The show opens with a strong Runaway Jim- tight playing but nothing special. Equally tight performances of Guelah Papyrus and The Old Home Place follow. I really like the latter; it is one of my favorite bluegrass songs Phish plays. Cars Trucks and Buses is another fun first set song, and Page's work is great as usual.
Stash is the first interesting moment of the set. Full of tension and heavy guitar tones from Trey, this one concludes with a pretty strong peak. The sound quality of the recording definitely impeded the full enjoyment of the song unfortunately. Strange Design is a really pretty song, but otherwise not much to say about this one. Divided Sky is crisp and energetic. Trey's piercing guitar lines in the composed section of the song really shine through the fuzz of this recording. Billy Breathes is a beautiful ballad, but it seems out of place at this point in the set - on the whole it is starting to feel very up and down with poor flow. All of the songs are performed well, they just could have been arranged in a better sequence.
Taste brought the energy and creativity back up, but it was too little too late. A by-the-book Sample in a Jar closes this mediocre set out. The playing wasn't bad at all - all of the songs were played well with relatively few flubs (as far as I could make out through my recording). The set just felt uninspired overall. As the setlist shows, there was not a single ">" in the entire first set (and only one in the second). It seemed to lack flow and direction, and as a result this set fell a little flat.
The second set immediately kicks off with more energy than the first with a rocking Suzy Greenberg. As the opener winds down, the first legitimate show highlight begins with the light tapping of Fish's hi-hat: Maze. This Maze absolutely SMOKES. 1996 was a great year for the song, and this version is an unquestionable all-timer. Page's organ solo strays off the beaten path into legitimate Type II territory for a brief stint before Trey takes over. His solo climbs slowly and heavily, building a ferocious wall of sound before finishing with a menacing climax. Wow. Already two songs deep and the second set has completely blown the first set out of the water. Featuring abundant creativity and inspiration, this set already features playing on another level from the opening frame. After the closing chorus of Maze, the band immediately drops into a mid-2nd set YEM. After such a blistering Maze, a breather song would have been more than accepted, but instead the band choses to move right into their Magnum Opus.
This YEM is no slouch either. After a crisp composed section, including a perfect sustain of "The Note," the band is ready to dive into some funkier grooves. Page lays down a devastating solo during the tramps section, and Trey follows with an incredibly jazzy solo. (The audience starts clapping here which is very distracting and annoying on the aud). Trey's playing is so patient and sparse at the beginning of his solo - this quickly becomes an above average YEM. This morphs into a brief tease of Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do" which is fun but does not derail the groove of the song whatsoever. Following this, Trey leaves the jazzier tone behind and begins to rip into a shredding guitar solo. The vocal jam was average.
Reba is next. An odd set placement late in the 2nd set, but welcomed nonetheless. I think that if it wasn't for the less than stellar quality of the AUD, this particular Reba would get way more attention. It's an incredibly beautiful version. Definitely better than your "average great" Reba. They should really consider releasing this version on a "From the Archives" or "Live Bait" release. It would be well worth it. The jam just soars and builds and builds and builds into a magnificent peak. No whistling and next is Waste, finally a cool down.
After Waste, Fishman starts up the drumbeat of Hood. Wow! What a set. Polar opposite of Set I, in my opinion. They really picked up the song selection and flow for Set II. There's nothing too special about this Hood, but it's a great end to a strong set.
This show is a perfect example of Fall 96. Nothing here is essential, or pushing boundaries the way the music did in 1995 and 1997. However, despite a lackluster first set without much flow or improvisation, the second set is full of highlights. The Maze and Reba are excellent, and YEM, Suzy and Hood are all strong versions as well.
The second set is worthy of at least a 4, but the first set drags this one down to a 3. Also, unfortunately, the sound quality is so poor that I doubt I'll revisit much besides the Maze and Reba.