One of the things that enables us to geek out over bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead is the wonderful archives they have. Having a record of almost every show they have played allows us, the obsessives, to dig in and explore their body of work using primary sources. Over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of Phish. I’ve listened to shows from every era and from every year. But, despite all of my listening, I haven’t even come close to scratching the surface in terms of the total number of concerts I’ve listened to vs. the total number that Phish has played. Back in the day, it was quite a task to acquire new recordings to listen to, but thanks to The Spreadsheet, I can listen to any show I want in a matter of minutes. So today I am introducing a new column that I am cleverly calling “A Show I’ve Never Heard,” where I pick a show somewhat randomly, listen to it, then discuss it. A pretty simple concept, but one that I hope will be interesting and fun. We’ve all heard classic gigs like 12/31/95 or 11/22/97, and they have been talked about ad infinitum, but by going into the archive and picking a random show from a random year that I have never heard, I might expand not only my own knowledge of Phish’s catalog, but yours as well. For today’s inaugural column, I have chosen 11/27/96 from Key Arena in Seattle.
I came across this show while looking up another: 11/29/96 from the Cow Palace. Once upon a time I had the Wilson>Simple>Sparks>Sparkle from this show as filler on a tape. Wanting to revisit it, I looked it up on phish.net. Well, my curiosity got the best of me. I started looking at the setlists from the surrounding shows, and came across this amazing looking setlist for 11/27:
Key Arena, Seattle, WA
Set 1: Julius > My Friend, My Friend, Ya Mar, Chalk Dust Torture, The Sloth, Uncle Pen, Free > Theme From the Bottom, Bold As Love
Set 2: Down with Disease -> Jesus Just Left Chicago > Scent of a Mule, Tweezer -> Sweet Emotion Jam -> Down with Disease Reprise, The Star Spangled Banner, Fire
Encore: Waste > Tweezer Reprise
 Mule Duel included Brady Bunch theme scats from Trey and some vacuum action from Fishman.
 Can’t You Hear Me Knocking at ending.
Notes: The Mule Duel included Brady Bunch theme scats from Trey and some vacuum action from Fishman. Fire and Bold As Love were dedicated to Jimi Hendrix on his birthday. The Disease and Tweezer combo has led some fans to refer to this as the “Diseezer.” The Disease Reprise contained a Can’t You Hear Me Knocking ending.
Fall ‘96 is somewhat of a mystery to me. I’ve heard some of the “big ones” from that year (Hershey, the Ball, Halloween, Holiday Run, Deer Creek, “Coral Sky”) and some of the more under the radar ones (Red Rocks [side note – everyone remembers the controversy from Red Rocks ‘96, but who has actually listened to the shows? FWIW 8/5 is excellent], Penn State, 7/12/96 Amsterdam – which might be the wost Phish show ever), but my real listening for that year is quite sparse. Fall ‘96 has both its haters and fluffers, of which I am neither. I am coming into this with open ears, hoping to hear some good stuff I haven’t heard before that will enrich my knowledge of the band and their shows.
At first glance, this setlist screams “WOW”, especially the second set….so lets get to it!
The first set starts off strong. How can you complain with a show that opens with Julius>My Friend, Ya Mar? Julius gets the building rocking, My Friend follows it up in good form, and Ya Mar provides a nice little interlude to the rock but still keeps the energy up and the groove going. And it keeps going with Sloth and a nice bluegrass breakdown in Uncle Pen. This set exemplifies what I like about first set Phish: a bunch of songs, all well-played, with high energy and a mix of styles and speeds. Sure there is no “jamming,” but that’s OK. That is why we have second sets.
The only quibble I really have with this set is Free. Quite simply, it sucks. Nothing happens. Trey does nothing. The rest of the band does nothing. No Mike bombs in the jam, as would emerge in ‘97-’98. No rocking by Trey, just his “wind up” sound that he used a lot in 1996. People complain about Free in 3.0, and while I would like to see it find its form again, I will take ANY 3.0 Free over this one. But, despite my dislike for this version, it doesn’t really detract from the set.
Free is followed by the highlight of the set: Theme. Yes, I said that right. The highlight of the set is Theme. Probably the closest you will ever come to Type II jamming in a Theme. Now, I am not a music theory specialist like Guy Forget, so I don’t really know what they do here, musically speaking, but they take the jam out for a ride and explore some new territory. I really, really liked this Theme. The set closes with a Bold As Love, a tribute to Jimi Hendrix on what would have been this 54th birthday.
The second set was what I was looking forward to most about this show. After seeing it on paper, I wondered, “why haven’t I heard about this set before?” – which raised two possibilities: 1) it must suck, which is why no one talks about it, or 2) as a victim of the Fall ’96 syndrome, it is criminally overlooked, which is why no one talks about it. After listening, I can say it is more #2 than #1. It CERTAINLY does not suck, and even though the set doesn’t reach the heights one would hope from how it looks on paper, which is typical of ’96, it is most definitely worth a listen.
Disease kicks off the set. In ’96 Disease was still finding its legs. After starting as a short rocker in ’94 and appearing only four times in ’95, with the 12/12/95 Providence and 6/26/95 SPAC versions being the only ones of note, Disease really started to sound like the song we know today in ’96, especially the 8/5/96 version with an awesome -> segue into Ice (for those keeping score at home, that is the second 8/5/96 mention in this column [hint, hint]). This Seattle Disease is the ’96 sound. Very percussive and rhythmic, with not much glorious soloing by Trey. The song really drives forward without losing much steam and features some really good playing by Page, but it isn’t very dynamic. That’s not to say it’s not good, but like a lot of jams in ’96 there is a notable lack of the dynamism that was present in the surrounding years of ’95 and ’97.
Jesus Just Left Chicago is a nice landing spot for this, jam and is well played. JJLC then goes into Scent, which I thought was a real treat. Put me in the column of people who like Scent of a Mule. There are some on the Twitter who don’t care for it, but I am firmly in the pro-Mule camp. Especially this one. The Mule Duel is just awesome. Features a lot of Page, has some cool jamming and teases the theme from the “Brady Bunch.” At approximately 14 mins, it’s quite long for a Mule, but it held my attention the entire time. After a great Mule, the crowd gets treated to another warhorse: Tweezer.
Even though I knew the setlist ahead of time, when the band launched into Tweezer, I found myself thinking about what it would be like to have been at this show. The thoughts running through my head would most likely have been “Wow! TWEEZER?!? After that sick DWD>JJLC>SOAMule, now Tweezer? WOW!” As far as Tweezers go, this one isn’t really anything special, but this set isn’t really about the individual songs. It’s really about the whole piece of music from Disease through to the Disease Reprise. Again, even though this Tweezer doesn’t really have the aforementioned dynamism, somehow it ends up in Sweet Emotion, which then leads us back into Disease. The transition back into Disease is a little rough, with Fishman and Trey having trouble getting on the same page. But it makes it back safely, and in a very unconventional way, the jam keeps going after the band fully plays the ending refrain. Clearly, the only thing going through the band’s mind at this point was “How do we really bring this jam home? I know! Lets use the Can’t You Hear Me Knocking ending! It’s what we have to do.” And do it they did. For me, it was the Can’t You Hear Me Knocking ending that made the jam/set. Ending with a typical Disease Reprise ending would have been really awesome too, but the Can’t You Hear Me Knocking ending just did it for me and put the exclamation point on a really adventurous sequence that took us through the DWD>JJLC>Scent, Tweezer>Sweet Emotion>DWD Reprise>Can’t You Hear Me Knocking ending.
After some stage banter that I can’t make out on the recording, the band tells the crowd that they are going to do a special song for them and go into the Star Spangled Banner (for Sonics fans reading this, I must apologize. The band decided to do the SSB in Seattle because they were set to do it before a Lakers-Sonics game the following week and wanted to be fair to both Lakers and Sonics fans. Unfortunately, the NBA killed professional basketball in Seattle by moving the team to Oklahoma City in a very sneaky way, but that’s a different story for a different day). The set closes with another Jimi tribute in Fire, because, as the band says, they couldn’t do his version of the SSB, so they would honor him in another way. Waste and Tweeprise close the show.
So what is my real verdict on this show? I have to admit, I’ve struggled with how I would conclude things here. This is a good concert and worth listening to if you like the Phish from Vermont. But almost maddeningly so, it’s a Fall ’96 show and suffers as such. I actually don’t think this show helped me get closer to the mystery of Fall ’96. It’s not that it isn’t well played – it is – but it doesn’t have the manic energy of ’95 and the band still hasn’t figured out their ’97 sound yet. ’96 is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a mystery. But there are things to like about this show, and ’96 in general. If you like Page, you will love this show (is ’96 Page’s best year? Methinks it may be). If you want to hear what I think might be the best Theme ever, you will like this show. If you want to hear a great sequence of songs that fits superbly together (both the pacing of the first set and the Diseezer in the second set), you will like this show. So listen to this show, and like me, this show might help you understand Phish just a little bit more.
Does anyone have a show that I might not have heard that I should listen to? Offer your suggestions in the comments.