If you’ve spent any considerable time around the Phish from Vermont over the last 34-odd years, you’re no doubt familiar with the “never miss a Sunday show” adage. And if you’ve spent even one night on the musical game-board that is Midtown Manhattan over the past week and change, you’re becoming familiar with a newly forming adage, though one that’s no less true: For The Love Of Icculus, Never Ever–EVER–Miss A Baker’s Dozen Show. Especially if that Baker’s Dozen show happens to fall on a Sunday…
Following Saturday night’s “Cinnamon” show, which saw more fingers in the air than at any show in recent memory, extras were plentiful outside the Garden early Sunday evening. But just because the tickets were there for the taking, doesn’t mean the excitement was any less palpable among the New York masses. The gravity of this historic residency has begun to fully register for everyone within the Phish universe (and even for those outside this beautiful bubble). The excitement and creative stimulus afforded by the nightly themes, the out-of-the-blue covers and rarities dredged up by the band’s commitment to no repeats over the run’s 13 shows; it’s all continued to raise the stakes each night, and the band has continued to exceed the ever-rising expectations. We’re now on the back half of the Baker’s Dozen, which means the band is not only fully settled and in a groove, but also crossing ever-more songs off the list, necessitating deep dives into their 30+ year-long catalog. On top of all that, Phish announced that the flavor of the day was “Jimmies”–understandably setting the rumor mill ablaze. Jimi Hendrix. Runaway Jim. And, of course, every Phish fan’s favorite Jimmy–that blissfully ignorant owner of an eternally unlucky feline by the name of Poster Nutbag…
Phish took the stage at just about 10 minutes past 8, and proceeded to deliver an immaculate opening set filled with “white whale” song selections, big Type-1 peaks, and thoroughly dialed-in musicianship across the board. The band got the show on the road with the summer’s first “The Curtain,” prompting ecstatic cheers from the audience. The first of a litany of Phish classics to appear during Sunday’s performance, the fan favorite was played to perfection, before moving into a delicate yet rapturous “With” jam. Nailed it.
A theme-appropriate “Runaway Jim” got the call in the two-spot, with Mike Gordon leading the foursome into a funky groove before passing the ball to Page McConnell for an impressive dual synth/organ keyboard run, simultaneously holding down the sonic texture and pushing the story forward melodically. Trey Anastasio hopped out front from there, getting dark and gritty before leading the song to a classic white-light peak. Nailed it.
Gordon-penned Big Boat composition “Waking Up Dead” followed, making its first appearance since Mexico this past January. After just a handful of performances of the complex new composition—many of them somewhat botched—this version sounded fantastic, Page shining the brightest with his unhinged organ funk fills. It’s clear they’ve been practicing it, and it paid off handsomely last night. The song’s haunting slither seemed to portend the imminent post-Night 8 morning that awaited us all today, and its weirdness foreshadowed the dark, shadowy jamming that was coming in set two. Nailed it!
The ominous atmosphere continued with a rare rendition of creepy carnival-kidnapping caper “Esther,” just the fifth since 2010 and the first since the memorable bustout-filled first set on 8/9/15 at Alpine Valley. After a raucous, peaking “Home” (which is rapidly becoming one of the best Big Boat tunes in the live arena) and straightforward renditions of “Brian and Robert” and “Nellie Kane,” Phish incited the loudest screams yet as they kicked into yet another pair of beloved early-years rarities not played since 8/9/15: “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” > “Fly Famous Mockingbird!” “Forbin’s” was joyous and filled with laughs (especially as Trey “censored” the “weary shit-ass” line to “weary carcass”), and the notoriously difficult-to-play “Mockingbird” was absolutely, confidently, emphatically nailed.
The “Mockingbird” narrations also featured more amusing nods to the evening’s theme. First, Trey quoted the “Jimmy” lyrics from “Squirming Coil,” reciting them a la medieval poetry—”The words of the Helping Friendly Book are powerful, but you don’t need many of them, for lo, it is written: Lo…’Jimmy holds the Tannis Root, The forest’s tasty nectar shoot, The sun tips off the monarch’s suit, From sequined sash to shiny boot…” But of course, he just told us that so he could tell us this (taking inspiration from The Beatles‘ “Glass Onion”): “Here’s another clue for you all: The monarch was Wilson!…And here’s another clue for you all: The Walrus was Jimmy!!!”
From there, the crowd already thoroughly delighted, the band launched into the summer ’17 debut of “David Bowie,” highlighted by sparse, focused jamming with Gordon’s bass and Trey’s piercing guitar leading the way. Chris Kuroda made spectacular use of his new toys on his well-documented favorite Phish song, putting an exclamation point on a nearly too-good-to-be-true set one. Throughout the set, Phish was a hammer, and every song they queued up looked just like a nail. All that was missing was a “Bittersweet Motel” to validate the metaphor—though there was nothing “bitter” about Sunday’s first frame.
After a break, Phish came out for set two and lit into The Who‘s “Drowned,” a song originally sung by Quadrophenia‘s young protagonist: Jimmy. This “Drowned” marked the second time a big version of the song has opened a second set at MSG, the first being 12/31/95—one of the closest things the notoriously picky Phish fan base has to a consensus “best show.” The song continued the trend it set on New Year’s ’95, wading deep into the waters with a submerged “echolocation” jam, each musician tossing up lines for each other to catch and land with smoothly. Fish-powered bliss led to swelling Trey flourishes, floating across the sound mix side-to-side, the light rig never more appropriate in its “underwater marionette”-like splendor. The jam touched briefly on “Mountain Jam” before riding an unrelenting backbeat from Fishman and whale calls from Trey to a beautiful piano lead (cleverly juxtaposed with a cacophonous feedback loop) and, finally, dissolving into a billowing mist.
“A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” followed, continuing the dark, brooding improv that had already been established throughout the show. This ocean song got some swanky lounge style jamming, evoking the same Genesis-type vibe they’ve hit with precision on several jams this run. Trey laid down funky rhythm fills while Fishman applied the gas and Mike and Page colored in the lines—really taking it out there, loose and open, catching connections. After a dissonant build, the band broke the vamp down to virtually nothing, bobbing on soft ghost notes before growing into tension-building minimalist weirdness. Riding the jam’s final waves, Trey locked into an ascending riff, accenting a drum-and-bass groove with a quick “Jimmy!” delay loop jam. “Jimmy” echoed through the room, and a single word crept into the audience’s heads—“Harpua??”—before the endlessly-chased song’s “oom-pah-pah” intro delivered on that suspicion, the Garden delirious with excitement.
“A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing”
As the song started, stagehands brought out chairs for Mike and Trey, who sat down, crossed their legs, and proceeded to grab their newspapers and read. Trey broke the silence with a thoughtful exclamation: “Wow, there’s lumps in the cosmic gravy. No seriously, there’s lumps in the cosmic gravy!” With comically scholarly, “Schoolhouse Rock!” matter-of-fact-ness, the band went on to explain—in what appeared to be mostly Phish-y nonsense—a thorough reasoning of why in actuality, and according to science, The Universe is, in fact, a donut. The “Harpua” narration saw each of the band members joke and pontificate about the “cosmic fireballs,” “large-scale radiations,” “squishing,” “topology,” “submicroscopic loops,” nods to various Phish lyrics, and other silliness in service of explaining why, obviously—”DUH”—The Universe has to be a donut!
It wasn’t until after the show was over and the Internet was surfed that fans seemed to discover that this amusing “Harpua” skit wasn’t gibberish at all. It was, in fact, pulled almost word-for-word from a 2003 article in the New York Times, titled The Universe As Doughnut, which presents a sincere, science-backed astrophysical argument for why The Universe is actually shaped like a donut. So it wasn’t “distress tubes” and “solar garlic” and “slicing nipples.” It was science. Data. Phish wouldn’t lie to us, of course—The Universe has to be a donut. And during this incredible Baker’s Dozen run, donuts have been our universe.
After completing the “Harpua” composed section with a hilariously-altered refrain (“Poster is Dead, and the universe is a donut”), the band dropped into a down-and-dirty “2001,” featuring still more dark jamming augmented with smoke machines and “Harpua” teases from Trey. Finally, they finished the set off with a sing-along “Golgi Apparatus” and an a cappella “In The Good Old Summer Time,” which featured Fish lyrical flubs that only further excited the grateful crowd.
For the encore—during which Trey wore an “Is This Still Lawn Boy” shirt, a nod to Jam-Filled night 4—a Jimi Hendrix cover seemed like a strong bet. “Bold as Love,” “Fire,” and even the rare “Izabella” were thrown around as guesses, but the band instead opted for another unexpected turn: their debut of Are You Experienced? classic “The Wind Cries Mary.”
Wow. Just…wow. Just when you think it can’t get better on this incredible run, Phish exceeds your wildest imagination once again. “The Curtain With,” “Esther,” “Forbins” > “Mockingbird,” “Bowie,” “Harpua” all in the same show?! Lots of dark, dirty, weird improv? Barely a single note misplaced throughout the night? And a Hendrix cover debut taboot? The Baker’s Dozen refuses to disappoint. The band is on an incredible hot streak, making magic at every turn—and we’ve still got 5 more nights to go! What a time to be a Phish fan…
[cover photo by Instagram user type2photography]
Repeat Watch: Ok, at this point I think we can all agree that “repeat watch” is pretty much on auto-pilot. But for posterity’s sake: Over the course of the first 8 nights of the Baker’s Dozen, Phish has played 145 different songs, and hasn’t repeated a single one.
Today’s Donut: “Jimmies” [“Runaway Jim”; “Fly Famous Mockingbird” (“The Walrus was Jimmy!“); “Drowned” (sung from the perspective of Jimmy in The Who’s Quadrophenia); “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” (“Jimmy!” delay loop quotes from Trey); “Harpua”, “The Wind Cries Mary” (by Jimi Hendrix)]
We Tired Yet?: Going into Sunday’s show? Sure. Coming out? Never felt more energized. Almost upset that we don’t have a show tonight. But then again, there’s a mountain of laundry building up and the new Game of Thrones burning a hole in the DVR…maybe a day off isn’t such a bad idea. See you Tuesday!
SETLIST: Phish | Baker’s Dozen Night 8 | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 7/30/17
SET 1: The Curtain With > Runaway Jim, Waking Up Dead, Esther, Home, Brian and Robert, Nellie Kane, Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird > David Bowie
SET 2: Drowned, A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing, Harpua > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Golgi Apparatus, In The Good Old Summer Time
ENCORE: The Wind Cries Mary
 Phish debut.