Phish | Madison Square Garden 2011 | Review

Words by: Garrin Benfield | Images by: Dave Vann

Phish :: 12.29.11-12.30.11 :: Madison Square Garden :: New York, NY


Phish - 12-29-11- Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011
Depending on your perspective, Phish either took over midtown Manhattan for their 2011 holiday run at Madison Square Garden, or were barely even noticed by commuters descending beneath the venue to Penn Station. Though the band has been playing the world's most famous venue since 1994, it still strikes me how the lot scene is completely absorbed by the streets outside the venue, which appear only moderately busier because of the band's presence. This year's frigid temperatures sent everyone inside nice and early for the second of the four sold out shows.

It's always a bit disorienting entering the flow of a special stand-alone run like this one on the second night, but everyone I spoke with had positive things to say about night one, and a general air of gratitude billowed through the crowd that the band was even able to schedule these dates amongst a short family oriented hiatus. My concerns over whether the band would be rusty and unrehearsed were temporarily put at bay by the metrically challenging "Sloth" opener, which like the "You Enjoy Myself" that followed, was executed near perfectly and took me completely off guard. I can't remember ever seeing "YEM" placed so early in a show and it came across as an undeniable statement of confidence. The room erupted and even accommodated the strange feeling of hearing an a cappella vocal jam before some people had settled into their seats.

As if to temper any expectations that this would be a night of unpredictable left turns (as the recently released '97 box set was fresh on everyone's minds), Trey slid right into an expected but crackling "Back on the Train". This version, though, also included a valiant effort at a brief free form jam when Mike abandoned the blues chord change and instead rested on the one. "Moma Dance" and "Funky Bitch", both heavily played last Summer Tour, still worked well because they allow this era of Phish to indulge in their essential strength of grooving while tempting tastefully the outer edges of melodic interplay. Page really stepped up his B-3 solo on "Funky Bitch" and was happily cranked in the PA, which sounded both crisp and warm all night. The rest of the set wrapped up unremarkably but with great panache. A typically dark and climactic "Maze" and a fully pumped "Antelope" brought the first set to a crashing conclusion.

Phish - 12-29-11- Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011
The second set began with great promise as the band leaned into the Talking Head's "Crosseyed and Painless", but after only a few minutes of future funk, bled seamlessly into "Simple". The jam out of "Simple" featured some beautifully cascading runs from Trey before the whole band began dissolving in a more pointilistic direction. I think it's safe to say no one called "Lifeboy" (the gauzy acoustic ballad from Hoist) next, but I was fascinated by the choice and eager to see how it went down. Well, this was New York City after all, so predictably the band lost some folks to the beer lines, and frankly, to my ears the tune could have used a few more run-throughs in soundcheck. "Lifeboy" also illustrated one of my recurring frustrations with some Phish songs where the piece feels like it's so close to working on a profound level but one line or odd musical choice derails its chances of joining some elusive outside pop music pantheon. For me, on this evening, the line "You don't get a refund if you overpray" was the stumbling block that distracted me from the otherwise gorgeous cadence of the chorus and the brilliantly understated guitar figure that runs underneath the intro and turnaround sections. However, the band deserves much admiration for continuing to mine its back catalog for left field material.

"Guyute" came next, and though heralded as one of Trey's last great Fugue-inspired pieces, is still a very divisive tune that did little to reignite the room. "Mike's Song", of course, did just that, and also included the second biggest surprise of the night when, after a searing jam, instead of "Hydrogen" the band slid into "Chalkdust Torture" as if they had discussed it backstage (Who knows? Stranger things have happened). Trey created quite a challenge for himself in how to return to "I Am Hydrogen" at the breakneck clip of "Chalkdust", but pulled it off with the rest of the band gamely falling into place. An incendiary, generously jammed "Weekapaug Groove" followed, featuring more than a few tantalizing plateaus of piano and guitar interplay. This thick and involving section of the second set is what lingered as the sold out room slowly exited and tried to pace itself for the next two nights at MSG.


Phish - 12-30-11- Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011
December 30 has achieved a folkloric importance in the jam band universe as the night to see in an end of the year run, a theory that has its roots in the Grateful Dead's mostly left coast series of shows at the Kaiser Auditorium or, later, the Oakland Coliseum. The idea is that the band is warmed up from the previous night or two of shows but not yet exhausted, over-partied, or overwhelmed by the ballyhoo of New Year's Eve. The energy inside Phish's penultimate show of 2011 indicated this theory is alive and well. With expectations running unfairly high, the band delivered a maddeningly inconsistent show that contained truly beautiful and innovative explorations amidst some rough or seemingly uninspired patches.

Things got off to a snappy start when Trey counted off "Punch You in the Eye" with his thick, flange drenched tone. Though not stop-on-a-dime perfect, I'm always blown away that the band considers this tune a good way to warm up! Trey then slid into a completely unexpected "Prince Caspian", which like the previous night's "You Enjoy Myself," has rarely occupied such an early set position. The move was partially successful. On the one hand, I felt very deeply that this choice was an indication that Trey wanted to make this a special night, as "Caspian" has always seemed to me to be a song about Phish music itself as much as anything else. On the other, tempo-wise, the room was thrown from fifth gear into second quite abruptly. I thought it ended up working well, as the band was fresh and committed. After droning for a few seconds at the song's conclusion, Fishman played that fluttering snare intro to "Backwards Down the Number Line," which felt like a new, old friend entering the room that I hadn't thought about in a while. "Number Line" reached a nice, simmering, first set boil with just the right amount of good natured, gurgling Trey lines. A very intriguing three song beginning that could probably only result from not planning.

Phish - 12-30-11- Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011
The bluegrass ditty "Nellie Kane", though flawless, reminded me that I don't feel a great need to hear Phish play bluegrass anymore. At one time, one of the most novel genre surprises of the jam scene, it has been so co-opted as to be cliché. "Divided Sky" continued what was shaping up to be a very diverse set, and was pretty much note-perfect. As many times as I have heard this song, there are still passages that can stir tears and the now-traditional long silence in the heart of the tune always feels like an opportunity for the whole audience to come together. The band played every passage like they meant it. "Sand", though one of the juiciest funk grooves Phish ever devised, seemed premature at this point in the set, like it had been chosen in haste as sometimes happens when there is no setlist. And the jam itself suffered as a result, never really achieving liftoff, but instead remaining a crunchy rock excursion. "Vultures", a classic Phish prog-oddity, seemed like a bit of red meat tossed to the confused crowd who were beginning to wilt under the expectations of so much eclecticism. But with its few obvious flubs, even it didn't achieve the hoped for result. Trey instantly took off into a brisk "Rift" that suffered from the rust of months off the road. Playing such a demanding tune without rehearsal is either hubris or an unfortunate aspect of Phish's dedicated improvisational ethic. Following "Rift" with "Joy" didn't improve the situation. "Joy" is a well intentioned, heartfelt song about unexpected loss and living life fully, but so out of the vocal range of both Trey and Page, and also under-rehearsed, that all of its power seemed deflated. Not surprisingly, the set closing "Quinn the Eskimo" had the desired galvanizing effect on the room, with its easy groove and multiple reference points, from Dylan to the Dead to the many Phish versions of years past. It also set up the rest of the night for possible transcendence, though the vibe was decidedly unsure.

Phish - 12-30-11- Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011
Though Phish has successfully resisted the categorization of their repertoire into stifling first and second set categories, there are still some songs that to me belong earlier in the show, and some that should be broken out later in the night. So, when Trey busted into that familiar crunchy E chord of "Wilson" and then followed that with a very confused "Axilla," wherein half the band didn't appear to know what key they were in, my heart sank a bit. Even the beginning of "Piper", a tune I really think should be reserved for especially inspired evenings, did little to assuage my anxiety, as Trey rushed the vocal entrance and then quickly reached for the low hanging fruit of all the rock riffage at his disposal. But a cool breeze came over the proceedings and the whole band suddenly began listening to one another in a much deeper way. A fractured, dark funk groove with amphetamine tom rolls and moist synth washes emerged and became the launching pad for 10 or so minutes of fascinating, roiling weirdness. Trey began playing thematically, enabling Mike to compliment his repeated lines, until a minimalist tangle was achieved, suggesting Reich and King Crimson as only Phish can. As things began to settle, Trey let loose cries that seemed part bird, part anguished dog; a true cooperative improvisation from which a slinky "Twist" emerged. A newly inspired Trey played his sexiest, snakiest leads of the night, and the whole band seemed newly minted, given a fresh set of capabilities to finish off the show.

After "Julius" and "Golgi Apparatus", two more songs that, though well played, seemed somehow to be crashing a party in progress, the crowd exhaled with a joyous "2001". Looking around me, I could feel that beautiful symbiotic relationship between the band and the inhabitants of this round room start to flourish. It wasn't a "2001" for the ages, but I would argue it was unique in its warmth. In either case, it was definitely the right choice to begin to tell the story of the last part of this show. A "David Bowie" that provided all one could ask for in terms of execution and dissonance fueled jamming appeared to end the set. Then, suprisingly,Trey began "Squirming Coil", not because the show needed one more tune - in fact it seemed almost tacked on at the time - but because he wanted Page to wrap up the night with his lovely piano interlude. A generous and rocking two song/two cover encore of "Boogie on Reggae Woman" and "Good Times Bad Times" concluded what could only be called another diverse and generous show from the only musicians playing at this scale who continue to risk so much.

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[Published on: 1/6/12]

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