Phish — Hilton Coliseum — Ames, IA 11.14.1996
I Bag>Uncle Pen, Wolfman’s>CTB, Free, ATR, Gin, Talk, Julius
II Llama, Sample, Taste, Swept Away>Steep>Mule, Life on Mars?, Demand>Lope>ADITL
E Stash, Hello My Baby
After their extended stay in Minneapolis Phish did that thing where they follow the lines headed south — and I mean like due south because Ames is the first town of any consequence that you hit when driving south on I-35 out of Minneapolis, with apologies to Owatonna, Albert Lea and the home of the Music Man Mason City, IA of course. You may think that is but a throw away nod to the regional geography found via bored internetting but seriously do you know who wrote The Music Man? A dude named Willson, that’s who. I mean, sure, the spelling is a little different but that’s just a little convenient don’t you think? Don’t answer that. I’m a bit overly caffeinated today.
So Iowa. Not exactly the most frequently played state in the band’s history but they have been here for a few shows dating back to the second leg of Spring 1993. And if you really know your band history you will say, “well, obviously they have some history with this state what with Trey’s grandparent’s having lived here DUH!” which would not only make you sound like a total creep for knowing waaaay too much about the band’s family genealogy but also is just plain rude, sir, and we would appreciate it if you phrased it a little more nicely so as to not alienate those who might be a little touchy about that type of retort. That show was at The IMU Ballroom at the University of Iowa in Iowa City on 04.12.1993. Three shows into that second leg, this one is a hot affair with a smoking Stash, a massive bustout of Satin Doll after 418 shows, two more bustouts in Tube (73 shows) and Highway to Hell (185 shows), a lot of that tease fun typical of that tour (like the brief hints of ‘Woody Woodpecker’ Trey puts into his trilling solo in Reba), and a YEM that includes a big Gumbo quote and a fun Mike-initiated jam on ‘Honky Tonk Women’ out of the B&D section. Be sure to check out the Trey banter at the start of Satin Doll because you get a lot of the family history of Trey who explains why they busted the song out. The short story is that Trey’s great grand father went to the University of Iowa (class of 1908 woo!), going on to become the first dentist in Iowa to use nitrous oxide (eliciting a cheer from the wook faithful). His daughter, Trey’s grandmother, would later go dancing at the very venue Phish was playing that night where she met his eventual grandfather, leading to the old school jazzy dance tune being played (as crooned by Page, of course). This is one of those shows you may never have heard before but that has a lot to be found within which might be obvious when you consider they double encored it. The next year they played about 110 miles to the west in Des Moines at the Civic Center on 06.14.1994, just a couple shows removed from their landmark performances at Red Rocks that year. There’s a great YEM here with a jam on ‘On Broadway’ not to mention all of that big time energetic jamming that typified Summer ’94. Oh, and be sure to listen to the quite interesting Guelah>Adeline>DDLJ>Guelah in the (you guessed it) second slot of the first set – just know that the Addy is un-mic’d so unless you have a phenomenal copy it will sound like silence after the Asse Festival for a bit before they do the little Digi Delay Loopin’ that bends back into The Fly section. Fall 1995 saw the band back in the state again, this time back east in Cedar Rapids at the Five Seasons Arena on 10.20.1995. As Fall ’95 shows go this one is a bit tame but you could do worse than to spin a show from arguably one of their best tours ever and besides there is an Amazing Grace jam with electric bagpipe accompaniment by Johnny ‘Bagpipes’ Johnston, naturally (because who else BUT him?).
All of that led to another show in Iowa in Fall ’96, this time for the first time in Ames, home of Iowa State University (and a pretty darn good barbeque place in Hickory Park Restaurant Co. if I do say so myself). That makes four different cities in four years something which would end here as since this show they have only played Iowa once time more, back here again at the House that Hotel Money Built (not its real byline) on 10.01.1999. In all honesty I wish we were discussing that show because it is the more interesting of the two ever played here what with that big Gin (I’m a sucker for the ’99 brand of Gin) and the fun Gumbo jam in the midst of a raging second set that included Antelope, Fluffhead, and Slave as juggernaut energy jams. Alas, that show is almost three years on from what we have here.
Why am I prefacing this show in such a blase way? Well, for context you should know that this show was played in the midst of one of those wonderfully epic Midwest ice storms that can be quite bad for your health if you find yourself caught outside while they are happening. That effectively kills the lot scene which definitely has an impact on the energy level of the crowd for some pretty plainly obvious reasons. Add to that the fact that the band and crew had a show about 380 miles to the southeast to travel to overnight through that weather, causing the show to end somewhat earlier than most. Don’t believe me on that? The set lengths tell the story as here we have two sets that clock in under and hour — and that includes the encore for the second set — for a paltry total of two hours and six minutes of stage time. Using our trusty geekiness with a little help from a basic spreadsheet we know the average show length of this tour to be 150.57 minutes which is just over two and a half hours for the mathematically challenged. Even if you take out the two shows in excess of three hours (Atlanta Halloween at 3 hours and 41 minutes; Las Vegas tour closer at 3 hours and 11 minutes) the average is at two hours and twenty-seven minutes which means that this show is 21 minutes shorter than the average on the tour. Now, you might not think that is very much to take out of a show but it could be up to three or four shorter songs or a couple of decent jams, to say nothing of a potential 20+ minute aural feast. I am pretty convinced that the setbreak here was also a lot shorter but I didn’t attend and no one has produced that information to my knowledge. I guess the reason I bring all of this up is to help provide context as to why I’m not going to spend much time on the actual music here as it is less interesting in total than a similarly-lengthed show from 1992 or 1993 where at least then they were in the midst of working on big changes to their music and overall sound. With that wonderful lead in we might as well get to getting…
The show starts out positively enough with a rocking ACDC Bag that has promise before dropping into the mini-bustout and tour debut of Uncle Pen. This pairing kind of sets up the tone of the night where they seem to be keeping things energetic, light, and dancer/singer-along friendly by mixing up genres and opting for shorter numbers light on big improvisational acrobatics. This continues with an almost funky if they had let it continue Wolfman’s Brother which segues into the reliable punchiness of the Page-penned Cars Trucks Buses, giving us our fourth different style in as many songs. The CTB has one of the more interesting bits of this set as there is what sounds to be a washboard accompaniment (by Fish?) in the early part though I have yet to be able to confirm that independently or via video (because none exists that I know of for this show). Anyway, that bit is brief and after closing up CTB they head into Free for what will be probably the most engaging piece of music of the set. While still pretty contained in comparison to what we expect from the song these days the jam gets quite percussive with Trey adding that dark, fractured lead line that feels more machine-like than musical while also adding in a couple of fills from his mini-kit. During the drum intro to the All Things Reconsidered that follows Free Trey gives his expected nod to family history with Iowa before they run through the composed piece quite nicely. Next up is our next sign of promise for the set as Trey goes into the first Bathtub Gin since that pretty okay one from Lexington a week ago. But as generally happens when a song goes big in one show the next performance of it is not nearly as memorable. This is not a dig on this version as it is the longest song of this set and definitely is a fun bit of type I jamming but it never goes anywhere new even with Trey hinting at a possible dive into DEG at one point and eventually wraps up in a standard fashion. After a quick take on Talk (thankfully for me the last one we will get this tour — I’ve probably said why before but let’s not go there now) they wrap up the set with a punchy Julius that speaks to everything I have said leading here which is that while quite raging (and including a quick run through the Buried Alive lick at 4:43) is not exactly the song we look to to find the highlight of a set. And with that we have finished up the first set having heard an art rock/idiom romp, classic bluegrass cover, white boy funk ditty, fun instrumental driving song, dirty rock anthem, fun proggy composed number, avenue for jam potential disguised as a nod to Gershwin, throw away acoustic ballad thing, and rocking swing dance tune all in under 55 minutes. If nothing else I guess you could say that this is a jukebox set that captures the many sides of Phish which is correct in one sense but leaves out a whole lot in telling that tale. As a first set it is largely harmless and isn’t really too different from of the similarly banal first sets we have been subjected to here in 3.0 but here in Fall ’96 it is even less adventurous than pretty much all of the other first sets that don’t look that great on paper. Worse things can be said about this band for sure — and clearly have — but in terms of intent you have to give them credit for at least playing this one well if not so uniquely.
When they come back out for the second set (and note that Trey just says they’ll take a quick break and not the standard “fifteen minute break” that really means about 30 minutes or so) you have to be thinking “okay, obviously they are taking us deep here after THAT” and you get the raging frenzy of Llama to help you along. That’s a good way to keep things up after that break but they quickly lose me with Sample in a Jar, though admittedly I am probably not the target audience for that song at this point. They are keeping the genre-hopping going here as the next tune is the oft-played Taste, tonight staying pretty close to the album version of the song while as always incorporating bits of the Norwegian Wood/WTU? melodic bits that always seem to pop up in that song. It is cleanly played and well received but again not necessarily anything new. Next up is the popular Fall ’96 pair Swept Away>Steep here in its 3 show out of the last four. This has been a solid precursor to some solid jams so far this tour buuuuuut tonight we get Scent of a Mule in its wake which while perhaps a fun song in the moment that has the lovely coda lines is not exactly the song the most of us are seeking for the meat of our second set. Trey does do the vocal scat thing to accompany his guitar but that’s still a pretty linear thing in terms of Phish jamming. Now pretty well half way into the set you have to be scratching your head a bit about how things are progressing and they head into another spot on take on Life On Mars? which is nice. Still not a jam though ::insert winky dude:: . They follow this up with another bustout for Demand (64 shows), that somewhat dark Hoist track which in pretty much all of its meager 15 performances has been a good lead-in to bigger things particularly considering how it was positioned on the album ahead of that Melt jam from 04.21.1993 which we know was a major touchpoint for the evolution of that jam template. Tonight in what ended up being its last performance until 3.0 it precedes Run Like an Antelope (the second such pairing) which does come off well in that energetic way but is pretty rote as Lopes goes in all honesty. It’s fun but at under 12 minutes is sits in the lower half of Lope lengths which is not an absolute indicator of quality, of course but here definitely speaks to the fact that they were not exactly looking to stretch things out. You do get a little taste of that almost-but-not-really washboard tone thing right before the “rye rye, rocco” section though. That said, it isn’t like this is the closer even though Lope does fit that role more often than not as they go into the set closing A Day In The Life cover. As with LOM? this is well played but not the kind of cover that has anything of a jam and we are off to the encore after another jukebox set (which this time goes rage rocker, pop rock single attempt, syncopated pocket rocker, moody art rock pairing, oddball Mike tune with band hijinx, Bowie cover, neato bustout, Phish anthem, Beatles cover). Interestingly enough, after those two sets of largely uninspiring if well played songs they come out and encore with Stash of all songs for only the second time ever (11.01.1991 being the other) perhaps as a bit of a “hey, yeah, we know that wasn’t the biggest set ever so here’s a Stash to take you into the night.” And that is a nice gesture because I doubt anyone thought that would happen but in terms of execution this one is (again) light on the jam opting for some brief T&R building (which almost feels pulled from some James Bond movie soundtrack for a bit) before coming back to the close. After the quick a cappella for Hello My Baby we are on the road again to find less icy pastures on a Friday in Omaha.
Yeah, I wasn’t too kind up there perhaps because I have a certain set of expectations for this tour in the back half but I stand by it. This is quite frankly a pretty boring show to discuss. The odd thing is that nothing here is botched or otherwise played poorly, they just don’t go anywhere with the songs they played. I’ve read one review on .net that indicates it might have something to do with it being a crowd largely made up of less experienced fans and factoring in the weather woes on top of that you have the band playing a basic, safe type of show that pleases everyone (except me, I guess) and gets them on the bus at a reasonable hour after the load out. That’s all well and good but this is a band that is known for playing big time shows in skip towns and dropping flaming hot sets when the weather is at its worst. I subscribe more to the idea that this is a band a bit weary from the road seeing the opportunity to play it by the book and get on the road, something that is in their long history actually quite atypical. So in that sense this is Phish being Phish, doing the thing you don’t expect them to do (just to stretch that to the furthest conclusion we can muster, of course). At first I thought I might not have any takeaways from this show but I think that Julius merits mention and the CTB is interesting enough for second tier along with the Demand because how often do you even get to hear that one? Besides, I’m a bit weary of including the same songs over and over so let’s mix it up a tad. With that I will say no more about this show as there are much MUCH better things coming that should sustain our interest ::wink wink::