Just Your Standard Second-Song YEM
A four-night NYE run has practically become a codified thing unto itself. Each night ends up having its own personality, one of several Phish show “types,” rather than a long, four-show single experience. If you’re familiar with past MSG runs, you know the drill. The first night might be the high-energy rock night (12/28/93), the second night might be the funky night (12/29/03), the third night reserved for rarities and bust-outs (12/30/09), and the 31st itself is, well, it’s always a mixed bag of tricks – some psychedelia, some funk, a lot of high energy and rock, and usually one or two definitive jams that blow it all out of the water (the 12/31/95 Weekapaug, the 12/31/10 Ghost, etc.).
Other than some glowing reviews that seem symptomatic of an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” effect, Wednesday’s opening frame seemed to have been largely a warm-up show (Full disclosure: I wasn’t there, and I haven’t heard it yet). That’s not to say that it didn’t bring the heat in a few places. By all accounts, the “Free” opener caught everyone off-guard and infused some much needed drive into a song that has largely petered out since the late 90s. Following that with a note-perfect rarity in “Glide” and a fiery “Possum,” and it seems that there was certainly some energy in the Garden. Yet most of my friends and family who went felt that Phish wasn’t really letting it all out. A one-show warmup might have been just what the band needed. All the potential jam vehicles – “Stash,” “Gin,” “Tweezer,” “Hood” – were mostly standard versions. Not to say that they were bad, but that they were typical. We all love “Hood,” and there’s really no such thing as a bad “Hood,” but there definitely is such a thing as a spectacular “Hood.” Wednesday’s version wasn’t spectacular (again, it’s all hearsay, don’t shoot the messenger).
So what would Thursday night bring? Would it be the psychedelic excursion of the run? Would it be the funk-fest? Would it be a night of bust-outs and older tunes? Or would it be a dud? The answer was funk, but really, last night’s show was all about pumping up the energy of the garden, and taking us all for an adrenaline fueled ride out into the stratosphere.
Typical opener calls of “Bag,” “PYITE,” “Llama,” and others floated around our section pre-show, so it was a welcome shock to everyone when Phish came out and slayed “The Sloth.” Surprise! The last “Sloth” opener was 2/22/03 Cincinnati, but it’s only been played 5 or 6 times since then anyway. A little rare Gamehendge flavor got the crowd going early – there’s nothing like a bustout to immediately launch everyone into another zone. But what came next was even more unexpected, and even more of an energy jolt. Everyone seemed initially caught off-guard, and then slowly becoming elated, as the opening notes of “YEM” washed over the crowd.
Phish’s most common song in one of the most uncommon slots. Not since the legendary 4/5/98 Island Tour has “You Enjoy Myself” occupied the two-slot in a first set. While I’ve seen two “YEM” openers before (2/26/03 and 7/9/03), this was different. The “YEM” opener is a novelty, a freak occurrence that plays right into the audience’s sweet spot. In both my previous cases, it was used for effect. On 2/26/03, it was a “reward” for the fact that Phish would debut four songs, one from each of the member’s solo projects during hiatus. On 7/9/03, it was a not-so-subtle nod to the last pre-hiatus show at Shoreline, which encored with “YEM.”
But in the two-slot, “YEM” takes on a different character. With the “Sloth” getting things going, “YEM” was just the next song in the set, calculated to surprise and astound and blow the roof off the sucka, but to do it as part of a continuation of what had already been put in motion, rather than as an initiator of that trajectory. It took what we were all feeling after the “Sloth” opener and cranked the intensity up, rather than having to generate its own intensity out of nothing. This subtle ontological difference changed the feel of the show, which constantly felt like it was building on its own mountain of high-octane energy right to the last note of the night, constantly surprising us with setlist moves calculated to infuse another jolt of power into the show.
There’s nothing like the “YEM” build so early in the show, rather than when you’ve already been letting it all out for the past 3 hours. Trey added to the excitement by switching his normal pre-”Boy” scream to an “OH MY GOD!!!” scream, saying what many of the fans were thinking about a second song “YEM.” Page asserted his presence early on, absolutely slaying the tramps jam even harder than usual. Trey seemed quite patient as he built up the jam, which had as much to do with Mike’s nimble-fingered playing in the higher bass registers as it did Trey’s fretwork. Big Red concentrating on the muted string repetitive playing at first, creating some tight funky counterpoint with Mike. Throughout, Trey found himself repeating short phrases, either verbatim or in sequence, allowing the rest of the band to push the jam while he remained melodically static. Of course, this finally culminated with Trey breaking out, going on fast runs all over the guitar, bending big high notes, and finally some manic strumming. This “YEM” jam was definitely of the funky variety rather than the big rock ‘n’ roll type, with a crazily fun bass and drums section.
The second musical theme of the night emerged from the “YEM” – 12/29/11 would be all about the FUNK. A trio of gooey funk tunes followed, beginning with a completely average, but still fun and funky, “Back On The Train,” then followed by a jam-less “Moma.” “Funky Bitch” ended up being the best part of this section of the show, with a dominating Page organ solo after the second verse, and then a blistering guitar solo with Trey strumming like a madman in his highest range. Trey let Page’s solo shine, comping with a few extended 9th and 11th chords (foreshadowing the upcoming “Maze”), but mostly just playing a few punctuating chords to accompany Page’s wild playing. It was one of the more memorable versions of “Funky Bitch” I’ve heard. Trey’s solo was emblematic of the night: take the already high energy and kick it into the next level.
Setlist-wise, they did just that with a mid-set “Maze.” Although this was a relatively typical “Maze” – meaning that it did exactly what “Maze” always does, owns your face – it continued to push the energy in the room. A return to the slow funk in a fun “Roses Are Free” kept everyone dancing, as did the follow-up “Halley’s Comet.” “Halley’s” didn’t exactly jam out, but continuing with the theme of pushing the energy and building the anticipation, the band kept the song going, moving deftly through the circle of fifths way further than they usually go. Typically, “Halley’s” features two or three modulations along the circle of fifths, which gives the impression of continuous harmonic arrival, but last night’s version went through seven or eight modulations. And then it fell into “Antelope.” A fun, frenzied finish to this “Antelope” wasn’t exactly notable, but with the electricity in the room and the complete lack of a slow song in the set, this was a fiery end to a funky, powerful set.
Set II began where set I left off, with a “Crosseyed and Painless” that provided not only funk, but again, big waves of energy as this has become a clear fan-favorite, no matter how often it gets played. A solid jam followed, going through many of the typical stages of a set II opener in 2011: fast, relatively patient build to an ecstatic release, followed by a descent into darkness and space. The watery Fender Rhodes and globular bass notes had me, and many others, thinking “No Quarter,” which would have been perfect in its normal follow-up spot to the second set opener. Instead, out of the murkiness, Trey went with his old standard, the riff to end all riffs, “Simple.” Another big energy surge, another beautiful “Simple” jam, with that lovable shit-eating grin plastered over Trey’s face.
Like many 3.0 “Simple”s, this version was highlighted by a blissful and quiet guitar solo that gradually turned more and more to intricate interplay between Anastasio and Gordon. Following its normal course, this soon disintegrated into some spacey counterpoint that bled into the first ballad of the night, but what a call: “Lifeboy.” This was a nice treat for everyone, as it was clear that folks wanted a breather, but still something that they’d enjoy immensely. That’s definitely “Lifeboy,” a rarity with poignant lyrics and a beautiful, slow and gentle build.
The ugly pig then made a mid-set appearance, as the triplet strumming of “Guyute” came into focus. A typically raging version followed, with one or two small flubs, but this was a great setlist move, effectively splitting up the first segment of the set, Crosseyed>Simple>Lifeboy, with the second major segment of the set, a fantastically atypical Mike’s Groove that featured one of the better “Weekapaugs” in recent history.
“Mike’s Song” was a good choice at this point in the set, and although it didn’t do much and Trey wasted no time getting right into it, he really pushed the tension to the boiling point before releasing it with the big “jamband” VI-bVII-i cadence at the end. Sticking with the normal modus operandi of 3.0 “Mike’s,” the band went into the transitional composed section, but rather than falling into “Hydrogen,” Trey could be heard strumming something fast. What is that, wait, is it really “Chalkdust!?!” Yep. Mike’s->Chalkdust. How’s that fit for you?
What came next was truly a magically Phishy moment. “Chalkdust” began going strongly toward the mixolydian, indicating perhaps a deep second set improvisational journey into psychedelic waters. But instead they soon brought it back to a normal “Chalkdust” jam that erupted in fine fashion, but not with the closing riff. Instead of the closing riff, Trey played a very recognizable guitar line, which I thought was Allman Brothers at first (it sounded like “Jessica” or the jam riff of “Ramblin Man”). But then it became clear: Trey was playing “Hydrogen.” In a moment of pure absurdity, Phish segued flawlessly from a raging “Chalkdust” into “Hydrogen.” As Fishman made the switch over to the gentle triple meter, he played it rather aggressively at first, to help facilitate the transition, before the whole band managed to bring it down enough to fall into the lilt of “Hydrogen.” Some people might think this was an abrupt segue, a ripcord, but I disagree: this was a brilliant move on Trey’s part and the rest of the band picked up on it perfectly.
Following this, a slow-as-molasses “Weekapaug Groove” closed out the segment. Noticably funkier and slower than a typical “Weekapaug,” this version continued the funktacular feel of the first set and the “Crosseyed.” It began with some vintage fall ’97 wah-wah strumming, before some great moments of muted string patterns from Trey and percussive clav playing from Page. There were a few distinct jam sections in this “Weekapaug,” first focusing on a minimal funky section, then moving to a slow, very patient build on a clean tone from Trey, and culminating with a full-on ragefest of strumming. It was definitely one of the longer and more patient ‘Paugs in recent memory.
At this point, the energy was rockin so hard and they could have played anything. Phish went with a slow ballad, not a bad call here, except that it was my least favorite song right now, “Show of Life.” Honestly, I have no use for this song. I’m happy that Trey has rekindled his songwriting relationship with the Dude of Life, but at what cost people, at what cost? Ugh. While at the urinal, I joked that they’d probably follow this wreck of a tune with “Character Zero.” Which they promptly did. But this was a great re-mounting of the energy lost from the “Blow of Life,” and the “Loving Cup” encore, as ubiquitous a closing choice as anything these days, was just as welcome.
I don’t know if all the parts of this show will hold up on recording, but definitely the “Funky Bitch,” the “YEM,” and most of the second set are keepers, especially the “Weekapaug” and the absurdly fine Chalkdust->Hydrogen. What night will the 30th be? Will it be the psychedelia night (please please please) or will it be bust-outs? We’re certain to get a big ol’ “Reba” and “Bowie” one of these nights, but I’m banking on some unexpected surprises tonight. Maybe a “Gumbo,” a “McGrupp,” and I’d really LOVE some 2.0 highlights: a fat “Waves,” a “Scents,” or a “Walls.” Regardless, with a lot of big guns out of the way (“Hood,” “YEM,” “Tweezer,” “Antelope,” “Mike’s”), and a lot to be saved for Saturday’s 3-set blowout, tonight should provide a lot of interesting setlist choices. Here’s hoping.