Night One is Still Night One
Phish had a solid first outing, but hopefully the run improves.
Setlist: 12.28.22 New York, NY (courtesy Phish.net)
Well, with the first night of this year’s four-night run at Madison Square Garden in the books, let’s take a look back, shall we? First, though, know that I won’t necessarily review every single Phish show here: only those that happen to draw my interest for whatever reason. Sometimes that will be obvious, as in this case: the YEMSG runs are always special, no matter when they fall in the calendar year, as are any New Year’s Eve runs - even last year’s oddball livestream show. Sometimes that will just be because I happened to attend.
Now, on to the show!
The first set was, shall we say, fairly pedestrian. The quartet mostly stuck to the basics, with most of the songs being lifted from early albums: The only newer pieces were Steam and Sigma Oasis, which were appropriate, because even though they are new songs, they feel like they could have been introduced earlier…especially Steam. None of the songs were especially innovative, nor did they delve too deeply into many jams, as is typical of first sets.
Now, there were good songs mixed in there, to be sure, and a few rarities: We don’t get Tela and Buried Alive too often these days; I’ve only caught Tela live once, and would have loved to have been there last night just to tuck Buried Alive under my belt. It was especially nice to see Buried Alive placed in its usual opening position, which last occurred at the 2021 Halloween show, but it’s been played more frequently in recent years, and thus barely counts as a rarity.
There was some nice jamming in the first set - most notably in Wolfman’s Brother and Stash > Split Open And Melt - but it didn’t really meander all that much, shortly returning to the song at hand. It did end on a high note, with a rip-roaring version of SOAM, hinting at greater things to come.
This was a good warm-up set for the band, but wasn’t particularly notable otherwise; it probably served them well to shake off their dust from not playing since the Labor Day Weekend Dick’s run. Still, phans would have been right to be slightly disappointed after that lackluster first set, especially after the long layoff and the tremendous energy that Trey Anastasio brought to the TABoose tour.
One would hope they would improve in the second set, as is typical for Phish: That was very much the case, for instance, at the one show I got to this year. Still, the first set reiterated a few maxims: it’s just fine to skip the first show of a tour, and the first show of a three or four night run. If the band is to have a lower-energy set in a tour, that’s the place for it: the audience is often happy just to be there.
The question is, will they improve in the second set, or continue to simply clock in?
The answer in this case was that they certainly improved, saving the show.
They opened it with an excellent rendition of Free, a song that can be a jam vehicle, even when truncated: for a recent example of this, take a look back at the last real New Year’s Eve run. This one didn’t really get there, though, either in terms of length or jamming, before taking off in to A Wave Of Hope, one of Trey’s pandemic songs from Lonely Trip that has quickly become a favorite jam vehicle. You know a song’s off to a good start in the repertoire when four of its first eleven performances are on the jam charts, and last night’s nearly twenty-minute version is certainly going to be added to those ranks. The quartet stayed tight and focused, even in the midst of the Wave jam, showing discipline that would remain a theme of the evening.
That was when the second set really took off, becoming, if not exactly a jam feast, a satisfyingly filling charcuterie board of jamming. Like a charcuterie board, it had some good elements, some bad pieces (what is that weird thing over in the corner there?) and ended up being large enough to legitimately consider it a meal.
From Wave they went on to It’s Ice, which just seemed to be developing into a jam when Trey pulled the plug and transitioned suddenly into the beautiful, highly composed Leaves. This was the true version of the song, too; it hasn’t been extended again since July. It will be interesting to see if the Wantagh Leaves remains forever its sole entry on the jam charts or if they improvise on it again, but they didn’t last night, when it served its function as a beautiful interlude.
It was placed well here, though, as a nice gateway into Simple. This performance initially seemed as it would remain right on track, but then Phish veered off into some moderately funky jamming that essentially worked as a very lengthy changeover into Plasma. That transitional jamming would, indeed, prove more substantial than either song on its own, quickly giving way to the Twist > Harry Hood conclusion. That finale, although it was certainly a nice conclusion with some very pretty (if predictable) jamming, was a fitting conclusion to the second set. The encore, with the always-welcome but rarely-seen Esther into a very brief 46 Days, was the ideal capstone to the evening.
The first day of the run, as it often is, was nicely balanced: some new songs, some old songs. There were nice, well-played jams, but nothing too extensive nor exotic. There were songs that aren’t played often, but no bust-outs at all: every song they played tonight was also played at least once in the past year. The current show rating on Phish.net of 3.7 might be a little inflated thanks to recency and attendance bias, but it’s not far out of line. I’ve certainly been to much worse shows and far better ones over the years. There was also no zaniness here on Night One, but that’s to be expected on the first night of YEMSG.
Overall, this was a perfectly fine show with some nice jamming that will appeal more to some phans than others. If you were there in person, it was an adequate launchpad for the full slate this weekend, especially with a few uncommon songs slipped in there. Still, hopefully over the course of the next three days they kick it up a notch before the first real New Year’s Eve show in three years on Saturday, and don’t leave us hanging like they did Trey.
Highlights: Split Open And Melt, A Wave Of Hope, Twist > Harry Hood
Zaniness factor: Nonexistent
Jamming: Too short and subtle, with some slight funkiness, but well-done as always.
Final grade: Solid B.
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