Happy New Year!!!! 2012 – the first year I’ve decided to pronounce “twenty” rather than “two thousand.” I hope that this year brings about all kinds of good things for all my family, friends, colleagues, and blog readers who don’t already fall into one of those three categories :).
Saturday night was fun. Phish New Year’s Eve always is – there’s no such thing as a bad show on December 31. Of course, there are some 12/31s that stand far above others: 1995, 1993, 1999 (even though most of the midnight-to-sunrise set was 1/1/2000). In other years, 12/31 takes a back seat to a blow out one of the other nights of the run: 2003 (when 12/29 was probably the winner), 1997 (12/30), 1998 (12/29, I think, although 12/31 did have that great Mike’s Groove>Ghost 1st set), or 1996 (12/29).
Looking back today, it’s tough to tell what the highlight of this run was. For pure fun, obviously it’s gonna go to 12/31, although much of that had to do with the close friends I had with me and the amazing time we had enjoying Phish, regardless of the actual playing (which was quite good). For jamming, it’s tough because there was no single show that stood out above the rest; rather, there were individual jams that were crowning achievements. Wednesday’s “Rock and Roll,” Thursday’s “Crosseyed” and the entire Mike’s Groove but especially the “Chalkdust”->”Hydrogen,” Friday’s “Piper,” and the NYE “Light”->”Golden Age” are all contenders for jams of the week. If I had to pick one, I’d go with the “Piper,” but the “Light”->”Golden Age” was pretty ridiculous. More on that later. For funk and for energy, it would probably be 12/29. And for song selection, it’s tough to beat 12/28.
That’s all the better, spreading the love across all four nights. However, you do expect a bit more from 12/31, simply because it is New Year’s Eve. With three sets, it’s a chance for Phish to go even further on their quest to blow minds on any given night. Did they accomplish that in 2011? Not exactly. Everything from the 1st set ending “Fluffhead” through the entire New Year’s stunt ending with “Down With Disease” was pure gold, every single note was exactly what was needed, the jams were all somewhere between “great” and “fucking outstanding,” and the song selection was choice, a nice mix of classic Phishiness, new tunes, “big” tunes, fast, slow, funk, rock, etc. Most of the first set, and the second half of the third set, left something to be desired, but to say that they were bad would be absurd. They were perfectly normal Phish performances, which is to say, they were amazing and high energy and good songs, but nothing beyond that.
Ask me what I thought of the show, though, and I wouldn’t say anything other than “absolutely awesome, man,” and mean it completely. And now it’s time for a breakdown.
There were two “safe” opener calls this week: “PYITE” and “AC/DC Bag.” 12/30 saw the former, 12/31 the latter. Still, ”AC/DC Bag” is a very fun start to a show, and everyone was pumped to sing along with “Let’s get this show on the road!” One of the reasons I love MSG is that the energy is just through the roof, quite literally – you can feel it in the actual structure of the building. There are spontaneous moments of energy surges that anyone who’s been to MSG knows well – it’s what happened during the 12/4/09 “First Tube,” and on Friday night this year when Mike dropped the bass bomb midway through the “Piper” jam.
“Wolfman’s Brother” was next, but being this early in the set, we were deprived of a lengthy jam, and instead got a concise jam that peaked nicely. “Scent of a Mule” was a fun time, as always, but I was beginning to get the feeling that, consciously or no, Phish was repeating a lot of the tunes they played last New Year’s Eve. Not that it’s a huge deal, but you’d think they would like to vary up the selection from year to year. “Stealing Time” came next, followed by the Page love of “Lawn Boy.”
The only real jam in the first set came in the form of a slowly building “Jibboo.” This wasn’t a jam that really pushed any boundaries, but it was a nice bit of first set improv. It seemed to start much quieter and more chilled out than you’d expect on 12/31, with Ghost sirens from Trey at the beginning of the jam. Following a very patient trajectory, the “Jibboo” jam found its way to a climactic peak, something that the band was able to do over and over again throughout the night even when far-out exploration was absent from a jam.
Next came a trio of newer songs, which, to be honest, didn’t feel all that New Year’s Eve-y. “Farmhouse” was a slow down song in a set that didn’t really need more slow tunes, followed by another slower tune in “Pebbles and Marbles,” which of course blew up at the end. Any jam on this was elusive, though. A late set “Ocelot” again had me thinking back to 12/31/10, and again featured a great peaking jam. But then the set really woke up with a closing “Fluffhead” – a perfect choice given the nearly constant stream of “recent” songs (yeah, “Jibboo” still feels a little “new”) that started with “Stealing Time” (except for “Lawn Boy”). An infusion of old school Phishy compositional complexity was exactly what this set needed, even though I was hoping for a “Melt” to follow and close out the set. “Fluffhead” was mostly flub-free, although there were a couple hazy notes here and there, but the energy was through the roof, and Trey’s playing and tone were quite strong and aggressive especially in the “Clod” section following those lyrics. A little “Auld Lang Syne” tease during the closing jam got everyone back into the holiday spirit.
Set I largely felt like a warmup. Other than the “Jibboo,” which was a good version but by no means an improvisational powerhouse, the set was mostly jamless, and probably could have tended more towards rare or older songs that would’ve really gotten people psyched up (no “Lizards,” “Gumbo,” “Mound,” “Curtain,” etc.). Luckily, the “Fluffhead” left everyone feeling pretty jazzed up for set II, and, just as it was with 12/31/10, the second set would be the overwhelming MVP of the night.
The “Party Time” that I thought would be part of the NYE stunt instead initiated a second set that was exactly that: a big ol’ Phishy party. A fun jam gave way to “Light” – one of the few big jam songs left on the roster for the night. As expected, this “Light” would be the improvisational highlight of the show, but in a way that completely blew me away. Once the jam got underway, it seemed to be heading in the typical harmonic direction for 2011 “Light”s, turning to the flat side and going into darker, minor territory. About six minutes in, the song’s structure started to fall apart, as various rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, and timbral aspects disintegrated away.
Page remained playing some “Light”-esque material, but Fishman broke the beat down to its barest essentials, Mike adopted more of a drone, and Trey went with his octave pedal for some psychedelic sounding effects. As Trey gave way to pulsating chords (same effect as in the previous night’s “Piper”), Mike took on the lead role, dancing his notes around the bottom part of the texture. And that’s when the jam turned to noise.
Noise rock and its cousin industrial rock are some of the last frontiers that Phish has yet to explore in their improvisational journeys through the years. Phish Heads like it when things turn weird, but we like our weirdness to still have a strong melodic component. Thinking back to the craziest 1994 and 1995 jams – they usually still had bits of melodic jamming and thematic snippets. Plus, noise is noisy, it’s loud, and it can be violent, not exactly the aesthetic most Phish Heads go for, although that’s probably changing as our other pop music tastes change, too. With more and more modern/indie rock these days heading for noise, ambient, and droning styles, it’s no wonder we’re seeing some of it creep into Phish’s music (since we know that Trey listens to plenty of modern rock, and I assume that Mike’s musical tastes match his new fashion sense).
Trey set up a few repeating loops of sound, some in the lower range of his guitar, others in the stratosphere, while Mike seemed to be emitting a constant low drone of warbling sound, eventually turning to little melodic circles and patterns. Trey, too, got involved in a few ostinato patterns of repeating notes, while Fishman went down to practically nothing. And Page brought out the theremin. That was the kicker – it seemed to inspire the rest of the band to go for the most abstract thing they could. Fishman got a beat back but it was all fills and toms, just a hint of hi-hat holding it all together. In addition to the various loops, Trey was doing his own whale-call imitations of the theremin. Most importantly, it was all LOUD, very loud in fact, so that the dissonances and waves of otherworldly sound were that much more pronounced.
Finally, Trey began playing the riff from “Golden Age” while Fishman starting trying to pull the band up out of the noisy mire and back to a fast jam. It seemed as though Fish didn’t hear Trey, or was trying to move the band in another direction. Trey wanted to start a new song, Fish wanted to resurrect the jam they were already in. Unfortunately, Fish was playing too fast to really incorporate the “Golden Age” riff, and so when Page began joining in on the riff, Fish gave in and stopped playing, waited a few seconds, and then joined in on “Golden Age.” I would’ve liked to have heard what Fish had in mind for the next level of the “Light” jam, but I was just as happy to hear the TV on the Radio cover that has really grown into its own in Phish’s repertoire in 2011.
“Golden Age” was perfect, as it has a truly celebratory feel in its bridge section, which jammed briefly before turning back to the verse riff for a funky outro jam. With Page slaying the clav and Mike getting really creative, Trey merely sat back on his wah-wah strumming, letting the jam coalesce, led by Mike. Just as the jam was getting on the verge of venturing out into the unknown, the band wore it down, and entered into the cool down of “Theme From the Bottom.” I love this song, so I was happy to hear it, although I really wanted five more minutes of “Golden Age” jamming.
I went to get a beer during “Heavy Things,” because after that craziness and given the craziness that would follow, I certainly could afford to miss “Heavy Things.” I kept saying out loud in the beer line “let’s go before they start playing ‘Ghost‘”! Luckily I made it back to my seat just as the “Ghost” jam was starting. Again, an odd choice to repeat a song from 12/31/10 in almost exactly the same spot. While I wasn’t expecting this version to reach the levels of that magical version from exactly one year earlier (and it didn’t), I was hoping that it would provide one of the highlights of the night (it did). The jam quickly started with contrapuntal interplay between Mike and Trey. There would be no quiet funk jam tonight (just like the previous night’s “Sand”), but instead, Trey lept right into passionate rock leads, with Mike surrounding him and Page skipping his electric keyboards entirely, going straight for the baby grand.
Trey started going for louder strummed chords, and eventually began a slow trill which formed the thematic basis for the end of the jam. He kept returning to that slow trill idea, sometimes soloing around it, but also allowing the rest of the band to use it as a jumping off point. The band brought things up to a big peak, with Page finally hitting the Hammond organ for the climax, before bringing it all back down to the main “Ghost” riff. The jam itself was great, although the “Ghost” felt a little truncated because it didn’t have a quiet funk jam immediately following the lyrics. Going with the theme of this run, though, it was all energy, and fantastic type I jamming.
Phish kept the groove going with “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” which provided another great funky dance opportunity. A fun vocal jam, as has become de rigueur for this song, began with the band singing the parts they were playing, and eventually turned completely a cappella, before returning to a fun but short final jam. Trey took the closing sounds of Page’s organ and turned it into the opening riff of “46 Days,” a perfect “>” segue. While it was another repeat from 12/31/10, this version provided another one of those MSG moments, when the energy in the room comes to a fever pitch and the band feels it and plays out to it. The excitement and intensity were palpable during this jam, with machine gun Trey licks and wild Fishman playing. The jam peaked early, and then kept going and going and going. I couldn’t help but think of Trey saying how it’s like “all day long I’m cumming!”:
A fun, quick “Suzy Greenberg” closed things out. This was definitely the set, one in which Phish showed that, should they choose to do so, they can take it out as far as they, and we, want them to go. Absent in the first set, and appearing sporadically throughout the first three nights of the run, this second set saw a bunch of great jamming in the “Light->Golden Age” and the “Ghost,” plus that transcendent moment during “46 Days.” A great vibe to carry into set III.
Set III began with “Cavern,” a nice energy-pumper and a quick entrance into the third set. After this, the antics began. The sound of a tea kettle going off came over the P.A., and a tea kettle next to Trey started to smoke and steam. Trey mimicked trying to diffuse the steam with a towel, and then grabbed the kettle and moved it over to his signature amp. Then he started to play “Steam.” I was hoping to hear this song, as I think it’s one of the best new tunes the band has written, and I hadn’t heard it live yet. But I wasn’t expecting it would be the NYE stunt. Not only will the song forever be associated with Saturday’s gag, but it was also by far the best version of the song to date, caused in part by the necessity of using it for the NYE stunt, and because it fed off the energy and excitement of the theatrics.
As the signature steam sound and clouds of steam filled the stage, Trey’s amp, the one with the tea kettle on it, starting to float up off the stage! Then I noticed the wires hanging down from the ceiling all around the arena, and a series of red lights were all over the floor, looking similar to the landing guide lights used at airports (and last year when the hot dog landed on stage). So I figured we’d be getting some sort of aerial show for midnight, although I didn’t know exactly what kind. Soon, Mike’s backup bass starting floating up behind him, and then Page’s keytar. All three band member’s components were just floating up and down above them. On the final steam sound, Fishman’s vacuum went up too. The jam began, and I spotted a couple people with STEAM signs in the front row. “Wow, they were lucky,” I thought. But then one of them jumped the rail and started dancing around. From my angle, it looked like she was dancing on the rail, until I realized that she was on a separate platform with its own rail replica. A “security guard” mock wrangled her, but alas, she got up on the rail, which was now raised directly in front of the band, and before long, she too was floating dead-center stage above the band, dancing wildly in mid-air! Everyone was going nuts, it was a lot of fun, and people seemed to be responding well to her energy.
All the while, Trey was crafting a beautiful solo on this “Steam,” gradually building the jam but really taking on the lead role here, as Mike was mostly laying down the groove. Soon, other aerial dancers dressed as fans, many of them with “hippie” attire, hats, etc., started floating all above the various floor sections. They also seemed to be blissed out from their dance moves, and the effect was really cool. The dancers did a great job mimicking the excitement and fervor of a real phan, responding well to the music, which just made all the rest of the phans that much more excited. But really, it was Trey’s playing on this “Steam” that was pushing everyone, the dancers and the audience, to such heights (no pun intended).
“Steam” peaked in a frenzy of notes with a great bit of tension/release jamming, as all dozen or so dancers were now airborne and going apeshit along with the music. Since they had to keep jamming until midnight, they brought it back to several more peaks, each one texturally different from the last, and Fishman pushing the jam faster and harder. When Trey hit the big chord to take them out of the climactic end section, they moved to a more hard rock sound, with wild strumming and just a touch of dissonance, Fishman going even more off, with punctuating chords. Trey soon found his way to a very “Llama”-esque style of strumming, and that’s when the extremely loud countdown began, seemingly from the main aerial dancer girl in front.
“Auld Lang Syne.” Balloons. Champagne, kisses, hugs, general mayhem and love and happiness. Phish New Year’s. There’s absolutely nothing like it. Phish went through “ALS” a few times, actually jamming a little on it at the end. The dancers seemed to disappear, but it was tough to tell from all the balloons.
At this point, it seemed nearly a guarantee that we’d be getting “Down With Disease” after midnight, and Mike’s bass intro shortly followed “Auld Lang Syne.” The song was a bit messy, no doubt because of all the balloons onstage, but the aerial dancers returned, now each of them holding a pair of searchlights, and doing choreographed moves to go along with Kuroda’s lights for “Disease.” They were also being lifted up and dropped much faster than during “Steam,” more of a flying and falling motion than floating. Disease was a lot of high energy fun, especially with the dancers, but one of the best parts was when Trey and Mike were raised about 20 feet off the stage on tiny hydraulic platforms, all while still raging out the “Disease” jam. When they were finally lowered back down, they took advantage of their wireless instruments to run around the stage, a la Fishman during “HYHU,” while still jamming. You can get a better view of the hand-held lights from this video’s angle (“Disease” starts around 14:00):
After all the excitement and silliness had calmed down, the jam headed for a funky denouement, or, as I hoped, the beginning of a big third set jam. It wasn’t exactly to be, though. This spacey, minor blues/funk jam got going pretty well, with Fishman actually getting a little faster and more intense. But then they decided to just abort the thing, winding it down with a big cadence. On the soundboard recording, you can hear someone yell “cheesecake” after the “Disease.” Nice.
This was the moment, the point at which a truly legendary third set could have been made. I was hoping it would be “Reba,” a tune that would have gotten everyone so psyched, and would have jammed really hard, and would have generally defined the feel of the set. Instead, Phish went with three shorter songs that didn’t recapture any of the fantastic energy of the NYE stunt. I love “The Wedge,” it was the first Phish song I heard live. But it meant less time for a big jam. And then we got Alaska’d. I think “Alaska” has it’s place in a Phish show, and that place is mid first set. When a song consistently substitutes for a big jam moment in a show, you begin to stigmatize the song. I think that’s what’s happened to “Alaska.” It’s actually a good song, and it has a fun jam, but it has come in so many late second (and now, third) set moments when all you wanted was a big improv vehicle. We didn’t really need a slow song, but we got “Velvet Sea” anyway, another song that I love but that I didn’t want to hear at that point in the set.
A rocking “First Tube” got the energy going again, but it wasn’t enough to salvage the second part of the set, and no version will ever come close to the feel of the 12/4/09 version, which had some kind of extra-musical power. Swapping last year’s set III closer and encore, the band came back out and played “Slave to the Traffic Light,” a great final tune, but I couldn’t help but wonder why “Melt” and “Reba” were left on the shelf during this run. It was a mostly standard “Slave,” the jam starting with nothing and gradually but methodically working its way to a peak. No big deviations from the norm.
No matter, it was still a fabulous New Year’s Eve. Everything from “Fluffhead” through “Disease” gets an A, and the rest of the show gets a B (which is still above average, as I’m constantly reminding my students!). “AC/DC Bag,” “Mule,” “Ocelot,” “Ghost,” “46 Days,” “Disease,” “First Tube,” and “Slave” were all repeats from last New Year’s Eve, which is mildly curious. With only four shows, you would think they’d want to vary things a bit. As there are nothing but rumors out there for 2012, who knows when the next Phish show will be. Thankfully, we know there will be a next Phish show, and it’s just now becoming clear that, with Trey sober and the band in a very good balance of work/family/side projects, we have many more Phish NYE celebrations ahead of us. As long as the Mayans are wrong…