Nobody throws parties on New Year's Day. Why would you? You probably went pretty hard the night before. Most of your friends probably did too. You have nothing left to drink in the house; you drank all the beverages. Some careless person knocked over the ficus plant. The carpet is fucked. Who is the couple asleep in the bathtub? When you wake up on January 1 you don't want more bright lights and loud music, you want pancakes.
Photo © @UNOlkerPhoto
Phish played Friday night at Madison Square Garden with an understanding of and respect for this dynamic. If you were looking for reasons to think this might not be a high-energy affair, you didn't have to search far. The previous January 1, in Miami, Phish had played the most generic and geriatric show of the entire 2014(-15) touring calendar. Then again, there's a ready counterexample! Their only 1/1 show previous to 2015, wrapping up the odd two-city, five-show run from 2010(-11) was actually pretty good, with an all-beef second set highlighted by a charming "Simple."
Both in terms of energy and overall quality, this show fell in between those two. It didn't explode out of the gate, or explode at all, really. The tempos were slow and swingy from the opening "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan." The band was loose like a shaggy dog. The jams moved away from aggro rock blare toward the spare and the smooth; especially early on, Trey seemed to be trying to play as few notes as possible. Phish wasn't aspiring to take us on a boundary-demolishing psychedelic magic carpet ride with this performance; they were making pancakes. The audience were the convalescents nursing headaches on the sectional, sipping coffee and/or a Greyhound while watching college football. The band was the one motivated friend in the kitchen, flipping pancakes and frying bacon. The pancakes and bacon were good, guys! Even in the first set, somewhat.
"Undermind" was good! Trey for some reason refused to play the main guitar riff, and his initial solo was a little sleepy, but this is where things got interesting. Instead of hammering to an ending with Fishman's drum fills like a typical first-set version, they went into a Second Jam that eventually resolved into a tease medley. Reminding me of one of those set-closing 1991-93 Bowies, Trey cycled through the riffs of songs already played in the set, "Stash," then "Stealing Time," and finally "How Many People Are You?"
Photo © @Phish_FTR
"Ocelot" was good! It started at a whisper and faded up gradually, tempo again slow and swaggering. Trey's solo—again, not a ton of notes, but his notes were stated with force and commitment and the sequence he played them in made sense.
"Wingsuit" was pretty and nice because that's just how that song is.
"Run Like an Antelope" was good! Page coaxed the band into a fun little major-key modulation early in the jam. Page McConnell was a beast throughout the show, strong left hand, always contributing both musical ideas and energy. This "Antelope" never threatened to get out of control really, but it was masterful and energetic and a good time. Also: more teases.
"How Many People Are You" is a good song! You haters can sit n' rotate on this one. Its generous bpm alone makes it a standout in Phish's army of mid-tempo rock snoozers. Yes, it sounds like Tom Petty, but we're talkin' about the good Tom Petty, from "Refugee" and "Even the Losers" and "Listen to Her Heart," not the lousy Tom Petty from "Free Fallin'" and the Johnny Depp video. This jam could go places if the band ever cares to try.
Photo © @hersch
The second set didn't reach the heights of the first two nights of this run. There was no challenging, moody "Chalk Dust," no balls-out insane "Twist," no ecstatic hose spraying the assembled masses with "Bathtub Gin." Truth be told, even the secondary highlights from the first two nights—I'm thinking the "What's the Use?" interjection in Wednesday's "Weekapaug" or last night's excellent but instantly overshadowed "Kill Devil Falls"—surpassed anything from show #3, with one possible exception (more on that in a minute).
That said, the money set was still basically good value. "Down with Disease" is hard to resist, a familiar and trusted friend, still batting cleanup after all these years. The jam out of "Disease," as least initially, was as raucous as usual, but the band got all night, and after about 10 minutes they let some air into the room. Mike, who had seemed a little disengaged during the first set, came alive to provide the jam its glorious closing moments. Trey disagreed and downshifted into "Dirt." By this point the band seemed warmed up, finally. Trey's first-set struggles—missing sixteenth-notes in "Stash" and doing even worse to poor "Rift," which should be retired—resurfaced only in the bridge to a shreddy and stomping "Theme from the Bottom," which suffered its usual fate.
The final quarter of the show was the best one. If MSG3 has a contender for year-end playlists, it's this "Light." Trey stayed away from the pitch shifter, avoiding the dissonant harmonics he often uses as a springboard at the start of the "Light" jam. Instead, Page took the wheel, left hand rumbling, setting the pace and flirting repeatedly with the "Linus and Lucy" riff, leaving Trey no choice but to defer. The key moment comes around 7 minutes in, when Fish locks into a "Manteca" style shuffle, which carries the band for almost the entire remainder of this jam. Trey alternates between defining parameters with chords and exploring them with notes; Page shifts to the Rhodes and things get a little moodier; Mike emerges once again from his sarcophagus, temporarily. If you want a warning that the jam is about to peak and go nuts, listen for Trey's "Manteca" quote, then hold onto your hat. Certainly the highlight of this show, this version of "Light" is absolutely worth hearing by any standard, if you haven't already, which I suspect you have.
Photo © @Phish_FTR
As the jam dwindles, Page's piano seems to signal "Wading in the Velvet Sea," but that's still on the table for you guys tomorrow night. Instead we get "Fuego," which narrowly beat the 11-minute over/under thanks to a playful stop-tempo sludge-rock coda, and then a perfectly serviceable "Slave" closer. The stand-alone "Farmhouse" encore is one final reminder that this ain't last call at the party or disco, it's one last splash of champagne in your glass at a quiet New Year's Day pancake breakfast, and you don't have to do anything afterward except tuck yourself into bed. One thing's for sure, though: Saturday night will rage.
DAN'S KULINARY KORNER: Basic pork ragu
I don't have a pancake recipe. We eat waffles in this house, and the waffle recipe is proprietary.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Season a 2 lb (more or less) hunk of pork shoulder heavily on all sides with salt and pepper. Melt 2 T olive oil and 2 T butter in a dutch oven, then brown the pork shoulder on all sides over high heat, about 2 or 2 1/2 minutes per side. Remove pork shoulder from the pot and set it aside for a bit.
Add 1 medium yellow or Spanish onion, chopped, to the dutch oven. Reduce heat to medium-low and saute for 2 minutes or so, or longer if you want more caramelization. Just be careful not to burn them; you can always reduce the heat or stir. Add 2 cloves garlic, minced, and saute the garlic with the onion for a minute or so.
Then add back the browned pork shoulder, along with 1 can (26 oz.) San Marzano tomatoes, 1 cup red wine, 1 small handful fennel seed, 5 sprigs thyme, 5 sprigs oregano and/or sage, and 1-2 T hot sauce (sriracha or Tabasco or Crystal or whatever). Bring to a boil, then put into the oven for 4 hours, flipping the pork shoulder every hour and checking the braising liquid, which should be about 1/3 of the way up the side of the pork shoulder. If you need more braising liquid, you can use red wine, tomato sauce, water, or some combination of those liquids.
When the pork shoulder is cooked, remove it from the dutch oven, take off the string tying the shoulder together (if there is one), and shred the meat. If you prefer a smoother texture (I do), strain the braising liquid to remove any solids, like spent tomato husks. At the very least you should pick out the herb stems, which are not strictly speaking "edible." Then return the shredded pork to the braising liquid.
Personally I think the best way to serve this is the obvious way, with pasta. You take a cup or so of the ragu and heat it at medium-low in a sauce pan. Then you boil some pappardelle in salty water for 2-3 minutes. While the noodles are still a little firm, take them out, then add them to the ragu in the sauce pan. Combine the noodles and the ragu and cook for another 30 seconds to a minute until the noodles are coated. Then put that on a plate, shred a ton of Parmesan or pecorino on it, and eat.
Pork Ragu with Pappardelle
If that sounds like too much trouble, you could also put it on a roll with mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, etc., sloppy joe style. Or you could add some fried potatoes or other tubers and turn it into a breakfast hash, topped with a fried egg. Or serve it over cannellini beans with some broccoli rabe or other bitter greens; the sweetness of the ragu should counterbalance any bitterness.
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March 23, 1987
31 years ago
 First known Phish performance.
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