Phish — Civic Arena — Pittsburgh, PA 10.18.1996
I Jim, Guelah, Old Home Place, CTB, Stash, Strange Design, Divided, Billy Breathes, Taste, Sample
II Suzy>Maze, YEM, Reba, Waste, Hood
Continuing their opening run for the Fall 1996 Tour in Pittsburgh, PA, Phish hit the stage for the third time in as many nights (with one more to go in this string before a Sunday night off to get ready for MSG). This was the second time the band had played this venue after a quite decent one on the Fall 1995 Tour (check out the Stash, Reba, and Gin!). The band’s history with The Burgh goes way back with the band first visiting venues in this fine post-industrial city as early as 11.30.1992 — a show with the first ever non-whistle-ending Reba (it’s a good one too!) and one of the few Secret Language Instructions ever — at the Metropol, a smallish music venue that closed in 2002. Then there’s the one time stop to the now-defunct IC Light Amphitheater (one of the more hilarious product sponsor venue names I’ve ever seen because seriously what is Iron City Light doing sponsoring a music venue?? and which is now the site of a soccer stadium project) on 07.18.1993 which has a really fun Antelope that includes jams on Heartbreaker and Brother. Next would be the one time stop at the AJ Palumbo Center on the campus of Duquesne University on 10.09.1994 for the show best known for the ALO Squirming Coil it contains. As an aside here, I saw shows at this venue on two nights of that weekend: first on Friday for Dave Matthews Band opening for hometown heroes Rusted Root (and there was NO ONE in the venue for the DMB set as this was well before their departure from playing real jam music and hitting the big time) and then on Sunday for the Phish from Vermont who also drew a smaller crowd here than Rusted Root. Still one of the stranger music weekends of my life in that regard. Okay, back to the recaps. This Fall 1996 show would end up being the last time that the band has played in Pittsburgh itself as they have since moved on to the wonderful outdoor venue to the west in Burgettstown that seems to have a new sponsor every time they come back (but will always be Star Lake Amphitheatre to me…). I won’t go too deep into detail on that classic venue as they have now played seven shows there since their awesome debut at the venue on 08.13.1997 but if you have never checked out any of the shows here first slap yourself because what the heck, man, but then go do it. You will not be disappointed!
Clearly, the band has a pretty good track record in this part of Pennsylvania. And maybe if you just looked at the setlist from this 10.18.1996 you might think this one is the “off year” but just look at that second set. LOOK AT IT!! THAT’S A SIX SONG SET IN AN ERA WHEN THEY REALLY DIDN’T DO THAT!! Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to get all riled up there. Ahem. Anyway, the setlist here is a tad deceiving as it doesn’t have a bunch of cool segues or many things to indicate that this is anything more than a Friday night fun time in downtown P’Burgh. And let’s be honest, it isn’t a show that is making any short lists for the year but there’s a lot to be found in this one…
We get rocking right from the start with our first Runaway Jim of the tour which while not overly extended has a nice jam to get us up and moving. Next we get our old pal “Two Slot Guelah” which is a fun one and not a song you ever really hear anyone complain about (because why would they?) before they bring back the bluegrass three hole tune for The Old Home Place. This is one of those songs you never really go in saying “hey, I’d love if they played Old Home Place tonight” but you still end up singing along to the playful number. Cars Trucks Buses starts up next for our first repeat of the tour (there will be more tonight…) and this one is as punchy as you could want for a version that stays totally in bounds. You really can’t go wrong with that tune. It just begs you to dance to it. Now we are on to Stash and I will admit that the first time I listened to this version it didn’t do much for me but upon relisten I really liked what Trey had to offer in this one. It is not an epic 94/95 Stash but there is some real solid T&R development as he throws ideas around in getting to the peak. It really lacks in only being 11+ minutes as I would have liked more of what they had going there. Keeping with the tour debuts (excepting CTB) we get Strange Design, that sentimental tune that was left off the Billy Breathes album but did come out as a b-side to Free in a version that is different than how they play it live (this is the only Phish single I ever purchased and I did that only to get this version). Here it is a nice breather after the Stash.
Trey brings the energy right back up by starting into Divided Sky and while pretty much what you expect out of this well loved staple there does seem to be a little bit of extra sauce being put on particularly by Trey who takes a quite soaring solo that has some DEG-like hints right near the peak. Billy Breathes gives us our second tour repeat and another (groan) breather tune but right after this somewhat shaky version we go into Taste. This one is nice enough with a decent bit of soloing from both Page and Trey but I couldn’t get past Fish coming in a tad early at the peak so it isn’t one I’ll be spinning very often. They cap the set with our third tour repeat in a row, Sample in a Jar, and you know how I feel about that song so let’s just move along. Overall this set feels like a lot of table setting without much payoff though the Stash and Divided were quite good. Here in the early stages of this tour it is not surprising that they are both playing a lot of songs and also focusing on the Billy Breathes material. Everything is played well enough but I definitely recall sitting there at the break wondering whether we’d be getting anything more meaty after the lights went back down. I mean, I like side orders as much as the next guy but give me that big juicy burger of a jam to sink my teeth into, please. Anyone else hungry?
Now, part of why we go is because of that unknown regarding what they will play – and how – so it isn’t like anyone was going to leave at setbreak before finding out what they had in store. Of course, maybe your mom was picking you up and she was waiting out front and you really did have to go right then but this was in the age before cell phones were prevalent so you can just make her wait a bit and then explain it off by saying you had no idea what time it was (probably a good idea to take off your watch before using that argument though, momma’s boy). And realistically, the set starts off innocently enough with Suzy Greenberg coming by to get the kids dancing. Nothing too special to see there. But then that heads right into Maze which starts off in the way it does before diving deep into a dark and twisted version that just blows up once Page hits the organ. He and Trey trade quite stellar solos with both riding the dark wave through to the end. This is a wonderful version of the song and while not ‘type II’ in any way gets out there. I’d gladly put this one up there in the higher echelons for Maze. Not content to rest on that the band immediately drops into You Enjoy Myself for a really fun romp through the most frequently played song in the catalog. Things are going along well enough and then in the back part of his jam Trey drops a few “Do You Feel Like We Do?” quotes, sending the crowd into a tizzy. This energy carries over to the D&B section to follow and even into the VJ which has a bit more cheering than your standard one. This is not a world class YEM to rival the best of the best but it is a solid version with that well placed nod to Mr. Frampton. Sticking with the jam vehicles, our gal Reba is up next and this one’s a real beaut, Clark. Trey works his lead lines out with an almost tension-building precision as Page lays down some fantastic complimentary bits on the piano. This all heads to the predictable Reba peak but the getting there is quite lovely. I’m a bit surprised at how lightly regarded this version is by those who rank this sort of thing as if we got a Reba like this these days people wouldn’t stop talking about it for weeks. Maybe in two weeks they’ll surprise me? Considering that this is the next version following one of the all-timers from The Clifford Ball it is nice to hear them reach for the apex once again. The counterpoint to this type of Reba will come in only a few shows when they go dark with it but this one is all about the major key peak build. 94/95 may be the Our quick breather tune tonight is Waste (second of tour and fifth repeated song from that first show of the tour) and it is fine enough but really is just fodder on the way to our Harry Hood closer. As with the other notable tunes played here tonight it isn’t a top of the heap version but it serves quite well as our closer with a lovely bit of playing by Trey to be found here. Interestingly enough, we are seeing a pattern here where a lot of these songs that they are playing well but perhaps not spectacularly here in the early part of the tour will end up having top tier, arty rankin-worthy versions by the time we get to Vegas. Gin, Hood, Reba, Simple, and other songs all get the workout in this tour. While these early tour versions don’t necessarily hint at what is to come they are solid enough that you can’t help but notice (with the benefit of hindsight, of course) that bigger things are on the horizon. That is perhaps a bit revisionist but, hey, we are allowed that kind of latitude here 19 years on from this night. I don’t know, maybe I’m just reaching. Whatever. Anyway, the encore tonight is Julius and I mentioned this on twitter the other day but pretty much all of the versions of Julius from this time period have some unreal playing by Trey. He simply shreds this one to bits and sends us off into the night shaking our heads, wagging our fingers in the air, and praising the power of Phish. It’s a nice exclamation point on a quite solid show, definitely the best show of these opening three of the tour.
As you can probably tell, I really like this show, particularly the second set. Yes, I was there (my first of the tour and last until a wonderful six show run I got a few weeks later) so that influences my opinion but even still you can tell there is something going on here in terms of band/crowd connection that just didn’t elevate in those first two shows. It helps when the band does their part by bringing great playing, energy, and song choice together but the crowd is as much a part of it as anything. I’m not going to dive into that big pool right now but suffice it to say I maintain that this show was aided by a receptive crowd who was willing to reflect the energy back to the band. Those are the nights that end up being the most memorable in my book. So with that your takeaways tonight are Maze, YEM, and Reba (for first tier stuff) with Divided, Hood, Stash and Julius being your next tier and Jim the ‘throw in’ play. The playlist will be updated to include all of those (sans Jim). Next we shuffle off to Buffalo for another night with more to show than what the setlist tells us…