Phish Live in Brooklyn Rhino
If the individual band members' need for escape from the confines of Phish has any bearing on the playing contained in Live in Brooklyn, it's purely positive. Whether from the release of pent-up emotion with the announcement of their disbandment the month before, anticipation of the closure to come with Coventry, or the combination of the two, this recording of the first of two shows (June 17 and 18, 2004) of the final Phish tour carries an emotional weight virtually unheard of in the Vermont jamband's 21-year history.
The heightened moment can be seen, too, as an extension of the intensely personal quality present in the quartet's final studio album, Undermind, on which the Tchad Blake-produced depth and clarity supplied a sonic counterpoint to the indecision and ambivalence in the songs themselves. Little wonder, then, that the first of the two concert sets opens with "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing, with its refrain of "runaway, runaway, runaway, runaway." Much of the remainder of the close to three hour performance is likely to leave the listener/viewer pondering the question of why Phish, playing at a level this high, would want to stop.
Of course, there was more going on within the band than just the music, but that's for the Phish biography to come. For the time being, this smartly packaged and caefully produced pair of discs finds the group at the top of its game, in front of an audience fully aware of the unique circumstances in play if a little less rabid than those who grew in devotion to Phish over the years. Some may find problematic the predictability in the mammoth segues such as "Mike's Song, serving as a bridge to "I am Hydrogen, then on to "Weekapaug Groove. But the instincts shared by the four musicians after over twenty years of working together more than compensate for the diminishment of pure surprise that once characterized the transitions.
And when the band moves through "The Curtain With, the listener may very well understand the foursome's musical empathy. Drummer Jon Fishman never played with anything less than a pronounced drive and fluidity: imagine Keith Moon of The Who with a supremely rigorous sense of discipline and a finely-attuned ear. What's also notable here is the way McConnell's confidence in his playing elevates his prominence in the sound of the group, his jaunty ragtime bounce informed with a classical formalism that makes his piano playing so unique.
But then when he winds out on the organ, great majestic swells of sound giving way to the serrated edge of Anastasio's guitar, the listener may well be hearing a musician truly coming into his own after years of being something of the unsung hero of this band. For his part, Trey plays with an abandon unencumbered by the cute technique of previous years: as the four men navigate the Zappa-esque twists and turns of this arrangement, they summon a dynamic that echoes their ancestors, the Grateful Dead, in the most apt comparison ever between the two groups: an altogether uncommon chemistry between bassist Mike Gordon and guitarist Trey Anastasio reminiscent of the most adventurous interplay between Jerry Garcia and bassist Phil Lesh.
Gordon (known affectionately as "the one who said 'no'") is playing not just to energize and excite (though he does that): he's playing with a vengeance here, never overstepping the bounds of collective musicianship and propriety but with a pronounced sharp tone in addition to the ingenuity he developed over his years of playing classically intricate compositions informed with rubbery funk. His basswork also serves to prod Anastasio, coaxing the best playing possible out of his partner.
The bassist assumes the position of navigator as the group traverses the syncopation of "Moma Dance" before heading out on a deep space trajectory. This sort of journey is the means by which Phish effectively transcends the boundaries of the jamband genre it helped create, venturing into realms of jazz-rock fusion uncharted during the heyday of that style (the arch compositions make more sense in that context, too).
With McConnell comping on his clavinet and other old-school electric keyboards, Gordon's massive elastic sound is almost like a trampoline (which he and Trey actually used on stage more than once) upon which the rest of the group bounces. Anastasio never really aspired to guitar hero status but only because, with no discernible roots in the blues, his tone never compared to the likes of Clapton or Hendrix. Rather, like the music of the band in general, his movements are methodical even in the midst of spontaneity, the notes he picks finely-etched, their cerebral impact ultimately as deep as that of a visceral guitarist like Jeff Beck.
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 localea minor league ballpark in the great old baseball town once home to The Dodgersthough 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 itselfno macho strutting or fey gesturesand 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.
The two DVDs contain their own commensurate set of virtues. Not the least of the attractions is an audience that, in direct proportion to the power of the music, makes itself heard clearly, bouncing happily in the midst of glowstick wars as Phish plays underneath the veteran lightsman Chris Kuroda's constellation of stagelights (a far cry from Nectar's, no?). It's fascinating to watch the simple camera shots, suitable for portraits if they were photos, either in contrast to, or in time with, the tricky changes being played. Then there's the slow melt of fadeaways from one band member to the next, occasionally in time with instrumental transitions, often in counterpoint to the music. The editing and camera work are free of gratuitous effects, with the exception of some questionable angles in which the closeups seem a bit too close.
The shock of such close ups is perhaps in keeping with the public persona of a band that, consciously or unconsciously, always kept its audience at a respectful distance. Regardless, the gradual ascension of Phish's popularity, snowballing from the mid- nineties through the various Phish festivals and on to the 2004 tour, culminated in an inescapable reality: these four men re-defined the contemporary meaning of rock and roll.
At this moment in the culture of pop music, the music is identified as the jamband phenomenon. But such glib marketing media phrases mean little to those who have experienced the sounds first-hand. Whether it's live, on CD or DVD, or presented as a combination of experiences as in the outdoor showing of Phish Live in Brooklyn the music soon outgrows trendy labels, especially to those who know what it really means, as time goes on.