Thursday night Phish took the stage at Madison Square Garden for the second of four shows to close out 2011. After a first night where most people had very warm reviews, the second night seems to be a bit more puzzling. After a series of passionate emails among staff here at Phish.net last night fits somewhere comfortably between "amazing" and "frustrating." I mean, we certainly used both words with great frequency but upon further review it's hard to pick which end of the level has more weight. I can probably name more "good" moments than "bad" but for some reason I'm left feeling a bit conflicted. Why is that?
Well, the show sure got off to a raucous beginning. After Wednesday night's show opening "Free", the follow up of "Sloth" will put a smile on even the most jaded vets face. It's power and whimsical nonsens-ery is so not the "AC/DC", "KDF", "Possum" that often starts the show. But the real fireworks came in the second slot, when out of nowhere the opening notes of "You Enjoy Myself" rang out. Pure elation filled the arena and surely the homes of most people on the webcast. The former staple of Phish's catalog has been reduced to only 5 appearances this year and furthermore, lessened into an exercise of the ordinary and expected. But both this version and its predecessor in Chicago can put hope in the hearts of many that YEM is beginning to rise again to glory. Certainly far from the most legendary of its performances, this version once again found Trey engaged and extending the guitar based portion of the jam instead of dropping his instrument to ground for a dance routine in the drum and bass segment. YEM is and will always be the magnum opus of this band so seeing a sparks in its performance is a very, very, very good thing.
Also, Page was an absolute monster in that first set. His solo in "Funky Bitch" really carried the version into notable territory and provided some nice contrast from the standard guitar firepower.
In the second set it was all about the silky transition into "Lifeboy" and the phenomenal "Mike's Groove." Echoing the sentiment of the earlier "YEM" the second set's highlights focus once again on what once was old becoming new again. "Lifeboy" a staple request among many long time fans is akin to getting a postcard from a girl you kissed at summer camp. You immediately remember how awesome and beautiful they were and wonder why you force yourself to live without them. Most shows get some serious shit at any inclusion of a ballad, but "Lifeboy" is a perfect example of why they can be so precious. Even the later inclusion of "Show of Life" was a great example of using the tempo of a song to control emotion. Plus, it wasn't gonna be the encore on this night, so extra points there.
Following the second set Guyute, I don't think I was alone in hoping for that epic "David Bowie" from 17 years earlier to materialize and blow the roof off MSG. It's funny how we hold on to these moments in the past and hope that they will recreate themselves somehow. Silly really, but maybe it's akin to chasing that first buzz or that first kiss that you've long forgotten the sensation for. Ironically, what did follow was "Mike's Song." The song that gets little modern day respect because of the omission of that much sought after "second jam". You want it, I want it, we all want it, and for some reason until it happens, "Mike's" kinda sucks. Needless to say, it didn't happen on this night either, but what did happen was a ripping jam segment led by Trey that evoked hints of great versions from years past. Pure energy, pure guitar, awesome stuff. And as the collective sigh let out upon the end of "Mike's," Trey went immediately into "Chalk Dust Torture" to catch everyone by surprise. Continuing the fire from the previous number, "CDT" pressed on at a furious pace until suddenly, at full speed, Trey began to play the riff to "I Am Hydrogen." Now, on a technical scale this is probably the equivalent of the much maligned "DWD -> Sand" from Hartford in 2010, but the resounding opinion on this example is much more positive. Trey took a huge leap and somewhere between the band being on completely different pages and coming back down to the proper tempo, there's a pretty cool moment. But, upon further review it's a lot like a really huge belly flop. Impressive, but certainly a little painful.
Finally, there's the "Weekapaug Groove" that closes the 27 magnificent minutes out. Probably the best version since the band's reunion in 2009, if not since 2000, it is a perfect example of the song's power and greatness. Starting from some playful riffing and interplay and building from a staccato opening stanza, the jam grows in both speed and fervor until its climactic peak filling the room with pure energy. This is the kind of Mike’s Groove you should want every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Even without the second jam.
So? What’s there to gripe about? That sure reads like a lot of praise to me. Replay of Alpharetta this is not.
What could have been better:
Polish and flow. Outside of the two opening songs, the entire first set is hurky jerky ride that stops and starts with an overall tempo that just doesn’t seem to jive. After “YEM,” “Get Back on the Train” felt like a new show was starting, not building on one that’s already going. Join that with the rollercoaster of “Maze,” “Roses Are Free,” “Halley’s Comet” and something just felt off. We’re talking about highly critical and technical points here, but the difference between a really great show and an ok show exists in these details. But on a night like last night the current practice of playing from a list of songs in whatever order the mood strikes, seems to be limiting the final output. If the band spent 30 minutes writing down a composed setlist before the show and preparing mentally and physically for that would a better show appear? This band is so fucking good that they can pretty much play anything they want at any moment, just because they are that good. They can walk onto a stage for soundcheck and create improvised music that is as powerful as it is seemingly effortless. Continuing with the previous diving analogy, there’s a reason why Olympic judges operate the way they do. Because when you’re that good at something you need to be judged on the smallest details, it’s just how you define true greatness. So do these minuscule nicks create a “bad” show? Hell, no. But it does separate it from a truly great one. That’s why divers climb out of the water shaking their heads sometime when it all looked good from home.
The first two shows at MSG have some amazing high points. They are quite numerous in fact. With December 30th being a definite night of greatness in Phish lore, this may just be the night the judges have very little to gripe about.
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