Phish — Spokane Arena — Spokane, WA 11.22.1996
I Ice>Jim, Wolfman’s, Taste, Ginseng>Sample, FEFY, Train Song, Stash, Cavern
II Disease>Caspian>Maze, Billy Breathes>Swept Away>Steep>Zero, Theme, Slave, HMB
If ever you have driven across this great country of ours you know that there are certain legs that are nothing but monotonous slogs through areas of annoyingly stark beauty as you make your way to the next burst of population density upon the landscape. These are the times you get lost in thought staring out of misty windows as the highway ticks by and the music you have on provides the soundtrack for the swirl of ideas that arise and pass through your mind as the rain pitter-patters its ambient beat to accompany the tunes. Drives like these were once something I had a lot of experience with and where I got my most devoted Phish and Dead tape listening in without the pesky interventions of life messing with that solitude. While I have not personally completed the lengthy drive that Phish and the seriously die-hard fans on the Fall ’96 Tour did in getting from Kansas City to Spokane I have a pretty good idea of how that went for them what with it being some 1,550 miles in mid-November through some of the most open and empty country this great land has to offer. On the surface the mileage doesn’t seem too daunting since you effectively had a bit of two days to make the trip (even if you stayed in KC for some BBQ before heading out the morning after the 11.19 show) but when you layer in the weather that was going down around then I can imagine it made for some white knuckled miles in Montana and Idaho. I’m sure everyone was all hopped up on White Crosses and No Doz so obviously it was all okay, right?
Once in Spokane, you and the band had a bit of time to recuperate before the show on 11.22, seeing the sights in the Lilac City and discussing their singular previous visit here just over a year prior. For as many times as the band had been in the region for shows going back all the way to Spring 1991 (we will cover that more when we come back from Vancouver in a few they had only visited this eastern part of the state on 10.07.1995 for a show at the Spokane Opera House. Hey look! Newsies is playing there! Why didn’t anyone tell me??? The venue is part of the larger performing arts center that is a legacy of the World’s Fair of 1974 held in Spokane (who knew?) and by all accounts appears to be a nice place to see a show. Being in the early middle part of that epic Fall ’95 Tour this Spokane show has some great stuff but isn’t in the top tier of shows from that run mainly due to being up against some truly legendary shows. Definitely check out the Melt and Hood (especially the Hood!) and maybe the Possum if you like the DEG-like jamming style that one used to get or perhaps It’s Ice with a lovely demonic bit of jammery. Now on to the larger Spokane Arena and the last one they’ve played in this town…
First we need to set the stage for this show, as I think it is very relevant both in terms of song choices and band intent which I’ll get to as we go. Any time you have a tour – a national tour at that – which occurs in a season with potentially fluctuating weather you have the potential of your shows being impacted in some way. Thankfully for us Phish has had very very few actual show cancellations in their history but that doesn’t mean we haven’t seen weather play a role in the proceedings. Just a few examples include the snowstorm surrounding the 02.12.1993 show, another snowstorm for the 12.09.1995 Albany, NY show, the wicked rain and lightning that hit during the first set of 07.22.1997 in Raleigh, the Ames show on 11.14.1996 from earlier this tour, the deluge that hit at the end of the first set for Alpharetta, GA on 06.05.2011 (resulting in a two set version of Mound), and the rain soaked first set from 07.12.2013 at Jones Beach – but one of the rain soaked shows that venue has seen. I am only scratching the surface with those examples as there are plenty of others (like the rain storm at the end of the first set of 07.31.2009 where the band ‘played the storm’ in the Melt jam and blew my mind in the process or any of the other vividly explosive sets where the weather matched the band) but it serves to set us up for this night in Spokane.
Your ‘typical’ mid-November weather in Spokane gives you temps in the 40s with a better than not chance of some form of precipitation at some point in the day which generally means some rain which is pretty much par for the course if you are of the Northwestern persuasion. By the time you get to the last week or two of the month the temps have begun to fall and that daily precipitation continues and sometimes that results in what went down during the time Phish visited Spokanistan that Fall of 1996. Starting on the same day that Phish dealt with significant weather in Iowa (11.14) the Spokane area some form of frozen precipitation every day up to and including the night of their show on 11.22 when it had grown into a full blown ice storm outside the venue. This was more than just a snow storm like what we got on 12.27.2010 (though calling that fun “just a snow storm” is really putting it mildly) but the impact on the show was similar in some ways and quite different in others. That Worcester NYE Run show has a few songs and lyrical references to the weather (It’s Ice, Mound, Seven Below, “take care of your boots” lyric alteration in Cavern) as well as a couple of hot jams, most notably the Seven Below>WTU? mashed up jam and that Roggae. Admittedly, the most notable jam of that pair of shows would come the following night in the Plinko Hood that had everyone in a tizzy for a bit there though we weren’t exactly complaining about the first night at the time. In contrast, as we will see, this Spokane show had the referential aspect and some good energy but did not really elevate musically for one reason or another.
In an almost too obvious move, the band starts out the night with It’s Ice, giving the nod to the weather right from the start and setting the tone for the show. This is the first and only time they have opened a show with the song as it isn’t exactly the type of number they drop in getting things rolling so it definitely comes as a surprise here. Note that there are only two 2nd set opening versions of the song as well: 12.06.1991 which is probably most notable for having 1 of 3 versions of “Wait” the seminal song about waiting – though I dig the Christmas Lawn Boy – and 07.12.1996 from the Melkweg with the neat little ‘crowd chord jam’ into the butchered NICU and other loose Dutch stuff. That show has always seemed odd to me with the three sets where each one is shorter than the one preceding but that’s not really relevant here. Not that I’ve bothered to establish any sort criteria for relevance of course. Ice bleeds into Jim which has a nice bit of MIke-led lope to it (not Lope though) and now we’ve all warmed into the room shedding off the moist chill. Yeah, I wrote moist. Moist. Moist. See? It loses meaning/power after a while. It doesn’t have to be a word that makes you uncomfortable. Moist. Trey’s solo is engaging and the crowd is on board now as they bring it home in a satisfying manner. Wolfman’s Brother starts up and you get the punctuated version of the song they played at this point which just delayed the inevitable Taste which is now batting .577 and you are glad you picked it up in the draft this time as Trey builds that familiar run up to the peak. You have to admit that after fifteen performances of it they know how to work this one. Trey banters for a bit first talking travel and weather and then introducing Ginseng Sullivan as a Tim O’Brien song which it is not. I’ll never complain about the grassy tunes like this one. Yeah, it is a weird appropriation of the genre but dang it if they aren’t fun to belt out and get down to live. Sample in a Jar then an interesting placement for Fast Enough For You and Train Song which has you wondering where that Jim and Taste stuff went. Trey plays the opening run for Stash and you have ideas of a lift for this set with this set up vehicle for the closer to come. This is pure tension build with a slow burn start that builds with Page really adding a lot behind Trey’s lead to each of the false peaks and now you are synced back up with the music. Fish pushes it to the final peak and as they play the final return you have one of those ‘well that was more than I expected there’ kind of thoughts which is cut off by the punch into the Cavern closer. After the bullshit “15 minute” propaganda Trey corrects his earlier error about the Norman Blake penned ‘Ginseng Sullivan’ and then the lights pop on and the head scratching thoughts kick up as you try to decide what to think about this set.
Perhaps it is the comparison to the hot first sets we’ve been hearing the past few shows or maybe it is all about song choice but something just doesn’t work for me with this one. I really think that starting out with Ice didn’t do them any favors in getting things warmed up quickly as while topical it really isn’t the kind of energy you expect them to come out of the gates with — kinda like opening with The Line but not nearly that bad. That’s an exaggeration, of course, because I cannot think of any worse opener than The Line but the point stands. Really it is about the song choices and flow though. After that Ice opener we have a nice Jim>Wolf>Taste section before the grassy tune gives us a sidestep that starts the bathroom runs in earnest. The next three songs do nothing to bring things back up (go ahead and try to tell me Sample is a good call here. I dare you) so by the time we get to Stash you are looking for a save instead of more fire which causes you to overanalyze it and probably think less of it than it was in the moment. And then to cap it off they close with Cavern, a song I have a personal “thing” with considering how that song has followed me over the years to the point where I really can’t appreciate it all by now. Look, as always I’m not criticizing the playing here because it really is all quite well performed but this set just falls flat for me. I don’t want to take anything away from anyone who was there or anything so we’ll just move on to see if things get better in the second set…
Promisingly, the set starts off with Down with Disease, a song that has been very reliable if not exploratory on this tour. Tonight’s version is similar to some of the recent first set ones we have heard in that it really feels like we are about to tumble into a big open jam out of this song, something that had only happened a few times up to this point – most notably for the 11.12.1994 one that includes Have Mercy, the 06.26.1995 SPAC one that paired with Free for about 40 minutes of pure Summer ’95 mindfuck psych, the 12.12.1995 Providence one that goes far off the deep end like a ’94 Bowie, and the 08.05.1996 Red Rocks version that is funked up and gets Trey over to the mini-kit for a spell. That doesn’t happen here but when they settle into the percussive groove you could be forgiven for thinking that is coming only to have Trey stay on lead. This is a pure shred Disease that rises to the peak and gets a bit of the full ending return before they pull up into Prince Caspian. Yeah, so, okay, sure, I guess this works here but it really feels a bit early in the set to already be cooling things down. Trey goes power ballad guitar god on it but it is still the Caspian we expect here. They drop down in the end and transition to the Maze intro which piques your interest for what is to come and the Maze pays off as is should here in a quite solid year for the song. And then they go slow once more, putting together a mid-set sequence of Billy Breathes>Swept Away>Steep that just drains all of the goodwill energy built back up by the evil Maze shred. That sequence is how they appear on the album and this is the only time they ever got played live in that order but outside of that there’s not much to mention with this except that never again have those three songs been in the same show, surprisingly. Maybe not considering the low number of performances of each tune but still. Oh, and since Swept Away>Steep debuted this tour it is also the only tour where it happened that they were all played in the same show with four shows having them (I’ll let you figure out which if you really care that much). Again we are in the position of needing a pick-me-up after that slow jam session and they bang right into Character Zero in the wake of Steep, pumping up the room with a fist-pumping take on the tune. Zero is followed by Theme which has a very clean, super peaky jam that gets the grins going again and maybe even elicits a few WOOHOOs out of your most boisterous show buddy before coming down to the close. Next we get a pretty apt Slave to the Traffic Light what with the drive and all and you start gathering your thoughts about getting ready to head back out into reality. But first the Slave takes you on that meandering journey, providing some closed-eyes bliss time as they search around the build. This could be a fitting closer for the night but instead they do Hello My Baby a cappella to wrap it up. After the end set break they come back out and as he starts up Julius Trey again gives thanks for their good time in Spokane, doing a fun little quote of the J.J. Cale song that Eric clapton made famous ‘Cocaine’ (okay, one of the J.J. Cale songs Clapton made famous) to say “if you wanna get down, get down on the ground, Spo-Kane” before ripping into the fun Julius encore that sends everyone off to fight the cold and ice with a bit more pep in their step.
If it isn’t abundantly clear by now, this is not my favorite show of the tour. The playing is all at a high level as you’d expect by this time on the tour but I just can’t connect with this one. You can’t say they were worn out from too many shows since this comes after two nights off (which might play a role…) and I don’t think the cross country travel is a factor so we have to “blame” it on song choice/placement. After a few shows where there are sets with no lulls at all to have significant sections of both of these sets devoted to material that is much less engaging musically than what we all come for (well, the people I relate most directly with, I suppose). Seriously, look at that setlist and tell me it gets you excited to hear the show. I always say ‘don’t judge a show by the setlist’ but there’s only so much you can do when you get Sample, FEFY (admittedly, Trey gets real emotive in the end solo but still), Train Song, Cavern, Billy, Swept Away, Steep, yet another Zero and Taste, etc. You may love one or more of those songs but let’s not go having them ALL crammed into our sets now, okay? I get the need for shorter, more composed songs but this is a bit much. It isn’t like they were taking a breather for a bit after some crazy 20+ minute dive into the abyss. I could keep going but I’m already being redundant here. So let’s move to the takeaways which tonight are the Theme for top tier and Stash and Disease on the second rung. Now let’s put this one in the rearview and head north of the border for something a bit hotter…