Phish has previously played five shows within the city of Rochester proper, all occurring in odd-numbered years in the 1990s, oddly enough. The first took place on April 20, 1991, at the University of Rochester’s Douglass Dining Center during its annual pre-finals “D-Day” spring celebration. Having attended UR in the latter-half of the decade, during which Phish regularly performed in front of crowds numbering in the tens of thousands, I was awed that only a few years had passed since they held a concert in the small cafeteria I regularly ate meals at.
In September of that year, Phish returned to Rochester at The Warehouse, a small club that’s since been expanded, known currently as the Water Street Music Hall, followed by a February 9, 1993 appearance at the larger Auditorium Theatre. This jump in venue capacity matched the rapid expansion of their fan base, which continued to grow exponentially over the next few years, as they were now headlining at some of the largest venues in the Western and Central New York regions: Alumni Arena at SUNY Buffalo, the three-pack of PACs (Saratoga, Finger Lakes, Darien Lake), the Knick, the Marine Midland Arena.
Now able to fill arenas, Phish made its return to Rochester on December 11, 1997 with their debut at the venue then known as the Rochester War Memorial. Prominently featured in the first act of Todd Phillips’ 2000 doc, “Bittersweet Motel”, this was the nineteenth of twenty-one stops on that autumn’s legendary “Phish Destroys America” tour. Listening to this incredible show sixteen years later, the band’s confidence and proficiency is palpable. If you’re easily offended by shameless worship of a nonobjective nature, you’ll probably want to move along at this point, as I make no apologies for the utter devotion I have to this show.
“Punch You in the Eye” is on the short list for top openers in the extensive Phish catalog, and this one is a textbook example in showcasing the song’s ability to bring a crowd to fever pitch. At its conclusion, a cacophonous march of loops, cymbals, keys, and bass led into one of my absolutely favorite examples of improvisational music Phish has ever created: the Rochester ’97 “Down with Disease”. As I’m liable to drone on for longer than it would take to listen to this twenty-minute masterpiece, here’s a list of its highlights:
- From the start of the jam section until about ten minutes in, this is Trey’s song, to do with as he pleases. Absolute filth pours out from his Languedoc. Check out around the 6:32 to 7:00 mark for a representative piece.
- Page stakes a claim in determining this jam’s direction at around 10:25 in. Over the next minute or so, the band does a masterful job of plotting a descent course from where they started. Seatbelts are optional – this is a turbulence-free ride.
- Trey’s lick at 11:55 is gorgeous, with another to come at 12:45. In between, all four members create a huge amount of space to build on top of.
- The next few minutes showcases what I love about this jam – the band’s ability to compose on the fly. While they explore a few different thematic directions, they simultaneously start locking into a tighter groove.
- Fishman’s fill at around 14:41 is rhythmically echoed by Page at 14:52, followed immediately by Trey landing onto the jam’s final theme.
- An absolutely inspired riff by Trey at 15:48, which has given me instant goose bumps each of the approximately five billion times I’ve listened to this. The theme continues until about the 17:24 mark, at which point it stops on a dime. A very unique ending to a very uniq—
- Never mind! Twenty-eight seconds later, we’re right back into where they stopped. They build it back up over the next two minutes, smoothly transition into a fiery “Maze”.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m a fan of this “Disease”. After “Maze”, the rest of the first set is at standard Fall ’97 levels of excellence, including perhaps the best “Limb by Limb” played in its debut year.
“Drowned” leads off a fully-segued set two, and has a lot of similarities to the first set’s “Disease” – a blistering start to the jam, ultimately melting into a delicate, spacey, seemingly pre-written section, and then a seamless transition into the following song. Not being all that familiar with “Roses Are Free”, at the show I was blown away by this new holiday-themed original debut (“Take a piece of tinsel and put it on the tree…”). Later that night, I learned that this was a Ween cover after logging into rec.music.phish – kids, ask your grandparents about Usenet if you’re confused.
The ending chords of “Roses” led right into the opening riff to “Big Black Furry Creature from Mars,” a pairing that surprisingly hasn’t been done since, given how well these pieces fit together. For those who enjoy when the band succumbs to the dark side of the flow, the extended ending to this “BBFCFM” contains some seriously-evil Phish, culminating in Trey literally running laps around the stage as if a large, dark, hairy alien from a nearby planet had set its sights on him, followed by a jam on Black Sabbath’s “Electric Funeral”. (For those who want to see the hijinks for themselves, the entire song is an extra feature on the “Bittersweet” DVD, and unfortunately does not currently appear to be posted on YouTube.)
Fittingly enough, “Ghost” was up next. In a reverse from the preceding “Disease” and “Drowned”, the jam begins with vintage ‘97 mellow space-funk. This “Ghost” is not very exploratory; rather, they have a destination clearly in mind, sans scenic detour. It’s a very methodical journey, as they steadily, patiently, organically gather steam, tightening up each bolt one-by-one. By 12:20 in, they’ve shed any semblance of this song’s funkier origins. They rev it into top gear at 13:11, and by the fourteen-minute point, they are playing with fire. These are professionals, ladies and gentlemen, so please do NOT try this at home. Finally, we get sight of the target roughly 17:34 in – the conclusion to the first-set “Disease”, followed by a sprint through Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. Given the relentless energy of the set, a “Waste” encore to a relatively brief show (sets one and two clock in at under 69 and 59 minutes, respectively) is entirely forgivable and warranted.
Without hyperbole, Rochester ’97 is among the greatest rock concerts I’ve been fortunate enough to attend. It really stuck with me over the years since, to the point where each time I left the UR campus and drove past this clearance sign, I couldn’t help but instantly recall this show. High expectations were thus unavoidable for Phish’s return visit to the newly-renovated venue on December 5, 1999, the now awkwardly-name Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial. And while the show has a few notable highlights that would be welcome on a hypothetical tenth volume of the Live Bait series – a “Taste” that comes closest to approaching “Type-II” jamming, a Mike’s Groove featuring a fourteen-minute “Meatstick” – expectations or not, it was an ultimately underwhelming and often sloppy performance (avoid the “Fluffhead” at all costs – yeesh). There was that “Jennifer Dances” debut, at least. So it has that going for it…which is nice.
Despite stopping at nearby Darien Center and Canandaigua in the years since, October 22, 2013 will mark Phish’s long-awaited return visit to Rochester. Since Trey himself said it's a favorite room of theirs to play, something he's only said a few hundred other times, some of that '97 magic may still linger.