[Editor's Note: We'd like to welcome back guest contributor David Goldstein for this recap. - lbc]
Irrespective of your political affiliation, can we all agree that the two months since Phish last played a rock show have been, to put it neutrally, interesting? This goes double for New York City residents, most of whom are still coming to grips with the fact that Trump Tower, once synonymous with a lousy restaurant for unimaginative tourists, has since been transformed into an impenetrable fortress of intrigue. And in a case of unintended consequences only rivaled by Faith No More inadvertently enabling Limp Bizkit and Korn, Twitter, once used predominantly for celebrity gossip and ranking jambands into tiers, could now be partially responsible for launching a new nuclear arms race. The Chicago Cubs also won the World Series.
What I’m obliquely trying to say here is, more than any time in recent history, GOOD GOD could we all use a Phish show right about now. And few numbers in Phishstory spark the imagination as much as 12/28. Everything is on the table, anything feels possible, and we get to do THIS four nights in a row in a city in which Trey Anastasio can relax in his own bed. Expectations are rightfully though the roof given the stunning quality of the recent four night Las Vegas run, in addition to the fact that night one of the Garden holiday shows has resulted in some goodies in the recent past; in particular the “Little Drummer Boy” inflected “Wolfman’s Brother” from 12/28/12, the monstrous “Tweezer” that occurred forty minutes later, and on 12/28/13, the best version of “Steam” played to that date - a Fishman scream-fest anchoring an otherwise average show. The energy in the city was palpable within a five-block radius of Madison Square Garden; let’s see what the boys have in store.
Phish proceeded to open the first set with their acapella arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner;” something which they also did at the Garden a little over twenty years ago. But the state of American democracy on 10/21/96 was somewhat less volatile than it is now, and I’m not betting on this choice of an opener being a mere coincidence. Jon Fishman’s active participation in the Bernie Sanders campaign notwithstanding, Phish has generally been an apolitical band, with people of all stripes using their shows and community as a pleasurable means of escape from daily life. That said, Phish are also decent people with young families who aren’t completely oblivious to the current state of affairs. While I could be entirely incorrect, I interpreted the opener choice as their means of acknowledging that ‘we’re no happier with the President Elect than you are, but we’re all in this together, and have the Garden for four nights, so let’s rock the fuck out of it.’ They then proceeded to do exactly that with “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan,” perhaps in reference to the minds of a large swath of New Yorkers on November 10th, which I can state from experience were unquestionably blank.
And this concludes the political overtones of both this Phish show and this recap of same. After briefly thanking the audience, Trey turned to Fishman and introduced the next song as “being sung by my favorite vocalist in Phish,” which seemed to portend “Ass Handed.” Instead, we were treated to a bustout of the Loaded chestnut “Lonesome Cowboy Bill,” which was flawlessly played and very welcome. This was followed by a standard reading of “Free,” the first song of the evening in which Chris Kuroda got to showcase his latest toy; lights on the ceiling of Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t enough to simply bathe the band in light, now CK5 is illuminating the audience as well, an effect that is extremely cool, and even led Justin Bieber manager and longtime Phish fan Dan Kanter to tweet that the only other time he had seen Kuroda do such a thing was, well, on Bieber tour. May the man’s creativity and lighting budget both continue to be bottomless.
Solid versions of “Train Song” and “Prince Caspian” followed, the latter of which contained a nicely rocked out microjam with the requisite false ending that has become standard for that song. Unfortunately, I ended up hearing most of it from the hallway of the 100s section, trapped in the bar line behind two dudes that ordered $70 worth of fancy mixed drinks (FYI: The value play at the Garden in terms of both deliciousness and ABV continues to be a 12 oz bottle of Dogfish Head 90).
“Roggae” continued its stellar run in 2016, featuring much Garcia-style fanning towards the end evocative of a ’77 “Sugaree,” and “Funky Bitch” was solidly played, despite the LCD screens showing what appeared to be pink origami cranes hovering over a golf course green. “Halfway to the Moon” was slightly more expansive than usual, and the bustout of Taj Mahal’s “Corinna” was a nice surprise, and marked the first time yours truly has seen that song since February 2003; the infamous evening in which B.B. King held Phish hostage for over an hour. Standard-great versions of “Stash” and “Cavern” concluded a solid, if unspectacular, warm up set marked by some unique song choices and a high level of playing throughout, though unquestionably an appetizer for the second set bounty that was to follow.
Set II began with “Wolfman’s Brother,” hardly the most common second set opener, and the boys wasted no time in getting down to hard, wah-inflected funk immediately after the lyrics concluded. Trey was working with a dirty-rock tone while mixing in his echo effects, and Page opted for the clavinet for nearly the entire jam, resulting in fourteen minutes of abject nastiness more akin to “Sneaking Sally” improvisation than what we’ve come to expect from “Wolfman’s.” Nobody complained.
I received a text message at the beginning of “Golden Age” stating “if this is 60% of the Vegas version, then I’ll be happy.” Well then. If in 2008 you listened to the fifth song off of the third TV On the Radio album and immediately thought “yeah, Phish is totally gonna turn this into a major jam vehicle in eight years,” I welcome you to help me pick some winners for my IRA. The Vegas “Golden Age” was twenty-five minutes; its MSG sibling was a mere twenty-one, and proceeded from clavinet funk, to a minor key staccato jam with a tumbling Fishman groove, to full-on calypso before concluding with another soaring jam in the key of F Major that, like Vegas before it, segued triumphantly into “Simple,” still the daddy of all F Major Trey riffs.
Debating the merits of the Garden “Golden Age -> Simple” with that of its Vegas counterpart is essentially akin to quibbling over the first two Godfather movies; your personal preference is just that, but no sane person will deny that they’re both masterpieces.
An oddly placed “Chalk Dust Torture” was standard and pleasant, played at its now usual Bobby Weir tempo. Then “Martian Monster” repurposed the dirty funk of the recent “Wolfman’s,” and appeared to contain a slow build chord progression similar to “Tweezer Reprise.” Yes, Phish then proceeded to throw a full-on “Tweeprise” jam smack into the middle of “Martian Monster” with Trey singing “Your Trip is Short” in the style of “Step Into the Freezer” because why the hell not? When Phish is playing at this high a level, such antics should be anticipated, and no reason that all of the second set goodness should only be relegated the forty-three minutes of WolfmansGoldenSimple madness.
“Wingsuit” was an ideal cool down, I appreciate “Possum” more when, like here, it’s played at a swampier tempo than usual, and if anyone tells you that they don’t like a “Good Times Bad Times” encore, they are not to be trusted. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention that some enterprising Mets fan actually threw Page a Mookie Wilson jersey prior to the encore. The legendary ’86 Mets squad of which he was a part could likely appreciate this Phish show in that both were relentless and slightly prankster-ish, with a good deal of attitude that’s been rightfully earned. Any drop off from the Las Vegas shows would appear to be non-existent. Buckle up.
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