[The penultimate recap of the Baker’s Dozen is brought to you by one of Canada’s finest, Andrew Rose / @andrewrose]
“Only at the largest concert in the world can you get away with playing a song like that.” A younger Trey Anastasio jokingly offered these remarks on the last day of the last millennium, following a 25-minute, love-supreme-laden “Split Open and Melt -> Catapult.” To this day I’m still not sure if he meant the brief “Catapult” proper, or the miraculous jam over which its handful of absurd lyrics were laid. But no matter, both were true and still are. The irony of course being that such a big stage would be the last place you could attempt such a thing. The show in Big Cypress was the biggest concert in the world that night, and the fact that this silly band from Vermont was able to pull that off, and on its own terms, yielding music and spectacle at once absurd, but also a pinnacle of collective improvisation, was quite the achievement. Eighteen years and a standard dozen donuts later, is it safe to say Phish is about to wrap up a cohesive offering that more than matches it? That in its sheer scope surpasses it? Could we repurpose that cheeky line of Trey’s for 2017, the middle finger to the haters and doubters, and say “only at the largest string of concerts in the world can you get away with not repeating a single song like that.” I don’t think there’s another band in the world right now that could do two nights at Madison Square Garden and not repeat a song, let alone thirteen. (And I haven’t even touched on how consistently great these shows have been, by just about any metric.) So before I recap the band’s penultimate offering, and as we get ready for the finale, I’d like to take a step back and offer a deep acknowledging bow to this latest achievement. This sure has been fun. Am I right?
So of course Saturday night brings the much anticipated Boston Cream donut. Did you think it was going to be any other way? When you take a bite out of a traditional Boston Cream that’s particularly full, sometimes half the gooey insides jump out onto your face before you know what’s hit you. Sometimes that means by the time you polish the thing off it’s a little uneven, but man, those sweet spots, when you get the balance just right, are pretty choice.
You could argue tonight’s first set is among the top three of the firsts of the Dozen. Certainly the mashup pie of Cream -> Boston > Cream > Boston songs, which Live Phish is calling “Sunshine Of Your Feeling” stands out as a reason, as it most definitely should, but there’s also a lot of gooey gold elsewhere.
“Soul Shakedown Party” caught me off guard, which you’d think by the time they got around to, with only a couple shows left, would be harder to do by now. This song is always a welcome opener in my books, and the “Uncle Pen” that followed served as a nice obligatory warm up, to get Trey’s fingers going after the fact; they’ve been busy these past couple weeks, and that’s got to be hard work for an old man. “The Sloth” (which apparently they hadn’t played yet this run, like everything else) evened out the tempo before the band settled into their first excursion of the night in “Gotta Jibboo.” This is a must-hear “Jibboo!” Do yourself a favour, and make sure you balance your palate with this jam before going for the goo. It starts real delicate and groovy, and then packs an unexpected punch. Nice.
In retrospect, the “Fuck Your Face” that set up the Cream / Boston pie seems a little cheeky (as if a once-rarity called “Fuck Your Face” needed more ammo to make it cheeky), when you consider the orgiastic indulgences of those Boston hits that are both of the band and not. “There are also aspects of Boston that I like,” Trey says back in 1997 in Bittersweet Motel, balancing comparisons to some other stylistically different influences. One great thing about this run has been how much real room it’s given Phish to explore different flavours, without having to worry about being pegged for one or the other on any given night. If anyone had doubts about the Radiohead cover on Friday (and I do not count myself among them), there wasn’t a person in the room who didn’t love the sugar out of this medley the band put together, including the band themselves. The crowd energy at MSG has been unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time, and yeah, it was about as gratifying as you’d imagine. “It’s been such a long time … in the white room.” It works on so many levels. “We’ve been waiting for that joke for 20 years,” Fish and then Trey admitted jokingly. “This whole thing is just so we could do that …. Alright I’m out of here.” I remember thinking at the time that it was twenty years ago that I first stepped foot into a show at MSG, and if they had done this then, we would have lost our shit just the same. It was definitely a better birthday present than the actual donut I tasted and then shared with others, with no disrespect to Federal Donuts folks. Too much sugar’ll kill you anyway.
I’d like to say the band blew their load after this, but that would be doing a disservice to a ton of other juicy offerings. Another great thing about this run has been how the no-repeat condition sets up every song as somehow special, like it’s part of a giant career retrospective. What’s really crazy is how many wonderful songs won’t get played. Trey had certainly earned his “Frost” by this point, and they didn’t wait long to get back into interesting territory with the still lingering “Scent of a Mule.” This went into space before Page took it out, and Mike responded resoundingly. Hear this too. This show was already a win by this point. “Fire” showed up to make it back-to-back nights of Jimi Hendrix, quietly finding his way late into the first set. (Do they play “Izabella” tomorrow or does it stay on the unplayed heap? Does it matter at all?) Finally “Alaska” and “Plasma” rounded out a decidedly more contemporary feel to the end of the set, with the latter appearing for only the fifth time since its debut in 2014.
“Ghost” had certainly been on everyone’s lips going into the show, considering it had been haunting the run more with each passing day. Anyway, “Ghost” did not ghost on us at the Baker’s Dozen, and by now you probably don’t need to be told that a twenty-one minute second set opening “Ghost” at the Baker’s Dozen is worth hearing. There was a lot of hose here.
“Petrichor” definitely changed the momentum of the show, and it’s hard for a newer, very long composition to not do that, appearing in the two slot in the second set. I’m not sure it was for the better, but the band seems intent on showing this one off on big nights, and it has its moments. “Light” seemed to have some missteps in the jam as well (or maybe it just wasn’t to my taste; there definitely were some moments when things got weird in a good way), but I was very happy to hear “The Lizards,” having not seen the song since IT in 2003. The Gamehendge songs especially seem to take on a certain significance at the Baker’s Dozen, and the whole room really screamed and bounced with fury about the evil King Wilson, and the Lizards, practically extinct don’t you know. A couple of lyrical missteps seemed almost obligatory (“read the book!” my enthusiastic neighbour yelled at Trey).
“The Horse” > “Silent in The Morning,” “Quinn the Eskimo,” and “Rocky Top” trio that closed the show probably isn’t hiding any more gold than you’ll get out of the meat in the middle of this show, but it had old school charm, to be sure. In a way, this show really was like its namesake, with much of its goodness in the middle, where the hole should be.
And in that sense “Joy” kind of made sense as an encore, even if it wasn’t exactly what everyone was expecting or hoping for. On a Saturday night at the Garden, after creaming all over everyone’s face in the first set, it was actually a pretty ballsy encore, and I’m happy to say I thought Trey pulled some soul out of it in the end, that made it the last must-taste morsel of tonight’s offering. A nice palate cleanser.
So it’s down to one last donut. What’s it going to be? Something simple? Classic? Old Fashioned? Forbidden??? It doesn’t matter. The universe is a donut, and the less you worry about what’s in the middle, the more fun you’ll have eating it.
Thanks Phish, that was a fun birthday!
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