As fans of this band called Phish we have a penchant for the extreme, yearning always for the peak experience and living our lives on the margins of hyperbole. The many years spent chasing IT, never knowing if tonight will be the show when it all comes together and the band and crowd flow as one have shaped how we experience this band and how we interact with each other as a result. Discussion and critique of, well, every single little aspect of our scene can and does get quite heated as one would expect when sharing and comparing one of the more personally emotional and potentially transformational live music experiences one could hope to be a part of. And considering that each of us brings our own past experiences (and current, um, “situations”) into the mix, to say that opinions can be varied about this subjective artform is putting it mildly. This range of experience becomes even more evident once you start looking at particular eras, years, or even tours. In all the many places one can go to discuss Phish on the internet and beyond there simply is no such thing as consensus about what “the best” even means. To me, that is one of the things that makes Phish even more appealing and what keeps the conversation about their career interesting. It also brings me to the point of attempting to write these thoughts out on sandpaper.
Phish and its fandom is a community rooted in rituals and traditions that range to include everything from how we react to musical cues to the coded references we share in identifying the like-minded amongst the normals and all points in between. One such ritual is the (hopefully more than) annual tradition of scouring the rumor mill, waiting eagerly for new show dates to drop, and then speculating broadly about what tour stop will be the one to hit to catch that heater or maybe finally get that bustout you’ve been chasing. Living here in the future of immediate access to information we have this all pretty well figured out to the point that there are charts telling us the most likely day tour dates will drop and websites devoted to aggregating any hints of what might be coming. For some endeavors this might take away from the allure of it all, turning recreation into the processing of information and removing the surprise of the unknown. But as we well know, that is not the case with Phish where even if we think we know what to expect we tend to end up getting the surprise anyway. This has played out so many times over the years that at this point the unexpected IS the expectation. There are so man examples to point to that it almost becomes redundant or at the least almost laughable. Think of all of the festivals, New Year’s Runs, Halloween shows, and more where you thought you knew what was going to happen – heck, often they told you exactly what they were going to do – and it STILL blew away anything you thought you would experience. That’s just life as a fan of Phish.
So after hearing the rumors and doing the dance we always do, when Phish announced their plans for Summer Tour that year on January 31st, 2017 we all looked at the announcement, mapped out the dates in our head, and then began trying to figure out just what the heck this “Baker’s Dozen” thing was going to be all about. This was unprecedented for Phish who has always routed tours snake-like across the country or at least a region. But this? This was five cities and a shorter run of just 21 shows if you included the now traditional Dick’s Run over Labor Day Weekend. And thirteen shows in one venue? Was the band getting lazy? Bored? Old??? What exactly were they up to with this weird tour setup? You can find all sorts of speculative posts and threads about it all with a pretty cursory internet search in case you forgot how crazy we all got back then. Heck, there are more long form essays on the topic of The Baker’s Dozen (both pre and post) than one could possibly want to read if you go looking. If nothing else, we are really good at discussing every single possible aspect of this band almost to the point of absurdity. It is kind of our thing.
Now, if we have learned anything over the course of these many years of cataloging and dissecting every single thing that this band does we know that those tour dates were just the beginning. Nothing is ever just to be taken at face value with Phish. They have made a career out of the ol’ adage “never trust a prankster” yet time and again we fall for their (now increasingly dad joke tinged) gags. Pretty quickly people started looking to decipher what this tour would become as after that first run of obviously-meant-to-be warm up shows the thirteen shows at MSG were broken up into smaller groupings smaller runs with three show weekends and midweek pairs in between. The name implied something was afoot too. Yes, a baker’s dozen is thirteen but there was no way that would be the extent of the reference. Further, the logo for the shows had a distinct look and feel which with the benefit of hindsight was clearly made to look like an old donut shop’s neon sign. Pretty good packaging to start our conversations…
But I’m getting too far ahead of myself.
Before we got to New York there were five shows to get our feet wet and immerse ourselves into this unfolding tour. What hints would these early shows give us about the prevailing theme of the summer and the Baker’s Dozen? Would we be getting new material? What new instrumentation tricks had the band added to their arsenal in the offseason? Which band was going to show up this tour, the one that slayed everything in sight in 2015 or the one that didn’t quite rise to that level in 2016? To say that there was a growing level of concern about where this band was headed following a relatively lackluster Summer Tour and most of the Fall Tour as well that previous year is putting it mildly. Some of that died down a bit with a well regarded NYE Run and the now almost traditional Mexico shows in mid January but everyone seemed to have a hot take on whether this extended residency meant the end for our touring warriors and the begin of the long slow decline into mediocratic irrelevancy. The speculation and anticipation is always part of the fun with trying to predict what we will inevitably get wrong (and be so happy that we did) but this felt like a new level of unknowing. Perhaps the closest recent example to point to was the festival location and cover album reveal ahead of Festival 8 for the Halloween Run in 2009 as even though the band was “back” then we didn’t know yet whether The Return was sustainable as the band we had come to know and love in earlier eras. But this felt like a longer play (con?), something that was going to have more import, more impact on the music and everything that surrounded it. We often talk about how the extended visits to a venue can be a good or bad thing for the playing on a particular night (i.e. the possibility of the band falling into a familiar pattern of how the show is approached and what types of songs are played on a Friday vs Saturday vs Sunday etc) so this was new territory since those traditional stereotypes may not come to bear. Or would they?
Throughout Phish’s history if you look at the tours and years that generally get the most praise from the fanbase (not everyone of course because we can never ever have any kind of consensus) there tends to be an event or a purpose that pushes them to the next level. Summer 2015 was influenced by Trey’s dedication earlier in the year to learning and practicing the Grateful Dead songbook in advance of participating in the Fare Thee Well shows. 1997 (and beyond) was influenced by the band learning and absorbing the polyrhythmic funk ahead of playing the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light album on the Fall 1996 tour. 1999 was pushed forward by Trey and Page practicing for and being a part of the Phil & Phriends shows at the Warfield earlier in the year (and more specifically Trey being pushed forward by playing with Steve Kimock for those). Spring 1993 was changed by Page finally being able to bring the baby grand piano on tour. Fall 1995 and 1996 saw the conscious move by Trey to get out of the way to give the rest of the band more space to “lead” when he added the mini-kit to his repertoire. The examples go on and on. This is far from an exhaustive list. But the point is that whenever Phish has purpose, an event that gives them a new means of approaching their craft or maybe just an excuse to refocus it tends to end up benefitting us all with the music they produce as a result. Now I’m not saying we identified this as being the case in advance. Far from it, more likely. No, as I recall it a lot of the speculation was about how they would handle playing the same venue so many nights and what that meant for song choices and which shows would be the ones to hit to try to avoid the potential clunker, limit exposure to repeats, and on and on. Again, we are really good at going well beyond in overanalyzing our favorite band. But even still, from the first notes of that first night in Chicago people were trying to figure out how this was all going to go down.
Another thing to consider in looking at how that Summer evolved is that unlike some years in the current era various members of the band had been on the road with side projects touring, namely Mike with his band for a couple of festival dates (Summer Camp and High Sierra), and Trey for a variety of dates including acoustic solo shows in March and his full band into June. Follow that with the likely full band practices that led up to tour and you have a motivated, well oiled machine hitting the line running as they started up instead of one working it out on stage with everyone watching. That is on display from the start on 07.14.2017 from Northerly Island where even that first song choice speaks to the knowing recognition by the band of things to come. Seriously, what other band could you imagine beginning Summer Tour with a dripping psychedelic instrumental like What’s The Use? besides Phish? In retrospect you can hear the seeds of what would become the “Baker’s Dozen Sound” from the start, particularly in the Wolfman’s and Everything’s Right (its Phish debut) jams that carry the frame. This becomes even more apparent with the NMINML that opens the second set which has a forward looking jam that could easily be mistaken for a middle night throwdown from the Dozen several shows later but the point is fully made with the jammed (yes, jammed) Your Pet Cat->Golden Age->Your Pet Cat that bleeds into the third debut of the night, Leaves, which we all came to fully love here in our pandemic lives with its appearance on Sigma Oasis. Looking back now at this first weekend of the tour there is a lot of table setting going on be it in debuting new songs, stretching out some classic vehicles and non-traditional ones as well, busting out a few songs for the first time in a while, and generally playing around with the normal structure of setlist construction. But those were mere hints of how it would fully blossom.
The remaining two shows ahead of getting to New York also provided several indications of everything Phish had planned, not the least of which being a Tuesday and Wednesday pairing between the weekends. Both were longed after returns to cities once on the normal touring routes with Dayton being the first time back there since a pretty famous show on 12.07.1997 and Pittsburgh being an even longer return from the last one on 10.18.1996. The pattern of debuts each night continued (following the total of 6 over three shows in Chicago) as each night saw two apiece. Bustouts and not-quite-typical setlist placement were also to be found but the thing that makes these two shows even more telling is the level of connected jamming the band performs whenever they seemingly decided to do so. The second set in Dayton is perhaps one of the best overall sets of the year, flowing out as one of the “all killer no filler” affairs we can’t get enough of. Even further, there appears to be a conscious intent by the band to not stick to the norm as they play around with jamming styles to the extent that Disease gets a Shipwreck section (amongst other motifs), Ghost has some Disease jam to it, and the surprise vehicle of the set Wombat goes to Ghost-y places. Pittsburgh furthers this even more when the first set ending Prince Caspian goes big, resulting in what many consider to be one of the best jams of the entire year. With these first five shows out of the way, expectations were ramped up and folks were ready to get to New York to get this show off the road.
The midweek tour stops that preceded the arrival to New York were highly anticipated in their own rights as this would be the first time in almost twenty years that they would return to Dayton, OH (and I think we all know how highly regarded that last visit on 12.07.1997 was…) and Pittsburgh, PA after an even longer gap (10.18.1996 at the Civic Arena). Yes, there had been visits to other venues in nearby towns in the intervening years but these were indoor shows in the summer which always gets people pumped up. Could these end up being the type of letdown that often comes with inflated expectations? Sure. But that’s not what we got. Instead Phish threw down an absolutely stellar show from front to back in Dayton with two more debuts (Tuesday which of course makes sense for a Tuesday show and the Mike tune Crazy Sometimes) a big crunchy first set Free, and then a second frame of the kind that the kidz will call “all killer no filler”. If there were any doubts about where Phish was in their playing at the start of that set I’d say they were put well to rest perhaps even before they segued out of that big Disease jam into MITM. In classic Phishy form they even played around with the jamming styles as the Disease gets a Shipwreck section (amongst other motifs), Ghost has a bit of a Disease jam, and the surprise vehicle of the set Wombat gets some of the Ghost feel. There are times when the Coil encore is earned and this was one of those sets. And then as is if to point out that there was no need to worry about them losing steam, the Pittsburgh show carries it forward with more debuts (Marissa and Rise/Come Together), a big jammed bustout (380 shows) for Mr. Completely, and one of the most surprising jams of the entire year in the first set closing Prince Caspian. Towards the end of this show you can kind of hear them ‘pull up’ a bit so as to perhaps not spill the beans too much but we are still left with a good taste and a healthy dose of added anticipation for the coming shows. With these shows in the bag it was time to head east and double down on the speculation for what was to come.
In those few days of travel and getting to New York the discussion focused fully onto the theme of the Baker’s Dozen and trying to decipher what clues we knew. There were definitely some overt hints out there about what might be going on with this Baker’s Dozen thing as those who had ordered the full set of show tickets through mail order received a custom pink ‘donut box’ with each ticket being a differently decorated donut design. Then in Pittsburgh the official show poster was able to be cut and folded into another box (if you could get yourself to do that to a poster you had spent time and money procuring…). I’m sure there were other easy signs to be found but here a few years later my memory of all that pales a bit so let me know what you recall from back then. Heck, I distinctly recall walking out of MSG at the end of the New Year’s show on 12.31.2016 with venue staff saying “we’ll see you this summer!” But even with that we still didn’t *really* know what that meant for the shows themselves. All that changed when the doors opened on the first night and in conjunction with the announced theme of Coconut the band handed out free donuts to early entrants (made by the awesome Federal Donuts out of Philadelphia). That was the first true moment of understanding that, yes, this was not going to be an ordinary run of shows. And when the band took the stage, it all started to come together.
By now we have all experienced the music of the Baker’s Dozen by a variety of means and it is likely that several of the shows have gone into your personal regular listening rotation. These shows have become a modern touchpoint for fans, acting as something of a line of demarcation in the sense of you either were a fan before and went or these shows were your entry point and now you are on the bus with the rest of us. As I’ve mentioned there will always be detractors or those who will try to make comparisons in the music or the experience to try to diminish the import of this unparalleled run but that’s just noise. The reality is that the Baker’s Dozen came at the perfect time for both the fans AND the band. The current era of Phish up to that point had been marked by a veritable roller coaster of peaks and valleys in the music. Once we got past the initial glow and buzz of having our band playing concerts again we settled into this pattern of vacillating between “oh wow they are really BACK!” and “um… this is not the band I grew up with anymore” and all points in between. That on its own is fine and normal but in looking at just how precipitous the perceived drop is from how strong they were playing throughout 2015 to where things got in 2016 many were concerned that this was the start of The Decline. This is not meant to throw salt on the good times everyone had at shows in 2016. I enjoyed the ones I hit including having a fantastic time for the NYE Run that year but that doesn’t mean I can’t look at the overall arc of that year and the playing they displayed to put it into its proper context.
This really just further serves the greater point of what the Baker’s Dozen became. To put it in the parlance of the season, these shows (and really the entire summer tour including the Dick’s Run later on) represent the band’s ability to find renewed connection with their music and fans, constantly challenging themselves to not do the easy thing over and over. It is the thing that keeps us coming back and perhaps the greatest talent this band has if you can convince yourself that anything could be more important than their musicianship. Many others have asked the question but it deserves to be asked again: How many bands have not just the ability but the desire to do something as ambitious as the Baker’s Dozen AND for that to happen so far into their career? You could probably argue that it only *could* happen because of the stature and experience that all those years of building their fanbase afforded. More than thirty years of band and fans all saying “yes, and?” provides a great deal of confidence in taking the risk of trying to pull it off. But the opportunity is just the beginning for success comes with execution. And holy crap did they execute!
This was a “gag” well beyond anything we had ever seen with Phish – and that is saying a lot considering everything we have gotten from this band. We are lucky to follow a band that thrives on never wanting to do the same thing twice and always looking for a new means by which they can challenge themselves to become better artists. You could perhaps say that a younger version of this band would’ve played bigger, more awe inspiring jams during these shows but I’d counter that I’m not convinced they could have pulled it off in the way that they did. The artful and clever pairing using the meta joke about donuts (lord knows how much we have literally bought into the donut thing over the years) combined with thematic relevance to the music is the foundation upon which each night built the anticipation, joy, and humor of the endeavor. And from that foundation Phish launched upwards with their playing, seeming to outdo themselves with each set they performed.
Thirteen shows. Twenty-six sets. Two hundred and thirty-seven songs played with no repeats. Debuts that were both topical and relevant. Explorations into the depths of the song catalog that brought songs back from obscurity or allowed for new approaches to their performance. Direct and meaningful connection with a hyper dedicated fanbase. Deep jamming and a thematic connectivity in the playing. But perhaps most of all jokes. Oh so many jokes.
The Baker’s Dozen began as another opportunity for Phish to play out an elaborate joke both for and at the expense of the fans (as always). From the beginning a lot of the allure of becoming captivated by Phish was rooted in being “in on the joke”. What the Baker’s Dozen became was an opportunity for the joke to become more than just a means to a punchline. It became The Event, the thing to be sought after. On the first night of The Dozen fans entering the arena early were greeted with free, fresh donuts matching the night’s announced theme of Coconut provided by Federal Donuts. The opener that night (the debut of Shake Your Coconuts by Junior Senior) and the closer (Coconut by Harry Nilsson) nudged us like a funny uncle after he tells another eye roller of a joke at Thanksgiving with their obvious reference as well. These set the table and we all happily sat down to eat up as much of it as we could. And over the course of the twelve nights that followed everyone did whatever they could to keep the joke going. By the time the lights dropped for the second night we had already started making calls for songs like Strawberry Letter 23 (the fantastic Shuggie Otis song debuted on Strawberry night which thankfully has stayed somewhat in rotation) and Strawberry Fields Forever (which really needs to be done again because that a cappella version is fantastic). Immediately post show we started watching to see what the next night’s theme would be to begin theorizing about what was coming. The anticipation and excitement that comes with every Phish show was pushed to even greater heights because we had no baseline, no trend or experience to lean on to keep us grounded. It was like the night before Christmas every time and we loved it.
And all along it wasn’t just the joke that mattered. The music was becoming more layered, more engaging. The band was clearly enjoying every second of this experience which was apparent with every song they played. To pull off something as grand as this took more planning and practice than I expect we as fans will ever know except in listening back to these shows and reveling in the music they made. Even though each show had a different theme and the songs played differed there is a cohesiveness to this music, a familiar sound that wasn’t there before these shows. When one of the jams from these shows comes on you just know it is from the Baker’s Dozen. Nothing feels rushed. Just as the band was growing more and more comfortable with their surroundings each night so were weTo borrow from another song covered (on Lemon Night), everything is in its right place. Considering all that went down, it had to be.
Just like everything else eventually it had to end. The spectacle and fanfare of the two weeks leading up to that final weekend could have overwhelmed the moment but thankfully they did not. Instead what I saw was gratitude and acknowledgement that none of IT could have happened in the way that it did without full commitment by the band, crew, staff, and fans alike. Those last few shows were a celebration of that, a culmination of all of the work put in, and a collective opportunity to express gratitude for how it came together. Some may consider it another throwaway joke but think about the banter between Fish and Trey after the Sunshine Of Your Feeling medley on Boston Cream night. This elaborate thing was essentially done to pay off a joke they had thought up more than twenty years prior. In true Phish fashion they went well beyond that punchline, of course. But then (also as they always do) they thanked us. They gave us all of this, the community, the entertainment, and most importantly the music. But still they came to the stage for the encore that last night and made us all feel that we were part of IT all. As the banner commemorating The Baker’s Dozen was unveiled it was clear that this was Phish’s achievement but at some level we were being celebrated too. The Baker’s Dozen renewed that connection between the band and we fans. But perhaps even more importantly they showed us that this band, its music, and our community were nowhere near done. The energy and inspiration that blossomed in these shows carried forward through the rest of the year and into 2018, a year many point to as one of the high points of the current era for playing by the band. But most importantly this experience underscored the true meaning of why we all can never get enough of IT which Willie said best and Phish used to say goodbye on that final night: “The life I love is making music with my friends.”