Expectations. It is better to go into a situation without them and be pleasantly surprised than it is to go in and be let down. Expectations that a certain thing will happen, or at a Phish show, that a certain song will be played it its “regular” location. (Or, shall we mention Halloween and the expectations of a musical costume. Did those expectations and the ensuing grumblings get to the band’s ears? Six sets and no covers. Makes you wonder . . . ) Following last night’s show at Madison Square Garden, the third in Phish’s four-night New Year’s run, let’s just say my pleasant surprise outweighed any let-down that may (or may not) have occurred.
Having decided to go to one show this year, I chose the 30th. I felt there was something poetic about attending Phish’s 30th show at MSG on December 30th, during their 30th year as a band. It was poetic, on paper; in reality, I knew I had to temper my expectations. All reports from the first two nights were pointing in a positive direction, especially the second set from the second night. Needless to say, I was excited for what was in store for us that Monday evening.
The band kicked things off around 8:18 with “Kill Devil Falls.” Filling the “Chalk Dust” slot, the song opened ever so slightly in the middle as the band loosened up. But for the most part, the song has not changed drastically in the past four years since I saw its first two performances at Jones Beach. The “Bathtub Gin” that followed was a pleasant surprise, as the second song, with the crowd sing-along "We love to take a bath!" This was easily the highlight of the first set for me (and for Trey, in my opinion). There were some really great sounds coming from his guitar during “Gin’s” melodic peak, and I am excited to relisten. Trey capped things off with a “Shave and a Haircut” riff at the end, for good measure.
“Cuddly, but muscular”: name another Phish song where the lyrics describe the song so perfectly. “Wombat” is exactly that — cute and quirky, syncopated, but oh so strong in its melody and funk. Page was all over the clav to start the little jam, followed by Mike laying it thick. One of the Wingsuit songs that I can comfortably say has some legs (no pun intended).
The “Massachusetts dub” — as it was referred to by a first-time listener — of “Yarmouth Road” was next; not sure why, but Trey seems to struggle with these new Mike songs (like “Sugar Shack”). While it is a definite crowd pleaser, “46 Days” does not do a whole lot for me when played straight forward as it was. Nice to hear the Chairman of the Boards croon for us as he does on “Lawn Boy”; it should be noted that Fishman came out from behind his kit to join Mike on the edge of the stage and take a bow — for simply being Fishman. Well deserved.
Having listened to Phish for all these years, I have come to realize each fan is there for something just a bit different. For how much I can do without “46 Days,” I actually quite enjoy “Heavy Things.” I have a soft spot in my heart for the spin Phish puts on “pop” songs (I am even a “Jennifer Dances” apologist). Maybe it awakens memories of “Cheesecake!” from Cypress, but “Heavy Things” never fails to put a smile on my face. This version featured a great (new?) keyboard tone from Page. The “Punch You In the Eye” that followed started off quite slowly, almost as though they were unsure on whether they should play it. Maybe they made the wrong decision, as it neither carried the weight that it does as an opener nor did it feature tight playing; bit of a rough one. “Sample In a Jar” seemed to be a crowd favorite. I was somewhat expecting the show to end there until the opening notes of “Gotta Jibboo” were sounded by Trey; the jam featured some of Trey’s go-to licks (“Oom bap, oom bap bap”).
The discussion of First vs Second Sets in Phish 3.0 has picked up as of late (see the comments following the recent blog post, “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Phish”). And not to be completely dismissive, last night’s 75-minute first set was what could have been expected. Outside of the “Gin” and maybe the “Wombat,” I struggle to find a section I want to hear again. But just as the First Set could be passed over, the Second Set was full of captivating improvisation and interesting song choices.
As the light’s went down around 10:10, I was still hoping for (not expecting) a “Runaway Jim” or a “Mike’s Song” (hey, one would be played!). What kicked off the second set was “Chalk Dust Torture.” I smiled with the similarity that “KDF” offered in the first set. Although, that similarity did not last long. I do not believe I am jumping the gun in saying this is a must-hear version of “CDT.” (Comparisons to 7/10/99 were being tossed around on the interwebs; I look forward to listening to the two versions.) With Trey calling to the whales, the song began to escape the grips of Type I eight or so minutes in, with Mike stepping to the fore-front soon after. Around the eleventh minute, Trey introduced a completely new idea — to the point that I actually thought they were going into a new song. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case and it turned dark and funky with Page once again on the clav and Mike leading the charge during a bit of a start-and-stop section of improv.
After about 19 minutes, those wonderful opening notes of “Mike’s Song” were sounded. And I let out a yelp, and I believe jumped along with a few fist pumps. From my first show 19 years ago, this has always been my favorite. And even without the “second jams” of yore, I could hear “Mike’s” at every show I attend. Standing in the “Hydrogen” slot was “Devotion to a Dream.” As with the previous two nights where two Wingsuit songs were played, “Devotion” was the second of the Halloween batch played following “Wombat.” I hear a direct connection to Trey’s involvement with a Broadway musical and “Hands On a Hardbody” to a song like “Devotion” (or “The Line”). Its focus on harmonies, how it sets a specific tone, carrying emotion through its lyrics and melody. After my first “live” experience, I would prefer “Devotion” to some of the other Trey “ballads.”
After a pause, a “Ghost” began to appear. It seemed as though this version was a bit . . . faster, or bouncier. Around ten minutes in, a huge roar erupted from the crowd as Mike dug in and Trey wrestled his guitar during a driving portion of the jam. With some great drumming by Fishman, a buttery segue into “Weekapaug Groove” came out of the “Ghost.” Throughout the night, songs seemed to be a bit different. I need to relisten to see if that was simply due to our seats and the sound, but as I mentioned the “Punch” and “Ghost” seemed to be at unique speeds. The same could be said for the “Weekapaug” which seemed a bit subdued and patient for most of the song until Fishman brought the band back with some cymbals and Mike drove it home in a recognizable fashion.
What next? Almost as though they forgot to play it, “Simple” followed the “Mike’s Groove.” This was only the second time that a “Simple” came after “Weekapaug,” the other being 7/16/99. As to be expected, the “Skyscrapers” line elicited a huge roar from the New York City crowd. Around seven minutes in, the jamming became quite pretty . . . and dissolved into the only “ambient” improv of the evening. While I may have been willing it to happen, I thought I heard the traditional “Simple Gifts” being teased.
“Harry Hood” segued out of the “Simple,” much to the crowd’s delight. 2013 has been a good year for “Hoods,” particularly 8/5 from Hollywood, along with 7/13 and 10/23. And this version did not disappoint. It featured a little talk box action from Page, in the intro. And much like with the “Simple,” the playing was quite melodic and pretty. Fishman lead the band through this song, I must say, with some intricate and creative drumming. I am not sure about what it was with this version, but the return to the “Feel good” melody by the band, before the singing, really was quite wonderful. The “Why” in “Why I see Phish.”
As with the end of the first set, I was fooled into thinking “Cavern” would close things off. What I feel is one of Phish’s iconic songs, “Cavern” is a great closer. But that wasn’t to be, even with Trey thanking the crowd during the ending build. As he took a moment to walk over to Fishman to say something. So as “Cavern” ended, Fishman started this wave of cymbals — I was actually wondering if we would get a “Chalk Dust” reprise, as it was left unfinished. But what we got instead was “First Tube.” (More symmetry, closing each set with a TAB song.) The “First Tube” was standard — that building, driving melody. Building to the end, where Trey lifted his guitar above his head creating feedback as a solute.
I was more than pleased with the “Slave to the Traffic Light” as an encore choice. A city song. One of Phish’s more beautiful songs. And a great close to a fun night.
Expectations. The first set met my expectations — that is to say, it was standard for 3.0. One or two highlights, but not much there for relistening. But the second set . . . if one is expected to leave a Phish show with a huge smile on your face, shaking your head and smiling, not able to wait to relisten to this song or that piece of improv. Well, that met my expectations as well.
Talking to my wife after the show, we were discussing how special it has been to be able to share in the Phish experience over a 17-year arc (since her first show in Pittsburgh way back in 1996). We reminisced on how worked up I used to get before a show, almost as though I was going to be the one performing. Filled with nervous energy, excited for anything and everything. My expectations and emotions are more tempered now. I am still able to find so much joy in the music these four musicians so gracefully offer to all of us, and am more than thankful that I can assist in small ways with the Mockingbird Foundation and phish.net. Thanks for reading.