Better Than: Langerado? Not so sure, but Phish's comeback in March may or may not have contributed to the demise of South Florida's beloved festival.
Phish's triumphant return after a five-year hiatus culminated this past week with a four-night run at American Airlines Arena, ending on New Year's Eve. This set of gigs also marked the 10-year anniversary of Phish's Y2K Big Cypress party that brought roughly 80,000 fans to the local Seminole reservation, an event Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio has called the peak of the band's career.
To review a four-night Phish run in a city as exciting as Miami would first need to include some commentary on the scene around and after the shows. Across Biscayne Boulevard from the arena, a temporarily erected fenced-in lot was dubbed "the Rage Cage" by concertgoers, and provided temporary residence to fans crashing in vans and RVs. (For many others, it was a place to pregame.)
As we've reported on this blog, there were also a number of afterparties around town, including a three-night stand at Tobacco Road by local favorites the Heavy Pets, as well as the "Black Curtains at White Room" series which included national jamtronic acts Break Science, Boom Box, and EOTO. There was also a daytime auxiliary art event on the 30th called the Mock Show, featuring poster art from Phish legends Jim Pollock and David Welker, as well as other pieces by fan favorites such as Ryan Kerrigan and Tripp. The Heavy Pets appeared at that event, too, playing their first ever all-acoustic live set.
But for the Phish shows themselves, AAA proved once again to be a great venue, allowing many from around the country to celebrate the end of another decade in shorts and flip-flops. The arena's East Plaza, overlooking the bay and lit by the neon skyline of South Beach, made for a "water in the sky" effect, and provided a place for friends to meet during set break. For a year full of highlights for the band, Miami certainly was the exclamation point.
The energy and attendance grew for each show. There weren't too many fingers in the air outside the arena for long the first two nights, with tons of extra tickets floating around. In fact I felt lucky getting $40 for two tickets extra that originally cost $50 each.
The shows, however, didn't lack musically. The first night's set list included a slew of classics, with the first performance of "My Soul" since 2000, this year's premier of the lullaby-like "Roggae," and new tunes such as "Backwards Down the Number Line" and "Beauty of a Broken Heart," the latter from keyboardist Page McConnell's debut solo album). The crowd was small, so with friends I settled into a spot directly across from the stage to fully soak in lighting director Chris Kuroda's dynamic mind-expanding displays, especially during Mike Gordon's bass-heavy reggae progressions during "Makisupa Policeman" into "Harry Hood."
On night two, empty areas were harder to find, but we ended up 10 rows back, behind the stage, watching the crowd's reaction during a strong second set. This was when Phish melted fans' faces with a series of their trademark segues: "Gotta Jiboo" into "Wilson" back into "Gotta Jiboo" into "Heavy Things."
Night three was extra special for me, as I attended with my dad. Not only was I able I score him some VIPish box seat, the show was fun and cover-heavy, making his first Phish experience a hit. This night the band played their own renditions of songs like Bob Marley's "Soul Shakedown Party," ZZ Top's "Jesus Just Left Chicago," Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman," and Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein," during which Page ripped his fancy white keytar front and center.
Then there was the spectacle of the culminating New Year's Eve show. It started at the venue's entrance, where a car was parked on the sidewalk with a sign reading, "This car was driven down from Vermont fueled by maple syrup."
And sticking to tradition, this show was a three-set, 30-song throw-down. "Auld Lang Syne" was the night's recurring musical motif, being teased during my personal fave "AC/DC Bag" and again in "Ghost" during the second set. But for the first set, Phish delivered strong versions of "Punch You In The Eye" and "Guyute," and the ultra-rare "Demand," the band's first live performance of the song since 1996. The second set opened with the Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll" and the crowd was totally feeling that their "lives were saved by rock and roll!"
The third set hit with the mood-setting "Party Time" at 11:45 p.m., which led into the countdown to midnight, with the band finally playing "Auld Lang Syne" in full as a sea of balloons fell from the rafters. They immediately went right into the powerful "Down With Disease," and this is where things got confusing. A giant disco ball lowered from the rafters and drummer/prankster Jon Fishman, donning an old-school leather pilot helmet and goggles, hopped in, before being loaded into an equally giant cannon aimed towards an ominous X that appeared on the roof.
Page "fired" the canon via an Acme-style dynamite plunger, but alas, he missed, shooting Fishman through the roof. An unsuccessful helicopter search ensued, and the band continued on without the drummer, settling instead on seemingly random crowd member "Sarah from Pittsburgh." Sarah requested "Fluffhead," her favorite song," and the band obliged, while she sat in finishing the set. Although these theatrics were reportedly aided by crew members from the Broadway production of The Lion King, I think most of this was lost on the audience. (The full video is on Phish's site.)
After all this, the band wrapped up the evening with a two-song encore. It began with the classic ballad "Blue Moon," in which the musicians acknowledged the night's significance and thanked their staff, and closed giving fans "just one sip" of their popular take of the Rolling Stones' obscure "Loving Cup." And if this night hadn't been Phishy enough, upon leaving the venue, that aforementioned car was now smashed and smoking with the gigantic disco ball that had shot through the roof. Wow ... thanks Phish.
Personal Bias: I've seen roughly 70 Phish shows in 12 states and Ontario dating back to 1995; 10 just this year.
Random Detail: The band had quite an epic year in 2009. In just 50 shows they played 246 unique songs, more than during any other single year. Yeah, the legendary jamming may have been toned down a bit, allowing for a few more songs per show, but the fans seem to have appreciated the tighter play and variety compared to the band's previous, less-inspired comeback (2002-2004).
By The Way: Following their return earlier this year with three nights at the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia, there were a number of other 2009 highlights for Phish. These included the band's first Fenway appearance; a Bonnaroo headlining spot; and four nights at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre, concluding their 10-year ban there. Then there was the return of two of the band's greatest traditions: its eighth festival, aptly named Festival 8, and covering an entire album on Halloween: The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street, from which they played "Shine A Light" and "Loving Cup" on New Year's Eve in Miami.