Shows like Saturday night’s at Madison Square Garden leave me scratching my head, wondering what, exactly, the band was intending to do. Following an opening night that laid the groundwork for a stellar run, the guys came out on one of the holiest days of the Phish calendar, 12/29, and barely attempted a lick of open improv. Following Denver’s revelation and a monumental “Tweezer” on the 28th, one had to expect at least a chunk of musical risk-taking on night two. But with one sonic body blow after another, they guys made it a point try absolutely nothing. There is no doubt that they played their songs quite well, and nobody can take that away from them, though we expect Phish to play their songs proficiently at this stage of the game. However, if we are calibrating shows by their level of cerebral engagement—music that enraptures one’s wildest imagination—12/29 was the least impressive of the year by leaps and bounds.
Before going any further, let me state—once again—that I go to Phish shows to see them jam; to witness the band weave musical memories in real time. If I wanted to listen to Phish songs, I could throw one of many CDs to happily meet that desire. But shows are supposed to be something more. Phish shows are the times when we have the privilege to be awed by the superhuman powers of the most magical musicians on earth. But there was nothing magical about last night at all. With little rhyme or reason, the guys sculpted a piecemeal setlist that possessed no direction or vigor whatsoever. I would love to write about the improvisational highlights of the show but there were none. Zero. Zilch. A few minutes of bland, quasi-connected, atmospheric funk out of “Golden Age” represented the band’s only attempt at any sort of jamming. Even songs like “Rock and Roll,” “Reba,” “Bathtub Gin” and “Waves” that almost always feature exciting improv were delivered in straight forward and unspectacular fashion. There were plenty of high-energy moments—specifically “Suzy Greenberg” and “46 Days”—but those are meant to be the supporting cast, not the lead actors.
The concern that now comes into play for this Holiday Run is whether the 28th will wind up as the best show of the run, just as it was a year ago. It felt like Dick’s provided a pivot point in the development of modern Phish. It seemed that the guys had their hearts rededicated to sophisticated musical experimentation, and that the “hit or miss” aspect that has annoyingly pervaded 3.0 was a thing of the past. But after last night’s song-based snoozefest, that all seems like wishful thinking. Perhaps the 29th was just a bump in the road, but by anyone’s standards, it felt virtually inconceivable that the band would pull out such a performance on Saturday night at the Garden. But they did. And there is nothing to do but smile, put it behind us, and comeback on the 30th for a massive bounce back night of improvisation.
I: Crowd Control, Mound, AC/DC Bag, Rock and Roll, Sugar Shack, Reba, Halley’s Comet > Limb By Limb*, Wading in the Velvet Sea, Bathtub Gin**
II: Golden Age > Waves > Prince Caspian*** > Boogie On Reggae Woman, Suzy Greenberg, Bug, Cavern, 46 Days
E: The Squirming Coil, Grind, First Tube
*Follow the Yellow Brick Road tease
**”Susie Q” quote from Fishman