CrossPhire: Two Fans Discuss Phish New Years Eve Run

By: Steve Siegel (@thebarnpresents) & Brian Brinkman (@sufferingjuke)

Photos: Phish From The Road (@Phish_FTR)


Brian and I come from different perspectives in our respective Phish fandoms that roughly equate to when we saw our first shows.  But we can both agree on one thing: we both want Phish to be the best possible version of themselves.

Neither of us attended any of the shows on the New Year's Run, but given that it may be the last new Phish we'll get to analyze for a while, we decided to offer the second edition of CrossPhire.  Like the first time we did this, we wear our differences on our sleeves, but ultimately produce a measured and thoughtful debate on the shows .  Here is what transpired:

Brian:  I had two main takeaways from the run.

1. The band sounded incredibly focused. 01/01, 01/02 and 01/03 flowed like three acts and were constructed like albums. These shows reminded me of MPP '13, 10/20/13 and 12/29/13 in that they could be distributed as "Live Phish" for the masses, or as a snapshot for the future of who Phish is. I love how they balanced the calm and melodic vibe of NYE with the psychedelic jamming of 01/02, with the all-around classic "Phish feel" on 01/03.

2. The Chilling Thrilling set is already changing Phish's approach, but not exactly in the way we all expected it would on Halloween. Rather than having a direct and/or overt impact on their sets by being immediate jam vehicles, the set has become a platform for the band to experiment further with soundscapes and grooves.

Their best jams from the NYE Run: "Ghost", "Cities", "Tweezer", "Twenty Years Later", "Weekapaug", and "Down With Disease", received very little impact from anything C/T related - save the initial Weekapaug Jam. Yet, something about this set has not only freed the band and given them a willingness to experiment ad nauseum, but simply delivering it has elevated their playing and communication.

Whereas in early Fall, so many shows felt disjointed -- probably due to the band's resistance of playing these grooves in the wing -- now, they can jam with complete freedom, weave them in and out sparsely, and catch whatever groove they want without fear of stumbling onto a surprise. All that tension, and the music that came from it, has resulted in an even more refined and experimental level of improv and playing.

Steve:  Entering in to these discussions, I fully expect you to be more enthusiastic than me -- that's pretty much why I like to do this. But I did not expect such high and universal praise for complete shows.

For me, the run was anchored by two sets, the second sets of 12/31 and 1/3. I'm happy to say that there's some keepers in both of these and that neither is hampered by any crushing buzz-kills. A run that produces only that "Down With Disease" has to be measured as a success on some level. First sets, in general, maybe were "had to be there", but that's nothing new. Yes, the "Weekapaug" from 1/2 was experimental and surprising, but I'm rating it fairly low on re-listen value.

But let's get to the meat of your argument... that the band is somehow more free and risk-taking in general as a result of practicing and pulling off Halloween. I was hoping, though to say expecting might be stretching it, that sets might be infected with C/T material just as most 2014 sets were showcases for Fuego stuff. Or... if not those songs proper, then vamps and segments that were reminiscent of that style: more open, danceable, frameworks for improv.

I can see something like the "Theme" from NYE falling into this category, but besides that, most of the high points felt as much like pre-10/31/14 Phish as "brave new world" type stuff. And it seems that C/T may be more like the "traditional" Halloween sets in that a few tunes will be in rotation, and the majority may get forgotten / buried. Not sure what I think of the samples at this point. The crowd goes wild when they unleash the "They Attack" sample but is it really adding that much?

Did you stream every show in real time? I wonder how much of our difference of opinions stems from active engagment as it was happening vs. revisiting post-facto.


Brian: First off, I do agree with you wholeheartedly that the run was anchored by the two sets you mentioned. They were as connected, flowing, and jammy as anything the band has played in the last few years. At first thought, they reminded me more of Fall 2013 sets in that they were free of needing infusion, they just were. Really perfectly capture what I believe Phish does best these days: work as a reductive platform for the Phish they've been during various eras, amalgamated in this older, more refined way.

That said, I DO sincerely believe the run holds up much better than simply run-of-the-mill Phish. I webcasted the shows in realtime and have since listened back. I think what these shows display is the power of setlist construction, the importance of fans digging a bit deeper for their "buzz," and the band experimenting with form in a continuously reductive way. The only sets that fell totally flat for me were 12/31 I and 1/2 I. Even 12/31 III had that great "ALS" > "Dogs" > "Tweezer" to kick things off, and 1/2 had that gorgeous "Roggae."

I know 1/1 has gotten shat on, but I think it was the perfect melancholy come-down post-NYE show. Totally different in construction than its 2011 counterpart, this served a similar purpose to me as say 10/12/2010 and 08/16/2011, as a show that's more of a mood setter, than an overt rager. A show that feels more constructed and thus carries more replay value, rather than one that has immediate impact.

Listening to 1/3 right now, I'm absolutely convinced this is one of the best shows of the year, if not of the last few years. It's up there for me with as a perfect display of where Phish is now in 3.0. So far from the band they were some five years ago, their ability to play a show so steeped in nostalgia - songwise - that is so equally fresh is a testament to where they are now.

I guess that's the biggest thing for me at this point with Phish.  At their best they have this capability to sound and feel like themselves, but in a far more refined way. I think this process began in earnest on 8/31/12, and has carried over through their 30th anniversary, and is here during their strongest moments of 2014/15.

Because of this, I think I get why the C/T material didn't fully land itself in the NYE Run: I don't think the band is fully prepared to integrate it. I think it most of it - sans probably "Haunted House", "Timber", "Your Pet Cat", and sadly, "Shipwreck" - will begin to play a regular part in the band's repertoire. I just think it's gonna take time.

The approach for Fuego was clearly about becoming a tighter and more connected band as they entered their fourth decade. C/T is clearly here to loosen things up. The humor that's missing from Fuego is here, and it's so reliant on loose jamming, something the band hasn't totally messed around with since 2.0.

I think time is going to be key, because it's clear these songs can't be forced and have to be allowed to expand organically. To just judge their success based on one run is a mistake. Give them time to breath, and soon enough we'll all hate them like we do Fuego. LOL.

In terms of the samples, I'm on the fence. They're so much a part of that Vegas run, and what made the end of Fall Tour so good, and the crowd does go wild. But for me, for those songs to really realize their potential, the samples need to be dropped, and the band needs to simply focus on expanding on their themes. We'll see what direction the band chooses to go with them. The crazy thing could be that the band spends so much time focusing on them that other older songs could emerge as new jam contenders ala "Harry Hood" in 2014.

Steve: As expected, a very passionate defense.

Funny though, you did answer my question in a way that made me glad I asked. Your response that 1/1 was perceived as a mellow come-down show. I suppose that works if you were there, or even if you were webcasting in real time. Coming into it a week after performed like I did, I have another word for it: a waste of time.

Brian: I fully reject the notion of a show like 1/1 being a waste of time. Were that second set to contain just one 13+min jam (and it was VERY possible in a truly interesting Twenty Years Later), that combined with the first set would have made it a revered show. That it didn't might negate my argument, but I for one love the kind of comedown, methodical shows Phish is capable of producing, and has been producing at critical points throughout their whole career.

Perhaps this show isn't for everyone, but should every show be? Should every show be gauged on the fact that the whole fan base LOVED or hated it? Perhaps this show was just for the crowd that partied all night in Miami to ring in 2015. Perhaps it was the band taking a deep breath as they shift to yet another year. I have no idea the root of the intention for the show, I just know there is intention to playing a show like that, and I'm more in favor of listening to understand why then simply brushing it aside because it didn't contain a glaring highlight.

Steve:  Man, that's a lot of ifs and buts.

I can't help but think that you're arguing my point.  It seems like you're making excuses for that fact that it wasn't universally beloved.  THAT'S OKAY.

Part of the pleasure with this band is that we can rack and stack and rate and parse things for fun.  Some shows inevitably will fall to the bottom.

But let me also defend my "waste of time" statement, as it was language that I actually did think twice about before using.  It will never stop blowing my mind that in 2015, we live in an age where essentially the entire history of recorded music -- and for a good chunk of the bands I care deeply about, live show records -- are available instantaneously to me from a device that I carry around in my pocket.

Let's consider the two and a half hours I spent listening to 1/1 so I could be prepared to have this discussion with you.  Given that it received very little hype from the Phish community, I probably wouldn't have thought twice about skipping it.  During that time, I could have just have easily been discovering new music, revisiting an old classic.  I'm not angry at Phish.  I entered into it willingly.  But I felt the show was pretty rote.  No remarkable versions of anything.  Just their standard songs played competently.  That's great -- more than great -- if you're there, but it's not much to sink your teeth into when your just playing along at home.  Especially when there's so many other available options.

Let me also pick up on something else you're laying down... "At their best they have this capability to sound and feel like themselves". I think this is a very deliberate action on behalf of the band. Post-breakup, they seem be all about this us-against-the-world mentality. The four of us are Phish. We shun the outside influence that tries to shape us in their image. It's part of the 3.0 narrative. We broke up because everybody wanted a little piece of us, so we are isolated in our own little universe of creation.

Yes, there's a certain charm to this. I totally get off on the fact that they are the only band I can think off with this kind of longevity who really has all the original members. But after awhile I think they kind of get up their own asses a bit. The "no covers" thing last summer was a perfect example. They are telling us, "It's about OUR music and focusing on PHISH." But let me just say, it can be a little bit boring. We like Phish because of their covers. We like Phish because they are a part of a larger music community and also connected to the grand history of rock and roll.


Brian: While I will definitely agree with you that the no covers thing became a bit redundant this summer, particularly when it became clear the band was instilling a FAR tighter rotation than they had in any recent year, I don't think they needed to play covers to truly be PHISH. The NYE Run last year was a brilliant artistic move, and the fact that it resulted in one of the best shows of the era, and of any era for that matter (12/29), is enough for me to believe the no covers experiment/statement was well worth it.

I think for a band that has lasted as long as they have, that has been through as much as they have, that has evolved through so many different styles, while still sounding like themselves in some way, they deserve the freedom to take a few shows and play their own music, and only their music if they want to. In all reality, between 12/28 and 7/9 when the covers really came back in full, they produced some great jams and shows which makes me wonder why it's an issue in the first place. Go back and listen to 7/4 and tell me that show needed a cover in there.

These last two paragraphs make me think of this larger issue I think is constantly plaguing the Phish community. The idea of expectations and of Phish somehow needing to be something different than what they are. The idea that if Phish doesn't produce THE jam or THE show that we all get behind, that somehow they've failed us. This idea has long bothered me, especially since I've always looked at 3.0 as a period in which we need to be grateful for the simple fact that we can see Phish shows.

But beyond that, I feel like there is a clear entitlement and a lack of perspective among Phish fans. This is art we're flocking to. Not sports. Not some highly definable and impersonal activity. This is art. Art is confounding in its nature. It speaks of human condition from one person, and communicates that person's sense of isolation or connectivity or joy or remorse or confusion or whatever to a large group of people who then interpret it based upon whatever is happening in their life. That 30-40 times a summer Phish is able to play an improvisational fucking jam that connects with thousands of people, plus 2-5 shows that really resonates with people, should be enough for us to stop bitching and moaning about what they should play, or how they should play.

That they gave us a 25 minute "Down With Disease" that stands up with the best of their jams throughout their history really should be enough for us to stop and realize how bizarre and special this whole thing is. And yet, we all come to these shows and runs with expectations which do nothing but cloud our experience of understanding the band in the present.

We're all convinced that life was so much better in the Fall of 97 and that Phish HAS to play like that to every come close to achieving those heights, when the reality is A LOT of Phish fans hated that tour because it marked this clear break from who Phish was to who they were going to be. We judge these past shows in the face of the present ones, claiming nothing could be better than what was, only to then reassess said shows we bemoaned once there are future shows to bash.

Personally, I think 2014 is going to go down as one of the great underrated years of Phish history. As I see it now, Phish will continue playing at this rate until 2020. I think they want to put ten solid years into this 3.0 thing. Compete with the 90s in that sense. At that point I see them playing sporadically, embracing big dates, but never again being the Phish we know them to be even now. Over the next five years, I see 2014 being viewed as this breaking point from where Phish was from 09 - 13, to where Phish was going. I have no idea where they are going, but I really think we're going to value this year in the same way we value 1999 so many years later. All this is to say, having this expectations of how Phish should play, or what they should play, just clouds the whole process of what they ARE playing and why.

Steve: Okay, your art comments smacks of high ideals, but there's always been an element of "sports" in these shows.  Hell, we gather in sports arenas, tailgate.  We love to look at stats. There are "big games".  Phish isn't some sit down and appreciate listening experience.  It's participatory and worthy of the analysis and argument and passion and joy and heartbreak (ok... maybe that's stretching it) associated with sports.

I think it's not entitlement but a sense of what it could be and has been.  Here I go again, and I hate pulling the old man card, but since I was there and saw seven shows in Fall of 97, I can assure you haters were in the in the very slim minority.  Approaching zero.

Because the band was continually breaking boundaries and offering something new every single night.   New songs, crazy bustouts, jams in totally unexpected places.  Even first sets!  The discussion that I was most aware of was how to get to more shows and see this thing happen again and again.  Because there was no question whether the band would drop a turd... or string of turds.  You knew you were getting the goods.  It was going to be worth whatever time and treasure you needed to scrounge up to see it.  I can't say that's the case now.

Now there's a blurred line here and I'm going to fully acknowledge it.  Back then, the bulk of the fans -- myself included -- were in their twenties.  They actually could pack up and hit the next show without much thought to obligations or kids or mortgages or whatever.

The stakes are higher now, too.  With every note they play instantly available and put immediately under the microscope, I guess that can somehow breed a certain complacency.  A demand for more.  I get it.

Sure the days of me hitting seven shows on a tour are probably over.  But couldn't the music just make me feel I'd want to do that?

The funny thing is I don't think that much separates where they were back then to where they are now.  I think it's just a simple matter of practice - a focus of creative energies into the thing called Phish.  Your argument above suggests that Phish simply IS.  That there's no use in directing them towards the fulfillment of any sort of expectation.  But I think that runs contrary to what Phish was at their absolutely best.   It was purposeful, it didn't just happen.

Let me toss something out there.  This was New Year's Eve. It's about everybody and it's an all out celebration. We are trained to expect not only great shows, but something unique and memorable. I'm sure I'll get crucified by most Phish fans for this, but what hell... I'll go there. Look at Widespread Panic. They played a three set show on 12/31. They brought out a horn section. Debuted two new covers in the first set as part of a three song Bill Withers set. They had a super clever "Happy" (Stones) > "Happy" (Panic) > "Happy" ( combo to ring in 2015. Then they encored with a pair of first time played Joe Cocker tributes, including "With A Little Help From My Friends". Talk about bringing down the house!

Go ahead and crap on me for making the comparison, I can take it. The bottom line: Panic spent time in the rehearsal room. They put in the effort. Worked it out with collaborators. Put some damn thought into it.

Is it enough that Phish just goes out there and offers themselves to their fans on NYE? Sure it is. But on the heels of a Halloween experience like 2014's... is this really the best they can offer? It seems it's more "let's just be Phish and see what happens" as opposed to "let's be Phish and make something happen. " Sure, great stuff is going to come out of the former, but isn't the latter more satisfying?

Brian: I'm not gonna roast you over your Panic comments. I get your points to an extent, but like all of this, I have a response.

First and foremost, let's just not even get into the Phish comparison game. If we really want to line up Phish's career accomplishments with that of Panic, SCI, the Biscuits, even Umphrey's, the things Phish has been able to accomplish will far overshadow everything and anything those bands have done. Do they embrace big shows more than Phish does now? Sure, to an extent. There's definitely an aspect of the UMBowl I wish Phish would embrace from time to time. Sure, the way Panic shows feel like a massive bar show, with horns and cover sets are really super cool and make Panic feel like this tiny/big band all at once. But in the end, neither of those bands have ever had the pressures, mass appeal, nor ability to truly claim a stake in the American rock history quite like Phish.

Phish has the ability to just "be" Phish when they want to be because they've earned that ability. The second WSP, UM, SCI every comes close to playing a show like Big Cypress I will happily listen to any argument in favor of Phish taking advice from them. With all this in mind, I feel like the idea that Phish should have showed up and done something bigger for this NYE run is really shortsighted.

This is a band that has fully rebuilt itself in five years. This is a band that in the last three years has played 220 unique songs in one year, produced a show that is on par with anything they've EVER played (8/31/2012), threw a year-long 30th anniversary party, played one of the best tours they've ever played (Fall 2013), wrote an entire album of new material and hid it from their fans until unveiling it in one singular performance, cultivated a poignant gag on 12/31/2013 that somehow satisfied their entire fanbase AND properly celebrated their 30 year legacy, recorded a totally new album, spent a summer seeking both expansion and reduction in their jams and shows, wrote a completely NEW album of inspired instrumental jams that they successfully hid from their ever-curious fanbase once again, and was once again received with complete praise, and are set to play yet another year of 30-50 shows where they'll once again try to break their own rules and redefine what it means to be Phish. Let them have a break.

I looked at this NYE run as a break from what they've been doing to where they're going. I thought the senseless gag was a perfect way to loosen everyone up and just enjoy a mini-break from winter. It was meaningless and Phishy and right for the moment. Would it have been more satisfying had the band come out and given us 3 sets of new covers, bustouts, and guests, on top of the brilliant jams produced? I guess, perhaps. But as someone who can't help but love Phish for being the 4 guys they are, and who embraces the humanity of their project, I don't think they needed to, and I wouldn't have wanted them to do anything aside from what they were going to do.

Steve: This has been long and interesting and but I'm going to try to cap it here.

My point is not that I wanted Phish to do exactly what Widespread Panic did.  I, too, see the futility in comparing band to band.  A fool's errand for sure.  But, incidentally, you're the one seemingly more eager to "go there" and try to compare legacy to legacy.

And you don't need a laundry list of things to prove that Phish has done great things in the past -- even recently.  Nobody denies this.  But, I always bristle at the "earned the right" arguments that I see.  I concede. They can do whatever they want.  I just wish they'd want more these days.

My point is that Panic's show didn't just "happen".  They huddled in the practice room.  They had a gameplan.  They collaborated.  They were themselves, but also took a swing for something, too.

You seem to celebrate meaninglessness.  For a fanbase that seems to find meaning in places even where there is none, that's a tall order.


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