[Take the Bait is spirited deliberation centered around the hyperbole of Phish’s music and fandom, passionately exuded via the written words of phish.net contributors @FunkyCFunkyDo and @n00b100. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of phish.net, The Mockingbird Foundation, or any fan… but we're pretty sure we’re right. Probably.]
Funky: Hi, n00b. Happy New Year! Hope it was as clothing-free and fun-requiring as mine. And to you, too, loyal reader, for all the same reasons. It seems we haven’t got the hook yet, so let’s continue to innovate with our gratuitous use of multisyllabic words and with our “artistic freedom” around Phish discussion. I am going to make this TTB be a bit different than our previous three. Let’s break down this past (and excellent) New Year’s Eve run piece-by-piece (and in new, shorter, easier-to-read paragraphs… smaller bites, if you will), shall we? Let us see if the masses, or even each other, see eyeball-to-eyeball on the highlights of December 28th, 29th, 30th, and 31st at the World’s Most Famous Arena. Allow me demonstrate:
The Bait, bite I: What was your favorite jam of the run?
Funky: They really did crush it, didn’t they? You can look to any night, well, maybe not the first, and have a legitimate contender. You have the disco-staccato freight train in 12.31’s "Seven Below", the cerebral, percussive dream in 12.30's "Plasma", and an all-time funk party throwdown in 12.29’s "Wolfman's Brother", - yet these three are mere cherries-on-top compared to everything that unfolded across the four nights in Madison Square Garden. But, for me, nothing quite compares to the celebratory peaks that drop off into haunting chasms, and then the ultimate smooth slip back into Phish’s greatest jam anthem: I’m talking about 12.29’s "Tweezer" -> "Death Don't Hurt Very Long" -> "Tweezer."
From the initial intra-band start/stop action, there was sass and attitude to this jam. Despite the (Trey-forced) woos, the textured layering of break rhythms allowed this jam to grow from a sultry dance party into a bell-bottomed sashay. It funks along, dirtily, then starts to climb and shine. Uplifting progressions that could tan your skin evolve into a galloping "I Know You Rider"-esque jam. Energy massing, it swells and sprints - feel-good music a galaxy wide, bursting with cosmic fireworks.
It drops into a punishing post-peak jam, featuring Mike playing an anvil with his bass. Strutting, it’s got attitude. It's serious. It's deep and it's heavy. And boy, do I ever love these ultra-groovy, rhythm-focused, post-peak jams like we’ve seen in 9.1.17 "Carini"and 7.20.18 "Chalk Dust Torture", most recently. This industrial stomp fades away into "Death Don’t Hurt Very Long," and, I can’t keep writing, I need a cigarette… and I haven’t even touched on the silky slip back into "Tweezer."
In short, the most celebratory jam of the most celebrated evening (even if NYE was technically two nights later) in the world’s most celebrated arena. How apropos.
n00b: Well, while you go smoke up, Johnny (I know that’s not your name, it’s a reference), let me first throw that “happy new year” right back at you. I tend to spend my NYEs on my couch nowadays, soaking in the majesty of Phish’s 12/31/18 show from the comfort of my own abode. And yes, they did indeed play one heck of a run at good ol’ MSG; it was a good and proper sendoff to a legitimately strong touring year.
But I don’t think I can agree with you on the "Tweezer"/"DDHVL" sandwich taking the cake for me (although it certainly kicks almost egregious levels of ass, and even if you’re not a “woo” guy, at least they got them out of the way early). For me, the belle of the ball that was the NYE run is the "Split Open and Melt" from 12/30, one of the most gloriously vicious pieces of improv the band has gifted us in a decent amount of time. I should note that ever since the 12/29/17 version, "Melt" has experienced a renaissance not seen since the nineties, with both the Gorge's and Vegas's versions truly standing out (although both Camden's and Hampton's versions are also worth the listen). Now, when we hear Fish kick into that nasty "Melt" groove, we know that the set’s gonna end in style.
So what separates this "Melt" both from its 2018 brethren and from the many quality jams from 12/28-31 for me? Quite simply, it’s because (to me) they took every other "Melt" played this year and mixed them all together into one hell of a tasty casserole. Page firing off his synths in occasionally cool and occasionally frightening fashion; Trey whipping out every effect in his arsenal as the jam devolves into the sort of eerie space that wouldn’t have been out of place at the IT Festival; Fishman dancing around the bitches’ brew with expert and nimble use of cymbal washes and tom-tom hits; Mike keeping everything glued together so the jam didn’t just float away into the ether - it’s a true group effort, one of those jams that works because everyone takes the lead and supports each other at the same time. And it sounds AMAZING, on top.
The Bait, bite II: What was your favorite set?
Funky: I am, no, we are, using an incredible amount of restraint to not dive into each song, one by one. There really is that much quality music to write about. However, I think the audience might not be interest in n00b n Funky’s own variation of Homer's Odyssey, so let’s keep the quick hitters coming.
Would you believe it if I told you that 2018 showcased the resurgence of the first set? No longer formulaic conglomerations of three-to-nine-minute jams, no, now the entire song catalogue and jamming styles are in play. But wait, Funky, what about Jam Filled… yes, of course, but I am talking about organically developing sets, not pre-planned gimmickry (no offense, "Lawn Boy").
2018 had an exceptional array of first sets that read, and sounded like, what we’ve come to enjoy in most second sets. 7.20 Gorge, 8.3 Alpharetta, 8.31 Dick's, to name a handful that blitzed the audience with unpredictable setlists and unrestrained, explorative jamming.. all before the show was halfway over. No wonder Trey called 2018 his most favorite year of Phish’s 35 year career; his band was simultaneously as loose and as tight as I have heard… perhaps, ever.
So, it comes of no surprise, to myself at least, that 12.29's first set was my hands-down favorite of the nine sets they performed over those four nights. The shuffling chaos of "Buried Alive" ignites a fiery, extended "Blaze On." My personal favorite Kasvot Vaxt tune, "Turtle in the Clouds," threw down a dance party (house party!) that would have immediately vaporized any clothing afixed to my person, mainly due to the inspiring, uplifting guitar work from Trey. "The Sloth" couldn’t have been a more perfect selection to keep the momentum surging, especially as it lit up a smoking "46 Days."
"46 Days" - what a reliable, versatile song this has become. Phish has a strong confidence right now with "46 Days," letting versions violently explode like TNT or placcidly spiral outward like a galaxy, each with equal gusto and balance. This version had both. The arena rock power surge singes the PA before it trudges into a dark, heavy grind that weaves seamlessly into "Cities," which dug out nasty, rhythmic grooves that ran deeper than the Mariana Trench. The sunkissed combination of "Corinna" and "Ya Mar" was as beautiful as it was stress-relieving - a musical massage on beach, complete with a cocktail with a parasol in it.
And the grand finale. A version of "Wolfman’s Brother" so thick that molasses blushed. A version so rowdy that WWE fans took notes. A version of "Wolfman’s" that turned into such a party that "Party Time" dropped everything, pants included, just to join the fun. This version skipped and strutted between funk, rock, scat, and fully-connected jamming that, for my money, really is what Phish is all about: FUN(k). What say you n00b, was there a better 70 minutes of music out there or was 12.29 Set 1 the realest of deals?
n00b: Let me first start off by saying that I am with you in celebrating the resurgence of the first set. While I’ve never been super bothered that the first frame had become more a way to get warmed up than anything else since, traditionally, it’s always been the “drive for show” to second sets’ “putt for dough”, I certainly agree that the experience is heightened when the band drops either some awesome improv, some cool surprises, or ideally both on us. And that’s definitely been the case this year (one major reason I prefer 2018’s Vegas run to 2016’s is the stronger first sets), and I also agree that 12/29 I was the proverbial balls.
Where we part ways is in 12/29 I being my favorite set of the run - no matter the first set, it’s gonna take a lot to outdo any strong second set, and I don’t think 12/29 I accomplished that (I don’t even think 12/30 I did, and I think that’s an even better first set). I will say that 12/29 DOES contain my favorite set of the run...and it’s the second set, one that I think will not only hold up very well as time passes, but will be celebrated as one of the truly great 3.0 MSG sets.
What’s funny about that is that this goes back to our first quick hit, and that I prefer 12/30’s abyssinal "Melt" to the 12/29 "Tweezer"/"DDHVL" extravaganza. But I also noted that I did think that sandwich was one hell of a world-beater, and when you consider that it’s over a half hour long from stem to stern and takes up roughly half of the set, you’ve already laid quite the foundation for a heck of a second frame. Now toss in the following ingredients: a "Carini" that gives us a sweet little jam before segueing neatly into said "Tweezer" (for the folks that call it a “ripcord”, a) a segue that good is pretty much the polar opposite of what a ripcord IS and b) there was no guarantee that "Carini" would’ve been as good as the "Tweezer" was - There Is No Such Thing As A Potential Classic Jam, or TINSTAAPCJ for short); "No Quarter" as the perfect landing pad after that sick "Tweezer;" an "Also Sprach Zarathustra" that belies its running time to at least approach the funky heights of prime late-90s "2001s;" a "First Tube" smokeshow that guarantees that the set had absolutely no letup from start to finish. That makes for one hell of a stew you got going, baby!
The Bait, bite III: What was your favorite show?
Funky: We are really circling the wagons for that 12.29 show, are we not? Deservedly so! And it should come of no surprise that 12.29 is my choice of show for having my favorite jam, favorite set, and second-favorite set (which you just articulated with uncanny accuracy).
12.29 was one of *those* shows. The ones filled with celebration and segues. Extended jams and all-star song selection. The shows where, despite the oddly euphoric and oddly ironic vicarious jealousy I felt from the couch, like you, I knew then, and know now, it was/is going to stand the test of time. Sometimes, and I do believe we Phish fans have all been here before, you just can’t help but laugh and shake your head at what's taking place onstage. Three shows ago you may have felt the same thing, or maybe three tours ago, maybe three years ago... whatever the time period, the lyric “I think this exact thing happened to me, just last year” becomes more literal and less poetic. We realize we are living in a time that very well could not have happened, but it is. And it it happening again.
We realize that Phish is no nostalgia act, no money grab, no energy leak. No, this is high-voltage artistic lightning striking twice. This is real-time history happening before pen can be put to paper. This is looking forward to what they will do the very next show, instead of idly shuffling through old tours reminiscing on jams of yore. When a Phish show can feel like this, in 2018, it is special. It is not normal. This is to be appreciated and celebrated, talked about and listened to. And the best part: it feels - each and every year - it feels like the best is yet to come. I just got goosebumps. As we approach a (holy moly) TEN year touring history that was one jail-less night away from happening, yeah, I have no problem saying this was my favorite show of the run. Heck, it might even be my favorite show of th… ha, I think I said this exact thing, just last year.
n00b: Not to give away too much of how the sausage is made, but you and I do exchange texts semi-regularly to bounce ideas off each other and let each other know when it’s our turn to fire off some paragraphs. And I feel like the folks should know that after we discussed this particular NYE-flavored column, we then proceeded to take turns gushing over how good 12/29/18 was. So I’m going to say that I agree with you and that 12/29/18 is the show of the run and a true all-time great...
Funky: ::suspiciously eyes reader - slowly puts secret blend of herbs and adjectives back into the cupboard::
n00b: ...so before I get a little more into that, a brief word about 12/30, the only true competitor to this title (12/28 was more a “pardon our dust” opening night and 12/31 had some truly wonderful moments rubbing shoulders with odd decisions and Trey perhaps getting a bit too antsy in preparation for the gag).
12/30 might well be the finest 3.0 encapsulation of the entire Phish experience. Think about everything it contains - cool song sandwiches, long-dormant bustouts, a killer-diller segue, dope song selection throughout, nifty jamming in both sets, deep cerebral jamming in "Everything’s Right" and "Light," and the psychedelic morass that is the "Split Open and Melt." It covers as much ground as a classic 1993 show, and with the same sprawling charm that those lovable lads from Liverpoo... Vermont brought back in the day. There’s a lot of 3.0 NYE runs (and maybe a few NYE runs from other eras…) in which this would be the crown jewel show.
Now, here’s where 12/29 comes in - while I believe 12/30 captures the entire Phish experience, I believe 12/29 captures the quintessential Phish experience. Both sets move with a confidence and swagger from front to finish, with only "Corrina" as the real slowdown moment in either set. Both sets contain real good jamming, as well as some great segues. Set 2 is not only anchored by a monster jam, but by a monster "Tweezer," and most everyone agrees that a monster
"Tweezer" makes a set just a little more special than a set with a monster anything else. And that second set grips at the throat and squeezes with the tension of Rear Window, never letting go until "First Tube" dies away. Put all of that together, and you’ve got something truly special.
The Bait, bite IV: What did you think of the gag?
The "Petrichor" gag was my first Phish NYE live experience, and I was blown away (read: with the gag. The rest of the 3rd set I am rather indifferent to.) The dramatic theatrics of the dancers. The sheer sensory overload of the “water droplets/beads” falling from the light rig and bounces on the stage, as thought splashing. The levitating umbrellas. The stage and band bathed in a seemingly constant, yet utterly delightful, cloud of rainy day blues and grays and mist.
The choreography, not just of dancing, no, much too simple. But the choreography of color and sound and rhythm and motion and the little touches that were woven together to turn the song "Petrichor" into the experience of seeing rain fall, dancing in the puddles it created, and having fun outside on a rainy day... inside Madison Square Garden. It was so *New York* - having this Broadway-esque show happening, surprisingly organically and naturally, within a Phish show. It worked. Yet, it was also so *Phish* - having this extremely interactive and stimulating fully-emersed sensory experience unfold unpredictably within a song. It worked, so well. But enough about that.
The kernel of "Mercury"/"S.A.N.T.O.S." gag was in "Petrichor", sure enough, but, man, did it ever grow beyond "Petrichor" and into cosmic flora that blooms far beyond the clouds from which "Petrichor" originated. The levitating dancers afixed with smoke machines and nets and lights of their own; the crimson wash enveloping the stage and band; and, again, the choreography of it all. The rhythm and motion of the production and music, intertwined. Amazing! I wasn’t there, but I wish I was. This gag, for as cool as it looked on your TV or computer or phone, undoubtedly was immeasurably better in person, where the full experience can be taken in…
...then, Mike and Trey flew. #1. Cool. Band.
Can you imagine seeing Mike twenty-five feet above you, or perhaps at eye level, depending on your section, karate kicking air a la Lisa Simpson as he rumbles your ribcage and loins simultaneously, albeit for different reasons? Or Trey going full zero-gravity, apparently lost in space as he turns his guitar in a rocket booster, blazing through "Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S"…. as the dancers and nets and lights and smoke machines are weaving and dipping and diving between it all??
I can’t. And I watched it live, plus a few times since then. But I still know, for certain, seeing that calibre of production and dramatics and chaos and energy, in-person, is incomparable. Some 17,000 people know what spaces smells like, and now they might know what jealousy smells like too.
n00b: I……...am not going to compete with that. I thought the gag was pretty cool, too. Next!
Funky: Uh, n00... n00b? ::taps screen:: Do I need to call an ambulance, or call the Meriam Webster hotline, orrrr...
The Bait, bite V: The run, as a whole.
Funky: It is of little consequence to compare 2018 Phish… to anything. No, I am not a “urinate in my ears” fan, despite the unabashedly positive tone of this little series. I have plenty of critical thoughts that I usually grumble to myself or to my fiance (who, rightfully, rolls her eyes like two bowling balls at me - strike!) during couch tour or relistens, never during at a show though… I mean, every show is the best show ever when you’re there. Anyways.
My point is, this run was exceptional Two Grade-A shows in 12.29 and 12.30, a top tier NYE show, and, in all honesty, 12.28 was straight up outshined by everything else, not because it was that bad (it was okay) but more so because everything else was that good.
The trajectory of Phish from 2017 through right now has been astounding. I think this is due to three impactful events.
1) Baker’s Dozen: Call it a gimmick. Call it whatever. Don’t call it anything less than a well-earned and selflessly-deserved pat on the back, celebrating the most beautiful, utterly unpredicted success that Phish has experienced since their return in 2009. There is no doubt that the planned, conscious commitment to extended, boundless improvisation, which most of the time worked and sometimes didn’t, opened new musical ideas and let creativity flow unrestrained to where we are right now. “We still got it,” they must’ve said to themselves as that banner was being raised. Yes, they f****** do.
2) Curveball: The emotional impact of this must have equaled the creative impact of Baker’s Dozen. Ironic balance and symmetry, separated by one measly orbit around the Sun. I can only imagine the sadness, at first, but then, I would hope, a feeling of revelation of just how lucky they are, due to how much it hurts to have it all taken away. Absence makes the heart grow fonder? It sure does.
Phish rebounded after Curveball with a red-hot Dick’s run, a volcanic Fall Tour, and a NYE run from which we are still feeling aftershocks. I have asked myself, “Would these shows (post-Curveball) been as good had Curveball not been canceled?” We'll never know for sure, but for me, honestly, I don’t think they would have been. Those missing shows reminded us, band and fan, that no matter how infinitely special this may seem, it is, ultimately, impermanent. Make the most of what is happening, right now. Don't waste the day.
3) Trey’s Christmas gift from his daughter: This, I think, might be one of the greatest things to happen to Trey. I don't think that can be overstated. There have been lots of fan-generated movements throughout Phish's career, some of which were noticed by the band, some of which were not, but Bella’s book about the love and happiness Phish has created amongst its fanbase is going to be the music that Phish’s collective soul listens to, for quite some time. My words won't do it justice, click here to read what Trey has to say about it. If his genuine happiness with/about Phish doesn't fill you with optimism of our future with the band, this isn't for you anymore.
That book, with its raw, positive, affirming emotional sentiment flowing from it, is going to buoy Phish to new crests, float Phish to new peaks, and blast Phish into outer space, the likes of which we haven’t yet seen. That gift was given just a few nights prior to the 2018 NYE run, and look at what happened, not just with the music, but with Trey's letter, the undeniable great time they're all emoting onstage, and yeah, especially the kickass music.
So, what do I think of the run? I think it was the start of even better things to come from Phish. I think we're just getting started, again. I think that this exact thing happened to me, just last year.
n00b: Since you’ve opened up that door, I’d also like to briefly summarize 2018 as a way to contextualize the NYE run. I think we both know the theory (advanced by @waxbanks, among others) about even-number years of Phish history acting as transitional years to the big peaks of the odd-number years of Phish history. Well, I honestly think that this year falls under that same pattern, but (much like 1998) also stands up as a tremendous touring year on its own besides serving as the bridge to what I (and you, it would seem) believe to be a monster year in 2019. We saw the first-set expansion that started in earnest during 2017 - not just during the Dozen, mind you - bloom into a rose in 2018. We saw jams that pivoted away from the 3.0 maker’s mark of blissful upbeat hose into more angular, and dare I say even Storage Jam-ish territory. And we saw the dark energy that came from the collapse of Curveball get turned on its head and manifest itself in the pure joy of Kasvot Vaxt, still what I consider one of the biggest game-changers in the history of the band.
And I think the energy around Kasvot Vaxt and pulling off that tremendous gag carried into the NYE run, and not just because they played nine of the ten songs from iRokk over the four shows (wherefore art thou, "Everything Is Hollow?" Did they skip it because Page forgot to bring his miner’s light?). Setting aside the “let’s get our feet wet” party show of 12/28, both 12/29 and 12/30 saw two of the top NYE shows of the modern era, full of explosive and interesting jams, fun and cheeky segues and sandwiches, and the kind of nameless je nais se quoi that only comes from when the band is well and truly On One, as they say across the pond. I don’t know that I quite liked 12/31 as much as you did, but it certainly was a hell of a good time as well, and the "Seven Below" and "Mercury" show that the band had not exhausted their jamming gas tank in the previous two shows. It’s hard not to be excited about what’s to come, and about the state of the band what we like from Vermont.
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