Live in Brooklyn – Phish
Like the Grateful Dead before them, after disbanding, Phish immediately shifted the focus of its live releases. While early entries in the Live Phish series focused on particularly memorable jams (volumes 1-6), often overlooked band favorites (7-12), Halloween spectaculars (13-16) and Mike Gordon’s personal picks (17-20), following Coventry, Phish turned to its most coveted performances. The first two entries in its archival series were shoe-ins: the Vermont quartet’s famed 1998 Island Tour and its 1995 New Year’s Eve performance, the holy grail for the Pharmer’s Almanac faithful. Further editions, the group’s new label promise, will follow a similar blueprint.
On the heels of such high-profile shows, Live in Brooklyn initially feels like a left-field selection: the rainy performance which simultaneously opened Phish’s final tour and celebrated the release of its final studio album, Undermind. At the time, Phish was coming off a two-month road break, following a series of scattershot Las Vegas performances and its public breakup. Not as immediately lauded as the Saratoga sets which took place later in that week, or as adventurous as the Deer Creek run which took place later that month, the June 17th show documented on Live in Brooklyn seems like a blurry footnote in a summer full of emotional Phish moments. The soundtrack for a DVD of the same name, Live in Brooklyn was, in truth, likely chosen because of its availability (as many readers likely remember this performance was simulcast at theaters across the country). Yet, in retrospect, the three-disc set serves as a bittersweet document of the group’s final days; proof that Phish remained at the top of its game until its unfortunate Coventry meltdown.
Now that it’s had some time to settle, the first leg of Phish’s final summer run produced some inspired music. While the group’s vocals are occasionally off (“A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing"), and its compositions frequently rushed (“The Curtain With”), Live in Brooklyn finds Phish in fine form, focusing on the “type two” improvisation that defined its later years. Since Anastasio discovered loose, inspired and, characteristically, sloppy rock bands like the Velvet Underground and Pavement in the late 1990s, Phish began focusing more on energy than precision. As such, Live in Brooklyn finds its feet through a series of broad, layered jams; the type of movements which capture a specific mood rather than an individual composition. But, unlike many later day Phish performances, Live in Brooklyn, also finds the group hitting most of its marks, turning in one of its tightest shows since first shunning its perfectionist tag. Rockers like “46 Days” and “Free” slink into full-out improvisational vehicles, while “Suzy Greenberg,” a number which blossomed all too late, showcases Gordon’s increasingly thick and pronounced bass work. All three numbers breakdown into the dark, weird bass-driven space which defined almost every Phish performance following its 2004 stop in Las Vegas.
Like that original batch of Live Phish releases, Live in Brooklyn is structured around a series of key jams. Appearing five songs into its set, “Moma Dance” is Live in Brooklyn’s purest gem, at first funky, later scary and always hungry. The number’s first three minutes are full of cool beats and false starts, and, as the song progresses, Anastasio leads his bandmates into a jungle of dark tones and whooshes from the Rhodes. After a false stop, the guitarist decides to continue, using his rhythmic work to color Jon Fishman’s consciously repetitive trancey beats. Similarly, "2001" breaks down into a series of mini-segments, the most interesting of which finds McConnell playing off of Fishman’s quick jazz-licks. As always, “Maze” is full of small wonders, including some playful musical banter between Anastasio and McConnell shortly before the number’s first climax.
Placing one foot in the past and another in a short lived future, Live in Brooklyn features the debut of both “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” and “Nothing.” The former is potentially Phish’s final great song, a rock-based jam vehicle, which, sadly, never reached its full potential live. On this night, it bustles with Led Zeppelin energy, as Anastasio pushes towards an open space which never arrives. The latter is a carefree bouncy jam of a song born a decade too late. Both are documented on Live in Brooklyn in their primal form, beloved stillborn babies without a future.
The group nods to its past more successfully. “Dinner and a Movie” originally emerged from hibernation to welcome to fans watching via simulcast. On Live in Brooklyn, however, it remains as a pristine example of how a number from the group’s first Geeky period can be successfully reinterpreted by a veteran arena-rock act. Pushed by the group’s energy, the song is a fried mix of nerves and arena amplification, as McConnell plays around with the perverted circus-organ music characteristic of a 1990s version of “Esther.” It’s weird and on point, like so much of Phish’s music. “Oh Kee Pah Ceremony” a whimsical psychedelic romp, is an artifact from the group’s youth, now, sadly, out of place in an era defined by urbanization, indie-rock and post-war nihilism. Novelties like “Kung” don’t hold up quite as well on disc, but succeed in keeping listeners on their toes.
“The Curtain With” also pokes its head out a few months before Coventry, if only to provide Phish with a thesis for its final tour (“Me Have No Regrets’). One of Anastasio’s greatest compositions, “The Curtain With” requires accuracy and, as perhaps the ultimate proof of Live in Brooklyn’s success, despite a few rough patches, the group nails its transitions. The wind-down before “The Curtain With’s” “Rift” section is particularly exciting, as Anastasio shifts between sections with youthful ease.
Live in Brooklyn’s final disc, a four song jam-fest featuring a straightforward “Mike’s Song > I am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove” and “The Divided Sky,” contains several choice sections. Throughout, Anastasio and Gordon, especially, listen closely to each other’s moves, communicating in a way characteristic of true bandmates. Perhaps McConnell is the only player who is not completely on his game, all too often settling in the background, while Fishman sets the group’s pace and Anastasio solos. His skill is better exemplified, oddly enough through his short solos on “Frankenstein” and on the above-mentioned “Maze.”
If Phish’s music is, when boiled to its essentials, a conversation between a group of individuals, then Live in Brooklyn is telling of the band’s mindset as it enters its final months. It’s filled with dark sounds, weird textures and fast-paced, tension-and-release jams. In short, Live in Brooklyn is a snapshot of a band about to call it quits, but who still love their music enough to pull it off with perfection.