[Editor's Note: We'd like to welcome back guest contributor Matt Burnham for this recap. - lbc]
New Year’s Eve is a strange holiday. It’s an event that holds special significance for many and can indicate a time for rebirth. But mostly it seems like a large to-do which, for the most part, can be a let down. The novelty of staying up until midnight really only holds until you're twelve. And unless you’re married or in a long term relationship, as time ticks closer to midnight, searching the room for that guy or girl you’re looking to meet up with at midnight doesn’t always work out in your favor either. Resolutions on a whole are made that everyone knows aren’t going to make it to Valentine’s Day. The event on a whole can outweigh the meaning behind it. A good way to avoid this, as most of you all probably know, is to go to see live music on New Year’s Eve. Less stress, less mess. For this reviewer, I didn’t get the chance to do this but I was able to couch tour New Year’s Eve, so although there is really no substitute for being there, this is about as close you can get. Plus, as LivePhish loves to indicate, I get to watch it back on demand after the show which seems like a strange selling point but helps in the writing of these reviews.
Continuing the streak of a capella openers, “Don’t Bogart That Joint” started the evening festivities with a song that was a true bust-out and certainly came out of left field. Although most people were probably expecting a “Space Oddity” or “Free Bird,” the Waiting for Columbus song was well received (although possibly not known by many as well). Kicking the show off proper was the Chilling Thrilling song “Your Pet Cat” with all the requisite vocal samples. A short but on point version enfolds which was not unlike the original rendition from Halloween 2014. “Kill Devil Falls” gets started up by Trey and although there are a few brief shaky points it has a brief outro jam portion that lets Trey show off a little bit of machine gun action.
After a few minutes, a quick segue into “Back on the Train” occurs and as the band sings “Now I’m gone and I’ll never look back again” it seems like a farewell to 2016. There has been a lot of talk about how strong Trey’s tone has been in this run of shows and it really shines in this version. I’m not one to try to talk about music theory or even understand the various types of amps and pedals that Trey uses but there’s a fine chunkiness here. Trey switches to a more rhythm role in the back-end of “BOTT” and Mike and Page get to lead a fine dark groove that unfortunately isn’t played with for the next hour or so. I would love a more jammed out “BOTT” again. This version gets a bit beyond its boundaries a bit but gets reined back in after three or four very enjoyable minutes. “My Soul” is pretty standard but may be back in standard rotation so that’s kind of nice.
“Lawn Boy” is one of the songs that, to me, is quintessential Phish. Quirky and like nothing else out there. If I’m at a show and seeing it, I’ll usually have a big smile as Page cheeses it up all around stage. On tape, it doesn’t always hold up. This version, has some excellent banter though with Trey talking about Mike’s old dreams from the club days. Trey talks about having much more stage than normal which is kind of a hint to the upcoming gag. But for now, Page gets to vamp it up in all the extra space. Mike takes his requisite bass solo and of course he kills it and takes his opportunity to walk around the extra stage space as well. A fine fifteen minute “Divided Sky” is the centerpiece of the first set (as it often is). Anchored by about a 90 second pause and with Kuroda’s lights enveloping the arena, the singular shot of Trey, eyes closed, barely smiling, sole spotlight, and 20,000 people screaming still brings me joy after seeing this band for 13 years. The entire band’s delicate playing following the pause is sublime. The rest of “Divided Sky” is typical of most versions, which in no way should be interpreted as a negative as it’s probably in the top 5 list for beautiful Phish songs.
“Ya Mar” makes an unexpected appearance late in the first set as for some reason, I always think of it more as an opener in the repertoire. “Character Zero” makes an initially rough appearance in the penultimate slot. In a weird coincidence, William Christopher, the actor who played Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, died earlier in the day. “Character Zero” in the mid first set is a unique and uncommon placement (and I’m sure many, like me, thought it was just going to be a short first set) but the familiar opening to “Walls of the Cave” was started immediately by Page. “Walls of the Cave” turned 14 years old during this show and although this version can’t hold a candle to the debut version, it’s still one of my favorite first set closers and hits all the right spots for me (with Trey doing some cool little noodling in the opening sections that sounded atypical). This leaves the band in a good position for set two to start and the crowd is hungry for more.
Set two starts the party quickly with the immediate space and drumkick of “2001.” Something that may have been missed in 2016 is the mini-resurgence of “2001” with three versions (and now possibly four) being on the phish.net jam chart, which would be the most in a calendar year since 2000. It’s no Pyramid ‘99 obviously but this version still rips and watching people dance to “2001” is one of my favorite people watching moments at a Phish show as no one is having a bad time in that moment. The ultimate crescendo of 2001 crashes into “Carini” in proper fashion. Minor vocal flub aside, the Lumpy Headed one is dark and strong. The progressions and themes hit on by Trey and picked up by everyone evoke an old school Pink Floyd vibe right before Page comes in and Clavinets all over everyone. When the funk hits as Mike joins in it’s a full dance groove (with almost a taste of “Foam” mixed in).
The band slowly moves out of this and into “Twist” with a damn proper ->. “Twist” (the song portion) is as enjoyable as it usually Is and leads into a beautiful Bliss jam. Bliss jams are really why I love this band so much and continue to obsess over them. To be able to find joy and elation, even if only for a moment, from music is such a powerful feeling. And as Trey begins to move up that fretboard, it works for me. If it doesn’t work for you, I hope there is something that does. It’s important to have things like that in your life. “Twist” is short but really packs an awesome punch.
As the bliss fades away and “Twist” returns to form and ends, “Piper” starts up with a decidedly not slow build as Fish immediately careens into “Ass Handed.” And then again back to “Piper” and, like “2001” early in the set, recent versions of “Piper” have been outstanding after a few years of lackluster versions. This one fits the excellent mold. There is a very cool jam in “Piper” that feels like it could have slid into “I Always Wanted It This Way.” It’s during “Piper” that Trey takes his daily foray on the Marimba Lumina and Mike gets on the keyboards as well to help Page out. Trey on the ML as mentioned countless times elsewhere is a bit gimmicky but I don’t mind it too much here as it’s not a full on four dudes on Drums segment. On the webcast there’s a funny moment where it looks like Page is teaching Mike how to play the keyboard. And Mike actually smiles. This divergence isn’t too long and Trey and Mike move back to their rightful spot and “Sand” starts up. “Sand” is the typical locked in groove version which doesn’t vary too far from the main theme but is still 10 minutes of Type 1 goodness. It’s not one of my favorite songs to listen back to but hearing it live, it’s always fun to get down to. A beautiful “Slave” moves out of the tail end of “Sand” and, like in the first set, was probably thought of by many as the set closer but instead we get a bonus song of “More.” To some people, “More” probably sounds like pure cheese but I think it’s one of the strongest songs (not jam launch points) that the band has written in years.
The set break music leading into the third set seemed to center around certain musical legends that had passed in 2016 leading some speculation that the third set would be a tribute to those who were lost. Bowie. Prince. Cohen. Michael. But with the rain motif apparent on and above the stage, “Petrichor” seemed the most likely and that’s what everyone got. Guest musicians Natalie Cressman, James Casey and Jen Hartswick joined the stage on horns and Hamilton drummer Andres Forero would aid in percussion for a beautiful 20 minute “Petrichor” complete with dancers, rain, juggling, umbrellas and stage theatrics.
The New Year’s Eve gag does not translate well (or really at all) to tape which is unfortunate because unless you’re a real “Petrichor” fan, you may not listen to this again very often. But on video it’s really special and is similar to a Fantasia segment. This leads up to midnight (where it literally rains cats and dogs) and the obvious “Auld Lang Syne” and into a fun and always appreciated “Suzy Greenberg” with horns. A tight but brief “No Men in No Man’s Land” ensues (with some heavy and awesome percussion) and leads to the Big Boat twofer of “Breath and Burning” and “Tide Turns.”
Deep in the third set, I can understand many people’s consternation about placement here (and really with the subsequent “555” and “Ocelot” as well) but I’ll offer a brief counterpoint: although I get where you are coming from these songs were played in a unique manner (with horns and percussion) and will likely not be played live this way again so at least there’s a special quality to them. Unfortunately, watching this on the webcast it does seem that the energy sags a bit here. “Breath and Burning” I could have done without but “Tide Turns” with the horns I like a lot. “555” is very short and “Ocelot” is solid (but again, just not in the penultimate slot!). Some Trey banter introduces the guests and they close up shop with a rocking and frenetic “First Tube.” The encore is about what you’d expect for a guest filled night with “Loving Cup” sending everyone into the streets in 2017.
So all in all, what’s the summary? The second set is must listen. The entire thing. The first set was a typical for the era first set and the third set had an epic “Petrichor,” which again if you’re a fan, should be chased down in video format. The rest of the third set fell a bit flat to me. Which isn’t to say it’s the worst thing in the world Phish wise I’ve seen (I was at GP Night 2) but the moral of the story is the band is going to do what that band wants to do. To bring this all back around to “More,” the refrain of “There must be something more than this” is a really hopeful one. That things can always get better. That things always will get better. But what if this is it? Phish has been around for 34 years. That’s almost an entire career. That’s longer than I have been alive. Phish is entering 2017 with three shows in Mexico on the plate and rumors of thirteen day MSG residencies swirling around. Will there be a summer tour? Will there be a fall tour? No one really knows except for those four guys from Vermont.
What if there isn’t anything more than this? 35 or so shows a year. A Dick’s Run. NYE in either MSG or Miami. Mexico. The same big summer sheds. Is that enough? Should we want more? Should we get more? As I mentioned earlier, I couch toured this show and run which had some phenomenal songs, playing and jams. I couch toured Vegas. I couch toured Dicks. If this is what the band is putting out yearly on a consistent basis we, as a fanbase, should be pleased. And we should be wanting more. I wish I was there in New York for these shows. I wish I was in Vegas and I wish I was at every show (even GP N2). I always want more. I’m just not sure what we’re going to get.
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