Words by: Brian Bavosa | Images by: Dave Vann (courtesy of fromtheroad.phish.com)
Phish :: 12.28 - 12.31 :: American Airlines Arena :: Miami, FL
2009 was an incredible year for Phish. It all started in March with a return to the stage after nearly five years away in Hampton. Summer saw two legs of tour touching upon both coasts, Halloween returned for the first time since 1998 and fall tour saw the band really stretch out and return to form of years past. All of the energy, anticipation and antics came to a head and fitting conclusion with a four-night celebration to end 2009 — and ring in 2010 — this past week in Miami at American Airlines Arena, the band's first trip here since their last New Year's run six years earlier.
The first night saw a venue that was, at best, 75-percent full. There were extra tickets everywhere (as there were each night), behind the stage was all but empty and part of the seats in the 400 section were even blocked off with black curtains to give the appearance that the venue was fuller than it actually was. In other words, it took everyone a little while to actually realize this was a New Year's Eve run (which historically have been very sold out). The band came out and delivered a set that was weak and forgettable. Maybe it was the lack of energy in the building, but the first set found the band trying to settle in and was easily the most forgettable of the run, even though it boasted the first version of the normally upbeat "My Soul" since 2000, and the first "Roggae" of '09. The set did boast a "Stash" that offered an exploratory jam and "I Didn't Know," which included what Trey said was the "last ever" vacuum solo of the decade — or so we thought.
| Phish :: 12.28 :: Miami|
The second set was a huge improvement, kicking off with a great combo of "Mike's Song" > "Light" > "I am Hydrogen" > "Weekapaug Groove." There is little doubt that the best song off of the 2009 album Joy has been "Light." Often used as a springboard for intergalactic, sonic darkness, this tune's name represents what eventually emerges from the most natural-feeling, Phishy jam vehicle from the new batch. "Makisupa Policeman" featured a nod to Mike Gordon as the band sang "Mike" in the refrain, before a magnificent "Harry Hood" soared in all of its glory. If Phish plays for another hundred years, "Hood" is one of a handful of songs that will never get old, for band or for fan. Although salvaged by a strong second set, when the NYE run came to a close no one would be talking about the first night.
Set I: Sample in a Jar, NICU, My Soul, Roggae, Undermind, Bouncing Around The Room, Poor Heart, Stash, I Didn't Know, Beauty Of A Broken Heart, Possum
Set II: Mike's Song > Light > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Alaska, Backwards Down the Number Line, Makisupa Policeman > Harry Hood > Contact, Character Zero
E: First Tube
The 29th was a huge step in the right direction and served to straighten the course for the band's four-night run. "Golgi Apparatus" set the mood and had many cracking a smile during the line "I saw you with a ticket stub in your hand!" considering how ridiculously easy it was to get into these shows, versus how much effort one had to put in for previous New Year's runs with this band. The second ever versions of "The Connection" and "Access Me" offered poppy, bouncy compositions before "Wolfman's Brother" packed a powerful punch of funk-rock. "Wolfman's" is a song that has taken on many forms over the years, but always delivers. It's simply one of the band's strongest songs, whether it clocks in at five minutes or 35. Set one also saw an absolutely blissful "Reba" with the band playing each section to perfection, seemingly in no rush and allowing the cool vibe to guide them. However, the first time that all things seemed to come together for band and fans was during set two.
The '09 rocker "Kill Devil Falls" opened the fourth set of the run, and really built up the energy in the AAArena. This tune allows Trey to showcase some hot fretwork, and as I and many others have said over this past year, has a vibe similar to that of old favorite, "Chalkdust Torture." However, the first true "jam" of the run that really stepped into the next stratosphere was the ensuing "Tweezer." Another song that has resurfaced in '09 with some absolutely mind-blowing versions, this "Tweezer" saw the patented funk riff turn the corner into a dark alley, before a repeating start/stop type jam that found McConnell hitting a unique synth effect every go round, matched with Chris Kuroda's blinding white strobes, which was what really gave this version its biting teeth. The "Tweezer" also included a slew of teases, most notably "Manteca" and "What's The Use?," another clue that the phab phour was starting to settle in.
| Phish :: 12.29 :: Miami|
Another highlight of the 29th was the mid-set "Gotta Jibboo" > "Wilson" > "Gotta Jibboo." Besides being another jam that really got to the promised land compared to most versions of the past decade, the return to "Jibboo" to complete this sandwich showed that Phish was becoming more comfortable onstage. The band closed the set with "2001" and "Slave to the Traffic Light," another very important tune of Phish 3.0, as it closed out Alpine, Red Rocks, The Gorge and Festival 8, to name a few. This "Slave" again soared, reaching all of its majestic heights and peaking in a few soulfully bright moments that represents Phish to their fullest, in which one can close their eyes and be moved by the power that is this band in an earth-shattering crescendo that climaxes from little more than a gentle sway.
Set I: Golgi Apparatus, Maze, Driver, The Connection, Wolfman's Brother, Ocelot, Reba, Access Me, The Divided Sky, Cavern
Set II: Kill Devil Falls, Tweezer* > Prince Caspian, Gotta Jibboo > Wilson > Gotta Jibboo > Heavy Things > Also Sprach Zarathustra, Slave to the Traffic Light
E: Sleeping Monkey, Tweezer Reprise
* with Manteca & What's The Use? teases
With two nights under their belts and the tropical temps climbing into the 80s on December 30, there was no denying that something was in the air. The venue also seemed much fuller, with the black curtain in the upper decks being removed and droves of fans behind the stage, which was previously empty. For this writer, 12.30 ranked in the top two or three shows I saw all year, and rivaled any Phish show I have seen in the past ten years. It had everything: bust-outs for the jaded old school vet, clever, tongue-in-cheek humor involving fan interaction, mash-up, on-the-fly improv and jamming that shows why Phish was, is, and forever will be the single greatest "jam" band of our generation. The proof is in the pudding my friends, and 12.30 tasted good enough that even Bill Cosby and his "J-e-ll-o!" bellow would be scooping back in for seconds.
| Phish :: 12.30 :: Miami|
The first set, while some may claim lacked any sort of flow, was simply ridiculous. The reason any normal flow might have been lacking was because the "normal" rules were abandoned from the start! From the first "Soul Shakedown Party" since Vegas '04, it was clear that the band had some serious shit in store on 12.30, arguably the most lauded night of Phish's NYE extravaganza's throughout the years. The rest of this set saw some tunes dusted off that fans couldn't have dreamed of. "Jesus Left Chicago" filled the third slot and allowed McConnell to sparkle on the keys while he interplayed with the bluesy soul of Anastasio's wailing guitar, before the country twang debut of Hank Williams' "Dixie Cannonball," sung by Gordon.
As massive as the Williams cut was, the biggest breakouts of this set began with the return of "Corrina," played only once since the historic Big Cypress Millennium shows, which began exactly ten years ago, on 12.30.99, only miles west of where we were now in Miami. This beautiful ballad was followed by "What's the Use?," a cerebral instrumental tune that morphs and blurs the lines of illusion and reality and is as complex as the moment before a sunset slips into darkness. But, nothing could have prepared us for what happened next, the return of "Tela," a Gamehendge tune from Trey's college thesis, "The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday."
| Phish :: 12.30 :: Miami|
Out of damn near 200 Phish shows, I had only heard "Tela" once before, the last time it was played in New Haven, CT on 11.24.98. Like "The Lizards," "Tela" exemplifies the Gamehendge lore, with lyrics as beautiful as the song's protagonist/villain, depending on how you look at it. When the first notes started up, I was physically, mentally and emotionally moved like I haven't been in some time. It was — for me — THE moment of 2009 that I finally, finally realized why I, like so many others, still do IT. Why we followed this band thousands of miles again this year, witnessing one of the greatest comebacks in rock history. We do it because Phish still possesses that magic. The magic that allows life to be put aside for a while and let live music work its wonders. It could be as simple as a bust-out tune like this, or the jams that would follow later this night and the next, or just the joy of seeing your first show of 2009. In the end, the simple fact that Phish is back and we are debating what jam made the show stand out is enough. We all have our own opinions and that is what's so special about this band. They bring us together. They foster community. They make it happen.
Set two kicked off with only the second "Sand" of '09, following up the much-praised version from Camden this summer. Followed by "The Curtain With," this version was also executed to perfection, and once-and-for-all eliminated any memories of Coventry. After all, we were witnessing a new chapter in 2009, and 12.30 was a page of that story which was as good as it got, one where the good guys won. "Lifeboy" finally made its '09 debut, and is easily one of band's most poignant songs. A track that has proven capable of taking on different meanings over the years, this version had my feet bolted to the floor, body gently swaying, hands clasped and mind thanking the powers that be for the lucky life I had gotten to live — and was still living - with this band. "Lifeboy" was also historic because it was the 241st unique song that Phish played in 2009, the most in any year of their career, besting 1998, and a number they would add to later on in the evening and on New Year's Eve.
| Rich on vacuum with Phish :: 12.30 :: Miami|
If someone had told me the song of the night, and maybe the run, would be the mid second set "Get Back on the Train," I would have laughed, and laughed hard. But, hot damn, that's exactly what Phish dropped on us, an exploratory, type-II jam that left behind all semblance of the normal choo-choo-honky-tonk-steam-locomotive theme that the song normally embodies. My mind raced to compare it to something, but this was "one of a kind," a la the "Fee" from Virginia Beach in the summer of '99. This was another example of what Phish can be: anything at anytime. After landing in "Wading in the Velvet Sea," Trey took his guitar off and headed over to Fishman's drum kit. As Fishman emerged to the tune of "Hold Your Head Up" and began singing "Love You" by Syd Barrett, many were confused as we thought we had witnessed the final vacuum solo of the decade two nights earlier.
Halfway through, Fishman said he didn't want to become a liar by performing another vacuum solo, so instead said he needed a little help. With that, he pointed to a shaggy haired, bearded gentleman named Rich, wearing a t-shirt identical to Fishman's patented red circle/donut dress, and asked him to come up onstage to huge applause from the crowd. Rich not only held it together, but actually did a very good job of playing/humming the vacuum part to the end of "Love You." So much in fact, that Fishman had a stagehand unplug the Electrolux and present it to Rich, before he climbed back into the front row, life forever changed.
| Page :: 12.30 :: Miami|
As if that wasn't enough, "Free" and "Boogie On Reggae Woman" followed and allowed Gordon to drop some bass bombs before the set closing "Run Like an Antelope." However, this version featured some serious quotes by Trey that led to many aptly calling this set closing combo "Boogie Like an Antelope," or some variation of the like. This version can only be done justice by hearing it. It was akin to the mash-ups from the famed 7.13.94 Big Birch show (my first show), with fans having no idea where the band was going, which way was up, and with all boundaries having been absolutely obliterated.
At the end of night three, it was clear Phish had already conquered Miami. 12.30 was a complete three course meal with bust-outs, crazy jamming, typical Phish humor and fan participation that no other band has ever come close to incorporating into their show. Whatever your taste is for Phish, and if this was your 1st or 500th show, had been seeing them since '83 or '09, there was something in here for everyone, and will go down as one of the most memorable shows in Phishtory. Period.
Set I: Soul Shakedown Party, Runaway Jim, Jesus Just Left Chicago, Dixie Cannonball*, Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan, Corrina, What's the Use?, Tela, Gone**, Rocky Top, Chalk Dust Torture, David Bowie
Set II: Sand, The Curtain With, Lifeboy, Get Back on the Train*** > Wading in the Velvet Sea, Hold Your Head Up > Love You**** > Hold Your Head Up, Free, Boogie On Reggae Woman, Run Like an Antelope
* First time played
**First time played
*** with Limb by Limb jam
**** with audience member Rich on vacuum
***** with Page on keytar
Continue reading for coverage of New Year's Eve...