Joyous holidays, phanners! I’m excited for the opportunity to recap tonight’s show for two reasons. First reason, redemption: I could film myself caulking cracks in my driveway and it would surpass the recap we published for last night’s show. We do try to bring the content when you need it most, but we came up short this time. Sorry about that. Second, remembrance: tonight is the twentieth anniversary of 12/29/97-- my first Phish show at the Garden.
More on that later. First, the goods.
I don’t care who you are: every Phish fan harbors certain prejudices when it comes to setlists. On paper, I’ll admit that tonight’s first set looks very much like a dumping ground for songs that probably don’t make any fan’s wish list for a New Year’s Eve show. That’s fair. But don’t get distracted, because the setlist undersells the set by quite a bit.
Trey saddles up looking infinitely more relaxed than he did last night, Fishman considerably more chipper. Page is wearing another new shirt and Mike looks like a bespoke Hamburglar. The band drops into an unexpected, well-paced, confident, and laid-back “Cavern” that makes a convincing argument for switching up the placement of this song now and again. “Blaze On” won’t inspire reams of handwritten letters home in this slot but it’s punchy enough to ignite the crowd.
“I Always Wanted It This Way” is definitely one of the weirdest Page songs to come along since, well, ever. The vocal harmonies are just hard to wrap your ears around, and the jamtronica moves feel a bit dated, if I’m being perfectly honest. But this version packs more gear than anything in last night’s first set. As you may have read, your fearless leader got a new guitar rig for Christmas, and he showcases a few of his novel effects in this satisfying jam, which achieves a respectable low-earth orbit before a familiar sample cues up “Martian Monster.” Its trip, as you may have guessed, is short.
Page stays in the spotlight with a nice little solo in a well-placed “Heavy Things,” and then Phish brings this fun and entirely respectable first set home with greasy, confident versions of “Destiny Unbound,” “Ocelot,” and “Walls of the Cave” (which bookends the frame with subterranean imagery befitting the venue, in case you hadn’t noticed).
Which brings me back to the story I promised.
On 12/29/97, my wife and I were newlyweds. We had arrived that day in frigid Manhattan after a few days of Christmas downtime with family in Louisiana, where a bacchanalian binge one night had induced some strange and vivid dreams.
In one of these dreams, Phish was on stage playing “Can’t Turn You Loose.” I woke laughing, because I had no clue that the band had teased the song four times before--didn’t own those tapes--and because the idea that they would play it seemed so absurd to me, like a proper dream should. A few nights later, when the band slid into the head riff of “CTYL” during “Possum,” my face took its leave of its skull.
My wife doesn’t remember me screaming, “Get out of my head!” at the stage, but I swear I did. Our neighbors, for their part, went right back to ignoring me.
20 years later, this band has never left my head for very long. There remain aspects of the Phish experience that feel irresistibly synchronistic and telepathic to me--even if there’s less of the shamanic these days on both sides of the rail. Here’s to 20 more!
Our second half this evening begins much like the first--in the pocket. “Sand” serves as a groovy invocation, more amuse bouche than main course, a call to flush the stiffness out of the legs for what comes next. “Chalk Dust Torture” makes a beeline for bliss almost immediately after the composed section of the song, with each band member creating ample space and listening actively through a seamlessly fluid modulation to the major. If you’ve heard some of Phish’s most successful second set “Chalk Dusts” of recent years, this one feels familiar, like home. Trey and Page both seem to feel this way, too, as they both quote Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” repeatedly while en route to an incandescent peak that could thaw the most frostburnt of toes.
“Ghost” materializes now, and serves mostly as a temporary extension of the “Chalk Dust” jam, galloping without a care in the world from one panoramic vista to the next without a single dark cloud in the sky. “Backwards Down the Number Line” and “Simple” follow, continuing this theme, the crowd responding with wide smiles and happy feet all around. 2017 has been a trying year for many people, myself included, and upbeat sets like this can deliver much-needed healing energy and benediction to those open to it.
“Simple’s” delicate denouement gives way, finally, to the darkness--and what is to my ears both the most interesting jam of the holiday run so far and one of the most successful “Split Open and Melt” performances of the 3.0 era. You’ve certainly heard versions of this song with tighter composed sections and taller peaks, but there is a freshness to this jam that commands attention. Moments into the jam, Fishman settles into an off kilter shuffle of sorts, inspiring percussive volleys from Mike. Page wants in on the conversation and starts drumming insistently on his grand piano, while Trey creates contrast with fluid, bent notes that drape over the top of it all. By the end, we find ourselves in an entirely new and unexpected place--which is the essence of Phish. And while we aren’t permitted to stay there very long, it’s a perfect place to end tonight’s journey.
Wishing you all a blissful 2018 full of bright landscapes and new destinations.
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March 18, 1997
21 years ago
The Flynn Theatre
 Dave Grippo on alto sax and James Harvey on trombone
 Dave Grippo on alto sax and James Harvey on trombone.
 Phish debut; Tammy Fletcher on vocals.
 Without microphones.
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