This was only my second Phish show, but since I picked up the tape in 1996 it has continued to redeem itself as one of my favorite shows ever. I was only a freshman at Penn State University and had planned on using my new-found freedom to continue my trips to Dead shows. That was obviously derailed by the passing of Mr. Garcia. So I jumped on the Phish bandwagon only to be steamrolled by the Phish train for the next eight years of my life.
I picked up tickets for face from a guy I met on the old AOL Phishbowl that was part of the Grateful Dead page on that archaic on-line service. He had some extras and lived up the street. I picked up two for a buddy that was going to meet me there from Princeton. I talked two friends into driving down from State College with me although they had no tickets.
We arrived in darkness and split up so they could find tickets and I could find my friend. Plenty of familiar PSU faces in the crowd were having trouble getting tickets, but I had mine. Show time came and went without my friend showing and I was so tempted to drop the ticket off at will call so I could get in for the opener. This was before the days of cellphones and instant connectivity so I didn't know if he would know what to do to get a ticket. He finally showed just as I was about to enter the tiny hockey pavilion.
We shuffled in and could hear the ending of "Buried Alive" through a muffled corridor. To this day, sixty some-odd shows later, I have still not heard a live "Buried Alive".
We shuffled into some seats in the rear Fish side of the arena. They were toward the back but this venue was so small that they would be great seats for any of today's shows. "Disease" cranked up next and really hit a great stride. "Disease" jams in those days were straight-up rock jams that focused on rapid-fire Trey and intense Fish accompaniment. "Theme" and "Poor Heart" followed, keeping with a strong mood. "Theme" was still new in those days and was readily enjoyed by the audience.
"Wolfman's" sunk in after and was a real treat. This was the first time I had experienced the song, and Trey was enjoying the little kick-step dance that has so often accompanied his stage-presence during this song. He was into it despite the awkward verse that he announced needed to be done again. The "Chalk Dust" raged and continues to be a favorite version for me. Those old "Torture"s had so much fire and tightness that they could blow the roof off any joint in any town.
The "Forbin" -> "Mockingbird" was so joyfully entertaining that I couldn't wipe the grin from my mug. What an appropriate narration for the Land of Chocolate, and Rhombus clues had the long-time followers on a wild-goose chase the next day I'm sure. This version was so perfectly executed that you could almost feel yourself rising into the clouds atop the Famous Mockingbird's wings.
"Stash" followed and is still a favorite version. The old versions of "Stash" are so ripe with guitar experimentation that it makes me sad I was not around to appreciate the `94 versions of this underrated gem. A rockin' "Cavern" closed us out in what would be the first set of the greatest month in Phishtory (IMHO!)
The small corridors of the building were packed with sweaty fans trying to find the ideal spot for what would amount to one of the greatest second sets to be performed by this band. Back in those days we could expect a more general admission atmosphere even though we were all assigned seats. Ours suited us well for Set I so we opted to stay in our spot (after recruiting some more friends to the adjacent rows)
"Halley's" opened with a great spirit. Fishman's drums had such a different sound back in those days. A more tin-like snare was used almost obsessively to maintain a raging sound and tempo. I love that sound. "Halley's" wound down into my all-time favorite version of "Mike's" -> "Groove". What is so great about it? Tough question if you haven't heard it. It is total 12/95 raging hose. Thematically superior to most jams post 1997. Glorious tension and release that gets the hairs on the back of your neck to stand tall. An unprecedented (I believe) straight segue into "Groove" without Gordon bass solo. For more detailed information I would suggest a read of Mr. Dirksen's wonderful review. We differ on our love of the version in some sense but you can get a better handle on what went down if you haven't heard it before by reading his thoughts. (http://www.phish.net/reviews/mikes/12-01-95.html)
Following this glorious and uplifting musical moment, we were treated to the one song I was dying to hear all night, "The Mango Song". I had plotted the frequency of this song in the show rotation over previous tour setlists and had determined that the Hershey show fit into a small window in which the Mango would perfectly fit. It did and I was the happiest guy in town. At the time it was my favorite Phish tune and everyone knows how it feels to hear your favorite tune live for the first time. Awesome.
Does this set lose energy? Hell no. "Wilson" comes in and tears down the house. The "Hold Your Head Up" leads into a spirited rendition of the Elvis Presley standard "Suspicious Minds". Fishman was in Elvis garb and sparkling Christmas lights (or something like that). Full-on stage theatrics to the crowd's delight.
A raucous "Bowie" comes to close the set and Fishman continues to entertain. Through the opening cymbal work that marks a "Bowie" intro you can hear a "Chocolate" utterance in Homer-esque voice. "Mmmmmm"..."...Chocolate"..."....." Hilarious. Throw a "Catapult" into the "Bowie" and a fiery ending and you have a perfect close to a phenomenal set of Phish. The "Bowie" was a bit short but the intensity was not lacking.
"Suzy" comes out for the encore and it was not soon after that this song was put on the rarely played list. Had we known at the time that the lovely Ms. Greenberg was going into semi-retirement I think we all would have enjoyed her presence a bit more.
This was the beginning of a historical month for the band and they couldn't have kicked it off in a better fashion. The theatrics, humor, setlists, and ferociousness of the hose during that cold December is something to cherish.
After the show I piled into my car with my two PSU buddies and my friend that met us from Princeton. We made the trek back to Princeton in the wee hours of the morning. Hours were spent discussing the show. We took a late-night stroll of the campus and before ever dropping off to sleep two of us had to climb back into the car for the trip to New Brunswick. Why New Brunswick? We had wristbands at Ticketmaster to buy tickets for the MSG shows (12/30, 31). There were about ten of us waiting in line. We were let in the store as tickets went on sale. Everyone easily grabbed floor seats for both nights (including second row seats for the 30th). How I miss those days and how little I knew what to expect with those tickets I had just purchased.