On a rainy day in June 2004, the members of Phish got together for a jam session and invited 20,000 of their closest friends to listen. At least, that's the impression one is left with after viewing Phish Live in Brooklyn (or listening to the CD version). Filmed at Coney Island's Keyspan Park, this release beautifully documents what is ostensibly one of Phish's final performances.
In a career spanning over twenty years, with virtually no personnel changes, Phish never broke the Top Twenty in record sales, yet enjoyed mega status as a touring band. Their grassroots approach to self-promotion and their interaction with their fanbase led to inevitable comparisons to the Grateful Dead. Indeed, after Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, Phish seemed poised to be the heir apparent to the Grateful Dead's legacy, at least on that level. Musically, though, the similarities between the two are scant. While both drew on diverse influences, Phish, by and large, leaned more toward an improvisational jazz approach, whereas the Grateful Dead took a more folksy route.
All such comparisons aside, Phish is certainly one of the all-time great jam bands, and indisputably the best to emerge on the national scene in the nineties. Phish Live in Brooklyn proves that in no uncertain terms. Directed by Eli Tishberg, this is concert filmmaking at its best – a straightforward, but lovingly rendered rendition of the event without the usual interview intercuts and such that distract from the experience. Of course, it doesn't hurt that it rained through most of the concert, providing for some nice special effects.
Cinematography and the fortunate events of nature do not a concert make, obviously – they can only serve to enhance the event. Ultimately, it all hinges on the performance. Here, Phish does a remarkable job of engaging their live audience and, by extension, the home viewer alike. In a two-set concert that lasts over three hours, the band performs an eclectic selection of songs spanning their two decade career. With Trey Anastosio's loopy guitar style serving as the unifying motif throughout the show, Phish turns twenty-one songs into what amounts to one long, but infinitely satisfying jam.
This is a concert bereft of histrionics – even the lighting effects by "fifth member" Chris Kuroda are subdued, serving to embellish the music's emotions. While Anastosio's guitar is prominent throughout, the entire band shines as well. Bassist Mike Gordon, with his bobblehead timing, trades licks formidably against the guitar phrasings on "Free." Page McConnel's keyboards accentuate each song with an extra layer of phrasing, and Jon Fishman's percussion unnerringly guides each tune.
From the opening "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing" to the closing classic "The Divided Sky," Live in Brooklyn is a testament to the power of the jam. If this concert does, indeed, herald the end of Phish, then they went out with guns blazing to the very last note. On the other hand, it may be that Live in Brooklyn documents the end of one cycle of Phish's career. They've even alluded a reunion is not out of the question. Either way, it stands on its own as a great live performance. The DVD version is the way to go for home entertainment. For a purely aural experience, or when on the go, the CD shines as well. Either way, Phish Live in Brooklyn is worthy of more than a casual listen.