Phish 1997
PHISH (1997) / Photo: Danny Clinch / Elektra Records

Phish Sacrifice Ambience For Clarity on Live ‘Spectrum’ Box Set 

With its antiseptic sound, The Spectrum ’97 box set can’t adequately substitute for what it was like to be there at a 1990s Phish show.

The Spectrum '97
JEMP / Phish Dry Goods
15 March 2024

By the time Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, Phish had already secured their place as heirs to the jam band throne. In the decades since, the Burlington, Vermont quartet have carried the flag for the tie-dye aesthetic more visibly than any of their peers. Unsurprisingly, it was Phish’s sprawling, high-energy live shows that cemented their legend with fans who adopted concertgoing as a lifestyle. With such a prolific gigging history, it’s only natural that Phish generated their own version of the show-taping, bootleg-sharing subculture that had originally coalesced around the Dead. 

Much like the Grateful Dead, Phish have amassed a voluminous catalog of official live releases that now rivals the seemingly endless supply of bootlegs. The latest to arrive is The Spectrum ’97, a six-CD box set that documents every note (and more) from a two-night stand at Philadelphia’s Spectrum arena in early December of 1997. By this point, fans ranging from moderate to hardcore dedication levels know pretty much what to expect here. That’s because the group started releasing similarly-packaged box sets 25 years ago with 1999’s Hampton Comes Alive, which also consisted of two complete gigs spread out over six CDs. 

Since Hampton, a slew of live box sets have followed, including Ventura, Amsterdam, St. Louis ’93, At The Roxy, and Hampton/Winston-Salem ‘97 — along with a steady churn of titles in the band’s Live Phish series and innumerable official webcasts. Crucially, just about every recording up to 2004 bears the stamp of Paul Languedoc, the luthier who worked as Phish’s live sound engineer over a span of 18 years. The Spectrum box is no exception. Which means that the appeal of this material boils down not just to one’s preference for these particular setlists and performances, but for Languedoc’s instincts as a front-of-house mixer. 

Classic live albums give us a sense of what it was like to be in that venue on that night by balancing sound quality with ambience. Unfortunately, mixing engineer Jon Altschiller sacrifices the latter for the former in his treatment of Languedoc’s original multi-track audio. The Spectrum ’97 certainly sounds cleaner than your average bootleg, but clarity can sometimes intrude on character. Altschiller’s mix disembodies the band from the crowd, from the building, and even from itself. With guitarist/frontman Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell occupying separate sides of the stereo field, the listener’s ear falls into the vacuum between them. 

As a result, The Spectrum ‘97 leaves you feeling simultaneously too close and too far away from the band. This is odd, considering that Altschiller was able to create an almost binaural sense of spatial roundness from Languedoc’s original tapes on the ‘97/’98-era Ventura box set. But when sifting through the trove of official live releases, it’s surprising how many of them sound like they were mixed by someone who’d forgotten what it’s like to attend a concert just for fun. To be fair, Languedoc was often tasked with mixing direct to two-track in real time, but overall it doesn’t seem like much has changed in the 25 years since Hampton Comes Alive

In more ways than one, The Spectrum ‘97 exposes a band that aren’t always able to discern between quantity and quality — an issue that extends into their onstage choices as well. Make no mistake: any live Phish recording is bound to hit on moments of transcendence. When Anastasio, McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman all click into alignment with one another, the sparks can be so palpable it’s as if the entire room is being rocket-powered into liftoff by the music. The first such moment on Spectrum ‘97 arrives in the form of the track “Taste” — a full hour into the first night’s set. 

This rendition of “Taste”, off Phish’s 1996 album Billy Breathes (their latest at the time), showcases the powerhouse musicianship each member brings to the table. Had they been born a decade or two earlier, it’s easy to picture Anastasio, McConnell, Gordon, and Fishman staking their claim in the world of jazz fusion. Fishman in particular has always possessed an extraordinary combination of precision and drive matched in turn by his singular agility and grace. On “Taste”, he glides through a web of complex rhythms with an active, Latin-flavored percussion groove as his bandmates all play in rhythms of their own. 

A kind of circular time-signature exercise that induces a (rather pleasant) feeling of being spun around and around by the music, “Taste” also sparkles with notes and chords that glow like fireflies over a dusty, bluegrass-influenced picking pattern. Anastasio’s melodious vocal, meanwhile, betrays the band’s then-increasing penchant for tuneful, compact songwriting. Here, over the course of eight-plus minutes, the band carries the song further and further afield into dissonant realms. In furious bursts of notes, Anatastasio swerves in and out of the scale in ways that wouldn’t sound out of place on solos by the likes of Marc Ribot and Wanyne Krantz. 

The whole time Phish are building, there’s a feeling of being lost in chaos. What’s most remarkable, however, is just how patient, focused, and intentional all four players remain the entire time — a far cry from the aimless-noodling stereotype held by Phish’s detractors. If we’re being fair, though, The Spectrum ‘97 contains plenty of moments those detractors could point to in order to make their case. After the titular chant from “Divided Sky”, for example, the band engages in a cartoon-like game of musical cat-and-mouse before settling into a theme that one could easily have pictured Topographic Oceans-era Yes jamming on in rehearsal. 

Alas, the potential never materializes for another majestic buildup, as Phish abandon the idea in under 20 seconds! Sure, that’s how the original studio version goes too, but why not stretch that one part out into something more grand? Especially since there’s plenty of stretching going on over The Spectrum ‘97’s five-and-a-half-hour runtime. In several of the extended-improv sections, Phish show just how often they prioritized their freewheeling spirit above careful execution. At several points, one player will just awkwardly nudge the rest into a new direction, without waiting for an opportune opening to do so. 

There’s also the fact that Phish were growing but seemed reluctant to let it show much onstage. By 1997, more and more of their songs were beginning to reveal a mature, sensitive side of the band (see: “Fast Enough for You”, “Free”, “Billy Breathes”). Instead of leaning into that maturity, though, they commit to the goofball humor that had won the hearts of so many college-aged stoners early on. For the most part, The Spectrum ‘97 lacks the emotional contours of Phish’s studio output from the same time, which comes off as a disservice to their own creative trajectory. 

Clearly, Phish were willing to pursue growth — on multiple levels — in the studio. But listening to The Spectrum ’97, one gets the sense Phish allowing themselves to get stuck in a kind of emotionally-stunted rut. At the crossroads where they could have challenged their audience, Phish chose comfort and routine. Aficionados, of course, wouldn’t have it any other way. The Phish Destroys America run that included these Spectrum shows undoubtedly holds special meaning for fans old enough to have been there. But that’s the thing: with its antiseptic sound, this box set can’t adequately substitute what it was like to be there at a 1990s Phish show. 

Thankfully, Phish have presented us with myriad other options for those inclined to try.

RATING 6 / 10