The Red Red Worm
It was inevitable that one of the nights of this four-night NYE MSG run would feature a jam that makes everyone look around in bewildered wonderment half way through. A jam that defines what we mean by Type II: leaving the song’s structure, rhythmic identity, and harmonic boundaries until the band truly finds themselves composing on the spot, creating improvisatory bliss. We got it last night in the form of a monster, multi-section, transcendent “Piper.” I’m shocked that this didn’t get labeled “New York Jam,” since by around the ten minute mark, there was nothing identifiably “Piper” about the music we were listening to. Pure group improvisation. In other words, THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE!
But more on that later.
I had been feeling a big bust-out night, or maybe a deeply psychedelic journey (5-song second set anyone?), but instead, the band delivered another high-energy, solid Phish show that had pretty much everything you could ask for: a few bust-outs, fan favorites, funk, rock, bluegrass, ballads, covers, more odd setlist placement, some excellent jams, and of course, that “Piper” jam that could very well end up being the improvisational highlight of this run (I hope I’m wrong on that last account). More importantly, Trey is playing very aggressively even in his routine soloing. It’s as though he’s playing the same old melodic patterns and thematic ideas that he’s always had in his fingers, but with a renewed ferocity that has been an occasional, rather that constant, presence in the 3.0 era.
Everyone was sniffing out a “PYITE” opener one of these nights, and the excellent crowd-pumper-upper came last night, doing all its usual awesomeness. Then, an extremely odd second-song “Caspian” came out of nowhere (but hey, that’s nothing compared to a second song “YEM”!). It was another bit of unusual placement by putting a tune that normally comes in the second set, and normally at the end of a set or a long jam segment, early in the show. “Caspian” took a bit more oomph than usual, had a little more weight in the set order, as it was a jumping off point rather than a landing pad. After peaking nicely, it fizzled into a really nice bit of spaceyness before Trey started strumming out the opening rhythm of “Backwards Down the Number Line.” I’ve seen too many of these in bad setlist positions recently (PNC 2…), so it was great to hear “Number Line” early in the set, without any chance of foiling a sick second set jam. Plus, the jam raged (as it often does). Again, it’s nice to see Trey attacking his guitar with such drive and determination.
Also, and this really goes for the whole run, but Mike and Page have really been phenomenal not only in their jamming, but in their listening. It seems as though all three melodic instruments are responding to each other’s ideas in a very healthy, organic way, especially Mike and Trey. Normal Trey-led jams are that much more interesting because of how Mike is responding to Trey’s leads, carving his own melodies around the guitar, so that a jam’s build feels more like a group effort rather than a solo with accompaniment.
Traditional bluegrass made its first appearance with “Nellie Kane,” which is not only my absolute favorite Phish bluegrass tune, but one I’ve only heard one time before. I danced my ass off. Trey’s speed and agility seem not to have suffered from four months of not touring. A nice mid-set “Divided Sky” made a welcome appearance, but that was followed by another surprise setlist choice, a meaty mid-set “Sand.” This was perfect, exactly what this set needed after a whole bunch of rock and Phishy compositions. A first set “Sand” casts a nice dark aura over the opening frame, and this was a particularly nasty version. Trey wasted no time getting right into the thick of things, eschewing the quiet muted-string playing that has begun many “Sand” jams of late and moving right into some raging rock-styled jamming. Page followed suit, skipping the normally clav-dominated opening funk and going right to comping on the grand piano. Trey absolutely shredded the end of this jam with Page erupting in chords, following Trey all along. An intense return to the riff marked the close.
The now-rare and totally gnarly “Vultures” made an appearance next, much to my delight. As usual, the tongue-twister lyrics and punctuating rhythm made for a danceably fun time. “Rift” is one of those songs that has a lot of old school flavor and cultural caché within our little community – I feel like when phans hear “Rift” it brings us all back to that early 90s Phish listening mindset. I was loving it, as were many others, dancing as hard as I could during the flawlessly played composed section. I’m sure there are some “Joy” haters out there, since there are probably haters for every slow tune (I can’t stand “Show of Life” or “Anything But Me,” but I love “All of These Dreams” and “Let Me Lie”), but I’m certainly not one of them. I think “Joy” is a really nice song, and its chorus lyrics would be cheesy if it weren’t for the weighty emotionality of the verses. As it stands, it’s a powerful message, and the closing riff and jam feels like pure happiness.
This is my dog, Quinn the Eskimo:
So naturally, you can imagine how psyched I am anytime Phish plays “Quinn the Eskimo.” My wife ran back in from the beer line so that we could rock out in celebration of our doggie together. Yeah we’re crazy dog people.
Set II began with some big, heavy rock, the one-two punch of “Wilson” followed by “Axilla.” “Axilla” seemed a touch botched at the beginning, but no matter. Then, Trey began the quiet strumming of “Piper.”
There are a few things that are on my Phish wish list: jam out “Tube” and “2001,” go back to the 1995 style on “Free,” and slowly build up “Piper.” While it seemed like we were heading for a nice slow build, Trey prematurely began the lyrics section. I think it doesn’t let the song grow enough when the introduction is that short, but whatever. A typical “Piper” jam began to unfold, but it felt like Trey was having difficulty finding a strong line. He kept returning to many of his signature licks, seemingly feeling out the curves of the jam, but not really finding a comfortable spot.
And then all of a sudden, right around the five-minute mark, Trey switched to a minor chord strum, and the entire band heard it and followed him down the rabbit hole.
This was one of the best turn-on-a-dime jam transitions I’ve heard in a long time from Phish. Fishman immediately began pushing a bit harder and easing up on the cymbals, and the band switched over to a two-chord minor vamp with lots of Mike leads over Trey’s strumming. Page moved from the piano to the synthesizer, unleashes long waves of sound punctuated by Hammond organ. All the while, Trey seemed content to comp chords, setting up the rhythm of it all. When Page suddenly started soloing on the synth, Trey switched over to a more electronic sounding guitar tone, and played in counterpoint with Page, occasionally returning to big warbles of sound, while Fishman came as close to a disco beat as you’ll ever hear from him.
The jam took a turn then when Trey found a riff he liked, and the whole band followed, including Fishman who lessened up his relentless groove and began to play more fills. This turned into a more subdued style of drumming, which set up a major-key ambient section wonderfully. Fishman was drumming very quietly, but still very fast, keeping the rhythm pushing while bringing the overall intensity down. Trey carved out some beautiful notes, while Page offered waves of sound reminiscent of the best fall ’97 space jams. Trey did a few siren-like bird calls, and then at one point, Mike unleashed the bass bomb to end all bombs. It shook MSG to the core, and simultaneously melted everyone into the floor. Puddles of brains, everywhere. This jam was absolutely nothing like “Piper” anymore – it was a one-chord major key drone, exploring timbres and layering textures. The guys in front of me turned and asked “is this STILL ’Piper’?,” and they were seasoned vets. Page was playing at least two different kinds of sounds at once, and Trey kept changing his tone and layering sweeps of sound, all while Mike was dancing around circular patterns high up on the neck of his bass, and Fish was keeping the ride cymbal going strong. This is why we keep coming to shows, this is why we make such huge sacrifices in our lives for this band. This is IT.
Trey then started soloing again on top of the entire texture, locking in with Mike’s lines while Page offered big, warm organ chords. As it all seemed to be winding down, Trey went for the classic followup, pairing “Piper” with its longtime companion “Twist.” This “Twist” did not disappoint, as everyone needed something of a breather after such a intense journey. Rather than go for a straight rock or funk jam, Trey and Mike kept things playful on this “Twist,” with a lot of very interesting drum patterns from Fishman that made the jam seem different in some way. A big energy infusion came in the form of “Julius,” with Trey again slaughtering his solo. Another little taste of old-school flavor came in the form of a late set “Golgi.”
At least, I thought it was late set. The opening drum beat of “2001” indicated that they still had some work to do that night, although I was praying that this wouldn’t be one of those quick, throwaway versions. The band didn’t let me down here, jamming out both of the pre-”verse” sections nicely, doing some real funky start/stop jamming after the first “verse.” While it wasn’t quite a 12-minute excursion, at around 7 minutes it was quite the welcome change from some previous “2001″s. “Horse>Silent” slowed things down again, but of course, everyone loves “Silent” during the NYE run. “Just last year,” indeed. Also, when did Page start playing “Horse” on piano instead of Trey on guitar? I’d love to see Trey pick up the acoustic for “Horse” one of these days….
Finally, the “Bowie” that I was sure would come on the 31st showed up, and with a scary weird psychedelic introduction taboot! Trey teased a demented version of the “Silent” riff during the intro, and the band nailed the composed part. This was a relatively standard “Bowie” jam, nothing out of the ordinary but certainly nothing pedestrian, either. Attacked on all fronts, the built the jam of this dark classic up from nothing, with some nifty Trey/Mike interplay at the start and the mode mixture towards the major side that’s been common to many recent versions of “Bowie.”
But that wasn’t all – a nice “Squirming Coil” was sure to be the closer for the set. Sure enough, the band left the stage, focusing the spotlight on the Chairman of the Boards, who gave us a variety of different Coil styles, including one really nice bluesy moment, before winding it all down and showering in our thunderous applause. For the encore, the band went with high energy and fun, starting with “Boogie On Reggae Woman” that featured an extensive Mike solo, and then putting the exclamation point on the show with “Good Times Bad Times.”
On the night before New Year’s Eve, the band offered us a deep space exploration of cosmic proportions. We can only hope we see another monster of a jam tonight, but what will it be? Other than “Reba,” “Melt,” “Light,” and last year’s big winner, “Ghost,” there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot left in the catalog to make some really huge jams. What I hope this means is that we’ll get a few totally absurd jams in unexpected places. A big “Jim” ala 12/31/95, maybe a jammed out “Bag” like 12/30/97, or some other typically short tunes that could turn into monsters like “Gumbo” or “Waves” would be fantastic. “Ocelot” seems a guarantee, and hopefully a “Party Time” opener and just a touch of “Meatstick” in there. Mostly, I’m just excited to be spending another New Year’s Eve at MSG with my wife, my best friends, my favorite band, and 20,000 other new friends. Happy new year everyone! See you on the other side.