Phish — Madison Square Garden — New York, NY 10.22.1996
I The Curtain>Jim, Bouncin’, Ice, Talk, Melt, Sparkle>Free>YEM
II 2001>Disease>Taste, Mango, Lawn Boy, Mule, Mike’s->Swept Away>Steep>Paug
Fresh off a night of rocking out at The Garden Phish returned for round two in this most venerable of venues. This is one of the most storied venues in the band’s long history with 31 shows having already taken place here along with another four to start TONIGHT! WOOOOOOOO!!!!! Yeah, dude! Phish at the Garden!!!! YEMSG, YO!!!!
Sorry about that. I’m just a little excited for Phish to bring us more new music. Let’s get back to the review…
Okay, so as I was saying Phish has a long history with this venue, first playing a single show along the 1994 NYE Run before a pair capped by the epic 12.31.1995 show preceded this pair we are here to discuss. Over the years certain shows here have stood out for one reason or another, be it the overall awesomeness of the show (such as that 12.31.1995 masterpiece), one particular jam or possibly an entire set that just goes to another level. Some have gone as far as to try to boil down each show played here into one or a few big takeaways, which is admittedly a difficult task. I bring all of this up because if you ask phans what they know of the October 1996 MSG Run the most common answer you will get is something like “oh, yeah, the Freakapaug show!” Now, we have a lot to get through before coming to that memorable part of this one but suffice it to say that this is the moniker by which most fans know 10.22.1996. Now that I have sufficiently teased that, let’s get down to the nitty gritty…
In the lore of Phish, certain songs just seem to fit best as set and show openers. I probably mentioned this somewhere along the Spring 1993 path but to me, the pinnacle for this is The Curtain. For those of us who cut our Phish teeth in the 90s we had only bad tapes to tell us of this thing called “The Curtain (With)” as the band put the (With) on the shelf from 1988 until 07.12.2000 (1,178 shows if you are counting) with versions of the song including the (With) becoming more of the norm from there (and particularly in 3.0 where The Curtain (With) has been performed 13 times to the scant 2 that The Curtain has. Even still, we now have to wait to hear whether they will continue With or Without and move on to something else, preferably something with a bit of jam to it. I’m going to skip the full breakdown of songs-that-follow-Curtain but if you guess Tweezer, Sample, Mike’s Song, or Jim you would be in the right ballpark. So in 1996 when we heard The Curtain kick off the first set the first thing you got to do was to get down to that old school classic and then start to prep for what the song following would be. On this night, that would be Runaway Jim, a song that had some of its biggest versions in Fall 1995 — like, seriously, check the 06.16.1995 one from Raleigh if’n you don’t already know it, not to mention a big chugger from that 12.31.1995 show — but also had a couple of keepers from the previous summer tour, first with the one that sandwiched Gypsy Queen at Red Rocks on 08.07.1996 and then for the beaut from Hershey on 08.14.1996 (featuring our friend the mini-kit). While this one doesn’t reach the heights (or depths) of the monsters from ’95 it does give us our first little jamlet which also has a quite nice ‘quiet’ section if that makes any sense. From here we get Bouncin’d before they drop It’s Ice on us. Page is on top doing great work as is typical while Trey scratches out these dissonant, almost feedback-y lines to counterpoint the piano work. This one doesn’t go full darkness like some of the best ones but it is a nice bit of work before we get Talk. Whoopee. Talk.
Okay, moving on now they do bring the darkness in the form of Split Open and Melt. This one stays mainly within the framework of the ‘standard’ progression but Trey finds a lead line that is quite satisfying. Working this towards the peak, Trey misses it by a half-step and therefore brings it back around to build a bit more tension before re-peaking the song. The rest of the band catches this with ease and if you aren’t listening for it you might not even notice but it is just another of one of those really cool things you hear when they are connected and improvising in the moment. A quick romp through Sparkle and a brief but crunchy Free serve as appetizers to the set closing YEM that drops next and from the start this feels like a big one is coming. While it might not reach epic status it is quite solid with Trey’s jam being the strength followed by a funky D&B section. I’ve definitely seen much worse first set closers than that. And now you have time to head to the concourse to fight the masses in the bathroom line and grab some water and a pretzel before heading back into the fray.
So once settled back into whatever lovely spot in the Garden that you habitated that night you have to wonder if there will be any really big fireworks to come out of this run now that we are minutes from the final set of the run. Sure, that first show was fun and the first set offered up a bit more jamming than the night before but you want big time music and stuff! Everyone loves stuff, right?? Well, stuff you will get in this set, my phriend (sorry, I promise to never do the ‘ph’ thing like that again). After a punchy and funky 2001 to open things up (another song like The Curtain that first lived its life as a precursor to other things rather than as the vehicle it later became) they drop into that telltale soupy intro to Down with Disease. As has been hinted at with the prior two versions on this tour, this one starts to shed the Disease skin a bit while still staying mainly within the theme. Fish is a veritable metronome throughout this one and Mike is going big while Page and Trey throw out ideas. Page heads to the effects board and plays around for a bit while Trey hops on the mini-kit before they bring it all back to the Disease finish. Disease is shaping up to be another song to watch on this tour. Next is a finely executed Taste and then our first Mango Song of the tour, always a welcome one to hear. As always seems to happen at MSG, Page then takes a turn serenading the crowd with Lawn Boy and now we are itching for something in the key of “jam” again… only to get Scent of a Mule all over us. Now, this one is certainly unique as Trey opts for a scat jam solo and rumor has it a guy who is well known as a scatter (Otiel Burbridge) was standing side stage laughing his head off for this so that in and of itself makes it more interesting than the typical Mule (and Page shines in his turn to solo too) but still. It’s Mule. In a prime slot for a big Tweezer or something. But Mule is a song that they seemingly love to play and we already covered this topic so let’s just enjoy it for what it is, mm’kay?
Now, to their credit, Phish does have a solid habit of following up Mule with a big jam vehicle (or Cavern but let’s just forget about that) as the most frequent dance partners for that alien adventure are YEM, Tweezer, Stash, Hood, and Mike’s Song. And Cavern but we aren’t talking about that, remember? Tonight gets Mike’s Song and from the start they attack this one with intent, dropping into a menacing jam as soon as possible. They opt out of a second jam for a full segue to Swept Away>Steep, capping it with the yelling thing that is in a few of these early versions before dropping into what is assuredly the set closing Weekapaug Groove. I should probably just go ahead and link the (shaky) video from this whole thing since if you haven’t seen it it might not seem as exciting as it undoubtedly was in the moment. First you get the band playing a really tight and fun version of one of their best loved oddball songs and then, well, then the freaks come out. You have dancers in unique garb, people being quite acrobatic, and… more all while Phish rocks out this Paug. Keep an eye out for Mimi Fishman making her first non-vac stage visit with Phish towards the end of this madness. I mean, nowadays this wouldn’t even cause one to bat an eye what with the crap that Miley is pulling and such but back then this was enough have this version crowned the Freakapaug. It’s a clever name and one that has stuck enough that people know this show for that bit of musical theater and everything else is mere footnote. It is definitely a fun thing to watch so check it out.
You’d be excused if you thought that after that they would head to a straight forward encore like Julius or Suzy or maybe even something a cappella and Rocky Top but NOPE! There are more tricks in store for you, oh faithful fan. Let me set things up for you a bit by providing a quite entertaining series of videos that detail the backstage goings on that night as there were several notable guests in attendance. Two of those people, the focus of those videos (and I’m not sure why there is a full rip of Bittersweet Motel at the end of that playlist but hey that’s nice, right?), end up on stage with Phish for the encore, Merl Saunders and Buddy Miles. Now, you a wisened music vet that you are probably already know who these two luminaries are but just in case you do not Buddy Miles was in Electric Flag with Mike Bloomfield before becoming best known for his association with Jimi Hendrix in his Band of Gypsys while Merl Saunders also has a long history with many notable musicians but is most associated with his time working with Jerry Garcia on various projects. This night the two came out to help on the encore bustout of All Along the Watchtower, the song written by Bob Dylan buy made (more) famous by Jimi Hendrix. The only other time Phish had played this tune (excepting sit-ins with other bands and stuff like the Ritz Power Jam which followed their 1993 visit to the Roseland Ballroom across town) was with members of the Dave Matthews Band on 04.21.1994 (check out that full encore for a drum duel between Fish and Carter Beauford that evolves into a full two band jam and then eventually the DMB-type take on Watchtower) making this one with Buddy and Merl a 227 show bustout which is nice. But it is strong also for the music made which starts out as a loose exploration with Buddy offering up some vocal stylings while everyone gets comfortable (Merl joined Page on the keys and Fish gave his kit to Buddy and hopped on Trey’s percussion mini-kit) before Buddy introduces Watchtower and they crank into it for a really fun take on the tune. The dancers came out as well to add to the party and everyone has a blast putting a nice finish to this MSG run. As encores go, this is the sort of thing you could only hope might happen in your weirdest Phish fantasies.
When looking at this show and the MSG run in toto it may not be to the level that we have come to expect from our visits here but it still has some solid moments and points to the continuing upward trend on this early part of the tour. Of the two shows, this second one is probably the more “complete” one but that is not to say that we didn’t find value in that first night. Here on night two the takeaways are bigger (Melt, Disease, Paug, Watchtower, and perhaps the Jim if you are feeling gracious) and the stage is grander what with the spectacle they created there at the end. I hate comparing shows to each other because each one has its own special unique snowflake-ness but as with the first night by the time we get to recapping this tour this one will pale in comparison to others yet to come. For now though we have a wild night where the freaks joined the band and the band played a quite fun Tuesday night show for the round room.
I’m off to MSG for the back half of this upcoming New Year’s Run so don’t expect any new posts until next week at earliest… unless I decide to drop in to overly fluff the shows I will have just seen. Happy New Year!