I saw The Thermals perform less than three months ago, when they stopped by at Maxwell's on their pre-SXSW tour. On that night, the setlist was divided pretty much evenly between their decade-old debut album, More Parts Per Million, and their (then) as-yet unreleased new LP, Desperate Ground. Although the Thermals never really stopped rocking over their previous couple of albums, focusing on the punkier early stuff and the new material (which was described by the band at the time as a purposeful return to their skuzzier, more lo-fi beginnings) seemed to be a conscious effort to scale back the more despondent, emo-ish leanings of '09's Now We Can See and '10's Personal Life.
The Thermals appeared on my home turf at Bowery Ballroom on the two nights prior (5/28 and 5/29), but I skipped those in favor of this show, knowing I was going to be in DC anyway for "work" and to see a few friends during this weekend. Started with some beverages at my pal Bricer's place before meeting up with another buddy, Salsa, at vaguely British-themed pub The Codmother. Several further potent potables and a brisk evening stroll later, we found ourselves at the nearby Black Cat, a venue I'd never been to before.
First impressions of The Black Cat were pretty damn great; the layout actually reminds me a bit of a balcony-less Bowery, in that the crowd enters the room towards the right (if you're facing the stage) in the way back, which means that sneaking up close to the stage on the left is easy. We did so immediately, although we probably wound up too close to the speakers, for which my cheap earplugs were no match (left ear still ringing 4 days later). I liked that the bars flanked the floor, which allowed for many PBR tall boy purchases throughout the evening, and the sound wound up being great, as well. Really, really, really like this room.
We skipped the opening acts, and less than 10 minutes after entering the building, The Thermals began their set with Desperate Ground's "Where I Stand". I had marveled at the band's spirited display at the Maxwell's show, and it amazes me that they seem to manage to put out maximum effort like this night after night. Of course, this sort of sweaty, dynamic presentation fits perfectly for a band whose catalog regularly draws upon themes of perseverence and struggle.
I bitch a lot about Brooklyn crowds sucking, and, for the most part, the crowd at this show was no different. (For the record, the single lamest crowd I've ever seen was Van Halen at DC's Verizon Center last March, and friends who live in the area have often lamented DC's apathetic crowds.) Several kids up front seemed to be rocking the fuck out, and there was some stage diving, but overall those standing motionless greatly outnumbered the people who seemed to be enjoying themselves, which is a fuckin' shame any way ya slice it. Fortunately, this didn't affect the band's performance one iota, as Hutch rabidly sweated through his shirt, Kathy pogoed joyously, and Westin stage dove with abandon - hell yeah.
Just as at the Maxwell's show, the setlist delved heavily into More Parts Per Million and Desperate Ground, but at this show equal time was given to their 2006 masterpiece, The Body, the Blood, the Machine, songs from which made up several of the evening's finest performances. Other highlights for me were the show's lone representative from Fuckin' A, "How We Know," and MPPM's "No Culture Icons," which served as the evening's encore (see above and below for video of both).
Going to shows like this is an invigorating experience for me, which is why I try to get out as much as I can. Of course, there are few bands that are as enjoyable live as The Thermals. If you live in the southwest or Cali, do yourself a favor and check them out over these next few days while they're still on tour, and when you do, don't be afraid to move around a l'il.
So, to recap: Night One was frickin' great; Night Two was so-so, and Night Three rivaled Night One for awesomeness. I, for one, went to bed after Night Three with a big fat smile on my face, knowing that Phish still had a ton of great songs and primo jam vehicles left on the table. BRING IT, BOYS!!!!!!!!!!
I, for one, had learned my lesson from the previous day / evening, and I was determined to not let excessive pre-show beveraging sabotage my show. (Honestly, it was only following repeated re-listens to 12/30/12 after the fact that I actually realized what a truly special show it was. Dammit!) So I abstained during our wonderful lunch at Dokebi. Man, I love this restaurant! Honestly probably top 3 for me in my neighborhood. I had the brisket stew lunch special, and my buddies tried the bi bim bahp, stir fry, stews, and some of their tacos. Das wussup.
Next up we headed to that newish 'beer boutique' place on Grand 'cuz my buddy Beafvy wanted to grab some 'FancieBeerz' for post-show party time. I tried a couple drafts, and the beer was fine, but the service was not, so we slid over to my favorite local watering hole, Luckydog. Many, many pitchers of Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA and picklebacks later, we hopped into cabs and headed into Manhattan. For reasons unbeknownst to me, we wound up at whatever touristy turdbin is currently inhabiting the southeast corner of 31st and 8th (Fridays? Bennigans? J.T. McPickleshitters? Shoney's? Something with Guy Fieri's seal of approval? Does it matter???), proceeding to MSG after a few more beers.
Tonight's seats were extreme Fish side in the 212 section, reasonably close to my seats at 12/31/11 show a year ago... needless to say we were hoping tonight's show would top last year's relative snoozefest...
The rest of the first set continued the first three nights' quasi-theme of typical Set I song selection and solid execution. Like many, I was hoping that this run would feature the super duper jammed-out "Mike's Groove" 3.0 has been lacking, but it wasn't to be. (Of course, after having heard 3.0 Best Versions of "Tweezer," "Carini" and "Wolfman's", as well as the year's best "Disease" over the past couple of nights, our cup obviously runneth over at this point.)
Uh, yeah. With the songs that they still had at their disposal, I really couldn't've formulated a set with better song selection. The "Piper" is the real winner here, with Fishman accelerating the beat to a near-psychotic level while the rest of the band tries to keep up. And while most of the songs in this set were relatively standard 3.0 versions, they were all well-played and fun as hell, invoking the Superball Clause: nothing special on paper, but unforgettable in person.
So, we had one last set to go in what was truly an historic year for Phish. The question on everyone's mind (well, those of us who had avoided the spoilsports on PT) was - what kind of shit would the band pull as their yearly New Year's Prank? It's been well-documented elsewhere, and I thought the golf theme was goofy and adorable. (I also thought it was hilarious that Trey unintentionally took a "mulligan" by restarting "Driver," haha.)
As far as the actual music played in the third set, I LOVED the idea of the band using "Tweeprise" as a definitive palette cleanser / line of demarcation between 2012 and 2013 proper. I've often (jokingly) mused that I want "Tweeprise" played at my funeral, because after "Tweeprise," "ya don't have to go home but ya can't stay here, and don't let the door hit yer ass on the way out." (NOTE: PLEASE do not play "Tweeprise" at my funeral.) "Sand" served as the set's only true improvisational vehicle, and although this version couldn't match many of the year's stellar versions, it gave us all one last chance to shake our asses to what was clearly one of the standout songs from 2012. And I couldn't've been the only person in the room who thought they were going back into "Sand" when the first notes of "Fly Like an Eagle" started.
Post-show we cabbed it back to Williamsburg again, kinda striking out (Luckydog was predictably packed and Rosamunde wouldn't serve us) before settling for Loser's Lunch outside Oasis. Unfortunately, BeafvBro hurt his arm, which sadly abbreviated the erudite, mature, loving conversation he was having with his lovely girlriend, and we all retired shortly thereafter. To quote my mom, "we had already had a sufficiency; anything more would have been a redundancy."
2013 arrives as the 30th anniversary of Phish, and it's pretty amazing to me that after (now) 95 shows and 17 years of seeing this band perform at nearly every available opportunity, there's still nothing I'd rather do (within reason, of course) than see Phish play live. 2012 was a true watershed year for Phish, as their forays into improv surpassed anything they'd done since reconvening for 3.0. If the rumors are true, I'll be writing more of these recaps in eleven months following a '13 NYE Run at MSG. I can't fuckin' wait!
With nights one and two now in the rear-view mirror, and with two drastically different shows in the books, which Phish would we get on night three: the playful, exploratory, clever band responsible for night one's incredible "Wolfman's" and joyous "Tweezer," or the band seemingly content to perform solid-yet-commonplace versions of their songs during night two's boisterous "party show" atmosphere? Or both? Either way we stood to win, although there's a difference between getting the Toys R' Us $500 gift card or the Heathcliff temporary tattoo in your Cracker Jacks, if ya catch my drift.
Of course, reducing how much fun one can have at a Phish show simply to how the band plays is foolish: I've seen many friends ruin their show (and, in some instances, mine) by preshow overindulgence over the past couple of years. Personally, I've become markedly better in that department since the all-around shitshow that was Coventry, with really only one notable blemish on my report card during 3.0. Spoiler alert!
In retrospect, I wish I hadn't started drinking so early on 12/30, but allow me to put forth an incredibly lame excuse nonetheless. See, The New York Football Giants still had their playoff hopes hanging by a very thin, fraying thread, and what better way to end the regular season than with a game against the hated Eagles, accompanied by bloodies and beers? We all met at 4th Down on North 4th shortly after noon, and began drinking - and sports-enjoying - in earnest. Things looked great for awhile, as the G-Men thoroughly dismantled their hated rival to the tune of a highly entertaining 42-7 thrashing. (Don't get me wrong, due to their own atrocious performances during the '12 season, Andy Reid and Michael Vick probably had already punched their own tickets out of Philly by this point, but it was nice to give those two scumbags a hearty boot up the ass on their way out the door.) Sadly, the Lions didn't hold up their end of the bargain, and, with the pressure off, we headed over to Spike Hill for more drinks simply because it was empty (except a couple random Hasids, if you can believe it).
After sitting, staring and drinking for about 4 hours, we had worked up a fearsome hunger, so we stumbled over to Fette Sau for some pork-tastic mealin'. With all the (justified) hoopla over Briskettown (combined with the fact that I rarely eat pork or beef anymore), it's easy to relegate Fette Sau to back burner status, but make no mistake, that place is still fuckin' great. And an A+ to the bartender who kindly put up with my friends obnoxiously pestering her with dumb questions / comments about Briskettown, as she chose to drown them out with a steady diet of Ramones.
By this point, we were all pretty sauced, and I was feeling pretty exhausted, worrying that I wouldn't be able to give the usual 115% at the evening's show. Fuckin' fuck, I don't think I've ever felt more elderly. We limped back to my place for a few beers, comfy couches, and some pre-show non-Phish tunez (mostly Cheeseburger, Oxford Collapse, White Denim and Parts and Labor) before getting a car service into the city.
For this show, we knew we had tickets behind the stage, but we were pleasantly shocked to find that when we got to our seats "ROW 10" actually meant "fifth row." (Not that I really care anyway, considering that I spend the vast majority of all Phish shows rockin' out with my eyes clamped shut.) Pleasant surprise number two was that the sound from our spot was crystal clear, and, let's face it, it's always cool to watch Fishman subtly run the entire show from behind his kit.
The first set started with standard-solid versions of "Jim" and "Cities." "Cities," had been one of the few bright spots during last year's New Year's Run at the 12/30/11 show exactly a year ago, and although tonight's version had none of of last year's extra mustard, it was well-played nonetheless. "Divided" was up next, and with "Reba" and "Bathtub" already off the table, there's literally nothing I'd rather hear as a classic "meat of the first set" song more than "Divided."
"Back on the Train" followed, providing the first light improv of the evening. Very nice version clocking in at nearly 10 minutes. "Ride Captain Ride" was up next. Works for me, since I, for one, was happy for a quick pissbreak. And wake me up when "Ocelot" becomes something better than the poor man's "46 Days." Over 11 minutes in length, none of them terribly interesting or inspired. The set rounded out with a peppy "Ya Mar," pissbreak #2 during the somnambulent "Horn," the oddly-placed but always welcome "My Friend," and the obligatory solid-standard first set-closing "Antelope."
So, three shows, three largely "averageish" first sets, with the lone exception being night one's "Wolfman's > LDB > Wolfman's" for the ages. Hopefully they'd pick shit up in the second set (they would), and hopefully I'd get my second wind at some point (I would not). Well, I guess one out of two ain't bad.
A stupendous 19+ minute "Disease" opened the second set - just what the doctor ordered (rimshot). This "Disease" played around with several gorgeous themes, resembling night one's "Tweezer" both in the pure quality of its uplifting improv and in the fact that the jam really picks up over its last few minutes (in this case, led by some funkalicious Page).
"Twenty Years Later"... I mean, at least it wasn't "Joy" or whatever, but it still signaled a mass bathroom exodus and one of the few legitimately troublesome urinal queues of the run. The "Carini" that came next easily made up for it, however, and after many relistens, I've come to the conclusion that it's probably 1.) the best jam of the run, and 2.) the best Carini I've ever seen (with the possible exception of 8/31/12 Dick's - OK, fine, twist the arm; 9/14/00 Darien was a great version too). Man, what a jam - cacophonous, noisy and borderline unpleasant like a good "Carini" should be, veering off into some serious Type II, with the finale sparked by some real assertiveness by Fishman as he dutifully pounded out the "Tusk" drumbeat while the rest of the boys experimented (successfully!) with a couple of different haunting grooves. I've made a fool out of myself more than once trying to explain to non-believers that what sets Phish apart from EVERY other band on the planet is their unmatched skill at "improvisational composition" - by the end of this jam, what the band is actually playing has as much to do with "Carini" as it does a Justin Bieber song. No, wait; that's a terrible comparison.
I have to say I've never been happier to have "Number Line"'s smarmy sentimentality jammed down my throat than at this moment - I needed a reason to sit and hydrate. And I'm just gonna come out and say it - fuck "Julius." It's this type of soulless, smug, quasi blues wankery that gives Phish a bad name amongst people who have decent taste in music. Anyway. Classic second set closer "Slave" came next, affording me the opportunity to bob my head and smile silently to an old favorite while resting my tender vittles. "Hood" in the encore mined similar emotive territory as "Slave", only moreso - always great to hear, and always a great soundtrack to quietly reflect on how many unforgettable and incredibly unique musical experiences this band has led me through since '96. Honestly, I would've cried my damn fool eyes out during this "Hood" if I hadn't been so dehydrated. By this point, even closing the encore with nobody's favorite, "Show of Life," couldn't knock the perma-grin off my ugly mug.
Post-show we again walked a few blocks east before hailing a cab back to Billyburg; again Luckydog was too packed for us to venture inside so we finished the evening at Rosamunde with tasty beer, sausages and fries. Word to the wise - I LOVE LOVE LOVE spicy stuff, but the chicken habanero sausage at Rosamunde is JUST TOO DAMNED SPICY, PEOPLE! I mean, really!
One night to go, beetchez. I'll finish these recaps up next week n' stuff. Tuddd out.
So, heading into Night Two, would the band be able to retain / recreate the fire of Night One? Tune in to this post to find out (in a few paragraphs)!
Woke up late and headed to the best pizzeria in town to get the best pizza in town for the biggest shmegegges in town (my buddies, who were chillin' at one of the apartments they'd airbnb'd for the occasion). Enjoyed some tasty brews before heading out to Mugs on Bedford for some of the weirdest doggone beer I ever done drinkded - whatever the '$3 Special Pint' was tasted as though it had been heavily peppered, and perhaps had more than a few drops of soy sauce dripped into it. AWESOME!!!
Anyway, L to the A/C/E and we were back at MSG in no time flat. Once inside, we got to our seats (in the slightly 'elevated' section at the back of the floor behind GA2). Our seat neighbors to the right were a 50-something woman and her husband; I chatted her up with the intention of establishing that, fear not, no ritualistic sacrifices would be taking place at tonight's show, and that Phish fans are not baby-eating monsters (not all of us at least). She explained that she and her husband occasionally accompany their twenty-something son to concerts, which I respected greatly and found more than a bit adorabz. She also imparted that she had been to multiple OzzFests and that "those goth kids are some of the nicest, politest people I've ever met." Who knew!
Unfortunately, it turned out we were in the wrong seats. After moving, this sadly meant my new seat neighbor was a douchey banker type who had his own perilous story: after blowing coke all day with his buddies in preparation for tonight's Phish show (?!?!?), they neglected to inform him that he would be sitting alone in a seat nowhere near them, and most importantly nowhere near their supply of cocaine, and by any chance I didn't happen to have any blow on me, did I? [No. No I did not.]
Anyway, the lights went down, and the best thing I can say about the "Crowd Control" > "Mound" opening pairing is that it was... uhhhhh... let's go with "unusual" and "probably expected by nobody in the room." Next topic. "Bag" > "Rock and Roll" came next, both solidly played, which improved matters significantly. The set continued with standard well-played song choices ("Halley's", "Limb"), a couple of classic first set tunes ("Reba" and "Bathtub") which were awesome as usual, and a couple clunkers ("Sugar Shack" and "Velvet Sea"). All in all, a picture perfect "average" Phish first set, fun as hell.
By this point, it seemed that every time me or one of my buddies took a bathroom trip, we would return to the seats carrying two beers and four waters, so we'd built up quite a stockpile. Of course, there's worse stuff than being super-hydrated, as my douchey coke-fiending neighbor had reminded me earlier. (Speaking of whom, said douche managed to co-opt my dancing space by cramming his massive Patagonia-wearing buddy between us at setbreak. Fucker.)
Hopes were high for the second set, which led off with "Golden Age." This wound up being the jam of the evening, and at nearly 15 minutes, the lengthiest version of the song Phish has ever performed. Listening back, not much new ground was broken in the jam, as the band stuck closely to "Golden Age's" stutter step rhythm the entire way throughout. "Waves" was up next, and, again, nicely played, but how great would a long, multi-part, jammed-out "Waves" have gone down in the second set two slot?
It seemed half of the seats in the room emptied for the subsequent "Crapsian," as the men's room was filled with dudes either 1.) loudly expressing their gratitude for the opportunity to relieve themselves, or 2.) loudly expressing bitterness that "Crapsian" was being played, or 3.) in my case, both 1.) and 2.). Rock solid, standard versions of both "Boogie On" and "Suzie G" were followed by "Bug," which sent me to the men's room for the second time in less than 20 minutes. The set was finished off with "Cavern" into one of the shakiest "46 Days"es you'll ever hear.
"Coil" led off the encore, which under normal circumstances would've had me running towards the bathroom / beer vendor, but, as you may have imagined, my egresses during "Crapsian" and "Bug" in the second set had me dry as a bone. And you'll have to excuse my lack of excitement for "Grind" seeing as how I've personally witnessed each of the last FIVE performances of this goofy a capella buzzkill. Fortunately, "First Tube" gave us all one last chance to shake our hineys before heading home.
So, overall, an averageish / very fun show, with plenty of great dancin' fodder, but definitely light on memorable improv. In slightly different words, had a splendid time, and we enjoyed a great party night, but there's nothing from this show that warrants multiple listens.
Post-show, we stumbled our way into a taxi after fortunately avoiding a few scheisty / opportunistic livery cab drivers. Headed back to my neighborhood, where we enjoyed beer, sausages, and way too many large orders of fries at Rosamunde before calling it a night. Night three would be underway in a matter of hours, and I went to bed hungry for some fierce rock and roll.
Expectations were running high for this four-night run, in part because of the epic face-meltage which went down at their previous shows, the now-legendary three-night stand over Labor Day weekend '12 in Colorado. I was fortunate enough to be at those shows, and I have to agree that on those nights the band established a new standard for 3.0 improv; I eagerly put the "Sand," "Light," and "Jim," (and possibly a few others) up against anything they've done in 3.0 including (off the top of my head) 6/7/09 Camden "Sand," 11/22/09 Albany "Seven Below" > "Ghost" > "Seven Below," 6/27/10 Merriweather "Piper," 12/31/10 MSG "Ghost," 5/26/11 Bethel soundcheck "Waves," 5/27/11 Bethel "Golden Gin-Teca", 8/15/11 UIC "Waves" > "Undermind," 6/16/12 Bader "Light-Teca," etc. etc. etc. yadda yadda yadda.
However, on the opposite end of the spectrum of Colorado's greatness, we have last year's largely highlight-free NYE Run at MSG (which I also attended), which had the band seeming unfocused, unmotivated, uninspired, and unpracticed. Which band would show up tonight, pray tell, and how many "Streets of Cairo" teases would we get?
Each member of our crew was in town by early afternoon, so after eating at a (let's go with) "decent" burger place in Fort Greene, we headed back to Billyburg to get this train a-rollin'. Took the M into Manhattan, and after stumbling past a bunch of predictably overcrowded and boring midtown watering holes, we settled on the reasonably priced (and relatively spacious) Galway Pub on 36th St. A few phone calls were made, and in what seemed like no time flat, our modest four-man crew had more than doubled in size, and, most importantly, the beverages were flowing like the Ganges.
Once we got inside "The World's Most Famous Arena," the pre-show "HOLY FUCKING SHIT THIS IS AWESOME"s started up. Fortunately, we were surrounded by similarly-sentimented seat neighbors, including some suspiciously nice young kids behind us, who seemed just a little too eager to encourage our boisterous shenanigans. (I may or may not have accused them of being Christian moles on a "field trip" sending them out amongst us dirty, dirty sinners, but no feelings were hurt. Good kids indeed!)
Anyway, after nearly 4 months of anticipation, it was a liiiiiiittle bit disappointing that they chose to open the run with a mediocrity like "Stealing Time." (I was hoping for an "Emotional Rescue" opener which would've been a hat-tip to both the most recent Colorado shows AND the approaching 15th anniversary of the Stones cover-bookended 12/31/97 MSG show, but who the fuck was I kidding.) The rest of the first set continued as pretty much your super-typical garden variety Johnny Average first set, with "Tube" benefiting from a little bit more mustard than normal, and with "Stash" providing its typical mid-first set 10+ minute freaky workout.
The first (and only) real fireworks in set one went down during the closing "Wolfman's," weaving its way in and out of a seamless "Little Drummer Boy" jam. This "Wolfman's" has to rank amongst the best 3.0 "Wolfman's"es (Wolfmen?) I've seen, along with 10/30/10 AC and 8/15/11 UIC. The "Wolfman's" pushed the set into "above average" territory, enhanced by pretty good song selection - I always love me some "Moma Dance," "Bitch" and "Free" even if they're all standard-ish 3.0 versions.
Set two was a different story, however, leading off with the first 20+ minute "Tweezer" the band has performed since 2003. While the 10/30/10 AC "Zeppeneezer" is probably the most entertaining "Tweezer" I've seen live in 3.0, that's due to more to my obsessive Led Zeppelin fandom (said 10/30/10 "Tweezer" included "Heartbreaker," "Ramble On" and "Thank You" before concluding with the second half of "Stairway to Heaven") than due to the jamming that occurred discretely within the actual "Tweezer" sections. For my dollar, tonight's version was the best pure "Tweezer" I've seen live since the incredible 2/28/03 Nassau version. The jam remained largely in uplifting, soaring, joyously melodic territory, before erupting into the most furious improv of the entire four-night run over the song's final few minutes.
"Tweezer" segued into "Maze," which hammered home the first set's assertion (during the "Tube" and "Wolfman's," in particular) that Night One was Page's night. Fucking hot "Maze." "Twist" was up next, and I guess it's a bit much at this point to expect something too wacky considering that the last truly balls-to-the-wall "Twist" happened, what, 12 years ago? For that reason, it's fitting that "Twist" segued into "Theme," a song that always manages to deliver despite practically never deviating from the standard blueprint.
Of course, it gets no more old school than a show-closing "Fluff" / "Bowie" duo. Can't ask for anything more than that for song choices, and the band delivered like a motherfucker during each of these incredibly challenging compositions. Good work, gentlemen!
So, Encore Time. When I suggested that "it'd be great if they got 'Show of Life' out of the way tonight," I got accused by the tweaker in front of me of being "one of those assholes who hated 'Show of Life' at first but now thinks it's OK." Of course, I was able to truthfully report back that, no, in fact, my hatred of "Show of Life" has actually increased with each subsequent performance. Attempting to change the subject, I called "GTBT," which earned me plenty of congrats when it actually happened (video below).
Post-show, I clusterfucked us into a lengthy wait at Essex for the J train home instead of (sensibly) walking a few blocks East and grabbing a cab, with our crew evenutally stumbling into B.A.D. Burger on Grand for some late night grub, which ran the gamut from "great" (the "Dirty South" chicken sandwich) to "barely edible" (my fried chicken platter) to "mysterious" (the "nachos with everything").
So, the Phab Phour delivered AND THEN SOME on night one. We could only hope that they'd keep up this stellar level of playing over the remainder of the run. Did they? Tune in next week and find out.