“I feel like I’ve walked out onto a cliff that I can’t get off,” Trey Anastasio says in the midst of Phish’s 2019-closing residency at Madison Square Garden in New York. “I’m just going to walk backwards and fall off the cliff.”
Musical cliff-diving? In a sense, Phish has been on the edge of that cliff for the last 35 years, each time the quartet arrays itself in four-across formation on the concert stage. The band never plays the same show twice, and songs tend to mutate multiple times over their lifespan. Sometimes even the band doesn’t know the destination of the latest on-the-fly reinvention of an arrangement until it gets there. The riskiness is rarely approached with trepidation.
On the contrary, Phish has turned into one of the world’s most consistent concert draws by joyously refusing consistency. The band is a sworn enemy of convention and predictability: songs are meant to be bent, twisted and reshaped rather than replicated. Unlike most bands who have been releasing albums since the ‘80s, Phish isn’t a jukebox that spits out a handful of songs that the audience “expects” to hear. That’s the freedom earned by not having a single Top 40 hit; there’s no “Werewolves of London”-like albatross draped around their necks.
For the millions of Phish faithful, the songs that lend themselves to constant reinvention are the primary reasons they keep packing stadiums. These are the tunes that the band turns into launching pads for improvisation.
At its penultimate show of 2019, Phish pulled “Tweezer” out of the garage for another long-distance runaround, an epic 38-plus minutes split into two unevenly sliced pieces (36:08 and 2:27) sandwiching “Ruby Waves” and “Steam.” The song was recorded for the band’s third studio album, “A Picture of Nectar,” in 1992, after first taking shape at a soundcheck in 1989. Since then it has been played at nearly a quarter of the band’s 1,700-plus concerts. It remains anchored by Mike Gordon’s funk-tinged bass line, but the colors and shapes around it morph like one of the band’s phantasmagoric light shows.
On this night, the band once again lays out over Gordon’s percussive five-string groove. Page McConnell sprinkles Clavinet seasoning over the top and then the band rides through a symphonic series of changes in key and tempo. The seamlessness of these transitions suggests that the quartet is following a precise roadmap, but that’s hardly the case. The shifting moods reach a wondrous moment of low-key bliss at the concert’s 2-hour 15-minute mark, the lovely wobble of the keyboards creating an eerie sense of weightlessness around the strummed guitar, melodic bass and floating drums. It segues into a more animated, linear conversation, the band firing like four cylinders balancing independence with interaction, while imparting a dizzying sense of forward motion.
Esoteric excursions alternate with earthier directness. Riff-rockers “Wilson” and “Slave to the Traffic Light” frame the proceedings. In between, Phish serves up the Caribbean accents of the gently empowering “Blaze On” (“You got one life, blaze on”), the shaggy doo-wop harmonies in the midst of the “Mike’s Song”/ “Contact”/ “Weekapaug Groove” triptych and the blues-saturated psychodrama of “About to Run,” from Anastasio’s “Ghosts of the Forest” album.
The band’s surrealist humor surfaces on a post-“Tweezer” interlude that pays homage to a longstanding tradition at New York Rangers hockey games and, by extension, the band’s history at Madison Square Garden: 13 year-end shows and more than 60 shows overall. An even longer tradition at the Garden is the rhythmic chant of “Potvin sucks” heard since 1979 at Rangers games against archrivals the New York Islanders, for which Anastasio and Fishman provide musical accompaniment/inducement.
Sometimes when you go musical cliff-diving, you find yourself landing in the place where it all began.
The band’s trick bag of deep-cut covers and clever musical tributes is bottomless. On this night, we get not just a tongue-in-cheek “Potvin sucks” but explorations of Taj Mahal’s “Corinna” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.” Then there’s the ebullient encore of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll,” with Anastasio teasing a snippet of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” on the outro. Sometimes when you go musical cliff-diving, you find yourself landing in the place where it all began.