Phish – Van Andel Arena – Grand Rapids, MI 11.11.1998
I PYITE, Gumbo, If You Need A Fool, Sleep, Tela, BOAF, Theme, Julius
II Halley’s>Simple>Walk Away>LxL, Circus, Ghost
E Contact>Rocky Top>Funky Bitch
Certain parts of the country seem to be something of a catalyst for Phish to consistently play top quality shows. New York, particularly NYC, has quite a few notable shows from over the years. Colorado holds a special place for the band having been the destination on those first road trips away from New England. New Jersey gets the love because Trey and Page both grew up there. Connecticut seems to get good shows too, perhaps due to Trey’s time at Taft or maybe just because the good people of the Constitution State (or the Nutmeg State if you are more into that) bring the energy and attention the band appreciates. There are many examples of this type of “bias” and I bring it up to note that Michigan is also one of those lucky places. The band has now performed 25 times in The Mitten, starting humbly enough at Rick’s Cafe in Ann Arbor and eventually graduating up to arenas and sheds such as The Palace of Auburn Hills and the now renamed Pine Knob Music Theatre. Many of these well loved shows from The Great Lakes State are throwdowns from the many colleges here as Phish included several stops at various institutions of higher learning in the state along the path of their early 90s tours. In the mid 90s they started playing the hockey arenas in the western part of the state with notable shows at Wings Stadium in Kalamazoo on 10.27.1995 (check out the Bowie from that show for starters) and one from Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids (11.11.1996) that is relatively underrated on that Fall Tour. Two years to the day later they returned to this town on the heels of their three night run in Chicago and laid out a classic midweek sleeper show that has big jams in both sets and a lot more.
After the night off to travel and rest up after four straight shows the band comes out seemingly well rested with a clean and popping PYITE, amping up the energy from the get go. Gumbo, another song that could be argued hit its peak here in 1998, slinks in next and here we get our first bit of extra flavor as they take this one out for a slow ride through the funk accompanied by loops and effects. This is the evolving funk sound of ’98 which has a lot of Page up front on the clavinet followed by the dive into more ambient waters in the back half. Many of the notable Gumbos include Manteca teases or at least hint towards that song but this one avoids that almost entirely. This is a swanky jam that implores you to move with it albeit somewhat slowly since this one is just thick until they hit the ambient space. I challenge you to listen and not be moved! Well, at least until it kind of just ends there, I guess.
Following the rocking PYITE opener and that dank dance party Gumbo they break out the ol’ third slot bluegrass song for the second (of three ever) performances of the Steve Earle penned and Del McCoury popularized tune If You Need A Fool. This isn’t the best bluegrass cover they ever did (and it isn’t the worst either) but it suits its purpose just fine here. If you aren’t familiar with this song it sounds a lot like MMGAMOIO except for that whole different lyrics and a Page solo instead of Trey but yeah. Next up is one of my personal favorite of the late 90s ballads Sleep, a tune that had just been debuted three weeks prior at the first Bridge School Benefit show. This is paired up with Tela in providing the mid set breather tunes and tonight’s Tela comes off well with Page doing his thing and Trey playing a nice solo in the end. From here we have a positively white hot BOAF with Trey sounding the shred alert in going big on his solo. The song is still all straight ahead rock here but when they nail it like this there is definitely nothing wrong with that. Theme From The Bottom follows and this is a version that if you haven’t heard it may surprise you a bit as along with the typically soaring peak they reach for there is a harder edge to this jam, still though in the vein of the song. Some people are not huge fans of this song for whatever reason but this might be the type of version to change minds. The set is capped by a joyous romp through Julius and we are then off to the break.
I hope that those who were in attendance for this one took advantage of that break because the second set wasn’t going to provide it for them. It will be close to an hour into the set before we get the one breather tune and everything leading up to it is top shelf Fall ’98 Phish. First we have a song much like that first set Gumbo where jamming comes and goes — and its peak period is also in this late 90s/early aughts time frame. For the bulk of its history Halley’s Comet has been a lead-in, setting the table as a starting out point for bigger things. Aside from a few versions here and there over the years (like the 12.14.1995 version from Binghamton, NY) this held true for over a decade, though that time period did include a 475 show break from the Summer of ’89 (ha!) to Spring ’93. Everything changed for Halley’s with one magical and understandably highly praised version from Hampton ’97 which you all should already know by now so I will just assume you have that one memorized. Development of this song as a jam vehicle continued throughout 1998 with this version from Grand Rapids being the capstone take on the song for the year. Though perhaps not THE best version ever it is certainly in the conversation — and for good reason. After working through the song itself the band sets out right away with a punchy jam that is impossible to not move to as it gets funkier and funkier as it progresses. Page is all over this version, providing great accents on top of the wicked groove Mike and Fish lay down all while Trey comps along. This continues for a bit and then around the 16:00 mark we head out into space funk until going sideways after a minute or so. Things stay weird for a bit, hinting at a turn towards the ambient, but then they hit on a punishing rawk groove that Trey takes and solos over with a lot of distortion and drone mixed in until they somewhat abruptly segue into Simple. This makes for the third show in the last four where the second set opener stretches out over 20 minutes. And the best part of that statement is that each of these is wholly unique in comparison to each other, shining a different light on the varied jamming styles of the band.
A jam like that will make the night for a lot of folks but we aren’t finished yet. Simple ends up being a short but sweet version that segues into our second Walk Away of the tour which then segues into Limb by Limb. This version moves along much like most others with the Type I jam going as it does (Trey is really on point here) until everyone drops out except for Page. He solos within the framework of the song for a bit and then each band member comes back in to add to the build towards a very satisfying peak. It is a unique version with this solo and something I wouldn’t mind hearing them do again some time as it comes off nicely. Now we get that breather tune with When The Circus Comes To Town (another of those late 90s ballads I appreciate – though in this case it is a cover of a Los Lobos song from several years prior) and this is nice enough in allowing for a bit of bathroom time for all. By now you have to expect we are headed towards the closer which is true but you wouldn’t necessarily think that is what we are getting when Ghost starts up (with the full, slow, looped out intro too so that’s fun). This one starts out as a funky groove monster and they keep pushing up the energy level higher as they go. Page unleashes his arsenal of effects on this jam (perhaps the first full display of such on this tour excepting the Vegas Wolfman’s?) and eventually Trey takes charge and they head up the mountain towards the summit, tackling a few false peaks along the way. It is a triumphant version in the mode of the Holy Ghost and other similar bliss-laden Ghost jams and here it provides a big exclamation point on the end of this great set. The encores tonight are Contact>Rocky Top>Funky Bitch, offering a road song for the trip ahead, the classic Rocky Top nod to a good show, and a somewhat rare encore slotting of the bluesy rock of Funky Bitch (one of only 19 times it has appeared as an encore).
For a Wednesday night one-off show in the western part of Michigan, there is a lot to like here. As we will see this may end up being one of the better overall shows of the tour as there are notable jams in both sets including one of the best versions of Halley’s Comet ever. This is just another example of Phish making people realize that you should never skip the show that is the obvious one to skip as there are definitely people who — potentially for the second time already this tour — skipped this one to get a head start on heading to the next venue further east (in this case Cleveland). Their loss, of course, but those that made that trip north instead of heading east from Chicago were rewarded quite well. Your takeaways from this show are Gumbo, Theme, BOAF, Halley’s, LxL, and Ghost. Not a bad night in a town now known for beer as much as anything — and it is a worthy reputation. I highly recommend a trip to Grand Rapids to taste some of the wonderful offerings here… but that’s maybe for another blog or at least another time…
So now that we have hit ten shows played on this tour, let’s do a little stat geekin’, shall we? Here we are having had shows in seven states including in all four time zones with the added oddity that each venue played has been in a different state. There have already been 132 songs played with 95 of those being one timers (the Loaded and DSOTM sets obviously factor in here as that provides 20 songs and only one – Rock and Roll – that has been played again so far. Additionally, a total of 20 songs have debuted this tour with Something and Smells Like Teen Spirit joining the tunes from those albums that had not yet been played by Phish). With this many songs played there is not any clear leader in terms of number of performances though several songs have been played at least four times: BOAF (5 times), Driver, Frankie Says, LxL, Roggae, and Moma Dance. Interestingly, we have only seen one Tweezer so far (in the second show of tour) and the next one is still another show away. We also have yet to see several setlist standards as songs like Bouncin’, Suzy, Foam, IDK, Rift, and MSO have not been played to date. There have been no repeats for show openers and only two repeats for first set closers (Cavern, Weekapaug). Second sets are just as diverse as no song has repeated as either 2nd set opener or closer. For encores, the only song repeated so far is surprising: Free Bird. We will get to dive deeper in the stats as the tour progresses but this does appear to be a quite diverse tour so far. Personally I think this simply shows just how damn good this band was at this point considering that they aren’t exactly mailing in the setlists or the performances for that matter. All signs point towards more heat to come as they drop down through Ohio and into the Southeast portion of the tour. Yay, stats!