The Baker’s Dozen is Phish’s Epic, Gluttonous Masterpiece

Thirteen shows, zero repeats (so far) and countless highlights

via @phishfromtheroad

It finally hit me last night. On the eleventh of thirteen shows, as Phish was in the middle of a completely surreal cover of Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place,” the reality set in that this just might be the band’s greatest stunt to date.

If you haven’t been following along since the beginning (or haven’t caught up in the meantime), Phish is a band that’s done just about everything in a live setting.

Play well into the morning on New Year’s Eve? Did it.

Share the stage with Kid Rock, Jay Z, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Weir, Carlos Santana and Dave Matthews? Done that, and more.

40, 30, 20-minute improvisations? Check.

Their list of accomplishments go on (and on, and on and on) and that type of pedigree could understandably lead to complacency as they enter their third decade of existence. But Phish possess the mentality of an all-time great athlete: My best is never my best. There is always another level.

They’ve topped themselves, and subsequently musically reinvented themselves, time after time.

And here we are, eleven nights into the biggest challenge the band has ever issued themselves. Thirteen shows at Madison Square Garden that come to an end on Sunday night. Through eleven, the group has yet to repeat a song (198 in total) and doesn’t look poised to do so as they roar towards the finish line.

This isn’t about where this run, and Phish, stand in the grand scheme of live music. The debate on that is over. No band could do what Phish is currently doing. Every act imaginable has a caveat.

Springsteen and Pearl Jam have the catalog depth, but a 30+ song set over thirteen shows will prove mathematically impossible. Any other legacy act (The Who, The Rolling Stones, etc.) simply don’t dig deep enough to pull off this type of stunt.

Yet again, Phish, as they always have, compete solely against themselves. The Baker’s Dozen, their completely unpredictable, seemingly never-ending run towards their own personal history. A fan’s dream and a chance to check off once and for all those songs many have long-chased.

There’s been a surprise cover of Prince’s “1999,” just the second time ever in the band’s history. Also, Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” for the first time in twenty years. And the debuts. So many debuts. Not just Radiohead’s Kid A epic but also Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal,” Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary,” Young’s “Powderfinger,” or “O Canada” on a night dedicated to maple donuts.

The Baker’s Dozen combines everything that makes Phish the most unique live acts in music. Each night, christened with a specific theme tied to that night’s donut flavor (some audience members are even given donuts upon entry), takes on a life of its very own much like a Broadway play. Every night is entirely its own experience.

This is the pinnacle of what Phish sets out to do every night, but increased exponentially. A band that has spent decades creating a true fan experience is giving their faithful the most perfected version of that to date.

Bands simply don’t top themselves after thirty years. When Phish returned in 2009 from a five-year hiatus, nobody could’ve predicted they’d get here — routinely digging up memories of the mid-late 90s — a time period often considered their prime.

Not only are they reviving that magic, but they’re topping it while breaking new musical ground, a trademark of Phish’s evolution throughout their career. The modern era of the band has had moments, albeit fleeting, of greatness. But this sustained excellence and consistency suggests a new level, another layer to Phish’s immense musical resume.

With a few exceptions, Phish’s modern era has most often like a band grappling with trying to recapture the ferocity that made them the premiere jamband in the post-Grateful Dead world. For every great night, there was an average one to follow and so on. The consistency wasn’t quite there.

The Baker’s Dozen has flipped all of that upside down. The argument could be made that each show has featured more elevated, innovative playing than the last, with the final two surely to leave their mark on the entire run.

Phish is a band openly susceptible to ridicule from the indie blogosphere. Self-deprecating, rough around the edges and often far too meandering for the buttoned-up world that fawns over pristine performances and recordings. But so many can and should take note of what they’re doing now, a moment of history in rock and roll, a genre that now only makes headlines for what it used to be.

This, just maybe, could be a blueprint for where it can go in the future.