Happy 2012, Phish fans! Apologies for being tardy with this better-late-than-never recap, though we assume many of you were also raging/recovering/traveling. Perspectives on the first three shows of the run up to NYE varied widely from total love to moderate puzzlement to mild disappointment. To be fair there has been something to justify all of those opinions; as always, the only opinion that should matter to you is your own. Let’s walk through the action as we finish our trip around the sun and flip the calendar!
A compact and rollicking “AC/DC Bag” gets the NYE show on the road, followed swiftly by “Wolfman's Brother” with a strong if brief type-I jam. Solid if uneventful versions of “Scent of a Mule” and “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” keep the high-energy opening sequence flowing, before dropping down to the NYE stand-by breather “Lawn Boy,” making its seventh NYE appearance. “Gotta Jibboo” and “Farmhouse” then settle the set into a more sustainable groove.
Then the only real setlist surprise of the evening, the rarely performed (and very welcome) “Pebbles and Marbles,” made only its second 2011 appearance. “Ocelot” shuffled through before the big gun of the first set, “Fluffhead.” They missed the power in the “Fluff came to New York!” line that they so victoriously nailed on the last few MSG performances (12/3/09 and 12/30/10), but more than made up for that minor indiscretion with an explosive “Arrival” section that came damn close to blowing the roof off MSG. This dramatic, building-shaking conclusion to “Fluffhead” provided a powerful ending highlight to a perfectly fun, if fairly pedestrian set. Head out to the splendid new concourses for a beverage and a stroll... and be back in fifteen minutes.
The second set predictably and appropriately kicked off with the Fishman-penned “Party Time” and the money set was off to the races. The cream of the 3.0 crop of jam vehicles, “Light” offered the first genuine exploratory improvisation of the evening and was primed for potential greatness. Instead it was somewhat forcefully abandoned in favor of T.V. On the Radio’s “Golden Age,” Phish’s cover theme song of 2011. A pleasant “Theme From the Bottom” is next, followed by “Heavy Things” that featured an especially vibrant solo from Page.
“Ghost” is up next, a brave setlist call following the monster version offered in the exact same slot at last year’s NYE show that proved to be the highlight of that run. This year’s version (and the remainder of this set) took a different approach – where last year was innovative, soaring, full-band-inspired hose, this year they went more for the visceral, power-chord rock throw-down. With the exception of the brief vocal jam in the “Sneakin' Sally through the Alley” that followed, the rest of this set was pure and single-minded dance force. If your preference is “wine and cheese” Phish where listening among band members and subtly prevail, you’ll want to retract your pinky and put down your glass, because the rest of this set is coming at you fast and furious.
This approach culminated in the short but manic “46 Days” that left the building rocking as hard as anytime in the almost thirty years I’ve been attending shows here. “Suzy Greenberg“ closes the book on set that was clearly the best of the three on this night, offering a final half hour of classic head-banging that inspired the 18-year-old in all of us. Whereas last year’s $-set was filled with more stunning improvisation, outside of the “Light” this year we were offered a rocking party soundtrack, one that was honestly and convincingly delivered. Good times. Let’s take our second intermission and get psyched for the final frame.
The midnight set goes off @ 11:45-ish with the first NYE “Cavern” since 1998. Then the main gag theme comes from “Steam” curiously (and potentially worrisome) the only original Phish song introduced to the repertoire in 2011. Most of you have probably seen the action – live, webcast, via YouTube, and presumably soon enough from Phish’s official vimeo site – but the blow-by-blow from our setlist:
Prior to “Steam,” a steam kettle and hot plate went off on stage, with Trey acting like he was attempting to put out the steam. Shortly after the song began, steam also came from the floor near the soundboard area. An amp (with the steam kettle on it), a keytar, a bass, a vacuum, and a few lights were then lifted off the stage. A woman in the front of the stage tossed a “Steam” sign into the front row, then rose with a barricade and security guard before eventually being lifted up over the band. Several other aerialists (clothed in various casual attire, equipped with black backpacks emitting smoke and lights on their backs) subsequently rose up from the crowd and ascended and descended several times. The first aerialist counted down to midnight, at which point balloons were released from the ceiling. The aerialists later returned with lights in their hands for Down with Disease, which also featured Trey and Mike being raised up and back down a few times before finally rising several feet on hydraulic lifts.”
The focus on “Steam” among fans has mostly been about the gag, but it is in fact an exceptional version of the song, on par with that offered amidst the fog of Golden Gate Park on 8/12/11 at Outside Lands. There are only six to choose from but if you are a “best versions” fan, you have a candidate, a remarkable fact since it was performed in such a chaotic setting. You try to do your best work while being levitated in front of 20,000 fans, and/or having hundreds of over-sized balloons whacking you in the face, a point made clear by Trey when he was visibly angry that a designated balloon popper was late on his cue (though at the other end of the spectrum, the childlike joy expressed by Mike and Trey after finishing their levitation act was evidenced by their celebratory lap around the stage). “Auld Lang Syne” > “Down with Disease” is an entrenched tradition: including the 12/31/93 debut, this combo has now rung in the New Year on five occasions.
The balance of the post-gag third set will not be confused with one of the better segments of this or any other run of Phish gigs, but “The Wedge” kept energy and emotion high as band and crowd alike settled into the home stretch. “Alaska” – no fan observer of The Phish wants to open up the year in critic mode, but that is a setlist call that only a mother can love in such a high-profile slot. “Wading in the Velvet Sea” can and often does work in this late-show slot when coming off of a dramatic jam or high-energy rocker; when placed after “Alaska” though, it is a hard choice to defend. A nondescript if always crowd-pleasing “First Tube” closes the set. After a long night of music and nine sets in four days, the band summoned enough energy to deliver a wonderful “Slave to the Traffic Light” to send the crowd into the New York night.
So, was this the greatest of Phish’s many NYE runs? For even the most charitable reviewers: no, it wasn’t. There were minor improvisational highlights sprinkled throughout to be sure: “Cities” from 12/28, “Mike’s Groove” from 12/29 with the stellar transition from “CDT” to “Hydrogen,” “Piper” from 12/30, and “Light” from 12/31. They rose to the big moments in NYE and came up with an entertaining and innovative NYE gag. “Not at their best” Phish, at MSG, during the holidays is a formula for a great time, and they are still the best value in rock and roll and deliver an honest and professional show. What the run lacked was a sense of distinctiveness – other than the gag, these shows could have taken place anywhere, anytime; there was no unifying theme, or sense that this was a summation and exclamation on all that was best from the proceeding year. The shows were fun from start to finish, but that can be faint praise: at least among those friends and acquaintances with whom I’ve exchanged thoughts, the first impression is usually “I had such a great time with my friends, being in the city etc.” and not “I was blown away by those shows!”
Regardless, it WAS a great time. So, huge thanks to Phish and their staff for a wonderful 2011, the mostly excellent staff at MSG, and all the fans whether in the building, watching from home or observing from afar. Minor criticisms aside, Phish, Madison Square Garden and New Years is an undeniably special tradition. I hope that this exact thing happens to us, just next year!