It's amazing to think that at the end of 2016, more than 27 years since I first saw Phish live, I have so much closer a connection with the band members than ever before. For instance, when Trey Anastasio took the stage with his bandmates ("the boys") Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, I saw instantly that I own the same hoodie Trey was wearing.
Phish's most recent concerts were a four-night run in Las Vegas, and they'd opened the first three of those shows with originals written for and debuted at their 2014 Haunted House performance. Tonight, another pattern emerged. For the second straight show of the current four-night run, they opened with an a cappella number: "Sweet Adeline," which Phish hadn't dusted off since needing it to make up the numbers at the S show at Dick's in 2011. If this trend continues ... aaayyyyyy. Here's hoping for a "Free Bird" tomorrow night.
The number of bustouts last night and to start tonight's show brought Phish near to their personal best for songs played in a year, if you're into that kind of thing. The mark to shoot for (set in 2010) was 251. They took the stage tonight at 245 but the meter started running right away. After "Adeline" (song 246) came "Peaches en Regalia" (247), unseen since St. Louis in August of 2012 and probably not played to Gail Zappa's satisfaction, or Dweezil's, or Moon's, but still nice to hear.
You can't do better with "Mike's Groove" these days than as a first-quarter fire-starter, and the riff still retains the power to combust an arena crowd. Dropping into the jam, Trey was patient and exploratory, his tone immaculate. Trey's habit of tinkering with his rig is something we joke about a lot around Phish.net HQ, all in good fun (e.g., "Can you believe this guy?" "No freakin’ way he did it again!" "What's with the dang pedals he's only got two feet?!?!"), but he was clear, crisp, and incisive all night.
During "Mike's" Page egged on Trey's instinct to jam by moving over to Lil Punkin, his adorable tangerine-colored Wurlitzer electric piano. (V.O.: Watch out, this pint-sized keyboard packs a powerful punch!) The Wurlitzer tone brought in a slightly spacier vibe, if only for a minute. Trey and Page cut off the jam together, Page pivoting back to the grand piano. The "Mike's" climax that followed is basically flames and everything you'd want. After that they played "Secret Smile" (248), and then "Weekapaug Groove" after "Secret Smile." Want more details? Well, the "Secret Smile" arrangement seems different; I haven't gone back to compare and I kind of don't love the song that much, but it seems like tonight's arrangement was in a different key and carried more by Page on the piano. Consider this an invitation to relisten to older versions and mock in the comments, but just know this: you'll be mocking me about an off-the-cuff opinion on the Phish song "Secret Smile."
The first set didn't deliver a whole lot after that, apart from yet more bustouts: "Roses Are Free" (249), last seen at the lackluster Dick's opener in 2015, and "Brian & Robert" (250), untouched since a rarity-filled first set at Alpine Valley that same summer. In between them, Page took an extra chorus on his "Poor Heart" solo, or maybe just applied a little extra mustard.
Then, the inevitable happened: Phish tied what is, let's be honest, possibly the most legendary mark in jamband-related statistical analysis. Song 251 was "Beauty of a Broken Heart," a neglected mid-tempo Page McConnell pop tune with a lovely circular chord structure. I gotta say they nailed it, with Trey leaning into his solo and leading an energetic little jam.
The first set's potential vehicles for improvisation paid off only modestly. "46 Days" did no noticeable damage in any direction. "Theme" saw a disastrous effort from Trey on the bridge, where he basically abandoned any attempt to play his part. It's admittedly a difficult part to play, even by the standards of a repertoire filled with difficult parts, but you would think Trey would want to get it right, or at least more right than that. Anyway, as is often the case with Trey, what the composed section tooketh away, the jam gaveth back. The ensuing improvisation was pleasant and soaring, swooping down from sunlight into the shadow of canyon walls, back out again, finally tumbling back to earth as Trey fiddled around with the "Dave's Energy Guide" riff. The set-closing "Split Open and Melt" was pretty tasty, but I started wishing for more bass, and realized I hadn't thought about Mike Gordon too much during the show so far. Trey dominated the "Split," loading up the pitch shifter and spraying little barbed slashes of guitar around the arena. It stayed languid, never became frenetic, and at the end the four of them dropped on a dime back into the tricky meter of the "Split" jam.
I'm told there are really good burgers somewhere on the lower level of MSG, by the way. They'll cook them medium rare to order. That's all I know. I wish I could tell you more.
Phish loves to open the second set with "Down with Disease," and tonight's version quieted from a standard full-band "Disease" jam into a conversation between Trey and Page. As he'd done before in "Mike's," Page moved to Lil Punkin. Trey heard something in his chords and off the two of them went into a gorgeous two-chord plagal bliss jam straight out of fall 2013. Fish followed, Mike was a step back again. They feinted at "Under Pressure" but no time for that; the band dropped back, almost out, leaving Trey to noodle mellifluously out on his own. They think about joining back in, and gradually do, and a neat little groove starts to develop. But by this point Trey's been heavily flirting with the melody for "What's the Use?," and he smoothly flows right in.
I gotta be greedy and say I wish they'd graced us with a little more of the "Disease" jam, which had the band locked in and reacting to each other. But "What's the Use?" is an uncommonly powerful rock instrumental, and you wanna talk about tone -- sweet all night, delicious on the preceding DwD, Trey's guitar attains its highest and best sonic form right here. You can understand why Trey would be in a bit of a hurry to show it off.
Unlike "Disease," Phish has never figured out how to take "Fuego" deep consistently, and that didn't change tonight. This version of "Fuego" was the show in microcosm. Mike forgot his entrance; they got through the composition pretty well; then, as they approached the Jam/Don't Jam decision point, Trey threw out a few jabbing, funky chords, inviting someone to follow. Nobody bit, and with the rest of the band drifting, Trey backed off. There was this weird rudderless moment, with nobody able to muster the will to move in any direction, four swimmers treading water. Then Trey started some other song, I forget which. Later on, the swamp-prog Joy standout "Twenty Years Later" was plodding toward its unremarkable conclusion when Trey started "Kung" (252 and the record! balloons fell from the ceiling in each of Phish's four tour buses), and this worked up a good deal of momentum over the "20YL" riff. "Makisupa Policeman" featured another vaping joke and another percussion segment.
I gotta say something about this issue. I really don't care for the percussion jams. I don't get it. I was never a Deadhead when the Dead existed, but every Deadhead I knew uniformly treated "Drums" as an opportunity to visit the trough under the stands and engage in some focused micturition. I don't know anybody who listens to a drum solo on tape. It may not have happened, ever. I hear you: this is something different, Trey's had a percussion kit before, this too shall pass, shut the fuck up buddy. But for me, "Rhythm Devilz" (as this segment should be called) is dead time. I felt like I was watching the part of the Sunday Night Football blowout where Al Michaels is talking about what a field goal could do to the over-under.
The greatest "Harry Hood" second-set closer of all time, or even the recent approximations circa summer 2014, couldn't drag this great, awesome, fun time with friends but below-average Phish show into the win column, but this "Hood" was well worth a listen. It was lovely, fiery, energetic, beautiful, all the things we love about this great piece of music as played by these four musicians.
Also, the new perimeter spotlights inside the arena are really cool and suggest that the rumors of an MSG residency for Phish in 2017 might be right. With lighting designer and director Chris Kuroda in charge of Rangers and Knicks games at MSG, the band has a chance to turn the World's Most Famous Arena into its own rock show test laboratory. If next summer sees 10, or 12, or 15 Phish shows on Broadway, most of them are sure to be better than tonight. As will tomorrow night and the night after that, no doubt.
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