When Phish announced they would be taking up residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden for 13 nights this summer, their devoted fanbase went into overdrive. Some wondered if they would stage elaborate pranks and spectacles like their legendary New Years Eve shows at the same venue. Phishheads turned up a 2007 Relix interview with keyboardist Page McConnell that described an earlier draft of the idea, where a “Boston Creme” night would feature only covers by Boston and Cream. Some turned to numerology to predict what the band would play. The band offered no hints. “We’ve been very consciously open about this,” Trey Anastasio told Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke in April. “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.”
Five performances into the Baker’s Dozen, Phish haven’t disappointed, putting on some of their most ambitious sets in years, with an attention to detail that recalls their Nineties heyday. Building their set lists loosely around different flavors of designer donuts, which are distributed to concertgoers free at the door by Federal Donuts, the band has yet to repeat a single song. The non-formula strikes a balance between well-laid surprises, long passages of relaxed conversational interplay, and the goofball groove-oriented exuberance that makes Phish repugnant to civilians and beloved to Phishheads.
The opening nights have reset the band’s parameters, transforming their always-fluctuating song rotation – absurdist prog workouts, earnest soul-bearing rockers – into an extended and unfolding 13-night statement. Playing some 85 different songs over their first 10 sets (plus encores), the 34-year-old group have reached far beyond their usual canon, debuting new songs every night, and – more significantly to some Phishheads – adding long, improvised passages to songs that don’t usually have them. It’s pure fan service that brings the band’s strange, particular kinds of creativity to the forefront.
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The donut flavors have become a springboard for experimentation: On July 21st (Coconut night), the band included an indie rock party-starter (Junior Senior’s “Shake Your Coconuts”) and a shaggy barbershop quartet version of Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut.” The barbershop fared better on night two (Strawberry night) with the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” before a cosmic-soul version of Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23,” and their own “Halley’s Comet” (penned by a college classmate), with a lyric about “thick strawberry goo.” The interconnectivity continued with a rare encore of Frank Zappa’s “Peaches En Regalia” (original bassist: Shuggie Otis). Night Three (Red Velvet) began with drummer Jon Fishman, in his trademark mummu, center-stage in a looming bishop’s hat, sprinkling holy water on the crowd, before leading a charmingly unpolished version of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning.” They played it sweet and straight – straight in the sense that Fishman didn’t add his expected vacuum cleaner solo, which will perhaps occur some other evening.
As usual, the band have been kicking off their second sets with sprawling jam vehicles. This has included a 16-minute “Tweezer” on night one, a 19-minute “Down With Disease” on night two, and a nearly 17-minute “Carini” on night five, each with their own majestic tension-and-release vistas. But the band has also broken free from relegating deeper improv to only the shows’ back halves, jamming early and often, cracking open the funk strut of “The Moma Dance” and solemn hippie-pop of “Breath and Burning” on night two. It’s in jamming that the group finds its most remarkable self, transcending their goofy over-schooled virtuosity and sometimes-awkward songwriting, setting off for the unknown.
In that sense, night four was the show many Phishheads have been waiting for, perhaps for years. The donuts were advertised several days in advance: mini honey-dipped donuts with raspberry jam in the center (Or, as officially phrased: Jam-Filled). The band saw the concept through to its fullest, with nearly three hours of music that contained as much jamming as the average Phishhead spends years of fandom and income hoping to actually witness. It kicked off with “Sample in a Jar” – as the song approached its typical ending, the band lingered on a big major chord, signaling an impending jam in a fairly standard rocker. A wave of cheers rose throughout Madison Square Garden as close-listening fans zeroed in on the deviation. The three-minute lounge-schmaltz of “Lawn Boy” gave way to a keytar solo by Page McConnell and a half-hour jam that crested through multiple peaks. The second set included an even-longer exploration of Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless” that landed in an extended field of ambient improvisation. It was sometimes drowned by a chatty crowd, but filled with detail on the official recording.
“Hope you like jammin’ too,” guitarist Trey Anastasio quoted Bob Marley during the band’s faux-reggae tune, “Makisupa Policeman.” Deep into the second set of the night, it was a good bet that most in the audience, indeed, liked jammin’, too.
With the VR-themed Panorama fest gearing up on nearby Randall’s Island, “Baker’s Dozen” offers a different kind of escape route from the harsh American realities of 2017: a Phish-inhabited snow globe in Midtown Manhattan with its own laws of gravity. The approximately 39 hours of music Phish will create by the end of the 13 shows might contain just as many secret codes as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival. Phish’s long form is all their own, offering occasional tedium in the form of autopilot jam passages (here and again during the extended “Lawn Boy” on night four), misstepped song choices (like the barroom blues of Clifton Chenier’s “My Soul” on night five)
Traditional powdered donuts, on night five, brought a bit of everything: big jams, but also a sense that some music had been left on the table. The show was book-ended by thematic cover debuts, an a capella version of the Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” (with close block harmonies that offer a new and haunting place for Phish to go) and an appropriately ragged encore of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger.” Ignoring other powder-themed Phish songs (“Sand”, “Snow”) and previously played covers (The Who’s “Sea and Sand”), one of the night’s most resonant moments wasn’t powdered-themed at all: a bust-out of Prince’s “1999”. A song whose unimaginable future has now become part of the nostalgic past, it served as an island in an hour-long jam sequence, calling back the band’s only other performance of the song, at a New Year’s show at the Garden nearly 20 years earlier, a much different time in the band and country’s history.
Like many veteran acts, Phish has sometimes struggled to mesh their newest selves with fans’ conceptions of their earlier incarnations. But they have found a new and happy medium in the vastness of the “Baker’s Dozen,” especially during the jammier sets, where fan favorite bust-outs sit comfortably besides songs debuted only last week.
During their first New Year’s performance at Madison Square Garden – routinely ranked by Phishheads as one of the band’s all-time best – the quartet staged an elaborate joke about a malfunctioning time lab, getting stuck indefinitely in 1995. The band has performed at the venue on almost half of the New Year’s Eves since then, a tradition that has become both hallowed and occasionally predictable, give or take the band’s elaborate pranks. “The Baker’s Dozen,” then, serves to break Phish free from their own traditions, not the least of which includes playing Madison Square Garden in a season besides winter for the first time in 20 years. For Phish, it is nothing short of time regained, a liberation that comes in the handy, heady form of a rock concert.