Jam band standard-bearers open 4-night stint at the Garden and Rock NYC’s Iman Lababedi is on the scene
By Iman Lababedi
The second set of Phish‘s concert at MSG Friday night was epic. After a first set that had fans shrugging with an “A little rusty” after a four month break, Phish performed a defining “Tweezer” and a “Twist” including elements of “The Little Drummer Boy” before the inevitable singalong to “Fluffhead” and a spacey “David Bowie“.
I’d been waiting for this for decades. After walking out on Phish in 1994 and losing interest halfway thru the gig in 2010, keyboardist Page McConnell blew me away last Halloween when he performed with the Meters at BB King‘s. In the midst of Hurriicane Sandy, the Meter(Men) conquered the room and Page blew the cobwebs off New Orleans funk improvising alongside four of the genre’s greatest performers. It was a brave and thrillingthing and within two songs, Page had earned the right to play with the band.
The result was, for the first time ever I went into Phish without a chip on my shoulder, And then I got lucky. The “rust” on the first set meant the band weren’t willing to scale the heights of jam, it was a ridiculously tight, 12 songs in 75 minutes with a fast on its feet rockabilly “Kill Devil Falls” and the full length three days late gravity defying”The Little Drummer Boy” played live for the first time since 2004 (or 187 shows it says here). It was a casual, enjoyable, welcoming to newcomers set and the hardcore fans were waiting it out, kinda understanding and patient. But for the rest of us, the hard accent on funk, with Page channeling Booker T. Jones on “Funky Bitch” which slowly morphed into Deadlike country by “Nellie Kane” made sense of what we (well, I) just hadn’t been able to grasp.
Then I got lucky again. The first song of the set was over 20 minutes of “looks like Ebenezer”, and it was a great song, very melodic always and the tweeness that had me leave an earlier concert after half an hour and which you can hear on 1990s versions of “Tweezer” is apparently gone for good. The song was like a bubble of sound floating in space upwards ever upwards but it was too touch minded, too based on hard riffs to disappear into ephemera. It was both ephemeral and firmly rooted in hard rock. For 15 minutes the drums and keyboards played hide and seek and then the guitars took over, a huge banner was unfurled by a couple of fans with the song title on it. Talk about a lucky guess.
Speaking of which, the audience, 75% male, 75% college and post-college age, were not their usual annoying self. Again, luck played a part: I was surrounded by somewhat normal people for the first time ever. Sure, all beards and plaid shirts and way too touchy feely for my tastes but informed and discerning.
And willing to singalong at the top of their voices: “fluffhead” of course (though it doesn’t sound like that) , “but I sure got some powerful pills” was a roar from the outer reaches of the Arena, 19,500 people, packed and packed and packed summed it all up.
Phish remain the jam band to beat, just another gig to the men but to us a revelation and a communion. A great set.
(Iman Lababedi is editor-at-large for Rock NYC. Get more great reviews and the latest in the music scene in the Big Apple and beyond at ROCK NYC.)