The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is one of the greatest traditions of this land. Uniting the best and brightest from all walks of improvisational music, combined with southern flavor and creole cuisine, Jazzfest becomes a multi-sensory indulgence. This past weekend, the ‘09 edition got underway, and yesterday, April 26th was the 13 year anniversary of Phish’s unique Jazzfest appearance in 1996. Performing at the festival grounds under the blazing southern heat, and right before The Meters, the band played one long set that created a unique dynamic between Phish and their classic surroundings.
When Phish announced the would be playing the New Orleans fest, the community was jazzed to see the band make such a prestigious and historic appearance. But when all was said and done, the festival didn’t share the joy of the Phish scene infiltrating the festival, and the band would never be invited back. The inundation of the fairgrounds with Phish’s fringe element took the organizers by surprise; a surprise they didn’t need to see again. Meanwhile, Phish took to the Bayou with a solid one-setter that gave N’awlins a taste of Vermont’s Finest.
Following the band’s epic peak of 1995 at Madison Square Garden, everyone was eager to see them again, and what better place to do it than New Orleans? A lot of people shared this idea, and a circus of Phishies descended upon the fairground on a near 100 degree afternoon. VW Buses took over the residential area where the festival is located, while dreaded, patchworked hippies dispersed throughout the grounds. This entire scene creatied an odd amalgam of Phish lot and Jazzfest; Jazz lot.
When it came time for Phish to play at 3:30 pm, the dispersed tribe united around the Ray Ban main stage, awaiting the first notes of 1996. Opening with an appropriate and festive “Ya Mar,” Trey wove a tease of “When The Saints Go Marching In” to commemorate their visit to the south. The band went on to play a very palatable set for the mixed audience, making sure to include a little something for everyone. The set contained several highlights, but the band’s first dip into improv came with “Stash.” The dark, twisting music sat against a summer backdrop, as the band shredded the densely textured jam to the delight of the Phish-dominated crowd.
Longtime friend of the band and New Orleans native, Michael Ray, came out and joined them on trumpet for a spirited run through Page’s “Cars Trucks Buses.” But when the dust settled, three other segments of music stood out- “YEM” > a half-a capella and very interesting “Wolfman’s Brother” (segue via vocal jam), “2001 > Hood,” and a large, late-set “Bowie.” None of these jams entered into a separate reality, but that really wasn’t the point of the set. The band had sustained contact with the source for four nights at the end of 1995, but on this first afternoon of 1996, their set was defined by straight-forward, fun in the sun.
“Stash” and “Bowie” provided the only outright darkness of an otherwise upbeat, happy show. Phish brought their pre-’97 cow funk down to the swamp, with particularly laid-back escapades in “YEM,” and “2001.” Following the “2001,” Phish released “Harry Hood” for the first time since the sacred 12.30.95 rendition, and under the late afternoon sky, they unveiled a tightly wound and majestic version of their feel-good classic.
If this was a normal Phish set, it might have ended with with “Hood” or “Sample,” and then certainly with The Beatles classic, “A Day In the Life.” But this wasn’t a normal Phish set, and they just kept playing, entering into their most extended and interesting jam of the day in “David Bowie.” Cranking out some ’95-esque psychedelia, the set-closing “Bowie” thrilled all the Phish kids and created the post-show buzz.
The fairgrounds and surrounding neighborhood provided a unique post-show atmosphere of southern comfort. Sometimes the experience of a show can be so unique that the music, regardless of how crazy or mellow, just seems to fit. Just like that laid back day New Orleans so many years ago.
photos by Brad G. Serling and Andreas Veneris
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
4.26.96 NOLA Jazz & Heritage Festival < LINK TO livephish release for Hurricane Katrina relief. (Buy it, its a good cause!) AUDs up when I find ‘em.
Ya Mar*, AC/DC Bag, Sparkle, Stash, Cars Trucks Buses**, You Enjoy Myself > Wolfman’s Brother***, Scent of a Mule, Also Sprach Zarathustra > Harry Hood, Sample in a Jar, A Day in the Life, David Bowie
E: Hello My Baby, Cavern
*With “When The Saints Go Marching In” tease. **With Michael Ray on trumpet. ***A capella intro.