When word came down that the next Live Phish release would be of Phish’s landmark Dec. 6th, 1997 performance from The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich. we immediately thought of Pitchfork/MTV Hive/Many Other Publications scribe Rob Mitchum. Mitchum, who is in the midst of a project in which he’s reviewing every Phish performance from 1993 onward via Twitter, has long discussed how 12/6/97 was his favorite Phish show and the evening’s second set was the best live performance he’s ever seen. So we asked Rob to share his thoughts with us upon hearing the pristine “official” recording and how it compared to the audience recordings he knows like the back of his hand.
As that Jesus fresco in Spain found out last summer, restoration isn’t without risk. Sometimes imperfections can enhance a work of art, and attempts to fix or improve upon it can do more harm than good. As much as you love your favorite movie, you probably don’t want to experience it in 3D. Getting new glasses might allow you to more accurately assess the people around you, but that cuts two ways. So be careful what you wish for when a familiar favorite comes up for renovation.
So it’s important that I tell you about my personal bias here. 12/6/97 is my favorite Phish show, the greatest live performance I have ever experienced, and – whatever the source – one of my favorite pieces of recorded music. The second set is everything I ever want from this band, with thoughtful, adventurous improvisation, mind-popping peaks and unblemished flow from Tweezer through Tweezer Reprise. The first set ain’t no slouch either, overshadowed through no fault of its own by the monumental set that followed.
The Palace show also could not have come at a better time in my Phish development. This was the only show I attended on my first semester away at college, I hitched a ride with the music editor of the school paper to Auburn Hills. On the way back, he gave me my biggest review assignment to date (blame him for the headline). That review got me invited to a campus tape-trading club, which put first-gens (analog tapes made from the original recording) of the Palace show in my hands a mere week after it ended.
In the 15 years since that evening, by wearing out tapes and CDRs and MP3s, I have memorized every note and noise of the second set. I love the small, subtle things like a parent: the brief moment coming out of the “Uncle Ebenezer” segment in Tweezer where Trey mistakenly leaves an effects pedal on, the final, unidentifiable “wooooo” as Twist dissolves into Piper and every Fish yelp in Rocky Top. My audio memory for that show is spotless, even if my visual memory is nothing but red, red, red blurs during Tweezer and blinding white during Piper.
So please understand that it’s a bit jarring to suddenly hear everything in the pristine, remastered form my brain associates with 3.0-era instant downloads. I’m mostly neutral on the great AUD vs. SBD debate, but for a show I’ve lived inside of for so long, it’s disorienting, like walking from a dimly lit room into noon sunlight. Like all soundboards, the crowd sounds ever so slightly detached from the proceedings, responding to an applause sign instead of swelling spontaneously. Room sound suffers as well, obscuring the fact that by 1997 Phish was comfortable with an arena-rock sound that could easily fill an NBA arena.
On the other hand, the soundboard brings out new features to obsess over, like how Trey and Page’s Leslie speakers bring Doppler Effect dizziness to Bathtub Gin and the middle build of Tweezer, or the nuances of Trey’s Belew-esque performance of fearsome rumbles and theremin-style swoops in Maze. Mike benefits the most from the new mix, more present and accounted for in the noisier sections than I’ve ever heard on an AUD. And while there’s no “stay on F”-style revelation to be found, it’s nice to hear Trey’s off-mic exhortations and traffic-directing during the funkier sections of Tweezer and Izabella.
These are largely cosmetic changes, of course, for a second set that doesn’t need any help to ignite. Though the popular narrative for Fall ’97 is cowfunk and democratic improv (more evidence for which is provided by a spectacularly patient Antelope and the Izabella breakdowns), Trey was the undisputed alpha male on the night of December 6th. But instead of hogging the ball, listen as Trey thoughtfully leads the band through Tweezer, navigating through overlapping sections of funk and ambient wash into a searing climax where he erupts over and over again with long, blistering runs of notes.
If it’s Trey’s show, Fishman is in the sidecar, forging a telepathic link with his guitarist that facilitates jaw-dropping improvisation. Whatever happens between the two of them between 20:52 and 21:18 of Tweezer is either a tease I haven’t identified in 15 years of trying or scientific evidence for ESP. And if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I’m not sure I would believe that a man with only four limbs could physically play the drumbeat isolated during the Mike & Fish breakdown in Izabella.
Tweezabella rightly gets all the hype, but the rest of the show is more than just a victory lap. This Piper is the best possible argument for the slow build – pulling the rubber band back for over seven minutes (!) of the chord progression before catapulting Trey into a near reprise of Tweezer’s cathartic climax. Monkey, Tweeprise, Top looks like a phoned-in ending on paper, but with the crowd dialed in from the preceding 54 minutes, even the dumb song about blue balls with the Let It Be rip sent people into ecstasy, and I’ll go to my grave arguing that this Tweeprise was the best damn Tweeprise evah.
However, if you aren’t well versed in the AUD, I wouldn’t blame you for not hearing that rare band/crowd meld on the Live Phish SBD. My annoyance at the lack of crowd noise bloomed into disappointment through the second set, as favorite moments of audience rapture (the crest of Tweezer just before the 17-minute mark, those crazy Tweeprise lights) passed by inaudibly. The spine-shivering peaks of Tweezer and Piper just don’t quite hit their familiar targets without the Trey’s sheets of noise ricocheting off the walls of the Pistons’ homecourt and the skulls of the lucky attendees.
I’m not so ungrateful as to be anything less than thrilled that my favorite show was tapped for the official release treatment. But the SBD turns out to be more of a clinical experience, suitable for a technical dissection of what made the night so unique rather than a super-charged visceral memento. Perhaps that’s true of all soundboard recordings, and I’m only noticing it here because of my deep attachment to this particular show and my savant-ish memory of its every twist and turn. Instead of a replacement for the AUD, the official release is simply another listening option, one I’ll probably choose less often than my old favorite. It’s a useful reminder that restoration is not synonymous with improvement, particularly when a memory has taken deep root.