift before Trey decides, no, it’s Weekapaug, straight swiping that song’s jam to carry this one over the finish line.
It’s pretty close to a survey of all the prevalent jamming styles of the tour, with some older methods sprinkled in. But where most of the other famous 97 jams take 1 or 2 options from the salad bar, this one overflows the whole plate. Not that any of them get short shrift – there’s nearly 59 minutes to fill after all, so each section gets at least 4-5 minutes to develop, with no rapid “hey hole” flitting between themes.
While there’s plenty of patience, there’s less of the intensity of other Fall 97 classics. The key transition is from the first section of the jam, which follows the James Brown to Jimi Hendrix transformation steps of many others this month, into a long, sparse sequence, almost 8 minutes at the same pace and volume, unheard of for practically any era of Phish. It strikes me as a reasonable recreation of what those late-night Bearsville sessions were like, an unhurried late-night exploration of musical ideas, except in front of 15,000 people instead of an audience of just John Siket.
“When I listened to it afterwards,” Trey says of the Jim in The Phish Book, “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.”
Still, there’s a reason why The Siket Disc is a collage of excerpts instead of an unedited take. For all the Jim’s length, it’s striking how few of its moments stick in your brain; I mentioned how I can hum large sections of the Denver Ghost from memory, and there are several other lengthy jams this month with multiple earworms burrowed inside. It’s a warning sign that the catchiest part of this hour is…when it just recreates Weekapaug. On a tour where the improvisation wasn’t just extended or emotionally powerful but melodically memorable, it’s a demerit.
The flow of the jam also feels inorganic – there are no abrupt shifts a la the Champaign Wolfman’s, but each decision to switch tones feels forced instead of natural. There’s a palpable insistence to keep pushing, particularly in that late-stage moment where it almost dies completely, instead of being pulled along passively by a wave of spontaneous creativity. It’s illustrative of the audible difference between deciding to jam for a long time versus stumbling into it, being swept up in the moment until it’s suddenly 20, 30, 40 minutes later. The Jim feels all of its 58:49.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s an impressive feat, and I’m glad that they took one night of this tour to stretch and probe the outer limits of the rapidly-evolving Fall 97 sound. The effort required to assemble this Jim is apparent; they are more exhausted afterwards than they’ve sounded all tour, with a sleepy trio of Strange Design, Hood, and Caspian then a thoroughly bungled Suzy that Fish is bullied over in the encore. On a tour where everything can blend together into a euphoric goo, this experiment definitely makes 11/29 stand out as a unique experience. But I’m happy it’s the anomaly that it is, a parable that you can have too much of a good thing, and that going long isn’t always the right choice.
I listened to this Jim last night in anticipation of your post. I completely agree it's probably the closest we've come (maybe also the 46 Days at IT...but even that had a level of cohesiveness this doesn't) to the audience feeling like they're watching a practice and the band is jamming. A very cool thing to witness a rock band do in Worcester Mass on a Saturday, but not something that gets a lot of replay.
Trey takes that pill at the very beginning of this Jim...Brad or someone comes from backstage and hands it to him. I almost wonder if that has something to do with this jam and if Worcester in general was a weekend in '97 when the partying maybe overtook the music a bit.