Phish returned to Madison Square Garden (MSG) in downtown New York City last night to kick off their annual four-show holiday run. Billed jokingly as their triumphant return to the hallowed arena, after their historic 13 show run at the venue this past summer, the band came out hot. Over two sets punctuated by a crispy encore, Phish wove a cohesive night together with plenty of highlights, light textures, and deep grooves. It was a strong first of four that has fans excited for what’s to come over the following three nights.
Wolfman’s Brother, Roggae
Anyone locked into the world of Phish is well aware of what went down 20 years ago in Phishtory. While there’s no need to pretend we reentered the cow-phunk era last light at MSG, the funk got going early in “Wolfman’s” and resurfaced at several points throughout the evening. “Wolfman’s” was bouncy, groovy, and with an extra groove extension of funk the band had the venue in a full get-down barely 20 minutes into the show. The brief breath-catcher of “Roggae” was a well placed beauty that kept the opening frame in fluidity before the funk returned.
Why is that every time “Tube” gets drawn out, even in the slightest, it’s one of the moments that stands out most from a Phish show? Plain and simple, it’s just too much fun-Every Time. I think last night’s jam could’ve gone on for the rest of the set and no one would’ve minded in the slightest. The groove brought the venue back to where “Wolfman’s” had already gone, building a group groundswell of deep funk for all. It may be short timewise, but the quality is there, and jam is beyond palpable.
After 40 solid minutes to kick things off a quick “Bouncing Around the Room” gave way to another short, but engaging take with “Back on the Train (BOTT)”. Like “Tube”, this BOTT didn’t necessarily go deep, but the extra effort towards the end of the song extended its groove adding another layer to an already solid first set. “Theme from the Bottom” had little extra texture on it as well, and while not normally a song to close a first set, this version did so in fine form.
No Men In No Man’s Land (NMINML) > Twist
If you’re looking for an extension from the Baker’s Dozen, and what we saw on the first night of the latest Dick’s run, look no further than these 40 minutes of dark, drippy, exploratory improvisation from last night. Lead vocalist and guitarist Trey Anastasio really put his new rig to use during this section of music. His first major update in 20 years, Trey consistently built cascading riffs from the steady rhythm provided by drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon, while keyboardist Page McConnell sent soaring licks to the cosmos.
The band was fully locked and loaded in an ambient, galactic groove when Trey went back to the song’s lyrics for a few frames that eventually kicked the band out of the improvisational territory and into “Twist”. The flow had seemed to want to keep the jamming in “NMINML” going, but now venturing off into “Twist” the new spaces being pushed were right back to where so many enjoy Phish to go, and their unique talents as a group shine like no other. The abrupt move out of “Twist” was perhaps the harshest moment of the evening, but the night was far from over.
As a whole, set two from last night was a highlight. The ripcord in “Twist” was somewhat earth-shattering as the flow that was there was gone so quickly and so surprisingly. It seemed no one in the band was ready to jump out of the exploration in “Twist” for “ Everything’s Right” but Trey. The thing that did happen after the interruption of fluidity is the funk came back ten-fold. Call it what you will, but the majority of “Everything’s Right” brought MSG back to an all-out funk party, bringing back the vibe that was started in set one, and bringing some of us back to 20 years ago. The remaining 20+ minutes of the show was all smiles with a fun run through “2001”, and a celebrated “Hood” that ended with brilliance.
The encore is worth mentioning because “Wedge” is atypical for this slot, and was a pleasure to hear as a singular tune that many thought would be the last song of the night. But “Slave to the Traffic Light” is what brought it all home, and what a version it was. Sure, the last few notes woulda, coulda, shoulda been drawn out for another round or two, but ultimately the peak was there, and this “Slave” was as gorgeous as you’ll hear in the modern era of Phish. Not without a few bumps in the road, overall last night was about as good as one could hope for with Phish having been off the road since early September. The next three nights hold all the potential a fan could hope for, with the band already showing such strong signs of their venerable greatness on night one of the four show run.