Seemingly a lost year in the annals of Phishtory according to some, 1996 exists as a year tucked between two of the most highly lauded years in which the band has played shows. But while this year does not perhaps produce the reactions from fans that 1995 or 1997 do the truth is that this is a year full of amazing music and one that deserves more credit for helping to shape the sound of the band for years to come than it has been given. Our focus will be on the Fall Tour from this year but I think it helps a bit to understand what got us there so that we can then see where it takes us in going forward as well so with that in mind I present you with a quite brief (and not in any way seriously vetted) primer on 1996 Phish.
Following the triumphant and understandably highly praised Fall 1995 Tour and ensuing New Year’s Run that culminated with a pair of shows at Madison Square Garden – shows that really shouldn’t need any introduction – the band hit the studio to begin laying down the tracks for what would become the album Billy Breathes. This recording time ran over several months between February and June of that year with the band pausing in April for their first ever appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (aka JazzFest). This one set show is not necessarily the greatest Phish you will ever here but there is a sit-in by Michael Ray for Cars Trucks Buses (a relationship that has blossomed over the years since Trey first joined the Cosmic Krewe for a show in March 1994), a YEM->Wolfman’s combo that works quite well, a soaring Hood, and a wonderfully tensioned David Bowie that has hints of Caravan throughout. Honestly, some of the best music to be found from Phish’s visit to The Crescent City lies in the sit-ins they did with other bands while there but those are not quite the focus of our time here together, are they?
Around this time Trey released the first ‘solo’ project album that any of the band members had produced to date with the free jazz experiment Surrender to the Air. This was a HUGE departure from Phish and as a result the album is not necessarily widely considered a must-have album by the majority of Phish fans but it was a worthy risk to undertake as it opened up a whole different world of musical possibility – even if it did not directly result in any new songs for the Phish canon. But when you bring together an amazing group of musicians including Marshall Allen, Trey, Kofi Burbridge, Oteil Burbridge, Damon Choice, Fish, Bob Gulotti, James Harvey, John Medeski, Michael Ray, and Marc Ribot you can expect some magic to go down. Fans of this music should also check out the two shows they played for the release of the album on 04.01.1996 and 04.02.1996 at the New York Arts Academy. Maybe it isn’t your cup of tea but it is challenging improv that finds some moments of true connection amidst the competing lines of the wonderful players who laid it down.
Based on the Doniac Schvice that came out in March of that year we knew that the band had no other plans for the Spring besides that Jazz Fest appearance and they also indicated they would be going to Europe for a tour in July (as well as introducing us all to the wonder that is Assface…). In truth, fans would only have to wait another six weeks before the band hit the stage again, this time in Woodstock, NY while in the area recording at Bearsville Studios, a legendary recording studio where a long list of notable records were laid down over the years and which is now a private residence. This was an unannounced show at the now-closed Joyous Lake club played under the name ‘Third Ball’ with an opening band called ‘Juan Hung Low’. Clearly, the sophomoric humor of our band had not worn off in playing bigger stages of late. That show was a bit of a “back to their roots” bar show highlighting some of the newer songs (Waste and Character Zero were both debuted here) with a loose feel and a generally fun vibe permeating the music. Rumors of this show spread wide and far with high quality recordings coming out quite quickly as well, further amping up fans’ excitement for the summer to come.
Looking back it is hard to imagine how we made it all work in prepping for tours considering that it took until the Late Spring Doniac Schvice for us to get the details on the European Tour (and even that had several unconfirmed dates as of pressing) and the US Tour to follow. The biggest news in there (aside from the brief announcement of the impending launch of phish.com, of course) was that the abbreviated US Tour would lead to Phish’s first ever “official” festival on the grounds of a decommissioned airforce base in Plattsburgh, NY. That news alone made the idea of a brief nine show US Tour more palatable to the masses. But before we get to that, let’s talk about that Euro Tour for a bit. Things did not start out as optimistically as one would have liked considering their first set in Italy was rained out but they were there doing several supporting sets for Santana so that allowed for the band to variously join Carlos on stage over the run as well as to allow for Phish to interact with Carl Perazzo, the percussionist who would play a big role in the tour that we are about to tackle here. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that the Euro Tour was a success on many fronts even if some do not consider there to be a high number of lasting jams to go back to from those shows. I tend to disagree but then I tend to find the good in almost all the Phish I hear. Almost.
A few days after returning from Europe (and with the Summer Schvice out to further whip the fervor of the fans for both the Clifford Ball AND our Fall Tour) Phish opened up the tour in gorgeous Park City, UT (oddly enough the second tour in a row that had rain leading into the show…) with Page showing off his new toy the Theremin as they opened with a haunting take on Somewhere Over the Rainbow (which would be quite a mind flipper if that was your first introduction to Phish…) as the stage was framed by the resulting rainbow from the passed storm. This show is okay with not many big highlights but they played a lot of fan favorites cleanly so you really can’t complain about a tour opener like that. Next was the now infamous four show stand at Red Rocks which has some fantastic playing but is most well known for the bad interactions some members of the scene had with the Morrison locals. I’m not going to bother linking the many articles written about this debacle but when you get banned by Red Rocks you know things have gotten a little out of hand. This wasn’t the first sign that the scene had changed (partially since the passing of Jerry but also as the natural expansion occurred when Phish got big over the course of 94-95) but it was the big moment where a lot of people started to recognize the cracks in the armor that had protected our thing from those negative outside influences for longer than it probably deserved.
The circus moved on to Alpine Valley and Deer Creek next with the band really starting to catch fire as they worked their way east all while it seemed that more and more fans hopped on the bus headed up to the Northeast. There was one final show in Hershey which ended up being a bit of a sleeper show considering so many people went right from Deer Creek to New York, probably staying on I-90 rather than dipping down into PA via I-80 so as to make the best use of the short amount of time before the festival began. Now, I would argue that the best use of time would have been to go to Hershey but what do I know? I only was able to scheme my way into a four day furlough from the summer camp where I worked on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake to cannonball it up to Plattsburgh for the festival so I can’t speak for those who hit the whole tour or at least the parts between the Midwest and the fest. Anyway, we created one of the lasting memories in the band’s history on that airforce base that weekend and that set the template not just for future Phish festivals but for the evolution of the live music industry in the US as people including the creators of Bonnaroo took that destination camping festival idea and blew it up into the bevy of music fests we now have to enjoy each year. That weekend saw the largest crowd ever (at the time) for Phish as over 70,000 of us congregated in celebration with the music and band as our guide. Along with the summer run that preceded it you can sense that this was the start of a big change in the band considering they had as many fans at that event as would have attended all four of the New Year’s Run shows in 1995 COMBINED. You don’t really go back to playing small theater tours from that.
So after The Clifford Ball happened – and I must say that you could do a whole lot worse than to do a little listening project following that US Tour through the festival as it is only 11 shows plus some more treats like the Flatbed Jam – the band headed home (not too far, of course, since they were just across the lake!) to catch their breath and practice a bit for the upcoming Fall Tour. In this time the final details for the Fall Tour came out via another Schvice and fans waited on the release of the album to come (which apparently could have had any of about a hundred different names than what it became…). The Billy Breathes album would end up being released the day prior to the first show of the Fall Tour in Lake Placid, NY and to this day stands as probably the best received album the band has put out. It probably wouldn’t hurt you to give it another listen to get ready for this tour since you will be getting quite familiar with almost all of the songs included on the record.
So that is how we got to here, the start of the Fall 1996 Phish Tour. We have 35 shows ahead of us to explore and I think if you have never taken the time to really go through this tour in earnest you may be quite surprised by how great many of these shows really are. It might not include a 20-minute-second-set-opening jam every show and they may have reined in the open psych a tad but there is a lot going on in the playing on this tour, things that will bear fruit not just in these shows but for many years to come in the world of Phish. So aside from a few short site notes below, let’s get down to the matter and crank up the Fall ’96!!
As a quick update, I recommend checking out some of the Band History information on phish.com/band which is a lot more in depth (and accurate) than my rough summary above. There are entries for February, April, June, July, October, and November of 1996 along with ones for several other notable times in the band’s history.
Okay, those site notes. Today, 12.14.2015, the 20th anniversary of the amazing Broome County Arena show from Binghamton, NY, will be the last day that the music player over there to the left will have the Fall 1998 tour highlights available. For this tour I am going to try something a little different by clearing the list and updating it with each show post to include the takeaways as we go along. This should help you to listen along if you feel like just hitting the top notch stuff but I do recommend spinning the full shows whenever possible as I tend to leave out some things because I am, after all, just one fan with opinions that might not agree with your take.
If you are still looking for those Fall ’98 gems there is a new section just above that player called “The Takeaways” where you can find download links to the compilations. This section should hopefully grow over time as we cover more and more of the band’s music.
Please give me any feedback you can so that I can make all of this easy for everyone. Living in the future is awesome, ain’t it?