Few music venues in the world combine the magic of the natural world with fabulous sound and a carefree atmosphere. The Gorge, however, is one of these special places. A Phish stomping ground, the Gorge in George, Washington hosted the band for four two-night stands, each producing some of the most memorable shows from their respective tours. The stunning visual beauty of the blazing sunset over the Columbia River combined with the aural beauty of Phish improvising a perfect soundtrack can be overwhelming– in the best way possible. With camping on site, and relatively little hassle by authorities, The Gorge has been Phish’s west coast Mecca since 1997.
Any time a west coast run was anticipated, The Gorge routinely jumped to the top of the rumor list, and still does, as no other Phish experience can quite compare. Nobody will ever forget their first visit to The Gorge. As you walked over that grassy ridge and finally saw where the stage was located, you had to do a Scooby-Doo “double-take” to believe your eyes. This was where Phish was meant to play! With a 22,000 person capacity and a massive property, when the circus came to George, a mini-west coast festival vibe emerged each time.
Some of Phish’s most memorable summer moments have occurred right in front of the natural majesty; eternal moments and memories. As we prepare for The Gorge ’09, whether it is in August or September, let’s take a trip down memory lane and recount the Phishy exploits that have gone down at the band’s northwestern home.
8.2 – 8.3, 1997
Phish’s initial visit to The Gorge came at the half-way point of a colossal summer tour that began in Virginia Beach, moved through the south and up the west coast, and all the way back to Limestone, ME. A new style of slowed down funk grooves that combined with Phish’s first Gorge experience made for some musical fireworks. These shows, raved about for the rest of the tour, would set the bar for Gorge Phish.
The first show at The Gorge would start in earnest with the third-song “Ghost,” the song everyone was dying to hear after its debut and extended explorations in Europe. This jam embodied the raw Summer ’97 sound, with big bass lines, spacious grooves, and copious rhythm playing by Trey. Leading right into crunchy improv, we got our first taste of the massive open-air acoustics that makes The Gorge sound so beautiful. With nothing inhibiting the sound, the monster-sized rhythms ate up the entire audience. As the set continued, Phish used “Divided Sky” as backing music for the sunset, creating a completely surreal and Phishy moment at their new playground. A rubbery “Wolfman’s” and a fierce “Split” rounded out the highlights of the opening frame.
The second set was one of the classic second sets to ever take place at the storied venue. Following the rocking “Down With Disease” jam, the band seamlessly slowed into some patterns that suggested a far different musical milieu. As the pace became as thick as tar, akin to the Raleigh 7.22.97 Disease, Trey slipped in the intro lick to “Tweezer,” right at the jam’s deepest point. Boom! Just like that The Gorge was transformed into the world’s largest Phish tank, as we swam through the colorful, over-sized funk. This was the first of only two “Tweezers” played over the 19-show tour, with the other coming on the last day of The Great Went. Needless to say, the drop into the “Tweezer” jam brought more than your average excitement. Settling into some ridiculously collaborative grooves, Phish’s style had completely transformed from anything we had heard in Fall ’96. This was straight dance music, and it took some of the older fans time to understand what Phish was even doing with their new style. I distinctly remember reading Charlie Dirksen’s review of this “Tweezer” saying that “nothing happened” musically. Oh, Charlie, you just didn’t get it! This is a jam that should be heard by all, and more specifically pumped at high volumes at a dance party– the music is so thick you can feel it envelop your body.
After an extended funk session, the band gradually built back into “Down With Disease,” though their final transition was a bit sloppy, The Gorge “Diseazzer” was born. This jam would remain a summer highlight long after The Great Went ended. One other piece of Phish history was born on this night. This was the first time Trey asked Kuroda to shut the lighting rig off as the band jammed to the stars for the “Harry Hood” encore. One of the more transcendent experiences– living a Hood jam in the dark with nothing but the heavens providing guidance, was the perfect ending to a perfect night. Trey would repeat his request at The Great Went, which prompted the first ever glow-stick war, yet the magic of The Gorge inspired this idea in the first place, creating pure serenity for the 22,000 fans.
Phish’s follow-up, while being quite exciting, couldn’t match the exploits of night one. The opening combo of “Bathtub Gin > Foam” provided twenty-five minutes of the most intricate and tightest playing of the evening. The brand new song, then known as “Twist Around,” popped up later in the set for its second appearance of tour. As the band was still figuring out the jam, they created a wide-open soundscape that seemed to merge perfectly with the vast surroundings. A late set “Limb by Limb” allowed Trey to emote the magic he was feeling on such a stage via a well-phrased solo.
The final set of 1997′s Gorge installment centered around the more anthemic songs of “Simple” and “Fluffhead.” Having delved deep into darkness on the previous night, this set would be celebratory. The melodic glory of Simple’s jam washed the audience with good feeling as if cleansing the palate of their mind. When the jam dribbled down to silence, the music twisted right back up with the opening of “Fluffhead.” The ultimate feel good Phish song was centered in the second set at one of the most extraordinary Phish venues, and it was perfect. Phish, masters of their art, ended the weekend at The Gorge the only way possible– with a slowly-building and gorgeous encore of “Slave to the Traffic Light.” This was a vivid illustration of how Phish truly “gets it,” and how their sense of the moment is unparalleled.
Arguably the definitive Gorge stand in Phish’s career, they blew this one up. One show and a few days removed from an amazing Europe run, Phish pulled into George for the second time. With all sorts of momentum, the band crafted two shows that will stand forever as part of their west coast legacy. When people mention The Gorge, these are the shows that shoot to the front of everyone’s minds. Let’s see why.
Right off a scorching show at Portland Meadows, Phish stepped in front of the Columbia River the next day and put on a clinic. One of Phish’s perfect sets got the weekend underway immediately. Casually entering the set with the combo of “Squirming Coil” and “NICU,” the band then dug significantly deeper with standout versions of “Stash” and “Reba.” In this ultimate summertime “Reba,” Trey didn’t start his quintessential solo out of the gates, but instead sat back into some idyllic wah-grooving that we were unaccustomed to hearing as part of the song. But it fit perfectly with the mood of the evening. Phish carried out the unfinished jam as the sun’s path began to lower, eventually dipping below the horizon as they segued into “Fast Enough For You,” yet another synchronicity between Phish and nature. A rare first set “Circus” was chosen to settle things down before the band blew out a set-ending “Antelope.” Perfectly sculpted and executed masterfully, this first frame upped the ante for the upcoming three.
The second-set, while holding some stellar jams, didn’t quite hold up to the first. Carried by the late set triumvirate of “Bowie,” “Tube,” and “Slave,” the audience would stream out talking about these late set jams as opposed to the more contained songs at the beginning of the set. All three of these jams deserve huge props as they represent highlight versions. The “Tube” is one of the best ever.
Night two would go down in Phish history. The second set of “2001 > Mike’s > Weekapaug > Character Zero” would be raved about for a decade to follow. The three song opening combo equated to one hour of the best Phish improv of the summer. Often referred to as the definitive version of “2001,” inspired by the universe above, they put on a twenty-five minute clinic in Phish groove. This was pure crack– a mega-2001 under the stars with the natural world surrounding us– it didn’t get much better than this. As if the half-hour of adrenaline wasn’t enough, at the peak of the jam, the band hit the opening riff to “Mike’s,” reuniting the two pieces that were once close buddies. If you want to talk bombast, put on this Mike’s! As soon as the jam starts, Trey hits a rhythm pattern that he would take most of the way through the jam, continuously upping the intensity along the way. This was militant Phish at its best, throwing down music for an army to march into battle to. This aggressive Phish kept people raging non-stop from the beginning of the set. With the drop of the second “Mike’s” jam, the band exited the militaristic textures and entered some of the most beautiful and blissful playing to ever morph out of a “Mike’s” jam.” Inspired by the venue’s beauty and creating a perfect juxtaposition to the music that preceded it, Phish took us on a divine ride through the most colorful places of our imagination. Our musical tour guide, Phish showed us the gamut on this mystical night in Washington.
Using this jam as the melodic interlude before “Weekapaug,” the band skipped over any connector and melted directly into the second half of “Mike’s Groove.” As the “Weekapaug” soared off into the improvisational stratosphere, all was smiles in the land of Phish- this was the type of show we lived for! (Note: The first set contained a great “Gumbo” and another sunset “Divided Sky,” circa ’97.)
9.10 & 9.11, 1999
For the third year in a row, Phish would make a two-night stop at The Gorge, this time, however, the two nights came right at the beginning of fall tour. Following a smoking Vancouver opener, the caravan traveled directly south to what was now a very Phishy venue. This visit to The Gorge would see some new developments in Phish’s catalog as “Gotta Jibboo” and “Sand” would both make their Phish debut over the weekend. There was no better way to kick start the fall than a return to the Columbia River Gorge.
The first night featured a melange of songs that didn’t necessarily flow so well. The first set combined classics like “Divided Sky” with TAB songs like “First Tube” and “Will It Go Round In Circles?” and The Siket Disc‘s “What’s The Use?” The second set is where the highlights from this evening would spring from. A blistering “Disease” sparked the fire of the set that would be continued with the popular combo of “Moma Dance” and “Piper.” This combo demonstrated the band’s diverse styles while providing a meaty start to the second half. “Gotta Jibboo” was a welcome addition to the Phish catalog, donating some happy candy-grooves to the mix, but the most intriguing moments of the night emerged out of “Split Open and Melt” and “David Bowie.” Both of these jams share a patient and menacing quality that stretched them out to 15 and 25 minutes, respectfully. These were the two jams of the show in which Phish really dug into some psychedelia, easily providing the most engaging music of the night.
The second night of this stand would see some more significant improvisation and incorporate two more songs from Trey’s band. The show began with an infectious “Tube,” “Funky Bitch” duo that commenced the raging right away. This first set was more eventful than the previous night’s, incorporating “Limb,” “Punch You in the Eye,” and “Free” into the setlist.
However, the segment that absolutely stole the show came at the beginning of the jam-heavy second set in the form of “Wolfman’s > Sand.” Carrying out the shows rhythmic theme, Phish entered into an inviting dance-a-thon out of “Wolfman’s.” As this multidimensional jam built momentum, Trey began directing it from the background using wah-grooves to push the music in different directions rather than a searing solo. Morphing into a dissonant ’99 soundscape, the band navigated textures as they transitioned into the first-ever “Sand.” This was like a revelation! The massive spacious dance grooves of “Sand” boomed out of the speakers, welcoming us all into a brand new musical universe. Nary has there been as much fun at a Phish show as raging all-out to this jam with the most room you could ever want. This was yet another Goliath-sized peak Gorge experience. After the colossal twenty-minute all-star introduction to the song of Fall ’99, the band dipped the “Meatstick” before segueing into a hectic fifteen-minute “Maze,” again showing off multiple jamming styles. Getting deep into the madness of “Maze,” Phish continued the psychedelia that characterized this second set. Following the early classic, Phish settled the rest of the show with phenomenal versions of “Prince Caspian” and “Harry Hood.” Particular focus should be given to this twenty-minute “Hood,” a song for which The Gorge always brought out the best.
7.12 & 7.13, 2003
After Phish had taken their hiatus and Summer ’03 was charted, two more nights at The Gorge were on tap towards the beginning of tour. having written the recipe for northwestern magic, how could Phish not revisit one of their favorite haunts of all time? With Round Room songs in the mix, these Gorge shows would serve as an honest sampling of where the band stood musically at the time. Following two great shows at Shoreline, Phish was ready to up the ante in Washington, and up it they did.
The focus of the first night was placed squarely on the second set. Stringing huge versions of “Piper,” “Tweezer,” “Ghost,” and “David Bowie” together with a few fillers, Phish created a monster. But the clear highlight was the dancetastic “Ghost” which prompted many cross-country phone calls after the show. The jamming throughout the set was sublime, and characteristic of Summer ’03′s creative direction. One of the standout sets from this tour, and a great example of the post-hiatus sound, this set was a popular CD in the car for the rest of the summer. Not to mention that the first set had great versions of “Taste,” “Stash,” and “Maze,” taboot.
Phish’s last performance at The Gorge provided a legitimate set of musical highlights. The first set was much more significant this time around and boasted a hot “Runaway Jim, “Scents and Subtle Sounds” opening combo. The final of four appearances of the song “Round Room” came in this set, exploring its ambient and abstract textures. This song always produced amazing jams, but was hardly touched. We may very well see more extended “Round Rooms” this year. Whenever YEM closes the first set, you know the band means business, and by closing this frame with a monstrous version, we knew set two had big things in store.
The meat of the second set read “Wolfman’s > Jesus Left Chicago, Seven Below, Harry Hood.” Each version listed is noteworthy, but the “Seven Below” took the cake as the most adventurous post-hiatus jam to date. Taking the mellifluous song to the depths of dissonant psychedelia, this jam moved mountains in the Phish world. Giving us the feeling that Phish was back with their sense of over-the-edge adventure, everyone left The Gorge in ’03 rightfully amped for the rest of the summer. As the band announced their presence of authority with two outstanding shows, The Gorge once again proved to be the perfect place to see Phish.
With a Summer tour announced already, the community now eagerly awaits the knowledge of when we will return to our northwestern home. Whether it is in August or September, you can be certain that we will find ourselves on that precipice, watching the golden sun drop below the landscape once again as Phish carries us out into the night.
To commemorate all of the wonderful nights spent in George, Washington, I have put together a compilation of “Miner’s Picks: The Gorge.” Within you will discover much of the musical magic described above (minus the ’03 stuff because I only have official SBDs.) Download and enjoy this audio history of the best venue in the country. The track listing is below. Share your memories of The Gorge in Comments!
THE VICTOR DISC:
2. Lazy and Red (5:54)
3. Sky Train Wand (17:21)
4. Blue Over Yellow (15:27)
5. Bubble Wrap (4:31)
6. Guantanamo Strut (17:21)
(Recorded 12/17/02 in NYC)