Phish — Assembly Hall, University of Illinois — Champaign, IL 11.08.1996
I Jim, Axilla>ATR>Mound, Disease>Caspian, Reba, Golgi, Lope
II 2001>Maze, Bouncin’>Simple, Cup, Mike’s, SSB, Paug
Leaving The South behind after their stellar night in Lexington (though really, is Kentucky the South? or perhaps the lower Midwest? West Appalachia? Sure, it is south of the Ohio River – not that that is a designation point or anything – but it borders four Midwest states and but three southern states. I’m pretty sure they eventually sided with the Union in the Civil War too… maybe I should just accept it and move on? yes? okay!) Phish descended upon the college town of Champaign, IL for a one night stop as Assembly Hall, the on campus multi-use venue most associated with the Fighting Illini basketball team. This would be the band’s second visit to Assembly Hall and third visit to Champaign altogether as they first played here waaaaaay back on 10.03.1991 at Mabel’s. Check out the unusual Coil ending as they segue to Tweezer. The next time they came back to town was 10.22.1995 for their first show at Assembly Hall, supposedly the 1000th show in band history (according to some resources). Check out the Possum->Catapult and Tweezer->Makisupa if nothing else here. So the next visit would be our show here on Fall 96 Tour, one full of gusto and highlights as they began their assault of the Midwest.
Things start out in a familiar way with the fifth Runaway Jim of the tour – also the third Jim opener already, making it the most common opener in these seventeen shows. Actually, before we even get to that Trey drops a bit of the “whistle wah” tone (that’s the name I’m going with until someone can give me something better) we were introduced to in the Lexington Weigh and YEM. While it doesn’t show up in the Jim it will be all over the place throughout this night. So the Jim is nice enough with Trey playing a bit of staccato/plinko lead to accompany Mike and Fish’s punchy rhythm but they wrap it up after a few minutes and move into the tour debut of Axilla. At this point it had been 170 shows since the last one and it shows a tad even if some of the issues here are with Trey’s guitar more than anything (another thing we will come back to here). It is still good to hear this song though and I always appreciated when they used the Axilla II ending as they do here. This allows them to slide right into another bustout, All Things Reconsidered, our friend from Spring 93 which hadn’t been played in 108 shows at this point. The faithful rendition drops right into a funky but straight forward Mound and then we get our first real meat of the evening as they start up Down With Disease. While firmly an in the box first set type version, Trey goes off in that wonderful way, shredding big until they drop down to transition into a decent enough Prince Caspian. Following our date with Fuckerpants they visit our gal Reba to the delight of all in attendance (I know I was psyched). After the composed section as they are heading into the jam Trey pulls out a couple more whistle wahs and Mike punctuates with the fight bell though admittedly this could have been Fish’s bell he used to have since I really can’t recall right now when the *tings* by Mike started popping up. This is the type of Reba that just begs you to groove along with it as Trey takes his time in building to the end peak and all involved do their share to elevate this one to that smile-inducing realm the most satisfying ones do. After a quick and rocking Golgi Apparatus they head into the set closing Run Like an Antelope, punctuating the set with the classic mind bending burst of energy that jam entails. It is pretty well straight forward stuff but rocks the heck out in getting everyone pumped for the “fifteen minute break” to come. So we sit there with our stopwatches, fully expecting the lights to drop when that minute hand clicks over after fifteen extremely long minutes before it dawns on our addled heads that perhaps it would not really be fifteen minutes.
Now a bit more grounded after a swig of a friend’s coke (or pepsi, no idea what the served there then) and perhaps a smoke if that was your thing back then (it was pretty common, after all) the lights do finally drop. Possibly knowing that we all wanted to get down from the get down in this one they drop into 2001, giving us a brief taste of what is to come with this song in coming months as they start to really stretch it into the groove monster it was for a few years there. Still, it serves its purpose here in waking us up from setbreak slumber and before you know it they are into a rip roaring Maze. Quite simply, Trey shreds the shit out of this one with Page having a bit of fun in his solo as well. This isn’t quite to the level of that Pittsburgh Maze earlier in the tour but there’s nothing to complain about here either. They counterpoint this with Bouncin’ Around The Room providing the happy music in the wake of the deep dark Maze that preceded it. Next up we get the jam highlight you came here for, one of those big time Fall 96 Simples that they write poems about. They do that, right? After working through the song and standard first solo Trey drops over to the mini-kit, adding pop to the backing rhythm for Page’s piano stylings. Trey is adding effects with his pedals and such, giving us a little whistle wah and more. Hey wait one second… Now I am not so sure who initiates the whistle wah as when it comes up in the video (see the link a bit further down) Trey is on the mini-kit and doesn’t appear to make a move towards a pedal or anything but there it is – and Page is going nuts on the piano right then so I’m fairly certain it wasn’t him either. Dagnabit, that’s a world-view-altering question I need answered now. So anyone want to tell me who DOES play the whistle wah tone???
Now back to the jam… Page runs the show in this first part of the jam, first on the piano and then the Moog and electric organ all while Fish, Mike, and Trey add varied sounds to the mix. Trey then starts up some elongated, almost dissonant lines on the guitar as Page moves to a more percussive mode of playing which eventually evolves into Trey taking the reins to lead out into a high powered section of guitar-led rawk. This section feels like it should head up to a massive peak but then you can tell something isn’t quite right with Trey’s playing as he seems to go in and out a bit as they move into a different space. I can tell you that he was literally kicking an amp up there, somewhat faux angrily playing at wanting to destroy the thing in frustration. You can see all of that in the last two minutes or so of this video (I know the quality is crappy but think about the source and the intervening years of tape degradation involved, mister 4K vid snob) of this wonderful jam which also shows off that it was Gold Shirt Night for Trey yet again that night. The thing about it is that Trey really does still pull off some nice stuff here which makes you wonder what could have been had he not been fighting with his rig there.
Right as they finish up the Simple Trey banters a little about how “you have to kick it sometimes, you know?” and then they head right into Loving Cup with fingers pressed firmly against the side of their noses. The “bad guitar” line definitely held a bit more weight and humor after all that. And while this isn’t exactly an epic Cup like, oh, I don’t know, the one from Indio in 2009 Trey does shred this with a bit more gusto than what is typical for the song. Now back on it, they start into Mike’s Song for what will clearly be the set closing Groove. They dive quickly into the chugging first jam with Trey accenting it with more wah’d out fills than we’ve heard from him in this song up to this point. They don’t sit here very long though as after only a couple of minutes we move into second jam territory with Trey hopping on the mini-kit for a bit to let Page play around as his sustain loop drones on behind. There are several whistle wahs here to accompany the percussion which may be indicative of it really being Trey who hits it, though I still don’t have video proof of that… yet. Anyway, they bring things down to a very sparse place, giving the crowd the chance to offer some positive feedback before they stop altogether and walk out front to get into a cappella mode. Trey give a little banter of thanks and about this being practice for their upcoming performance before the upcoming Minnesota Timberwolves game (adding in the jibe “those of you who have a tv”). Obviously, this gives us the Star Spangled Banner (an interesting Mike’s Groove filler to be certain) and then they return to their respective places to start up Weekapaug Groove. But something isn’t seemingly going right here as Mike is playing those big intros notes without anything really coming out of his amps until all of a sudden ALL THE NOTES come out at once in this wild cacophony of Paug noise. I’m pretty certain he forgot to turn off his delay pedal or something but whatever. It was a wild effect live and somewhat holds up on tape. Now we are off into the feel good vibes of Paug for a rocking close to the set. All told that’s a really fun setlist and it comes off quite well upon relisten as well. The encore tonight is Theme from the Bottom (after a whistle wah at the start to keep that going) and while nice and soaring — I will not comment on the clapping some fans did here (or in the Reba…) — it stays at home and the next thing you know we are filing out to head to the lots and figure out how long we need to screw around there before one of us is brave enough to take the wheel for the almost 400 mile drive up and over to Auburn Hills. Thankfully for me, my family lived along that path so we had a stopping point for the night and to recharge before the next night’s fun but for a lot of people that would have been yet another in a long line of potentially harrowing drives on the highways and byways of this great nation.
Upon reflection, this show is one of those ones that is perhaps a bit better than it looks on paper — even if it looks pretty good there! Taking the equipment issues Trey experienced out of the equation (and honestly, they really aren’t too noticeable on tape anyway) you have a first set with a couple of bustouts, a few nice jams, and some great energy throughout. When your one ‘slow song’ for the set is a power ballad like Caspian that bodes well. Then they really amp things up for a second set that has no lulls unless you aren’t a fan of patriotic a cappella tunes. This is just an overall solid Friday night of fun in a college town which can lead to some pretty memorable evenings, quite frankly. Your highlights here are Reba, Maze, and Simple with second tier entry being Mike’s Song. I’d spin this whole show if I was you but if not you could also check out Disease, Lope, and perhaps Theme and have yourself a nifty playlist of highlights. Now we are on to the Michigan portion of the tour before that night off date with NBA destiny.