Phish — Olympic Center — Lake Placid, NY 10.16.1996
I CTB, Disease, Wilson>Buried Alive>Poor Heart, Billy Breathes, Mound>Sample, Ice, Horse>Silent, Zero
II Wolfman’s Brother, Taste, Train, Simple>Swept Away>Steep>Caspian, Lope, Coil, Johnny B. Goode
On October 15th, 1996 Phish released the album Billy Breathes to a relatively high level of critical acclaim. This is not to say that the album quickly rose to the top of the pop charts but that unlike some of their prior (or subsequent) albums the reviews for this release were surprisingly not overly dismissive even if some reviewers stuck to the stock trade of lazily classifying them as a drug band. The music press has never been overly kind to our band so to read some of the more positive takes on this Steve Lillywhite produced album was a nice change of pace for those of us on the bus at the time. And realistically, the album probably does still stand as one of the best studio offerings from Phish. Five of the thirteen songs on this album have been played more than 130 times each (Zero being king at 186) and another four are near or above 50 performances with only one song, Bliss, never having graced the stage to date. The majority of the songs had been played at least a few times prior to being laid down in the studio for inclusion on the album but in a few cases the recording gave the opportunity to revisit the song to work out the kinks, so to speak. The result is that you get an album that works for both the devout and the casual fan, offering up the sound of Phish without being overly challenging to the uninformed listener. I don’t say that to make any negative connotation but instead to perhaps suggest that Billy Breathes is one of if not the most accessible albums the band has produced over the years. So when the band hit the stage at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, NY to open their tour and to showcase their new album you knew that we would be treated to a BB-heavy show. This was also the first opportunity to hear the band play since their unbelievable festival The Clifford Ball capped the summer and offered up the blueprint for how to hold a music festival in the new age of music that was developing in the mid to late 90s.
This Lake Placid show stands as one of the closer-to-home tour openers that the band has ever played, excepting the very early years of the band when they didn’t exactly play country-spanning tours. That, combined with the excitement of the album release and the energy that comes from a practiced band ready to get going, set things up well for a show where expectations would be mostly in check due to all of the potential unknowns about what could go down that evening. Right out of the gates we get going on the Billy Breathes material as they start into the Page-penned instrumental Cars Trucks Buses. Mostly existing as a first set bring-up-the-energy number, this song has opened 14 shows out of its 78 performances and has always been a crowd favorite for the dancing it begs you to do. Next up is a somewhat surprisingly placed Down with Disease which immediately takes the set up to another level. This is the type of Disease that stays mainly at home in the ‘type I’ realm but packs a massive punch in just ten minutes of shred mastery. Trey is leading the charge here, spraying The Hose liberally on the elated masses before bringing it back the classic ending that we oftentimes do not get to hear these days. The energy stays high for the next run of three songs as anytime you pair Wilson>Buried Alive>Poor Heart you know the crowd will go apeshit. This kind of harkens back to the type of energetic Phish we heard a ton of in Spring ’93 but it also has a bit more to it now that the band has elevated to a different level entirely from those speed jazz days. At this stage five songs into the set the band pulls up for a well deserved breather, sliding in the airy ballad and title track from the album Billy Breathes. This offers us the chance to gather ourselves a bit before they head out into Mound for a decent if a bit shaky in the back half version that bumps up against Sample in a Jar. After surviving that we are treated to a decently dark and down It’s Ice with Page providing some really nice work in his part of the jam. A quick run through The Horse>Silent in the Morning gives the people who love to sing along their chance to shine and then we are into the set closing Character Zero. This Zero feels like it could have been pulled right from the album which makes sense since the song is still finding its legs.
And then when the lights come up and you look down at the setlist you realize we have a reasonably high number of songs here with twelve songs and pretty much only that Disease to speak of as a real, bona fide highlight. The playing is all quite good here for the most part but it feels like they are holding back just a bit from totally going off. That is not unusual for the first set of a new tour and with the new album out you would expect them to focus on those songs while also throwing in some of the setlist standards and fan favorites. I actually would have expected them to play more songs from the album from the start but there is still a whole set to come for all of that.
So after walking the halls of the venue that is now The Herb Brooks Arena (for obvious reasons…) you settle back into your section as the lights go down and prep for the set to come. The band starts into Wolfman’s Brother (then the first time they had ever opened a second set with the song) and the dance party kicks off once again. This is the pre-cowfunk sort of Wolfman’s where the end jam is pretty straight forward but the song serves its purpose in getting us up and moving before they get back to the Billy Breathes material for Taste. Now, something should probably be said here about this song as it was only a few months before this that the “final” version of this song was formalized. If you know your song history here (and I know you do) Taste evolved a lot from the time it was debuted about 16 months prior to this show. The original version was okay, I guess, but lacked something. It was played ten times before being shelved towards the end of Summer ’95, only to return that Fall with a new set of Fish-sung lyrics and a new name ‘The Fog That Surrounds’ based on one of the lines in the song (named so by the fans. Trey introduced the song as one fans might think they know but that it wasn’t necessarily what they thought it was). This version was performed eight times before the song again changed, becoming a combination of the two prior versions and being penned ‘The Taste That Surrounds’ for fourteen appearances over the rest of Fall ’95 and into the New Year’s Run. During those Spring ’96 recording sessions the band reworked the song again to arrive at the Taste we know today, keeping the best parts of the prior iterations and setting up the structure we have that includes both Page and Trey solos in the outro jam that tends to stay in bounds while reaching high towards a blissy peak. If you want to read more about that song and its history, perhaps you will want to see the “Best Year Ever” post I created for the song a while back. It focuses mainly on versions well past this one but it is something if you are a fan of the song. Here at the start of the Fall Tour the song is pretty straight forward but it does hit that peak nicely so there’s that. A quick downshift for the Mike-sung Train Song leads in to the real highlight of this show (and a hint at some of what we can expect A LOT of this tour) as they crank it up for the first Simple since they masterfully segued into it out of a fun Mike’s Song back at The Clifford Ball on 08.16.1996 (seriously, if you do not know this version you really need to go hear it because they don’t do transitions as good as that very often). This Lake Placid version starts off well enough and then when they drop into the jam Trey takes the back seat, hopping on the mini-kit for a few minutes to allow Page and Mike to take the lead.
This is something that he did off and on throughout 1995 and 1996, ostensibly to allow for jams to develop out of ideas by the other band members rather than staying in the guitar-led realm. Reception of this by the fanbase is somewhat mixed as there are definitely those who say “playing your effing guitar, dude!” but at times it can work quite well. This Simple is one of those cases as once they get a pocket going Trey comes back in with some elongated, soaring lead lines that feel almost more like something you would hear in 1998. They play around here for a bit but then shift towards something else which ends up being the debuts of Swept Away>Steep, two more songs from the Billy Breathes album. Some of the music for these songs evolved out of a recording experiment the band took on during the recording sessions earlier that year known as The Blob. The following is from the February 1996 entry on phish.com/band:
They started the process by choosing random instruments and recording one note or musical phrase at a time in a multi-layered creation eventually called “The Blob”. They utilized a wide variety of unusual instruments including vibraphones, Mellotron, and Theremin in addition to their traditional instruments. At any given time, a band member could use his “turn” to remove a note or phrase from the tape as well. By the time The Blob was large enough to consume any substantial space on a recording reel, the band had basically determined that it was not what they were looking for. A couple minutes from the middle of The Blob were eventually used as part of the album cuts Swept Away/Steep, but otherwise that mode of recording was eventually scrapped for more conventional methods.
It would be quite interesting to hear the entire Blob project but that seems like something we might never get based on how the band left it. We do get to enjoy the pieces that were lent to some songs though and Swept Away>Steep has that. This debut version is well played and includes something you won’t hear on the album or in most live versions which is that right at the end of Steep the band collectively screams out, providing a jarring end to a largely serene bit of music. They follow this up with the song that follows the pairing on the album, Prince Caspian, by now already a dichotomous song in the canon amongst fans. The song had been debuted in Summer 1995 to mixed fan reaction with some loving the major key end solo from Trey and others feeling that the song sapped a set of any momentum gained up to that point. Personally, I didn’t really have much of an opinion on the song either way but as with most Phish songs it has grown on me and now that they have given us the majesty that is the Magnaball Tweezerpants I am not really going to complain about its potential. But in fall 1996 the song was still very much rooted in its structure, never really veering away from the formula which is perhaps part of why it was received in the way it was in that era. This version from Lake Placid is in that vein but works well in finishing the suite of music that started back in that Simple.
Following that four song string they kick into Run Like An Antelope and we are up and bounding once more. Trey uses a grating, dissonant build to develop the tension in this version and while perhaps not one that goes out there fully it serves well as a counterpoint from the downward trend in the energy of the music over the past few songs. Page steps in next for the always welcome Squirming Coil and as expected provides a lovely outro piano solo that might have had a lot of fans wondering at why the set was closing so early. Those fans would have to stop with their end of show preparations as instead of leaving it at that we have the cover of the Chuck Berry classic Johnny B. Goode, a song that really surprised me in becoming a song that Phish played when I caught the debut emerge in the middle of a ridiculously out there Tweezer on 06.17.1995. I have never been a big fan of this song even when Chuck Berry is singing it but it is one of those songs that anyone who has heard any rock music will know and it provided an energetic bump whenever Phish played it. For some reason they brought it out more than a few times on this tour so get ready for more of this song in late set and encore placements. With that as the show closer it is a little surprising to hear Waste as our encore tonight but with the album release and the overall newness of the song (this is only the 7th ever appearance) I suppose it is somewhat fitting for them to trot this one out, particularly with the lyrical content it brings. After that we are out for the night and headed south towards a pair of shows in Pennsylvania, first with a stop at a brand spanking new venue on the campus of Penn State University.
So what do we make of this first show of the tour? I will be honest, after all of the ambient jams and cowfunkery of Fall 1998 it is pretty nice to hear that clear tone and tight playing that made 93-96 so awe-inspiring. This is not to say that the playing after that was any less amazing but that it wows in a different way. Here we have the band still in their heavily geeky mode, focusing more on practice and musical connection than any of the myriad of outside forces that would eventually lead to… other things. This show is just a tiny taste of what is in store for us going forward and being the first show since the album release is obviously heavy on those songs (9 of 13 tracks got played here), many of which are songs that don’t exactly stretch the limits of the band’s improvisational chops. But as has ever been the case, when they connect it is some of the best stuff in the world and tonight that connection lies most fully in the few takeaways we have to explore. Focus on the Disease, Simple>Swept Away>Steep, and Antelope with the Taste being a decent add in if you are feeling generous.
You may have noticed I have updated the playlist to include the songs that I have as definite takeaways and will continue to add to this as we go along. As always though, I recommend spinning the full show to really get a sense of what went down.