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Incredibly, last Wednesday night’s three-hour-plus Phish extravaganza at Madison Square Garden—the first of their three-night run there, and my first Phish show, period—is not, in fact, the most indulgent, meandering, patience-obliterating concert I have ever experienced. The Mars Volta spring somewhat unhappily to mind. As do, unhappier still, the Allman Brothers. Ween, maybe. But that’s it, in terms of competition. Which is not to say the show was terrible—exhausting, certainly, and nigh-insufferable, occasionally, but, for long stretches, surprisingly vibrant and rousing, too. This is something everyone should probably do once, seeing these boys in action. You might even talk me into doing it again someday. But only after an appreciable recovery period. Say, three to five years.
The best reason to see Phish: their fans. These are extraordinarily devoted gentlemen (and ladies), generous in their enthusiasm and unflagging in their devotion, everyone joyfully and unself-consciously dancing as if trying to amuse a baby. They give louder, longer, lustier between-song ovations than anybody, then rush home to document the source of their elation: It is profoundly admirable, to swing by the fan-generated setlist outpost at phish.net a few days later and learn that “Peaches en Regalia” had been performed for the first time since September 24, 1999, in Austin, Texas, unveiled at a paltry 4.94 percent of Phish live shows since 1986—to encounter this level of freely given slavish detail.
For their trouble, disciples gladly suffer various faux-Deadhead stereotype-based indignities, not least those inflicted by the MSG security folks there to both ensure no Phish ticketholder wanders into Cirque du Soleil’s Wintuk by mistake (or vice versa, and I can’t decide who would be more disturbed) and do some overzealous drug-sleuthing besides. “This seems to be the most popular place,” murmurs a bag-checker, digging his fingers invasively into an incoming patron’s pack of cigarettes for presumed contraband. Cliché!
Still, though. Inside, the vibe is . . . relaxed. “Do you have a bowl?” asks a dude sitting behind me. (No.) Sharing, of substances controlled and otherwise, is encouraged in this environment. The guy next to me, a spacey and jovial sort, plies me with gifts: “You wanna hit my Malibu Rum?” he begins (no), before further offering a cigarette (no), a stick of Big Red (no) or Juicy Fruit (yes), and “any chick you’re trying to impress” (??).
Meanwhile, the show has begun. No opener, no particular fanfare. Reconvened this spring after a five-year hiatus, Phish—Trey Anastasio on guitar and lead vocals, Page McConnell on pianos and keyboards and so forth, Mike Gordon on bass, and Jon Fishman on drums—schlump onstage with regal nonchalance, taking up their instruments and thereafter each observing a three-foot radius to which they confine their movement, as if under particularly draconian house arrest. A psychedelic, geometrically sumptuous light show provides all the visual stimulation, often mirroring the chooglin’ & noodlin’ sonic action so precisely you realize all that meandering isn’t so random after all.
These guys have songs, folks. Pop songs. “Chalk Dust Torture” (24.76 percent of live shows) and “Sample in a Jar” (15.64) are both vintage Tom Petty riff-rock burners—the former, a manic sprint; the latter, an affable frat-funk lope—both initially models of concise barroom anthemia that, like a great many Phish tunes, eventually evolve (or devolve, depending on how much of your patience has been obliterated) into an epic Anastasio solo, albeit one with a logical coherent arc, a steady crescendo of guitar-hero hysteria bolstered by both the light show and the crowd, which goes logically and steadily more apeshit in kind. There’s something very intimate about that communion. (The 13th time it happens you’re maybe sick of it, and yet.) Other tunes in the 80-minute first set (!) co-opt the Police’s white-reggae neurosis, some punkish bluegrass, and the Stones in sensitive-ballad mode (the excellent “Brian and Robert,” a rare treat at only 2.4 percent). A huge, booming chorus is occasionally deployed just to make sure nobody zones out.
The second set is lousy with zone-outs. I am not convinced even Phish fans give a shit about new Phish studio albums; this year’s Joy has a sweet, lilting earnestness, but the few languid jams therein deployed tonight go nowhere, and the (relative) crowd indifference is palpable. Slightly older tunes fare no better: “Wading in the Velvet Sea” (3.64) is more of a slog. But even then, there are unexpected jolts of vivacity: “Tweezer” is a deliciously nonsensical Frankenstein-stomp sing-along, murky and bombastic and flamboyantly bizarre—it’d make a great Outkast sample. Still an hour left to go, though. Perhaps if you’ve attended several of the other 356 shows in which “Run Like an Antelope” (24.42) has appeared, its dense, rambling Doobie-Brothers-go-ska tangents will speak to you with zen-like clarity. Or perhaps you will be bone-tired. The baby is no longer amused.
Plus an encore! From the band’s notoriously bottomless well of cover tunes bubbles up “A Day in the Life,” notable in that Neil Young did the exact same encore at MSG a year ago, but with a hostile, atonal, apocalyptic edge that doesn’t exactly jibe with the Phish version, a frivolous and blithely optimistic campfire jam that, perhaps out of deference, doesn’t drag on for 20 minutes, or what feels like it. Then a brief, euphoric reprise of “Tweezer” (13.17, confusingly sometimes performed without the actual normal version of “Tweezer” preceding it), and we are free. The effect is as if you’ve been beaten up by really cheerful, appealing people. I advise you to try it, if only the once. And maybe don’t turn down the hit of Malibu Rum.