Phish — ARCO Arena — Sacramento, CA 11.30.1996
I Jim>PYITE, ATR, Bouncin’, Stash, Fluffhead, OHP, Uncle Pen, Caspian>CDT
II La Grange, Ice>Glide, Brother, Contact>2001>Timber Ho!>Taste, Funky Bitch, Amazing Grace, Amazing Grace Jam
After spending Friday night in the Bay Area Phish headed northeast to the capital for a Saturday night affair at the ARCO Arena in Sacramento. You may know the venue by its current corporate moniker, Sleep Train Arena, which is not to be confused with the Sleep Train Amphitheatre in Chula Vista some 500 miles to the south near San Diego which itself was once the Coors Amphitheatre and Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre at various points in its history. Nor is it to be confused with the original ARCO Arena that was built as the temporary home to the Sacramento Kings when they moved from Kansas City in 1985 and which holds the distinction of being the first NBA arena with corporate naming rights, something that is de rigueur these days. These confusions are part of why I will always call Great Woods, Deer Creek, Pine Knob, and so many other of the “lost” names in our venue lore. But money’s a powerful drug so yeah. Anyway, now subsumed-by-evil-BP-oil-company-named ARCO Arena was the place for this show on 11.30.1996. Let’s check out the history here in Sactown, shall we?
I was a bit surprised to find that there are so few Phish shows from this area considering that the ones I know off the top of my head are so ingrained that my natural assumption was that there had to be a lot more but the paucity of playing here is probably due to the relative proximity to the Bay Area so not much we can do about that. Alas, the first visit here was the final opener slot they played on the Santana summer tour on 08.30.1992. This was at the Cal Expo Amphitheater and there were also performances by the Indigo Girls and Los Lobos with Phish playing early in the afternoon for their seven song set. There’s actually a nice Reba and a hard hitting Antelope mixed in with the couple of a cappella tunes and other random choices but the real highlight from this night was when the band along with members of Los Lobos joined in with Santana during the headlining set for a couple of tunes including a take on A Love Supreme and after this show they went into the studio to record what would become Rift. They returned the following Spring for a famed show on 03.22.1993 at the Crest Theatre, performing one of the few ‘Gamehendge’ shows known to have occurred. Naturally, we covered this one previously on the path of that Spring Tour. In 1994 they played just down the road at UC-Davis on 12.02.1994. That one is probably best known as one of the “Cosmic Country Horns” (one of whom factors into the show we are about to review…) shows but you will want to check the Bowie and maybe wow your friends by telling them that this is the show where the A Live One version of Gumbo was played not to mention the Dave Matthews Band opened for Phish that night (along with a few others in that stretch of the tour) all for the bargain price of $18.50! I’m certain they will be mightily impressed. Phish was back at the Cal Expo Amphitheater to headline on 09.27.1995 this time opening a tour (Fall 95 yo!). This isn’t the fully polished fall 95 band we would come to adore and want to kidnap and keep in our dimly lit basement to entertain us and only… um… sorry about that little tangent there. No truth to that, no sir. Totally normal and well adjusted fan right here. So… Cal Expo? Yeah, so they debuted a bunch of songs here with some being staples we have heard a bunch on this Fall 96 Tour: Fog That Surrounds (one of the transitive forms of Taste), CTB, Billy Breathes, HMB, and Keyboard Army. Plus there is the Hood and the Possum which are both worth your time as is the Bowie which may or may not include – depending who you ask – a nod to the passing of Jerry Garcia who graced the Cal Expo stage 25 times with the Grateful Dead in this first show the band had played since he died on 08.09.1995. So while there may not be a vast number of shows played in the greater Sacramento area the ones we have all have their own notoriety, including this (last) one from 1996…
The night starts out with Runaway Jim as many nights do (this is surprisingly only our fourth Jim opener of the tour). This is a relatively contained version but the end jam has enough to pique our interest and keep us from walking out the door. I’m joking, of course, because who would ever leave a concert after only one song? Oh right, that guy. And to think, he has been to a couple of Phish shows too. Noob. Well, this Jim probably would have kept his attention what with the Trey Trill on display and all. The Jim heads right into Punch You In The Eye which tonight seems to have a bit of extra stank on it. The band is killing this one so much that Fish inserts some James Brown-isms into the fray, shouting out “Get up offa that thang!” more than once, something the world needs him to do more of now more than ever. We are losing our funky way, people. The fun energy spills over into the end where Mike is pounding on the fightbell and Trey adds some minikit love as the band brings this unique PYITE to a close. For a song that is largely the same thing every time out it is nice to hear them having fun with it. Next up are All Things Reconsidered and Bouncing Around the Room, two songs paired together this way seven times which puts it tied for the most common ATR pairing with The Sloth and Split Open and Melt, oddly enough. The fifth song of the night is Stash which gets some work in the T&R vein but doesn’t really stretch the boundaries too far. It is a bit odd to have this once proud king of jamlandia relegated to a mid first set hors d’oeuvres but thankfully if you stick around into 1997 you get to hear quite the resurgence for the song as the band seemed to find new interest in taking this vehicle out for long walks along the beach and maybe a refreshing pina colada to cool down afterwards. After Stash they give us our first Fluffhead in 21 shows, not exactly a bustout but also a bit longer than one would expect in this timeframe. Heck, the current gap is longer than that and there are several other somewhat lengthy respites for the song including the notable 71 show one broken at The Return on 03.06.2009 but you already knew that. After rocking through a fine version of Fluff Trey brings out now old friend of the band John McEuen, one of the founding members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and all around legendary musician and personality. I say “now” old friend because since this first time playing with Phish JOhn has joined them on stage several times, most notably later this tour in Las Vegas, down at Big Cypress in a few years, and then in 2001 in Burlington for a Clear Path International (an aid organization that seems to have let its website lapse in the past month. oops.) for a 20 minute rendition of the NGDB’s classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a song Phish played once on 10.03.1998 at the Farm Aid show that has that wonderful Neil Young sit-in. Tonight they had old school bluegrass in store as Mr. McEuen leant his banjo stylings to performances of The Old Home Place and Uncle Pen in what turns out to be a hometown appearance for him according to Trey. The banjo adds some brightness to the Phish takes on these tunes and John gets his turn to solo in each case which is nice of our band. After the quick bluegrass break we get a predictable Prince Caspian which bleeds into the rocking Chalkdust Torture closer before Trey brings back The Lie once more. Now it is off to setbreak to try to figure out what tonight’s second set of elevation will entail.
Following the assuredly longer than fifteen minute break the band comes out and starts up our second second set opening La Grange of the tour. I’m not sure if it is possible to not play this song with fiery abandon but Phish clearly doesn’t know how to tone this one down because this version rages perhaps even harder than the bustout one from Omaha a couple of weeks back now. This is just one of those songs Trey was so good at slaying that if they played it you knew you were going to lose your shit dancing. It isn’t a song they ever took out for an extended jam ride but that’s perfectly okay considering what it is. Next up is It’s Ice and after the normal song progression the jam gets a bit ‘washy’ in a sonic sense as Trey seems to be adding some delay tactics into his playing. They draw out the end and Trey plays what sure sounds to me like another nod to 3rd Stone From The Sun though I have yet to get external confirmation of that internal realization. Maybe you will provide that for me. They finally come back around to the Ice close and then bump it into the start of the tour debut for Glide, last played 34 shows ago at Deer Creek on 08.13.1996 which would be a great show to review were we doing the summer tour here but we are not so there. Following the run through the old school round they get back to the rocking with Brother, somehow our fourth version of the once quite rare song that finally left the shelf for the Ben and Jerry ‘sit-in’ at The Clifford Ball. The next time they would play the song after this night wouldn’t be until the famed Island Tour in April 1998 but on this night that wasn’t a concern as Trey shreds the gnar on the jam. An oddly placed but well played mid-set Contact is up next to appease the nursery rhyme fans (I kid because I love) and then we are off into 2001 to see what new hotness the band has for us here. Foregoing the extended space intro that we got in Portland but still toying around for a bit to set things up the band locksteps into the first section with Trey playing a quite recognizable song bit if you are up on your 60s soul musicians. Fish throws in another “Get Up offa that thang!” like he did in PYITE along with a few other bit of spontaneous vocal involvement and your brain goes “aha! I get it!” as it dawns on you that Trey is playing Super Bad and suddenly your head explodes in wonder about this band yet again. The dance party has started, Phish funk has arrived, and you are lost in the movement of everything around you as they hit the peak. As you dance with abandon, eyes closed and smile as wide as could be you hear a horn in the mix which startles you into looking up to see a tenor sax man up there with the band (assuming you know what a tenor sax looks like, otherwise you probably just stumbled into a thought something like “horn guy! good!” but tenor sax is what most people think of when they see a saxamaphone so I’m sure you were okay there, big guy). Before we discuss the transition I will here again link lawnmemo’s 2001 Project which goes into more detail about the progression we are hearing in these Fall 96 2001s. Now, 1996 you probably might not have had any idea who that horn guy was at the tail end of the 2001 but that’s Peter Apfelbaum who first shared the stage with Phish back at the Cosmic Country Horns pair of shows towards the end of the Fall 1994 tour. Trey, Page, and Fish had played with him in spots in sitting in with Michael Ray’s Cosmic Crewe before then but 12.03.1994 and 12.03.1994 were the first time he was on stage with Phish. Later involvement includes Apfelbaum being a long time member of TAB and also playing with Fish at JMP and Everything Orchestra shows and at least one Mike show. His contributions are evident from the first break as he takes the lead over the band for a few bars. A longer solo is given after that as the band works through the old time cover. After a unique jam on the song where Trey and Peter are playing a bit of tag — note that this is the first time since 10.29.1988 that there was a horn player (Russ Remington on sax) on this song and that one is pretty different from tonight’s take — Trey casually introduces him (this is my favorite picture of him but it is nothing like his appearance when he played with Phish) to the crowd. The majority of the crowd probably still didn’t know who he was and likely had no frame of reference for connecting the dots to his times opening for the Dead in the early 90s as part of The Hieroglyphics Ensemble either but he does hold the distinction of being one of only a few people to ever share both stages which is nice.
Without missing a beat they start into a jam of sorts which turns out to be a slowed down intro to Taste, Trey and Peter providing the melody along the way. This leads to another unique jam as they forego the Norwegian Wood/WTU? stuff to toy around in Taste space for a few minutes, resulting in one of my personal favorite versions of the song. It might not be the “best played ever” or anything but it works for me. Apfelbaum stays out for Funky Bitch and here he shines with great fills and nice soloing. Trey plays compliment quite well, of course, and the rest of the band provides the movement for our third captivating, guest aided version of the song this tour. The band steps out front after the end of Taste for a quick a cappella Amazing Grace but upon return to their instruments are joined by both Apfelbaum and McEuen for an instrumental jam on the Grace theme but this time with McEuen on lap slide. It is a lovely way to cap this show and particularly a set like what they had just played. All involved then come back out on stage for a rousing Possum encore that puts an exclamation point on top of it highlighted by Trey and John McEuen trading licks. Folks at this one definitely spoke about it being one of those nights while collecting their things and
This will be the end of a high quality sit-it filled show without a lull or bit of drag anywhere. Heck, even the Bouncin’ pops brightly in this show. There are several songs with versions immediately in contention for best of tour status and the setlist sounds fresh even with some that have gotten worked out a fair amount this Fall. I could see this show getting an official release at some point assuming the bad acoustics of the ARCO Arena can be overcome. With the soundboard of this Taste floating around out there and sounding pretty decent (I have used that file for the playlist entry) you have to think it could happen eventually. Maybe the other musicians’ approvals play into it but that’s something for the lawyers. No matter what, this is a solid top to bottom show with the type of creative spark and joyful playing that draws us to this band. There is also a sense of open collaboration here that we don’t always get when other musicians join the band. But these two players are well versed in how to meld with others rather than play on top of them and combining that with Phish’s approach to the songs makes for engaging performance. Purely in terms of a Phish show this is probably not the ‘best’ or most liked one on this tour as there are definitely singular jams and sets that elevate higher but that doesn’t diminish from what happened here. Along with sharing their music with two very different types of musician, one a storied bluegrass and Americana picking legend and the other an avant garde jazz improvisationalist, they have fostered relationships that will bear fruit in the future considering how both of these gentlemen would become ingrained in the mythos of Phish due to their times spent with the band. I’m just gushing at this point so let’s get on to the takeaways which are plentiful tonight. The definite top tier ones include PYITE, Ice, 2001>Timber>Taste, Funky Bitch, the Amazing Grace Jam, and Possum with some solid second tier offerings in The Old Home Place, Uncle Pen, and La Grange. You would do well to listen to the whole show if time permits it. We are in the home stretch now, continuing to follow the lines headed south with only four shows left on this Fall Tour. Next up is our only visit to the famed Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. Drink your Ovaltine and get some rest if you can because these last few don’t let up one bit.
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