Phish 12/31/11: Steamy, But Safe

(Photo by G. Forget)

In his New York Times review, Jon Pareles described Phish’s performance on 12/29 as “Phish in crowd-pleasing mode: uptempo, playing familiar songs and ready to keep fans dancing — never getting too abstract or experimental.” I found this sentence fascinating. Phish is the band behind You Enjoy Myself and Ha Ha Ha and Gamehendge; the band that played Dark Side of the Moon in Utah, Tweezerfest in Dallas, and the Storage Jam at Superball. Could it really be true, after 28 years of making history by being unpredictable, that Phish’s current crowd is “pleased” when the band keeps things familiar and non-experimental?

Last night, in their sixth New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden, the band capped off a four-night run that put this question to the test. Pareles’s description of 12/29 was equally fitting for 12/31: the show was consistently uptempo; it was always familiar, with no surprises other than the visually striking and beautifully choreographed New Year’s stunt. As for abstractness and experimentation, the show included almost none. Save for a 12-minute Light and a short extension to Down with Disease’s normal boundaries, the show had the same near-complete lack of exploratory jamming as the previous two nights’ shows.

(Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011)

Which brings us back to the original question: is this what the crowd wants?

As is generally the case with Phish shows, it depends which member of the crowd you ask. On one hand, the MSG audience exploded during Trey’s lightning licks in 46 Days and First Tube–two songs that are almost identical from one performance to the next. But on the other hand, virtually every one of my longtime fan friends–as well as some of my virtual friends in the blogosphere–found this to be the most disappointing New Year’s run in the band’s history on account of the lack of experimentation.

I would agree wholeheartedly with this latter assessment. I will never tire of rocking out to Disease, never stop being impressed at the band’s ability to pull off a song like Fluffhead in front of thousands of people. But these qualities fit in the category of “great Phish.” There is another category–“transcendent Phish”–which is a destination that can only be reached by one road: the exploratory jam. There are plenty of bands that rock, and tons that play virtuosically. But I have never seen or heard any other band capable of doing anything like what I saw Phish do in Nassau on 4/3/98 or 2/28/03, or what I heard them do on 9/14/99 or 12/29/94.

As for specifics: the first set had few noteworthy moments. An energetic Jibboo was a sole highlight; particularly dull versions of Farmhouse and Pebbles & Marbles, followed by Ocelot, were deadweight right in the heart of the set.

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

The second set stuck to the “Party Time” theme that was established up front, with upbeat, mostly major-key rock songs throughout. As I mentioned, Light was the improvisational highlight of the show, despite being prematurely cut off by Trey as Page’s shift to the theremin was making things interesting.

The first Cavern set-opener since 8/8/98 kicked off a third set that was notable mainly for its stunt: as the band sang of a soul “join[ing] mine as steam,” pieces of their equipment–Page’s keytar, Trey’s cabinet, Mike’s bass, and Fish’s vacuum–were lifted into the air in a cloud of mist. Shortly thereafter, some dancers scattered around the arena, dressed as fans, were similarly elevated, dancing in mid-air in a surreal display. Following the countdown, near the end of Disease’s jam, Mike and Trey were lifted on platforms some 30 feet skyward, and the stunt came to a close. Sadly, the rest of the set took a nosedive, with an unremarkable version of The Wedge giving way to the one-two poke of Alaska and Wading in the Velvet Sea–not quite as festive as one might want New Year’s festivities to be. Slave was as good as an encore could have been, but it wasn’t nearly enough to salvage a show that paled in comparison to each of the band’s previous year-end trips to the Garden.

Last night, Phish played the last of four consecutive great rock concerts. I had an excellent time, and, if the smiling faces emerging from the Garden last night are any indication, so did just about everyone else in attendance. Was the crowd pleased? Absolutely. But Phish is capable of doing much more than just “pleasing” its audience. Whether by choice or not, they did little of it this run.