[Over the next three days we’ll look back on each of the shows included in the new Hampton/Winston-Salem ‘97 box set on the respective 14th anniversaries. First up: Friday, November 21, 1997, Hampton Coliseum.]
Friday, November 21, 1997
The Phish shows in Hampton, VA the weekend before Thanksgiving 1997 are ones of legend. They’re probably the most complete show experiences I’ve ever had and they probably will never be topped. I was a student at the University of Connecticut, but with one of my best friends at school in Virginia there was no way I was missing it. My friend Tim and I had made the trip a year previous (10/25/96) and the weekend was a blast. Now we had two shows, even better. We loaded up his Chevy Blazer with a bunch of tapes and a pony keg of Long Trail IPA, there wasn’t a need for much else. When we rolled into Fredericksburg late Thursday night we were greeted by plentiful smiles as the Vermont beer was nectar from the north. We spent the night and made the trek to Hampton the following morning.
Hampton was a scene, but nothing like what it became in later years. People everywhere, but it wasn’t chaotic. We stayed at the Days Inn on Coliseum Drive, but I remember a low key afternoon that made its way into the parking lots to wait for the show. When it finally came time for the show, we entered the venue early, scouting out our area on the rail of Section D. Every show I’ve seen at Hampton has been from this spot. It just feels like home.
The opener in hindsight is a tremendous treat, the debut of The Rolling Stones “Emotional Rescue.” A song that only Mike could properly handle his shift between baritone and falsetto tones pays a nice homage to a legend like Jagger. It’s also a glimpse into the vocal range Mike has always possessed. In 1997 his vocals felt more like a goof than a talent, but fourteen years later you can hear the potential and see the connection to the extremely strong vocal presence he maintains now.
The subsequent “Split Open and Melt” reaches a great peak, but hardly foreshadows the level of jamming that will come later in this show. For all intents and purposes the first set is very solid, but not remarkable. Even the closing combo of “Chalk Dust Torture” and “Prince Caspian” lacked the fiery emotion the weekend is known for. The set that follows is a different story.
The second set opening “Ghost” is a sixteen-minute exploration into spacey territory. A quiet and delicate space throughout the first half of the jam, it focuses more on sound than melody as a steady cymbal beat carries Trey, Mike and Page in to and out of different spaces. By the eleven-minute mark, Fish presses the tempo upwards and Trey responds by quickening his riffs and pushing to a more defined melody. Just two minutes later the jam spirals back into space highlighted by Page’s looping under Trey’s funky riff that launches a progression into a much brighter major key and ends with a direct turn into “AC/DC Bag.”
Greeted by a huge ovation, “AC/DC” clocks in at an impressive 26-minutes. At six minutes the song sounds as if it could immediately fall apart and move on, but Trey holds the collapsing notes and Fish immediately picks a new beat that a rising jam begins to develop from. Quickly picking right back up on the upbeat transition that preceded it, Trey wails on some huge chords around seven minutes as the steam builds behind him. Through the ten-minute mark, the jam has a feel that is much more akin to 1995, with Page creating rhythm via the baby grand and Trey riffing as the power chord conductor. Past this moment, however, a decidedly ‘97 vibe comes to the foreground with heavy wah’s, driving drum beats and textured bass rhythms. With a dramatic peak at the sixteen-minute mark, all four band members are playing with a fury and fire that slowly carries the jam to a classic moment of tension. The impending release never materializes and by the 21-minute mark Trey is playing a trademark falsetto melody as Mike and Page fade into near silence and the crowd urges the band on. One final push at the 24-minute mark quickens the pace yet again as the band begins a segue into “Slave.”
With the rather anti-climactic tension in “AC/DC,” the build in this “Slave” is primed to make up for the release that never came. Trey slowly controls the build to a point where it could easily drop into a thunderous finish, but is yet again unrealized. Which isn’t to say that this version is disappointing, only that it has some unrealized potential. Any release from the highly improvisational set is left in the hands of the beautiful buzz of “Loving Cup.”
This will always be a very special night in my memories, but the real fireworks can be seen less than 24 hours later.
Image (Copyright 2011, Phish)