With the excitement over their 30th anniversary tour growing, Phish have whet the appetite of fans by offering up yet another brilliant archival release, a box set entitled Ventura. This six-CD collection contains two full-length performances from the band’s 1997 and 1998 summer concerts at the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura, California. Both of these shows paint perfect pictures of just how well the fearless four-some were playing during this time in their career.
Fans should be particularly excited about the release of these performances because there have not been very good audience recordings in circulation, due to the fact that the winds coming off the coast made taping difficult. Here the listener gets an incredibly clean and crisp documentation of the concerts thanks to Paul Languedoc’s multi-track soundboard tapes that have been carefully mixed and mastered by Jon Altschiller and Fred Kevorkian.
It will be up to fans to decide which of the two performances stand above the other, but frankly both of them stand side-by-side as far as presentation, song selection, and improvisations. There are only two songs repeated from each year, “Water in the Sky” and “Prince Caspian”, and both are played with stark differences from one another (especially the former) which make for interesting comparisons.
The first performance on this release (1997) was full of magnificent musical peaks and breezy valleys; not unlike Southern California herself. The first set contained a funky, slow-burning “Wolfman’s Brother” that eventually ignited the powder keg of “Chalkdust Torture”. Other highlights include a particularly pleasing “Stash” jam, as well as the fist-pounding finisher of “Character Zero”.
The second set of this evening proved to be a bit meatier, as a high energy “Punch You in the Eye” lead into one of the better takes of “Free” heard during that age. Mike Gordon channeled the funk on this jam, and lead the band seamlessly into an intro of “David Bowie” that simply must be heard. Gordo’s ethereal bass grooves wove in out and of sonic textures before the song exploded into twenty-seven minutes of cow-funk madness. The band even perfectly placed an upbeat, peppy take on the Talking Heads classic “Cities” smack dab in the middle of it all. Well played versions of “Bouncing Around the Room”, Hendrix’s “Fire”, and “My Soul” closed out the evening in fine form.
The second performance on Ventura from 1998 shows a bit of the difference a year can make for a band like Phish. While the ’97 show may have been a little more laid back, the ’98 show proved to be more playful and on the heavier side. This is evident right away as the boys opened with a whopping 22-minute “Bathtub Gin”, which contained one of those great funk jams the band installed around this period.
Other first set stand-outs included an especially frisky take on “Poor Heart”, a syrupy “ Moma Dance” (which most previously heard versions were instrumental and known as “Black Eyed Katy”), and an interesting rendering of the classic “Split Open and Melt” that contained some excellent Type II jamming and saw the band descend into some dark territory, led by Trey’s ferocious guitar wailings.
The second set came out hot with a non-stop trio of spirited and extended takes on The Who gem “Drowned”, the sun-splashed “Makisupa Policeman”, and the tension-and-release filled “Maze”. The band must have had The Who on their minds that evening as another cover emerged with Page alone performing “Sea and Sand” (this beauty had last been played live during their Halloween show in 1995 where they covered the entire Quadrophenia album).
Set two closed with an excellent take on “Prince Caspian” (the better of the two nights), as well as the crowd favorite “Harry Hood”. The 2-song encore began with the laughable Fishman-crooned “Sexual Healing”, and concluded with a blissed-out “Halley’s Comet”.
Over the last year Phish have been busy releasing some choice archival shows (see Chicago ’94, Auburn Hills ’97, Blossom ’95), and Ventura is another awesome addition to the collection. The touring years of 1997 and 1998 were, by most accounts, the most musical entertaining and to hear more pristine concert releases of that storied era should excite any fan.