When the Music’s Over, Don’t Forget to Turn Out the Lights
Phish tends to piss away its encores. Perhaps it’s just my cynicism speaking, but, in general, I feel Phish views its encores as musical after-thoughts; hastily written epilogues to otherwise energetic shows. Stylistically, this makes sense. After all, the group’s tendency has always been to weave together thematic segues and extended musical medleys, not six-minute exclamation marks. So when Phish returned to the stage for a second encore segment three days before New Years Eve 2003, no one really knew what, if anything, to expect.
In fact, Phish’s second encore ranks among the most surprising moments in my career as a “professional” Phish-head. Over the years, I’ve come to expect musical surprises and special theatrics, but once Phish slips off stage right after their encore, its time for everyone to exit. Sure, I am prone to screaming and cheering for a second encore, but, in the back of my mind, I know this applause will soon be unplugged by Paul Languedoc’s post-show music. Even for a band as adventurous as Phish, once the lights go on, the high school play must drop its curtain, causing Clear Channel guidelines and venue curfews to overtake any last minute musical musing. Despite my cynicism, I understand; after all, I also have a lengthy drive ahead. But none of that really mattered when Phish returned to the stage for a second encore of “Squirming Coil.”
Fittingly, many of my concert bootlegs include a brief track titled “crowd noise.” Sitting snuggly between the end of Set II and the encore, “crowd noise” is a live recording's most revealing moment, and the audience’s chance to comment on the night’s performance. There is also a subtle beauty to a crowd’s screams, unifying several thousand fans' disorganized chants into a single musical phrase. It’s almost like an invisible conductor is directing these dialects, smoothing out their rough screams and harmonizing their haphazardly arranged comments.
At times, I felt bad for the American Airlines Arena’s staff. Obviously overwhelmed by Phish’s first appearance, staff members seemed genuinely frightened by the crowd’s local impact. So it wasn’t surprising that the arena hurried the group onstage by turning off the lights a few minutes early on 12/28/03. Immediately, the crowd saw their cue and collectively screamed a “woo.” Realizing their mistake, the staff panicked, and brought the lights back up, signaling the audience to cross-fade their “woos” to “boos.” But then, a few seconds later, the lights once again dimmed, ending the audience’s first segue with yet another collective “woo.” It was beautifully chaotic, like a great Phish jam.
So when the lights stayed off for a few more musical moments the following evening, I figured someone had simply forgotten to press the on button once again. But for the first time in years, the lights continued to stay off and the audience’s energy began to build. Screams echoed throughout the arena, the invisible conductor arranging his longest symphony. Finally, Phish returned and quickly jumped into “Squirming Coil.”
Simply examining its set list, 12/29/03 doesn’t seem like the type of event that would warrant an extra encore. Songs like “Wolfman’s Brother,” “Twist,” and “Free” are excellent jams, but nothing so out of the ordinary that both Phish and its fans would need an extra mini-set. Similarly, covers of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” and Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” were enjoyable, but nowhere near as unique as the medley of funk-hits and Fishman covers offered each other night of the New Year's Run.
But musically, 12/29/03 ranks not only as the New Year's Run’s best show, but the entire reunion year's most musically adventurous. Refocused, the group continues to weed out its theatrics and filter out its raw early Zappaesque fusion. Instead, the band is masking its jams with what can be called "chord-heavy space," playing a fast, raw synthesis of their '97 cow-funk and Siket Disc ambience. Mixing tight up-tempo group jams and long, lingering emotional ballads, the first set was technically proficient and rock-based; the type of show one would expect during an early night of a New Year's Run. Tight but funky, the choice Hoist selection "Wolfman's Brother" highlighted Phish's post-Hiatus rhythm clarity, with Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman remaining in sync. Quick, up-tempo romps through "Cavern" -during which Trey actually nailed the song’s lyrics- and "Poor Heart" seemed to break up the jam-heavy set, exploring Phish's late 90's understanding of arena-rock. Pacing their shows with precision, and emphasizing their ballads better than ever, Phish is replacing small, loaded riffs with wilder, darker guitar textures. While this style has uncoiled into "Great Gag in the Sky" jams, this new type of jamming, as first explored in "Seven Below," is most often being worked into worn-out funk vehicles like "Wolfman's Brother." Throughout Monday's "Wolfman's Brother," Phish continued to layer these textures into the group’s traditional cow-funk, further signs that the group is learning to play more subtly with age.
While the sing-along set closer of "Good Times/Bad Times" was a welcome surprise, it seemed like Phish's American Airlines Arena show wouldn't stand out from its immediate Thanksgiving Run predecessors. But after the quartet returned for their second set, it become clear the group had something special up its sleeve. Tearing into a tight "Twist," which segued into an ambient jam that remained more focused then similar '99-'00 experiments, Phish gently weaved into an equally adventurous "Boogie on a Reggae Woman." While Trey’s guitar guided each song early on, Phish's front man let his band mates lead the core of each jam. This change of pace is particularly apparent on "Ghost," the group’s purest funk song, and a number that truly elevates Mike to band leader. Acknowledging Mike's lead instrumentation, Trey also played a gentle guitar-bass duel during “Free,” a surprisingly subtle mix of Pumping Iron adrenaline and brotherly love.
Often times during the Hiatus, Trey cited his fans’ increasing emphasis on song requests as a major reason the group needed a break. “People started caring more about what we were playing, instead of how we were playing it,” he often said. With this phrase in mind, it makes sense that Phish chose this unsuspecting night to offer a second encore. In their minds’, it is equal, collective group interplay, not a brevy of spectacles, that warrants additional set times and potential curfew breaks.
For a ballad, “Waste” is a controversial song. Some people feel its chorus, “come waste your time with me,” is Phish’s way of telling fans not to blindly follow their tongue-in-cheek fantasy tour. Others feel it is the group’s most loving lullaby. No matter what connotation this number has had in the past, when placed next to the crowd’s most victorious noise creation, “Waste” didn’t seem cynical. It seemed symbolic. From “Divided Sky’s” silent jam to “Limb By Limb’s” drum outro, Phish were on this night in Miami and decided to celebrate with “Squirming Coil,” a lengthy gentle jam that left all in attendance with a good taste in their mouth, Phish included.