12/30. Just four humble digits with a slash in the middle--but with so much history infused in them, and such a high standard implied.
You all know the sluggers. Big Cypress “Mike’s” makes your knees wobble. The Miami “L.A. Woman” stirs your loins. You know exactly when to punch out of the MSG “Hood” before it segues into “My Soul” and you never skip the encore. Some of these performances are legendary and by now part of most fans’ genetic makeup. The ability to give something extra the night before the big gig and still handle your biz for three sets on NYE is sort of one of Phish’s proven superpowers. Big fans expect big things on this big day.
Certainly, Phish has made a few wonderful moments so far this run. Wednesday’s “Golden Age” traversed afar. Thursday’s “20 Kungs Later” mashup worked way, way better than it probably had a right to and I loved every minute. But it’s not like Phish had exactly pierced the mystical veil before tonight, or even delivered a performance whose whole exceeded the sum of its parts.
Call that heresy if you insist, but that won’t make it less true. You’ve heard Vegas, and you know what Phish is capable of right now. You know there’s dry powder in that keg after last night. So let’s don’t surrender all of our expectations--this is Phish, after all.
And it’s 12/30.
The band huddles in the Trey-hole for the third straight barbershop opener of the run, and this time it’s “Carolina.” Speculation about tomorrow night’s opener seems focused on “Space Oddity” for now, but I feel like “Foreplay/Long Time” could at least be called a dark horse. By me.
Speaking of speculation, “Blaze On” follows “Carolina” and effectively extinguishes today’s chatter about a complete performance of the Big Boat album tomorrow. [Regardless of how many BB songs see playing time this run, you have to believe that a soulful and cathartic “More” is teed up for tomorrow.] This slinky, sticky “Blaze On” gives it up for an unusually dynamic “Moma Dance” that features flashy-but-tasteful fills from Fish and an atypical solo for Trey over the “frothy cap” form.
A serviceable “Gumbo” ends in a solo clavinet breakdown by Page that lasts for a few filthy choruses, and then we’re treated to a commanding and atmospheric reading of “Cities.” Trey’s throaty new tone, which owes at least in part to his new Komet Trainwreck 60 amplifier, steals the show in this “Cities.” It seems to be an extension or extrapolation of the tone he achieved with his Marshall head during the fall tour, and in certain configurations sounds like a humming warp drive coated in maple syrup. It’s this deeply pleasing tone that lends “Cities” some real gravity, and we’ll hear more of it later.
[Please excuse the nerdly tangent. It’s just that Trey’s guitar sound has always been one of the most endearing aspects of Phish’s music, and we may be witnessing its peak incarnation right now. That’s exciting, and arguably not at all tangential.]
The plaintive “The Old Home Place” feels well placed here, if a little casual in its delivery (I mean, real bluegrass guys wear suits, and, like, hit notes). But things really get interesting with the “Bathtub Gin” that follows. Early in the “Gin” jam, Mike is playfully assertive, and fends off Trey’s overtures to move from the C to an expanded chord progression. Trey retorts with some trilling lines and an off-tempo loop that sends things out a bit further, spurring some growling Clav phrases from Page. All of this full-band interplay feeds on itself, spiraling upward, and sparks a cascade of climaxes, one after the other, no time to catch your breath, like cresting tides of magnificence. This “Gin” is a manifesto, and the first set is barely half over.
“Things People Do” rewards Page’s game playing so far with a chance to sing. It’s good to see him shed the aww shucks shyness from time to time and grab a show by the shorts as he’s done tonight, but this song feels like an inconsequential retreat at best. Fortunately, it’s followed by a laser-scalpel version of “My Friend, My Friend” that’s brimming with passion and emphasis. Trey pre-empts the “Myfe” ending and charges headlong into “Wilson,” which jars Mike and spurs a funny glance. Mike, now woke, goes ape and napalms this entire “Wilson,” while Trey tosses off some Hendrix-like machine gun riffs before the “I must inquire” verse. Powerful rendition.
Now here comes “Sugar Shack” and along with it low expectations for a song that historically (let’s be honest) ties Trey’s fingers in knots. Wondrously, and this feels like one of the best things to happen in 2016, Trey absolutely kills this “Sugar Shack.” Mike deserves to have his best material treated with this much care on a Phish stage, and we know now that this song sounds great when Trey plays it well. A very pleasant surprise.
“You Enjoy Myself” is an indulgent selection given the set’s running time thus far, but nobody’s complaining. It’s a standard version that’s well placed and serves as solid punctuation for this strong first set. Notably, the guitar player does play a guitar solo (well!), and does not dance to the bass section. And that’s how you “YEM.”
It’s not realistic to expect much more than this from a first set of Phish--you’ve got power, you’ve got balance, you’ve got variety, and you’ve got a band and audience holding opposite ends of a jumper cable. The table is set for a run at 12/30 history, so let’s see what’s served.
The opening “Tweezer” may have been a wee bit predictable (I called it for tomorrow night in a fit of thinking-too-hard), but it serves as a perfect launch platform for this second set. And besides, it’s “Tweezer.” Exploratory probes return home to the mothership with data on possible excursion paths, and the best one is collectively chosen. Mike steers this “Tweezer” jam into a dreamy major key expanse where Trey mines a motherlode of triumphant riffs. Mike answers again and again with waves of intensifying thunder, while Fishman kneads time. There’s a generous peak, and then a retreat to a valley from which “Sparks” emerges.
Were this not 12/30, we’d be talking about this “Tweezer” all by itself in the wake of this show, and that would be fine, because it’s certainly noteworthy. But Phish is just getting started, and this surefooted Who cover proves it. “Sparks” is always welcome but often feels a bit stapled onto a set. Not so tonight; it serves as a perfectly organic and effective bridge between “Tweezer” and the “Ghost” that follows.
The beginning of this “Ghost” seems very telepathic, with all band members moving into the song in deliberate unison without so much as a glance at one another. This is a good omen. There’s yet another deliberate early “huddle” during which a handful of improvisational concepts are proposed and discarded, and the band settles into an achingly beautiful landscape in which instrumental harmonies become shadings of sadness, loss, hope, and beauty. Fishman lets time signature slip away altogether here for a mournful minute or two, setting things adrift, and then re-establishes four time for the journey home.
The rest of this “Ghost” is the distilled IT that we all chase. IT, in that you know nothing can or will go wrong. IT, in that you hear the music in your head a split second before it’s actually played, making each successive moment inevitable. The band recalls the feel and form of the first set “Gin” jam before accelerating deeper yet into space--where full catharsis is unlocked and achieved.
This hosedown seems effortless. On a lesser night, the band might need a breather from all of this interstellar galloping about and drop something self-deprecating or goofy, but their inertia carries them forward instead into “Light.” By now the band is made of danger. It can go where it wants, do what it feels, on its own sweet, suspended time. There’s a busy group jam suggesting bickering elves, with Trey on his Echoplex, Page on his Clav, Mike on his Meatball, and Fish rolling across his toms, and over a few minutes this jam develops a Latin or tropical flavor that suggests a possible move to the Marimba Lumina. But not tonight. These distractions hold no appeal. What’s already happening is too important, too big. This jam opens a supermassive black hole now, from which… “Party Time” appears?
Sure, why the hell not.
As I write this, our setlist suggests that “Party Time” the song was not played. I don’t know if this decision will crumble under the heaving weight of its own ponderous rationale, but just to be clear, we’re not all insane here--just a few of us. “Party Time” was played. Like the mashups of the first two nights of the run, the band’s clear intent is to integrate two songs into one, which by definition implies there will be departures from the form of both songs.
This matters because the pyrotechnics that occur next should be properly attributed at least in part to the song “Party Time,” which has certainly clocked no finer version. My notes from the show say only “MASSIVE climax out of this holy shit holy fucjing shot sfnbxxxx” and that’s about as close as I’m likely to get to capturing the impact of this moment. Suffice it to say this is a high water mark for this song and for this set; it’s also arguably a high water mark for Phish in this era. There are only two, maybe three sets since the 2009 comeback that burn this brightly for this long. It was at this point that I had to wonder what “Hood Bliss Guy” looked like, and who was making sure he didn’t levitate into the rafters.
“Wading in the Velvet Sea” appears now where it always should--deep in a second set, as a well-earned palate cleanser to follow an expansive meal. This “Wading” proves to be a sparkling, heartfelt, and vulnerable version. Note perfect.
There’s a quick, fun “Rocky Top” to button up the set (the show’s second nod to a southern state), and then a little extra oomph in the ovation that draws the band back to the stage for their encore. Phish sends their fans home with a workmanlike take on “Rock and Roll” and a “Tweezer Reprise” that quotes “Martian Monster.” During the seismic “Tweeprise,” Mike seems hilariously disconnected from the fact that he just melted 20,000 faces, as if he might as well be gassing up his car, or paying the cable bill. Most charming detachment ever.
This show is why it is fair to hold treacly praise and high-caliber adjectives in reserve and resist the temptation to shower them on standard (if perfectly cromulent) performances like Thursday’s. If there’s any downside to the show they played tonight, it’s that it will be hard to top on NYE proper. But I wouldn’t bet against Phish, whose powers are now on full display. The future is now! Bring on 2017!
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November 19, 1998
19 years ago
Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Encore: You Enjoy Myself
 Heloise Williams on vocals.
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