Phish Walnut Creek

Doug Collette By

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Walnut Creek



Even in its comparatively stripped-down form (no special features included with a colorful two-disc but deceptively spare package) Phish Walnut Creek stands on its own terms as a unique document of a singular performance.

The bonus CD, Left Nuts—available only via preorder at phish.com prior to release—is, like the double DVD set, something of a microcosm of Phish's most varied improvisations, captured at a point in their career—the summer of 1997—when they were nearing their pinnacle in terms of their music, if not in the recognition of its importance or the phenomenon that arose from it.

Captured by five different cameras that survived what the liner notes refer to as a "thunderstorm of biblical proportions," it really is difficult to tell if the four musicians are any more passionately engaged than their audience. Certainly the band is eager to get into the meat of the matter, which has less to do with the songs, such as "Runaway Jim," than the improvisation unleashed by each.  As guitarist Trey Anastasio moves fluently from soloing to rhythm, keyboardist Page McConnell creates an alternate solo, in counterpoint behind him.

Since this is the feed used for the audience at the venue, the video transitions follow those of the performance rather than anticipate them. Chris Kuroda's lighting doesn't create artificial drama as much as accentuate that which is inherent in a tune like "Down with Disease." The quick changes of that tune lend themselves to split-second visuals integrated with the sound (available with remarkable clarity, thanks to Paul Languedoc's original recording as well as Mark Wilder's mastering, in stereo or 5.1 surround sound).

The recognition of ever-growing audiences responding with ever more passion was clearly inspiring Phish: the emphatic percussion interlude on "Vultures" is less showmanship than a demonstration of controlled ensemble playing. Jon Fishman's indefatigable drumming is far more noteworthy here than his wan vocal spotlight on his otherwise rarely-performed original, "Bye Bye Foot," on which guitarist Trey Anastasio's unusually straightforward solo seems a nod of respect to his band mate.

It would misrepresent Walnut Creek to imply the foursome reach the stratosphere and reside there without interruption through the course of the two-set, two-hours-plus performance. Clifton Chenier's "My Soul" comes to an abrupt close, while "Water in the Sky," as much as it's a foreshowing of the rain to come that night, is hardly a demonstration of how idiosyncratically Phish could harmonize with their voices (hear "Simple" instead).

And while the halting rendition of Los Lobos' "When the Circus Comes to Town" seems under-rehearsed, with so little participation from the rest of the quartet it effectively sets the stage for the true crescendo of excitement that is "Harry Hood":  like "Weekapaug Groove" from a few moments prior, the rhythm becomes so tightly compressed through Mike Gordon's idiosyncratic bass work, the performance ignites via spontaneous combustion.


Tracks: CD 1: Runaway Jim; My Soul; Water In The Sky; Stash; Bouncing Around The Room; Vultures; Bye Bye Foot; Taste. CD 2 : Down With Disease; Mike's Song Simple; I Am Hydrogen; Weekapaug Groove; Hello My Baby; When The Circus Comes; Harry Hood. Personnel: Trey Anastasio: guitar, vocals; Jon Fishman:drums, vocals; Mike Gordon: bass, vocals; Page McConnell: keyboards, vocals. Production Notes: Color. Running time: 2 hours 16 minutes; aspect ratio: 4:3; Regions: 1-6 NTSC; Dolby 5.1, PCM Stereo.


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