The date December 29 has historical significance to Phish fans. Back in 1994, the New Year's Run followed a magnificent fall tour that had seen the band deepen and extend its improvisations, learning to move quickly and sometimes abruptly from one idea to another, from one riff to a variation to chaos to deep space and then back. The month between 11/12/94 at Kent State and the end of the tour in particular featured consistently sophisticated and exploratory second sets the likes of which Phish had never been able to deliver before. After taking a couple of weeks off for the holidays and a warmup the night before, Phish showed up on December 29, 1994 and emotionally demolished the ancient Providence Civic Center with possibly the most storied single jam in its history. As readers of this site know, the 35-minute, multi-part Providence "David Bowie" recently placed first in the Phish.net working group's (admittedly off-the-cuff and informal) poll of Phish's greatest jams. Even those (like me) who wouldn't rank it number-one have to acknowledge its immense significance and wondrous beauty.
That was the start of it, but Phish's December 29 exploits didn't end with 1994. The following year's New Year's Run is generally regarded as the best the band ever delivered. But although 12/31/95 is deservedly the pick of that run as a complete show, the best single moment of the run (and the most eloquent summary of what Phish learned on the road during its strongest touring year) was probably the transcendent "Bathtub Gin" -> "The Real Me" -> "Bathtub Gin" from December 29 in Worcester. And even as great as those high points from Providence and Worcester were, for the best single 12/29 set, you probably need to look to the masterful funk- and segue-filled second frame of the 1997 show at tonight's venue, Madison Square Garden.
On the one hand, if you're a glass-half-empty kind of person, you could point out that Phish hadn't hit those heights on any December 29 since that night 15 years ago. But it's probably worth using the other hand instead. The second leg of summer 2012 was at least a little bit of a fuck-you to people who have worried that Phish's best days are behind them, that they're not really challenging themselves, that they don't play together often enough to really maximize their ability to play together as a band, etc. These concerns are justifiable. But the stretch between Long Beach and Denver was Phish's best tour since June 2004, and maybe since the summer of the year before. Given that recent run of excellence, there was every reason to believe that Phish would show up big and sweep away everybody's bad memories of last year's dismal MSG run. Last night's show, particularly the colossal "Wolfman's Brother" and the second set bookends of "Tweezer" and "David Bowie," was a good start.
Well ... tonight was a lot more like December 29, 2011 than December 29, 1997. This is not a blanket condemnation of Phish in 2012 or a prediction that they won't deliver great shows the next two nights. But this was a below-average show even for 2012, with a good but safe first set and then a second set that felt like another first set.
Don't get me wrong, the first set was certainly good enough and you could see it leading to bigger and better things. (I watched the show on the webcast, in case you want to use that as a pretext for discounting what I'm about to say.) When I was a post-secondary student and complete dork in the mid-1990s, I wrote a long boring critical-theory post on rec.music.phish that had absolutely no influence whatsoever. It was called "Height and Width" and proposed the idea that there are two obvious ways to think about how good a show is. One is height, or the peak quality of the music during the show. Another is width, the overall quality, absence of low points, consistency of playing. What you think about tonight's first set, and whether you prefer it to last night's, broadly speaking depends on whether you put more value on peaks or on consistency. Last night's first set was pretty bad until the excellent "Wolfman's," and I wouldn't fault you for rating last night higher based on that alone. But I still preferred tonight's combination of (1) fail-safe first set tunes, like "Mound," "Sugar Shack," "Halley's," and "Reba" with; (2) tunes that usually show up (and often disappoint) in the second set, but are much more palatable in the first set, like "Rock and Roll" and "Limb" and "Wading." I don't think you can legitimately compare tonight's "Gin" to last night's "Wolfman's." This "Gin" brought some napalm, but only for a minute or so. It was the sort of short burst of intense energy that Phish can emit in its sleep. Overall, at just 10 minutes the "Gin" didn't see the kind of development we saw in last night's "Wolfman's," or in the 8/7/09 or 5/28/11 "Gins" that are the class of 3.0.
The other thing to note about the set was that a promising, slowly building "Reba" jam was completely undermined by the crowd, which for no apparent reason lost its mind and began screaming, eventually drowning out the band, who seemed confused. This "Reba" was slllooooowww, like the Lawn Boy version, and was developing a silky and narcotic texture before the yelling started. Who knows what Phish actually thought about it, but as a practical matter that was basically it for the "Reba" jam, which was Fishcorded shortly thereafter.
But ultimately, the takeaway from tonight's show is that the second set didn't really deliver anything after a promising first 20 minutes. The "Golden Age" opener gave us some nice major-key soloing before dropping back into the main riff and letting Mike Gordon have some shine on the bass guitar. When Trey reemerged, he hinted at "Sand" before the groove collapsed, leading Trey to start "Waves." I love "Waves." It's sort of a shame that, as a consequence of Phish playing many fewer shows than they used to, "Waves" has been heard only 24 times in its entire performance history, fewer appearances than "Reba" or "Bowie" used to make on a given tour. You wonder how it would develop with more regular play. This "Waves" had a speedy tempo and a short, exciting middle jam, but no real final jam after the last chorus, only a short ambient bit before Trey got bored and started "Prince Caspian." And after that there's really nothing to report, a short set full of standard versions of decent songs that didn't jam. There are some setlist notes we could discuss if you're into that. It was a good Saturday night out, but not the sort of show, and especially second set, that you'd hope to see Phish play on December 29 at the World's Most Famous Arena.
Before you angrily disagree with me in the comments: like I said earlier, it's just one show, and it was still an excellent rock and roll concert by anyone's standards. It just wasn't anything memorable by Phish standards, even for 2012 Phish. I will be tuned in tomorrow and I see no reason not to expect something more in line with Friday night than with tonight.