Looking back on this cold November Illinois night, my memories are dominated by a ninety-minute period. The drive down, the parking lot, the hall itself, the first set — they are all cloudy visions, made hazy by time and other, more memorable experiences. My clearest memories of this night, though, come from the second set — the only set in six years of Phishing where I have been lucky enough to "ride the rail," stand and dance in the front row. It is amazing how a simple act of "placement" can so completely change an experience.
Champaign was my fourth Phish concert, third show that fall. I had already seen the Pittsburgh/Buffalo run, and after having been very pleased with what I had seen and heard, I was really looking forward to the Champaign/Auburn Hills run. The trip from South Bend to the University of Illinois at Champaign was rather uneventful, and it didn't take long for us to find the Nervi-influenced arena known as Assembly Hall. Seemingly oblivious of the cold, damp air, a sea of people were milling about the odd, cooling-tower-like building — vending, looking for miracles, just hanging out. And while it took some work by our crew, we were able to find the one extra that we needed.
On entering the arena, I realized I had to split up from my friend Joel — he thought he was somewhere near the front, and while I was on the floor, I was back in the opposite corner, Fishman side. The inside of the Hall is as odd as the outside — the floor is very small, wider than it is deeper, with the bleacher-seats coming directly down. I found my place to the right of the tapers and waited for the show to begin.
I truly wish I remember more of this set. My memories include a pleasant surprise at hearing “Axilla”, part one rather than part two (I still enjoy part one over part two — I believe it is because of the cadence of the lyrics), my attempt to come up with the name of “All Things Reconsidered” (which hadn't been played for 108 shows), and my excitement in the “Antelope” closer, which was full of energy. It seemed as though Trey had some problems with his rig, but I really didn't pay much attention. Throughout the set, I took some pictures from my vantage point on the floor — I had gotten my camera in and thought that I could get some nice shots from where my seat was. If I only thought ahead and kept some pictures — I finished off the roll….
Before the first set started, my friend Joel told me that he would come find me during the intermission, and if his seats were decent, I would try to get up with him. So I sat in my seat, enjoying the break, waiting for Joel. As he came up to where I was, I noticed a huge smile on his face. His seat just so happened to be located against the rail, right in front of Page! And guess from where I was going to watch the second set? While it was a little tight up there, I do not think I could stop bobbing up and down and jumping — needless to say, I was a bit excited.
As soon as the lights came down and the band took the stage, I was in a zone. It was amazing to be right in front of Page, looking up at him, and to look across the stage at Trey, Mike, and Fishman. It really was a different world, staring up at the band, watching their feet, watching the photographers run back and forth in front of me on the other side of the rail. For the first few notes of “2001”, my friends and I were scurrying around, trying to make our cameras work — I used up all of my film and Joel's batteries had run out. Damn! Here I am, in the best seats I would ever have, and I used up all of my film. Oh, well, that is what my memory (and tapes) are for, I guess.
The opening “2001” was a quick but fun one. The intro wasn't extended at all as they transitioned directly into the main theme, with Trey moving over to his drum pads for some added texture. The song lasted only about four or five minutes before Fish's repetitive cymbal beats marked the beginning of “Maze”. Just like the “Maze” I saw in Pittsburgh a month earlier, this was a rager. Page was all over the keyboards during his section and Trey picked up right where Page left off for his blitzing guitar solo. Great one-two opener. “Bouncing” followed. I didn't mind.
As soon as “Bouncing” finished, Trey launched into “Simple”; one could assume that they knew they were going to play this song next. The band seemed to have this air of confidence as they moved through the opening "What is a band?" section. Maybe they knew that this was going to grow into a must-hear version of “Simple”. Trey quickly jumped onto his drum pads and added some high-pitched chime sort of sounds while Page played the piano. They slowly quieted down with the jam becoming a bit atmospheric; Page played very well here, both on the piano and the keyboards (sounds as though he jumped to the Moog at one point). As Mike played some high notes on his bass, Trey kept adding texture with his drums and his guitar (although he wasn't really strumming his guitar, just using pedals and effects). Ten or so minutes in, Trey starts to wrestle out some notes. As Mike and Fishman increase the tempo, Trey joined in with some faster licks. I need to mention that somewhere in here Trey clearly started to have more trouble with his rig. It was actually rather humorous to watch him get so angry — he would jump back towards it and give it this half-assed karate kick. This actually happened a couple times. Kind of amazing, when you think about it, that with all the problems Trey had, this “Simple” ended up being one of the best played (in my opinion). Wow — around fifteen or so minutes into the jam, while Trey rocked out, Fishman just went crazy on his kit. He was all over the place! It was a change, as up until this point he had just helped in keeping the tempo. Fishman might have tired himself out, as before you know it, he slowed the tempo back down, bringing the jam to a close. All I could do was shake my head. Not much in the way of Type II jamming, but it seemed to be composed so well, just flowing in and out of tempos and sounds.
"Got to kick it sometime, you know?" Trey exclaimed to the crowd, apologizing for his display — maybe. Fishman added "That song featured Trey's broken guitar rig."
Lightening things up a bit, “Loving Cup” followed. This was a first for me and I just soaked it in, taking drink after drink. With each "Gimme little drink!" Page pounded out more notes on his piano, Trey squeezed out more notes from his guitar. Boy oh boy, what a beautiful buzz.
And the buzz was increased as Trey didn't hesitate to go right into the beginning of “Mike's Song” — my second ever. Next to my friend Pete and his big red wig, I must have looked like a goof, jumping up and down the way I was, holding on to the rail. The tramps section is pretty normal, and Trey followed it up with some interesting repetitions featuring his wah-wah. This “Mike's” became a bit spacey with some nice soaring before the (normal) “Simple” intro. At this point, everyone seems to drop out a bit. Page played around on his organ, and Trey moved over to his drum kit to play some interesting squeak and "water drop" sounds (grouped with backward "water drop" sounds).
At this point, to my surprise, the band left their instruments and headed towards the front of the stage. Trey's remaining loops and effects slowly came to an end. As they became situated at the front of the stage, Trey thanked everyone and announced to the crowd that they were going to be singing the National Anthem at an upcoming Timberwolves basketball game (for "those of you who have a TV"), and they needed some practice. A nice treat, with a great crowd reception, but it kind of disrupted the rhythm and groove of the “Mike's”, which was just getting interesting.
This must have been Technical Difficulty Night, but this time, it was Mike's turn. As the band prepared to launch into “Mike's Groove”, with Fishman starting things off, Mike attempted to start slapping — and nothing happened. For a few seconds, he just couldn't get anything to come out — and then all at once this fast, repetitive pinging came flying out of the speakers. Bu-duh, bu-duh, bu-duh! I guess whatever effect Mike uses at the beginning of “Weekapaug” just wasn't working right, and it came out all at once. Weird. This effect kicked in once or twice more during the “Groove”. After the vocals, Trey ripped into a nice soaring solo, with Page (again) on the piano — nice and rocking and drawn out for three or four minutes. Before heading back into the "Trying to make a woman" section, Trey talked over the music, thanking everyone for coming.
I was a bit disappointed with the choice of “Theme” as the encore. I didn't know what to expect, but this really wasn't it. I am not saying it was bad, by any means, as it did take flight and soar for a bit. (Kind of odd to hear the synchronized clapping at the beginning.)
I certainly left that evening more than satisfied — I never thought that I would be against the stage, and to witness that “Simple” from that vantage point was worth the price of the ticket in itself. Coupled with the following evening (“Buried Alive” opener, “Divided Sky”, “Tube”, meeting Andy Gadiel, tenth row for “David Bowie”/”Harry Hood” sandwich second set with “YEM” in between), my second two-show run of 1996 was a success. Even if I don't remember every detail.