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Phish At Madison Square Garden,Saturday, December 28th, 2013, Reviewed

Back To School





















When Garry Trudeau went to Yale in 1965 he started a comic strip later to be named “Doonesbury” and in 1973 when he took the strip into syndication, he wrote about where his cartoon characters left Yale yet never left the college of the mind. Nearly exactly 30 years ago, Phish did the  same thing at the University of Vermont.  Phish have one theme, one song, one story: college and never ever leaving it.

So your take on Phish might well be tied to your college experience, and your US college experience since they suck at albums and don’t travel well, but whatever your take on Phish,  Saturday’s concert, the first of a four night stand to culminate in their annual New Year’s Eve  get together, was lousy. The sound system is too low and the band spend the entire first set clearing their throat and a third of the second set till “Backwards Down The Line” saves “Tweezer”  – a knock out I’ve heard them pull out before, keeps them for a total debacle and a funky groove (always better than their jazz grooves) maintains em with “Steam”. At which point it is pretty steady going till they reprise “Tweezer” at the end of the set and save it from ignominy.

The audience is maybe a 15 years younger than you’d expect, late 20s when I thought you’d be looking at early 40s and there is something studied yet dilettantish about em. Usually, I don’t let Phish Phans bother me but the sound is so low all I can hear is a consistent rumble of the gormless talking about how this is (really, honestly) their 102nd concert. The women look as though they’re dressed as a hippy at a Halloween party, all shaved underarms and long flowing skirts they can unzip and hang in leggings when they they wanna get down. The men are worse:  hobbit smelling , pot drooling, white twerp twitching , 29 year old college graduating , scruffy beard wearing average white boys yet at the same time, you just know they’ll be leaving their parents house by the time 2014 is over.

This is the backbone of America folks, white, liberal, middle class, spoiled, but caring and uncertain; despite Phish having been around for decades nobody is growing up, nobody is getting out alive, the world is coming at them and they just wanna be happy happy happy but they don’t know how.

In the deadliness of a blanked out future impossible with possibilities Phish fans feel faced through the miniature: if music doesn’t matter, how much does Phish matter?  Superb musicians, especially keyboard player Page McConnell, who I saw sit in with The Funky Meters in 2012 and who is an astoundingly great with a good rhythm section behind him unlike this one which is just OK .Though, of course, it isn’t about Page, it is about Trey Anastasio. Or rather, in song after song, in jam after jam, it is about that moment where the guitar goes from  arpeggios and starts  searching out a place where a flaying, slaying intensity can send the band and the audience soaring: where it is all tone and tension and a coming together.

In theory.

In practice it  doesn’t actually always work out that way, last year at the MSG gig I saw here a superb “Fluffhead”  got us there but tonight there is nothing quite good enough. They are rusty, they are storing up their energy. Phish don’t tour the way they did in the 1990s, married with kids who must be teens by now, recovering junkies, survivors of a five year break up which didn’t quite work out and richer than God as they travel the States (not the world) like well paid good will ambassadors of American pop, taking prog to jazz and funk and never giving too much away. Watching Trey close his eyes and zone out on close circuit TV, he is like a Peter Pan of pot.

The result is that they dress like their audience who dress like folks who aren’t in their audience but it it is like a collective collusion, like religion, a sort of shared delusion of eternal youth through tradition. But more and more, and absolutely last night, it gets harder and harder to get off.

I have a friend who is going all four nights and the entire event was a simultaneous sell out, I guess what she is waiting for is that moment when the band have gotten to where they want to go: before than she moves to the music, smokes weed, flows with it, grooves with it, settles into the prog-rock of it all but than Phish begin to get there and she, and the band, begin to change, she joins with the rest of the audience like bees in a hive: it is all in the moment because on record it is never quite the same. It’s a college campus, there to become something else.

What happens when the moment doesn’t come? I went to see the Knicks at Madison Square Garden a week before, the Knicks lost, and it was the same thing as this  set.  That’s what it felt like at the Phish concert. You come in with hopes, they play lacklustre for three hours, put on a spurt to get it close and then it’s over. Better luck tomorrow.

Grade: B-

Set 1: The Wedge, Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan, Mound, Axilla > Birds of a Feather, Wolfman’s Brother, Monica, Seven Below > Tube > Free, Julius

Set 2: Sand -> Piper -> Back on the Train > Tweezer -> Backwards Down the Number Line, Steam > Silent in the Morning, Waiting All Night, Run Like an Antelope

Encore: Suzy Greenberg, Tweezer Reprise

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