After a strong performance on the 28th in which Phish took no less than three jams into uncharted territory—“Cities,” “Carini,” and “Rock and Roll”—it seemed as though they were setting the table for a daring and risk-strewn four nights. But in the following three shows combined, the band took exactly two jams outside the box in “Piper” and “Light,” while also sitting in a smooth funk groove for about two minutes in “Golden Age.” And that was it—an entire New Year’s Run worth of exploration. Dwarfed by each of the modern era Holiday Runs of ’09 and ‘10—both of which produced several timeless pieces of improvisation—this MSG stand was noticeably void of adventurous jamming, a staple the band’s 2011 playing. Sure, Phish put on some tight rock and roll shows in New York City, but this is Phish, they can do that in their sleep.
Let’s summarize the highlights. “Piper” was certainly the crown jewel of the run, when, in a single moment, the band jumped onto the same page and crafted a layered and looped-out, psychedelic masterpiece that touched the divine. Synced like no other time during the four nights, Phish sculpted a jam that stands head and shoulders above the rest. “Carini” turned into a truly blissful and harmonic collaboration before smoothly landing in “Tweezer.” “Rock and Roll” certainly pushed the envelope with varying rhythmic cadences along the way, and when the band couldn’t really connect in “Light,” despite Page’s best efforts to start something, they brought the piece down for the run’s Theremin jam. This part of “Light” became increasingly engaging—the most interesting music of the evening—but Trey pulled the string way early for an absolute trainwreck into “Golden Age” as the rest of the band was deepening. Then, as “Golden Age” was just getting somewhere, the band stopped for “Theme.”
Throughout 2011, Phish’s focus returned to innovative improvisation; the true rebirth of psychedelic Phish music. No longer were jams formulaic, but original and forward-looking, as the band carved new musical pathways for themselves, specifically with the late-summer addition of “storage jamming” to their repertoire. Think about the jams at Bethel, Super Ball, The Gorge, and UIC or Denver. And then think about these past shows—there’s simply no comparison. My initial question is, “Why?”
An obvious theory is the 3 1/2 month layoff between performances. But when Phish was off for 6 months between 1/1/11 and Bethel, the time off certainly didn’t seem to effect them when they came out with two of the strongest shows of the year. Perhaps the band didn’t rehearse enough before this run, as Trey and Mike have been off pursuing other projects, and they wanted to play it safe. Perhaps, and most likely, the band just decided to treat the Big Apple to some high energy rock shows—a trend at MSG this era—and if one looked around during many of the straightforward shredders, most everyone was loving it. But something seemed off, the band’s spirited and airtight interplay was noticeably absent, even within their contained jamming .
Pronounced most on the 30th, in a first set in which he flubbed several parts of several tunes, Trey seemed to have his own issues and agenda for much of the weekend. More than a few times there were onstage struggles between Big Red and his band mates as he tried to pull them out of jams, and as usual, Trey always won. The music of the final three nights, less “Piper,” didn’t possess the daring spirit that has infused the band’s jamming from Bethel through Denver—it just wasn’t there. Happy to play recital-esque shows, even “Ghost” and “Sneakin’ Sally” didn’t get any whole-band improv during the second set of New Years’ Eve—arguably the marquee set of the year! Conservative to the core, it seemed like something was holding Phish back this weekend. Or maybe they just couldn’t hook up? As the final three shows of the year produced a total of one keeper, it certainly isn’t a far-fetched theory. But after a marathon summer of proficient jamming, less a show here and there, this run felt out way of place. With so much straightforward rock jamming and song-based sets, dare I say that the final three nights of 2011 felt a little like a far tighter version of June 2009? Hmmm…
Perhaps all of these conjectures are ridiculous and the band accomplished exactly what they wanted to—a high-energy celebration over the final days of the year. But for many of us going to see Phish for a bit more than fun and a good time, it certainly felt like something was lacking. After a year of improvisational triumph in which Phish recaptured their musical magic on a consistent basis, the band closed out the year with some extremely vanilla shows in the World’s Most Famous Arena. Has Madison Square Garden become a modern platform for energetic jamming rather than a mecca for Phish’s standout performances? This past week, it certainly was.
Jam of the Day:
“Piper” 12.30.11 II
The most impressive whole-band communication of the run; a gorgeous Phish jam.2011, New Years