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Published: 2009/12/11
by Dan Greenhaus

Phish, Madison Square Garden, NYC – 12/2 & 12/3

Photo by Dave Vann© Phish 2009

It has been some time since the Phish from Vermont stepped foot in the hallowed halls of New York’s Madison Square Garden; seven years to be exact. While several venues have played host to legendary Phish concerts through the years (Nassau Coliseum, Red Rocks), none have played host to as many top notch Phish shows as MSG. Taking the stage shortly after 8 PM led to an eruption of appreciation and anticipation from the crowd who welcomed the quartet back to the city that never sleeps.

Riding the wave of two excellent shows in Albany and a terrific jaunt up to Albany, the band began the set with a fairly restrained run through of “AC/DC Bag” followed by a powerful “Chalk Dust Torture.” Much has been made of Phish 3.0’s reluctance to jam, an observation that has been made continuously since the band returned with excellent but improv-deficient shows in Hampton. While “Chalk Dust” and the ensuing “Wolfman’s Brother” never reached “out there” levels, both managed to showcase the band’s interplay even if the volume – an issue throughout the first night – left many reaching for earplugs.

The rest of the first set was a study in the group’s catalog with only one new song – “Ocelot” – finding its way into the setlist. Of course, one would be remiss without mentioning the incredible return of “Peaches en Regalia,” one of the most requested songs (along with “Mound” and “Skin it Back” among others) that never seems to get played. While there are any number of reasons to see the band on more than one evening in a given tour, missing the night they play a rarity such as “Peaches” surely ranks near the top (One still struggles to explain why missing them play a given song, especially a song that they didn’t write and one with no “jam,” is such a big deal. But it is.).

Photo by Dave Vann© Phish 2009

Following a truly enjoyable first set, the quartet began the second in strong fashion. Opening the second set with “Golgi” for the first time since the fall of 1995, Phish brought the crowd’s energy back to mid-set form before beginning the first and only real “jam” of the evening with “Light.” While it’s only been played eight times, “Light” has really blossomed into one of the band’s best second set jam vehicles. On this occasion, the band once again left the song’s moorings behind, finding themselves in an entirely different environment led by tremendous work by Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman. With so much focus on Trey Anastasio (and rightfully so in many respects), one wonders how the rhythm section gets so overlooked. Simply jams such as “Light” could not occur without Mike and Fish’s ability to alter a song’s structure and move beyond root note anchorings. “Light” is just the latest example.

However, the set seemed to come lose thereafter. While the ensuing “Slave to the Traffic Light” was thoroughly enjoyable, “Tweezer’s” strong, grooving start petered out while “Joy” and “Sparkle” seemed to take the air out of the set. A standard but fun “Harry Hood” followed while “Wading in the Velvet Sea” sent many to the bathrooms. “Suzy Greenberg” got things back on track with excellent work, as always, by Page while “Run Like an Antelope” felt rushed.

It’s not every Phish concert that the band manages to play such a strong first set followed by an unusually choppy second set; usually the reverse is true. But for those seeing the band for the first time ever, first time on this tour or first time since the reunion, none of this mattered. Phish concerts, even the less than stellar ones, are tremendous fun and tonight was no exception.

*****

As the opening notes of “Punch You in the Eye” wafted through Madison Square Garden, one thing became immediately and unavoidably clear; tonight would not be nearly as loud as the first night. If there was one thing that generated universal agreement, a nearly impossible feat at any given Phish concert these days, it was that the sound was too loud on the previous evening. By night two, one would be hard pressed to find another show with so many fans equipped with ear plugs. Fortunately, such precautions proved unnecessary. The appropriate adjustments were made which made the show thoroughly enjoyable in this regard.

Unfortunately, the first set, while “fine” in virtually all respects, didn’t seem to really ever get going even with some propulsion at the beginning. “Backwards Down the Number Line,” a tune that has really emerged as one of the better songs from the new batch, got the crowd moving while subsequent run throughs of “Axilla” and “Taste” were solid enough. The real highlight of the first set came by way of “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” featuring Mike Gordon’s typically bouncy, distorted baselines. However, Phish has a penchant for abandoning first set “Boogie Ons” before really taking the song “out there” and unfortunately, this evenings version continued that unfortunate trend. While it is unfair to compare every version of this song to the stellar versions from either 12/7/97 or 12/29/98, such versions serve as reminders of what the song can be. The set finished out in “okay” fashion, weighed down by a laborious “Time Turns Elastic.” The closing combo of “Back on the Train” and “Julius” helped propel the band and crowd’s energy into overdrive but couldn’t save the set from uneven territory.

Photo by Dave Vann© Phish 2009

However In a reversal of the first night, Thursday saw a stellar second set follow an uneven first. The “Down with Disease” opener was blistering, featuring ferocious lead work from Trey Anastasio. The jam filtered down, finding its way into an excellent version of “Piper” followed by Madison Square Garden’s first “Fluffhead.” Nearly flawless in its execution, “Fluffhead” took an already strong set into overdrive. Excellent versions of “Cities,” “Free” and “Halley’s Comet” followed, keeping the set’s energy near the redline. “Also Sprach Zarathutra,” that put things over the top and the band arguably could have ended the set there but instead choose to dig in with “David Bowie.”

Phish’s second of three nights at MSG, like its predecessor, had its ups and downs. Whether the band will be able to capitalize on the “ups” and put together a completely inspired show from start to finish remains to be seen. Phish 3.0 is not Phish 1.0 but that doesn’t mean we can’t hope for more of what we heard in “Down with Disease.”

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