Phish — Rupp Arena — Lexington, KY 11.07.1996
I CDT, Weigh>Rift>Guelah, Stash, Waste, Guyute, Free>Tela, Zero
II Suzy>Gin->HYHU>Bike>HYHU, YEM
Every once in a while there will come a point on a tour when the band has “one of those nights”. For many bands, this might have a negative connotation, as “one of those nights” could mean the lead singer is off his ‘meds’ again (or back on them…), the musicians are actively fighting each other on stage (possibly related to the meds thing), the PA or other gear didn’t cooperate, or they run up against an unruly crowd that really just wants to tear shit apart and has no time for whatever drivel is being poured into their ear holes. For Phish, “one of those nights” usually refers to a show we now treat as canon be it for seamlessly strung together segues, massive bustouts, or big time legendary jams that are known as much by their phish portmanteau or venue moniker as any other way of denoting them. These often take place in ‘skip show’ locales or on odd nights of the week or in other seemingly innocent circumstances as the band has made a habit of not really coming up really big when the fans expect it but then smacking us upside the head with a total smoke show somewhere else just to keep us honest. It can be annoying trying to figure out where the real heaters will drop but I suppose that’s why the adage of the ‘next show is the best show’ rings so true… With all this in mind, it was then that on Thursday, November 7th, 1996 the band came to Lexington, Kentucky for the first (and final) time and by the time they left the stage one of those nights had happened once more.
But before we get to the music from this night we need to do our thing about reflecting back. If this is a feature you really aren’t into then you are in luck because along with this singular performance in Lexington the band has only ever visited Kentucky four other times (to play a show, of course. I know not of whether they have ever vacationed there or otherwise passed through the Bluegrass State). All four of those visits were to Louisville with the first being on 04.16.1993 at the McCauley Theatre. Note that while all Phish literature refers to the theatre by this name it is really the Brown Theatre that the band had played considering that the original Macauley’s Theatre was razed in 1925 which is also the timing of when the Brown Theatre opened. The confusion lies in the fact that after renovations in 1971 and a sale to the Louisville Board of Education that theater was renamed Macauley’s Theatre which persisted until a new infusion of funds and acquisition by the Louisville Fund for the Arts in 1997 with the re-christening of the venue as the W.L.Lyons Brown Theatre when it reopened in 1998. Waaaaaaay more than you cared to know about that but this is a venue with two pretty solid Phish shows having occurred inside so there.
That first one sits in an interesting period of Phish’s upward trajectory, being part of the second leg of the Spring ’93 tour when they were fully into breaking new ‘speed jazz’ ground in their jamming style which shows up clearly in the Weekapaug Groove. There’s a bunch of teases, some banter, and a fun Free Bird-tinged Gumbo in the encore. Listen in Mike’s for a bit of what would become Simple less than a year from this show. About four months later Phish was back here during that fantastic month of August ’93 to drop a classic show on 08.15.1993 that you should really spin straight through but just in case you cannot do that please do check out the fantastic Stash, Tweezer, and Hood from this show (check out the wild Mockingbird story and performance too if you can). A little more than a year later Phish returned at the larger Palace Theatre, playing a show on 10.10.1994 which is best known for the quite type II Tweezer but also has a banjo sit-in by Steve Cooley and more of the solid greatness of Fall ’94. Then on 10.29.1995 they played Louisville for the final time at the now gone Louisville Gardens arena for a pre-Halloween show full of wonderfully dark jamming and the playfulness of a band on top of their game and messing with everyone’s heads in the lead up to the big night up in Chicago a couple of nights later. Listen for ‘Beat It’ teases and check out a big time Melt, a demonic Bowie, a quite fun Ice->Kung->Ice, and the only performance of Shaggy Dog between the bustout after 450 shows on 05.06.1992 until it came back 574 shows after this night on 06.22.2012. And that’s it for Kentucky! Now on to the last time they have played here…
Here in the sixteenth show of the tour the band is firing on all cylinders and from the opening notes of Chalkdust Torture you can tell they are raring to go. They run through this one quickly, rocking it out and getting everyone moving as the song tends to do. They follow this with the tour debut (something we will see more of tonight) of Weigh, playing it pretty straight though if you listen closely you might catch a bit of Trey using his wah pedal in a way you don’t normally get with this song. This will be important later. This segues into a ripping version of Rift which then goes right into Guelah Papyrus. The execution here is a tad sloppy but works out in the end and then we get our first jam potential on the night with Stash. There is nothing revealing here but the T&R build is fine enough in getting through. Continuing to vacillate the pace with song choices (similar to the prior night’s show) we get Waste for the first (and only) true ballad of the show. Now headed back from the bathrooms you get to hear the telltale intro to the tour debut of Guyute giving you the chance to either dive in and throw down with the other pig heads or maybe walk a bit and grab a snack if you and your head will allow it. This is played well if predictably and then we get the bombast of Free to keep the rocking going. As with Stash this is fine enough but no new ground is covered and then we are into Tela for yet another tour debut. Trey really goes off in the end solo here, nailing all those notes in bringing it to its satisfying peak. A crunchy yet contained Character Zero wraps things up for the first set and now you and your friends start to wonder what big jam highlight you might get in the second set. I mean, the last few shows had pretty average first sets coupled with some major second set jams so you had to think the pattern would hold… right?
I won’t just leave that question hanging. With the benefit of hindsight, if you saw that second set list above these days you’d be screaming and hollering and tweeting and anything else you could to express your whatthefuckery about it until you got your hands on the tapes to hear it yourself. Excepting the rare mechanical-issue-shortened set, they simply did not play four song sets back in this era (I don’t count HYHU, yo.) – not that they do much of it now either. Yeah, there’s stuff like the Fleezer set but that and the few others like it were considered to be so rare as to not be something you would ever see again. Heck, even the Tahoe Tweezer set with its 36 minute Tweezer has six songs. So when this setlist came out – and remember this is in the time when except for the most widely circulated tapes you had to sometimes wait months to hear a show – people went nuts. I wrote the dang thing down that night and spent pretty much the entirety of the drive to Champaign the next day looking at it and alternately laughing or shaking my head. And the great thing is that it isn’t some gimmicky or overly unapproachable abstract “music” that they play here (no comment on vac solos and their relative abstraction, thank you very much). It isn’t even as if they dove deep hard and fast, heck they opened up with Suzy Greenberg of all songs! But that Suzy gets a bit of extra mustard when Trey hops on the mini-kit for a bit to let Page take an even longer solo, showing that from the start this set is not about keep with the norm.
The next song, Bathtub Gin, starts up and you are thinking, “oh, nice… I really like when they play this as a second set vehicle. I hope they have some fun here!” which pretty much becomes quite the understated expectation as we move along. I say that because pretty much as soon as the finish up the lyrics and head into the jam (around the five minute mark of that lovely remaster I linked there) Trey moves away from the Gin theme immediately. Over the next several minutes he will continually come back to Gin to stir the pot but the lead here is melodic and forward-moving as Trey offers up several different ideas over the groove set up by the rest of the band. He soars with Page pounding away on the baby grand, evoking Gin while also being completely new music. At various times his leads seem to hint at a variety of teases (I swear at one point he is playing the melody to Bad Company’s Silver, Blue, and Gold – the “don’t forsake me cuz I love you” bit), none of them necessarily overt, but in the end it is all heading up to the end peak you know is coming sooner rather than later. But you’re wrong! The peak never resolves (this is a good thing) and then Trey moves over to the mini-kit, allowing Page to take charge in the second phase of the jam. He plays around with all of his toys, offering up a pastiche of various keyboard sounds as Mike offers up his own ideas to counterpoint Page’s playing. They ride this percussive pocket for several minutes with Page in charge then eventually Trey moves back over to guitar as the band starts to head yet again to the end peak. The band is far afield from Gin at this stage and the jam gets bigger in that way that some of the best ones do, flowing into a rocking section that feels like it could fall right into Reprise at any point. It also feels like it could become 2001 or even the bustout of The Real Me, the one time partner with Gin back on 12.29.1995. Once more they forego the obvious peak to stay in this raging groove and go to what we would now expect to be transtion, dropping down a section first denoted by the odd loops Trey sets. Then he and Page hit on a repeating phrase that has the uneasy feel of a Buried Alive jam of sorts, adding tension to the jam. Even with some cadence changes by Fish Trey persists until finally relenting as Mike leads into an eerie place. You know they are moving on again but it isn’t plainly clear which direction they will go next. Will it be another section in this masterful jam? Maybe the eventual move back to Gin to wrap this up with a bow?
No, instead we head to Hold Your Head Up, signalling Fish Fun Time for only the third time this tour (I think my memory is right there). The Fish tune tonight is the tour debut of the Syd Barrett classic Bike, allowing Fish to do his thing while also providing the breather everyone needed after the nearly 35 minute non-stop start to this set. As an aside, I can tell you that by the time they started up Bike I was personally just giggling in awe of what had just happened. The tapes tell the tale but live that was something other worldly to behold. Following Bike Trey gives a little banter about their boy Norton Charleston Heston and then they start up You Enjoy Myself to the delight of the crowd. After that Gin you have to think they will take it a bit easy here and maybe set this up to lead into the eventual set closer. And that is reasonable thinking but remember, this is one of those nights so things like reasonableness aren’t really applicable. The pre-Nirvana build is nailed and all through the Nirvana phase they kill it just adding more to the anticipation of the explosion to come. The crowd senses it too, almost begging the band to get to the “Boy!” line and once they do a full-on dance party breaks out. Trey lets the Phish funk ooze out here, adding some wah’d out accents behind the organ and bass as they work through the Uffizi lines and then once they go to the jam it is a funk jam not like previous versions of the song. After the trampoline section Trey lays back to let Page continue on the organ, opting for sparse rhythm fills that are heavy on the wah pedal. Mike solos here a bit, Page plays a ‘wobbly’ synth line and Trey eventually hits a tone you should start to get used to because we will hear it a bunch from here on out this tour. Listen around the 13:15 mark at the point where they do a little stop/start action and you will hear it. As far as I know this is the first time he has ever done this but from this point forward it pops up in at least one jam in pretty much every show. They ride the groove pocket for a bit more, giving the kids the chance to shake their bones some more and then Trey climbs the mountain, riding a lead line that isn’t too far off from Quantegy (albeit at a faster pace here) if you recall that odd ditty from his first solo album which would come out a couple of years from this night. That doesn’t last long though as he takes the lead to the peak but rather than going full to it and dropping out for the D&B he comes back to a chugging riff, allowing Mike and Fish to come in more organically as he eventually drops out. This D&B is pure gravy to the point where the crowd starts clapping along, giving Mike time to get out there for a bit after riding the groove pretty much all night. Eventually we get the obligatory VJ (it’s a pretty interesting one, to be honest and the crowd is with the band the entire time) and then they depart, having just dropped a four song set and two jams of 27+ minutes EACH in this wonderful set. I still recall looking at my watch as the VJ started wondering how it got so late so quick. I love that feeling. So they come back out for the encore, tear up Frankenstein, and leave us all there wondering how we will be able to leave the venue much less gather our marbles to hit the road on the path to the next show. Let’s just say we weren’t exactly in a rush to get out of there that night.
I think it is pretty clear that this is a show that I consider to be a pretty big night in my personal Phish life. The first set is, admittedly, largely average but not bad by any means. But once you get into that second set you can plainly hear that something is up even from the start. They have some playful banter and then just dive into a set that has but one moment for breath in the hilarity of Fish Fun Time. The Gin that they play here is not the first time they have gone deep with the song – far from it! – but the way they stick with it and never bail after shifting into at least four different phases of the jam is quite important. I believe that this jam doesn’t happen before RiL and certainly without having had Perazzo help them out with getting comfortable in the groove space. At no time does the jam feel rushed or as if they are looking to bail. They simply try out various ideas all while keeping that pocket moving forward. Sure, there are other Gins that I tend to spin more frequently but this is canon. This is a Gin that is so revered it is known by the venue in which it was played. Say “The Rupp Gin” to any fan who knows their Phish and you will immediately get praise and adulation for this piece of music. That’s not to say it has to be your favorite or that it is the “best” (whatever that means) but that it is so iconic as to really need no further introduction than by name. And then in its wake you have an absolute throw down of a YEM, one that gives us a glimpse of the proto-cowfunk already being worked out on stage by the band here just a few shows after their first big adventure in groove on Halloween. That YEM is completely undersold (probably due to the Gin, of course) and really deserves so much more praise than it gets. I have really been looking forward to writing this review since the tour started for me and now that I am here I am even more excited about having had the opportunity to spin this gem again and again to really get to the core of it. This is a wonderful high point in this tour but that takes nothing away from the great stuff we have already heard — and for what is yet to come. So let’s wrap things up by saying that your takeaways are the entire second set on this night (I’m throwing the HYHU>Bike>HYHU in there because it really just fits so well in the context of the set). And let’s revel in the fact that there are still so many great jams to come… starting with the next night in Champaign!
Since I am also posting this on what happens to be an important day in Phishtory (Fish’s birthday) I’d be remiss to not at least mention it. Happy 51st to my partner in February 19th birthdays, Mr. Norton Charleston Heston, Henrietta, the tiny beast boy, Tubbs, Moses DeWitt, the octopus, John Fishman. Here’s to many more for our favorite oddball, mumu-wearing beat monster.