How did we get here? How did this happen? How did the Phish MSG run that started off with so much promise get us here, into a world with so much controversy? Was this the worst Holiday Run since ’96? If so, why did it fall short? What happened?
IMO, the main culprit is lack of flow to the sets. As @robmitchum said on twitter “Trey needs to go back to set architecture school”, a sentiment I whole-hardheartedly agree with. Phish played 9 sets of music, yet there is nary a one that holds up in its entirety as a set. The best sets of Phish have flow, and I am not just talking about the 4 song masterpieces like 4/3/98. Sets like 7/25/99 I & II, 12/30/93 II, and 1/1/11 II all have it. Even above-average great shows like 8/14/09 have good flow, construction, and architecture.
Lets take the analogy one step further. 4/3/98 II is like the Empire State Building: grand statement and vision, beautiful detailing, and staying power. Other above-average great shows are like a skyscraper you could find in the Loop in downtown Chicago: beautiful, fits in its place, but unless you look closely you might miss it packed in with all the other buildings. 12/28 and 12/29, while certainly not Empire State Building and a step below the Chicago School of Architecture are not offensive buildings. They are like any of the new and shiny glass and steel towers that rise in major American cities today: they look OK, get the job done as far as buildings go, but you won’t be writing books about them in the coming years.
The major crimes in this category belong to 12/30 and 12/31. The setlist architecture of those shows is more akin to the Brutalist Harry Weese designed Humanities Building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus: totally out of place, jarring to the eyes, and uncomfortable to be around. You don’t have to know architecture to have an idea of what a Brutalist building is like, the name gives it away; 12/30 and 12/31 were Brutalist Phish.
Lets look at 12/30. The flow in the first set of 12/30 was horrible. The momentum was so up and down and didn’t capture the energy of the event. The set was just a bunch of random songs. Everything was jumbled. Even the good parts (Divided Sky, Sand, Quinn) were lost amidst the manic peaks and valleys of the music. Set II followed much of the same patter. The set started off promisingly with Wilson>Axilla, but each song that came after just seemed like an isolated song in any old set without any connection to the song before it. Piper>Twist was good, but the Julius>Golgi that came after it just felt odd stuck in the middle of the set. The odd flow continued with the 2001>Horse>Silent>Bowie, Coil. Up down, up down. Up down, up down. Nothing was sustained. Just a bunch of songs played one after the other. As @robmitchum said “Imagine a set if you will of 2001>Piper>Twist>Bowie>Coil”. Now THAT is a set. Same songs, different order. You don’t have the manic peaks you have in the real set. You have something that flows, something that works together.
The problem that plagued 12/30 II has been one that has plagued Phish 3.0. Play a bunch of high energy songs and play them well and hope that they come together to form a set. I don’t know why they are doing this. I am under no illusions that the day of the 4 song second set is over. That’s not what I am holding out for. 1/1/11 is the shining example of how Phish can do a second set in the 3.0 era. Even though it was short, it felt long when it was happening. The song pairs made sense in relationship to each other. 12/30 just didn’t have that.
As for the New Years show, I don’t really know what to say. Wasn’t there, didn’t watch the webcast, and haven’t listened to it. But to judge a book by its cover (or a show by its setlist), this had to have been one of the most disappointing shows Phish has ever played. 12/31/11 is like the Boston City Hall, a shining monument to Brutalist architecture at its best (or worst, as the case may be). Legend has it that when the model for the new Boston City Hall was unveiled “The crowd let out a mixture of cheers, gasps, and a voice that said, “What the hell is that?” Mayor John Collins reportedly let out an inadvertent gasp of horror.” I think “What the hell is that” is a fitting tribute to 12/31/11. To my eyes, the first set seems OK. New Years Eve worthy? Probably not, but no worse than 12/31/96 or 12/31/97. But the second and third sets…what the hell is that? The concept may be there for the second set, but when put together, the set just falls on its face. Again, no flow, no hook to get you into it. Maybe not Brutalist, but very Le Corbusian. Le Corbusier, one of the founders of the Modernist school of architecture, was famous for saying that “the house is a machine for living in“, meaning architectural detailing or other superficial embellishments on houses are not necessary because the primary function of the house is to provide shelter – nothing else is needed. 12/31/11 II is merely the Corbusian extension to a set of music: the songs were secondary, only a set of music was necessary. Now, could a set like 12/31/11 work? Sure. There are great examples of Modernist architecture that are successful, like the PSFS Building in Philadelphia (you didn’t think this column would escape a Philly reference, did you?), but more often than not Modernist buildings leave you out in the cold because “the insistent use of its trade-mark grid produces a soulless sameness.” Set III doesn’t even merit mentioning. Set III is like the bulldozing of the old Penn Station. The old Penn Station was a beautiful Beaux Arts masterpiece of steel and glass, an inspiring, yet welcoming piece of architecture, but in the name of “progress” it was knocked down and replaced with the Penn Station you have today: an unwelcoming, claustrophobic subterranean cavern that is not suited to be the entrance way into a city as grand as New York. That is what happens when you place songs like Alaska and Velvet Sea in a third set of a New Years show: you get something totally underwhelming and not befitting the place it is in.
These New Years Run shows seem like they have all been played before, at least on paper. There was nothing extra-ordinary. Sure, jams were tight, playing was good, etc… but the setlists themselves were so pedestrian. As someone else said (and I forget who or I would attribute) these sets felt like ones you would see mid June at Riverport, or some other random amphitheater in the midwest or the south. A New Years Run should be more than that. More often than not, Phish has showed up when they are on the biggest stage. Think festivals, think Halloween, think New Years Eve. This year, for whatever reason, it didn’t come across. I know they still have it in them. I had a great time at MSG this year and even though I am a little confused, I’m already looking forward to see what Phish has in store for us next year.