Phish — Mid-South Coliseum — Memphis, TN 11.18.1996
I CTB, Timber Ho!, Poor Heart>Taste, Billy Breathes, CDT, Guelah, Ginseng, Reba, Zero
II 2001>Simple->Swept Away>Steep>Mule, Tweezer, HMB, Reprise>Llama
E Waste, JBG
Following their fun Saturday night in Omaha Phish took a night off to make the backwards trek to Memphis. I mean, seriously, look at this tour routing for the first 24 shows that make up the first two legs* of this tour:
Follow the letters there for the routing if it isn’t clear to you. There are at least five (if not more) points on the tour where you have to travel through a city they have already played or will play later on the tour in order to get to the next show — and there are a couple more on the West Coast run to come. That all contributes to why the East/Midwest portions of this tour cover over 8,200 miles of travel which is a lot to put on that beat up microbus you have been slinging grilled cheese out of this fall. I know a lot of it has to do with juggling venue schedules, fitting in days off for the band and crew along the way, hitting the days of the week that are traditionally good ticket sales nights, and more to make it work but that’s a brutal route no matter how you slice it. This Memphis show ends up being an “out and back” trip where you have to pass through Kansas City after leaving Omaha to get there, only to return the following night for that last show of the Midwest leg (which also occurred earlier on tour down in Florida). I don’t envy the job of the person who had/has to do all of this and I’m sure they stress about it royally when putting it all in place so I won’t criticize too heavily but yeah, not exactly cutting greenhouse emissions with this one.
*I haven’t really looked at this tour in terms of legs too much because the longest gaps between show dates are each two days but with that in mind if you had to break this tour down to find the break points it would be as follows:
Leg One — October 16th through November 3rd — 14 shows — 3,900+ miles
Lake Placid, NY – State College, PA – Pittsburgh, PA – Buffalo, NY – New York, NY (2 shows) – Hartford, CT – Hampton, VA – Charlotte, NC – North Charleston, SC – Atlanta, GA – Tallahassee, FL – West Palm Beach, FL – Gainesville, FL
Leg Two — November 6th through November 18th — 11 shows — 3,700+ miles
Knoxville, TN – Lexington, KY – Champaign, IL – Auburn Hills, MI – Grand Rapids, MI – Minneapolis, MN – Ames, IA – St. Louis, MO – Omaha, NE – Memphis, TN – Kansas City, MO
Leg Three — November 22nd through December 6th — 10 shows — 3,200+ miles
Spokane, WA – Vancouver, BC – Portland, OR – Seattle, WA – Daly City, CA – Sacramento, CA – Los Angeles, CA – Phoenix, AZ – San Diego, CA – Las Vegas, NV
On paper it’s a pretty cool looking tour until you factor in all that mileage — and keep in mind that back then you didn’t have the number of people financially capable of using flights to make this work (not that there are really that many people these days doing full tours by plane/rental car but there’s enough). Adding in the travel between the different legs gets you to just about 13,000 miles traveled for this tour in which case I really hope you weren’t driving your mom’s leased minivan or something because you just blew through your annual mileage allotment over the course of less than two months. As a frame of reference, the entirety of the Fall ’98 Tour covered only about 5,000 miles over 22 shows which is obviously shorter (by 13 shows) and benefits from better scheduling due to the multi-night stops in Las Vegas, Chicago, Hampton, and Worcester. Outside of a few tour stops that got two night stands on various summer and fall tours (e.g. Deer Creek, Hampton) I am pretty sure that is the first tour that is specifically set up with multiple multi-night stands anchored around weekends. I’m not about to go and map the mileage for every tour they have done but someone probably has or will since we tend to do stuff like that. I’m sure the findings would be quite illuminating.
And so to Memphis. Phish has a pretty strong history with Tennessee in general having now played 25 shows here (good for a tie at #19 overall). As far back as Spring 1991 they visited Memphis, stopping here for their third show in the state on that run through the south on their way west at the New Daisy Theatre on 03.06.1991 for a single setter with ARU opening and for which no known recordings exist. It would be another 3+ years before they came back to Blues City, this time playing the Orpheum Theatre on 10.12.1994 and dropping a few nice jams like that dark Melt and one of those oh-so-94 Bowies not to mention debuting Beaumont Rag as part of that evening’s bluegrass mini-set. Eight months later on 06.14.1995 they were back in town at the Mud Island Amphitheatre (a coll little amphitheater on an island in the Mississippi River) for a show most famously known for the monster Tweezer in the 2nd set which stands to this day as the longest ever performed. There’s also a nice version of ‘Don’t You Want to Go?’, a cover of The Meditation Singers classic which was performed five times that year before going to the “Where Are They Now” files. Might be nice to hear that one some time again… That’s it for the history lesson today. In case you are wondering why I do these, part of it is my personal fascination with the minutiae of setlist construction, part of it is knowing that for a long time Trey used information about prior performances in a city to help with deciding to play the next time, and also because it is a good way to find some hidden gem jams that one might not have otherwise discovered. I tend to listen to the ‘highlights’ from the past shows in the area as I write some sections of these reviews while playing the show itself when going through the meat of the breakdown and even though I’ve heard many of these shows or at least bits of them before it is always fun to find something that is new to me. Plus it will eventually allow me to just refer back to my old posts once we’ve covered the entire geography because I’m sure I’ll go that far…
The first song of the show is almost a forefinger-to-the-nose knowing nod to the travelers’ plight as they bounce into Cars Trucks Buses for the ninth time this tour (and second opening slot after the tour opening version in Lake Placid). The energetic song has a bit more of that “washboard” effect we heard last time out but is otherwise about what you’d expect from the song and then we are off into Timber Ho! which is always a nice one to hear this early in the show. Never a full vehicle the song is more like a mood setter, giving us a bit of dark jamming in a tight little package, a take that is fairly divergent from its roots when sung by such folk as Josh White or Odetta. It is definitely a song Phish has taken and made their own and which has become a crowd favorite in the 82 performances of the song to date. Surprisingly, 24 of these have come in 3.0 which I suppose makes sense considering we are now in our seventh year of that iteration and by percentage it works. Well, tonight’s version is a good representation of what Phish did/does with the tune, adding to the building energy and allowing Trey to show off his nimble fingers in the end jam. After romping through Poor Heart they drop into Taste and even though this song is currently being played more than every other show this version does not feel stale or overdone. It has a lot of the WTU? feel in the outro jam and peaks nicely in capping our first-four-songs-get-the-room-moving section of the show. Billy Breathes offers the opportunity for a rest and midset bathroom break but then they hit is hard once more with a raging Chalkdust Torture that Trey takes over and annihilates the thing. This is one of those great type I versions like they used to do with this song before it became the vehicle for exploration it has become these days. Both types have their place, I believe, and you could do a lot worse than to rock out to this one at high volume. The cool down from this is a late set Guelah Papyrus which tonight has a bit more of the percussive playfulness by the guys as Trey throws in some ‘whistle wahs’ and Mike hits the fight bell during the intro. The rest is typical Guelah but it is all nice and relaxed. Next is an interesting placement for Ginseng Sullivan,putting the grassy cover this late in the set but it works in picking up some steam before they head out for the late set Reba you have been pining for since the last one back in Minneapolis. Things proceed as they do with this Reba in getting to the jam which is has a very serene, patient feel as Page accents Trey with the electric organ and Trey slowly builds towards the end peak. You won’t see this version on any of those “teh best evar!” lists but it has a feel that is reminiscent of the Clifford Ball Reba or another of those day-time-festy-set Rebas. Closing in on the peak Trey holds a trilling note for a bit that makes you think he might try to beat his Omaha Hood held note record but it is all just serving the flow of this one as he works through the ebb and flow of the song. Almost suddenly they stop on a dime in closing up Reba and now time for the set to close the band rocks into Character Zero, allowing the song to continue its ongoing battle with Taste as the most oft played tune of the tour. Interestingly, this is the second of three straight Reba, Zero pairings on this tour, something that has happened only six times ever. So Zero crushes which it should considering their familiarity with it at this point as Trey takes the lead guitar player role to heart here in giving homage to Hendrix with the distorted playing throughout his solo. In the end Trey mentions they will be back after a “fifteen minute break” which is a lie, of course, as we know but he also slips in something like “and we get our shit together” which seems like an odd comment to make here after what sure felt like a pretty solid first set. I am probably mishearing that though so let me know what you think that lying liar said there.
The setbreak goes as one would expect as you walk the halls of a venue that — unknown to you at this time — would close about ten years later due to the sustained operating losses that are typical of these largish civically owned and operated but underutilized structures in middling to troubled municipalities. Heck, even the venue that essentially replaced this one, The Pyramid, is now a freaking Bass Pro Shops after the two venues coexisted in the area for several years. Now there is the FedEx Forum which is home to the city’s NBA franchise and the University of Memphis basketball team after taking that from The Pyramid where Phish played a quite good show on 09.29.1999 perhaps best known for the legendary 2001 that went down that night. That’s all future talk at this point though so unless the head you are on this night in Fall 96 is really quite something you probably didn’t have any of that flying through your noggin as you navigated the pitfalls of another oh so bright, oh so crowded venue between sets. But maybe there was something to that headful because when the band takes the stage they start up 2001, blowing your mind about how everything is connected and that maybe Trey really can hear your thoughts cuz how else would he know to play that song in that moment? Dude, this is getting weird.
In all honesty, you might not have recognized that it was 2001 they were playing right away considering that the band noodles around for about three and a half minutes before Fish even kicks in with the beat. That alone is a new path for the song but we are just getting started. At around five minutes in Page finally plays the tell tale organ line as Trey continues to play around the song without actually diving in. This playfulness continues up until the seven minute mark where after some scratching leads Trey finally plays the main melody, adding in some looped effects as well. Now we are into the dance party as they go through the song and flow through into the groove jam. Trey patiently comps along as Page works the organ setting a template that we will grow to love in the wake of this landmark version. After one more run through the 2001 “verses” they hit that final peak to move on into the inevitable segue that this song always invites. Before we get to that next song let’s take a minute to recognize a few things here. We have started to hear some signs from 2001 on this tour that perhaps they are doing more with it but outside of the fun groove pocket they hit when Perazzo was there on Halloween the song at this stage was still mainly an energetic kickoff to bigger and jammier things. I recommend reading LawnMemo’s great 2001 series and the one on 1996 in particular as it is relevant to this performance. And while you are there definitely dive into his fantastic Daily Ghost series but don’t forget to come back! Here we get a version of the song that is patient in a way the song never had been previously, clocks in at close to double the length of any prior version, and adds a swagger to the playing that we hadn’t yet experienced. I pointed out a tipping point of sorts for the band in finding the groove pocket jamming style back in the PerazzoPhish part of this tour and here is another example of the importance of this tour in the grand scheme of the band’s development. There really is no denying that for 2001 everything should be referred to in relation to this version in the sense of “was that one before 11.18.1996 or after?”
How then does a band follow up the then longest and most exploratory version of a song you’ve been playing for years? If you are Phish the answer is to drop into the jam vehicle that has been most reliable on this tour, Simple, and not just that but also take it for its biggest adventure of the tour. Right from the start of the jam you can tell they are feeling comfortable here. After a bit of the normal type I soaring stuff Trey moves to the mini-kit and Page takes the forefront on the baby grand as Mike *tings* the fightbell and Trey adds whistle wah and other effects to the percussive, syncopated groove. After a few minutes of setting the tone in this fashion Trey goes back to the guitar, adding to the unique beat. Eventually he is adding in elongated, singular notes that reach up and scratch at the sky all while Page and the rhythm section follow along. Fish adds in something I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him do for a Simple jam, pretty much wooing along in key like some spunion might as they peak during this section (I am certain there were those in the audience that night who thought that was all just part of the goings on in their head). The jam winds down to quiet resolution in acknowledgement of the jam having run its course without need to try to extend it further. Trey throws in a couple of laser loops as if to drive that point home — which in 99 or so would have probably kicked us into a massive Sand jam but that’s getting way ahead of ourselves — and then we get the denouement in the form of Swept Away>Steep. This has been one of the more reliable landing pads on this tour having happened now nine times and three of those out of pretty darn good Simple jams. Our collective breath now caught you have to think they will head back out again for some more jam aaaaaaaaand we get Mule’d. Okay, we’ve covered our feelings on this and normally I wouldn’t spend much time here as a result but this one has another interjection from Fish that honestly makes me laugh every time I hear it. Right after the “sound of a breeding Holstein” line he braaps out a noise that I’m sure he felt was evocative of that imagery — and it makes me laugh every time. The Mule then goes how it does until we hit the Trey section where he adds to the theme he has been building with the song this tour by scatting along to the notes he plays, eventually with the crowd clapping along to the oddly paced jamlet. It is kinda neat actually. Then we get the Page, klezmer close and Mule is in the rearview mirror. Somewhat surprisingly they start into Tweezer next giving us hopes of a third big vehicle for this already pretty satisfying set. From the start of the jam Trey is up front, offering one of those chugging lead lines you know is just going to explode when — hey wait! is that? Holy crap! El Buho!!! We have Gary Gazaway up on stage joining in for this Tweezer jam, making him the second member of the extended Halloween band to grace the Phish stage this tour. The jam stays in a familiar place from here with Trey and Gary trading a bit before we get to the old slow down ending. This isn’t the biggest Tweezer jam ever (or even of this tour) and it really feels like it could have gone way out if Trey had let loose with the Hose instead of El Buho coming out but it really isn’t the worst way to have someone sit in either.
After Trey introduces Gary to the crowd he sticks around for Hello My Baby, a song I would have never thought could use instrumental accompaniment. Before the final refrain they give him space to take a little solo which is nice and still has me wracking me bring to figure out whether there is another example of an instrumentalist joining in for an a cappella tune. Sure, there have been a few Amazing Grace jams which have other musicians (including that one with Johnny ‘Bagpipes’ Johnston from 10.20.19995 that we mentioned in the Ames write-up) but those are generally after the band has done the a cappella thing first. No matter what, this is the only time something like this ever happened with Hello My Baby which is neatorific. Oddly enough they then start into Reprise which makes you think the set is closing but you don’t worry so much because Mike is dropping bombs and El Buho is blowing horn and you rock the fuck out and all is good with the world. It gets even better when they head into Llama from there, giving us a bit more time with Gary not to mention a pretty rare set closing combo. In fact, the only other time they have closed a set with Reprise>Llama was 12.31.1998. Following the encore break we have one of those Wastes that get the whole place hugging and holding lighters aloft. Back in that time we didn’t have these new-fangled smartphone things to provide light and other distraction at shows, whippersnapper, we had actual fire because people still smoked indoors quite regularly and the fire marshal didn’t think much of the potential hazards that come from several thousand people holding open flames up. We also didn’t have these glowstick war things you kids are always trying to get started because the technology was such that if you threw the glowsticks we could get you could brain someone and end up with a big ‘oops’ to explain to that person’s mother when she had to sit up all night watching for signs of a concussion along with babysitting her freaking out addle-headed baby who keeps yelling to her to watch out for the next volley of “hurt lasers” lobbed by the infidels. Bah! Get off my GA floor! After the sing/sway-along El Buho comes back out for one more tune which you have to figure will be some horn friendly funfest buuuuuuut ends up being Johnny B. Goode. Wonderful.
This show is just another along the upward path that this tour is taking as they finish up the Midwest leg. This first set has a bit more meat to it than many of the other ones of late what with that nice Taste, shreddy CDT, and the lovely Reba making it one of the more engaging first sets of this tour. The second set is actually a little less complete due to that Mule throwing off the flow a bit (on relisten. in venue I am certain most would have loved it and considered it a highlight) and the El Buho sit-in taking the Tweezer in a direction that the jamhounds assuredly point to as an example of why they don’t like sit-ins but I like how this one flows. Sure, it isn’t a perfect set by any means but the intent and energy are there and when they want to they take it out. The highlights from this show are really good and there really aren’t any ‘bad’ moments per se which I guess elevates this show even more as a result. In the end the show if best known for two things — both of which I agree with — so there’s no need to fluff it to anything more than it is which is to say that this is a solid show that you should spin if you never have because it might surprise you in how good it is. Our takeaways here are CDT, Reba, and 2001>Simple with the Mule, Tweezer and Reprise>Llama holding second tier interest due to the El Buho sit-in and the uniqueness of the Mule. I thought about including the HMB but that isn’t really a highlight as much as an “oh, neat” and the Taste we will leave off because the next one is probably better and has a nifty tease I just discovered the other day. Is that a lot of songs from this show? I guess, but it’s not like I need to be picky here. They are all worth it for this level of scrubbing. The real fun will come at the end of this tour when we get to figure out the real gems… One more show before the long drive west!