Phish’s thirteen-night stand at Madison Square Garden wrapped up on Sunday, and fans are still coming to grips with what a tremendous gift the band just gave us. It was an unprecedented event that featured a different surprise donut flavor each night, and a (sometimes very loosely) corresponding theme. Thirteen shows, 237 songs, zero repeats. And as any fan will tell you, those statistics mean almost nothing in the shadow of the music itself.
The experience of being a part of this in person, I’ll admit I can’t fully fathom. Extrapolation from my personal peak Phish experiences can only go so far. To be in the room for even the worst of these shows would’ve been sublime. Consider this more a listening guide than a bunch of reviews of the shows themselves. In the case of most bands, I couldn't care less what happens at a show I'm not attending. With Phish, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude that this thing happened at all. There’s a wealth of great music here that I’ll be listening to for the rest of my life. But some shows were certainly better than others.
13. Boston Cream (8/5)
Theme: B- | Lacing together a handful of Cream and Boston songs is more of an Umphrey’s McGee tactic, but tonight’s mashup is a bit of harmless goofy fun, as long as this doesn’t become a THING. But that’s the only nod to tonight’s donut.
Unpredictability: C+ | Y’know, if you were at all ‘keeping score’ and had any idea which songs were left unplayed, there aren’t a heck of a lot of surprises tonight, and I’d argue that the no-repeats factor becomes a bit constraining at this point. They’ve surely ‘saved’ so many tunes that they felt obligated to play, and here they come. Their cards are pretty much on the table by now.
Execution: D | Proper playing of compositions has been an issue for Phish (i.e. mostly Trey) this year moreso than most; perhaps given the small number of shows and the large repertoire of songs, this makes sense? In any case, it’s not a huge factor in most fans’ estimation. Tonight’s pretty bad, though. If only they’d allowed “Petrichor” to die after New Year’s! It’s as if Trey spent every ounce of concentration just getting through the dumb song, and he butchers most of the set from this point on. It’s more forgivable during bustout-heavy first sets, but we’re talking about the second set here. Come on.
Intangibles: C | Saving “Petrichor” for the penultimate show/playing “Petrichor” in the second set/”Petrichor” still being in the Phish repertoire at all—these are disappointments. The whole show is a hodgepodge in not the best sense, and a lack of jamming makes “Lizards” feel intrusive, honestly. Ya got my hopes up with that “Soul Shakedown Party” opener and then in no way lived up to ‘em.
Jams: C | There are only two: “Ghost”, which starts out promisingly but surrenders very quickly to cookie-cutter major-key rock; and “Light”, which is pretty good and features the only legitimately great guitar playing of the show, but this jam isn’t substantive enough to save the day.
12. Coconut (7/21)
Theme: B | Night one introduces the trend of the thematic cover opener, in this case Junior Senior’s “Shake Your Coconuts”, and it’s awesome. The second-set closer, Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut”, is horrendous, though. Clearly these guys have not watched Reservoir Dogs anywhere near as many times as I have; it’s as if they barely know the song. Also, “Reba” contains “coconuts” in its lyrics.
Unpredictability: C | Aside from a few bustouts and the, shall we say, predictably unpredictable thematic covers, this one’s about as average as it looks on paper.
Execution: A- | Relative to the rest of this run, no major complaints; “Reba” is a bit tentative and not too crisp, and “Sparkle”, oddly enough, is a total botch job, but I gotta hand it to Trey for turning in a much better “Moonage Daydream” than last year’s Halloween debut. Oh, but “Mango Song”...well that hardly counts against them, it’s terrible every time since about 1998.
Intangibles: B+ | Can you feel the excitement of Baker’s Dozen Night One through your earbuds? The setlist is pretty terrific, aside from “Pigtail” and “Walls Of The Cave”. Aside from wasting the only “Tweezer” of the tour (STINGY BASTARDS) on the first night, I can’t really bitch.
Jams: C | I said “wasting” mainly because the “Tweezer” jam is relentlessly uninteresting happyrock, which will plague the first several shows of this run as it has plagued the past eight years of Phish. The jam out of “Seven Below” which follows is practically identical, except Mike and Page are a little more inventive. Trey isn’t so much improvising as putting his fingers on autopilot. The brighter spots tonight are the first-set “Timber” (also blissy but it’s unusual for this song to even get outside itself these days, especially in the first set) and the second performance of the horribly unoriginal new Phish song “Everything’s Right”, which is also not epic but it’s a solid outing with some gnarly cumulative guitar looping. Honestly, though, I doubt I’ll feel compelled to revisit anything from this show in the years to come.
11. Double Chocolate (7/28)
Theme: A | I had no idea what “Chocolate Rain” was prior to this, but okay! “You Sexy Thing” (original artist: Hot Chocolate) is kind of awful but it’s not intended to be serious and we like goofy Mike. Getting actual jamming mileage out of a novelty cover: props! Plus, Trey substitutes “chocolate donut” for “cup of coffee” in “Fee”; hooray! Do we count “Chalk[lit] Dust Torture”? Hmm...
Unpredictability: B- | Some cool bustouts in the first set, but the show does basically play out like a fairly typical 3.0 two-setter with the exception of the covers.
Execution: D | Possibly the worst first set of the run, precision-wise. You can’t even rip a competent “Divided Sky” these days, Trey? It’s like his guitar strings are three times too thick, or else his fingers are.
Intangibles: C | The first setlist is pretty dreamy; the second takes a harsh nosedive after “YST”, as nobody in their right mind wants “Mercury” at that (or any) point. There’s no hope for recovery after that. The mood is almost oppressively boisterous throughout the show, and I crave more dynamic, but to be honest, up until “Mercury” the fun quotient was off the charts and I was fully onboard.
Jams: B- | At least they take “Sand” for a bit of a cruise to end set one, but it’s pretty contained. I love the “CDT”; it breaks no ground but the full-band synergy is incredible and the heights are high. “YST” is funky as you’d expect, but it also gets extremely spacey and uses the space between the sounds to great effect. At times, the rhythm section sounds a little lost in it; none of Mike’s ideas take root, and Fish just stays steady, but Trey and Page keep you mesmerized the entire time. So, above average for 3.0; well below par for the BD.
10. Lemon (8/4)
Theme: A | Tonight’s theme is the show. They open with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and it’s a respectful, respectable take. The second set is littered with lemons via real-time sampling of Fishman’s off-key voice singing “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon” (despite the word “on” appearing nowhere in Radiohead’s original “Everything In Its Right Place”). It’s at least as annoying as one of those “Still Waiting” sets, but if the plan was to keep the whole thing lighthearted, okay. I can still have fun.
Unpredictability: B | Aside from the obvious placement of “Winterqueen” and “No Men In No Man’s Land”, there are surprises around every corner. Just not generally in the way of improv.
Execution: D | One of the worst nights of the run in terms of Trey’s accuracy. “Dinner And A Movie” ouch. And “First Tube” ends up in a terrific jam, but good God, Trey sounds like he’s playing the song proper with chopsticks. This is not a complicated song. You don’t even have to worry about any pesky lyrics. What could possibly be the excuse for this type of horrible playing? “What’s The Use?” might be the worst I’ve ever heard. Trey and Fish both sound like amateurs on “Scents And Subtle Sounds”; it’s as if they can’t hear each other. The crazy part is how well they all do on “Dem Bones” to open the second set; it’s marvelous! I guess the price of practicing those harmonies is you forget how to do literally everything else.
Intangibles: C+ | The setlist is an absolute masterpiece, aside from the 3.0 tunes, and I appreciate the proliferation of dark themes, particularly in the cover choices. But man...I can envision a really cool way in which “EIIRP” could become a superb space-out and slowly feed into a heart-rending “WTU” and then a reinvigoration via “SASS”, but what actually transpires is the opposite of my fantasy, it’s hopelessly hokey and lame. I mean it’s frivolous; take it as you will. Having Fish sing “EIIRP” immediately makes it a gag, and the attempt at Thom Yorke-ish vocal manipulations falls utterly flat. Lacing that shit into “WTU” ruins it; it nearly becomes “NO2” before finishing up, and I kinda wish it would’ve. Lacing “No Men In No Man’s Land” into “SASS” would ruin it if it weren’t already so horrible; I wonder if Trey’s guitar tech forgot a piece of the rig or something tonight. I can’t even think of a show that looks this good on paper that’s this bad in four dimensions. However, bringing it home with a rousing “Fluffhead” does spike the emotional resonance in much-needed fashion.
Jams: C- | The "NMINML" jam is a decent effort but monochromatic and not very memorable. The last section of the “SASS” jam, after it has kinda turned back into “NMINML”, is lovely; it’s just so long and devoid of contour that you’re liable to fall asleep. There are a few times when it sounds like Fish is looking for a way out, and a couple times I think Mike basically stops playing as if to say ‘what the hell are we doing’ but on and on it goes, no intensity whatsoever. Finally Trey gives up on it and plays “Prince Caspian”. And this...holy living fuck, we don’t often get guitar solos like this. This is Trey saying ‘this guitar has been a dick all night and must be punished’. Whew, wow, sheesh. Easily the highlight of the night.
9. Maple (8/1)
Theme: D | This is where either the donut motifs are becoming a chore for the band or they’re simply running out of compatible ideas. They open with a brief instrumental rendition of “O Canada”, and Page tosses a snippet of “Maple Leaf Rag” into the middle of “Guelah Papyrus” later on, and that’s that.
Unpredictability: A- | Tonight’s is one of the oddest setlists of the run, even without much thematic effort. The least pleasant of the surprises, though, is that the first set yields not even a cursory attempt at a jam, which is par for 3.0 but baffling in Baker’s Dozen terms.
Execution: D+ | Welcome to The Phish Sloppytime Rarities Hour! We applaud the no-repeats strategy and we forgive the unwillingness to rehearse the whole repertoire as if you want to impress people and we acknowledge that most fans can’t even tell when you’re fucking up. But, woof. Not so bad in the second set, though.
Intangibles: C | Mostly songs I like, but very haphazard, no flow whatsoever. I get almost nothing beyond the jams, of which “Steep” is probably the only long-term keeper. The encore of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” I simply can’t take seriously; to me it borders on insulting, times being what they are. Some fans have argued that this is a tribute to Jerry on his birthday; these fanciful claims pop up every year on this date, and who am I to piss into the wind.
Jams: B | Bupkis in set one. “Golden Age” is a cool mood piece with brief passages of cohesion but not much dynamic. The criminally underplayed “Steep” is the centerpiece, a deep, swirling psychedelia masterminded by Mike, building slowly into a loop-ridden rager. One of my favorite jams of the BD. “46 Days” is musically vacuous, pure gimmickry. “Piper” is very formulaic, ultimately killed by Trey just as it’s getting interesting. He has this pathological tendency to reintroduce lyrics from earlier songs even if they have no musical or thematic connection, as if just singing some lyrics from “46 Days” is automatically awesome because he remembers that they played it earlier. Personally I was trying to forget that part. “Possum” gives us a taste of actual dissonance within its regular formula, quite a rare feat in the modern era.
8. Strawberry (7/22)
Theme: A | A capella “Strawberry Fields Forever”, yasssss. “Halley’s Comet” has a strawberry lyric in it. The big surprise, though? “Strawberry Letter #23” (aka the melody Outkast appropriated for “Ms. Jackson”) in the second set. It’s not exactly in their wheelhouse, but it comes off surprisingly well.
Unpredictability: B+ | On paper, the first set looks dull as hell, but the launch of “Moma Dance” as an official occasional jam vehicle is such a happy surprise, and they also jam “Breath And Burning”, so now I...no I still hate it just as much. Set two is a roller-coaster, highlighted by the unexpected appearance of “Split Open And Melt”, and the encore is truly bizarre. This show was sort of the realization that we were gonna be on the edge of our seats no matter what.
Execution: B- | I’m mainly docking points for the cringeworthy attempts at “Mound” and “Foam” in the first set. If this is the best you can do, leave these beloved tunes off the table.
Intangibles: B- | Given the band’s sudden renewal of the possibility that any song could jam, the failure to do anything with “Halley’s” or “Birds Of A Feather” stings a little. Also, wedging in a reprise of “Down With Disease” at the conclusion of “Melt” is just awkward. Phish have virtually misplaced the finesse of the segue itself; you need that before you bother trying to pull off the conceptual bookend coda.
Jams: B | A good “Moma” jam feels exceptional due to its early placement but holds up on repeated listens. “Breath” is a trifle but at least it’s something. It may be only type I but the “Roggae” is magnificent. The terrific first set helps counterbalance the mediocre second; “Disease” is about as generic as it gets, “I Always Wanted It This Way” is a useless marimba lumina workout, and “Melt” is noisy and immersive, easily above average for 3.0 except the end is abrupt and arbitrary. I do appreciate the strategy, though.
7. Holes (8/2)
Theme: A- | Brilliant choice for opener! Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole” is marred only by the voice coach who once upon a time in the early aughts must’ve said to Trey, “Hey dude, ever tried vibrato?” (To that person: You idiot.) “Buried Alive” is conceptually perfect as a follow-up. There’s the haunting debut of a partial rendering of “O Hol[e]y Night”, and finally, “4,000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire” is the encore. But not playing “In A Hole”...how, why??
Unpredictability: B+ | The first set is actually fairly straightforward for this era, but the second is not.
Execution: C- | They do a bit better than last night with their compositions, but oof, “Guyute” is rough, and I don’t think they’ve run through “Meat” in a while, either. Although they bring back the second jam in “Mike’s Song”, the entry is rough, and “Taste” is a little tough to assess; I think if they had their druthers, they would’ve found a way to wrap it up instead of letting it drift away, but I might be wrong.
Intangibles: B | On the plus side, the sweet opening combo, and the overall weirdness of the second set’s first three songs, which admittedly hearkens back to Mike’s Grooves of old, albeit with about one-fifth the fire and originality. On the minus, the failure to get nuts with “Run Like An Antelope” (as well as the missed opportunity to shout “SUCK THE DEER SHIT FROM THE SIDE OF ITS HOLE”), the lack of fulfillment that derives from an unfinished “Taste”, and the feeling of being rushed out of the set—hey, I get that there’s a curfew, but it is what it is.
Jams: C+ | The “Mike’s Song” jam visits a lot of familiar territory but it’s a pretty smooth ride, although once they get to the “O Holy Night” portion I can’t help wondering where they could’ve taken it if they didn’t know where they were going to end up. Then again, the “Taste” that follows might’ve been an all-timer if they could’ve brought it back to its ending. As is, it’s an awful lot of three guys fumbling around disparately while Fish maintains the “Taste” beat with little variation. Trey’s habit of playing random-note stabs and looping them to create a de facto climax is getting played out fast, and here it doesn’t amount to much of a thrill, especially when nobody’s on the same page. I realize there’s some second-guessing on my part here; if you prefer, read it thusly: I applaud the effort but the results are meh.
6. Powder (7/26)
Theme: C- | Once they establish snow as the “powder” connection with Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” (aka “I was following the I was following the I was following the I was following the I was”—*projectile vomits*), they proceed to ignore at least three Anastasio compositions I can think of that refer to snow, not to mention potential references to sand, or dust; the list goes on. Instead, they leave the theme alone until the encore, a beloved rendition of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger”. No big deal but I’m just sayin’!
Unpredictability: A- | Aside from “Powderfinger”, the setlist is right out of left field, and we’re on the edge of our seats just wondering what will jam.
Execution: A- | Nice job on the covers, although “1999” isn’t super crisp I guess. They don’t attempt many challenging pieces tonight, so really the only hangups I have are in some awkward transitions between songs.
Intangibles: B | Last night’s jam-filled show had the dual effect of setting the bar high as well as taking the pressure off, so tonight’s show is a unique opportunity to set a more realistic precedent for the remainder of the run. As such, failures to jam “Roses Are Free” or “Gumbo” (or God forbid, the virtually forgotten Phish classic “Pebbles And Marbles”) are balanced out by extra oomph in “Steam” and “Character Zero”, as well as a second “Mr. Completely” for the year (third ever). Super fun show; light on intrigue, though.
Jams: B- | The sameness of the mood and contour of many of the year’s jams reached a bit of a tipping point tonight; you have the aggressive menace inherent in both “Carini” and “Completely” abandoned for generic happyrock in both cases, and “1999” rolls out in very similar fashion. However, you can still look to the radical groovefest of “Tube”, the spacy zonk-out inside “Steam”, and the balls-to-the-wall “Character” as minor jams outshining the centerpieces.
5. Cinnamon (7/29)
Theme: D | Not that it really matters an ounce in assessing the show itself, but all they do is tack on an encore of the only song anyone can think of that has “cinnamon” in the title, which they have actually played before. Why not at least throw in “Spices”?? (Probably because nobody in Phish remembers that song exists.) Or pick a donut flavor you can work with? (Who cares?)
Unpredictability: A | Here’s why tonight is a stroke of sheer brilliance. They open with “Llama”, the lyrics of which are still not fully agreed upon, but we’re reasonably sure they make no mention of cinnamon. Next, “Wilson”, at which point the übernerds are freaking out because Phish haven’t played a single Gamehendge song until tonight, so even if things are a little out of sequence...maybe...?? And then they jam out “Wilson”, which hasn’t happened to any significant degree since the band reunited, and only a couple times prior. Then it’s “Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan”—so no Gamehendge, but now this gets a jam?? They are determined to keep us on our toes tonight, and really from here on out. The encore is just about the only predictable thing tonight.
Execution: B | We’re relatively clam-free tonight, and that includes a rare “Tela” and “Vultures”, although Trey’s not exactly crisp on “Train Song” nor “Horn”. Hey, I said “relatively”.
Intangibles: B- | There are only five songs in the setlist tonight that I can honestly say I’m overly keen on. Not much rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the tunes that I can glean.
Jams: B | “Blaze On” has some cool psychedelic portions and some been-there-done-that portions, and there’s precious little improv between here and the “Harry Hood” set-closer, but this “Hood” is wonderful, subtly echoing motifs from the “Blaze” jam while flowing through a natural succession of its own ideas and on into a giddy peak. Otherwise, the bizarre improv from “Wilson” and a dollop of adventurousness in “STFTFP” and “Meatstick” add up to an above-average show even for the BD.
4. Red Velvet (7/23)
Theme: A | I mean they could’ve done more Velvet Underground tunes, but the debut of “Sunday Morning” to open the show is beautiful, and the encore is only the third Phish rendition of “Sweet Jane”, and there couldn’t have been a single nonsmiling face in the house. And let’s not forget one of the most exuberant renditions of “Wading In The Velvet Sea” you’ll ever hear.
Unpredictability: B+ | The setlist is stuffed with regulars, but played in unusual slots, in unusual ways at times. The return of “How Many People Are You” is a welcome surprise, and although Velvets covers are expected, the specific songs are not.
Execution: B | It’s mostly easy stuff tonight, but they do pull off “Glide” and “It’s Ice” surprisingly well. Yet Trey is a mess on less challenging songs like “Axilla” and “Theme From The Bottom”; go figure.
Intangibles: A | In admittedly subjective fashion, this show gets high marks for what to me is its poignant emotional arc. From the great setlist choices especially in the first set to the improvisational movements in the second, nothing feels out of place or haphazard. “Wolfman’s Brother” is like the sunrise after some life-changing night, and the narrative plays out through to an evil gloaming out of “Waves”, then on into the bittersweet “Miss You”, a terrible song but if ever it could be appropriate, this is the moment. Then some thick funk in “Boogie On Reggae Woman”, fading out into bleary-eyed bliss with “Wading” and capped by the celebratory “Sweet Jane”. They had me choked up multiple times listening to this one.
Jams: B+ | Despite a missed opportunity to finally take “AC/DC Bag” for a ride, as well as a bit of a stall-out in the middle of “Wolfman’s”, the “Ice” jam in the first set remains one of my favorite pieces of this entire run, and what eventually develops out of “Wolfman’s” is a thing of beauty. It’s an incredibly varied yet flowing set from this point on; nothing except “Miss You” is run of the mill, and the dense, atmospheric mass that emerges from “Waves” is an absolute marvel.
3. Jam-filled (7/25)
Theme: A | Did we even dare to hope it would turn out to be this? The moment they keep playing beyond the normal pause and climax of opener “Sample In A Jar”, every heart is lifted sky high. Being a Phishhead is weird, and tonight Phish played directly to that weirdness, creating moments that send fans into raptures while outsiders are like ‘huh?’ It’s not simply jamming out songs that never get jammed; it’s putting their heart and soul into those jams. This show is death and ascension to heaven for every true Phish fan.
Execution: A- | Trey is in his element when jamming; no need to think or be precise. There’s some crispness lacking in tunes like “My Friend, My Friend” and “Stash” but nothing worth dwelling on, that’s for sure.
Unpredictability: B+ | Once they get into the first jammed version of “Sample”, the jig is up; our hopes and expectations are almost too high, so every tune that doesn’t get a jam is a bit of a letdown. I guess you could say this makes the static type-I jaunts in “Stash” and “Bathtub Gin” “unpredictable”, but...let’s just say there are a lot of potential levels of expectations tonight, and once all bets are off with the first two songs, it makes for a strangely predictable atmosphere from then on. However, bonus points for the debut of “End Of Session”; only folks at this particular show can possibly have seen every song from The Story Of The Ghost live (and that’s only if they were also in attendance at one of five shows in 1998 that featured “Fikus”).
Intangibles: A- | There’s a ridiculous push and pull of notions concerning this show that only hardcore fans can possibly comprehend. The best summation I can come up with is that the greatness of the show is tempered just slightly by a few bunk song choices and dud jams, but only a spoiled-rotten fan in the heady throes of the Baker’s Dozen could possibly find any fault.
Jams: A- | The post-”Lawn Boy” beast is a masterpiece. The other epic, “Crosseyed And Painless”, surely would’ve been the ultimate dance party in-house, but it suffers from a lack of development as a listening experience. The sheer volume of improv alone puts this show in the upper echelon, but it also puts into focus the sameness of a lot of Phish’s jamming during this period, and squandered opportunities in “My Friend” and “Fuego” to explore some darker terrain hinder my appreciation just a bit, as do the aforementioned failures of “Stash” and “Gin” to break free from their inherent trajectories. Spoiled rotten—ja wohl.
2. Jimmies (7/30)
Theme: A- | I thought they were called “sprinkles”, but hey. I’m only docking points because they played “Letter To Jimmy Page” on a different night, and no Zeppelin at all tonight, for that matter. I mean there’s so much they could’ve done, but they got in the essentials: “Runaway Jim”, “Harpua”, and a debut of “The Wind Cries Mary” as the encore. (Personally I was hoping for the long-awaited return of “Izabella” but that’s not a fair complaint, is it?)
Execution: C+ | Yeah, the first set is a little rough, especially the vocals; they really pulverize some favorites of mine, but at least they’re playing ‘em, I guess.
Unpredictability: B+ | As mentioned above, we knew at least a couple tunes we’d be getting, and the setlist doesn’t boast any huge surprises, but the way this show unfolds, nobody saw coming. It’s truly unlike any other 3.0 show.
Intangibles: A | A “Curtain With” opener rarely if ever fails to spark a great show. The return of “Waking Up Dead”. ”Esther”, practically nailed. A lil’ “Fly Famous Mockingbird” narration. And by far the best “Harpua” since 1.0—as in, I would actually suggest listening to it. However, doing absolutely nothing interesting with “David Bowie” is cruel, I must say. There’s a giant hole in our souls where mind-bending “Bowie” jams used to be, and we gotta get back there somehow, some day.
Jams: A+ | After soooo many interchangeable bliss jams across this tour, tonight breaks the mold but good. “Drowned”>“A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” is the best sequence of Phish since Magnaball, so effectively evocative of water, so thoroughly engrossing and unusual, possessed by darkness and full-band interplay that will flash you back to 1994 or ’97, whichever you prefer. A journey such as this we have not previously undertaken in the modern era. It trumps all other factors. There’s nothing more to even discuss.
1. Glaze (8/5)
Theme: A+ | No question.
Unpredictability: F | Nah, we all knew damn well what they were gonna play.
Execution: B+ | Rough in the beginning, then virtually rock solid once they get through “Camel Walk” relatively unscathed.
Intangibles: A+ | I’m sorry, I’m overcome with emotion. I’m done describing this for you now.