Phish @ Madison Square Garden, December 28
Words: Scott Bernstein
Photos: Michael Stein
Last night’s NYE Run opener from Phish at MSG featured two above-average sets that laid the groundwork for what should be a memorable set of shows. From the first Free opener in Phish history to the well-played Glide bust out (the song was last played at the 2009 MSG Run) that followed as well as a rare third-song trip into Type II territory within Cities, the band was feeling their oats in a statement that the near four-month layoff wouldn’t lead to the typical “warm-up show” fans feared.
[All Photos by Michael Stein]
Bassist Mike Gordon ascended to the highest register of his Modulus bass after a few minutes of standard Cities jamming, leading his mates on a short but wonderful romp into previously unexplored terrain that was so tight you almost wondered if they had worked out the segment in advance. The Cities jam dissipated to silence when guitarist Trey Anastasio started up the third Curtis Loew of the year – hard to imagine considering the Skynyrd cover was shelved for 16 years. Next up was Stash and just when you thought the band was ending the jam way too soon, Trey lit into the Ocedoc for a few of the best minutes of the set as if to quote the “it ain’t over till it’s over” Yogi-ism and the rest of the group was happy to oblige.
- Setlist, The Skinny & Live Blog: Phish MSG Night One
Whereas it’s shocking to think that Phish played three Curtis Loews in ’11, it’s just as surprising to realize Contact, a tune that had previously been a staple of the band’s repertoire, wasn’t performed this year until last night. Thankfully the rust didn’t show as the quartet wailed through the funk segment with confidence. Instead of playing catch up, as he did through the bungled Stash intro, Anastasio was so in tune with Contact that he was able to add flourishes as Gordon slapped away and keyboardist Page McConnell milked the clav. Perhaps the long gap between Contacts helped the group bring new life to an old standby. Soundalikes Sample In A Jar and Kill Devil Falls led into a set-closing Bathtub Gin and it’s worth mentioning that KDF, a song debuted two-and-a-half years ago, was the newest song Phish played on this night by a long shot. Bug, debuted over 12 years ago, was the second newest tune that made last night’s setlist. For a band that was so anti-nostalgia that Trey used the word to help explain his decision to announce Phish’s breakup in 2004, you have to wonder why the past few years have been so light on new material. But I digress, the Bathtub Gin was reminicent of other Gins of the era – a rollicking buildup leading to a powerful, though non-exploratory, peak.
Yesterday’s second set kicked off with a seven-minute Birds of a Feather that was over nearly as quickly as it started. Thankfully Carini didn’t suffer the same fate and contained a major-key “butter jam” similar to the marvelous version from Broomfield, Colorado last fall. Out of nowhere Anastasio worked the Tweezer riff into the blissful jam and his mates picked up what he was laying down making for an impressive segue. Speaking of impressive, the Tweezer was notable for the groove all four members locked into before Trey started his solo. Page ran point as the foursome assembled a funk-laden, mid-tempo canvas for Anastasio to paint. Again, it almost seemed like a “set play” that was worked out beforehand – a great sign of improvisational prowess if indeed this was spur-of-the-moment jamming. The tempo of the Tweezer jam was slower than usual and after Big Red was done weaving through the space the other three members of Phish left him, he shifted rhythms and before you knew it started up My Friend, My Friend. All in all a dark and dirty start to the closing stanza.
Rock and Roll has been a launching point for a number of fantastic explorations this year and when Phish eschewed the traditional “Myfe” ending of My Friend to start the Velvet Underground cover, hopes were high. Other jams on this night were about group interplay, but for the majority of Rock and Roll it was all Trey all the time. At various points it was hard to tell what song the band was jamming as they made up for the lack of a jam in the set opener by exploring Birds of a Feather terrain within Rock and Roll. Towards the end of R&R both Gordon and McConnell asserted themselves leading to a few glorious minutes before a weird and wild segue into NICU. Not the best segue Phish ever executed, but it worked in terms of getting the crowd revved up for NICU.
When drummer Jon Fishman hit the toms to signal the start of Harry Hood it was bittersweet. Our feelings about the missing “x-factor” have been well-documented and the troubles the quartet encountered during the composed segments didn’t help raise the excitement level. Yet by the time the “you could feel good” refrain had come it was hard to find anyone who didn’t have a huge smile across their face. The peak wasn’t based on distorted machine-gun firings from Trey; this time around it consisted of a gorgeous riff from the guitarist who varied the riff by adding accents each time through as he patiently built the jam to a frenetic finish. Instead of rushing through the peak Phish embraced it as we’re getting closer to the band reaching the heights of Hood’s past. With a Bug set-closer and one of the shortest Tube’s ever played to kick off a three-song encore that also included Rocky Top and Tweezer Reprise, Night One was in the books.
All in all, there were highlights scattered throughout the evening as Phish set the bar at the proper level to top themselves moving forward. The group returns to MSG tonight for Night Two.