“Character Zero” ends, I blink, and “Possum” fires up… or at least it feels like we’re picking up right where we’d left off after the pure Phish magic that was Tuesday’s show. My seat neighbor for these two nights, Trey (yes, really, that was his name), astutely points out that Tuesday/Wednesday crowds at The Garden are made up of the most devoted (albeit insane) Phish fans, and the music played for these shows can generally be summed up as “Phish for Phish fans.” Tuesday night saw the band go deep on a handful of favorites with Zen focus for Jerry Garcia’s birthday, arguably delivering the finest show yet of 2023; tonight is a perfect foil to Tuesday, with no shortage of jamming between songs, deeper cut song selections, antics, and an extremely fun and Phishy overall vibe.
The crowd is noticeably comfortable and in no rush to get to their seats with 5 minutes left to spare before the band takes the stage, but everyone locks in immediately with the unmistakable “Possum” intro. Tonight is my 48th Phish show and my first “Possum” opener. “Guyute” takes the number 2 spot, evocative of the encore on 12/29/22, which served this same pairing in reverse order. However, “Guyute” sounds much tighter and more rehearsed tonight.
“Axilla (Part 2)” rounds out the opening power trifecta. None of these three songs launch us into the stratosphere just yet, but the band is in fine form and rocking hard, much to the Garden’s earthly delight. Heeding Trey’s wishes to “stop shining that thing in my face,” CK5 turns off all the lights and we share a splendid moment of pitch-black darkness together. I was informed earlier tonight that Chris Kuroda is the only lighting director to whom MSG affords complete creative control of the house lights.
Emerging back into the light, I wonder if this "Axilla 2" will go deep à la 10/29/21, not entirely sure if I’m even ready for that. Instead, the outro dissolves into The Apples in Stereo cover “Energy,” which has subtly crept its way into once-a-year frequency since 2019. “Energy” unfolds into some hard driving grooves, propelling us into an improv-rich and highly danceable Q2. The world is made of energy, and there’s a lot inside of you, and there’s a lot inside of me, and there’s a fuck ton inside of Jon Fishman, who commandeers the band with pounding rhythm and emerges as tonight’s MVP. Page adds lots of color to this jam as he juggles between his grand piano, Wurlitzer, and arsenal of synths. He lands on the Yamaha CS-60, signaling it is indeed time for the “Meatstick,” earning an eruption from the audience. It being night 5 of a Madison Square Garden residency, “Meatstick” can have a little jam on the backend too, as a treat. Page continues to enchant the crowd with synthy goodness while CK5 spins the room like a top.
Considering this is a Phish for Phish fans kind of night, I’m sure many of us in the audience notice Trey establishing the opening of “It’s Ice” within the “Meatstick” jam. The seamlessness of this segue and key change into “It’s Ice” is black belt masterful. Try that in a small town! An unmistakable “Frankenstein” tease gets a great reaction from the crowd; as I plan to cross the 50-show milestone on Saturday, I’ve come to accept that Phish shows are best enjoyed with a “get what you get and don’t get upset” attitude; nevertheless, the two songs that sit atop my chase list are “Frankenstein” and “The Divided Sky.” I can’t help but think, so you’re telling me there’s a chance?
“It’s Ice” is pretty straightforward and tightly executed, giving way to a rocking “Blaze On” set closer with inspired play from all four band members. The placement for this “Blaze On” couldn’t have been more natural. I briefly forget that it’s a “3.0 song.” They’re all just Phish songs tonight, even the covers. CK5 and his team also really shined during the “Blaze On” jam, delivering some of their most memorable work of this run.
Set break is weird. I do a lap around the concourse to get some shpilkes out.
Set two begins with … funky snarling in the key of A. I turn to Trey my neighbor … could it be? Are they actually going to … Oh my god I think they’re going to do it. They’re doing it! OH MY GOD IT’S HAPPENING EVERYBODY REMAIN CALM!
A funky “Cavern” Island Tour nod emerges from the snarls. This white whale moment is definitely Phish for Phish fans. I make a note to self to check Scott Marks’ Twitter to see if this is the first slow funky “Cavern” since 4/5/98, only to realize I deleted the app formerly known as Twitter after its garbage rebrand. I also recall reading another fan’s observation a few nights ago that the funkier than usual “Theme From the Bottom” this past Sunday was the “2023 equivalent of the Island Tour Cavern.” Perhaps the band noticed that too.
We experience a similar fate as that of Captain Ahab and the crew of The Pequod after this cathartic whale sighting, collectively drowned to the bottom of the sonic ocean via a medium length but exploratory “Carini.” On our way down we reunite with the spacey guitar theme Trey introduced at the end of Saturday Night’s stellar “Fuego.” But this unfolds into something darker and more turbulant. Fishman is the star of this final section of “Carini,” chopping up the rhythm into weird fractions and making my head spin. Up next, we ride the back of “Piper” the red red worm back to the surface, ascending into a classic Phish dance party frenzy. Although the version is kind of short, it gets a lot done in the short time and pumps more energy back into the crowd. This “Carini” > “Piper” segment might be the high point of the evening, along with the “Meatstick” > “It’s Ice” block.
The remaining Q4 is not particularly jammy, but still pretty fun. Fishman still very much tonight’s MVP, “The Well,” is another great placement for a newer song and excellent opportunity for him to bang the shit out of those drums with childlike splendor. Brewing from the bottom of the well, “The Howling” inspires the most howling from the audience I’ve ever heard for this song – there seems to be an unbroken stream of howls for the first two or three minutes that rivals the band in volume. It’s glorious. Mike takes the reins and his chunky playing provokes phunky phresh dance moves to uncoil around the arena.
A rare Q4 “Taste” is an excellent slow-song-that-isn’t-really-a-slow-song choice, and once again this complex 1.0 staple feels very well-rehearsed and flawless in its execution. It is followed by a real slow song, “About to Run,” or as I jot down in my setlist notes, “about to chomp,” due to the unfortunate amount of unsolicited small talk I can hear around me. But worry not, because an engaging set-closing “Chalk Dust Torture” brings everyone back into the fold, closing out the set with gusto. “Thank you everybody,” says Trey, “We’ll see you tomorrow … thank you! errr whatever! uhh Thursday! Friday!” You know it’s good when Trey forgets he has a day off tomorrow.
The encore break feels like forever. Having completely forgotten about that tease earlier, I’m thinking we may get an “Undermind” or “Vultures” to show rock and roll’s most criminally underrated drummer some more love. When Page walks on stage with his Keytar formerly owned by James Brown, I need somebody to pinch me. As I live and breathe writing this recap today, I now know it wasn’t a dream – 48 shows later, I finally got to hear Phish cover “Frankenstein.” Come to think of it, this song is also a nod to Fishman.
Mike takes his bass off and the other guys start walking off, but Trey decides he’s got one more in him and starts strumming the opening to “Slave to The Traffic Light,” giving his bandmates barely enough time to jump back onto their respective instruments. Trey changes the lyrics to “Seen the greatest city, seen the zoo.” We savor the beautiful Slave jam, a capstone to a quintessentially Phishy evening. As another recapper eloquently pointed out after Sunday’s show, “Phish is doing an awful lot right. They’re doing so much right that pointing out their missteps is simply picking nits at this point. Phish is in command of their collective talents in ways that continue to delight and surprise. It’s a beautiful thing to see.” It is an amazing time to be a Phish fan. I only started seeing Phish in 2018, but the FOMO I used to feel about missing excellent Phish shows’ past (granted, I was born in ‘99) has been replaced with the overwhelming gratitude I feel to be a Phish fan right here in NYC and right now in 2023. The creative direction of the band since returning from Covid has been awe inspiring, and it’s getting better all the time. 2023 has been an excellent year, and Wednesday night’s high energy dance party paired perfectly with Tuesday’s psychedelic odyssey to form a superb midweek run of Phish for Phish fans.
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