Saturday, December 29, 2012

Phish MSG Night 1: This Time It's Gonna Be Different

Same band. Same venue. Same dates. Different year.

I can't think of a better way to end any calendar year than embarking on a four-day bender with Phish performing as the house band and you party down with friends and strangers while ringing in the new year. I grew up in NYC, so seeing Phish at the end of the year inside MSG seems... normal to me. It was cool to head down to the swamps of Florida for the millennium all-night orgy along with two sidetrips to Miami for 2003 and 2009. But MSG is the place to be for a Phishy NYE run. It just makes sense.

Our view of MSG #1 (via @Change100)
 What you give up in a  "lot scene" or camping vibe, you more than make up in the historical significance of the venue itself. The Garden is often billed as "the world's greatest arena." Say what you want about the poppy crapola that infects the airwaves, and those watered-down bands/acts might sell out MSG when they breeze through town, but none of them are truly important enough to set aside for nights in a row to close out the year... year after year... so Phish and thier adoring legion of fans could throw down for four bacchanalian nights in a row. The beancounters at MSG know what's up... Phish is a moneymaker... and the suits gladly kick out the Knicks and Rangers (when there's an actual hockey season, but that's a rant I'll write next week on Ocelot Sports) and make them play games on the road while the open MSG's doors to hardcore hippies, bros, brahs, funkiest bitches, heady mommas, spunions, and every Phishead in the Northeast Kingdom in a scene that would horrify most square people, but I'm proud to say that those freaks are my people... my friends... my scene. Robert Hunter summed it up in a popular Grateful Dead song... "Ain't no place I'd rather be."

Phish had not played a show since they exited the stage at Dick's outside Denver on Labor Day weekend. The Dick's run and the FUCK YOUR FACE show was one of those watershed moments in Phish history that solidifies the band's legendary status. However, that was almost four months ago. It's damn near impossible to replicate that magic after a lengthy hiatus. One of the only bad things about a naked NYE's run is that the band is coming in cold. It's not like they were playing a December tour of a dozen or more shows and took a week off for Christmas before returning to MSG to finish off the year. That's why it's important to go into the MSG with low expectations. It's hard not to think about the San Francisco run or the Dick's shows when conjuring up warm memories about 2012 Phish, but you have to put those fun times aside and go in with low expectations. I've been let down too many times because I created impossible expectations in my head and when the band failed to deliver, I walked out of the show a truly jaded vet. But... if you go in with low (or zero) expectations, then everything else is gravy.

A friend scored tickets for my girlfriend and I right behind the soundboard or four rows off the floor. My section was mellow and everyone was well behaved except the one drunk guy who talked nonstop during Fluffhead, but all things considered, it was a pleasant experience. We had a seat with optimal sound. Funny thing is that only four or five actual tapers were recording the show. It was weird to see a GA floor at MSG and friends were telling me about the nightmare scene trying to get down to the floor. Just a heads-up... if you have floor tickets the next few nights, give yourself extra time to get down there.

Phish was rusty, which was expected, and it took them about a half of a set to shake off the rust and blow out the cobwebs. It was around the end of the second song when I got a text from my buddy Bruce (the Grateful Dead Guru among my NYC friends and we caught the last run of Dead shows together before Jerry died in 1995) who is also a drummer, so I rely on his assessment of Fishman's playing to gauge whether or not we're in for a fantastic night. Bruce though Fishman was on point during Moma Dance. The injection of the funk instrumental always gets everyone moving and grooving. The crowd was already fired up before the band took the stage. I love that abundance of anxious and frenetic energy that fills the air inside MSG on the first night of the four-show run. The band feeds off that vibe and vice versa. Somehow the Garden harnesses those vibes, which helps raise the building several feet off the ground during the actual concert.

The early highlight of the first set was Tube. It's one of my favorite Phish songs and my only gripe is I wished they really stretched it out for ten minutes. At this juncture, we only get those succinct versions of Tube, so it's what happens in those three minutes of the impromptu funk jam that makes life worth living. I chase around Phish so much to experienced those short bursts of glorious exploration, which you never know when or where you'll find it. I prefer Phish sets with fewer songs because it gives the band more wiggle room to crate something out of nothing. The hard part is knowing that the MSG run will take on a Greatest Hits vibe, so you have to take what the band gives you. In this instance, it was 180 seconds of funkified bliss.

Stash is like a trip to that part of town your momma would have a heart attack if you she knew you were hanging out in the dingiest, darkest back alleys of deviency. That's one of the elements of Phish that I dig... that they can take you on a journey to the dark side of the force... except they don;t do it as much as I'd like. Stash is precisely one of those songs that is a shortcut to those dark alleys. The Stash jam (starting around 7 minutes in) hit that "Evil Jams" territory. I was probably most impressed  with Page's contributions as they pulled out of the Stash jam after deciding they weren't going to dig too deep.

Free was on my radar because one of the moments from last year that stuck with me the most was the Free opener to kick off the MSG run. In this year's version... Trey included some dirty, gritty tones on the end of Free, which made it stand out from the rest of the set.

Wolfman's Brah was the highlight of the set and one of the overall best moments of the night. It had all the elements of a Phishy highlight... the ground shook the entire time while he crowd hanging on every note during a heavy storm of funk jamming and a little playful tease and full blown section of the Little Drummer Boy that was sandwiched in between two heavy Wolf jams. The fun began about five minutes in with a bit of stripped down jamming anchored by Page milking the clav while Trey sat back and let Gordo, Fish, Page play off each other. Coulda sworn I heard Frankenstein-like teases from Page. Around ten minutes in Trey added the notes to Lil Drummer Boy and eventually everyone caught on and the crowd began to sing along. I dunno if it translated well through the live feed or on the download, but that's one of those "you had to be there moments" when Phish does something cooky like that and the crowd helps them pull off those hijinks.

The foray into Drummer Boy stopped on a dime about the 11:30 mark and the boys returned to jamming out Wolfman's although it took on more of a hard-edged blues vibe with a bit of funk remnants. The crowd went totally bonkers at the end of Wolfman's and that would be one of two moments (Tweezer was the other) during the night went everyone went apeshit berserk.

A twenty-minute version of Tweezer kicked off the second set and I didn't realize how long it was until I checked. It seemed much shorter, but that's when you know you're having a good time when you think a 20-minute jam was brief. No complaints. I love my Tweezers to clock in at least 18 minutes long... because it's in the nether regions where Phish's alchemy works best. The Tweeze jam had three main components... the first one was your standard launching pad for some shredding, although I kinda got lost in the second one (at times it sounded like Page was playing a Coil-like jam), but the boys really floored me on the third segment (it's about 15 minutes in) when Trey wavered back and forth between a Slave-like noodle jam before a short reprise of the Wolf jam before finessing the end of the Tweeze jam. Then without stopping... the little drummah boy Fishman cued them up for Maze.

Maze is another one of those songs in which the band takes you on a journey over to the dark side of the force. Sometimes they get you lost in one of those terrifying hedge-like mazes from The Shining. Other times it's like an old school episode of Tom & Jerry cartoons with a cat and mouse chasing each other around the entire time. The speed of Maze impressed me the most. It's not like the mid-90s when Phish played with precision-like speed and absolutely nailed segments. These days, they can get a little sloppy or lazy or take short cuts by skipping over some notes, but the second half of Maze was as close to one of those Maze's of my youth... back in the days when I'd eat a fistful of shrooms and follow Phish circa 93-94 while they played blistering-fast cocaine-fueled versions of Maze. The MSG Maze reminded me of the end of Tom & Jerry cartoon when Tom is running full speed trying to catch Jerry, but Jerry escapes the clutches of Tom and darts into a tiny hole in the wall and Tom crashed head first into the wall. In 3.0, there were some stellar versions of Maze from the 2010 summer tour, but for the most part Phish slows down a bit in order to "thread that needle" but in this instance they had the confidence to go full speed ahead. All the credit goes to Fishman for flooring the pedal and going balls to the wall. They could have totally crashed but... didn't. Was it the best Maze of 3.0? No. Not even close, but for they executed this version with speed and precision... like Ben Johnson on roids.

Yeah, it's weird. I actually dug Maze more than Tweezer. But that's what I love about Phish... you never know what you're going to get on any given night.

Trey wanted to give Fishman a shoutout for being the little drummah boy as a reprise of LDB blended into the intro to Twist. Earlier this summer, Twist had become its own beast starting off at Bader Field with all the "Woooooooos!" Phish had fun with Twist this year as it became a favorable vehicle for them to let rip some wraparound jamming. If there was a point in which Trey was "playing too many notes" it would probably be in the middle of the Twist jam that eventually bleed into a frantic smorgasbord of four-way jamming with Page slamming the ivories so hard that I thought he was going to break a few fingers. Twist jam ended up with Trey/Page interjecting more LDB notes. I'm glad the band reinvigorated Twist in 2012 because it had become kinda stale and it seemed like the band was going through the motions in earlier 3.0 versions. Glad they decided to kick down a few doors using Twist as a battering ram.

Theme was well placed. They needed to give Fishman a few minutes to cool off and the build up to the crescendo is always one of those amazing moments to experience at a live show. Theme is one of those songs that feels 100% different when you're at a show versus listening to it on tape... mostly because of the emotional rollerscoaster the band takes you on. I firmly believe that humans can feed off the energy of each other and Theme is one of those songs in which you can close your eyes and feel the transference of energy/emotions/vibes. Okay, maybe I'm wrong and that's just the acid talking... but next time you're at a show and they play Theme, just close your eyes and try to see the music in terms of melodious bundles of energy.

The crowd lapped up Fluffhead but the middle of the song was ruined for me by a drunken asstard behind us. Help clean up the scene... if you're friends with the "Drunk Guy" or "Schwilly Girl" who won't stop talking during a show, it's your moral obligation and duty to politely tell then to shut the fuck up. Yeah, boisterous talking during shows is a huge pet peeve of mine. With the exception of bodily fluids and someone pissing/puking/shitting/jizzing on you at a show, there's no greater offense that a loud drunk trying to talk over the music. Usually friends of said drunktard try to be quiet as a "hint" but that's bad enabling behavior because it gives the drunktard more opportunity to continue to blabber on about stupid shit. Do everyone a favor, and shush your drunktard friends.

Anyway, the crowd let it rip during the climax point of Fluffhead and that's gotta be one of the Top 10 greatest moments during a Phish show... right after the "bundle of joy" mumbling and at the apex when everyone screams out "Flufffffffheeeeeeeeeeeeeeead!"

David Bowie closed out the set. It seemed slightly ordinary and kinda rushed except for that little extra hot sauce they added to the end with a little stop/start breaks.

During the encore break, I sent out a tweet half-joking that I like it when Phish does not automatically play Tweezer Reprise on the same night as Tweezer and they save it for a later show. I was expecting a typical two-song encore with Tweeprise. Usually, they let Page belt out Loving Cup, but in this instance they opted for Bouncin'. Tom's friend was seeing her first Phish show and she wanted to hear Bouncin' so it's always kinda cool when you're not familiar with Phish's vast catalog and they play one of the few songs you know. Had this been in the first set, I would have taken a piss during Bouncin'. In this instance, I took the time to smoke a quick bowl.

Phish ended the show with a bong-rattling version of Good Times Bad Times. MSG is one of the few venues on the planet that has those perfect acoustics for a hard rocking Zeppelin tune. Heck, the ghost of John Boham has spent many a night backstage... so it was fitting that Trey went into full wanker mode and tore the shit out of GTBT. Instead of a Stones cover (Cup or Shine a Light), Phish went the Zeppelin route. My favorite part? When Page screams, "I know what it means to be alone!" and the crowd screams along with him.

First show is in the books and as expected, Phish shook off the rust in the first set but got their juju back with a blistering Wolfman's Brother that included some Little Drummah Boy hijinks. Phish's  six-song second set was anchored by a 20-minute Tweezer and a precision-guided missile in Maze. The only thing better than a six-song set would have been a five-songer, which is something I prefer to those 10+ song disjointed sets when Trey ripcords everything and tries squeeze in too many greatest hits instead of just picking a few songs and stretching those out organically.

One down. Three more to go.

Please check out my other recaps from both legs of summer tour. Don't forget to follow @CoventryMusic for in-game tweets during the MSG run. also, follow @change100 for her phan-fashion reports.