Tour Stop: Star Lake Amphitheatre

As rumors of summer tour 2009 begin to swirl around the internet, one would hypothesize that once it is all formed, the tour may not look like the 20-city odysseys of years past.  Rather than driving every night, all night to crash for a few hours and do it all again, my guess is that Phish will set up their tour in a series of mini-runs.  A theory already given a bit of credence by the four-night Red Rocks rumor.  In choosing their locations for these two, three, or four night runs, the band is going to consider their favorite, most defining summer venues to visit in what will surely be a special tour.  Venues that seem like a shoo-in for summer runs are The Gorge, Great Woods, Alpine Valley, Shoreline, Deer Creek, and Camden, Red Rocks, and SPAC.  If there are only two at each venue, we are already up to sixteen shows, and upwards of twenty if some of these will be three and four nights.

My overarching point is that many a Phishy, albeit cookie-cutter amphitheatre, are going to necessarily be left off the circuit.  Some that immediately come into question are Polaris, Lakewood, Virgina Beach, Chula Vista, and our beloved Star Lake Amphitheatre in Burgettstown, PA.  Somewhere between Erie and Pittsburgh, the wonderfully Phishy locale exists right in rural western Pennsylvania- not exactly a travel destination.  One can only hope that when mapping out their summer travels, Phish will decide to return to this staple venue of their latter years.  The site of so many incredible moments from 1997 through 2003, it would be sad to see this tour stop eliminated from contention.

Always a pleasant atmosphere with a nicely laid out lot scene, Star Lake provided summer highlights to each and every tour after 1996.  It is interesting how similar structured venues can take on lives of their own within the clutches of the Phish.  Technically, there are no massive differences between the look and feel of many summer amphitheatres, but one would never mistake Virgina Beach for Great Woods or Deer Creek for Polaris- each took on a character of its own.  In the highly anticipated Summer Tour 2009, time will tell if the Burgettstown venue will make the cut and continue its Phishy lifeline.z

Star Lake Phish was born on August 13, 1997.  In a show no one would soon forget, at the end of a transformative tour, Phish pulled into the rural venue following an outstanding two nights at Deer Creek.  In a mesmerising summer where the music just seemed to get better and better, the band opened up the Star Lake chapter of their career with a first set that had plenty to rave about.  A third song descent into the murky darkness of “Stash” got the psychedelic improvisation started at the top of the show.  The highlight of the entire show came only moments later when the band sat into the third, and most significant, “Gumbo” of the summer.  Locked into each others’ playing, the band created some tightly slamming molasses-laced funk as the jam began grow and expand at the perfect pace.  Finally breaking through to some melodic resolution with playing that strongly resembles the Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower,” Phish let it all hang out on this near half-hour tour-defining gem.

Not letting up, the band finalized the frame with an outstanding “Crosseyed > Wilson,”  seemingly coming out of nowhere.  Overflowing with standout Phish, the band had announced their “presence of authority” in their first ever set at the venue.  The second set opened with the fiery combo of “Runaway Jim,” and “Ghost > Izabella.”  In the summer where “Ghost” debuted across the pond in Europe, and was played endlessly all tour long, these bumping, connected mechanical funk grooves often get overlooked in favor of the longer summer renditions.  Following a distinct mid-set lull, the end of the show picked back up with a late “2001 > Golgi > Frankenstein,” recharging the audience before saying good night.

Phish returned to Star Lake almost a year to the day on August 11, 1998, again only two shows before the tour ending extravaganza in Limestone.  Hot off two exciting nights at Merriweather and Virgina Beach, Phish was wrapping up a stellar summer in which they had continued busting out random covers from our youth.  The last song played before Star Lake was “Terrapin Station,” and they opened up this year’s Burgettstown show with Bob Marley’s classic, “Trenchtown Rock.”  Similarly filling this year’s first set with copious highlights, the band soon moved into the welcomed pairing of “Wolfman’s > Time Loves a Hero.”  Segueing smoothly into the Little Feat cover with round bass grooves for the first time since 1988, it would be the only appearance of the song before the band’s emergence from their first hiatus, in the third set of their comeback show at MSG.  After a geographically appropriate stop in “Bittersweet Motel,” the band carried right on with a soaring eighteen-minute summertime “Reba” to the delight of the cooled off crowd.  A maniacally-played “Maze” capped the improv on set one, as the sun descended on another day of summer adventure.

The second half of this show was defined by the 35-minute “Runaway Jim” jam that opened the set.  Improvising off of the song’s chugging theme, the band created an extended journey outward that first entered a noodly and somewhat aimless path before losing all connection to the composition whatsoever.  Moving through more abstract sections of improv, what the jam lacks in direction, it makes up for in deep exploration.  Finally getting into some truly interesting full-band improvisation about half-way through, this jam becomes a more general psychedelic palate for the band to organically explore.  Moving from its louder more dissonant peak, the jam settles back into a quiet space where Trey begins to funk out a bit before concluding the song.  All in all, this jam is very exploratory, yet not as coherent as many half-hour jams the band has leaped into in theirn career.  Nonetheless, it provided a huge springboard for some serious musical risk taking by Phish, something we all prefer to see than conservative compositions.

The rest of the show finished with some shorter songs and a set ending Disease, capping Phish’s second night at Star Lake a success.  Following the improvisational focus of the previous two years, the band came to Star Lake in the summer of 1999 for one of their defining sets ever at the venue.  Kicking off the last week of summer, Phish did it in style in what was quickly becoming one of their more reliable homes away from home.  While the first set opened with the fun twosome of “AC/DC Bag > Cities,” and had some heavy grooves the “Funky Bitch” and Moma pairing, the sole focus of this show belongs on set two.

Opening with the licks of “Mike’s Song,” this set raged into darkness early on with Trey entering the jam with a sinister solo over the fog laden textures.  Digging in immediately, the band locked into a fierce Mike’s jam that had had the pavilion pulsing.  Growing in intensity and musical communication, the jam built into a chunky militant march where the dance rhythms enveloped consciousness, moving your body like a marionette.  Progressing into a louder ’99-eqsue peak of dissonant screaming madness, the band took advantage of the first change in the song to transition into a celebratory, “Simple.”  Coming out of such a stirred up Mike’s, this kept the energy going while moving the focus to the lighter side of things.  Featuring a masterfully melodic solo, with teased of the Woody Woodpecker theme, Trey led the audience through the blissful summertime movement.

Yet, as Simple wound down, the central improvisation of the set was just beginning.  Sliding into the summer’s ambient addition of “My Left Toe,” off of the recently released Siket Disc, the audience did not know what was in store for them.  All summer long, this song had been used to explore dark amorphous realms, usually leading into or out of another song.  However, this version would take on a life of its own.  Beginning in the typical darkness of the psychedelic piece, Trey continued to foreshadow “Prince Caspian” by teasing its haunting opening melody subtly throughout the jam.  Whereas the song always built in layers, creating an experiment in tone and sound, the band began to infuse melody into this excursion.  Before too long, Fish and Page started the most mellow backing beat that ever so slowly grew into some of the most sublime music ever played by the band.  As Trey continued layering his walls of distortion on top of the building groove, he gradually transformed his playing from darkness into a melodic fountain of surreal melody.  Exemplifying what Phish is all about, this extended jam of masterful rhythm and melody defined this summer evening, and holds up today as one of the most gorgeous, purely improvised pieces of Phish music.  It was the perfect fit for the July evening, and a night that cemented Star Lake as an ultimately Phishy venue.

Not to spoil a great run, Phish found themselves right back at their western Pennsylvania stop the next year.  Taking place before an all-night “Cannonball Run” to Alpine- one of the longest drives of tour- the Phish2k edition of Star Lake featured a fun and upbeat show, but nothing nearly as deep or adventurous as the three years that had preceded.  With a great setlist, this show showcased some concise versions of Phish classics.  A dancy “Gumbo,” and an interesting “Maze > Shafty > Maze” stood out in the first set, while a tight set-ending “Mike’s Groove” put an exclamation point on the end of the show.  However, the true meat of this evening existed in the opening triumvirate of the second set- “Ghost > Jibboo,” and “Split Open and Melt.”  While carrying a solid groove, this version typified many 2000 Ghosts, good- but not great- and somewhat formulaic.  After a year of absolutely disgusting Ghosts in 1999, the song’s jam didn’t always hold up throughout the year before Phish’s hiatus.  This Star Lake “Ghost” picks up some momentum in the second half of the jam as the band, specifically Trey, gets slightly more adventurous in their playing.

The following “Jibboo” was the umteen-millionth of the summer, and while carrying some nice Trey solos, it just didn’t seem to stand out amongst the many other versions of the tour.  The best part of this show unfolded in a mid-second set “Split Open and Melt.”  Locked into some very interesting improv from the onset of this jam, the band built a menacing sound sculpture out of their classic vehicle.  Boasting the most interesting rhythms of the night, this centerpiece took home the jam of the show title in an evening that was relatively light on maddening improv.

And so the hiatus came.  Once Phish had revved it back up again and were hitting on all cylinders in the summer of ’03, one of, if not their most defining shows of the summer, took place right back in the friendly confines of Star Lake.  Coming towards the end of their return-to-glory tour, Star Lake 2003 again preceded Limestone by a mere two shows.  With an opening set comprised almost exclusively of bust-outs, the crowd was juiced by hearing “Daniel Saw the Stone,” “Camel Walk,” Velvet Underground’s “Cool It Down,” “Scent of a Mule,” “Timber Ho!”, and “McGrupp” all before half time.  None too heavy with improv, a different type of Phishy energy and excitement was generated by all the rarities.

With the focus on song choice in the first set, the second half of the show was squarely focused on improv.  Opening with Star Lake’s second “Crosseyed and Painless,” this directed psychedelic adventure immediately vaulted to the top of all lists of candidates for jam of the summer.  With sprawling segments of unique locked in improv, this jam stretched out to almost a half-hour of pristine Phish music.  Moving into completely different places all together, this Crosseyed made up one of the most coherent and ridiculous roller coaster rides of the tour.  The insane period of improv wound down perfectly into Round Room‘s instrumental, “Thunderhead”, giving the crowd a reflective portion of time to digest the magic that had just gone down.  An absolute high point of post-hiatus Phish, this “Crosseyed > Thunderhead” jam would never be forgotten. (See video below)

Again referencing the geography of Star Lake with “Bittersweet Motel,” Phish turned this already special show all the more sparkling by dropping into “Harpua” for the first time since the legendary Dark Side show in November of 1998.  This time Trey inserted a story about Jimmy on a quest for “IT,” and eventually joining a rock band and finding “IT” on the road, as the crowd prepared for the festival of the same name.  Closing out the sublime set of deep improvisation with a scorching Bowie, Phsh put a proper cap on an incredibly significant night of music.  In their post-hiatus return to Burgettstown, PA, Phish re-established the venue as one of their favorite with a show for the annals of Phish history.

As we look beyond Hampton, beyond March, into the summertime, one can only hope that as Phish maps out their plan of attack for next summer, they don’t forget their house of magic somewhere between Erie and Pittsburgh.

To commemorate all of these indelible memories, I have put together the next edition of Miner’s Picks: “Star Lake.”  Totalling 5.5 hours of western Pennsylvanian jams from post-’96 Phish, this will remind everyone of the venues stellar history.  The track listing and links are below.  Enjoy!

1. Stash 8.13.97 I

2. Gumbo 8.13.97 I

3,4,5. Crosseyed > Wilson > Little Drummer Boy 8.13.97 I

6,7. Ghost > Izabella 8.13.97 II

8. Trenchtown Rock 8.11.98 I

9,10. Wolfman’s > Time Loves A Hero 8.11.98 I

11. Reba 8.11.98 I

12. Runaway Jim 8.11.98 II

13,14. AC/ DC Bag > Cities 7.21.99 I

15,16,17,18,19. Mike’s > Simple > My Left Toe > Caspian > Weekapaug 7.21.99. II

20. Gumbo 7.7.00 I

21,22,23. Maze > Shafty > Maze 7.7.00 I

24,25. Ghost > Jibboo 7.7.00 II

26. Split Open and Melt 7.7.00 II

27,28. Crosseyed > Thunderhead 7.29.03 II


“Crosseyed and Painless” Star Lake, 7.29.03

Part 1

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Part 2

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Part 3

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Part 4

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Thanks to Jered Wenerd!

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