My First Phish Concert, ‘Baker’s Dozen’: Life is Short, This Band’s Shows Are Not

I’ve been trying to face my fears lately. I went to the dentist for the first time in years. I interviewed Werner Herzog, who terrifies me. And on Wednesday night, I took the biggest plunge of all.

I went to my first Phish concert.

The show marked the 10th night of the band’s 13-night residency—the “Baker’s Dozen”—at Madison Square Garden. In typical Phish fashion, every gig has an unpredictable setlist—and a colorful donut theme. The sixth night, for example, had a chocolate donut theme, so Phish covered “Chocolate Rain.” Wednesday’s show—my first—was “donut hole”-themed.

Two confessions. The first one is, I don’t like Phish at all. The second, I’ve wanted to love Phish for a long time. Not because I love jam bands (I don’t) or love getting high (I don’t) or think songs with lyrics like “Won't you step into the freezer / Please her with a tweezer” constitute literary achievements worthy of Yeats (I… don’t). Growing up, I wanted to love Phish because I admired how well the band treats its obsessive fanbase. The “Baker’s Dozen” is the perfect example. The marathon largely caters to fans unhinged enough to attend all 13 concerts. Phish is playing entirely different material each night and not repeating a single song throughout the 13-show run. Which is remarkable. No major band can match that feat.

Related: Meet the Phish fans sucking ‘hippie crack’ outside Madison Square Garden

What’s wild about Phish’s fanbase is that it makes my own music obsession seem casual and quaint. Phish fandom tends to distort your perception of moderation that way. (I once went to see the band Savages nine times in one month, but even that’s mild compared with the Baker’s Dozen.) Phish fans study the setlists like scripture. And fanatics who can’t attend the shows in person can easily access soundboard recordings via the LivePhish App.

The trouble, for me, is Phish’s music. Despite the Vermont band’s technical proficiency and mastery of many genres, it all sounds like the same reheated, tepid funk stew. The long, winding jam passages are occasionally revelatory—but often just masturbatory. Being introduced to the band’s oddball lyrics sometimes feels like trying to understand your friend's inside jokes from a camping trip 10 years ago (you really had to be there). And the mellow, goofy tone of Phish’s music doesn’t really jibe with my anxiety at all. (I tend to enjoy music that’s abrasive and uneasy.) Worse is the band’s penchant for jokey live covers, which have a way of flattening great songs and making them sound like mediocre mush.

I’m not a total hater. I like a couple of songs on Billy Breathes. I’ll sing along with “Farmhouse” if it comes on at your party. I went to summer camp in New England and spent enough time around jamband types to recite elementary Phish trivia or know what “YEM” stands for. I won’t regurgitate tired stereotypes about Phish’s famously hippie-adjacent followers (I’ve attended three Ween shows in the past year, so I can’t exactly pass judgment on eccentric fanbases). But the music remains faintly out of reach. Despite Phish's virtues, the jams are tedious enough to put a horse to sleep—unless that horse has smoked just the right strain of weed.

Of course, the purest Phish experience isn’t about listening to records or watching YouTube clips. It’s the live show. The “Baker’s Dozen” seemed like the perfect opportunity. I finally went to my first Phish show. Here’s an outsider’s account of an insider’s dream.

Phish Musician Trey Anastasio of Phish performs onstage at the 25th Annual Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Waldorf=Astoria on March 15, 2010 in New York City. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

4:29 p.m.: My friend Cady, a fairly recent Phish convert, gives me a pep talk over g-chat. “You’re gonna love it,” she says. “Talk to the people around you. They're A: the best part, and B: happy to explain what’s going on. Also, these are really great shows. Like, phans who hadn’t intended to go are flying in because the band has been totally on fire. Long-time, been-to-50-plus-shows phans are citing these as some of their best shows ever.”

Now I feel guilty for taking up a seat—me, the Phish idiot. “No don’t!” Cady says. “They want new people there.” (Phish fans often display the zeal of religious missionaries.)

7:30 p.m.: The scene outside Madison Square Garden is a sea of tie-dye Phish t-shirts and ponytails. (Isn’t it illegal to wear the shirt of the band you’re about to see?) Someone asks me, with great urgency, whether I have a toothpick.

7:40 p.m.: Waiting in line for security check, I sense the excitement. Everyone is psyched. I feel like a mole. What if everyone knows I’m not a real fan? What if I get arrested by the Phish Police?

7:43 p.m.: There’s a man carrying a beautiful cream poodle through Madison Square Garden. I feel a twinge of sympathy for the dog, who’s wearing a “Service Dog” vest. Does PETA have an official stance on bringing dogs to Phish shows?

7:51 p.m.: Overheard in the MSG stairwell: “Let’s hear your phistory!” “I’ve actually never seem Phish before.” “Oh my God! They’re fucking unbelievable… That guitar lead is smoking, man.”

8:01 p.m.: I am surely the most neurotic person at this Phish show. I stress-eat some popcorn. I haven’t been this nervous before a concert since my 5th grade orchestra recital (I played upright bass).

8:13 p.m.: I text a childhood friend: “I’m at my first ever Phish concert.” He texts back: “Why?” And then: “Did they play ‘Farmhouse’? Ask them to play ‘Farmhouse.’”

8:14 p.m.: The lights go down and the smell of weed wafts through the air.

8:15 p.m.: Phish from Vermont emerges! The band immediately plays a bad cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole.” The crowd loses it, either in approval of the song choice or the keeping with the “donut hole” theme. It’s a great track, but Phish’s loose, laid-back approach neuters everything that’s sinister and striking about Waits’ song. It sounds… fine.

8:16 p.m.: Have I made a terrible mistake?

8:17 p.m.: I may have made a terrible mistake.

8:19 p.m.: Phish is playing a frantic, uptempo instrumental tune with an intricate guitar lead. “I called this as the entire run opener!” the guy standing to my right exclaims. He explains to me that the song is called “Buried Alive” and fits with the theme (get it? You’re “buried alive” when you’re way down in the hole).

8:21 p.m.: My neighbor to the left, a man with a flowing, Christ-like beard, is playing furious air guitar to the song “Kill Devil Falls.”

8:25 p.m.: He’s still playing air guitar.

8:29 p.m.: He stops playing air guitar long enough to compose a text.

8:30 p.m.: He resumes playing air guitar. Frontman Trey Anastasio is still playing real guitar. A giant, inflatable donut floats above the crowd in the general admission area.

8:32 p.m.: Just as I was starting to admire Anastasio’s squealing guitar leads, he switches over to whistling, a skill he’s considerably worse at. This song, “Guyute,” brings the tempo down to a plodding, stop-start groove. The air guitar guy sits down and switches to air drums. I wonder if that poodle service-dog  is responding to the whistling.

8:38 p.m. Now the jam is morphing into a speedy, chaotic bluegrass segment. Anastasio is making his guitar sound like a fiddle!

8:40 p.m.: The jamming goes on and on. It gets faster and more twisted. The modal riffs are convoluted and wild. The Phish-loving masses can’t quite dance to this. But, from the smell around me, they definitely can smoke to this.

8:45 p.m.: I spot dress-clad drummer Jon Fishman at the front of the stage with his Electrolux vacuum cleaner (a famously unorthodox Phish instrument). Big cheers erupt.

8:45 p.m.: I text Cady: “uh oh the vacuum just came out.” Cady texts back: “OMG.” The fans around me also seem to be thinking, “OMG.”

8:46 p.m.: Vacuum solo! It sounds zany and outrageous, like Bugs Bunny snarling into a microphone. But then the song reverts back into “I Didn’t Know,” a horribly quirky a cappella monstrosity that gives me flashbacks to college a cappella groups. Blurgh.

8:56 p.m.: OK, this is better: The band is playing a deep funk groove with neat, interlocking vocal. (The song, I later discover, is called “Meat” and appeared on Story of the Ghost. Phish seems to play this track fairly infrequently. There could be some grizzled phan here who’s seen the band 39 times and never heard them play “Meat”—until now.)

9:00 p.m.: Still jamming on that funk groove. Anastasio is making some space sounds with his guitar, like Meddle-era Pink Floyd.

9:08 p.m.: Phish goes from a dull, hookless rock song into an equally dull bluegrass cover (“Ginseng Sullivan”). I begin to notice that every Phish fan around me has their own distinct style of dancing. There’s the guy to my right, who paddles his arms around in front of him, like a dog trying to swim. Another guy in front of me jiggles wildly and jams his fists in the air in euphoric bursts during solos.

9:16 p.m.: I think back on a recent conversation with my friend Ben, a Phish fan. “Phish basically plays like they are in a bar even though they are doing a residency in MSG or playing whatever place most polished bands couldn't fill,” he said, “which can be kind of off-putting for people.” It’s true! It’s easy to lose sight of just how strange it is to see this style of loose, improvisatory music played in a 20,000-capacity arena. In this way, Phish’s success is remarkable and weird: The band sells out arenas despite being proudly uncool, having no radio hits and favoring a performance style that is generally anathema to massive venues. The band’s songs are riddled with inside-jokes, intricacies and nonsensical lyrics—it’s far removed from anything that might have been termed arena rock in the 1980s, when Phish formed, or today.

9:29 p.m.: I like “Heavy Things,” a melodic cut from the Farmhouse era, but the endless noodling is getting tiresome.

9:30 p.m.: My seatmate sings along while making unflinching eye contact with me. Uh oh. He’s going to notice I don’t know the words. Stay calm.

9:36 p.m.: Something falls from above and hits me in the head. Is it enlightenment? No. It’s a glowstick. The entire arena is now chanting: “Run like an antelope, out of control!”

9:39 p.m. Intermission! The first set is over. I resist the urge to run like an antelope back to Brooklyn.

Related: Go Phish

9:40 p.m. My seatmate, “Jared,” turns to me and exclaims, “That was a fucking crazy first set!” I smile and nod politely, but I feel like a cop trying to fit in with teenagers. The guy points to his buddy: “It’s his first Phish show.” I exclaim, “Mine, too!” My seatmate grins and shakes my hand. “Welcome!” he says, the way my rabbi shook my hand after my Bar Mitzvah.

9:45 p.m.: Jared (not his real name) and I start talking. He’s been going to Phish shows since 1999. This is his 103rd show. (This Madison Square Garden run took him into the triple digits.) Last week he took his father to his first Phish show. “My wife and I, we’ve been to 35 shows together,” he tells me. “It’s good to have a hobby.” Like many diehard devotees, he’s going to all 13 shows in the Baker’s Dozen. “Originally, I was only going to see nine of them,” he says, as though that’s a modest number of Phish shows to see in one two-week span. So what changed? After Sunday’s show, he realized he couldn’t bear to miss any of them. So he told his wife he needed to see every show. “My wife and I got into a fight. She said it’s not fiscally responsible.”

9:51 p.m.: I tell Jared about my admiration for Phish’s deep relationship with its fanbase. He fervently agrees. He points to ticket prices as an example of that. “When Billy Joel plays here, the cheapest ticket is, what, $130?” Jared says. “The tickets for this show are no more than $70.” He paid around $1,200 to see all 13 Phish shows, but fans who purchased the Baker’s Dozen package through the band’s website got a sweeter deal: $960 for general admission or $880 for reserved seats, plus some additional fees. (The band even offered fans a multi-part payment plan.)

9:59 p.m.: Jared introduces me to his “Phish buddy,” a longtime friend with whom he’s attended dozens of shows. She’s sitting a few rows away. She points to my notebook: “Write this down! ‘These people are fun and loving and I fit in. People are so friendly!’” I write it all down, and it’s all true—the Phish fanbase is welcoming me with joyously open arms. Why can’t I repay their affection with true belief in the cult of Phish? This is my chance to learn to adore Phish.

Page McConnell Musician Page McConnell of Phish performs onstage at the 25th Annual Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Waldorf=Astoria on March 15, 2010 in New York City. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

10:20 p.m.: Phish takes the stage and—wait no never mind. I can’t learn to adore Phish.

10:30 p.m. – 11:15 p.m.: The second set is a bewildering blur. “Mike’s Song,” “O Holy Night,” “Taste”—the songs blend together into a muddled stew of knotty instrumental passages.

11:16 p.m.: When the set finally ends, my new friend Jared turns to me and grins: “That was what you want to see when you see Phish. That whole show, start-to-finish.” He’s glowing. I’m still befuddled.

11:19 p.m.: An encore! The band covers the Beatles classic “A Day in the Life.” It’s a pretty faithful, impressive cover—Page McConnell handles the Lennon part, Anastasio does McCartney—and there’s mercifully no jamming.

11:23 p.m.: The lyric “Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire / And though the holes were rather small / They had to count them all” sparks a huge cheer. A brief instant of confusion (how many Phish fans can there be in Lancashire??) before I understand: holes! That’s the theme.

11:27 p.m.: Leaving the venue, I think about holes. I just filled one of my own—the Phish concert-sized hole in my heart—yet the band’s music seems more puzzling and irritating than ever. Everyone else is grinning. The truth is, life is short and Phish shows are long. If you love Phish, life is too precious to miss a single show. And if you don’t like Phish—well, life is far too precious to go to a Phish concert ever again.

I still don’t believe in Phish. But I believe in believing in Phish. I believe in the realness of the joy phans take from this show, because I’ve felt it.

Just not at a Phish show.

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