[Recap courtesy of @dmg924, David Goldstein -Ed.]
The pre-show vibe amongst the Lawson’s Hopcelot consuming crowd at Madison Square Garden on July 29th, 2023 could be basically been summed up as such – “Well….how the hell are they going to top THAT?”
The ‘THAT’ in question being the prior night’s show. Based upon the frequently used expletives in my text threads and myriad invocations of the carpenter for whom Easter is celebrated; July 28, 2023 was one of THOSE shows. It was a top to bottom masterpiece in which the improvisation was so effortless and the peaks so memorable that it leaves the more conspiratorial minded fan to wonder exactly why Phish doesn’t play like this all the time? Do they actually have something against the good people of Wilmington, North Carolina? Phish’s ability to turn IT on and off will forever be a mystery worthy of stoned dorm room debate. But that’s why you go to more than one, and there’s no right way to Phish; some fans would prefer to see a 12 to 13 song first set rife with six-minute sing-alongs versus a 22 minute maelstrom of sound only five minutes into the show. I won’t judge. Besides which, if Phish played like 7/28 every night, both they and the audience would simply collapse; Big Red’s mighty fingers worn down to calloused nubs of flesh. So what would they possibly do for an encore on this, only the second night of a seven night Madison Square Garden run?
How about kicking off the evening with 10 minutes of amiable choogle? No longer simply content to warn us about approaching the night with caution as they did the evening prior, Phish is now standing in the rain, doing the pleasant clickety-clack thing of “Back on the Train” before dissolving into a two-hole “Down w/ Disease” like its 1994 or some shit. But those mid-90’s versions weren’t 19-minute journeys with blissful jamming the key of C Major before proceeding with robot communication funk, and one begins to think that we’re continuing the trend of last night in that we’ve got a second set where a first should be. But such thoughts are put to rest with the pleasantly bland trio of “The Dogs,” “Bug,” and “Sugar Shack”; bringing the energy down to questionable levels before hitting on the Lonely Trip ditty “Evolve.” And can I say how much this guy loves “Evolve”? It’s “Nothing” meets “Water in the Sky” meets a Christian day camp sing along that’s still somehow my favorite first set addition to the Phish 4.0 canon. The band then proceeded to remind us that “Horn” exists, before concluding with the formidable 1-2 of a well-played “Foam” and Ziggy Stardust jam “Moonage Daydream,” drawing to a close a first set that while not quite scaling the heights of last night, still contained plenty to revisit.
During setbreak I did something that I had never done in any of the dozens of Phish shows I have seen at MSG; I bought a hot dog! It was good! Large and beefy with a good snap and classic brown mustard! Would recommend.
Careful listeners will note that a recent trend in 2023 is for Phish to begin a second set with a five-to-six-minute trifle immediately followed by a twenty plus minute money shot. Recall that the Berkeley Tweezer was preceded by “My Soul,” the Syracuse version preceded by “Suzy Greenberg,” last night’s “Ruby Waves" and "Plasma” madness preceded by "More,” and so forth. So it was understandably exciting when set 2 began with “The Wedge,” played entirely in the proper key this time! And now “Fuego,” correctly started like the studio version with Page’s piano for what feels like the first time in forever. This song has had a sneaky high batting average in 4.0, but most would still point to the 25-minute version from 7/8/14 in Philadelphia as representing the apex. Yeah, no longer. This was the first 2023 song to exceed thirty minutes since the Berkeley Tweezer, and was an often quite demented calypso-flavored DANCE PARTY that felt like a loosely awesome soundcheck, and concluded with four minutes or so of a dense krautrock/kosmiche groove far more reminiscent of 1970’s CAN than 2023 Phish. All of which was augmented by Chris Kuroda’s gigantic Lite Brite board which cycled through looking like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, to the inner workings of a 1980’s paperweight like you’d buy at The Sharper Image, to repetitive starbursts of white light during the most Kraftwerk-ian bits of the jam. The message from the stage remains loud and clear; 40 years into the game, and YOU STILL CAN’T GET THIS SHIT ANYWHERE ELSE. And having the best drummer in the history of Western Civilization doesn’t hurt either. Rest assured this “Fuego” will get the 4K treatment on Phish’s YouTube channel, giving insomniacs such as myself something to look forward to at 1:45 in the morning.
“Oblivion” awaits! Great setlist call and obviously a new Trey favorite as it’s reached the four-timers club on this tour after only making its debut with his Trio this past June. Given that the song would not appear to have a composed ending, we’re always guaranteed a shale-centric jam of some sort, and this evening’s was excellent, if falling a little short of the recent Syracuse version. I would argue that “Wingsuit” is underplayed in 4.0, and the ensuing “2001” was shaping up to be a longer and more unique version than any prior we had heard in 2023, but the band opted to steer it into Fishman goofball territory and the first “Cracklin Rosie” since 2012. I’m not complaining about a humorous Fishman sing-along exactly, but that “2001” had legs! Not unlike the inflatable legs of a store-bought woman!
The final three songs in the show sounded exactly like they look on paper, though for the first time I caught myself wondering if Trey slowly raising his guitar at the conclusion of “First Tube” is a tribute to Peter Gabriel slowly raising his blue neon cross at the conclusion of “Supper’s Ready.” While not quite the relentless improv-fest of the prior evening, one is hard-pressed to complain about a show with a high quality first set “DWD,” sky scraping Bowie cover, and what’s probably the best version of “Fuego” to date. And we’ve still got five of these left! And I’m taking my daughter on Tuesday! Truly I am the World’s Greatest Dad.
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