Reeling in the New Years at Madison Square Garden

Photos by Scott Bedford, Bryan Lasky and Jacob Silco

After three sold out nights at Madison Square Garden full of intense jams, remarkable improvisation and not a single cover song, the stage was set for Phish to deliver a New Year’s Eve performance for the ages. And deliver they did. The fantastic foursome found the perfect way to celebrate their 30th anniversary with thousands of their closest friends in the world’s most famous arena. They did away with some of the Broadway type spectacles of New Year’s past and placed a focus on something more important: the music that their fans have come to know and love over the last 30 years.

Like any New Year’s Eve show, the anticipation was high and speculation was boundless. With no cover songs being played the previous three nights, perhaps in defiance to recent comments from a certain well known pianist who dubbed them a “second rate cover band”, some surmised that there may be an entire set of covers on the way or special guests to appear when a cover did get played. Instead, Phish kicked off the first set with ‘AC/DC Bag’ in an effort to properly “get this show on the road.” While this may have dashed some people’s hopes of a complete Gamehendge set, this seminal show opener served its purpose and then some with a rousing jam that elevated the already high energy levels present throughout the building.

The music then shifted from old school to new school via a segue into ‘A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing’ which gave the band even more room to jam and spread its musical wings. Although the crowd had (incorrectly) done the chant for it on the 12/28/13 show, ‘Wilson’ then followed and delivered its typical roundhouse kick of arena rock. At its completion, guitarist Trey Anastasio immediately began the opening riffs of yet another Phish classic, ‘Divided Sky’. This legendary song was played to perfection and was highlighted by a near two minute “pause” section that literally saw Madison Square Garden whip itself into a collective frenzy.

A rambunctious version of ‘Ocelot’ followed that featured a very cohesive ‘driving’ type jam at the end powered by the rhythmic efforts of bassist Mike Gordon. ‘Sugar Shack’ and ‘Halfway to the Moon’ then followed to serve as a showcase for Gordon’s and keyboardist Page McConnell’s song writing and also as a breather of sorts for this powerful first set. This then gave way to the set closer and one of the jewels of this show – an emotional and perfectly executed ‘Fluffhead’ with a “Fluff came to New York” lyric change. As the band continued to progress seamlessly through each section of this old school classic, the energy in the building that was nearly tangible at this point continued to swirl and rise to a fever pitch. A big thanks to the people/area on the floor that literally erupted with shiny confetti-like streamers at the instant everyone in the building screamed that first “Fluffhead!” after the Bundle of Joy section. Impeccable timing and truly a wondrous sight.

Instead of the house lights coming all the way up after the requisite and well deserved bows from the band, it was time for cake. What better a way to celebrate both New Years and 30 years of being a band? Trey and Page went to the back of the stage and together carried over what appeared to be a small electric keyboard, but was actually a replica in cake form. Combined with a cardboard backdrop of a small mountain range that was brought on stage, this created a real life enactment of the epic Phish photo that adorns the cover of their Colorado ’88 album. After some cake was dispersed to some lucky folks in the front row and a failed effort by the people sitting behind the stage to get the ‘mountain’ backdrop turned around so they could see it, a video began on the large video screen atop the arena which featured drummer Jon Fishman and set the stage for this year’s gag.

Before long, the large JEMP truck made its way into the middle of the floor of Madison Square Garden. When a small keyboard was raised from within and mic stands resembling hockey sticks were set up, everyone seemed to acknowledge something special was in store. In a fitting gesture, Phish gave their audience the ultimate gift of a set full of stripped down, old school classics as performed in the same manner that one might find on an old cassette recording – the original medium which fed Phish shows to the masses. There were no pedals, no loops or no effects for this set, just Phish at its core.

‘Glide’ and “Llama’ opened the proceedings and were well received, but the energy really picked up when the opening chord of ‘Colonel Forbin’s Ascent’ was struck. This nod to the Phish saga of Gamehendge sent a rush through the crowd as the identity of this throwback set began to take shape and people began to dream big. Alas, there was no extended narration in this version as the group quickly shifted into a somewhat stiff and average version of ‘Fly Famous Mockingbird’.

‘Reba’ got things back on track in a big way and is truly one of the highlights of this show. Phish delivers a poignant and soulful jam in this version that’s made even more remarkable when taking into account the minimal instrument setup being used. Sensing an increased buzz throughout the building, the band then moved forward with a comical and supercharged version of ‘Icculus’ making it only the second time since 1994 that this rarity was played twice in the same calendar year.

Truly playing to the old school vibe of this set, some witty banter ensued about the playing of ‘Icculus’ in a building like Madison Square Garden before the beginning notes of ‘Lizards’ ushered in a new wave of euphoria throughout. This Gamehendge classic was met with a great response by the crowd who was rewarded with some absolutely stellar piano work from McConnell in his designated solo. Unfortunately, some rust appeared on some of Anastasio’s ending guitar solos before the song’s completion. The throwback set then came to an end with one more powerful, psychedelic old school jam courtesy of a masterfully played ‘Split Open and Melt’. This served as the perfect bookend to a fantastic string of music that could seemingly be taken right off the page of an early 90’s setlist. In bypassing the glitzy production numbers seen in years past, Phish gave their ever captive audience the greatest present of all time: their music in the purest of forms.

After this, the third set could easily be deemed as icing on the proverbial cake. A spirited ‘Character Zero’ opened the set which began approximately 10 minutes before midnight. This traditional set closer developed its customary strong rock and roll ending which the group used to help start the final countdown of 2013. After the traditional mass exodus of balloons from the ceiling of MSG and the standard playing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, Phish launched into one of their newer albums many suspect will appear on the group’s forthcoming new album. ‘Fuego’ is a song that got rave reviews after being debuted in Atlantic City on Halloween. With its high octane prog rock feel, soaring harmonies and intricate composed parts that give way to a jam full of rich sounds and textures, it’s clear that this song will be a fixture going forward in the band’s repertoire.

Although it was anything but a seamless transition, as the aforementioned jam dwindled down, Anastasio immediately begins the opening structure of ‘Light’, a song that has slowly but surely developed into a 2nd set jam vehicle for the Phish from Vermont. This version was no different as it clocked in at nearly 17 minutes and featured a jam that had some beautiful interplay between Gordon on bass and McConnell on the clavichord early on and later the electric piano. This jam moves from start to finish and serves as the perfect example of where Phish is at right now from an improvisational standpoint. It’s the epitome of a 3.0 era jam, if you will, and that’s a good thing.

After the ‘Light’ jam gave its all, it was time for the proverbial breather portion of this set as some slow digital delay loops slowly dissolved into a standard run through of ‘Twenty Years Later’, a song that always seem to find a home at memorable shows. ‘Bouncing Around the Room’ then followed before Phish dazzled the crowd one last time with an oldie but a goodie. The song that nearly everyone knew was coming did so in the form of a perfectly executed ‘You Enjoy Myself’ that closed the third set in style. This Phish staple seemed to tie a bow on both tonight’s performance and the New Year’s run as a whole and concluded with a most entertaining vocal jam.

A rather meek encore of ‘Grind’ and ‘Show of Life’ closed the show in proper, but there was one last present for all in attendance. The large video board once again whirred to life and played a montage video highlighting Phish’s 30 years of existence. The video chronicled the band from start to finish with vintage photos, fan made art work for some of their earliest shows, and video of concerts and New Year’s gags of old. Most importantly, it ended with instructions to save the date of December 31, 2043 for the band’s 60 year anniversary. Aside from the incredibly disturbing time elapsed effect that was used on the band photo, this was the best news a Phish fan could get as it seems to portend another 30 years of fun and fantastic music as provided by one of the bests shows on Earth. And we’re not talking about the circus.

Setlist

Set 1: AC/DC Bag > A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing > Wilson > Divided Sky, Ocelot, Sugar Shack, Halfway to the Moon > Fluffhead
Set 2: Glide, Llama, Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird, Fuck Your Face, Reba, Icculus, The Lizards > Split Open and Melt
Set 3: Character Zero > Auld Lang Syne > Fuego > Light > Twenty Years Later > Bouncing Around the Room, You Enjoy Myself
Encore: Grind, Show of Life