In the twenty-odd Phish shows I’ve attended in the past eight years, none stand out in the way this particular concert does. In fact, it was from the release of this show in the LivePhish series in 2002 that my interest in Phish re-emerged. Not only was this performance’s setlist in top form, displaying a slew of old favorites, rare tunes, and new songs, its quality of performance is almost unparalleled. Indeed, diehards need only look at this show on paper to get excited about what Phish once was, what the band is now, and what it could possibly be in the future.
The band, playing its seventh in the string of a ten show tour in the low-volume summer of 1996, had played some good, but some almost forgettable shows up to this point in the tour. Wolf Mountain, Red Rocks, and Alpine Valley had turned out some good moments, but none, on tape at least, match up to the quality and intensity of this particular night amid the vast cornfields of rural Central Indiana. It was the band’s third performance at a now-favorite venue, Deer Creek. To preface, I saw not only the first three shows there, but every subsequent Phish and Phish-oriented Deer Creek performance there (minus the Trey Anastasio Band’s appearance in 2002). After fifteen shows in the same spot up to the winter of 2003, none compare to this hot August night.
A positive buzz was in the air as fans and local adventure-seekers alike were herded into the venue grounds. Pre-show shouts for “Tela!” still resonate in my head when thinking about this Phish show, my personal favorite. After a solid first night in a two night stand which included rarities such as “Esther,” the first "Weigh" in a while, and “McGrupp,” both the band and fans alike knew they were in for a special treat.
As the skies opened after a cloudy Indiana summer afternoon, the band opened the lengthy first set with “Divided Sky,” which was its typical beautiful, moving self. My group and I had been listening to “Tube” earlier in the day and we were all excited to hear Trey’s muted strumming of the introduction to this song as the second in the set. “Tube” rocked hard and led up to the parking lot requested “Tela.” Subtle, delicate and vastly welcomed, “Tela” led us to another four-letter titled tune, “Maze,” which picked up where “Tube” left off. At this point, with three four-letter songs in a row, perhaps “Reba” was in store next?
Alas, it was played at Alpine Valley two shows previous, and the band chose to perform a delicately played “Fast Enough For You.” “Punch You In the Eye” and “Llama” got things back to a rocking pace, while the rare “Glide” was both unexpected and delightful. A climatic “Slave to the Traffic Light” sent the capacity crowd into the aisles for set break. So far,
we were experiencing a well-played, long-lasting and incredibly enjoyable Phish concert. Never have I witnessed such a well thought-out first set, played with such precision.
Setbreak was its usual lengthy self, but the band certainly made up for whatever yearnings the audience may have had in the second set. A long, tweaked, spacey instrumental groove left myself and most others scratching our heads, as it preceded a focused, hard-rocking “AC/DC Bag” to open the second set. The crowd-pleasing “Lizards” was next and got the crowd up and moving if it wasn’t all ready. So far, the variety of novelty, vintage Phish was astounding. The omnipresent, but always anticipated “Mike’s Groove” followed. In it, “Lifeboy” was sandwiched, and provided an excellent rest between a characteristically smoking “Mike’s Song” and a long, incendiary “Weekapaug Groove.”
Page then entertained the crowd with a frightful “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the theremin on which he had been experimenting that summer. While it was nothing about which to write home, during this time the band rolled out on its mini-stage where it played acoustically for
the next four songs. This was the band’s second of three mini-stage performances, and it was a true delight in the way it gave fans a look into the forthcoming Billy Breathes record that was due out in the fall of 1996. Most thought “Sweet Adeline” would close the set, but the familiar high hat cymbal introduction to “David Bowie” by our favorite frock-clad drummer caught the audience by surprise. Indeed, it was “David Bowie,” albeit in short form. While this was the antithesis to some of the spacey, explorative “Bowies” from 1994 and 1995, this one was focused and driven, capping off a superlative second set.
After the encore that followed, a usually uneventful pairing of “Sleeping Monkey” and “Rocky Top,” I heard one individual proclaim that the show was so good that even the "Rocky Top" was almost worthy of "best ever" status. Best ever or not, it sent droves of satisfied fans into the typically crazy Deer Creek parking lots.
Never have I been to a Phish show, other than my first, of course, that was so entertaining from top to bottom that sheer recollection alone enabled me to write a full-length review, such as this, from memory. This has been perhaps the most diverse and compelling Deer Creek show the band has played to date. And that, not coincidentally, says a great deal.
Furthermore, the release of this show on Live Phish was certainly a wise decision by those involved in the production and distribution of that engaging series. Hearing this again, in all its digital glory, led to my inclination in catching four more shows in the band's post-hiatus spring and summer tours of 2003. And I thought I was done with Phish, at least in the live setting. Needless to say, now that these discs are in wide distribution in both the trading and commercial realms, there’s no reason not to hear for yourself the magnificent music the band emitted this night in Noblesville.