I was lucky enough to write the review for last year’s show on this hallowed night of Phish, and I wrote about the power of expectations and how releasing those can lead to greater enjoyment and appreciation of a show. Those sentiments are usually expressed after you see a banger show though, right? It’s so easy to be gracious and say, “I didn’t care what they played, I just wanted to be with my friends and have a good time” after you have had a great time and seen an epic show. And I did have a great time last night. If you saw me on the floor, I was absorbed, dancing like I was possessed and enjoying this band. But I still get to look at the music critically if I want to. My two years on the Helping Friendly Podcast have changed how I think about Phish. The event of going to see the band is now somewhat separate from the music in terms of re-listenability and analysis. So, this review is going to include both my emotional opinions of being there and my critical analysis of the music when listening back. Buckle up.
Emotions were high as I walked onto the floor for last night’s show. I did the 29th and 30th, so I am always trying to fit a lot into those two days; live shows for Osiris, writing recaps, meeting people from the internet, and hanging with my non-podcasting friends. It always feels super packed but the one thing I have waiting for me is my time in church on the floor at MSG on 12/30. Unlike last year, my expectations were through the roof. A setup anyone who went to Alpine Valley last year knows is a recipe for disaster. But it wasn’t a disaster at all when they opened with “Backwards Down the Number Line!” I love this song and on the pod we often talk about its importance in bringing the band back and for its “hug your friends,” good vibes moment. And hug we did! A celebratory opening gave me a minute to reflect on my friends I was dancing with -- some I have known since I was 18 and others just a few years. I was also thinking about something that, I feel, has been an important reason why this band is still together and performing at the level they do: the friendship between these four dudes. Their mutual respect and care for each other is the only reason they can take the musical risks they do, and we are so lucky for that. I was also looking around the room and seeing so many men (it is a Phish show!) dancing with their friends and I am so glad there is a place in this world where men can dance together and experience joy and catharsis communally. We need more of this.
Next up was “Wolfman’s Brother” and it gave us our first dose of the effect-laden, space funk we would be treated to tonight. Maybe one of my favorite things about last night was this combination of ‘97 funk and the ‘23 effect pedals. Phish’s ability to draw from different eras and sounds from their past is something they have done with great success this year. I thought the band sounded tight but loose enough to swing in a groove. “Wolfman’s” has a modest peak, but I still felt like the energy from the band was strong. And shout out to Mike for sounding excellent in this version.
In the bar before the show, my friend told us a story about his father-in-law and how he has gotten into Phish from the Sirius XM channel (Sirius XM turning boomers into heads every day!). He explained that it was funny though because he is learning about the band without any context. He doesn’t know what they look like, their backstory, their history, their evolution, etc. For example, his favorite song is “Turtle in the Clouds.” Hilarious! So last night at the show when they broke into this song we all had a good laugh and he sent him a text. His father-in-law wrote back, “There is nothing like a Turtle in the Clouds.” We died. Nothing like the old classic, amirite?! Can’t wait until he learns about Kasvot Vaxt. Where do you even start to try and explain that?! But in all seriousness, if you’re going to play this song this is a good place for it and the dance is so fun to watch. We should like it when the guys have fun up there.
In the intro to “Undermind” Fishman dropped his “Leave it to Beaver” quote, remember when that was all the rage?! Despite debuting in 2009, I had never heard this song live, and I wasn’t chasing it, maybe because I have seen Trey play it with TAB quite a few times. In last night’s version, Page and Trey have some really fun interplay and Fishman keeps things moving along at a brisk tempo with some wood blocks and rolling drumming. “Kill Devil Falls” started and I thought, “Ok, here we go, they are going to take this places.” Nope. A fairly standard “KDF” with a little rock and roll peak clocked in at 8:55, but I wasn’t worried yet because the first quarters of the shows on this run have been fairly standard, so we still had plenty of time to go somewhere. The band took a bigger pause before they started “Fuego,” but it was the right call here. Even though it only has 18 entries on the jam chart “Fuego” has had some great versions even going as far back as 2014, a year after its debut. This year the song has been played 8 times, but last night’s version will be the 4th entry on the jam chart, and those are good odds. Another Fuego from this year also followed “Kill Devil Falls” and another was a huge highlight from this summer’s residency at Madison Square Garden. At over 30 minutes in the second slot of night two, set two this 7/29/23 version is a must hear. “Fuego’s” darker tones and in-the-pocket groove seem to inspire the band improvisationally. Last night’s version was ultra groovy with heavy 1997 cowfunk vibes. Trey dabbled with the wah pedal and there was some strong full-band communication, especially for the last minute or so. They land in a space that is quite pretty and delicate. “Train Song” emerges out of this delightful ending. I am always so happy to hear this song and consider it one of Mike’s greatest songwriting accomplishments. Written with Joe Linitz, this song has a gorgeous narrative arc and is so poetic and evocative of that moment in a relationship when you are not sure of where it is going to go. More Mike songs like this, please! I was lucky enough to see the debut of this song in Germany in 1996 and then the US debut within a mini-acoustic set at Red Rocks that same year (stat flex!), so this song has always meant something special to me. The first time I heard this song I was traveling around Europe on Phish tour with a giant backpack and my boyfriend. I had never left the continent before and I had the most magical summer riding the trains throughout Europe. Mike dedicated the song to us at the debut.
“It’s Ice” is next and it gets out there around 5:30 with some funky noises and tempo shifts. They sound loose and playful and, once again, Trey gets on the wah pedal quickly before we find ourselves back in the song. And then we get the highlight of the show, “Life Saving Gun.” When they launched into this song I was the only person around me that seemed to know what was going on and I was thrilled. This song is my 15th favorite song of this year (check out my Twitter to see the rest of the list) and I think it ROCKS. Written by Trey and Page and released on their January album, the studio version is driving and sounds like a classic rock staple. “Life Saving Gun” debuted this summer at MSG, and the third version last night will hit the jam charts. Very exciting stuff. As we were wrapping up the HFPod series 40fo40, RJ Bee asked us what takeaways we had after the series. One of the things I talked about was evolution. Throughout its history, this band has continued to evolve even when they didn’t have to. They would reach a peak (12/31/95, Fall ‘97) and say, “What’s next?” They would cover an influential album for Halloween and/or write new music and see where those new songs or ideas would take them. That commitment to evolution has been on good display throughout this run, getting strong showing and important setlist placement from new songs like, “Oblivion,” “The Well,” “Evolve,” “The Howling” and, of course, the song with the best batting average in the Phish catalog, “A Wave of Hope.”
Last night’s “Life Saving Gun” was the highlight of the show and you can hear how inspiring this song is to the band in the jam that follows. Fishman was driving the pace as the jam started and when those screeching space lasers started raining down at 6:18, we knew it was going to get weird. Following the 12/28 show where we were spoiled with an abundance of “weird shit,” I was ready for us to launch into the ether again. Mike was absolutely on fire by 7:25, laying down a deep, sexy bass line. The band sounds hungry in this jam and it works in their favor. The jam started to crescendo and Trey found some soaring notes. They could have easily brought the song back then but continued their commitment to exploration for another 5 minutes. Fishman started some rhythmic cymbal crashes and the band rode a super strong wave to shore with some rolling peaks and a sweet little guitar solo to end this song’s second jam chart entry.
“Every rainbow has a bluejay.” Only Phish could get away with singing a line like this and the only reason it works is because the song becomes so demented and evil that singing a line dripping with saccharine like that one works in juxtaposition. I have been waiting to hear “The Well” on this run for its jam potential. The band played a monster version on only its second time played at the Mann this summer (remember Fishman asking if they could play it again when they finished the almost 20-minute jam?!). So when it opened set two, I was thrilled. Here we go. I was hoping for a 37-minute descent into the depths of the earth and would have settled for a strong 15-minute microjam, but alas Page’s dark, swirling organ and the demented drumming of Fishman wasn’t enough to send us spelunking. Trey decided to rip the bandaid off and just play the damn “Tweezer” everyone wants. And I will tell you, being on the floor at Madison Square Garden on 12/30 when those opening notes hit is the place to be. Massive cheers, hugs, and a wild, “Let’s go!” energy takes over and the dancing commences. I think I held my breath until they dropped into the jam. You could feel a collective crowd exhale at 2:55 when the turn from the song was finally taken. We were, once again, feeling like, “Here we go.” The initial section of this jam is so silky smooth and gorgeous. Dancing in the blue “Tweezer” MSG lights from CK5 during this section was like a dream. The playing felt effortless and patient with Mike keeping the low end in a deep groove. Trey led the jam to an almost peak, then the jam petered out. A 6-minute “The Well” and a 13-minute “Tweezer” at MSG on 12/30? This feeling of waiting for a song to jam would continue throughout the second set until they launched into “2001,” then I knew the chance of a big jam was over and gave in to the dance party that ensued. In the meantime, we got a “Twist” that was sultry and unhurried like they all should be. This version also had some nice space funk with “The Well” teases even I could hear. The combination of the juicy synths and the soulful “Twist” vibe worked well and this would have been a cool place to launch into a deep jam from, but when it’s not there, it’s not. And that’s cool. Right?! The “Piper” found a nice groove but the band felt like they were searching and couldn’t find what they were looking for. “Golden Age” felt a little down-tempo to me and didn’t feel like the right call heading into the fourth quarter of the show. Then finally we arrived at “2001” and I knew it was time to embrace the party. I would not be texting my co-hosts in all caps during this show (I got to last night!) and that’s OK. As my good friend and co-host RJ Bee said, “Every rainbow may have a bluejay, but not every 12/30 has a pot of gold.”
“2001” was the perfect call because they were so in the pocket with their funk and groove playing last night and that serves a song like this perfectly. We got down and had the absolute best time with our neighbors on the floor who, like us, were there to dance hard and have a great time. Trey played with effects, adding some fun textures and interest to the song. The song party rolled along and I was sort of surprised to hear “Sigma Oasis.” Trey’s gamble of playing any song, anywhere sometimes works so incredibly well and other times is less successful. To me “Sigma” works best as an opener to a set/show or a monster jam anywhere (looking at you 8/5/22). But I am always happy to hear this song, which is another lyrical triumph. When “David Bowie” started I asked my friend what time it was. Curious if we had time for a big jam, I realized we probably did not unless they were feeling wild and crazy (and it didn’t seem like that kind of a night). I don’t know why (well actually I blame my co-host Jonathan Hart), but I am still hoping for that huge “Bowie” jam every time they start the song. This version gets quiet and lovely around 5:50. The moments when the band slowed down and got quiet worked well last night. I want to also mention that Trey sounds like he has been practicing and I am sure their recent time in the studio is helping him nail these old-school, complicated compositions. Otherwise, a fairly standard 12-minute “Bowie” closed set two.
An HFPod listener recently called “Slave to the Traffic Light” a “poor man’s Hood.” I don’t agree with this opinion but it cracked me up. It’s a classic encore and we have a well-played version. This was followed by “More” which had the crowd yelling “There must be something more to this!” Indeed. And maybe that more will happen tonight. The rumor mill has been churning lately, but this 1.0 girl is not going to believe they will play Gamehendge (I’ve been burned too many times in the 90’s), but regardless the word on the street is that the gag is a big deal. Maybe they have been focused on that and missed the 12/30 football when they went to kick it. Either way, it has been a phenomenal year of Phish and I am beyond grateful for the 13 shows I got to see. This is the most Phish I have ever seen in one year and getting to share my thoughts about my favorite band here and on the podcast has been life-changing and such a gift. I may be more critical and into stats now, but it makes it even more amazing when I do witness the magic that is an incredible Phish set (like last night's set 2). I think I actually appreciate it more and, don’t worry, whenever you see me I will still be vibrating with love and light.
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