What happened between the climactic year of 1995 and the transformation of 1997? Many seem to gloss over this time period as irrelevant to the band’s history, but when looking back with perspective, 1996 was a crucial year in Phish’s development. Not to mention, it is a wholly underrated year of Phish. Interestingly, you can actually hear the band’s music changing as they moved through the year, slowly evolving toward the sound of 1997. Phish ended 1995 on the highest note possible; imploding Madison Square Garden in, certainly, their biggest and most significant show to date. They stood at the mountaintop and could now gaze into the lush valleys below, reveling in the glow of their triumph. Yet, after spending over a decade striving to reach this point, the question that would soon loom over the band was, “Now what?”
Once you have reached a goal that has been in the distance for so long, self-reflection and reevaluation become a natural byproduct of success, and trying to figure out what comes next. As Phish embarked on the year 1996, it was this natural process of self-discovery that would unfold over the course of the year. Unsure of where their next musical move would take them, a new direction would emerge over the course of the summer and fall, and by the time early- 1997 rolled around, Phish would be reinvented.
Taking the six months off after a marathon Fall 1995, Phish first reemerged for an exciting daytime slot at Jazzfest in New Orleans- for which they would not be invited back due to the scene that came with them. An 18-show European tour followed in June, mixing opening gigs with Santana with some headlining gigs of their own. Musically, these shows remained relatively conservative for Phish, and didn’t necessarily break new ground while working some new songs into the rotation.
As they wound up their European vacation, Phish headed back to the US for an abbreviated eleven show summer tour. This underrated tour featured standout shows, and amazing jams; yet Phish’s musical textures seemed to remain similar to the previous year’s fast, arena-rock psychedelia. For a band who was always pushing the envelope of their own live music, they weren’t incorporating any truly new elements into their music- though they did feature a mini-acoustic stage throughout the summer. With no lack of sharp and precise jamming, Summer ’96 produced some excellent musical portions. Specifically, the four-night run at Red Rocks, (for which they would also not be invited back), contained some of the more inspired music of the summer. With each night providing an array of smoking musical highlights, some of the best, in no particular order, were the 2001>Disease, Mike’s Groove, Runaway Jim > Gypsy Queen > Jim, Curtain > Tweezer, and the infamous Forbin’s > Mockingbird about the giant iguana and the newly discovered life on Mars, which they followed up with the appropriate Bowie cover. Unfortunately, due to unruly fans, Phish would not be allowed back to this powerful venue, stamping these final four nights as Phish’s farewell to Morrison’s musical mecca.
Moving into the Midwest, Phish debuted at Alpine Valley, and then played arguably the best two shows of the summer in the cornfields at Deer Creek. With first night highlights of Split Open, Antelope, Timber Ho! and Possum, and the second show being such a complete masterpiece, this was the year that Phish made Deer Creek their own personal Midwestern home. With only one previous visit to the venue, these two stellar performances indelibly stamped Deer Creek on the map for all Phish fans to flock to for the following eight years. Featuring one of the best first sets of the year, and a 30 minute monstrous and terrifying Mike’s Song in the second, 8.13.96 went down as one of the best shows of 1996.
After a consistently underrated show in Hershey Park, PA, Phish and their traveling circus headed up to Plattsburgh, NY for the first weekend of over-sized Phish bliss in the playground of The Clifford Ball. With art installations, interactive activities, rides, art projects, actors, contortionists, and an incredibly fan-friendly vibe, the Phish festival was born. One of the most significant developments of 1996, this weekend would set the template for all the Phish festivals that dominated our imaginations over the years. Chock full of excellent music and sensory overload, The Clifford Ball was a paradigm shift in possibilities that could come out of a live concert. Once again, Phish had redefined what was possible in rock and roll.
The triumphant end of the summer, gave way to a new, more critically acclaimed, album in “Billy Breathes,” and a 35 show fall tour that would wind from Lake Placid, NY all the way to Las Vegas, NV. Through the course of this fall itinerary, Phish would rediscover themselves, and begin to reinvent their approach to improvisation. People often look at this tour in segments- the east coast segment up to Halloween, the post-Halloween through the Midwest, and the final run down the west coast. It is fair to say that as each leg of this tour progressed, Phish’s playing became more and more energetic and began moving further along in a new and original direction.
The first leg of the tour remained fairly tame with some minor highlights popping up here and there, but as the band began to play arenas exclusively, the fluid translation of their sound to the bigger rooms wasn’t immediate. With Trey playing a lot of his mini-percussion kit all fall, Page was forced to carry the top half of the music a bit too often. Things shifted, however, on October 31st. The musical costume Phish would don this year, profoundly effected the musical course of the rest of their career. As we all know, Phish chose to cover the Talking Head’s 1980 classic, “Remain in Light.” With a focus on groove and percussion, this album forced Phish to take a divergent approach to jamming. Typically, Phish integrated their individual lines or patterns, matching them up and bouncing them off, what other band members were playing to create a heavily layered psychedelia. However, given the percussive polyrhythms of “Remain In Light,” Phish had to work as one entity to create one groove, with each band member contributing a part of the greater whole.
Listening and completing each others’ musical ideas and phrases, Phish practiced this type of cooperative playing, and came out to the Omni’s stage on Halloween and nailed it, discovering their next musical step in the process. The band would now begin to work as one to create slower, more intentional rhythm grooves, a style that would not truly come to fruition until March 1st of 1997 in the industrial city of Hamburg, Germany. In a club called Markthalle, during the Wolfman’s jam, Phish’s transformation was realized. They had finally uncovered the musical style they had been carving away at since that night in Atlanta. The band chronicled this show of great significance with the release of “Slip, Stitch, and Pass.”
After Halloween, Fall ’96 would begin to pick up steam. Beginning with the Crosseyed > Antelope of following show in West Palm Beach, and the Tweezer in Gainesville, Phish would begin to crank out some inspired jams over the course of the tour, many which still hold up- if not forgotten- today. Blazing a trail through the Midwest, highlights included the Curtain > Mike’s from Knoxville, TN, the Bathtub Gin from Lexington, KY, the YEM from Auburn Hills, the Grand Rapids Tweezer (!), the Omaha Harry Hood, the Target Center’s 2001 > Suzy, and the Simple from Memphis. Seemingly driven with more emotion, enthusiasm, and inspiration, these Midwestern shows upped the ante from the east coast run, and prepared Phish for their final west coast stretch.
Phish turned it on as the year headed for a close. The ten show west coast run dialed up the intensity, and featured the best playing of the fall. Beginning in Spokane, WA and concluding with the recently released Aladdin Theatre show in Las Vegas, Phish honed in on their developing style of play, resulting in some highlight shows and some jealous east coasters. From a heavy Vancouver Mike’s Groove, to a Tweezer > Sweet Emotion > Disease Reprise in Seattle, some more significant ripples were made in Phish’s pond in the pacific northwest. Continuing with a phenomenal California run through the Cow Palace outside San Francisco, Arco Arena in Sacramento, and Pauly Pavilion at UCLA, featuring the bust out pf Peaches and a top notch Tweezer, Phish built large quantities of momentum as they approached their last three shows. After smoking stops in Phoenix, San Diego and an end-of-tour throwdown in Vegas putting a cap on their fall, Phish were now swimming in a whole new direction.
A year that started with Phish looking for their next move, ended with the band solidly on track for the next stage of their career. Culminating with a Philly > Boston New Year’s Run, 1996 was a year of transition, and many tend to leave it out of conversations because the band experienced some growing pains along the way. Yet, what is growth without adversity? A year that is sandwiched on both sides by years of far heavier-hitting Phish music, 1995 could not have progressed to 1997 had it not been for 1996. With that understanding, and a knowledge of some of the lesser-known gems of this year, we may find a new appreciation for 1996- the forgotten year.
In appreciation of this Phishy year of transition, I have put together a couple compilations that should bring everyone up to speed on 1996. Below you will find links to Miner’s Picks: Summer ’96 and Miner’s Picks: Fall ’96. Totaling fifteen hours of music, many of which you may not be familiar with, these picks should help bring everyone up to speed on the forgotten year. Links and track lists are below. As always, download away, and be sure to enjoy the music!
MINER’S PICKS: SUMMER ’96 PT.1 <<<ALL LINKS ARE LIVE!!
1. Tweezer 7.21 The Forum, Nuremberg, GER
2. Reba 7.21 The Forum, Nuremberg, GER
3. Antelope 8.2 Wolf Mountain, Park City, UT
4. Reba 8.4 Red Rocks Morrison, CO
5. David Bowie 8.4 Red Rocks
6. Slave to the Traffic Light 8.4 Red Rocks
7,8. 2001 >Disease 8.5 Red Rocks
9,10. Curtain > Tweezer 8.6 Red Rocks
11. Stash 8.7 Red Rocks
12. Runaway Jim 8.7 Red Rocks
13. Split Open and Melt 8.12 Deer Creek, IN
14. Antelope 8.12 Deer Creek
15. Mike’s Song 8.13 Deer Creek
16, 17. Wilson > Disease 8.14 Hershey Park, PA
18. Tweezer 8.14 Hershey Park, PA
19,20,21,22. Mike’s > Simple > Contact > Groove 8.16 Clifford Ball
23,24. 2001 > Disease 8.16 Clifford Ball
25. Harry Hood 8.16. Clifford Ball
26. Reba 8.17 Clifford Ball
27. Fluffhead 8.17 Clifford Ball
MINER’S PICKS: FALL ’96
1,2,3. Mike’s > Horse > Silent 10.29 Tallahasse, FL
4,5. Crosseyed > Antelope 11.2 West Palm Beach, FL
6. Tweezer 11.3 Gainesville, FL
7. Split Open and Melt 11.6 Knoxville, TN
8,9. Mike’s > Mike’s Jam (tracked as Simple) 11.6 Knoxville, TN
10. Bathtub Gin 11.7 Lexington, KY
11. YEM 11.9 Auburn Hills, MI
12. Tweezer 11.11 Grand Rapids, MI
13. Slave to the Traffic Light 11.11 Grand Rapids, MI
14, 15. 2001 > Suzy 11.13 Minneapolis, MN
16. Mike’s Song 11.15 St. Louis, MO
17, 18. Axilla > Harry Hood 11.16 Omaha, NE
19. David Bowie 11.19 Kansas City, MO
20,21,22. Bathtub Gin > Vibration of Life > YEM 11.19 Kansas City, MO
23. Split Open and Melt 11.23 Vancouver, BC
24. Antelope 11.24 Portland, OR
25,26,27. Tweezer > Sweet Emotion jam > Disease Reprise 11.27 Seattle, WA
28,29,30,31. 2001 > Timber Ho! > Jam > Taste 11.30 Sacramento, CA
32. Tweezer 12.1 Los Angeles, CA
33. Reba 12.1 Los Angeles, CA
34. Slave 12.1 Los Angeles, CA
35. Mike’s Song 12.4 San Diego, CA
36,37. 2001 > Llama 12.6 Las Vegas, NV
38,39,40.41 Mike’s > Simple > Hood > Weekapaug 12.6 Las Vegas, NV