Though Phish picked up a new direction on Halloween ’96, they did not just up and drop their old style. Just as many jams became forward-looking pieces that hinted at the groove of ’97, many standout excursions still elevated via Trey’s lead guitar. And the sonic juxtaposition between the two styles was significant. The jams that foreshadowed the funk were informed by the Talking Heads ethos of collaboration on a single groove—each person contributed a part of one, overall musical structure. The other sort of post-Halloween highlight of Fall ’96 nodded to the breakneck, psych rock patterns that fueled their ’94 and ‘95 ascent. But most of all, these jams were anchored by Trey’s marksman-like lead playing. Remaining out front for almost the entirety of these retro-looking jams, Trey stepped back only to play his mini drum kit, another sound that tied these improvisations to the past rather than the future. But with their newfound inspiration from their holiday cover set, this retro style of jamming received a necessary jolt as well. The beautiful thing, however, about this juncture in Phish’s career, was their past was glorious and their future was brighter than they could possibly imagine.
For the five weeks of Fall ’96 that followed Halloween, these 95/96 hybrid jams were just as common, if not more so, than the 96/97-style excursions. Additionally, as evidenced by 11.6’s “Mike’s Song” from Knoxville and 11.13’s “Suzy Greenberg” from Minneapolis, Phish often mashed these two styles together in long-form jams that moved between improvisational approaches within single, era-morphing pieces. Whereas groove jams were a pushing of their own musical envelope at this time, these psych rock pieces with Trey at the helm represented Phish’s safe space on which they could comfortably rely.
One can hear a totally different dynamic within these 95/96 hybrids as compared to their 96/97 counterparts. There was far more urgency behind these pieces, and the band communicated in a totally different manner. During mid-90s arrival, Trey’s lead guitar was like a compass, always guiding the band in the right direction, and it was this time-tested formula that guided these jams. When jams opened up, most often, the rest of the band would fall back into support positions for their six-stringed assassin. One can hear Page and Mike play “behind” Trey, almost like jazz players comping a soloist. But Leo and Cactus often “comped” with whole melodic phrases of their own, a technique that formed a notably dense musical palette. Page stuck mostly to piano and organ during these pieces, using the 96/97 jams to incorporate his crunchier clavinet and electro sounds that would come into full bloom during the following years. Page and Mike often stepped to the forefront when Trey hopped on his kit, a common pattern in many extended Fall ’96 jams, but when he was done playing rhythms and picked up his axe, this dynamic returned quickly.
Fall of ’96 was a fascinating time in the Phish world. What began as a listless tour down the East Coast was totally transformed and invigorated by Halloween, took on a revitalized sense of adventure in the weeks thereafter. The band’s renewed inspiration shone through in their many groove-laced jams that dotted their westward road, but it also came through loud and clear in the final stretch of old-school, psych rock jams of their career. Though their Phish’s music would assume several stylistic shifts over the rest of their career, never again would we hear the improvisational remnants of their iconic peak of 1993-1995. Their sound changed forever.
Today, I present to you a playlist that illustrates this then-dying breed of old-school, psych rock jams as seen through the lens of late-Fall ’96.
“Bathtub Gin” 11.7.96 II, Lexington, KY
A historic piece that is a perfect example of the style of jamming to which I am referring. If Trey is holding his guitar, he is leading the way brilliantly. And in this jam he does so in more ways than one.
“Simple” 11.8.96 II, Champaign, IL
After a stint on the kit, Trey picks up his guitar and annihilates the rest of this hard-edged jam.
“Split Open and Melt” 11.15.96 II, St.Louis, MO
Phish’s old-school style of improvisation truly catered to “Split,” as evidenced by this balls-to-the-wall version from St. Louis’s “M” set.
“Mike’s Song” 11.15.96 II, St.Louis, MO
This take-no-prisoners “Mike’s” jam leans strongly towards ’95 in pace and texture. And it is amazing.
“Simple” 11.18.96 II, Memphis, TN
In this well-known “Simple,” following his turn on the mini-kit, Trey takes the helm with a heart-wrenching solo and never lets go. Page offers gorgeous comps of piano and organ, but there is no question who is center stage in this one.
“David Bowie” 11.19.96 II, Nashville, TN
This extended, set-opening “David Bowie” illustrates the guitar-centric style of the 95/96 hybrids. Page provides some co-leads on piano in spots throughout the journey.
“Weekapaug Groove” 11.23.96 II, Vancouver, BC
When Trey played like this, “Weekapug” really packed a wallop!
“Simple” 12.6.96 II, Las Vegas, NV
“Simple” was the most prolific jam of Fall ’96, and this final version from Vegas provides a third, very different take on Gordon’s anthemic piece.
“Mike’s Song” 12.28.96 II, Philadelphia, PA
This Mikes” moves into a blissier territory than most from the year on the heels of gorgeous lead playing by Trey and some equally beautiful piano co-leads by Page. (And it gave me a tenth track to round out the playlist.)
“Tweezer” 12.30.96 II, Boston, MA
Phish’s year end “Tweezer” was one of the last versions in which Trey would assume such a lead role and maintain it throughout.