21 in 21 of 2017: #7 07/22/2017 Madison Square Garden, New York, NY – Baker’s Dozen N2 “Strawberry” (Pauly McGuire, @CoventryMusic @taopauly)
21 in 21 of 2017: #7 07/22/2017 MSG, New York, NY
By Pauly McGuire, @taopauly @CoventryMusic
BAKER’S DOZEN N2: CHEKOV’S STRAWBERRY GUN AND PAGE’S NEW PALETTE
Russian playwright Anton Chekov shared advice on writing plays, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Enter “Moma Dance” and Chekov’s gun, or what I refer to as Phish’s Strawberry Gun, which symbolized their commitment to jamming, especially extending jams in atypical songs.
Early on night two of the 13-show MSG run, Phish stretched out “Moma Dance”, an 8-minute funk romp into a 17-minute sonic cluster. The bougie Chairman of the Boards gave way to Leo the Lion, the ferocious beast and king of the jungle. The Page-led “Moma” jam set forth a chain reaction of events that solidified the Baker’s Dozen run as both a milestone for fans and a creative leap for the band.
(Photo credit: @taopauly)
During his MVP performance at Madison Square Garden, Page exponentially elevated his game and unleashed some of the most adventurous playing we have heard in almost two decades. Page brazenly led the charge, especially during decisive moments in monstrous jams, and the band emphatically followed his euphoric lead.
Trey credited Page for the ultimate success of the Baker’s Dozen. In Episode 39 of the Under the Scales podcast, Tom Marshall and RJ Bee interviewed Trey, who shared some insight on Page’s transformation during the Baker’s Dozen run. Trey compared Page’s most-recent sonic shift to the time he spent in New Orleans jamming with The Meters and later forming Vida Blue in 2001 with Meters’ drummer, Russell Batiste.
“What made the Baker’s Dozen a success was that Page had this massive step forward,” said Trey. “If you listen closely, he widened his array of sounds the tour before the Baker’s Dozen. Those long jams at the Baker’s Dozen? He’s switching textures so much more frequently. A lot more synthesizers realm. A lot of different synths, various Rhodes and Wurlies for long segments. It’s such a cool thing. Page enables those long jams like the ‘Blaze On’ or ‘Simple’ jams. If you listen closely, it was more piano/clav/piano/clav, now every time he shifts keyboards, it’s like shifting gears in the whole band. The entire band shifts gears. It’s a whole new palate. It’s like he’s painting with a new color and everyone else is following that color. He started going there on Fuego. A lot of really cool keyboard textures.”
“Page increased his tapestry. There’s never a cheesiness, like the 80’s bands. It’s always artistic and subtle and understated,” added Tom Marshall.
Page’s colossal leap forward in 2017 coincided with the retirement of his long-time piano tech. Trey also dished out mad props to Page’s new keyboard tech. The impact was noticeable immediately. Trey gushed that Page’s overall sound has vastly improved, particularly his Hammond organ. The much-younger new guy encouraged Page to expand his live rig. The extra instruments added new sounds, which in turn inspired innovative jamming.
“This guy was enthusiastic for Page to bring his home keyboards on the road,” said Trey. “Page is really picky about (those) sounds. He hates those cheesy 80s synths. All the synth sounds he uses is organic.”
With a young, untz-loving, techie in his corner, Page was ready to unlock a new level of star power. Page’s cosmic accession commenced the moment he stepped on stage for Strawberry Donut night. Page sported a shirt sprinkled with oversized stars, a blaring indication that we were about to witness a Page-centric night.
Feisty crowd on Saturday. Since the revelation of the Strawberry donut, everyone wondered how they’d arrange “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I never anticipated an a capella opener. Slick curveball when we were all looking for a fastball. The “thick strawberry goo” lyric in “Halley’s Comet” elicited a hearty cheer from the crowd.
(Photo credit: Adam McCullough)
And then, it happened. A tripped-out, longer-than-usual “Moma Dance.” I initially dismissed it as Saturday night theatrics, “The boys are getting weird early!” And boy oh boy, was I wrong! Upon further inspection, this 17+ minute ripper marked a pivotal watershed moment for Page and the rest of the band.
“Moma Dance” is a funk spaceship typically blasting off for an 8-minute rumpus early in the first set. Phish throws down the cow funk and the entire crowd gets down. Uninhibited. Unrestrained. 20,000 people exhibiting their A+++ dance moves. It’s the closest white people will ever get to being a part of the dance line on Soul Train.
The Strawberry “Moma” was Phish’s version of Chekov’s gun. It started out funkified business as usual, but instead of wrapping up in eight minutes, Trey and Page extended the jam before Page seized control and led the band into unexplored territory, fueled by a few twists of the knobs.
The “Moma” shift set the tone for the show and the ensuing Baker’s Dozen run. I got lost in the deceptive undertow of the sideways jam. I had one of those “Wait, what song are we on?” moments and it was still the first set.
Phish has performed “Moma Dance” 88 times in 3.0, but they kept it on a short leash passing the 10-minute barrier only three times: Superball, SPAC 2016, and Baker’s Dozen.
I wasn’t the only one affected by the unfamiliar direction of “Moma Dance”. On his podcast, Tom described the moment he noticed the inflection point, “All of a sudden, I was blown away by Page. It was electrifying. Subtle electrifying.”
Trey added, “Page is the refresh button. Every time he switches keyboards, it’s like a new paragraph. Or chapter. It’s a little more like Pink Floyd textures.”
Page’s seismic shift and expanding palette had been ongoing for a while, but MSG Night 2 was the first time I noticed it.
“Squirming Coil” punctuated the first set on this Leo-centric night. The rest of the band left one by one while Page finished his sublime solo. Page thanked the crowd and casually walked off stage to the growing crescendo of applause.
For the second set, @LawnMemo joined me behind the stage approximately a dozen rows behind Fishman. The upstate brah displayed his smooth moves on the ladies sitting nearby: a 20-something in Burning Man attire plus her “civilian” cousin from Staten Island. They adored Memo’s helmet, clad in lot stickers and other mementos. The cousin was overdressed in a good way and her all-black club couture made her stand out in a multicolored sea of bearded custies, super-sketch wooks, and schwilly sparkleponies. The cousin was a selfie-machine and she walked right out of central casting for The Real Mafia Housewives of Staten Island. I hoped Memo didn’t get whacked for grinding a mobster’s girlfriend during Page EDM.
The lights went down and Memo lost all interest in the ladies in order to rage a “DWD” set 2 opener. The vet really wears a helmet so he doesn’t injure himself dancing so hard. The “DWD” jam peaked in spots I expected a classic Trey ripcord. Yet, he kept going. But wait, there’s more! Phish returned to “DWD” later in the set. They just didn’t noodle through a couple of bars of the melody; instead, they jammed out an entirely new segment of “DWD”. They committed to jamming it out and properly finishing it off. Another glimpse of Chekov’s Strawberry Gun. Right on the heels of the heady “Moma”, this “DWD” jam unlocked the next level for Phish. Less ripcord, more jamming.
The prescient LawnMemo said “Birds of a Feather” was due to pop up in the rotation. The clairvoyant from Buffalo mentioned this tidbit ten seconds before Phish played it. Memo’s analytics game is as strong as his slick tricks picking up the bridge and tunnel crowd.
On the morning of Night 2, my wife (back in L.A.) texted me when she heard about the Strawberry donut flavor. @change100 said to expect both “Strawberry Fields” and “Strawberry Letter 23.” The Beatles’ cover seemed obvious, but the Brothers Johnson tune written by Shuggie Otis was something to look forward to.
The quartet of cow-funk-mongers from Vermont delivered on “Strawberry Letter 23,” which still holds up as my favorite cover of the entire run. Anything associated with Shuggie Otis is wonderful in a cosmic, funk-soul brother kinda way.
The first time she heard “I Always Wanted It This Way” off Big Boat, @change100 dubbed it “Page EDM.” The moniker stuck for the sole reason it saved space when writing down setlist notes.
Page EDM started out as a bad inside joke, but the song has grown on me after Trey’s gushing assessment of Page’s new synth-palate jamming. Page’s recent growth has positively influenced longer, more diverse jams.
Phish thoroughly amused themselves during “I Always Wanted It This Way,” which I initially described in a recap as Page’s “synthy-porn soundtrack.” During Strawberry night’s version of Page’s EDM-inspired booty tickler, Gordo and Page fed off each other’s dank interplay, while Fish unleashed octo-beastly rhythms and Trey hopped on the Marimba for the gonzo-porn jam.
Page added a nasty synth game to his repertoire and gained oodles of confidence as the Baker’s Dozen run continued. Benjo, a friend from France who is well versed in electronic music, noted that he was thrilled to hear the electronic additions to Page’s contributions and fills. “Baby steps, but a different sound and exciting new direction from Page.”
I cannot envision Page donning a sparkly space helmet and spinning a set of old-school Chicago house, but then again, no one ever expected the Spanish Inquisition or to see Gordo wearing neon lipstick. Maybe DJ Page will make the rounds at untz-centric festivals in Europe and spin sunrise sets at moon parties for all the pretty people in Ibiza?
The Baker’s Dozen became Phish’s greatest achievement since Big Cypress and the Millennium. Pulling off no repeats over 13 MSG shows hinged upon the transformation of Page McConnell, who radiated confidence, exuded ingenuity, and unleashed some of his best individual playing and collective jamming in years. The synth vignettes marked a new turning point for the band. Fire up this historical “Moma Dance” and let Page whisk you away as he punches holes into the fabric of time and space.
Pauly McGuire is a New Yorker living in West LA. He’s the founder of Coventry Music blog and the author of the new rock-n-roll novel Fried Peaches, which is currently available on Amazon. You can find him on social media under @taopauly and @CoventryMusic. His favorite Ghost is 7/2/98 Copenhagen, Denmark.