Since the announcement of the Baker’s Dozen residency dates, Phish fans have speculated about ways the band might pay homage to the Grateful Dead during last night's August 1st show, which fell on Jerry Garcia’s 75th birthday. The revelation of Tuesday’s maple-flavored donut did not diminish fans’ hopes that their more than thirty-year wait for Phish’s next “Scarlet Begonias,” or debut of “Sugar Magnolia,” would come to an end. Some argued that the maple composition of Jerry’s Wolf guitar would elicit early 1970’s-inspired Dead covers. Rumors that Bob Weir was in the building also spread like wildfire before the show. Instead, with their ninth of thirteen shows at Madison Square Garden, Phish offered fans two Maple-themed debuts, an unprecedented "Steep" jam, and a comparatively mellow, yet crowd-pleasing, set list. Nine shows and 161 songs into the Baker’s Dozen, Phish continues its “no repeats” streak in a historic residency that has been un-jading vets one night at a time.
The band took the stage at 8:08pm, opening with Phish’s instrumental debut of “O Canada.” Lit with a bright white spotlight, Trey led the band through a powerful, distortion-filled rendition of the Canadian national anthem. Maybe I’m still riding the high of Sunday’s “Jimmies” show, but it’s hard to watch Trey’s “O Canada” guitar solo without recalling Jimi Hendrix’s August 1969 rebellious performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Was Tuesday evening’s opener Phish’s version of an oblique political protest? Maybe so, maybe not. One of my favorite aspects of this band is the undecidability of the meaning of their performances. Throughout the song, Kuroda joined the nod to our northern neighbors by lighting-up the venue’s red and white maple leaf Canadian flag, and immediately after the song, “Crowd Control” began. It was followed by the “maple steam” of “Sugar Shack.”
The first 2017 appearance of the Los Lobos cover “When the Circus Comes to Town” took the number four spot in the setlist. Despite the slower pace of the song, the energy that had been building over the previous eight shows was palpable in the building, with the audience roaring with the lyrics “never thought I would make it this far” and “burn this whole place down.” “Daniel Saw The Stone” picked up the pace a bit, and featured Trey’s trademark gleeful grin. Next came the first “Army of One” since the 2016 Halloween run in Las Vegas, followed by a standard “The Wedge.” An energetic, divided “Guelah Papyrus” sandwiched the third maple-themed song of the night: a brief Page solo performance of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” The fan-favorite, “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters” preceded a short, but sweet, “Limb by Limb,” which featured the only jam of the first set. The James Gang single, “Walk Away,” served as a lively set closer.
While the first set did not feature any notable jams, it’s worth commenting on the dynamic vitality that exuded from the band and the audience during both sets. Upon entering the stage, all four band mates immediately settled into the comfortable, patient confidence of a band who no longer needs to show us why we came here (for 13 nights!). There’s a certain uncanniness that won’t translate to the webcast and audio recordings, even in Tuesday’s seemingly “warm-up” first set. Night by night, there has been a slow accumulation of details that, in other circumstances, might appear insignificant. While we are accustomed to intensely concentrated Phish music, memories, and friendships made over the course of a festival weekend, the allure of Phish-history-in-the-making these past several weeks at Madison Square Garden has been breathtaking. There is an affective and embodied understanding of the anticipated, but not yet solidified, impact of the Baker’s Dozen shows that creates a shared, joyful space of risk, freedom, and possibility. The distillation of this communal energy and space, what Michel Foucault describes as a “heterotopia,” explains the likely divided responses between phans who were in attendance and those who webcasted last night’s show. It has, after all, become clear after nine nights, that Phish owns MSG. What other band could not only change the venue’s water cap policy, but also have staff passing out free water (caps and all!) to fans as they enter the doors!?
The second set opened with a “Golden Age” that promised early on to develop into a layered, well-developed jam. Page leads the way through the age of miracles with a funky solo, before the band quiets to make room for a repetitive, spacey groove. Just as the jam enters into dreamy territory and crosses over the twenty-minute mark, the band transitions to “Leaves,” cutting short the potential of the jam. Fans of contemplative Phish will love the band’s second performance of “Leaves,” while others will consider it an energy killer. Either way, “Leaves” gave birth to “Swept Away>Steep,” which is all you really need to know; the last time these songs were performed was over five years ago, on July 8, 2012, at SPAC. The twelve minute “Steep,” which was the unexpected MVP of night nine, was glorious. It could easily have been mistaken for a "Tweezer" jam, and included a series of brown notes from Mike that retuned the audience’s souls. An abrupt transition lead to a combined twenty-five minute “46 Days > Piper,” which featured about three minutes of “Percussion Army,” or the drum/space-style improvisation with Trey on Marimba Lumina, and Mike and Page on percussion. (Thanks to my friend Yaron Marcus for properly naming this section, “Percussion Army,” at Dick’s 9/4/2016!) The “Piper” included at least three different themes, ranging from joyful to evil, and “46 Days” quotes from Trey near the end. A surprisingly dissonant “Possum” ended the second set, and the return of David Bowie’s “Rock 'n' Roll Suicide” as the encore concluded the show.
So you might be wondering, “should I listen to this show?” I’m of the opinion that, after this coming weekend, you should sit down and listen to all thirteen shows in a row, preferably with a good set of headphones. In 25 years we’ll all be buying commemorative Baker’s Dozen Box Sets and the chronological evolution is a significant element of the event. But, if you’re short on time, you can jump to “Steep> 46 Days> Piper.”
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