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Published: 2011/12/29
by Tom Volk

Phish, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY – 12/28

What you were looking for was a sign, a mere indicator that this would not be a night for Phish to shake off the rust and empty out their inner set list generator before moving on to three more nights of proper Dionysian musical excess.

We didn’t have to wait long for the sign to appear. The first ever “Free” to open a show (really?) was its typical anthemic self, which is to say perfunctory, and no indicator either way of whether a three and a half month layoff would affect the band. The wood block melody that signals the opening of “Glide” was just what we were looking for. Dusting off a tune like “Glide,” and well at that, for the first time in two years, is not a sign that the band would need to shake off anything in the way of ill effects from a lightened tour schedule.

Nor was a gift from the gods of first set improvisation during a mid set take on “Cities.” Delicate ambience, defined by rhythmic, pulsing leads emanating from Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon, bloomed into a clear highlight of the opening salvo, even if it buzzed to an end too early for this jam hound’s taste. There is still an aspect of “coitus interruptus” to many of the bands exploratory efforts at this point in their career, but when the compact and subtle ambient oeuvre that the they have carved out over the past few years works it’s a pleasure to behold, even when you want it to last for 5 more minutes.

The remainder of the first set was solid, nothing more, nothing less. Rarities like “The Ballad Of Curtis Loew,” the venerable Lynyrd Skynyrd chestnut, and “Contact” were well received and well done. “Stash,” the old improvisational stalwart of the mid-first set, threatened to get over the hump from average to spectacular a few times without ever quite getting there. “Bathtub Gin” closed out the proceedings with a wailing rave up that was either wholly satisfying if that is your thing, or a missed chance if you’re a fan of the bands more exploratory tendencies.

Those tendencies, along with a superlative “Harry Hood,” defined a second set of many highlights save for some bizarre set list inclusions in the depths of the set. “Carini” followed a concise “Birds of a Feather” opener, its outro modulating from fierce minor key licks from Anastasio into a lilting organ drone. Page McConnell, the master of the subtle improvisational shift, laid an ethereal foundation of droning chords on his organ and Fender Rhodes, colored by patient ascending and descending leads from Anastasio. A proper, layered segue into “Tweezer” followed. Its jam segment, comprised of staccato funk pickings that elevated to an anti climactic “Streets of Cairo” tease rather than the improvisational fireworks that are increasingly elusive in the bands de-facto excuse to jam. After a wailing workout of the Velvet Undergrounds “Rock and Roll” someone on stage forgot that the first set had ended an hour and a half ago and brought the momentum to a grinding halt with versions of “NICU” and “Bouncing Around The Room,” that, while they were well played, have no business being in the depths of a second set at Madison Square Garden, let alone anywhere.

Let’s give the set list generator a pass though, as any gorgeous, late set, “Harry Hood” has the power to redeem all. I don’t know if this version will settle onto anyone’s must-have classic “Hood” list, but Anastasio’s skill in negotiating the upper reaches of his fret board were the perfect tonic for the late set clunkers. That kind of brilliance is THE reason we/I keep coming back year after year.

It was the climax of a well played, solid opening show that certainly points to the potential of the next three nights to be what they should be. This is Phish at MSG after all. The closer, “Bug” and the encore of “Tube,” “Rocky Top,” and “Tweezer Reprise,” was fun, even if there is nothing worth noting save for the fact the “Tweezer Reprise” is the ultimate spectacle in arena rock today, but you already knew that.

And so it’s on to night two at MSG, and one can only wait and hope for more Dionysian musical excess at its best. On the evidence of the opener, I don’t think we’ll end up disappointed, but you already knew that too.

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