Last night was my first NYC show, my first New Year’s Eve show, and my first three-setter since the IT Festival in 2003. I got on the late-morning train from Boston not knowing who’d be there to see; in the event it was a mostly solitary experience, to the extent that a Phish show can ever be ‘solitary.’
I haven’t relistened to the music yet; it’s slowly downloading now.
I’ll leave a couple of notes here. They’re not quite ‘critical’; there hasn’t been time for that yet.
- As you’d expect after Phish’s incredible 2018, they closed out the MSG run with a sparkling show. The first set was a high-energy jukebox, the third was the usual post-‘gag’ ecstatic valediction, and the middle sequence — while not quite as cohesive or perfectly shaped as the previous two nights — would be a standout hour any other year of ‘Phish 3.0.’
- The ‘gags’ aren’t gags anymore, of course — or not only that. Like the Petrichor dance routine, this year’s aerial performance was earnestly beautiful in its own right, and the Trey/Mike blastoff during ‘Say It to Me S.A.N.T.O.S.’ was a bit of fun for the musicians rather than one of those old-time mindfucks. I was down on the floor, close enough to clearly see the dancers’ facial expressions, and I loved watching both their precise work during the show and their release and relief when they came out dressed as inflatable foodstuffs(?!) afterward. I imagine one or two new Phish fans were born onstage last night.
- I make a small private effort not to get irked by ‘ripcords,’ but while I knew from the second or third song that Trey was in his busy ‘central planning’ mode last night (cf. his Phish Book comments re the Remain in Light set) and so likely unable to commit to the self-dissolving improvisatory dives, it was kind of a bummer when that proved to be the case. ‘Disease,’ ‘Seven Below,’ and ‘Hood’ all ended a touch hastily, though of course ‘Hood’ returned in fire.
- Like many fans my age, I’ve gotten to some places with the studio version of ‘Waste’ — hearing that gently beckoning song during your ‘What will I be when I grow up? Must I grow up?’ phase can be a powerful experience. I spent much of last night’s performance turned away from the stage, watching pairs and trios of fans hug and sway and sing and experience in a direct way the intense fellow-feeling and almost universal love that I know to be the core of so many of our shared fan-experiences, but which can sometimes seem abstract, aspirational, even unattainable. For a second I felt it, and it was beautiful. I got a little teary, I’ll tell you that for free.
- Then during the perfectly placed second-set ‘Hood,’ a series of intensely vivid images flashed through my head, of wondrous ‘Hood’ jams I’ve heard live or which have filled me up in private moments: Worcester 2010, Great Woods 2014, Darien Lake 1997 (my first), a treasured memory of listening to my beloved A Live One ‘Hood’ alone in the car on my Discman while my family shopped. I remembered playing the A Live One version for friends after coming back from a summer spent far away amongst strangers in 1995. For a moment I thought of the first time I played Phish for my mom (the studio ‘Chalk Dust,’ that must’ve been 1994) and her genuine surprise when I told her the jam was a collective improvisation. I remembered crossing the Harvard Bridge listening to a brand-new DAUD-2 of 12/30/97 — it was only a couple weeks after the show — and jumping up and down like a fool as the ‘Guyute’ reached its climax. As the band played those familiar notes last night in New York, all these memories mingled and I was overcome, sobbing hysterically. I’ve been a Phish fan for nearly 25 years; throughout my adolescence and adult life this music has been an essential element of my personal and now even my professional identity. It’s a silly thing, I know, but last night’s ‘Hood’ cracked something open inside me that, without realizing, I’d allowed to seal over and become closed off. Do we still call such moments of oceanic revelation ‘IT’? Well, that was IT.
- Afterward, during ‘Passing Through,’ I began to dance freely for the first time in years, and my tears gave way to roaring laughter. I felt totally alive.
- I think I’d like to see Phish on New Years’ Eve again this year. And I think I’d like to take my son to a show this summer.
- We needn’t and shouldn’t be grateful for sloppy play or lazy choices; those happen sometimes, if only rarely these days, and should be seen for what they are. But right now Phish are in the middle of a creative and personal renaissance unprecedented in rock music history, and if they keep this up for another five or ten years we can feel comfortable dropping that ‘rock’ qualifier altogether. For a while in the mid/late-90s they were the best rock improvisers ever and arguably the best rock band in America, and right now, decades later, they’re playing at or near that same exalted level, but with a depth of feeling and weight of experience they could never have attained as Skillful Young Men. I’m in awe of what they’ve done since the Wingsuit set, even moreso since the Baker’s Dozen — their second Cypress.
- ‘Lizards’ is a good encore. ‘Character Zero’ is a good encore.
See you next time.