Phish’s Baker’s Dozen run at Madison Square Garden was musical history in the making. For those of us lucky enough to be there, it will be remembered not just for the incredible musicianship, jams, song selection and variety, plays on words, but for the sense of community that enveloped the entire Tri-State area like a fluffy towel. It was Chicago as the Cubs closed in on the World Series, the Olympics, and a double-dose of Hanukah all at once. Each night was a special treat, unwrapped gingerly but with intent for us to enjoy; the press and our friends and family and even people who “just don’t get Phish” seemed to know what was going on and why it was important. When the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2003, I had complete strangers asking me how I felt after a tough playoff loss, and that sense of pop up community and genuine interest echoed and reverberated and found all of the highs (of all kinds) in the local area.
The band showed how to play to a room – not just acoustically but emotionally as well. Sure people sing along at concerts, but 20,800 fans practically screaming “Fluffhead” makes the hair stand up on your neck. It was the energy and intensity of a small venue Coheed & Cambria show an order of magnitude larger and louder, but no less personal. The number of times Trey stopped to look around the arena and take in the fans, the emotions, and the love was remarkable. When your musical heroes allow subtle childhood nuances to peek through on stage, you have to fall in love with the band all over again.
The room showed how to play to a band – from the security guards who were tolerant of fans of all ages, shapes and sizes (and costumes), to the concessions staff who worked at double speed during set break, to the ushers who made sure everyone had fun without being forceful about level crashers. I’ve never loved shows at the Garden due to what I felt was a bad echo problem, but the new ceiling seems to have addressed the issue. On night 3 I brought a human-sized inflatable donut into the Garden, and when one of the security guards went for a closer inspection, another told him “it’s an inflatable, they’re going to bring them in.” The entire Garden was a model for fan friendliness and creating an atmosphere where it was almost required to have a good time. And no, I never thought I’d write something good about the Garden where my previous experiences mostly revolved around sticky floors that seem intent on ruining my shoes within the first thirty minutes, people puking in the stands, and indoor air redolent of the men’s room.
Phish got a banner, equalling the Rangers during the lifetime of the band.
A Hammond B3 organ driven through a Leslie speaker brings back forty years of memories, from my Aunt May and Uncle Murray’s house that had a huge console organ (a Hammond of course, that they offered to let me both fix and keep – fortunately my father knew that the amplifier inside housed lethal voltages); the first peer who told me about Leslie speakers much to my disbelief, only for me to discover that the wonderful phased sound I loved was the product of the spinning cones; discovering the J Geils Band during my first summer in Boston cementing the association with large-scale concerts, heavy vibrato keyboards, and enjoying great music in the company of mildly crazy friends.
In an age of spectacular stage production with moving platforms, confetti cannons, lasers and backup dancers, seeing what Chris Kuroda does with the lighting rig is itself a show-within-a-show. The true choreography of each night happened in the rigging and with the house lights, bringing not just color palette but literal shape to each song, each jam riff, each peak. One of the Garden executives told me that CK5 is one of the (fewer than three) people allowed to tap into the house lights. What he did with them made the room fold in on itself, so you were never that far from the spotlight even when the backup dancers were in the row in front of you.
Had a number of “first” listens to various Phish classics, live, including “The Lizards.” In a complete plate o shrimp moment, the song opens with an oblique reference to a long corridor, much like Genesis’ “Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” which ostensibly was set in the same neighborhood as the Garden — and I happened to be reading Mike Rutherford’s autobiographical discourse about that very album at the very same time.
Toroidal influences abound, and the theme was executed to perfection. It’s easy to be heavy handed and devolve into cliche when it comes to thematic elements, but Baker’s Dozen reveled in the slow reveal. It was, in the words of original Apple designer Tog, the progressive disclosure of what we needed to know – the donut themed promotional reel, the tickets in a donut box, the introduction of the flavor of the night, the Garden signage and “Glaze On,” song selection that walked the formation of a carefully crafted pun. “The universe is a donut” long form intro to “Harpua” (itself a “Jimmies” reference) is a template by which all other themes should be judged.
At the conclusion of a run like this, of an event that transcends time and space and work and everyday schedules, you feel a bit deflated. The house guests have left, the Olympic torch is extinguished, Hanukah menorahs are de-waxed and wiped down and gently put away until the next celebration. And that’s precisely the point – we’re on to the next tour, the next nights vibrating with love and light with our friends and family and that slightly goofy person who just flew in from Tampa or Denver or San Diego or Birmingham (lot of bridges). The torch is on its way to the next stop, and in the mean time, we’ll take care of our shoes.