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.