After a long fall tour comprised of over fifty shows in more than thirty states and Canada (see TMIPH September 1995), Phish ended the year as one of the top-grossing concert acts of 1995 with two shows at the Worcester Centrum and two more at Madison Square Garden. The next year began with Fish performing in his side band Pork Tornado and Trey and Mike joining Jamie Mansfield for a Bad Hat show at UVM. February consisted mostly of planning for the upcoming studio sessions at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York, where the band would spend much of the early part of the year recording their studio album, Billy Breathes. The sessions began in March and continued through June of 1996 with the band taking time off from the studio between March 20th and April 30th. Trey’s fantasy free-jazz band Surrender To The Air, which was formed the previous spring, released their album under the same name on March 12th on Elektra Records.
April 1996 in Phish History began with two Surrender to the Air shows at New York City’s Academy. The Academy had been a stop on Phish’s tour with the Giant Country Horns (see TMIPH July 1991) and Surrender to the Air would be the last shows there before the room closed for good. Surrender to the Air was comprised of Trey’s “dream” musicians: he literally dreamed of the group and the musicians and then went about assembling the group. It consisted of Trey on guitar, Aquarium Rescue Unit’s Oteil Burbridge on bass (now with the Allman Brothers Band), Oteil’s brother and bandmate from ARU Kofi Burbridge on flute, Sun Ra’s Intergalactic Arkestra members Damon Choice on vibraphone and Marshall Allen on saxophone, Burlington mainstay James Harvey on trombone, Mark Ribot on guitar, John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood on keyboards and Michael Ray on trumpet. Drumming duties were carried by Fish and Bob Gullotti of the Boston avant garde jazz group The Fringe and Michael Ray’s Cosmic Krewe. The group performed on April 1st and 2nd where they tore through improvisational jazz pieces of varying lengths and intensity for two sets each night. The musicians brought the audience on a musical journey ranging from the cacophonous to the melodic, that culminated with a rousing ovation in the soon-to-be demolished Academy after the encore on April 2nd.
After Surrender to the Air, Trey and Fish rejoined Page and Mike in Vermont to rehearse for their upcoming performance at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in late April (their only live performance of the spring). On April 11th, Trey joined Merl Saunders at Burlington’s Club Toast for a guest appearance that lasted most of the second set to the great satisfaction of the sold-out 500 person crowd. Fish and Pork Tornado played at Club Toast on April 15th and April 22nd. Also on April 22nd, Fish did a drum clinic for “percussion day” in Burlington.
On April 26th, Phish performed at the RayBan Stage at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. There, they played a spirited afternoon set to an overflow crowd which contained many classics including a YaMar – AC/DC Bag opener (YaMar contained appropriate teases of When The Saints Go Marching In). Michael Ray joined the band on trumpet for Cars Trucks Buses and the band segued You Enjoy Myself into Wolfman’s Brother, beginning Wolfman’s acapella directly out of the YEM vocal jam. 2001 > Harry Hood was also notable. They closed the show with David Bowie and returned for a double encore of Hello My Baby and Cavern. Following the devastation of hurricane Katrina in 2005, this show was released as “New Orleans Relief” along with parts of the band’s November 7, 1991 Tipitina’s performance with Col. Bruce & The Aquarium Rescue Unit. On April 28, Trey and Page joined Michael Ray and his Cosmic Krewe for a show at Jimmy’s Place in New Orleans.
The band returned to the studio to continue work on Billy Breathes in May and June, where they were joined by co-producer Steve Lillywhite to complete the project. Billy Breathes was released in October.