Phish — Madison Square Garden — New York, NY 10.21.1996
I SSB, Sample, CTB, Sloth, Divided, Zero, Ginseng Sullivan, Stash, Waste, Possum
II Wilson, CDT, Wolfman’s Brother, Reba, Train Song, Maze, Life on Mars?, Simple->Horse>Silent, Bowie
E Funky Bitch
Following their first day off of the young tour, Phish descended upon the venerable Madison Square Garden for the first of a pair of midweek shows at the World’s Most Famous Arena. These would be the fourth and fifth shows for Phish in the round room and along with the three shows from 2009 stands as the only other time the band has played the venue outside of a New Year’s Run. Considering the dizzying heights reached in the last visit here on 12.31.1995 expectations ran wild and high with the big time energy of being in New York City just adding to the atmosphere. I don’t know about you but to me there is just something so unique about shows in this venue. And even here in the early stages of Phish’s visits to The Mecca we as fans already knew that it was a special thing to be able to catch our little band in this legendary place. Maybe this all set things up for a letdown or perhaps it was simply a pair of midweek shows that are a bit better than our memories of them but when looking at all of the thirty-one shows that they have played here this pair is generally fairly lightly regarded. Granted, it is up against Holiday Run shows — and some quite legendary ones at that — but perhaps we are being overly critical. I suppose to figure that out we will need to go ahead with the listen and reflection…
First up tonight is the super rare a cappella opener with The Star Spangled Banner welcoming us to the night. When I say rare I’m not kidding as main a cappella tunes that Phish has played over the years are NOT generally opening tunes: Sweet Adeline (8 show openers in 138 appearances), Memories (6/42), Carolina (10/80), Hello My Baby (1/56), Grind (3/20), and the Star Spangled Banner (6/20, shockingly). That last one is interesting and probably more a factor of the song itself being the sort of thing you would start out a public event with than anything and here on this night it would be the first time the song gets the opener slot which is obvious considering it was just debuted a few shows prior to this one. The crowd is into it and that energy carries over into, ugh, another Sample which is quite well received by the masses before they dip into Cars Trucks Buses. This has that bouncy vibe and keeps everyone moving with Page shining in his solo, as always. Keeping things moving, we get our first Sloth of the tour, bringing the dirty rock out to further froth the fervent fans. At this point you have to expect some sort of vehicle to drop since they have been building the energy greatly thus far and we get Divided Sky to the delight of the crowd. Divided is one of those songs that I personally never go seeking but it is as classic of a Phish song as you could want, blending the compositional strength, unique musical phrasings, and pure musicianship that the band has to offer. This one has the crowd really into it and it is quite well executed as Trey goes off in his end solo. For the timers out there, the Pause tonight is 1:14.
Rather than drop into a breather song we get another rocker with Character Zero, still in its protean form without the big crunchy solo but still capable of blowing the roof off the place. Being that it is only the fifth ever Zero fans hadn’t yet fully caught on to this one but being quick learners it is well received all the same. Next we finally get a bit of a breather with the bustout of Ginseng Sullivan (103 show gap), putting the requisite bluegrass tune slot quite late in the set tonight. After this brief interlude we are back to the Phish tunes for Stash and tonight’s version is mainly an exercise in thematic searching before they bring it up to a big peak to resolve the tension. Nothing too major in this jam but a nice listen if you have the time. Waste comes in next to bring things down a bit (already the third of the tour) and then we are on to the Possum set closer. This is the first Possum since The Clifford Ball and perfectly fine in all fashions but doesn’t really require much note above that. The crowd sure seemed to love it though.
So after a few laps around the ring (RIP, Ring, the renovation destroyed you…) to occupy your eyes and mind during setbreak we settle back in for another set of that live Phish music we all seem to love so much. Coming on the heels of a quite rocking first set (the only real slow, breather song is the penultimate Waste) you had to wonder what direction they would go here. Well, being MSG and such Trey of course opens up with a bombastic Wilson, getting the crowd involved from the get go. After the chant-along and subsequent rock out they head into Chalkdust Torture with Trey really going for it in the straight forward but wonderfully big end solo. Second listen of this one really hit me with how hard of a punch it packs. Keeping it lively, we next get Wolfman’s Brother, still a fairly contained song here but with the roots of what is to come starting to form even if it wouldn’t be until the watershed moment that was 03.01.1997. Here it serves to continue the dance party and get us to our first vehicle of the set, our gal Reba.
This is not an all-timer Reba by any stretch but it is well executed and keeps the energy flow going as Trey explores within the theme. It all comes to a nice peak with Fish signaling the finish at just the right time. I love how he almost always seems to know the right time to pull the plug on Reba. It reminds me of that scene in Six Degrees of Separation where the Donald Sutherland character — “Flan” for you trivia buffs — talks about asking his kid’s 2nd grade teacher why all of the students in her class are such talented painters and she responds that she “just knows when to take away the paper”. There’s a lot that we can carry over from that idea to Phish in that often times there are jams that go on for a bit too long without anyone realizing it is time to “take away the paper” as it were. And then there are the times when we feel like there was more to be had if the band would have just kept going except that someone (usually Trey) decides it is time to move on. I suppose there is no right answer to this but it is a thought that always seems to come to me particularly with Reba jams since Fish really does control when the song wraps up. Bringing that back to our conversation about this show, this is one of those Rebas that probably could have gone on longer but was stopped at just the right point. Nice job, Fish.
Stopping to catch their breath a bit, Mike gets the lead singer role for the touching Train Song. It’s a good spot for the ballad as after the quick respite they head into Maze for a shred heavy romp through the mind-bender. This one is a couple of notches down from the demonic beast we heard in Pittsburgh but still probably messed with enough heads that night to keep everyone honest. The fourth and final tour debut of the evening comes in the form of Life on Mars?, the quirky David Bowie cover that was in a somewhat regular rotation throughout Fall 1995 and 1996 before becoming quite rare with one performance in 1997 (03.02.1997, coincidentally the show following that linked Wolfman’s up there), one in all of 2.0 (02.15.2003) and a few scattered versions in 2011. Some people may not be big fans of this cover since it is always played straight up and maybe it is just my memory of catching several of them in that era but it is a cover I have always liked. Trey gets to play a unique line and Page shines on the vocals which is always a nice combo.
Now a bit past the halfway mark in the set there’s still time for another jammer and Phish complies with Simple. This has a similar feel at the start of the jam as the one from Buffalo but goes in a more syncopated direction once Trey hops on the mini-kit. Page is getting funky (well, as funky as they did here in the early part of this tour before… WAIT! I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s just leave that waiting) and it feels like it could go on for a while in this manner. However, when Trey comes back to his guitar he foregoes the lead solo like we got in Lake Placid and instead shifts into a full segue to The Horse>Silent. Always a crowd pleaser (I mean, who doesn’t love to shout out the line “I think that this exact thing happened to me JUST LAST YEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAARRRR!!!”?) this gets the crowd seal of approval before heading straight into what will be the set closing David Bowie. I say straight in because while there is no direct segue they leave out the highhat intro from Fish and instead get down to business. The jam itself takes a little bit to get going but once it does Trey masterfully builds tension towards the massive release you came for with this song. There’s a bit of an almost-but-not-quite off the rails feel here that hints back to the hey days of Bowie while staying within the song and not into the deep deep waters. It works quite well as a punctuation mark to this highly energetic show and the subsequent encore Funky Bitch just adds to that feeling as well.
In the end, on paper, this is perhaps not the most exciting show to look at. The first set really only has that Stash and the Divided Sky as true vehicles and the second seems a bit disjointed or “song-y” until you hear the music being played. Sure, it is arena rock heavy overall but that can make for a quite fun night particularly when you have a crowd that is willing and able to push that energy right back to the stage. Perhaps the energy is a response to the crowd and that works too. While this might not be one of the all time best MSG shows the band has every played it is a lot better on listen that I remembered. There are takeaways here (Reba and Simple for certain, and add that Stash too) and the band is playing very well here just five shows into the tour. You could also argue for the addition of Divided and Bowie there but I’ll leave those for the tour end discussion as second tier nominations. The fact is, of course, that almost everything here will soon be outshined but for this night we have some fun stuff to play. And we get to do it again from this venue one more time!
Which reminds me…
With the NYE Run coming up quite soon I will be putting up this review and the one for 10.22.1996 before sitting back to enjoy this run both on stream and then in person for the final two. I had toyed with putting up reviews for the NYE Run shows but considering I am not one for deadlines and needing to get content up right away, the thought of needing to get what I would consider to be acceptable reviews up in a timely manner simply ain’t gonna happen especially since I will be on the ground for half of the run. So I’ll leave that to others to tackle.
here’s the full show video for 10.21.1996
you might want to take some dramamine before viewing