Today we take a closer look at the Ventura shows from ’97 and ’98.
7/30/97: I: NICU > Wolfman’s Brother > Chalk Dust Torture, Water in the Sky, Stash, Weigh, Piper, Cars Trucks Buses, Character Zero
II: Punch You In the Eye, Free > David Bowie -> Cities -> David Bowie, Bouncing Around the Room, Uncle Pen, Prince Caspian > Fire
E: My Soul
First a little context. Ventura’s ’97 edition unfolded in the first half of the band’s US Summer Tour in about a week’s proximity to their experimental funk tour of Europe. The band was loose and honing in on a new sound they had developed since the previous Halloween. Eager to stretch almost any song into a syncopated groove session, the band had been throwing down spectacular shows in their first week stateside. Virginia Beach, Raleigh, Lakewood, Dallas, Austin, and Phoenix—all monster shows in their own right. And now it was onto Ventura.
This Ventura show—an incredible portrait of Phish in the Summer of ‘97—has never circulated in great quality due to the coastal winds that swirled around the venue, thus this remastered soundboard comes as nothing short of a revelation. The first disc of the set brings us back to an era when first sets meant something. Right away in the second song “Wolfman’s” we hear the loose wah-funk that the band had been exploring all season. After Trey takes a solo over the bands extremely slowed patterns, the band locks into each other’s ideas in a thick dance jam that has nothing to do with the song, foreshadowing the methodical wah-grooves that would come to define the summer. The band surfs this wave without finishing the song with a brief jam on “Take Me to the River” that leads them directly into a “Chalk Dust” that grabbed me on first listen. The utter intensity and creative mini-tangents throughout this jam illustrate Phish taking no prisoners in their live show—even during a first set in Southern California.
The “Stash” that follows contains glorious jamming that smoothly moves in and out of a major key , providing a beautiful middle section to an intense tale. The band closed out the set with a four pack of songs, including a short, old-school “Piper” and a wah-infused “Cars, Trucks, Busses.” Despite the on point playing throughout the first set, this show has—rightfully—always been synonymous with the meat of the second.
Simply put, 7/30’s “Bowie -> Cities -> Bowie” is one of Phish’s finest jams from one of their finest improvisational years. Having warmed up for a month in Europe, the band hit US turf running, dropping monstrous jam after monstrous jam. But this one was special. Phish hadn’t played “Cities” in the United States since 1989, and the way the band builds into the song is nothing short of masterful. Blending their new-found groove with their intricate, prog-psychedelic roots, the guys dropped a piece of music that set the Phish world afire. Confident, daring, and without hesitation, they collectively tear apart the “David Bowie” jam as a band possessed, each contributing stunning pieces to the puzzle. But deep into the jam, the guys break down the seething music into something far more percussive. On comes Trey’s wah-pedal, and the band begins to migrate from darkness into quickened groove. The following few minutes are the most engaging of the jam as the band dives head first into some very unique funk patterns with Gordon going ape shit. The band is in destruction mode here as the music seems to be playing them as much as they are playing the music. Trey begins working in the rhythm licks of “Cities” and a James Brown concert breaks out! Straight Krush Groove here as the guys liken superhuman robots oozing with soul. “Cities” stays at its original pace throughout, far from the exaggeratedly slow versions that would follow. As the lyrics end, the band takes little time to seamlessly mesh back with “Bowie” in what seemed like an aural hallucination. And the band doesn’t just rush to finish the song, they dive back into the jam for seven minutes—longer than most current “Bowies” altogether—and annihilate the peak of the jam. Just as this sequence stole the show that summer night sixteen years ago, so does it steal the spotlight on this release, despite its mp3 soundboard having surfaced a few years ago. This sounds superior in every way.
After “Punch” kicks off the second set Free” gets the treatment in a version that serves as a signpost for the jam. The band had recently ditched the piano led direction and changed motifs with “Free,” transforming into the bass and guitar driven juggernaut of the late ‘90s. In this Ventura version, we hear the band acclimating to the new milieu, but without really building anything of significance. This would start to change over the summer and more earnestly in the Fall when the song truly started to expand. After such monumental jamming in the middle of the set, the band rode into the sunset with a quartet of diverse, well-played songs that end the show.
7/20/98: I: Bathtub Gin, Dirt, Poor Heart, Lawn Boy, My Sweet One, Birds of a Feather, Theme From the Bottom, Water in the Sky, The Moma Dance, Split Open and Melt
II: Drowned -> Makisupa Policeman > Maze, Sea and Sand, Prince Caspian >Harry Hood
E: Sexual Healing > Hold Your Head Up, Halley’s Comet
While Ventura ’97 stood out amidst its tour, Ventura ’98 most definitely did not. It was a solid show, but coming right after Europe, Portland, the Gorge and Shoreline, the SoCal Monday nighter felt like the West Coast afterthought before it started. But when the band greeted the crowd with a colossal “Bathtub Gin” to open the show, the possibilities opened wide. The Riverport “Gin” that came nine days later is often hailed as the top version of all time. This Ventura “Gin,” placed in a similar show-opening slot, paved the road for the all-timer with a jam that progresses through many similar stages. Check ‘em out back to back. Interestingly, this show all but excludes the chunky, rhythmic style of Summer ‘98, and the “Drowned” opener of set two illustrates this alternate path. Taking the arena rock cover in a direction that The Who might have if they jammed, this excursion was underlined by white-hot rock and roll. Loud, fast and boisterous, this jam is a musical depiction of a hyena going for the jugular of its prey. Once he has conquered and killed, the music shifts to a more down tempo feel as the hyena salivates over his family’s still-warm dinner. As he begins to drag it back to his clan, Trey hits his wah grooves and the music becomes decidedly chilled out in a gorgeous, sinister final few minutes.
Aside from these two prime-time jams, however, this show features unbelievable intensity throughout, allowing the performance to come off totally fine. The second set features the classic pairing of a hearty “Makisupa” and a full-throttle “Maze,” and a big-time bust out in “Sea and Sand” (the set’s second Quadrophenia track about water) paying homage to Ventura’s surroundings. Closing with strong versions of “Caspian” and “Hood,” this show set is carried by the band’s type I creativity and is a very smooth listen the entire way through. A quality “Split” punctuates the first set, while a looped-out “Halley’s Comet” provides the second selection of a double encore (after Fish had debuted “Sexual Healing) and sees the band exit the stage one by one leaving a series of delay loops behind them. The “Bathtub Gin” is the only lasting jam of significance from this night, but the strength of this show illustrates how effective Phish was at doing everything in their repertoire in the summer of ’98—not just open jamming.
The final details to add about this Ventura release are the two soundcheck jams. Each feature extended, instrumental takes on “Makisupa,” with ’97 ‘s carrying a bit more musical depth. The ’98 soundcheck features” jokingly layered lyics from “Venus,” (“I’m your “Venus, I’m your fire…”). Though both are fun listens a couple times through, these aren’t like those crack soundcheck jams we get every now and then—just Phish having fun.
In summation, the Ventura box set is a fantastic release, easily the strongest since Hampton / Winston Salem. (Though 12/6/97 was in there too!) As time moves forward into this Golden Age of Phish, more and more re-mastered releases from their glory years continue to hit the shelves—a welcome trend that is sure to continue. Providing us crisp memories of magical nights gone by, sometimes all we need in a moment and a CD to take us back. And Ventura certainly does that.
“Bowie -> Cities -> Bowie“ 7.30.97 II, Ventura
Here is the mp3 SBD that has been out. This is NOT the release.
I have three Ventura Box Sets to give away for free! If you’d like to be eligible for this contest, please write two haikus—one that captures the essence of eachshow. Email these haikus to email@example.com by Wednesday at 8pm Pacific and I will post the three winning entries on Thursday or Friday! Make sure you adhere to proper haiku format or your entry will be disqualified. UPDATE: I’ m getting some really good entries and it will be tough to choose the three winners! Get yours in!