Phish — Bryce Jordan Center, PSU — State College, PA 10.17.1996
I 2001>Funky Bitch, Sparkle, Tweezer>Theme, Talk, PYITE, Zero, ADITL, Reprise
II Ya Mar, CDT, Gin, Mule, Free, Lizards, SSB, Bowie
Phish and college arenas go together like peanut butter and pancakes — which is really good if you have never tried it. There are books that could be written filled with nothing but anecdotes from the many amazing shows the band has played to our impressionable rising youth over the years, anecdotes that most of us have considering that so many of us were first exposed fully to the band while in our formative collegiate years. Penn State University is one of those places where the band has had a rich history, first* having played State College at the old Rec Hall on 04.08.1994 for a show that is chock full of highlights and notably includes the legendary Ice->DDLJ->Ice that birthed the very first Digital Delay Loop Jam. There’s some other great stuff here as well including one of those wonderfully out there ’94 Bowies and a beaut of a Hood. The band has played here in State College two more times, first for the show we are about to discuss and then again the year following as the fourth to last show of the epic Fall ’97 tour. This one is best known for the big time Simple->Timber Ho! but is worthy of a full spin if you have the time. Those last two appearances in State College were at the Bryce Jordan Center, a multi-use facility that hosts the basketball, volleyball, hockey, and other sports teams along with concerts, wrestling, and other non-university revenue generating activities. This venue has some solid trivial history what with Aerosmith recording portions of a live album here, The Backstreet Boys using it as the backdrop for a music video for one of their poppy boy band hits, and Pearl Jam releasing a live album of a show they played here in May of 2003. As the venue had just opened in January 1996 it was still pretty brand spanking new when the Phish scene descended upon it in October of that year, perhaps forever altering the ambient aroma of the HVAC system in the process.
This show starts off with the party vibe as the band throws down a quick hitting dancey combo of 2001>Funky Bitch. Keep an ear on 2001 this tour as the seeds of what is to come in 97-99 are sown as this tour progresses. Tonight’s version is pretty straight forward and the Funky Bitch that follows is about what you’d expect as well. Keeping the energy high, they then drop into Sparkle for the frenetic tale of suitor stress before giving us our first Tweezer of the tour. Maybe it is the fact that it is a mid first set version or that they just aren’t up for it this night but this one just doesn’t really go anywhere. I’m not one to base thoughts on a jam on length but considering this one clocks in at under ten minutes with the lyrical section you know it it not much more than a setlist check mark. They do take this right into Theme from the Bottom though and that has a nice if predictably soaring peak even if it is pretty contained in comparison to the strongest versions of the song.
Staying with the Billy Breathes theme, we get the third Talk ever and I’ll just move on because of all the songs in the Phish canon this is one of the few that simply does not work for me. At all. But that’s a “me” thing related to a certain journey along the NYE Run later in 1996 that really does nothing to add to our conversation here because at the end of the day Talk is just a little ditty they have played a grand total of 14 times (though unfortunately for me right now more than half of those were in 1996…). Following this diversion they bring the energy right back up for a nice run through Punch You In The Eye and further froth the fervor with our second Character Zero in as many shows (get used to it. this song and Taste are the workhorses of this tour with each song appearing in over half of the 35 shows between Lake Placid and Las Vegas). We are still fairly close to the album take here but Trey does start to shine a bit brighter on his solo. Zero is followed by the well loved cover of The Beatles’ A Day In The Life, a straightforward but energetic tale that you knew quite well before Phish started covering it at Red Rocks in 1995. The song works well as a closer or encore so it’s not surprising that WAIT. Hang on, they decided to throw us a bone and close the first set with Reprise, putting a nice cap on a highly energetic set with but one little lull for that bathroom break Talk. Sure, there’s not a lot in the way of takeaway highlight fodder here but in the moment this would have been a quite fun set to get down to as it is just one dance party tune after another… acknowledging, of course, that this is in the days before the real dance party music entered the equation… but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself there, aren’t I?
And so after taking in the sights and the shiny new venue during setbreak one had to wonder what the band would come out with to start the second frame. If you guessed Ya Mar you would have been correct but I have a feeling that not too many people expected that to be our opener. It fits with the prevailing vibe though and this version is bouncy and bright even if it lacks anything resembling a notable outro jam. They keep it cranking from there with a solid, on point Chalkdust Torture (we here in 3.0 need to remember that CDT didn’t become the extended vehicle that it currently is until that watershed 07.10.1999 version from Camden). This is followed by an engaging if somewhat abbreviated Bathtub Gin, a song that had toyed with jam heights in the past but was still not quite a reliable vehicle either. Just wait though. We will soon be hitting one of the biggies… This one is not that though so let’s just move it right along.
When Phish starts up Scent of a Mule you generally get one of a few reactions from those around you. There’s the bathroom breakers who immediately dart out to the concourse to take advantage of the 10-12 minutes of oddity that this song produces, there’s the audible groaner jaded vets who don’t want any of their precious second set jam space taken up by this “filler” tune, there’s the excited hijinx chasers, and there’s the rest of the crowd who either doesn’t know the song well or simply doesn’t care either way because they are having a blast at a Phish show and there’s no reason to let this weird Mike tune ruin their show, man. I’m not entirely certain where I sit on this one personally as even with as many times as I’ve seen the klezmer and duel and whatnot there is something about that “here’s a place of elegance, here we shower ourselves in lightness” section that hits me every time. It’s one of those perfect Phish lyrics that evokes more than the simple words stated. But even above that this song offers up the possibility to hear them do some different musical stylings than in most other songs with Page taking a (usually) interesting solo before handing it over via the duel to Trey (or sometimes Mike gets involved too) and being Phish there is the humor factor that adds to it all too. That said, I’m not really sure why so many of the Mules the band has played warrant jamchart entries except for the possibilitty that someone over at .net is a big time SOAMule fan. I mean, sure, each one has a slightly different take on the duel section but it isn’t like they are up there creating mind-blowing “new” music on the spot. Of course, there are some versions that are worth your time and I’d argue that this one has an interesting Trey section considering he vocally mimics the notes he plays for a bit of a scat feel before they come back around to finish up the duel and klezmer madness that brings us around to the final verse and refrain. As Mules go you can definitely do worse.
After that the band starts up Free, that chugging powerhouse of a tune that was a pretty reliable vehicle for much of the early part of its show life, possibly peaking in 1997 but also having had a couple of quite notable versions in Fall 1995 after only having been debuted at the Voters For Choice Benefit show on 05.16.1995 (along with several other tunes…). 1996 was something of a ‘meh’ year for the tune in jam terms but that’s not to say they played the song poorly. This version is a good example in that regard as it rocks hard and has a nice bit of crunchy, grating guitar out of Trey with Page toying around all over the piano as Mike and Fish provide the bombastic rhythm behind it all. It won’t make the highlight reel but was assuredly a fun one to rock out to in the moment. Now more than halfway through the set, the band comes up for a bit of air and drops the beloved Lizards on us, offering up the wonderful tale and musically engaging song for our enjoyment. Following this you might expect them to go big or at least amp up the energy again but instead the four step out front for an a cappella tune. While it could have been any of a number of tunes at this point (and, really, where have all the a cappella tunes gone? we now only get Grind or a couple others these days and that kinda sucks if you ask me because I love that aspect of Phish) Trey mentions that they need to practice for an upcoming performance of this new song before an NBA game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the LA Lakers. So they trot out their take on The Star Spangled Banner, treating us to our first glimpse at the patriotic side to Phish. I like the Phish version of the song and hearing the entire crowd join in is always a nice touch, particularly in venues like this one. My personal favorite was the celebratory one from the encore of the 11.01.2014 show which seemed like an exclamation point on an amazing night but your mileage may vary. No matter what, this version is cool to hear due to the newness of it and how it sure seems like they really want to get it right before performing it for a non-Phish audience.
So how do you follow up the national anthem then? For Phish it means bringing out a big gun to capitalize on that crowd energy so they start up David Bowie which seems like as good of a choice as any. Understanding that this vehicle was a bit past its heyday, it still had the power — and reputation — to blow up the joint any time Phish started into it. This Penn State version is not a jam monster feeding on the fearful thoughts of the heads cowering from its demonic sound but it is a clinic in the high quality tension and release construct. Trey is large and in charge here, offering up lots of ideas all while playing around the building tension, first with a slowly building section that feels like it could dive right off the deep end at any point. Eventually, as the tension builds Trey’s lines become more and more intricate with Page comping around behind him. You can feel the peak stat to form as we await that sweet release but they bring things down again for another minute or so just to add more to that level of expectation. When the big peak finally does come it hits hard and will have you pumping that fist at your desk. As with the first set ending Reprise, this Bowie packs a big punch that adds to the energy of the set before it and provides the right kind of punctuation mark to this show. A quick Golgi Apparatus encore sends us out into the central Pennsylvania night and we are off to Pittsburgh for a Friday night affair.
There’s no reason to sugar coat this one; it is an energy/rocker show and that is fine. The biggest highlight is perhaps that Bowie closer or maybe the Mule if you really want see some people get pissed off. But even with that the playing is quite solid and the song choices all feel fresh. Sure, they have now worked though all of the songs on the recently released album that they will ever have played (still waiting on that Bliss, Trey!!) in these two shows and there are not any big time highlights in the jam sense to take with us but let’s be patient. This is a Thursday night show and the second of the tour. They are still getting back into the swing of things and within a week or so we will be on our way to bigger and better things. So while there may not be a ton of takeaways here — we will go with Bowie, Mule (yes), and if you want to add them the Free and Tweezer>Theme — it is a fun show to hear for what it is. Not every show can be a ‘canon worthy’ jam-heavy entry so if you can’t have fun for a show like this one I’m not sure how you do Phish. That may sound a bit harsh but whatever. We are lucky to be able to dissect this band to the degree that we do. I mean, could you imagine being a massive Bruce Springsteen fan or something and trying to find the best version of ‘Born in the USA’ or something out of the 10,000 versions that are all essentially the same? I don’t say that to speak ill of The Boss as his shows are legendarily fun but even with all of the people who follow him religiously you never hear they speak about singular versions of songs as much as to compare notes on how many shows they have attended (although they have the bustout thing going for them too…). I am getting away from my point so I’ll just finish off here by saying that this is a fine enough show that is well played and should be categorized as such. Now let’s get ready for some demonic Maze action…
*Just to address the item that some super hetty fan will assuredly try to bring up, there is that classic Tela from 08.27.1998 on the Penn State campus but if you know anything about the geography of Pennsylvania you will know that Mont Alto is in the south central part of the state (closer to Gettysburg) and State College is about 100 miles north right smack in the middle of the state. This is a satellite campus and that show, in the food court no less, is a fun little listen not just for that awesome “full” Tela but also for some great banter throughout and one of my favorite things: Trey imploring the crowd to woo! WTF, Trey??