Phish at Madison Square Garden, December 29th

poster by James Flames

The opening night of Phish’s New Year’s run left little to be desired. The band came out and eased through a first set, before dropping the defining ‘Wolfman’s Brother’ of the so-called 3.0 era. The second set, well you’ve heard about the second set. There is little to say about it other than it was one of the best sets of Phish I’ve seen in a long time. Understandably, the proverbial bar was set incredibly high for the second of the four shows. With mid-town Manhattan lit up with cheer, lights and lagers, it was an easy stroll into Madison Square Garden, a place that has become a second home of sorts to Phish. The crowd ready, aside from the stragglers staggering in, the quartet opened with a standard ‘Crowd Control’, an uninspired ‘Mound’ and a standard ‘AC/DC Bag’. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it felt like Phish was getting the opening jitters out. Then came ‘Rock and Roll’, a Velvet Underground tune that Phish has slayed countless times in the band’s career. After the standard part of the song, guitarist Trey Anastasio jumps into the lead, laying down relentless licks over a true rock and roll backing. The ending “It was alright” chants were inspired, and it seemed as if Phish was starting to take this show to a new level.

Then, BOOM. Sorry for the personal touch, but I love ‘Sugar Shack’. It seemed like it was slightly re-worked, with Anastasio playing a slightly more rhythmic riff under bassist Mike Gordon’s boppy bass line. Anytime Phish plays ‘Sugar Shack’, I go nuts, therefore I suggest you listen to the song instead of me. It’s one of the best songs Gordon has penned. ‘Reba’, a short ‘Halley’s Comet’, ‘Limb by Limb’ and a somewhat extended ‘Wading in the Velvet Sea’ add a softer touch to set. An inspired ‘Bathtub Gin’, with a slow ascension complete with a ‘Suzie Q’ segment, followed by some exploration with Anastasio again taking charge with ferocious licks, closed out a well-played set.

‘Golden Age’, a song that debuted in 2009 (A TV On the Radio cover), opened the second set. I am still not sold on this tune, aside from the Superball version (which I believe is a Top-10 3.0 jam) because it just doesn’t do it for me. The jam that came out of it had the fans around me raging, dancing and high-fiving, and was engaging, but I was still high from the ending of Wolfman’s, so maybe I wasn’t listening closely enough.

c/o Phish

‘Waves’ then bled into ‘Prince Caspian’ before the pace picked up with a tight, fast ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’. Gordon tears the ending into a meatball-bass free-for-all. ‘Suzy Greenberg’, ‘Bug’ and ‘Cavern’ fill the next few slots before the arena-rocker ’46 Days’ makes an appearance. Again, Anastasio takes the lead and builds up several tension and release riffs. It’s becoming apparent that while Phish isn’t taking many risks on this night, Anastasio has decided he’s going to put that Languedoc to the test by bending and building notes until the place explodes. ‘The Squirming Coil’ started a three-song encore, followed by ‘Grind’ and a rollicking ‘First Tube’.

This show was pure fun. Tightly played music with some exploration and certainly some guitar lessons from Anastasio. It definitely was different from the first night, but no doubt this show deserves a listen or two or ten. In fact, the energy comes through in the LivePhish recording. Go on a long run and you won’t stop until this show ends.