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Phish: in the groove on “Ventura”

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Most Phish fans have a favorite era of the band’s evolution and can eloquently state their case by citing specific shows and jams.   For many, it’s the groove that hit the group in the mid to late ‘90s when a certain funkiness began to permeate Phish shows, a welcome ingredient that fit their music perfectly.  That fact is made abundantly clear on the band’s new archival release, “Ventura,” a 6-CD box set comprised of two complete concerts performed a year apart at Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura, California in 1997 and 1998.  

For “Ventura,” Phish archivist Kevin Shapiro has selected two vastly underrated performances that reveal the band in top form, delivering a master class in improvisation and showmanship with the emphasis on groove.

“Ventura” is one of the best-sounding live Phish releases to date.  Mixed from the multi-track tapes by Jon Altschiller, an old friend who had recorded early shows and was later an assistant engineer on Phish’s “A Picture of Nectar” and “Rift.” Altschiller is currently the band’s live remote mix engineer.  

The majority of live Phish releases have been mastered from the band’s live two-track mix originally recorded by Paul Languedoc, the band’s original head sound engineer and house mixer.  It’s possible that the ever-present wind, audible on most audience recordings of these Ventura performances, necessitated a fresh mix from the multi-tracks.  Regardless, it was worth the effort – the sound quality here is glorious and one hopes that future Phish archival releases will be afforded the same treatment. 

In terms of performance, Phish were truly riding a wave at this time.  They adopted a few new policies including no prepared set lists and no post-show analysis by the band.  “We used to dissect each show to death,” drummer Jon Fishman told Rolling Stone in 1997.   Just a few months earlier, they were looking for a new direction.  Trey Anastasio revealed as much to Richard Gehr in “The Phish Book.” “And then suddenly our February (1997) Europe tour felt like a breakthrough.  We were playing slow and funky, but in a distinctly Phish kind of way…and it kept up throughout the whole summer tour and into the fall.”   

Part of the band’s emphasis on groove can be traced to the previous Halloween’s choice of “musical costume.”  On October 31st, 1996, during a three set show in Atlanta, Georgia, Phish performed the funk-driven “Remain in Light” by Talking Heads in its entirety.  As the band revealed to David Byrne in a performance and visit to his PBS “Sessions at West 54th” show in 1998, “We spent a year inside your head,” referring to the band’s commitment in mastering that classic album.  

Another breakthrough occurred in Hamburg Germany on March 1st, 1997 during a performance of the Phish’s own “Wolfman’s Brother,” the biggest reason they decided to issue highlights from that show as their 1997 album, “Slip, Stitch and Pass.”  It was during this performance that something magical happened – the funk took over in a big way and stayed with Phish for the rest of the year and beyond.

Highlights of the July 30th 1997 show (discs 1-3 on “Ventura”) included another funky, bass-driven take on “Wolfman’s” and an incredible (and incredibly fast) version of “Chalk Dust Torture.”  

“Water in The Sky”, a highlight of 1998’s “Story of the Ghost,” is played with an early country-swing arrangement.   A spacious and intense “Stash” precedes a fun and tight take on bassist Mike Gordon’s rarely played “Weigh” and an early version of “Piper,” a song that would become a future jamming vehicle.  Presented here in its eighth-ever performance, the song must have sounded like music from the future to the audience of Ventura.   

A fun version of keyboardist Page McConnell’s “Cars Trucks Buses” and a rocking “Character Zero” played with old school precision laid the groundwork for set two, one of the best played sets of 1997.  

There are many “how do they do it?” moments during the second set, including a funky and cutting “Free” and one of the best-ever versions of “David Bowie,” seamlessly segued into “Cities” by Talking Heads before resolving with a “Bowie” finish.  It’s frighteningly beautiful and a perfect example of the band’s private listening exercises put to work.

An always welcome “Uncle Pen” offers some tight bluegrass fun followed by a nuanced “Prince Caspian” and a scorching version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.”  The third disc for each show in “Ventura” is capped with a bonus:  a portion of that day’s soundcheck jam.   

The July 20th, 1998 show (discs 3-6) catches the band on another great night and in good humor.  An intoxicating “Bathtub Gin” opened the first set and is followed by rollicking versions of “Poor Heart” and “My Sweet One,” a tight take on the new (at the time) “Birds of a Feather”, “Water in the Sky” (arranged as it would appear a few months later on “Ghost”) and “The Moma Dance.”    

The second set opened with a staggering version of “Drowned”, a classic from The Who’s “Quadrophenia,” an album covered by Phish on Halloween in 1995.  The band’s reggae-fused “Makisupa Policeman” (the oldest Phish original according to Anastasio who, in 2003, stated that lyricist Tom Marshall wrote the song in elementary school 1969) is the calm before the storm as the band went into an electrifying version of “Maze.”

Another dip into “Quadrophenia” provides the perfect soundtrack to the venue’s backdrop of the pacific, palm trees, mountains with “Sea and Sand” with just McConnell’s voice and piano, played here for the first time in nearly three years.  Other set highlights include “Harry Hood” and some extra-silly Phish cabaret as drummer Jon Fishman stepped forward to sing Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” during an encore that also included a funky, loopy “Halley’s Comet.”

It speaks volumes to the performance confidence of Phish in 2013 that they would release archive shows of this caliber so close to the beginning of a new tour and adds an air of anticipation as local fans get ready for the band’s tour opener in Bangor on July 3rd.  “Ventura” is an essential addition to the live Phish catalog.  

Mike Dow can be heard each morning on “The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow” on Big 104 FM, airing on 104.7 (Bangor/Belfast) 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville) and 107.7 (Bar Harbor).  “The Biggest Hits of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.” 

Last modified on Monday, 24 June 2013 14:17

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