As Phish become older, tours seem to be more confined to the Northeast. This is a fact fans are familiar with and how one feels about it depends largely on where they live. When Baker’s Dozen was first announced I know I, as someone who doesn’t live in the Northeast, had a hard time seeing past the fact that Phish was basically playing half-a-tour’s worth of shows in New York City. “How much more lazy can these tours become!” I thought and, to be fair, the idea was kinda lazy. But the laziness, the close proximity to (second) home, and circumventing the usual efforts associated with hitting the road between shows made for something much more special than many had expected.
I admit that I’ve generally lowered my expectations for Phish shows as 3.0 progressed (even though 3.0 improves every year). There was some disappointment following 2009 and 2010 as far as some of the playing and improv went (I know, I know, Phish doesn’t “owe [me] anything“), mostly it was a criticism of Trey. People like myself had to come to terms with the fact that 1.0 Phish was never going to return, so we might as well make the most of what we still have–which was/is no doubt still great. Guitar leads in jams were sometimes lacking, uninspired, or altogether ripcorded. First sets for almost all of 3.o became cookie-cutter, warm-up sets. Where did the unpredictability go? Sure, all shows are unpredictable but 3.0 fostered a feeling of predictability which some find rather unbecoming of a band founded on the very concept of “come to see what will happen”. First set: short songs with brief type-I jamming, minimal segues. Second set: A huge jam song out of the gates (Down with Disease, Rock and Roll, Drowned, etc) into another song. This was the general formula.
When this summer tour started, the first few shows before New York proved quite exciting for the mere fact that Phish seemed to really be open to surrendering to the flow. Just take the jammed out first-timer Everything’s Right in the first set of the tour. However, we now know that the few shows before Baker’s Dozen’s 13 nights at Madison Square Garden were a warm up to something much larger. The fact a band would take up residency for over two weeks at one of the most famous venues in the world is larger-than-life alone. It’s a feat few performers would be capable of doing for many reasons. But the music which was created during these 13 concerts proved to be career defining for the band. This was not something I could have predicted back in January.
Initially I figured these concerts would be just like any of a 3.0 summer tour. I didn’t think they’d attempt no repeats, I didn’t think there would be a nightly theme, and I certainly couldn’t have imagined the sheer quality of improv. By combining these ingredients, Phish wrote a new chapter in phistory. Phish is no longer just riding out a comfortable plateau, they are back at a peak. They are still a band relatively few people in our country have heard but just played thirteen nights at Madison Square Garden. They are a band whose hardcore fans accused them of falling into predictability but just managed to surprise everyone.
I can’t get over how fun each show of the Baker’s Dozen was. With each show loosely being connected to a doughnut flavor, there was an aura of excitement before each of the 13 shows! Typically this sort of excitement is only fostered before Halloween shows or a few other special gigs where fans become aware of a theme which will take place. This extended the fun of each show from what would typically be just before showtime to all the way to the morning. Setlists were masterfully crafted with unique song selections. The fact they played (for the first time) songs like Story of the Ghost‘s End of Session and Vida Blue’s Most Events Aren’t Planned shows just how much thought went into song selections, stuff fans could really geek out over. While the monster jams of songs like Simple, Chalkdust, and Lawn Boy (what?) get much of the deserved credit, there was improvisation thrown in everywhere—extending Gumbo, opening up the middle of It’s Ice, and even taking Tube for a walk past the 14-minute mark. The band was relaxed, loose, and feisty; they had clearly settled into their temporary home. As I type this I am listening to the explosive ending to Home, I can’t get past some of the particularly blazing and dexterous guitar work we can’t always rely on in 3.0, even in the offering of David Bowie which was just gloriously solid. There are the completely deconstructed type-II jams found in songs like Waves. My mind then wanders to the throbbing cock rock displayed during the short, powerful Birds where, when it was being played, I couldn’t help but head bang. Oh yeah, and there were jammed out covers of songs like You Sexy Thing and…1999! This is all without even getting into how amazing CK5 was on his new light rig…which I would argue is THE BEST rig he has had in the history of Phish. It combines the classic Phish look of simple can-lights (now in LED form, but not with LED panels or canvasses) with autonomous or in-unison movement to make for an incredible light show without taking away from what’s going on onstage.
The truth is, the highlights are so numerous and so multi-layered (as in, not just strictly musical highlights), it would make for a litany longer than many novels if one were to chronicle them all. Phans should listen to every set, beginning to end, because what Phish put together in the Baker’s Dozen was the Phish many of us fell in love with: a band which surprises when the mundane is expected…best digested from beginning-to-end lest the phan miss any hidden highlight.
One day, after the band is disassembled and retired and the multi-part documentaries are made (see: Amazon’s Long Strange Trip) there will be a few anchors which storytelling will revolve around: the band growing in the 80’s and early 90’s, Clifford Ball and subsequent festivals, Big Cypress, and Baker’s Dozen. Baker’s Dozen was about as Phishy as Phish can get and it proves that we can’t always be certain what the next “Phishy” moment will be before it happens. I’m glad they proved at least me wrong.