For me, 2014 was full of death and fracture and noise; a year to be ceremoniously booted in the ass and sent packing. It was brightened and softened in its waning days by the news of not one, not two, but three wedding engagements, and by the arrival of a few beautiful bouncing babies. But like many in my family and circle of friends, I couldn’t be happier about turning this page.
Photo by Scott Harris
These inverted holiday runs don’t lend themselves to that kind of punctuation. Expectations peak before the music has a chance to simmer and build flavor. You could argue that the band does itself a disservice by starting a run on New Year’s Eve (or Halloween, for that matter), and a few people I know who wouldn’t dream of missing NYE at MSG took a pass on Miami for just that reason, so it’s a safe bet that the crowd assembled for these shows in Miami is a die-hard and devoted bunch.
The band spends most of the first set validating the couch tour contingent’s decision to skip the trip, and dipping their toes into the pool. There are scattered moments worthy of note, like Page’s stinging Hammond leads in “555” and some spirited chicken picking from Trey in “Heavy Things.” The culminating “ASIHTOS” manages to transcend the cautious and contained quality of what happened before it, and promise bigger things in set two.
Photo by Scott Harris
Despite stumbling out of the gates with a rather clumsy and truncated take on “Birds of a Feather,” the band delivers on that promise with an electrifying second frame. “Ghost” demonstrates major potential in its composed section, with the entire band feeling loose and comfortable for what feels like the first time all night. After a few minutes of improv, the harmonic mood brightens and we’re treated to a homeward stroll through sunkissed pastures. The approach for the first half of this jam is classic “Went ‘Gin’”: a patient meditation on primary colors. The band then retreats to the minor, seemingly ready to end the song, but Trey has bigger plans and decides to break off some climactic blues riffs before succumbing to the allure of deep space.
“Theme From The Bottom” surfaces from the ooze. It is hard to quarrel with second set “Themes,” especially when they are given their proper due. During the “from the bottom / from the top” vocal coda, Trey has another “we’re not done yet” moment and begins scratching on his strings. Fish picks up on this immediately and proposes a second jam that quickly veers into thrilling and chilling territory. Trey takes a back seat to both Mike and Page here, content to let them steer a bit, and Page drops a few “They Attack!” samples before we slide deftly into the most creative and inspired “Cities” since Berkeley 2010.
If you take your Phish loose and playful like party conversation, this is your jam. The band eschews showboating and huddles together in one of those “only Phish” moments of musical brotherhood to assemble something truly beautiful. “Cities” is unduly interrupted, alas, by a “Chalk Dust Torture” that fails to earn its second set stripes, but which hardly diminishes the distilled triumph of the “Theme” -> “Cities” sequence.
“Martian Monster,” complete with album samples, lays to rest any doubt that this year’s Halloween material will find a berth in the repertoire. Page does some terrific headfucking on his Nord here before migrating to his clav and driving the band to a frenzied peak… and that’s all she wrote for set two.
Photo by @thebigmic33
The gag that opens the midnight set will go down as one of the band’s least memorable ones, if I had to guess. The best part of it may well be the Phish debut of “Dem Bones,” which immediately takes its place as the most satisfying a capella tune the band does these days. “Auld Lang Syne” spills into “The Dogs,” which is over before it begins, but which surrenders to an action-packed “Tweezer” that expends everything that’s left in the band’s reserve tank. This classic song saw something of a retreat in 2014 after a legendary showing in 2013, so it is gratifying to see the year end with a heroic version of this caliber.
Unfortunately, there’s little to recommend of what remains in this final set, all of which feels devoid of purpose and just a bit flat (save for a few measures of raw power in “Bug”).
But hey: it’s the first of four nights, and the highlights tonight were hardly anything to sneeze at. The “Theme” -> “Cities” combo stands up to anything Phish has played in 2014, and that’s something I never imagined I’d be saying. Keep your knees loose, folks, and have a wonderful 2015!
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