Critic's Notebook: Why Would You Go to a Phish Concert, Let Alone 13? I Found Out

12th Dec 2018
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It likes long jams in long sets, and encourages its audience to listen hard in the long view, to slot the performance of one song into a grid containing all the other performances of that song. Phish’s music is adventuresome exactly to the extent that it is familiar. It is adventurously familiar.

The 13 concerts of “Baker’s Dozen” represents the longest run in a single place that Phish has ever undertaken — a different order from previous four-show runs at the Garden around New Year’s Eve. You’d think this would have happened with Phish already: longer residencies suit improvisers.

Residency was once a clinical word. Now it is a chic one, for good reason. It is possible, if not provable, that by showing up on the same stage repeatedly, improvising artists grow deeper and more complex, or at least remember their own standards of excellence. Historically, residencies could help a band develop a relationship of trust and respect with repeat customers and local musicians: Think of Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot in 1957, or the Allman Brothers at the Beacon in recent decades, where the residencies ran to 15 nights. But of course a stage before 20,000 people at the Garden is on a different scale of trust from 100 in a club; and you can live-stream or buy a Phish concert from any location, by streaming from livephish.com.

In any case: What I saw was a purposeful band in energetic form, better than I’ve seen and heard recently, more willing to let songs assume their own proportions, and going far into its own catalog. Most of all, they did not repeat a song in 13 shows. There were nearly 240 songs played, including covers of David Bowie, Prince, the Rolling Stones, and so on. That takes rehearsing, and resolve.

The burden on Phish, after 34 years, is to keep adding value, because their fans are also advanced-level consumers who know what it means to be satisfied. Therefore, residencies. Therefore, doughnuts. Each concert at the Garden had a theme, announced that afternoon, roughly corresponding with musical references to a particular type of doughnut, produced and given out to the early arrivers by Federal Donuts of Philadelphia. My nights were Boston Cream and Glazed. During the Boston Cream night the band played a short, clever and limited mash-up of several songs by the bands Boston and Cream, arranged to be in the same key, gradually superimposed until their lyrics became interleaved.

But I didn’t want a doughnut; I wanted the spirit of the band. Right, spirit! You go for the spirit. But it seems that you also go for the opposite reason, for the body: You are collecting artifacts of sound and memory, amassing your own capital. A Phish concert is a goodie bag of songs with titles and lyrics and repeatable themes. You put your hand in and attach your desires to the ones you haven’t heard live yet, or that few manage to do. “I’m glad I got ‘The Lizards’ and ‘The Sloth,’” said the young docent I went with on Saturday night.

Both songs are part of Mr. Anastasio’s early “Gamehendge” suite. (I won’t explain that.) Both semi-rare. Rarity is an absolute value. But Phish, and their fans, don’t wait around for absolute value. They create it. Nearly everything in the Phish universe is valuable on some level. Everyone gets a trophy. This is a working proposition within Phish-world; it is also, I guess, why Phish often sounds unimpressive to many people outside of that world. That includes me. I do not like Phish’s songs as such: I find too many of them basic in the name of complexity, and don’t connect with their humor. I don’t really want the body. I’ll take the invitation to create some value. But I’ll refuse some, too.

On Saturday, I liked the slow build of “Gotta Jibboo,” the whomping energy of “Ghost,” and the long-haul intricacy of “Petrichor.” I had some time for “You Enjoy Myself” on Sunday, with its many parts and its improvised a cappella vocal closer. I am sorry that I can’t report from the “Jam-filled” night — July 25 — because a Phish concert, finally, even with all its variations, is so ritualized that it is thrilling to not quite know where you are in the course of one. That night delivered at least two “where are we” moments: “Lawn Boy” and a version of the Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless.” But I heard it online. I know what happened. I’m satisfied.

Correction: August 8, 2017

An earlier version of this article described incorrectly a series of Phish performances at Madison Square Garden around New Year’s Eve. The band has previously performed runs of four shows at the Garden around New Year’s Eve, not five.

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