Drawn to the Ventura Fairgrounds for the relaxed general admission atmosphere and the scenic grandeur of the stage set against the Pacific Ocean, Phish and their audience relished the open-air ambience on their summer appearances, the first of which saw the quartet allow themselves the luxury of settling in. Though not all the music is as vivid as the evocative wrap-round inside and outside graphics, the most memorable moments are nevertheless compelling. Since both shows were recorded by Paul Languedoc, then mixed by Jon Altschiller and mastered by Fred Kevorkian, it is somewhat odd that the second boasts more depth and clarity than the first.
Still, the structured performances such as "Wolfman's Brother," as well as the improvisations on "Stash," were progressions no less pointed or adventurous than at any other time in Phish history, and only slightly less broad in their panoramic scope. During set two of '97, as the band wends its way into "Free," drummer Jon Fishman hits harder, bassist Mike Gordon holds back to hit only bedrock notes, guitarist Trey Anastasio redefines shredding, and all the while keyboardist Page McConnell frames the increasingly subtle four-way dynamics. A circular segue through "David Bowie" and Talking Heads' "Cities" is a singularity the like of which distinguishes Phish to this day: four virtually equally skilled players simultaneously inspiring each other to increasingly intense heights of improvisation.
Ditto the way Phish jammed a year later at the picturesque venue. At precisely the moment the thought occurs that this soundcheck content is filler pure and simple, an ambient aural cloud arises that reminds one that seemingly random exercises are, in fact, the means by which Phish maintains and refines its collective instinct(s). In 1998, the quartet begins almost immediately to stretch on the opener "Bathtub Gin," and then on "Dirt." But they also indulge themselves in novelty too, with "Poor Heart," Fishman's original ditty "My Sweet One" and McConnell's tongue in cheek vocal on "Lawn Boy" following in quick succession. Such lighthearted moments can provide respite from protracted jams, but the group hadn't reached such peaks at this point in the concert, so the intended effect is less than it might've been.
By the time the second set unfolds though, as in 1997, Phish focuses itself to thread "Drowned" and "Sea & Sand" (the latter from The Who's Quadrophenia (MCA, 1973) which they had covered in its entirety on Halloween of 1995) in and out of "Makisupa Policeman" and "Maze." Such assertive ambition in the spontaneity of the moment has always distinguished Phish at its best, and the momentum here carries through the uplifting "Prince Caspian" which, when combined with the joyous whimsy of "Harry Hood," would've made for an ideal set closer.
Unfortunately, the quartet can't resist indulging themselves in more novelty during the encore in the form of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing"a cover that, along with Argent's "Hold Your Head Up," conjures a mood too goofy for its own good, no doubt best appreciated by those in attendance.
"Halley's Comet" is more representative of Phish's slightly twisted sense of humor as well as the band's ability to attain stratospheric heights of collective musicianship in remarkably short order: more soundcheck content on disc three suggests such a gift derives directly from the uncommon level of mutual trust among these four musicians.
Track Listing: CD 1: NICU ; Wolfman’s Brother ; Chalk Dust Torture ; Water In The Sky ; Stash; Weigh ; Piper ; Cars Trucks Buses ; Character Zero. CD 2: Punch You In The Eye ; Free ; David Bowie ; Cities ; David Bowie. CD 3: Bouncing Around The Room ; Uncle Pen ; Prince Caspian ; Fire ; My Soul ; Ventura ’97 Soundcheck Jam. CD 4: Bathtub Gin ; Dirt ; Poor Heart ; Lawn Boy ; My Sweet One ; Birds Of A Feather ; Theme From The Bottom ; Water In The Sky; The Moma Dance ; Split Open And Melt. CD 5: Drowned; Makisupa Policeman ; Maze ; Sea And Sand ; Prince Caspian ; Harry Hood. CD 6: Sexual Healing ; Hold Your Head Up ; Halley’s Comet ; Ventura ’98 Soundcheck Jam.
Personnel: Trey Anastasio: guitar, vocals; Mike Gordon: bass, vocals; Page McConnell: keyboards, vocals; Jon Fishman: drums, vocals.
Record Label: Jemp Records