Well, at least they at least saw one jam to fruition. In what has to be considered the least significant New Year’s Eve show in Phish’s hallowed career, the band chose straightforward and unadventurous playing for the duration of the most climactic night of the year, less a single highlight sequence in the second set —“Light > Golden Age.” To have ended such a triumphant year in the flat musical fashion that has defined the past couple nights was nothing short of a travesty. With the band’s improvisational gusto far from the level it was when they graced the stages of the nation this summer, Phish only attempted to infuse two songs with any real of creativity throughout three sets of music. This wasn’t the Phish that tore Bethel apart. This wasn’t the Phish that crushed The Gorge. This wasn’t the Phish that set afire to a soccer stadium in Commerce City, Colorado for three straight days in September. This was a band that—for whatever reason—was clearly not up to the task this week, playing a show—and a run—with very little inspiration. And it’s a shame to conclude the year with such a lack of intent, because 2011 was nothing short of a revelation for the band and everyone in their community. Now, one of the band’s esteemed traditions of the Holiday Run has left a sour taste in the mouth of many fans.
Usually, the improvisational highlights of a show outweigh the other less significant portions and comprise plenty to write about, but for the second consecutive night, that just wasn’t the case. The first set contained a couple solid funk sessions in “Wolfman’s” and, particularly, “Jibboo,” while the third set is hardly worth writing about at all. In summation, last night was, unquestionably, the most vanilla New Year’s show in Phish history, and for whatever reason, it just didn’t feel like the band really wanted to take many risks. With only two legitimate jams over the past two nights, I’ve never felt feelings like this after a Holiday Run in my life. Boy. Man. God. Shiiiit.
The second set, though declining in creativity throughout, started quite strong. After a “Party Time” opener—a subtle sign that things just were never gonna’ get that musically serious—the band dove into the only great jam of the night—“Light.” Seemingly the start of a huge set, the band attacked their new era launch pad. Moving from the composed, guitar-anchored section into an abstract soundscape and then into a brief Theremin-laced storage jam, Phish showed signs of life as they dug into the experimental side for a bit. But as the band was entrenched in the murk, Trey decided to change the vibe entirely, forcing the band into “Golden Age” in a choppy and awkward transition. And once they reached the juncture from which to jam on the modern cover, the guys did just that—for about two and a half smooth and spectacular minutes. It really felt like they were going somewhere with this piece, reaching a patient whole-band groove on which a big-time set seemed to be building. Trey slinked in and out of the swanky music with rhythm chords before the band abruptly ended the jam and started “Theme From the Bottom.” Back to the songs; and that’s the way it would remain for the entire night.
This trend seemed that it might shift as the band dropped into “Ghost” late in the second set—a 3.0 New Year’s Eve annual rite. But this version hardly compared to either Miami ‘09 or last year’s MSG ’10. Remaining completely in the box for the duration, and featuring only linear, contained jamming, the jam just never popped off. In such a thin show, this piece has to be considered the other “highlight” of the night, featuring strong interplay between Mike and Trey within the context of an intense but plain rock jam. Never did the band look to approach the “Ghost” from a rhythmic angle—just like a steam engine moving straight ahead. And then before anyone knew it, Trey was wrapping up the jam that had yet to go anywhere. Pretty rough scene. And if a lack of a creative “Ghost” jam wasn’t enough, when the band dropped “Sneaking Sally,” they included no jam at all. Instead, Trey opted, against the grain, for a heaping dose of arena rock in “46 Days.” Very odd calls all around last night, and the second set—which started off promising—had fizzled considerably.
The third set, while including nothing noteworthy in the music department, did feature an interesting New Year’s stunt as dancers hooked onto Peter-Pan-esque cables danced to “Steam” and “Down With Disease” while “floating” as souls above the crowd. But when the time came to jam “Disease,” the band’s one ever-reliable vehicle, they did so for a less than a minute, seemingly about to get into something serious. But, again, as soon as it started it was over. And after the New Year’s stunt, the rest of the set was composed of some of the more questionable calls in New Year’s Eve history. I’m not sure what was up with Phish last night, but for most of the evening it felt like they were playing to finish the show, not to create spontaneous magic. Sure, “Light” was engaging, but other than that, the creative juiced dried up like a desert riverbed.
If you had a great time last night, don’t let my opinion devalue your experience—that makes no logical sense. I’m, sincerely, glad you enjoyed it. But as someone who loves Phish as much as each and every one of you with every cell in my body, I have to be honest and call it like I see it, and this was the most uninspired version of the band we’ve seen this year. The 2011 New Year’s Run—as a whole—was a musical disappointment. Sure, we can make a CD of standout jams from the four night, but come on now, this was Phish on the holidays at MSG, and things simply didn’t come to fruition. I wish the year was ending on a more upbeat musical note, but things are what they are.
Happy 2012 to everyone, and here’s to whatever Phish throws our way in the new year!
I: AC/DC Bag > Wolfman’s Brother, Scent of a Mule, Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan, Lawn Boy, Gotta Jibboo, Farmhouse, Pebbles and Marbles, Ocelot, Fluffhead
II: Party Time, Light > Golden Age, Theme From the Bottom, Heavy Things, Ghost, Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley > 46 Days, Suzy Greenberg
III: Cavern, Steam* > Auld Lang Syne > Down with Disease*, The Wedge, Alaska, Wading in the Velvet Sea, First Tube
E: Slave to the Traffic Light
*w/ floating dancersTags: 2011, New Years