Some shows are the stuff of legend even before a note is played. When one of the biggest blizzards in recorded history strikes before the New Years, shutting down airports, destroying the ability of people to drive days after the event, everyone has a story about how they managed to make it to the venue. Arriving successfully at the venue was already a victory leading to a pumped crowd.
After a mellow but pretty opener the night before, Phish came out with a strong “Kill Devil Falls” to set a different tone. An early highlight of the first set was Trey using a device to play Sarah Palin quotes during an extended intro to “Alaska,” calling back to using an insult box during “Wilson” across town in 1991. This also led to a nice peak, rewarding the hard traveling crowd with a dance party.
There is more than one way that Phish can thank a crowd for attending. Another technique is the bustout, in this case of Taj Mahal’s “She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride.” It was the first time that this song had been played since 1998 and only the second time since the club days. We also would get the debut of the power pop “Pigtail,” and the live debut of the final song that they recorded before breaking up in 2004, “The Bird Watcher.”
So we had high energy and interesting song selection. All we’d need is a good jam and we’d have a first set. “Stash” to the rescue! While not the longest version ever by any means, the middle of the song had an interesting melodic section. It wouldn’t make anyone’s top 5 list, but it rounded out the set quite nicely.
The second set started out as a clinic on Phish’s new style of music. The distinction between a jam song and a regular song has been vanishing. “Carini > Backwards Down the Number Line > Get Back on the Train -> Limb By Limb” looks like it could be a very straightforward set, especially when you see that not one song topped 10 minutes. However, Phish has gotten good into packing a lot of jam into a little amount of time. The first half of the set flowed very well with every song having a little chance to stretch its legs before they moved on.
Despite very good sections in “Backwards” and “Get Back on the Train,” the highlight of the first half was the “Limb By Limb.” It started out strong with a very smooth segue out of the peak of “GBOTT.” The end crash of the former is very similar to the start of the latter, something that wasn’t well known before but now seems so obvious after it was used to transition.
“Limb By Limb” is one of those songs that is a merge between a jam and a composition. There is an improvisational section in the middle, but it is strictly constrained; there are a few standard themes that have to be hit, but they can go to those spots in various ways. This version changed the rules. The normal touchstones of the jam were more hinted at than actually played. It was loose but not flubbed, which is always fun to see in a song that usually is much more strict about where it’s allowed to wander.
The one thing that the first night had was an abundance of delicate and beautiful slow jams. In fact, that’s pretty much all the 27th had for it, which is what led to the mixed reviews; some (like me) love that style so thought it was incredibly cool. Others were left crying, “Any time you want to speed things up would be fine with me.” After forty minutes of upbeat improvisational playing of popular songs, even those who are not fans of the slower material probably appreciated the break of “Frankie Says > Albuquerque.” Moreover, those both are somewhat rare songs, so it would be impossible to be sick of them. The lightness of “Frankie Says” always makes it feel like it’s one flub or miscue away from its spell completely falling apart. This version walked the tightrope perfectly, complimenting the dark but intriguing lyrics in beautiful ways.
While it already had been a strong set, it was mainly so by stringing together a bunch of songs played well one after the other. Everything was very good, but we didn’t have anything amazing. Fortunately the set wasn’t quite over yet. “Harry Hood,” when played well is an incredibly life affirming number even when played by the book. That isn’t the approach that this version tried at all. Almost immediately into the quiet build jam, they changed their mind and played this fast staccato jam. It almost had a calypso feel; perhaps they were trying to take energy from the islands to get rid of all of this snow and ice. It’s an incredibly happy jam, impossible to not dance to, and just when it seemed like this would replace the “Hood” build, they dropped the bottom out and went to the beginning of the normal jam. This wasn’t a replacement. It was a bonus! If there’s one flaw here, it’s that the actual build didn’t have time to breathe before it ended. If it had gone higher, this would be talked about as one of the all time great versions of the song, but as is it’s a fascinating and unique performance.
Sometimes you can tell how the band thought about the show by their encore call. “Shine a Light” seems to be an icing on the cake call. After all, this was a night where every song did sound like it was their favorite tune when they were playing it. Trey’s vocals – off all night as if he has a cold – did make it rough around the edges, but if he couldn’t quite get the emotion across via his playing, that just means he would have to do so through a powerful guitar solo.
This is what we’d want from the second night of a New Year’s run. A little silliness, another quick lyrical nod to the unusual conditions still affecting people (“The rain, wind on the runway.”), and some interesting improvisation. For those who like the statistical side of things, the number of first time songs for 2009 played last night means that we’ve passed 1998 for the most distinct songs in a year and we’re only 4 songs behind 2010’s impressive 247; the parlor game of seeing if they can set a new one can be played again. Musically, it was better than the previous night but still leaves room for the next 3 to surpass it. It might have been incredibly difficult to make it to Worcester but few who trekked it up there felt like they had made a mistake. Now let’s bring on the Garden!