, attached to 2021-12-31

Review by qushner

qushner So, this is a funny one, and for all the obvious reasons. I'll cut to the chase: it's not a great show, but it was a marvelous gesture. After making the decision to cancel four nights at Madison Square Garden, the band performed, without compensation, just for us. Wealthy as they are, it's not unremarkable that they worked for free that night—especially under such strange circumstances. Phish is a band that thrives on stage and feeds off of an audience. While many other musicians, especially those more reliant on income from concerts, livestreamed their way through the pandemic, Phish stayed away. Yes, Trey did his two-month virtual stand in Fall 2020 (a fundraiser!), but the main act stayed far away, sharing archival footage, taking to Zoom only to offer an awkward press conference upon the release of Sigma Oasis and to play a strange game of chess. But on this night, they played for us. That's pretty special.

Special as it may be, it was clearly not a good format for Phish. The telethon-style interludes, which worked well-enough with a bunch of hired hands for the Beacon Jams, were stilted and sapped any momentum that the band gathered. Things went best in moments where the band ignored the chatroom and just played.

Let me tell you how I really feel: I'm glad they did this, and I hope they never do it again. And, if they ever feel compelled to do it again, I hope they just resolve to play music. Unlike most acts, Phish has figured out that there's little to be gained by addressing the audience: they let the music do the talking.

Under the circumstances, they were using a facility in Amish Country where bands typically do their tech rehearsals before a tour. The equipment had presumably all been set up in advance of the MSG run, and then, when the run was cancelled, arrangements were made to leave everything in place and webcast a show from there. In the future, there's not really any need for the huge stage and the big light show. If there are to be any further webcasts, put the four of them in a room, facing each other, as in a rehearsal, and let the cameras roll for a couple of hours. But, once more, with feeling: I hope they never do this again.

As far as I can tell, all the Big Moments came in the first set. The second set had the most interesting YEM vocal jam in ages (and I'm old enough to remember when YEM didn't always have a vocal jam), but not much else of interest besides. And that third set was enough of a mess that you might actually think it was from a "real" New Years Eve show, where the third set is, traditionally, a disjointed mess.

All that said, there is one thing that is worth discussing in this show: the return of Time Turns Elastic. I thought this was the huge highlight. It felt a bit snappier (great decision: it finally didn't drag), and Trey tried some vocal passages up an octave (a mistake, I thought). There may have been some alternate chords under one of the submarine lines, and there was a mistake somewhere else, where at least Trey went to the wrong chords. Just before the final movement, there were some big, emphatic unison hits—I don't remember these, and I caught Trey looking back to Fish to make sure they happened. But the major work had to be Trey relearning the song in standard tuning. This is no small feat, as it's a complex piece of music, and it meant a few little adjustments: an accent note here and there, some harmonics that no longer worked and had to be fingered. Those newly-fingered passages helped quite a bit, allowing Trey to play the lead melodies in the song's opening more expressively. Other than that, it all sounded pretty close to me—that's impressive! This song, finally, sounded good.

There was, however a brutal error of judgment in the lack of explosive solo at the end, about which I'm still upset. It's going to take me a while to get over it, but all will be forgiven if they are willing to cut loose next time. (Worth noting: Mercury got a similar treatment in the second set). Not only was it frustrating, it was downright confusing. One of the major problems with TTE (and, oh, how there were many!) was that when the triumphant climax arrived, Trey was stuck with a guitar around his neck that he basically didn't know how to use! That tense chord progression, which has "awesome" written all over it, always ended up a mess in 2009-10, because Trey literally couldn't find a major scale in an alternate tuning. I saw the song a few times in those early years (didn't we all!?), and it was always a disappointment. I was at the UMass show where the song last appeared (10/24/10), and Trey switched from one guitar to the another—good idea!—and, after sacrificing a bunch of momentum, it kind of worked. But, by then, the experiment had run its course and the song disappeared. Now, after going to all that trouble to translate the piece for a guitar that Trey's well-known for playing brilliant guitar solos on (and convincing Mike, Page, and Fish, who let out a whoop when the thing was over, to relearn it as well), they get to that climax and... Gee, did you hear Betty White died?!?! Look, I think it's was sad news, too, but do you know what would really have done honor to her life and work? A guitar solo!

I'll get over it eventually, and all told, this is, to me, a clear example of Phish being a better band than they were a decade ago. They're more mature, better able to handle delicate passages, more comfortable playing emotively. I never hated TTE song as much as most did, but I certainly didn't love it, and I wasn't sad to see it disappear. But I'm very excited to hear it sounding the way it did, and I can't wait to hear it again. My instinct is that it had something to do with the New Years Stunt that wasn't, and it was clearly the most interesting thing that happened on a very special and very mediocre webcast.
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