I attended the opening night of Phish’s 13-night “Baker’s Dozen” run at Madison Square Garden last night. Despite its storied history, landmark concerts and self-proclaimed centerpiece status of the venue world, a jumping night in the Garden isn’t quite the concert-going Eden I’d prefer. Sometimes it’s the sound (cymbal reflection off of the back of the arena), sometimes it’s the lighting or sight lines, and sometimes it’s just the fact that it’s in New York and it’s at the epicenter of civil engineering that would make Rube Goldberg blush.
Then I saw Phish at the Garden, something that has happened twenty-nine previous times without me, and suddenly I am converted. The entire four-month crescendo to last night’s opener has been the typical self-deprecating, insanely creative and genuinely fun experience you associate with Phish, from the residency announcement that featured donuts rolling down 7th Avenue to the donut-shaped tickets that came in a box to Ben & Jerry’s special one-night “Freezer Reprise” flavor (which of course we sampled pre-show, and then got the t-shirt to capture the remaining sensory memories, all the while supporting The Waterwheel Foundation). The day of the show, the “flavor of the night” was announced — coconut — with free donuts from Philadelphia’s Federal Donuts (part of the culinary mosh pit that brings you Dizengoff, Zahav and their self-titled donut stands in the city of Brotherly Love). Sprinkles on the sweetness of the event came in the form of a heartfelt New Yorker article about Phish and community and why we do what we do.
With all of that foreshadowing, fanfare and dramatic tension, you had to wonder if the show would carry its weight. Carry it did, with the grace of picking up a beach ball (or donut shaped float) and tossing it back into the frenzied crowd. I’ve never seen a band play to the hall, to the crowd, and to the moment like that. Whether it was Chris Kuroda’s audience lighting at the tension and release moments of jams, or the audience’s pickup note of wild cheering that redirected the new light rig over the floor, the sense that the band and audience were locked in was palpable. Each jam modulated from minor to major, from earthy to just quite spacey and back to ground, the way you enjoy a fine tasting menu or — in my case — excavate the Phish food pint, savoring the fudge fish but tasting the caramel, the marshmallow and the chocolate with equal relish.
Coconut themed songs bookended the sets, “Reba” made a lyrical nod to the beignet-du-jour, and on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a pair of lunar references (“Halfway to the Moon” and “Moonage Daydream”) reinforced the feeling that we were witnessing something of an entirely different plane of creativity. There were at least a few moments when Trey stepped aside the mic stand, looked around at the 200 and 300 levels of the Garden, and you could see the smile that meant “Hey, I’m playing at Madison Square Garden with my best friends.”
It was, like the show in its entirety, pure joy. And there are a dozen more to go.