's The Baker's Dozen: Live at Madison Square Garden
lives up to its title even if, in both design and content, it bears scant resemblance to its all-encompassing limited-edition counterpart. Containing thirteen performances specifically chosen by the members of the group from the 2017 residency at the famed venue, its only add-on is a twenty-eight page book of images mostly resplendent with the crisp hues on the covers of the clam-shell box. This three compact disc set is a companion piece to the box containing thirty-six CD's, an envelope stuffed with memorabilia plus the requisite booklet of photos and prose. As a condensed corollary to that collector's item, its goal is much more finite as it purports to simulate the ebb and flow of a Phish show.
To a great extent, it succeeds. The archetypal jamband has its go-to set and show closers, but this particular string, sequenced by the Vermont-rooted quartet's archivist Kevin Shapiro, closes with "Most Events Aren't Planned," an appropriate if somewhat ironic capper given the prep the quartet devoted to this run: each of the thirteen nights had a theme which in turn engendered pertinent cover songs within the larger context of Phish's aim to not repeat a number for the duration of that summer run.
It's one true measure of the quartet's eccentricity, however, that it will often commence a show with its collective throttle wide-open, so this twenty-minutes plus of "Blaze On" replicates the sensation of plunging into the deep-end(s) of improvisation right off the bat. As is regularly the case elsewhere in their two-set concerts (and notably this compendium), this relatively new tune from Big Boat (JEMP, 2016) turns into a point of departure for intricate improvisations that bear virtually no resemblance to the structure of the song itself. Clocking in at just shy of twenty-five minutes, "Chalk Dust Torture," fills that same open-ended bill.
Greeted with thunderous acclamation from one of the sold-out audiences (the volume of which may or may not have been upped for purposes of this release), this reading of a long-standing staple of the group's repertoire represents the very stuff by which Phish most directly engenders alternately slavish devotion, utter ridicule and all points in between, from its fanbase and the uninitiated. Little wonder the foursome itself, arch and self-consciously whimsical as can be, dotes on such variegated attention because such intervals dominate the three-hours plus playing time here, in the form of "No Men In No Man's Land" and "Scents And Subtle Sounds," to name just two of the extended tracks.
During such intervals, Phish reveals a chemistry clearly reflecting each member's distinct personality. Drummer Jon Fishman plays with remarkable intricacy on the former number, not to mention a heated intensity that offsets the often icy precision guitarist Trey Anastasio exhibits much of the time. As on the latter tune, keyboardist Page McConnell remains unwavering in his deference to the main soloist (and still titular leader of the foursome), but, at the same time, the choices he makes from his battery of instruments invariably complement the red-haired fretboarder.
In fact, taking into account his frequent lead vocals as well, McConnell might well qualify as the unsung hero of the group, if it weren't for bassist Mike Gordon. In his deceptively unobtrusive presence, the latter is as enigmatic as his comrade at the keys is empathetic: the rhythmic lines he unfurls on "Ghost," for instance, are supple and often bouncy, but those undulations nevertheless remain locked in with Fishman's kit, particularly the kick-drum. Though hardly a conventional rhythm section merely keeping time, the pair anchor the instrumental machinations of Phish, no matter the shape they take during the near-half hour of "Simple."
Not surprisingly, such detail becomes readily apparent in the Grammy and Emmy award winning engineer Elliot Scheiner's mixes of The Baker's Dozen Live at Madison Square Garden
, especially on headphones. Yet this technical collaborator of artists as diverse as Steely Dan
and Beyonce traverses the span of frequencies to reinforce the internal pulse of tunes like "Twist," while at the same time making sure to capture both the thrust or the floating quality of Phish conjures up. Whether the foursome play in unison or engage in looser interactions, Bob Ludwig's mastering further ensures replication of the entire dynamic range, making the sound quality alone one of the prime virtues of this package.
But even if the intro and body of compositions may very well be nothing more than means to a far more glorious end, Phish generally earns the explosions of acclamation that greet the combination of poise and daring (and collective relish) on display here during these most expansive passages. Meanwhile, the comparatively truncated "Waves" and "Miss You" supply the pacing necessary to accurately highlight those intervals. This compilation may not change anyone's mind about Phishit will probably just consolidate any and every impression, positive and negative---but it is indeed much greater than the sum if its parts, as it faithfully captures the finely-tuned chemistry this band's honed over thirty-some years of willful solidarity.