Thirty years ago this month, four college buddies in a band called Blackwood Convention (a reference to contract bridge) performed at a sparsely attended dance in a dorm at the University of Vermont. It did not go well. Bored students cranked up Michael Jackson's "Thriller" to drown out the live sound, and the performance was unceremoniously cut short. But Blackwood Convention refused to languish in the shadow of the King of Pop and kept at it, changing their name, losing a guitarist, gaining a keyboard player, and gradually growing up to be one of the highest grossing concert acts in rock history, despite decades of disdain from the mainstream media and those who would sneer at sincere virtuosity.
Phish, formerly Blackwood Convention, played Madison Square Garden Saturday night for the 28th time, blowing the doors off the newly-renovated arena with a pair of upbeat sets of groovy cow funk. Highlights included a thunderous "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan," a spirited and semi-exploratory rendition of "Wolfman's Brother," and a spooky "Steam," accompanied by plumes of mist enveloping the quartet as they took the song into an engrossing improvisational alpha state. An exuberant "Tweezer" kept the Garden bouncing, even if the power anthem didn't morph into one of their signature musical voyages into the far reaches of time and space.
At the end of October, Phish subverted its usual tradition of playing another band's album as a musical costume for Halloween, and instead debuted a Phish album "from the future" which had yet to be recorded. This was their first new material since their reunion in 2009 (aside from one new song, the aforementioned "Steam"), and a signal that they're not done breaking new ground. Some of the songs radiate a sublime, modest beauty—complex prog rock theatrics are still on the menu, but outnumbered by more mellow tunes, like the charming ballad "Waiting All Night," which was debuted last night with soulful aplomb.
It's hard to think of many rock bands still capable of surprising themselves and their fans after thirty years in show business. (They Might Be Giants comes to mind, but they operate on a much smaller scale than Phish, which has been performing in arenas since the early '90s.) Even if you don't care for Phish's eclectic blend of psychedelically-tinged prog rock, it's hard to deny that frontman Trey Anastasio is still one of the most compelling guitarists alive. Healthy and happy, he was in fine form last night, stepping to the fore with blistering confidence.
Anastasio's bandmates (Mike Gordon on bass, Page McConnell on keys, Jon Fishman on drums) are all equally (and uniquely) consummate musicians, and they picked up last night right where they left off almost two months ago, performing with their famed cohesiveness (with the exception of a rough start to "Silent in the Morning"). The absence of any monstrously wild extended improvisational odysseys may have left some of their more persnickety fans wanting more, but the overall mood in room was euphoric for three hours straight, as far as I could tell. (There are still three more nights to hold out for an epic 45-minute "Jennifer Dances.")
Phish's four-night run at Madison Square Garden culminates with three sets on New Year's Eve. If you're curious but don't want to brave the crowds, the band is webcasting all four nights in HD. All you need is a good Internet connection and an HDMI cable if you want to route it through your TV.