Phish MSG Run 2011: From A to Z

Today, we’ll wrap up our exhaustive holiday run coverage with the tradition we started back during the southern run of summer 2010 – the A to Z analysis. In this segment, we evaluate all aspects of a tour by touching on all the bases from beginning to end with a bullet for every letter in the alphabet.

The band certainly left a lot of room for debate with regard to the recent four dates at Madison Square Garden as they played uncharacteristically well to begin the run, but trailed off noticeably as the days led up to the New Year’s Eve celebration. While many fans finished the run with a bad taste left in their mouths, when we look at it all in aggregate there were plenty of big-time highlights to reflect upon.

A is for Auld Lang Syne Tease – After all these years, Trey still manages to catch everyone off guard when he throws Auld Lang Syne teases in unexpected places, and what better a spot than smack in the middle of a climactic Fluffhead solo at the end of a flawless version to close out the first set.

B is for Belt Buckle – You have to hand it to the folks behind Dry Goods. Whether its limited edition posters, merit badges, or tour shirts, they always have something fans want to take home as a keepsake, but this year they outdid themselves. Phish created a giant Texas-sized gold belt buckle custom-made especially for the New Years Run.

C is for Cost – Ticket prices reached record new highs both in terms of face value and in the secondary market. Stubhubbing profiteers started the bidding for New Years Eve tickets at an overwhelming $350 a piece for behind the stage nosebleeds and the piece went up n a hurry as the seats got closer to the stage.

D is for Dark, Dark in the Daytime – Anyone who expected a lighthearted first set to serve as a warm up on December 28th got a pleasant surprise when an early placement of Cities launched into lunar orbit. In retrospect, despite coming so early in the run, the aphotic Cities jam holds up as one of the best re-listens of the run.

E is for Energy – Is there any venue out there that explodes the way MSG does? The reaction to Quinn The Eskimo, the peak of 46 Days and the start of the unexpected second song YEM on 12/29 was exceptional, even by Phish at MSG standards. Yet nothing compared to the roars of the crowd when everyone realized the quartet had segued Chalkdust Torture into I Am Hydrogen on night two.

F is for a Free Day – Let’s face it; we ain’t as young as we used to be. As much as four straight night at the Garden is essentially holiday run protocol, maybe there was something to last year’s day off between the Worcester shows and the final three nights at MSG. I know a lot of folks in the crowd were running on fumes by the fourth straight night, so it doesn’t take an expert in sleep science to hypothesize how the band felt.

G is for Golden Second Set – My how the span of one set and a couple unpopular song choices can change the consensus. The second set on New Years Eve contained a hard hitting setlist, the years quintessential new cover tune in Golden Age, six different segues between songs, and a Sneakin’ Sally. Looking only at set two in isolation, it’s almost impossible to imagine what could prompt fans to walk away unsatisfied. Then again, nobody ever claimed Phish fans were an easy lot to please.

H is for Hot Mike’s – We had a feeling that a memorable Mike’s Groove was on tap this year after it was mysteriously absent from the MSG segment of the holiday run last year. We didn’t get the big one on New Years that we’d hoped for, but the version on 12/29 certainly didn’t disappoint. The high energy interplay in Weekapaug was probably the best of 3.0, the Chalkdust after Mike’s took everyone by surprise, and the fast segue into Hydrogen was stylish, unexpected, and well-executed.

I is for I Feel Good about Hood – Among the many highlights of the December 28th show, a highly memorable Harry Hood stood out, not only due for the hair-raising ending we’ve all been waiting for, but also for it’s comeback bout heroics. For the first six rounds or so, Harry seemed a step behind and headed for lackluster finish, but in the end he rallied the crowd and delivered that long-awaited knockout blow.

J is for Jaded Vets – It’s a valid question to ask if longtime Phish fans have developed unreasonable expectations. The band may not have been the hottest its ever been toward the end of the run, but they still went far beyond anything 99% of bands around the world did anywhere else over New Years. They played nine sets of music over four consecutive nights without repeating a song, executed massive scale concert theatrics, and provided some big musical highlights.

K is for Killer Whale – In the effects department, we did see Trey dial up his trusty old delay loop to signal the introduction of Gotta Jiboo, but the infamous whale call (aka, the Digitech Whammy) was nowhere to be found.

L is for Lack of Bustouts – Lifeboy and Glide were welcome treats, but in the past Phish has always thrown long dormant tunes from their massive catalog into NYE Run setlists. Guess we’ll have to wait ’till next year for that Lushington we’ve been chasing.

M is for Missing Chemistry – After the first two shows of the run set things on course for another amazing holiday run, something went south. It’s hard to pinpoint it, but the chemistry on stage as well as between the band and fans seemed a little off starting right from the start on the 30th.

N is for Not Missing Much by Watching at Home – Not only did watching the stream provide the comforts of one’s own couch, toilet, and refrigerator, but the Live Phish team did a fantastic job filling the intermissions with interesting segments like a behind the scenes look at MSG and the photos lining the halls on the walk to the stage. On New Years Eve, they had some pretty humorous screen shots as well like this one here.

O is for Odd Song Placements – The list of oddly placed songs is long and spans from “pleasant surprises” (the first Free ever to open a show, a second song YEM, or a Sloth opener), to “mediocre at best” (Caspian as the second song in the first set and BDTNL third), to “abysmal” (Alaska and Wading in the Velvet Sea late in the third set on New Years Eve). Sometimes spontaneity can make a show, whereas other times it disrupts the flow.

P is for Piper – The NYE Run may have been light on exploratory jams, but you can’t dog the Piper from December 30th. All four members of Phish teamed up to knock the lengthy jam out of the park, complete with an otherworldly display of LD Chris Kuroda’s handiwork.

Q is for the Question that Will Live on Forever – Why exactly did Phish opt to play Alaska and Wading in the Velvet Sea at the end of the third set during a New Years Eve show? That, my friends, will be a question that fans speculate about for years to come. Sure, some people will say, “It’s their band, they can play whatever they want,” but you have to know that Phish is keenly aware of which songs are their crowd-pleasers are and which songs are their stinkers. Every band knows that about themselves. If you think that they’ve never noticed the bathrooms fill up during the ballads, you‘re dreaming. It’s a fact. Anyway, these two songs certainly shouldn’t make or break the run, especially after two great shows, an the amazing gag production, and a great second set on New Years Eve, but someday I’d love to know why it happened.

R is for Renovation – We all heard the horror stories leading into the run about how bad the “new” MSG would be for the Phish shows, but thankfully those fears were unfounded. While it was nice to walk around the interior of the lower bowl pre-renovation, it was also nice to have clean bathrooms, large corridors, more food options (if you were in the part that was renovated) and Sixpoint on tap.

S is for the Streets of Cairo – An ongoing theme in 2011, Trey worked Streets of Cairo (a.k.a., “There’s a place a France”) teases into jams for both Halley’s Comet and Tweezer on multiple occasions. The use of the Cairo theme yielded particularly great results during Tweezer, which holds up more and more as you go back and re-listen to it. Everybody complimented it immediately, but in retrospect, this version holds up with some of the best versions of 3.0.

T is for The Sloth is a Hard Song to Dance To – Anyone who hasn’t caught Sloth live in a while got a pleasant reminder of how some Phish’s more ambitious material can mess with you while trying to dance. You can’t just mail it on Sloth. Like Split Open and Melt, Rift, or even Sparkle, it’s one of those songs that requires some customized moves to fit the odd rhythms.

U is for Upside Down – In our New Years preview, we mentioned that over the course of Phish holiday runs, the 28th has never been considered the consensus best show of the run and the 29th has only been considered the best once in 1996. Oddly enough, this year the 28th seemed to be the clear favorite on account of the heavy emphasis on improvisation, while the 29th is widely considered a close second.

V is for Vultures – If the song history for Vultures from is accurate, the song Vultures and its placement in the first set of the 30th served as direct foreshadowing of what was to come from Phish fans in the next two days and beyond.

With their clear reference to timing, expectations, and those expectations not being met, the lyrics of “Vultures” appear to be an indictment of the dissatisfied Phish fan. Too often the anger, greed, and delusion of the fan unhappy with the length of a given song, setlist, or show is manifest in an irrational feeling of being somehow cheated by the band. This ungratefulness must wear thin at times. In a broader sense, “Vultures” reflects the impending death of anything. Whether it be a job, a relationship, a way of life, or a really good show, when the end is near, the signal is clear. At times we can all see the vultures moving in. Clearly, based on one’s perspective, this can be a good thing or a bad thing.

W is for Weather – Outside of a cold first night, the weather in New York City was unseasonably mild on December 29 – 31. While you’ll never confuse NYC in December for Miami, the relatively warm weather was much appreciated by the fans.

X is for the Extraterrestrial Gag – As part of a long-running history of presenting a special theatrical production alongside the music during New Years Eve show, Phish set the bar ever higher this year with one of the most complex yet. As hinted at in the posters for the MSG shows, Phish used the new song Steam as its “vehicle” and both band and fans were lifted off the ground and up to the rafters in the steam. Lyrically, the song exudes an interesting discussion given its afterlife and otherworldly connotations. This year’s production was so good, it feels wrong to call it a “gag“.

Y is for YEMSG – YEMSG is more than just a convenient little rhyme. YEM has been played eight times at MSG, which is tied in a dead heat with David Bowie for the most played song at the venue Billy Joel once deemed “The Holy Temple of Rock n’ Roll.” This year Phish took everyone by surprise by not only dropping a big YEM early in the run, but also early in the show when it popped up in the second song slot of the first set on the 29th.

Z is for Zoot Suit – In the midst of reminiscing about the new years gag or griping about the song selection, everybody forgot to give kudos to Mike on his New Year’s Eve jacket. Never one to shy away from a little pageantry, Mike adorned a slick new drape that looked like it came either straight off the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club or off the back of the drum major in a high school marching band.

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5 Responses

  1. Nice review! Nailed it. As fans we are the vultures and expect WAY to much. 100 things were perfect phish and 10 things were off. I will take that ratio any day. Im a “jaded” vet but Ive come down off my high horse since fall of 2010. I go in with no expectations and it makes for a much better over all experience. To ALL “jaded” vets: Shut the FUCK UP ALREADY! You are worse than the noob asking “what is the bass players name ” in the middle of a sick cities jam. Seriously I would much rather sit with them then listen to all the bitching!

  2. As a former jaded vet, I agree with the previous poster. I had a blast at all three of the shows I attended this year … only to come home and be told by many others who DID NOT ATTEND how bad the shows sucked. I like Alaska, and was totally psyched to hear it. I don’t care it if makes me non-hetty.

  3. K is for Killer Whale: Trey uses the same pedal (Digitech Whammy II) for both the digital delay loop in Jiboo that everyone loves and for the dreaded Whale Call that most people hate. The Jiboo sound is a different setting on the Whammy, and, of course it is looped, but it’s the Whale Call pedal. He also used it for the greatly missed funk sirens of 97-98 and the spooky introduction to Ghost that they used to do in 98.

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