On July 14th, Phish open their 2017 summer tour with the first of three nights in Chicago. There are 21 shows on the itinerary – but only five cities. That is because a week after Chicago, singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboard player Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman settle into New York’s Madison Square Garden for “The Baker’s Dozen”: 13 concerts from July 21st to August 6th, the most nights Phish have played in a single room, in a row, since they graduated from clubs. For a band constantly reborn in performance, testing their repertoire and improvising nerve from city to city, “The Baker’s Dozen” will be like going on the road – without going anywhere.
“Hopefully we’ll go somewhere – somewhere spiritual,” Anastasio counters cheerfully. “We think of it as a residency. We’ve been talking about it for a number of years. When we started the band, for all intents and purposes, we had a residency. We used to play at the same place.”
The guitarist is referring to Nectar’s – the club in Burlington, Vermont, Phish’s hometown, where the group established and advanced its unique blend of jamming, knotty composition, conceptual adventure and audience-participation jest. “We played long, multiple nights there” in the Eighties, a workload made easier because “we lived about 600 yards from Nectar’s,” Anastasio recalls. “So it was very comfortable and homegrown.
“We kind of always looked for that,” he goes on, “even when we started our own festivals. We’d set up in the middle of nowhere for three days. It was the possibility of a certain kind of looseness. That was the idea.”
Actually, Anastasio expects “The Baker’s Dozen” to be like those nights at Nectar’s in one vital respect – the crowd. “I know people that will be at ‘The Baker’s Dozen’ who were at Nectar’s, a lot of them,” he says. “We’ll be up on stage, but everybody will be in it together.”
Why did you go with 13 shows at the Garden, right off the bat? You didn’t put some dates on sale, then add more. It was like you were setting up for two weeks in the largest club in the world.
The idea was always “The Baker’s Dozen” – buy 12, get one free [laughs]. Traditionally, a residency is something that really works for people who improvise. You get used to the room; you get comfortable and loose.
There is definitely an energy, definitely a sound at the Garden. It actually vibrates. [The arena sits over the Penn Station railroad terminal.] The whole room goes up and down – so much so that the mic will swing back and forth and bump you in the nose. When people start dancing, the mic stand will sway, depending on the tempo.
The other thing, man – New York, what are you going to say? It’s been the center of things since the 1600s. It feels like you’re blocks away from where our nation was born, where the financial center of the world is. When you walk to the venue, you hear 10 different languages in 20 blocks. My grandfather came here on a boat in 1910, through Ellis Island, with that huge wave of immigrants.
And in the late Seventies, when I was a teenager, I used to come from New Jersey for guitar lessons. I’d go through Times Square.
When it was still hookers and sailors.
It was unbelievable [laughs]. There is just a magic to New York.
The summer tour ends with another, more recent tradition: Phish’s Labor Day–weekend shows in Commerce City, Colorado. What is it about that venue, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park? The name makes it seem like the place is full of fishing rods.
It is one of our favorite places to play. It’s got camping. It’s the right weekend, the weather. There’s something about that time of year and that part of the country.
What is the effect on your playing?
You’re outside, under that gorgeous Colorado sky. Everything has an effect on the playing. Chicago is incredible in its own way, We put “The Baker’s Dozen” on the map, then went “How are we going to fill this in? We gotta go to Chicago.” And we hadn’t been to Pittsburgh in a long time.
But Dick’s – we’ve always done these weird things there. We used to spell stuff with the set lists. One year , we did a show where every song started with the letter S. The next time , we started spelling messages to the audience [with the first letter of each song]. We did a show where we spelled “Fuck Your Face,” the name of a Phish song. But we took a short break after the letter U [“Undermind”]. We came back, and it was R-F-A-C-E. [The set ended with the song, “Fuck Your Face”.]
The Phish spelling bee.
It’s a thing. It’s always been like that with the band. These things take on a life of their own.
How much has the band talked so far about songs and direction for the summer tour, especially the improvising and conceptual possibilities of “The Baker’s Dozen”?
We’re gonna go up to Vermont and hang out at [Anastasio’s studio] the Barn pretty soon. We’ve been very consciously open about this. There has not been a lot of nailing down. The mystery of it is weird, to be set up in this one place for a long time. But we’re relaxed about the whole thing. I think the relaxed feeling is the point of doing a residency.
The idea grew organically: “What if we just stayed here for a long time?” At the Garden, we always have our band rooms in the same place, the rooms for family and friends. Everybody’s hanging around. You get backstage, and you feel like you’re home. Sometimes the soundchecks are so loose. And you have to wonder: How much of that looseness is about the place?
You sometimes include soundcheck material in your Live Phish releases. Have you ever thought of doing just a box set of soundchecks?
I am a huge soundcheck fan. That is a great idea.
For a listener, it’s like getting inside the music before it is formally sent out to you.
Right. It is a conversation that has come up. We get up there and nobody’s thinking. It’s just whoosh! Not thinking becomes habitual. The music is instantaneous. Not thinking has become a lot easier over the years. [Laughs] Maybe we’re just tired.