Hello from Madison Square Garden, where once may be enough
By Rob Harvilla
Dec 8 2009
Incredibly, last Wednesday night's three-hour-plus Phish extravaganza
at Madison Square Gardenthe first of their three-night run there,
and my first Phish show, periodis not, in fact, the most indulgent,
meandering, patience-obliterating concert I have ever experienced.
The Mars Volta spring somewhat unhappily to mind. As do, unhappier
still, the Allman Brothers. Ween, maybe. But that's it, in terms of
competition. Which is not to say the show was terribleexhausting,
certainly, and nigh-insufferable, occasionally, but, for long
stretches, surprisingly vibrant and rousing, too. This is something
everyone should probably do once, seeing these boys in action. You
might even talk me into doing it again someday. But only after an
appreciable recovery period. Say, three to five years.
The best reason to see Phish: their fans. These are extraordinarily
devoted gentlemen (and ladies), generous in their enthusiasm and
unflagging in their devotion, everyone joyfully and
unself-consciously dancing as if trying to amuse a baby. They give
louder, longer, lustier between-song ovations than anybody, then rush
home to document the source of their elation: It is profoundly
admirable, to swing by the fan-generated setlist outpost at phish.net
a few days later and learn that "Peaches en Regalia" had been
performed for the first time since September 24, 1999, in Austin,
Texas, unveiled at a paltry 4.94 percent of Phish live shows since
1986to encounter this level of freely given slavish detail.
For their trouble, disciples gladly suffer various faux-Deadhead
stereotype-based indignities, not least those inflicted by the MSG
security folks there to both ensure no Phish ticketholder wanders
into Cirque du Soleil's Wintuk by mistake (or vice versa, and I can't
decide who would be more disturbed) and do some overzealous
drug-sleuthing besides. "This seems to be the most popular place,"
murmurs a bag-checker, digging his fingers invasively into an
incoming patron's pack of cigarettes for presumed contraband. Cliché!
Still, though. Inside, the vibe is . . . relaxed. "Do you have a
bowl?" asks a dude sitting behind me. (No.) Sharing, of substances
controlled and otherwise, is encouraged in this environment. The guy
next to me, a spacey and jovial sort, plies me with gifts: "You wanna
hit my Malibu Rum?" he begins (no), before further offering a
cigarette (no), a stick of Big Red (no) or Juicy Fruit (yes), and
"any chick you're trying to impress" (??).
Meanwhile, the show has begun. No opener, no particular fanfare.
Reconvened this spring after a five-year hiatus, PhishTrey Anastasio
on guitar and lead vocals, Page McConnell on pianos and keyboards and
so forth, Mike Gordon on bass, and Jon Fishman on drumsschlump
onstage with regal nonchalance, taking up their instruments and
thereafter each observing a three-foot radius to which they confine
their movement, as if under particularly draconian house arrest. A
psychedelic, geometrically sumptuous light show provides all the
visual stimulation, often mirroring the chooglin' & noodlin' sonic
action so precisely you realize all that meandering isn't so random after all.
These guys have songs, folks. Pop songs. "Chalk Dust Torture" (24.76
percent of live shows) and "Sample in a Jar" (15.64) are both vintage
Tom Petty riff-rock burnersthe former, a manic sprint; the latter,
an affable frat-funk lopeboth initially models of concise barroom
anthemia that, like a great many Phish tunes, eventually evolve (or
devolve, depending on how much of your patience has been obliterated)
into an epic Anastasio solo, albeit one with a logical coherent arc,
a steady crescendo of guitar-hero hysteria bolstered by both the
light show and the crowd, which goes logically and steadily more
apeshit in kind. There's something very intimate about that
communion. (The 13th time it happens you're maybe sick of it, and
yet.) Other tunes in the 80-minute first set (!) co-opt the Police's
white-reggae neurosis, some punkish bluegrass, and the Stones in
sensitive-ballad mode (the excellent "Brian and Robert," a rare treat
at only 2.4 percent). A huge, booming chorus is occasionally deployed
just to make sure nobody zones out.
The second set is lousy with zone-outs. I am not convinced even Phish
fans give a shit about new Phish studio albums; this year's Joy has a
sweet, lilting earnestness, but the few languid jams therein deployed
tonight go nowhere, and the (relative) crowd indifference is
palpable. Slightly older tunes fare no better: "Wading in the Velvet
Sea" (3.64) is more of a slog. But even then, there are unexpected
jolts of vivacity: "Tweezer" is a deliciously nonsensical
Frankenstein-stomp sing-along, murky and bombastic and flamboyantly
bizarreit'd make a great Outkast sample. Still an hour left to go,
though. Perhaps if you've attended several of the other 356 shows in
which "Run Like an Antelope" (24.42) has appeared, its dense,
rambling Doobie-Brothers-go-ska tangents will speak to you with
zen-like clarity. Or perhaps you will be bone-tired. The baby is no
Plus an encore! From the band's notoriously bottomless well of cover
tunes bubbles up "A Day in the Life," notable in that Neil Young did
the exact same encore at MSG a year ago, but with a hostile, atonal,
apocalyptic edge that doesn't exactly jibe with the Phish version, a
frivolous and blithely optimistic campfire jam that, perhaps out of
deference, doesn't drag on for 20 minutes, or what feels like it.
Then a brief, euphoric reprise of "Tweezer" (13.17, confusingly
sometimes performed without the actual normal version of "Tweezer"
preceding it), and we are free. The effect is as if you've been
beaten up by really cheerful, appealing people. I advise you to try
it, if only the once. And maybe don't turn down the hit of Malibu Rum.