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Published: 2011/12/31
by Tom Volk

Phish, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY – 12/30

Photo by Rob Chapman

Let’s talk about the “Piper” first, because it was an utterly revelatory version and, in the final analysis, it’s what last night’s show will be remembered for. When you get your recording of the show, skip right past the first set and “Wilson” and “Axilla pt.1”, the openers to the second set, and go straight to “Piper,” cause it was THAT good and because the remainder of the offerings were just straight forward, standard Phish that was well executed (save for a smattering of flubs,) ordinary (albeit fun) and put forth in such a way that the stunning improvisation spewed out of the band after “Piper” demands to be listened to above all else.

It was a mind blowing take on a tune that has, as of late, been condensed. Gone are the days of languid, flowing introductions before its mantra-like verses and, with a handful of exceptions, its exploratory tendencies have been curtailed to the point where it usually feels abrupt. Indeed, Trey Anastasio began the verses after a few choppy, introductory bars, making the following jam that much more out of left field. And oh what a jam!, stabbing chording from Anastasio leading into what is easily the most creative playing we’ve seen from Jon Fishman so far this run. His galloping polyrhythmic energy propelled the band into its most extended improvisation of the first three nights. It had everything, synthesizer washes from Page McConnell melding perfectly with delay laden chords and quiet bird calls from Anastasio, with propulsive lead bass from Mike Gordon piercing through the tonal colors at all the right times. Really no amount of hyperbolic spew from this author can do it justice, go get the tapes and listen to it as soon as you can.

Here is the problem I am having though; to be sure the rest of the night was solid, with well done versions of old war horses like “Divided Sky” and “David Bowie” but those were mixed in with your ordinary Phish fare, which is all well and good in person. To be clear, I had a blast. There is never anything wrong with witnessing even a run of the mill Phish show. In the cold light of the morning though, is ordinary good enough for a new year’s run at Madison Square Garden? It’s a question that each fan has to answer for themselves, but for me its just not. If I sound jaded its because I am, guilty as charged. I didn’t raise that bar though, Phish did. The burden of going back a long ways with the band is that your always cognizant of what they are capable of, and more than a few times in that very building I’ve witnessed them top themselves time and time again(1). I’d love for nothing more than to sit here and tell you that last night was a throwback to the days of MSG past but it wasn’t even a call back to last years excellent run.

Still, as is the case with all Phish shows, there is plenty to note. In addition to the aforementioned “Divided Sky,” which was note perfect, the first set was energetic without anything else standing out. “Sand,” usually a vehicle for the bands more spacey leanings, devolved into a wailing, Anastasio led, rave up that could be attached to any number of stalwarts these days like “Bathtub Gin,” “Wolfmans Brother” etc, all of which used to have a unique improvisational character that’s gotten little lost in this era. “Vultures,” and “Nellie Kane” were dusted off, both somewhat left field inclusions that were well received. The bookends to the set, “Punch You In The Eye,” and “Quinn The Eskimo,” were, it should be noted, excellent ways to begin and end the proceedings.

After the monumental “Piper,” with “Twist” starting up there was an expectation that the improvisational floodgates might have finally opened for good, but instead, a slinky, standard, rocked out version was offered. The rest of the set followed that pattern: rocking, fun and largely without note. “2001” was featured some interesting, rock based interplay, as opposed to being the usual groove machine that it is. The introduction to “David Bowie” was layered with evil sounding “Silent in the Morning” leads from Anastasio, and the ominous jam outro jam was highlighted by ascending and descending dissonance from McConnell and Anastasio that melded well. I’ll never tire of seeing McConnell take the spotlight at the end of “Squirming Coil,” which closed the second set, and judging from the crowd reaction I’m not alone in that sentiment. A double encore of “Boogie on Reggae Woman” and “Good Times, Bad Times” brought the night to a close with some nimble bass pyrotechnics from Gordon during “Boogie On” being the highlight.

This sets up nicely for New Years Eve to take the spotlight, lord knows any of the first three nights can be topped at this point. They still have IT, the “Piper” from another planet that they dropped tonight proves that it is still there, even if it’s fleeting. Now they just have to unleash that spirit for a whole show, and, jaded as I may be, I’m hopeful they will.

(1) In the interest of full disclosure I’ve missed 10-21-96, 12-30-98, 12-31-02, 12-30 and 12-31-10.

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