Longtime readers of the blog (hi honey!) know one of my proudest Phishchievements is having been at every Halloween “album cover” show. But it almost wasn’t so. A little more than 15 years ago, I was two months into graduate school, no ticket to the upcoming Atlanta Halloween show and little-to-no prospect of making it there. Frankly, it wasn’t something I was pursuing realistically as I had forgone trying to get tickets initially – I was pretty sure I was going to be bogged down in studying and too poor to make it down there – and then when I started having regrets, it seemed impossible that I’d be able to secure a ticket. A guy I had befriended over the summer at Red Rocks (who happened to live in Atlanta) emailed me one day and was like “so, you coming down for the show?” After a little back-and-forth it turned out that he had two tickets for me (he had decided to splurge and throw down x-hundred for second row seats, his original nosebleeds were ours – this was the kind of guy he was, I won’t get into how we ended up meeting him the first place) and “get your ass down here!” Being the age of discount airliners, we were able to get flights down for not too much and just like that we were scheduled for a precision strike into Hot ‘lanta for Halloween… like it was meant to be.
Now, I’d never really done this before, fly hundreds of miles for a single show and then turn almost immediately around and fly back like nothing had happened. But having been at the first two Halloween shows, I knew it was going to be worth it, knew it was a show I didn’t want to miss. This was as sure a thing as there ever was going to be.
Unlike the previous Halloween shows where no one really knew what the album set was going to be until they finally started playing it, Phish handed out “Phishbills” on the way in to the venue. So right through the door it was staring you in the face “Phish is playing Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’ tonight.” This was like the surprise that took away the surprise, but it was kind of bold masterstroke move on the band’s part. I, like many people I know who went to the show, was pretty much 100% unfamiliar with the album. Serious gap in my musical upbringing in retrospect, but what can I say? Maybe they were f’ing with everyone, but I didn’t think so. That Phishbill itself was a work of art, with some serious musical academics mixed in with hilarious Phish-isms. It provided great reading before the show and between sets. Not being familiar with the album, I didn’t know what to expect. I can’t say I was psyched, but reading about it and the band describe the album certainly had me intrigued. But, I didn’t fly down from New York for a small dose of intrigue… I flew down for a huge dose of getting my face handed to me with a stupefied grin plastered on it. Hmmm…
Our seats were really awful, like literally row Z in the top tier just enough behind the stage where there was sure to be no sightlines whatsoever. Thankfully, we settled down in a spot straight back which still felt far away, but at least we could see and hear everything. I had been “front row Trey” for both previous Halloween shows, not to mention all of that previous summer and the two MSG shows a week-and-a-half prior. Third tier straight back felt like I was hanging with Lando Calrissien in Cloud City, but I couldn’t complain. The irony was that the guy who had upgraded to second row’s buddy freaked out on mushrooms early in the 1st set and they ended up leaving… leaving two perfectly good seats to some lucky carpetbagger. Oh well!
So they start up with Sanity and of course, everyone is losing their minds from the start. The energy was pretty high, even up top where we were. The first set was a perfect balance of “special” and “tight” – a great setlist, some surprised and just pure, concise jamming. It was a perfect embodiment of where the band was in 1996. Every single song was just, well, perfect. There were David Byrne references during the Forbin narration which pretty much flattened any notion (or hope) that the Phishbill was a fake-out. Disease, YEM, Reba… pretty damn good first set by any measure.
Before the second set they uncovered a percussion set-up and a riser for the horns and the energy was somersaults-in-your-stomach. Although I couldn’t put my finger on it, nor could I really even recognize it, something was changing in the Phish world between that first and second set. It’s strange to think back on it now. When the band finished that quite spectacular first set they were one band, but when they returned, they were a different band. They returned and then it was “HA!” and they were into “Born Under Punches.” It was that “HA!” all of them together, listening back now gives me chills. It’s like we thought they were all just the kick ass trucks and cars and stuff, but then before our very eyes they transformed into these insane robots. Deeply funky robots. The rhythms were Optimus Prime-stupendous and the whole band was grooving as a single unit. In a way, I’m glad I was at the back of the arena, able to take in the whole instead of the individual pieces, because that is the way this music was meant to be taken in. By the time “Crosseyed and Painless” got into its groove, I was enthralled.
Fishman singing non-ironically? Heady jams without gratuitous guitar solos? Who was this band? Oh, they were still Phish, there was no doubt about that, and it took 6 months or so for the true transformation to complete, but there was a palpable shift during that set. I’d venture to say it was one of the most “important” sets of music played by the band. Oh, maybe they stole the shock of “what are they gonna play” from us, but Phish had surprised us plenty that night. Both Halloween shows previous had featured at least one weird pure-Fishman moment (Revolution #9 streaking, belting out Love Reign), but the classic bizarre moment of this night was Gordon singing from a lounge chair at the front of the stage. Or was it the chainsaw and other assorted noise-making tools during the outro from “The Overload” while someone shouted “get to work!”? Take your pick.
The third set was almost a jolt back to reality, sweet jamtastic reality, although there were already hints of the deep funk that was starting to permeate the sound. The previous two Halloweens there had been this cathartic feeling like a huge load had been taken from their backs as they had finally finished the album they had worked so hard to perform. This time, though, they had so thoroughly nailed it, that you got the impression that they had known for a long time they were going to nail it. The band was relaxed going in and even more relaxed coming out, like the 2nd set was just a little something something thrown in for fun.
Of course, spirits were flying high and a Brother > 2001 opener was a perfect was to start the next era of Phish. Karl Perazzo came out and played the whole set which was just enough “extra cheese” to elevate the set even more. Page dropping little “Crosseyed” teases in here and there was cool. Dave Grippo marched across the stage again carrying his saxophone during the Simple, but didn’t play on it, which disappointed me at the time for a missed opportunity (has that song ever been played with BOTH cymbals and saxophones?). Sitting back there, big ass smile on my face, dancing my ass off, I can only imagine what I’d have tweeted had that been something you could do in 1996. I guess thank God it wasn’t.
When considering the all-time great Phish shows, I always discount the Halloween nights, because it’s kind of not fair to the other great shows, there is no comparison in my mind, a different category. Seeing Phish on Halloween is my all-time favorite thing about my all-time favorite band. Let’s just say that 10/31/96 is my favorite Halloween show, hands down. Well worth the what-the-hell-are-we-doing flight down to Atlanta. Were we even in town for 24 hours? Who cares, it ain’t the quantity, but the quality.