I got an e-mail today from phish.net wishing me a happy phish anniversary. I really didn’t need this to remind me of the day, #NeverForget, but it really put a smile on my face, so few e-mails these days actually matter. 19 years ago today i walked into the now parking lot that was then the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, PA a skeptic and walked out a phan. Being 38 years old i have basically spent half my life with phish. Their touring schedule dominates my world most of the year. Wether it is chasing rumors as to when and where the tour dates will appear/be, or planning my actual tour; but the true reward is the show itself.
October 18th 1996 was a normal crisp fall evening in southwest Pennsylvania. Our journey got off to an odd start; upon leaving Erie and heading south in quite a rain storm, my drivers side windshield wiper flew off into no man’s land, or rather some place on the side of the highway. I quickly exited and pulled into a parking lot. I have no car fixing skills but was able to take the passenger side wiper and move it to the drivers side, while using a golf club head cover to keep the empty wiper arm on the passenger side from scratching the windshield. I think we, my friend and future roommate Mark along with my little sister Meredith, went to a store that sold wipers but couldn’t figure out which one to buy and tour funds were low, plus it was getting late.
We pushed on to Pittsburgh. The rain ended well before the show. After picking up my girlfriend, her roommate, and another mutual friend we headed to the famed igloo to see phish. We parked in this random tiny lot for like five dollars i think, which probably seemed like a lot but we were close, before we even got out of that lot Mark had acquired a ballon. I had no idea what was going on, it all happened so fast. He handed it to me and i was confused, i didn’t want to jump into anything, after asking stupid noob nitrous questions i realized what the heck, when in Rome, and took a tiny drag and nothing really happened and i really didn’t want more but was happy to feel like i was giving it my all.
I say that cause i really wanted to try this world out, not to join but rather say i tried and now i can accurately make fun of it without people saying “don’t knock it till you try it.” Although i was raised on classic rock and rhythm and blues; i had found my way to punk rock and that world really didn’t get along with the hippie subculture. The crossover was starting as my punk friends hit college and traded skateboards for bongs. I resisted all of this until my straightedge punk rock high school girlfriend broke my heart. She left me in pieces and i tried to pick myself up by trying all the things she hated. My next girlfriend along with my little sister basically conspired to get me to see phish. Meredith needed me to go so our mom would let her go, and Teri just wanted me to share her favorite thing, phish, with her boyfriend. Teri had written her college entrance essay not just on a show but the version of Squirming Coil from her first show at the Warner Theatre in Erie.
I really liked live music so i jumped in fool force. Teri insisted i see two shows back to back to understand the feel of tour. Buy the ticket take the ride, which was fun in itself. Tickets went on sale and we were on it, which is half the fun, when it works. Teri called ticketmaster a few minutes before on sale time and used her phone skills to strike up a conversation with the operator and when the time struck we ended up with 4 seats on the floor, row nine. We ran to my neighbors to tell Mark, he was mad he didn’t know tickets had gone on sale and frantically tried to operate the phone, it was amusing and i let it progress for a while before asking him how many tickets he needed since one of our 4 was for him. I’ve never seen someone so happy. Mark and i became friends as our worlds were crisscrossing. He showed up a day late to college and our apartment complex because he was at the Clifford Ball. He basically slept the next two days and gained the name Hippie Mark cause everyone just talked about how he slept for two days and had long hair. I now understand the process of festival recovery and can relate to his need for extended sleep. We hit it off as friends when he saw all my punk cds; he was just getting into puck rock after years of jam band chasing. I acted as his puck guide while he schooled me on phish.
I was pretty excited just to be on the floor at the Civic Arena. I’m not much of a hockey fan, but love sports in general, so standing on the same spot that many magically sports moments took place really made me happy. We were young, we had a metal pipe that we thought was so cool and swag that we thought was so strong. The lights went down and i quickly got swept up in the show. Runaway Jim will always hold a special place in my world as it was the first song i heard live. I remember thinking it sounded like a Grateful Dead song. I told that to Teri and she said maybe it was a cover and we actually believed to to be a Dead Cover for almost a year. Noobs.
I tried my best to not look like an idiot when the clapping in Stash happened, i also thought it was too freaking cool. Divided Sky is where i left any thought of hating on this scene behind. This song has more beauty in it than should be allowed. I still lose it every time and cherish each time i get to hear it live. The journey it is, the pause, the power, the band chasing the same feeling, together.
The first set ended with Sample in a Jar. This was the only song i actually liked/new before the show. It always struck me a just a good rock and roll tune and i was so happy to recognize something and that just took the moment up to a greater height. The lights came up for set break and i turned to Meredith and announced that we had to see this band as much as we could till it was over. I didn’t and still don’t know what i meant by over, although through the years it has seemed to be and might have been a few times.
Teri used to call set break “halftime” and i loved that so much. It made it seem like a game and i love games. We headed to the back of the arena hit the bathrooms. I overhead a conversation, “I’d really like to hear Sparkle again.” This afforded me my first opportunity to sound like a real fan. I interjected that they had played it last night in State College. I picked this up from Teri who was really bummed when she saw the set list from last night, as she too wanted to hear Sparkle again.
During the set i had observed someone keeping a written setlist and thought it was the coolest thing. It reminded me of the first time i went to a baseball game and saw someone keeping score. Both instances seemed like a way to get into the game/show a bit more. I had to try and over a year later i finally was confident enough but still to this day have “noob” moments when i wonder what to write. I love this band for keeping it that way.
The second set was even a higher level of music. The version of Maze is listed as a “fan favorite”; i remember the first time i saw that in some phish publication. I was so proud of my first show. It would be remembered by all based on this version of Maze. Reba was Meredith’s jam and she was so happy when it started up. Waste became Teri and my song, such great lryics. Looking back at this show i am amazed at the number of classics i got. Fall 1996 is generally regarded as a down tour. There was a bit of a bump during and after halloween but most see this as a time that phish was struggling with the transition into consistently playing large rooms and the pressure of carrying on the tradition of the Grateful Dead now that Jerry was gone and so much of the circus that is tour had transitioned to them.
I didn’t see any of this as i believed i had just seen the greatest concert that had ever been performed. Till the next night that is…
My recording for this show is incredibly murky - a product of Phish's leap to bigger arenas during Fall Tour 96 and a representation of their own process of growing and adapting to this upward shift in popularity. The music lacks a certain swagger present in both Dec. 95 and the upcoming Fall 97. 1996 was a transitional year, and the quality of the recording and the music demonstrate this. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable listen and not without highlights.
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.
the first set is a standard arena rock display by the boys. Very signature of the open ambient loud train sound that they were perfecting since moving to larger venues in 94.
The Divided Sky is worth listen. But the Runaway Jim opener is the real treat of the first set.
This is second set is something to behold as a Phish phan. This is audience and band as one . Suzy is an old faithful that gets you felling nostalgic.
This Maze is what you pay admission for. WOW. Page gives a great pr amble to Trey going ambient train rock on us. At this point he was content falling back into the frame the rest of the band has mad. Here he takes it to a frenetic , at one point scary, peak. awesome. Must listen
They follow with a perfect, masterful You Enjoy Myself.I've been listening straight through to 97 when the funk really starts. But in the jam when trey n mike trampoline. You can hear Fish real y laying down universal funk. nOt vermont clumsy rock funk. The jam that proceeds is a soaring rock venus. The vocal jam is spectacular!! you can hear someone in the crowd scream "Trey for President!"
Reba!!!!! They nail the written part. The venue lent to the dynamics sounding otherworldly. As beautiful as the song can get is the jam that follows. they could have never peaked loudly and it still would have been a masterpiece. At the 9 minute mark they had been coasting. and you know they weren't going to stay there lol it's interesting to note how quiet this enthused crowd was throughout Fish's drums lock in soon (then Trey takes over with a Jedi-jam )after and the rest of the boys build a swelling groove. Pretty. Awesome.
waste let's the boys get their breath. and the end licks by trey fill an arena and this song is perfect for the band phish is at the time. the 10/21/96 almost put me over the edge in the arena. this is comparable.
A good Hood follows. With one more whopper in the set this would be a top 10 all time.
Great playing throughout. and we know they get better!!
I would rate this show as slightly better than an average 96 show. This was a year with many peaks and valleys that included a lot of shows that went about halfway up the mountain that seemed to have been lost in the shuffle of time. Personally I’d rather have a wide variety of shows than 20 in a row that all go to the top. Besides there are many interesting things to hear on the mountain side if you stop to listen.
Runaway Jim was a solid energetic opener and a sure thing around the mid-90s. Although some were better than others all have the 4 basic elements that I love about Phish; ripping guitar, exploratory bass, piano throw-down, and revolving drum patterns. It’s all there in this 8.5 minute version. That’s a good way to start a concert.
Guelah was still in the regular rotation at this point. The instrumental section of this song is where it’s at for me. If that doesn’t work, then it is hardly worth watching the corny synchronized kick spins. This version was nice with a very dark feel at the end of the instr. section. Nothing unusual but at least it is there.
Old Home Place is always welcome in any set list as far as I’m concerned. Trey had a nice short solo before the final chorus that is noteworthy.
Cars Trucks Buses was pretty average. Great playing by Page but when does he not give it up for this song? CTB was usually placed before a big jam tune in 96 and this show was no exception.
Stash is pretty good with some nice moments. I think Mike was really into the 6 minute jam at the end. He seems to be all over the place and doesn’t stick to any one theme for very long. Trey has many dark moments of haunting dissonance that could only be pleasing to a phish fan...and I love it!
Strange Design was a pleasant song to hear after a moody stash. This was the first time it was played without the acoustic setup since New Year’s Eve. It fit nicely here in the set.
Trey didn’t waste any time going into Divided Sky after Strange Design ended. He must have really been ready too because he played the composed sections flawlessly and the solo at the end was one of the best Divided Sky solos from the year. 96 was full of top of the mountain Divided Skies (Clifford Ball, Deer Creek, etc.) and this is one of my favorites. Trey’s climb to the top at about 11:40 gets a rewind almost every time I listen to it. The crowd went nuts after they played this song and for good reason. Any energy that was lacking in the venue in the first set had certainly dissipated and vanished by this point.
Phish had the audience following them up the mountain at this point but Billy Breathes was a strange route to take from here to say the least. This was a little too soon to hear another slow song for me but at least it was as good as it was. This Billy Breathes was about as close as you can get to the album version with the energy of a live show. Trey hit all the notes that I love about the guitar solo on the album.
Taste! 96 was full of excellent versions of Taste and this one is as sweet as any of them except for maybe the ones with Karl Perazzo a couple weeks later. The jam in Taste opened up a new path for Phish and they went down it as often as they wished in 96. About 1.5 minutes into the jam Fish rides the chinese cymbal for a while as Mike and Page lock onto a nice Arabian thing. Trey turned his tone knob way down low and hits some fast melodic runs that could have sent shivers up Vincent Price’s spine. The jam unfolded as it always does but there were numerous bits of interplay that sparkle and shine as well as any Taste from Fall 96.
A rockin’ Sample closed out the first set. This version, as 98% of them, was very standard but it was a nice way to close out a mixed bag set and it definitely left the attendees on a good note with hopes of a great 2nd set.
Billy Breathes came out just 3 days before and the band was high afloat upon the waves of their greatest studio effort to date. They played 4 songs from the new album in the 1st set. I guess they had to promote it. After all that is why bands play live right? – To promote the record. ;-) Well they got most of that out of the way in the first set and now they were ready to jam to some old school phish tunes. Suzy G. opened the set and it seemed to pick up right where the 1st set ended. A nice short rollin’ version got us ready for a monster set.
The Maze that followed was pretty standard for the year but there is nothing wrong with that since 96 saw many great versions. Page’s solo stands out to me. The swirled sound of the organ would have made it impossible for anyone to find their way around the arena if they hadn’t returned to their seats from the set break. About 1 minute into Trey’s solo Trey hits a note that he proceeds to hold out for about 40 seconds with feedback, bends, vibrato, hammer-off/ons, and whatever else he could think of. After that the solo really took off to shreadville with lots of Hendrix sounding tones and licks.
YEM started out a little bumpy until the soft part about a minute and a half in. From then on all of the sections were smooth. Trey’s wah-wah was a nice addition to this song on the “Boy-Man” part starting in 96 and this version is extra funky. YEM took a big turn after a nice funky section and they all got soft for about 2 minutes. Trey played some very subtle leads - nothing spectacular but everyone around me was into it. Anyway it gave ‘em a chance to clap in time (for the most part) to the beat. Trey: “Do you feel…..like I do?” Fish: “…like I do?” At the end of the quiet section of the jam Trey stops playing for a few seconds. Fish winds up with a huge crescendo of a fill and the song explodes with everyone on top of things. The jam really takes off from there. Mike’s bass playing exit from the jam is really gooey as they enter into the dark realm of a 4 minute vocal jam which is at times very rhythmical and almost melodic. As it starts to end it sounds like babies talking and then sinks into a pit of screams and shouts. After a weird wash of sounds that builds and slowly drops, it ends on a nice harmony in Ebmajor. You could probably call that an above average vocal jam if you care to rate such things.
It should have been clear to everyone at this point that these were going to be two very different sets. Next was Reba and it was very well played. Before the 2nd chorus the crowd was into synchronized clapping again. I guess they just didn’t get enough of it during Stash and YEM. Anyway the band seemed to feed off of this because the energy coming from the stage just increased by exactly 10.18% (if you care to track such things). The composed section was executed perfectly to my ears. The 8 minute jam included for the first time of the night some really great soft Trey leads. Page had some nice playing on the grand throughout that is worth paying close attention to as well. Trey hit the phase button and the Iron City was in the middle of total Reba bliss from then on out. The four-piece unit was seriously dialed-in here and the communication was clear as they took us on the journey to that place at the top of the mountain. You could see for miles up there and I know everyone around me at least was up there enjoying the view too.
This was a nice place for the slow song of the set and Waste filled the gap appropriately. This is a pretty good version; fresh since it was still a new song.
The sounds of reggae added a nice mellow mood as Harry Hood began. The vocals have been better on this song but at least it was played well. There were some nice vibes in the jam. Nothing spectacular but it was a nice end to the set. Although the jam seemed a little rushed to me and got to the top very quickly. With nowhere else to go it just kind of lingered for a minute or so and then jolted to the end. Trey: “Special thanks to Mario! We love you man. You’re great.”
The shufflin’ Julius was a perfect encore for this show; good vocals and a hot bluesy guitar solo. Trey didn’t pull any punches on this solo either.
The Pittsburgh show was the third of fall '96. And by most accounts, it was the first decent show of the tour. Most of the setlist was well played, yet there still were not many moments truly worthy of praise. One of the only things that really stands out in my memory is the YEM vocal jam with Kuroda's lights (the Civic Arena, with its big dome, was quite a venue for a CK5 light show). Additionally, the fact that the second set only included six songs seemed strange at the time, though this would of course become normal the following year.
The other vivid memory I have of this night is the Maze. It was only a year since I had witnessed my first Phish show, but anyone could tell as it was happening that this version was a doozy. This is often lauded as one of the finest renditions of the song - but on top of the music itself, I'm sure those who were there will remember "the guy."
Just as the band was peaking in the jam, some guy jumped out of the crowd and onto the stage. Kuroda's lights were on bright, white strobe while this guy thrashed around right on the front of the stage. It was perfect. The band didn't even seem to take notice as they pushed on towards insanity. As security closed in on the guy, he dove headfirst back into the crowd.
I would usually be the first to say that jumping on stage is totally inappropriate, but that Pittsburgh freak-out actually added to the quality of the show given the context of the song and the guy's timing. For a moment, that man really got out of the Maze.
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And since we're entirely volunteer – with no office, salaries, or paid staff – administrative costs are less than 2% of revenues! So far, we've distributed over $1,000,000 to support music education for children – hundreds of grants in all 50 states, with more on the way.