The late 90s were Phish’s greatest years, and fittingly, yet another Live Phish release from the era has been released. Ventura, a six-disk set covering the July 30th 1997 and July 20th 1998 shows at Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura, California, captures the sound of the era – the cowfunk of the 1997 and 1998 tours. With two prime shows chosen, the Ventura release is one of the best from Phish, on par with Phish at the Roxy and Colorado ’88.
Before getting to the music, it is worth noting that the packaging and art, designed by LandLand, represents vivid beach scenes on the box cover and unique designs on each of the six disks. LandLand goes for a relaxed, inviting scene on each, comparable to their equally impressive Alpine Valley and Commerce City prints in 2012, making for a great official design to the set.
Both shows are remastered by Fred Kevorkian, the guru who has brought new sounds to multiple releases recently, and begins with the 1997 installment where “NICU” wakes the crowd before a wonderful “Wolfman’s Brother” takes charge before segueing into a “Chalkdust Torture” that is given nearly as much space to breathe into its jam. “Stash”, like so many other shows before, is a mid-set highlight which clocks in at over 15 minutes. With so much excellence in the first half of the set, the rest of the set winds down with “Weigh” > an elusive five minute “Piper” then “Cars Trucks Buses” before “Character Zero” is found in its natural place to close the set.
Set two dips in with “Punch You in the Eye”, always a nod to a heater of a set on the horizon. While “Free” is 11 minutes long, this version gives off a ‘less is more’ vibe, but still rolls the set along. Then, we are treated to one of the true highlights of Phish in their early prime, a tasty jam sandwich of “David Bowie” > “Cities” > “David Bowie”. This is the thing Phish dreams are made of: 21 minutes of “Bowie”, a perfect and smooth segue into “Cities” then a re-entry into “Bowie”, creating one of the many highlights of the summer, and an intriguing listen at that. With much of the heat of the set contained on Disk Two, a cover sandwich later in the set includes Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” and “Prince Caspian” > Hendrix’s “Fire”, rounding out a tremendous set, capped off by an encore of Clifton Chenier’s “My Soul.” The bonus – a “Makisupa Policeman”-ish soundcheck jam is the final track, giving a taste of the warm ups from the period that propelled these jams to light.
The 1998 show opens with an adventurous “Bathtub Gin” that clocks in at over 20 minutes, a rare start to a show these days, but from the late 90s, anything like this was possible. Much of the rest of the first set: “Dirt”, “My Sweet One”, “Water in the Sky” and others are standard versions, serving as a balance to “Gin.” The set enders, an early and proper “The Moma Dance” and a rockin’ “Split Open and Melt”, are a one-two punch, ending a set that is meaty on both ends.
Set two features two Phish songs in between two songs from The Who’s Quadrophenia, with “Drowned” > “Makisupa Policeman” > “Maze”, a delightful journey through varying improvisations, ending with the soft piano solo of Page McConnell on “Sea and Sand.” “Prince Caspian” > “Harry Hood” is yet another fine example of the extensive exploration that the band undertook on the stage, taking risks and developing jams organically into things of beauty. Just six songs in this set shows how improvisation of the era could translate into an incredible musical experience. The encore of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” was part of a summer of unique covers at each show, then a “Halley’s Comet” with a little extra mustard from the good ol’ days of Phish. Once again, a snippet of the soundcheck jam from the show was again “Makisupa”/reggae-ish, with Shocking Blue’s “Venus” serving as hilarious banter amid the jam.
Ventura is available now for purchase at Phish Dry Goods. Pick it up and enjoy some of the best of the late 90’s while you rock out on tour this summer.