Phish — Marine Midland Arena — Buffalo, NY 10.19.1996
I MFMF, Rift, Free, Esther>Llama, Gumbo, Disease>Caspian>Frankenstein
II Bag, Sparkle>Slave, Bouncin’, Melt, Fluffhead, Swept Away>Steep>Lope, Hello My Baby
E Fee, Rocky Top
On the back side of a run of four straight nights performing — all in different cities and venues — Phish found themselves at the Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo, NY, the home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. As always seems to happen, this venue has changed names since then first as the HSBC Arena and now as the First Niagara Center. The venue had only opened about a month prior to this show, making it the second venue Phish had already played this tour that was pretty darn brand spanking new. State College… remember?? Geez, it was only like two reviews ago… Well, even if you don’t care about that kind of thing Phish did play this venue not even a month after it had opened but still almost a month before the scoreboard came crashing down at center ice which I suppose is a good thing timing-wise…
This, of course, was not the band’s first trip to the region as over the years the northwest part of New York state has been pretty darned kind to our band. The first visits were in 1991 first for a barroom show at the famed Nietzsche’s on 04.19.1991 (check out the bad joke from Fish during the BBFCFM encore and a pretty okay Reba here) and then that fall (09.28.1991) for a show at a roller rink where Trey ‘skated’ through the crowd while playing his solo in Weekapaug and some audience members took to creating their own roller disco at the back of the floor. The next visit was in spring 1992 for a show in North Tonawanda at the Riviera Theatre (05.08.1992). There’s a nice Reba and that typically fun/loose vibe from small theater Phish with lots of Secret Language and teases throughout. The famed August ’93 run would be the next time Phish would play in the region, for the first time at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center on 08.07.1993 for a classic show that has a glorious archival release available. This is a fantastic show all around but definitely check out the Stash->Makisupa, the “roller coaster of the mind” narration in Forbin’s>Mockingbird, the MFMF>McGrupp->Purple Rain, the Antelope, and more if you are somehow unfamiliar with this one. Oddly enough, this show marked the first time Phish didn’t play BBFCFM at a show in this area. The next visit would be on 04.10.1994 at the Alumni Arena of SUNY Buffalo for a highlight-filled affair, most notably the Antelope, Hood, and Melt. Then we have another famed stop to this part of the country for the 12.07.1995 show from Niagara Falls. Seriously, if you do not know this Fall 1995 gem you really should go spin that before you worry about our 1996 show here. Like that Darien Lake show it is also an archival release and has phenomenal stuff like the big first set Slave, a raging Possum, a mind-bending Melt, a frenzied Reba, and the wonder that is Mike’s->Weekapaug->DDLJ. Phish’s next visit to the area would be for our Fall 1996 show but they have continued to return to the area with four more shows at Darien Lake over the years (08.14.1997, 09.14.2000, 08.13.2009, and 06.08.2011), all shows with notable takeaways for you to peruse… like the ambient jam out of Hood and the Merry Pranksters insanity out of Forbin’s in 1997, the awesome Suzy and Drowned->C&P from 2000, um… the Drowned from 2009 maybe? and the Golden Age teases that abound in 2011. Okay, so maybe the last couple of visits haven’t had quite the fireworks but let’s just roll with it, mm’kay?
So with all of that history here, how does the 1996 stop stack up? Well, I am glad you asked because that is exactly what I plan on covering from here on out in this post. Good thing you stopped by. Starting a show with My Friend My Friend (or Myfe/Knife for you old folks) is generally a good sign as the demented tune froths with an anticipatory build that begs one to get down and dirty. There have been 28 show opening MFMFs in the 139 times it has been played with most setting the tone for the evening to come. This one stays at home with that screeching peak out of Trey before the denouement that gets us to our first Rift of the tour. This is tackled cleanly and we are on to Free. Tonight’s version starts out quite bombastically with Trey giving way to Page after the verses, allowing Page to set the mood. Trey adds in a bunch of pedal effects and grating tones as Fish pounds out the beat and Mike drops in some small artillery fire on the bass. They wrap this one up nicely with a nailed return to the final round of lyrics and we move into our second of the twisted tales of the night with Esther, that now quite rare crowd favorite. This one (with its Random Note SL in the intro) is paired for what stands as the last time currently with Esther, providing an interesting punch to the end of the sad tale of that little girl and her evil doll. That Llama shred can mess with heads too, so we are still somewhat in our darker theme here even with the brightness of Rift and the hopeful feelings of Free counterbalancing the other songs (though the jam in Free is of that darker realm). This connected theory gets blown up next though as they start up the Fish-penned ditty Gumbo. Well, maybe just one song out of theme is okay…
After the Gumbo we have our second Down With Disease of the early tour and tonight’s shreds similarly to the one from Lake Placid but we have a bit of extra effect love from Page and some exploration within the context of the song before Trey comes in to peak this one out. This leads right into Prince Caspian which acts as something of a breather before Trey takes his typical Fall ’96 Caspian solo and then we head right into the set closing cover of Frankenstein. Now, I am a huge fan of Phish’s take on this Edgar Winters classic but just in case you have yet to witness it, here is what I consider to be the canonical version of the tune as performed by Mr. Winters and his pals back in 1973. It is so good that Chuck Klosterman once did an article on it for Grantland. I’m pretty confident Phish has never gone that big with the song particularly with all of the different “instruments” that Edgar plays there. This one from Buffalo is fine enough and puts a nice exclamation point on the set, pretty well closing the book on that darker theme we started back with MFMF.
Considering the set includes a song about a wife with a knife, a song about the consuming dread of silence, a song that while thematically about freeing oneself from the bounds of the physical includes a dissonant jam, a twisted tale about a demonic doll, a wild ride into battle with blastoplast-wielding soldiers of Gamehendge, a lysergically charged romp about soup, a soaring jam with references to visions of demons spurred on by a bout with illness, a song about a regal dude with no feet, and a classic pastiche of varied music that nods to its namesake this set has something of a prevailing vibe going on. There is no big centerpiece jam because there often isn’t in a first set like this but it is a quite fun one if you are into the more dark side of Phish, even though in the end it is all fairly bright and happy music which further confuses one due to the dichotomy that presents. Yeah, I am totally overthinking this here but I need to write about something and a straight forward set like this one doesn’t lend itself to effusive praise about the hetty jamz, yo. But seriously, you could do much worse than a tightly played set such as this one.
The second set starts off with a seemingly random ‘Wish You Were Here’ tease from Trey before they start up another in the line of oddball tales with ACDC Bag. Here in the pre-1997 days this song was more rocker than jam vehicle though you do get a little extra stank for the effort as they amp up the energy big time for this version. Next up is an odd pairing of Sparkle>Slave which makes sense considering it is the only time they have paired the two songs thusly. The Slave is nice in the way that it typically is but feels like it could have gone bigger before giving way to Bouncin’. This is then backed up by Melt and here five songs into the set it is difficult to get any sort of read on what their mindset is considering that they seem to be going back and forth from one style to another. There’s nothing to really complain about though when they get into the Melt jam which while perhaps not anything epic is a fine fine version that relies mainly on the T&R build rather than the mindfuckery that generally makes Melt what it can be. This marks the tenth song to debut for the tour which is fairly typical here in the fourth show as while they are focused on the material from the new album it doesn’t stop them from being Phish and digging into their catalog. They keep the energy up following Melt by playing Fluffhead (another tour debut…) with a little extra emphasis on the “New York” line as tends to happen in this state. Our second glimpse at Swept Away>Steep follows and I have to admit that maybe it is just me but for some reason I always want to write that as “Steep>Swept Away”. Not entirely sure why but I have to consciously remind myself to not write it the wrong way. Clearly that is a me problem…
This duo of tunes works well as the come down from Fluff but also in leading into Run Like An Antelope considering the big peakiness of that song. This Lope gets dissonant for a bit but then goes the way the song does and everyone loves it and screams their heads off in response. As if to bring it all down a bit from this Phish comes out for our first a cappella tune of the tour with Hello My Baby. Kind of a letdown closer after the big time energy of Fluffhead and Antelope but whaddayagonnado. All that’s left are the encores which tonight are Fee and Rocky Top, two fan favorites that do exactly what you expect them to here.
Look, I won’t sugar coat it, this is not a top tier show. It is fine enough and quite well played for the fourth show in as many nights but there just aren’t any major highlights to pull out of this one. In truth this is something of a pattern for Fall 1996 that we will see where they sprinkle in some big time jams but have entire sets or even shows that kind of coast along on the energy stuff without much in the way of true exploratory jamming. There are some takeaways, of course, but they are probably not going to make it anywhere near a best of the tour list when it is all said and done. And with that rousing introduction I’ll say your takeaways are Disease and Melt with Free and Bag being the add-ins if you are feeling gracious. There is nothing wrong with this show by any means but it is largely average fare in a time when Phish had full command of their arsenal and a willing crowd to spur them to greater heights which is not to imply that they do not still have these things but that they were still on the rise on the heels of 1995 and with more big things on the horizon. I think this one ends up being a Saturday Night Special that was probably quite fun in the moment but lacks the lasting power that a couple of big or unique jams could have given it. So now we get that first night off to travel southeast through the state for the return to MSG for a pair of midweek shows. Remember, phans: Don’t pass them, let them pass you.