A philosophical question: can one reach enlightenment through virtuosity and spectacle?
Phish's devoted fans loom large over the band's music. That is, when a community of like-minded, like-dressed people follows a band around til death do they part -- and when that crowd's existence superseded sales or airplay as the reason the band became well-known in the first place -- it's hard to separate one from the other. At the same time, it makes the specifics of Phish's music itself underwritten about. A diehard fan, likely owner of countless hours of live Phish, greets a new "official" live CD with comparisons to unofficial ones, and with song comparisons to other shows the band played ("forget this version of song X, you need to hear the one they played at show Y"). Meanwhile, it's hard for critics to get beyond their preconceived notions about "jam bands", and then to get past the larger story about Phish: their fans, their tendency to 'never play the same show twice', their encouragement of show-recording, their grassroots growth and eventual break-up.
Live in Brooklyn -- a three-disc recording of a complete show, played 17 July 2004 at Coney Island -- comes with its own backstory. The concert kicked off the group's final tour, and came the day after the band announced that this tour would be the last one. And as the band performed, its performance was simultaneously shown in movie theaters. Picture young hippies entering suburban multi-plexes in droves. Two years later the CD of that concert comes out (with the DVD released the same day), and one imagines it sends Phish fans back into their memories of that night, of dancing in the aisles, knowing that the days of their favorite band -- the only band that matters -- were numbered.
Believe the PR, and you'll imagine Live in Brooklyn to be driven by an extra tone of melancholy, given the previous day's announcement. It's hard to hear that in the music, however. It's much easier to imagine that this concert was planned with the movie-theatre audiences in mind, that the band was out to please the crowd.
Phish earned its reputation as an amazing live band through virtuoso improvisations built on displays of instrumental technique. But for the band those technical showcases always seemed like an attempt to transcend, to build towards a groove that would climb upwards until they reached a state of zen. It's an attempt to take the basic rock-blues-pop chords and use them to reach an extended euphoria, of the type one associates with nature, or drugs.
Besides virtuosic spectacle, Phish fans always seemed fixated on the impression of surprise, that you never know what the band would do next. Phish often maintained this perception through a variety of techniques: eclecticism (bluegrass covers, unlikely covers, becoming a barbershop quartet), theatre (playing a chess game onstage, jumping on trampolines, using hidden musical cues to get a particular crowd reaction at a certain moment), and unpredictable setlists.
For the concert in Live in Brooklyn, they've mostly forsaken those styles of evoking surprise, in favor of sheer technical fireworks and a near-"greatest hits" approach. Sure, the first disc opens with the live debut of a then-new song, "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing," and there are rare songs here ("Axilla I", "The Curtain With"), but the bulk of the show is devoted to songs any Phish fan would know well, from the singles "Free", "46 Days" and "Birds of a Feather" to the time-tested trio of "Mike's Song" into "I Am Hydrogen" into "Weekapaug Groove".
More important than the setlist, though, their approach to the entire show is to play things big and bold. There's no detours into surprising moods, no reinventions of the familiar, and no attempts to take sweeping anthems and lend them with a new sort of grace and sensitivity…all of which they've done in the concerts, and concert recordings, that most stand out from their career. The closest they get here to any of that is during an exceptional 10-minute version of "Free", with a spaced-out mood and eerie solo bass section in the middle. Two other quiet and/or graceful moments -- "Nothing" (also new at the time) and the always sublime "The Divided Sky" -- also stand out within the context of a sustained bombastic mood.
For the most part this show is one of spectacle, drama, and fiery guitar shooting for the stars. The two covers they play are in their hands the epitome of pomp and circumstance: Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" and the theme from 2001. Songs like "Suzy Greenberg", "Dinner and a Movie", and "Birds of a Feather" are played in a driven, explosive manner, clear attempts to get the audience grooving hard.
And that's no doubt precisely what Phish was going for with this show. It's clear they were motivated to make their fans dance, at the same time, together, across the country. The message their performance sends is: we're breaking up, let's party together one more time. Live in Brooklyn therefore works like a souvenir for the diehard fans, a snapshot of that moment in time. Leaving aside the cultural significance entirely, though, as a musical recording it's enjoyable but offers a limited picture of the reasons Phish's music struck so many people as magical. It presents one side of the band, a side that may match all-too-well with the caricature non-fans have of them. Here they're playing in the broadest of strokes, finding a typical groove and jamming on it, showing off their clear mastery of their instruments. They're seeking transcendence through technical prowess and familiar tricks, and never quite getting there, but still no doubt making their fans happy.