Actually, what is so astounding to note during this 2 hour and 16 minute Phish adventure, is that the band is poised to play one of their finest festivals just three weeks in the future, and would go onto a legendary fall tour, which would consolidate many of the new jam avenues that the band had been experimenting with since their twin winter and summer European tours. In a way, this DVD captures the band as they have rebounded after their awkward 1996 transition into an arena rock sensation that moved them onto the platform of a band equally at home in an ancient European theatre, abandoned airports, Madison Square Garden, or the vast ampitheatre sheds throughout sold-out America.
An always radiant and welcome Stash and an intense Vultures, with its early notes nodding back to old school Phish as penned by leader/guitarist/frontman/vocalist/future fall guy/scene figurehead Trey Anastasio with a hard rock motif pounded home with emphasis by Mike Gordon on bass, Jon Fishman on drums, and Page McConnell on piano and keyboards—for those who may have caught Phish in their latter years, Walnut Creek documents a strong group performance by everyone. McConnell is perfect, especially emphasizing his dynamic ability to anticipate, enhance, and play off his band mates, and, if the moment calls for it, an epic thunderstruck storm which hits the venue during Bye Bye Foot, a rarely played Fishman original, and takes a colossal role during Taste, as the DVD shows McConnell’s reaction to the storm, the thunder hitting the amphitheatre walls, and pushes the entire band to deliver one of their finest performances of the song.
Phish ride the weather and the jam rises and falls, escalates, bends, shoots outwards, and fluctuates the tempo based upon the massive thunderstorm. Suffice to say, the film presents a band finding a way to make transcendent music during what 99% of other bands would call a hellacious shit storm that screamed: “Get the fuck off the stage!”
Indeed, Phish would cut the set short after Taste, but not before delivering nearly 60 minutes of tight improvisation that had the audience huddling in the dark and waiting for an even better second set during the break. And that, in the end, is what made Phish great. With the massively obvious exception of Coventry and a handful of other smaller gigs, Phish took challenges and spun them on their head to their overwhelming advantage. But, you know, the same could be said about their often beleaguered lifelong fans by the uninitiated—and I used that “lifelong” term because if you spend five minutes with an old head, one gets the feeling that the twinkle in the eye is never quite going to go away, no matter how much you disliked certain stretches of their post-first-hiatus 03/04 shows. When the Circus Comes…IT is ON.
Well, the circus was completely drenched in Raleigh on this famous 1997 summer evening, and Phish came out after set break, and played a classic set filled with some of their all-time best jam vehicles. Down With Disease is stretched out for nearly 20 minutes and floats into one of their most inspiring (and the only time for this combo) segues as Anastasio…well, we’re all friends here, right?…TREY plays the opening notes of Mike’s Song in a lower key, and the collective cheer from the crowd can only be matched by the huge smile that crosses Page’s face as he recognizes the transition. Not to be outdone by that incredible segue, the band plays one of their most triumphant Mike’s Groove, as they combine their old tension-and-release motifs with their newly discovered funk, patiently traveling through Mike’s>Simple>Hydrogen>Weekapaug. They used to say this was Riding the Back of the Worm, but it could also be said that Phish wasn’t becoming anything other than what they had been…The SHIT.
As if to round out the special occasion, the quartet stands in front of two microphones to sing Hello My Baby to close a truly unique evening in which the band and audience gathered together to celebrate despite the Herculean challenge of the daunting weather. That isn’t what made the band or its many fans great…what made it so interesting and fascinating was that The Phish from Vermont could come out for an encore and play a sublime reading of Los Lobos’ When the Circus Comes, before dropping into the extended euphoria of perhaps their most beloved peak moment song—the glorious Harry Hood, which would end a chapter of its existence (and some say it would never be reborn after that monumental August 1997 gig) just three weeks away during the glowstick-frenzied performance at the Great Went festival in Limestone, Maine.
But that was August and this is July, as S.E. Hinton would say, and these band of Outsiders were all ours, and they still can be, as one drifts through Phish-Walnut Creek, during the tour that would also be called Summer ‘97, the era of rain, worm, & FUNK.
Thanks to Randy for getting us even more excited to get these DVDs in the mail. For a chance to own your own free copy of Walnut Creek, simply enter our contest.