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DVD/Video/Film Reviews

Phish Live in Brooklyn

By Published: August 20, 2006
This is one series of moments that compares favorably with the high points from Island Tour, the 1998 mini-tour long regarded by Phish cognoscenti as one, if not the pinnacle, of the group's creative improvisational accomplishments. Kudos go to Paul Languedoc for capturing the sound so vividly and to the archival work of Kevin Shapiro for delving into the tapes of this tour to ascertain the brilliance of this particular performance. The date's distinction lies in part in the locale—a minor league ballpark in the great old baseball town once home to The Dodgers—though the setting would have meant little with a desultory performance. Admittedly, the way tongue-in-cheek rendition of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" can't help but be anti- climactic after soaring performances such as "Maze, but perhaps that contrast is the point.

Likewise, while listening to the extended improvisation of "46 Days subsequently brought to resolution in the firmly grounded but lighthearted "Possum, you may hear the essence of Phish: the playful whimsy undercutting the arch abstraction handed down from Zappa, the dense atmosphere akin to Hendrix (think "Third Stone from the Sun ) arising from the spacious freeform jams reminiscent of the Grateful Dead. Phish doesn't so much borrow as represent the flashpoint of those sources. Some may criticize the group for "Axilla and similar nonsensical lyrics, but nonsense is the reverse of sense, not the absence of it: can nothingness describe some giant guitar-wielding mutant monster spawned from the depths of some nuclear wasteland hell? And long-time fans: can you miss the eccentricity of the band when they engage in homage to the tennis tournament nearby with the beatnik rap of "Kung ? (This is the same band that ridiculed the late Jim Morrison's "Lizard King" raps?)

It's a measure of the connection between Phish and their fan base that, even as the group resides in retirement, the release of Live in Brooklyn prompted an alfresco public showing near the waterfront in their hometown of Burlington, Vermont (the night before the showing, the film was screened in HD in movie theatres across the country, as was the event itself as it happened two years ago). Framed by the Green Mountains, the July 9 celebration was further testament to the Phish phenomenon, drawing countless fans happy to enjoy the Lake Champlain vista under the near full-moon, at least until the descent of mosquitoes. Despite the insect invasion, with the audio level optimally adjusted and darkness sufficient to see and hear the recording, a decidedly happy audience, glow-bracelets aloft, reeled in the years of the band's existence, from its beginnings right up to this final tour and now beyond it.

The archiving of Phish began with the inauguration of the Live Phish series during the band's early New Millennium hiatus. In contrast to the deliberately generic packaging of that series, such projects as this new one have now reached a creative professional plateau, just this side of slick (thankfully minus a trademark sign next to the band's name). Interestingly, considering the recent announcement of Grateful Dead's alliance with Rhino/Warner Strategic Marketing, Phish has leapfrogged its ancestors businesswise as this new release is the second title under the Jemp Records umbrella, in collaboration with the vaunted archival label. (Live at Madison Square Garden New Year's Eve 1995 in late 2005 is the debut.)

Phish Live in Brooklyn matches and perhaps exceeds the labor of love approach usually given such packages. Uniform graphic design, set in deep blues for both DVD and CD, give an otherworld look to the Coney Island home of Brooklyn's Keyspan Park. The triple-CD digipak is as colorful and detailed in its own way as the boxed DVD, all the minutiae of package production in place and juxtaposed with a variety of superb photos of the band, individually, as a group and in various combinations, formal and informal.

These pics, as well as the sound-check footage, together with performances from the second night's show at this venue, combine provocatively with bonus features on the DVD, in particular the backstage footage of Anassasio alone. It's unproductive to read too much into this editing, but you have to ask how much unrest really afflicted the band at this time. Their demeanor appearing hardly different during the sound-check than the concert itself—no macho strutting or fey gestures—and attired no differently either (with the exception of Fishman eschewing his smock), Phish seem like a group wholly at ease with themselves. And why shouldn't they be, except perhaps (crucially) if they weren't meeting or exceeding their own standards and expectations? Regardless of the musicians' self- evaluation, both down front and far back from the Brooklyn stage, fans are caught either bopping to the music or transported in blissful reverie.

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