Phish @ MSG, weekend 1

I heart NY.

Tue Aug 01 2023

I’ve never rung in a new year with Phish; the many potential logistical travails of New York City in December have thus far proved insurmountable. Unlike Trey, I can’t feed the dogs and cats and go to sleep in my own bed after a night at Madison Square Garden. I wonder how a person winds down after blowing the roof off that place. Is the wife asleep before the show’s over? Do you sneak in, play some video games or something until the electricity in your mind settles to a manageable level? Or are you already exhausted at that point and hit the bed like a stone?

This summertime baker’s half-dozen at MSG turned out to be the doable option for my first trip to NYC. Had I realized this was the same weekend as the Riverwest 24 I would’ve probably opted for the following weekend; there’s no sense indulging in FOMO whilst bucketlisting, though, right? Now, if this first weekend of shows had bombed, and they’d saved the jams for the end of the run, I might’ve been salty. They wouldn’t do that to me, would they?

That actual walk up and into the legendary venue was underwhelming. It is an LED eyesore devoid of character that would dominate downtown Milwaukee but is more like a pop can in Manhattan; presumably, they put the first floor of the arena on the fifth floor simply so the building would be a little more noticeable. Inside, it’s unremarkable as well, although getting in and out was no trouble and staff was shall we say exceedingly permissive. Aesthetic and logistical concerns such as these vanished when the lights went down, of course, and Phish situated themselves at their posts to start this residency.

I remember when I first heard “Evening Song”. It was at the tail end of 2019; we’d been inundated with Ghosts Of The Forest material all year, a lot of which I do like, all of which is very Trey-solo energetically, whereas this song struck me as somewhat Deadish though also distinctly Phishy, a great way to ease into a show. Only they don’t play it often. I hadn’t seen it live before this weekend. I’d also never attended a show before where the second song went on a 21-minute-plus excursion and WASN’T “Fluffhead”. When “A Wave Of Hope” finally ended, way faster and in a completely different key than the way it’s written, my night was already made.

Having known Phish for so long, yet only having one or two visits with them per year, I sometimes still expect them to surrender to old habits they’ve given up. So after unexpected exploration in “AWOH” and then “Cities” plus a well-executed old-school “Stash” with a searing climax, I had the reflex impulse that the second set would probably suck. Time was, Phish could scarcely muster jams over ten minutes, and if by some miracle they occurred in the first set, the second was almost guaranteed to be 18 short songs nobody wanted to hear.

Nowadays Phish can jam in either set seemingly at will. That’s no guarantee of GOOD music though. Friday night the band seemed restless, not remotely interested in doing anything by the book, interacting on a deep intuitive level and letting each member have a say in the direction of the improv. Normally I’d wax adjectively about a couple of standout bits; it’s tough to narrow the set down to “highlights”, though. It was as if the full dynamic musical conversation was predetermined; the ideas that they were coming up with in “Ruby Waves” and “Plasma” and “Simple” were too compositionally satisfying to dissect.

And then as “Mountains In The Mist” was drawing to a close, a premonition of “Split Open And Melt” came to me. I started wondering if it was the right call at this critical juncture before they even started playing it. All the more strange because there’s never a wrong time for “Melt”, is there? Least of all, right now.

It’s been one of my favorite Phish songs ever since they played it at my first show back in ’95. In the old days of the I remember coming across a quote from Trey about how the band gradually figured out how to play the song over the course of years, started cranking out monster versions across a few tours, and then the song became elusive and fell back out of favor. It was a key point in my understanding of how little control Phish actually have over their own music; the songs have their own lives, and sometimes no matter how well you treat them, they won’t play nice.

After what seemed like an eternity, “Split” hinted a few times back around 2015 that it might want to play nice again. It had a breakout year in 2018, and hot outings in each year since (excluding 2020 of course). Then a couple weeks ago in Alpharetta, a hair-raising masterpiece. And here at MSG, another. For years the song refused to venture beyond its assigned structure. Then it said ‘okay but only for a few aimless minutes of noise.’ Then for ages it taunted Phish for their inability to find a meaningful route out of chaos into its conclusion. Phish in 2023 lack for nothing, though. They took it wayyyyy out and wove their way expertly back, making mincemeat of our minds in the process. Such a cauldron of droning evil noise I have rarely heard from this band; it was positively Vegas-Wolfman’s territory for a New York minute there.

I could not have drawn up a more perfect conclusion to my first MSG show. It was just like everyone has told me for most of my life, Phish + MSG = magic. I vote that “Good Times Bad Times” becomes canonical as a sort of “Plasma Reprise”; we see what you’re spelling there, Trey.

The ever-changing nature of Phish dictates that rather than have our expectations now raised through the roof, they’re lowered; no way they can top THAT, we say, and with no sense of dismay, because THAT did happen. Nevertheless, Saturday night turned out to be my SECOND time seeing Phish take a second song of the show other than “Fluffhead” on an epic journey. This time it was “Down With Disease”, every bit as exploratory and eclectic as last night’s improv had been, a gloriously unfinished version that ended in an oddly perfect downturn. The rest of the set, if you liked those songs, then bully for you. I liked most of ‘em, especially the “Moonage Daydream” closer, which I never recalled being QUITE so incendiary before–even though Trey completely forgot how the bridge goes!

The second set didn’t begin thrillingly, although I should publicly acknowledge that going into these shows I had already lost all my hate for the song “Fuego”. I realize the hit my reputation will take for this but I have to come clean. No, you won’t catch me singing its most cringeworthy lyrics, but it’s hard to keep hating something the band so obviously loves, and as it’s become more ingrained the transitions between modes of the song aren’t so clunky any more, and giant choruses of OHHs and whatnot are fun, and it’s really not THAT long of a song, except when it’s a half-hour long like on this occasion. Once again they navigated uncharted territory as well as familiar sounds and modes, bringing four decades of bandhood to bear on miraculous spontaneous music, pushing through moments of uncertainty, tons of collective thematic jamming and some of the best extended dance grooves I’ve heard out of them this year, the whole nine yards.

We got a respectable jam out of “Oblivion”, Trey’s new golden child, and the gentle interlude in “Wingsuit” was quite captivating. I don’t normally clamor for “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, but we had seats right behind the stage for this show and were geeked to check out the dance party from that vantage. How many lighting directors give the tiniest thought to people sitting out of view? So much love to Chris Kuroda for sharing his spectacle with the entire room (and for whoever finally convinced the band and the sound crew to stop pumping the webcast mix out into the IRL crowd, thus improving BOTH mixes immeasurably this year and making MSG sound good from almost any angle, while we’re at it). And then they decided to take this theme from 2001 into markedly weird waters, instituting a bullfrog-funk tilt-a-whirl that kept us all on the edge of our seats wondering how it would get back home.

Then Trey happened upon a familiar melody: “Hold Your Head Up”. And once he heard himself play it, there was no going back; Henrietta was obliged to emerge, and I’d venture to say from where I sat, Fishman did not look particularly thrilled about this turn of events, but he made his best effort to bumble through “Cracklin’ Rosie”, a song I admittedly hate but that hardly matters in this context and it was pretty cool seeing that Fishman still has his “B” and “AH” cymbals after all this time.

Ten years ago I might’ve been dismayed that Trey derailed that “2001” jam. Nowadays I just love the unpredictability factor any way it manifests. And while the remainder of this show was exactly what you WOULD expect, it’s no cause for disparagement; who doesn’t dig a “Farmhouse”/”First Tube” encore?

The endlessly-repeated phan credo “never miss a Sunday show” may have caught up with Phish last year; there were some real Sunday stinkers in 2022, a good reminder that nothing can or should be counted upon where Phish is concerned. Still, we all have our superstitions, trying night after night to manifest our favorite songs via whatever juju we can dream up. Me, I was getting ready to crash a birthday pre-party and came across a bottle of Llama malbec in the liquor store–perfecto. Phish had just played “Llama” the weekend prior and it’s not a song they tend to pull out more than once per tour, but I hadn’t caught one in over 23 years and had a real hankering for some reason. ‘Maybe the slow “Llama” is still on the table’, I mused.

At the party I was summarily assured that the “S’Llama” was in fact not terribly riveting in person anyway and I shouldn’t ought to hope for it. The wine was good, though.

Sunday’s first set was the stuff of dreams–like they were trying to win over my wife again, a notoriously tough customer for whom Friday’s “Split” had been her new favorite thing she’s ever seen Phish do. Jammed-out “AC/DC Bag”, we do not take THESE for granted. Jammed-out “My Friend”, that’s happened…three times in the past two decades? When you look at this setlist and realize “Bathtub Gin” had the least interesting jam it’s kind of hilarious. The sickest funkiest “Tube” I have ever witnessed, and the absolute most bizarre “Theme From The Bottom” I’ve ever heard, and can you imagine how I lost it when out of its remarkable outro jam there came a screaming howling full-speed “Llama”??

We might’ve known that the second set would be all newer stuff after that barrage of classics. There’s been plenty of miffage amongst fans; lord knows I’ve been through that phase. I haven’t caught a “Tweezer” since before the pandemic and that hurts way more than the “Llama” drought lemme tell you. It’s just that the way Phish are playing right now there’s not much room for complaint. Besides, they just GAVE you a whole set of oldies.

The fact that the jamming in set two was fairly monochromatic, occasionally even listless, is a legitimate gripe, though. Between “Sigma Oasis” and “No Men In No Man’s Land” and “Gotta Jibboo” Trey might as well have been trying to duct-tape smiles to our faces with his guitar, and leading up to “Lonely Trip” the guys did seem to have run out of gas temporarily. There were stretches of interesting music now and then, though, and you could sure as hell dance to most of it, and this is something ELSE we oughtn’t take for granted. Plus we got the world live debut of the Page & Trey curiousity “Life Saving Gun”, which came off pretty great to my ears, a refreshing departure (I…think?) from Trey’s increasingly creepy-culty lyrical efforts of recent years taboot.

The “Light” jam, too, was redemptive; it was the oldest song of the set (whoops–forgot about “Gotta Jibboo”!!) old enough to bring that sweet nostalgia for plenty of attendees. Moreso, though, after giving us more jamtime than songtime all night long, to close it out with ANOTHER jam, this just isn’t the band I’d become accustomed to since it reformed in 2009. Anybody can play a bunch of SONGS. These guys just gave and gave and gave all weekend long, and they saved the best jam of this set for the end. Big ol’ hearts in my eyes.

The weekend concluded with a pair of ladies for the encore: “Suzy Greenberg”, hated by plenty but loved by more, and “Izabella”, another one of those songs I’d long ago given up hope of ever hearing Phish play. They played it a few times in ’97 and ’98, then dumped it from the repertoire for 19 years. They’d brought it back right here at MSG, the final night of the hallowed Baker’s Dozen run, a show almost universally hailed at the time as an instant pinnacle in the annals of Phishtory. There’s no critical value in telling you I always wanted to hear it, but I can’t be the only one. The thing is, in order to play “Izabella” in a rock-band context, a shit-hot guitar player is required. And for a lot of years of Phish, such a guitar player was only a memory.

A lot of folks expected more from this year, the 40th anniversary of Phish becoming a band. A festival seemed like a no-brainer; instead, a blank space where their August leg of tour should be. For Halloween weekend, Trey has made other plans. The “fall tour” is a whopping eight dates, as usual.

Maybe for their anniversary, Phish decided to do whatever the hell they feel like, moment to moment. As usual.

On this tour, that evidently translates to jamming their lil’ butts off. I just saw some of the best Phish of my life. You can’t tell me this band isn’t reaching new heights of creativity on this tour. They are liable in any given jam to get heavier, funkier, noisier, weirder or more infectious than at almost any point in their career. They still bungle compositions here and there but they’ve been wisely sticking primarily to songs they can play competently, and their singing has been more consistent on this tour than it has in years (Plus, Mike and Page are clearly audible in the mix! Go figure!) It’s almost as if they were forced to listen to some lowlights from the spring tour and went ‘whoa we gotta get it together’.

I know we’re now set up for a fall; there HAS to be a relatively crappy show eventually. There have already been a few on this tour. There were even a few at the Baker’s Dozen. (ducks) We just have to remember that in 2023, “crappy” doesn’t generally mean playing and singing poorly; it just means playing crappy songs and/or not producing interesting improv out of them. For me, one great jam or one perfectly-placed beloved tune can rescue almost any show. And the way Phish has been jamming this summer, it seems unlikely that they’ll drop the ball at MSG. As long as the songs cooperate.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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