Phish @ Madison Square Garden, December 28 – 31
Words: Adam Schon
This being the third consecutive New Year’s Run of shows at Madison Square Garden, and after last year’s generally poorly perceived run, there was a feeling that perhaps Phish had gotten too comfortable with this convenient end-of-year string of shows, and that the Garden, despite its legendary and unparalleled energy, was tapped out of Phish magic for the moment. Add to this the pressure of the last shows being yet another jaw-dropping, mind-blowing three-night stand at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Denver, the expectations for all involved were incredibly high.
[Photo by Paul Citone]
But from the very first set on Friday night, the 28th, to the end of the third set on New Year’s Eve, Phish delivered a visceral, stunning run of shows that at points showed off all of their musical strengths which had been honed to a razor’s edge on this year’s Summer Tour. What made this year so much better than last year’s MSG run was a well-balanced menu of shred-your-face song-based rocking; deep, dark exploratory jamming of the order not yet seen before and sets that flowed well with (overall) solid song selections and placement. That’s not to say that the shows were flawless or that everything went off like a rocket, yet judged as a whole experience, one came away from this New Year’s Run with a strong sense that Phish is happier than they’ve ever been and at the peak of their musical powers.
Guitarist Trey Anastasio made it clear he was as excited as the audience as he opened Friday night with a high energy kick-start of Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan followed by the almost always paired together Moma Dance and Funky Bitch. What really ignited this show was an incendiary Tube in which all four members seemed to lock in to the jam and emphatically pushed each other forward through the funk section. Kill Devil Falls is one of those newer songs that seems to win over jaded and newbie fans alike with its infectious, hoe-down vibe. Free seems to have settled into a new home in first sets this year, and this version was particularly crunchy. But what happened in the Wolfman’s jam, so early in the run, may just have been the creative catalyst that gave Phish the confidence to push forward and explore more peaks throughout the stand.
As the players laid down a funky groove, Trey seamlessly teased the notes of Little Drummer Boy, and the audience sang its hearty approval. As only Phish can, they effortlessly went from the melody of Drummer Boy and then dropped right back into the Wolfman’s groove without missing a beat.
MKDevo 12/28 Playlist
Picking right up from that immensely impressive closer, Trey ripped open the chords to Tweezer and the Garden spaceship took off for the longest single jam of the New Year’s Run (close to 21 minutes). Always one of their most significant jam vehicles, this Tweezer was a showcase for 2012 Phish: all four members morphing into their instruments, listening intently to one another, pushing, pulling, reacting instinctually and ultimately somehow playing together as one driving sonic unit. When they reached the crescendo peak of the jam and Kuroda flared the floor with a massive plume of hot white light, it was clear that this was one of the best jams of 2012.
The Little Drummer Boy jam in the Wolfman’s was an inspiring treat, but the way that Phish literally infused a second-set Twist with the song is simply unbelievable, and listening to the download is the only way to do it justice. Phish’s intellectual and musical prowess is most clearly on display when they are not only crushing one of their own songs, but when they lay another musical piece (usually a cover) on top and alternate back and forth seamlessly, showing off their harmonic dexterity. This “Little Drummer Twist” was a prime 2012 example of this. It is also worth noting that Trey shredded the ending of the Fluffhead as if it might be the last one, and the band was so in sync and locked in together that in the last section of Bowie, they all turned on a dime and repeated a riff that had come out of the jam segment of the song that was completely different and decidedly not your typical Bowie ending. Also, the omission of Tweeprise as an encore was very conspicuous and tipped many off to the possibility of it being the first song to rock the new year.
 Little Drummer Boy jam.
 Little Drummer Boy teases and quotes.
[All Setlists via Phish.net]
This Saturday night first set was the only full frame that could be considered a throwaway, as it seemed flat and sluggish, without the distinct energy of night before. First set openers are a prickly issue, and Crowd Control just doesn’t seem to get the job done (despite the fact that they almost always use it as an opener). While the unexpected Rock and Roll showed a bit of life, this set just felt like everyone was Wading in a Velvet Sea. There was one inexplicable moment during the otherwise standard Reba, when even before the jam began to build, the MSG audience literally roared all at once to a deafening decibel. Even the band seemed confused by the affirmation.
MKDevo 12/29 Playlist
As they usually do in these situations, the quartet bounced back in the second set with an inspired dance-a-thon led by Trey’s wailing guitar. Golden Age > Waves was simply gorgeous, an effervescent and flowing combination that seemed destined to happen. Trey’s searing guitar leads on Caspian had the entire Garden bowing their heads to the Prince. While sometimes Boogie On can feel like a rote pedestrian exercise for the fans, this version popped off like a champagne bottle. Another signal that Phish is at the top of their game is when they drop-stop in the middle of a song and each take a jam solo, as they did to fantastic effect in this Boogie On. 46 Days is their most straight forward rock song, and it always brings the house down, especially at MSG (as it did at last year’s NYE show). This one brought the Garden to its knees and was the perfect song to close the set and walk off. While the triple encore was a little uneven, First Tube was a fitting end to a second set of heavy dancing.
 Follow the Yellow Brick Road tease
 Susie Q quote from Fishman
After last year’s jumbled and incoherent December 30th show, it was clear on Sunday that something BIG had to happen before we headed into the theatrics of the NYE show. In 2009, Miami’s penultimate show of the year set the 12/30 bar mighty high with a juggernaut second set that opened with a breakout of Sand, Curtain With > Lifeboy and an extended Back on the Train, among other highlights. The first set of 2012’s 12/30 performance started out solidly enough but really picked up steam (coincidentally) in the vigorous jam of Back on the Train. Ride Captain Ride blew the roof off of the Bill Graham Civic this summer, mostly due to the San Francisco Bay reference, but the cover just doesn’t have any potency when compared to Walk Away, for example, as a first set rocker. The rest of the set flowed nicely, buoyed by the band’s collective energy and despite any setlist surprises.
MKDevo’s 12/30 Playlist
Mike was the last to step on stage for Set Two, and they all glared at him as he strapped on his bass and engaged the other-worldy funnel effect that signifies the opening of Down With Disease. Since Disease was the song that followed Auld Lang Syne last year, it was a relief that they wouldn’t repeat it in the same slot this time around. What transpired in the next 43 minutes, during only three songs, could not have been easily predicted or hoped for. As the structure of Down With Disease faded into the jam, we were led by our favorite band into literally uncharted territory. It was as if Trey’s shiny embossed guitar was our only guide as we descended into… “The Dark Passage.”
The Disease jam got so dark it bore no resemblance to any other DWD jam and the band just kept exploring, plummeting to lower depths. It got downright scary until finally they soft landed into the intro of 20 Years Later, and no other Phish song would have fit better out of that jam. Perhaps the darkest song on the album Joy, this tune seemed to express in words what the jam that preceded it couldn’t. Only the second time played in 2012 (after the last set at Dick’s), 20 Years Later asserted itself in this very high profile slot as a wicked beast of a tune that embodies the new, darker edge of Phish 3.0.
[Photo by Paul Citone]
When Trey raged into the opening chords of Carini, it was obvious that the deep space exploration was far from over. Carini has always been one of their darkest vehicles, and even has an element of anger to it, which Phish songs rarely ever have. This jam seemed to go even farther than the Disease as it led into metal and futuristic soundscapes. Carini from The Garden truly must be heard to be believed as Phish took MSG to a downright evil and nasty place on 12/30. Only when they were completely ready to resurface did Trey finally break the dark spell with their ode to friendship, Backwards Down The Number Line. An inspired Julius led to a breath-taking Slave, with every tap on a cymbal and pluck of a string seemingly in its perfect place. Equally as spectacular was the Harry Hood encore, these two utterly uplifting signature set pieces offered up to balance the dark weight laid on the audience in the first half of the set. Show of Life was an appropriate closer to a concert in which Phish showed their fans a place they didn’t know existed, and it was stunning.
 DEG tease from Trey.
 No “Myfe” ending.
 Woman from Tokyo tease; unfinished.
 Little Drummer Boy tease from Page.
12/31 – New Year’s Eve
Seeing Phish on New Year’s Eve, regardless of the year and how they’ve been playing, is one of the most fun things you can do on the planet. Because of their historical affection for theatrics, putting on a New Year’s Gag in a three-set show is right in their twisted, humor-infected wheelhouse. After last year’s heavy psychedelic and spiritual theme (aerial “souls” with smoke packs and strobe lights floated in the air above the crowd during the bluesy jam in Steam), it was clear from walking in MSG that the band had chosen a much lighter, sport-related motif. The entire floor and stage of the venue was covered in green astro-turf, there was a two-way ramp extension in front of the stage, and there were trees and shrubbery creating a garden-like landscape. Only at a NYE Phish concert would you see three hot girls in bikinis pretending to sunbathe on artificial turf.
MKDevo’s 12/31 Playlist
A theory quickly spread that all this gamesmanship and flora could mean the break-out of Gamehendge, but it was quickly abandoned when they opened with the sly cover of Garden Party, which partially explained the decorations. Trey really enjoyed playing the song Rift this summer, and this inspired version led into a fiery Sample that got the already oiled crowd even more lubed up. At several points during this first set, Trey was literally jumping up and down with excitement, which is a common sight on TAB Tour but much more rare with Phish. The Mike’s jam snarled and showed teeth before it blasted into the opening chords of Walk Away, a terrific segue and combination. Like the fantastic version on 1.1.11, the band killed the jam but curiously stopped abruptly before Fish belatedly began his intro to Weekapaug. Character Zero was a raucous closer to appease the excitable New Year’s crowd.
The second set started off vibrantly with the semi-rare Birds Of A Feather, which led into Ghost, the deepest and most satisfying jam of the night. With an eye on the approaching clock, Trey led the guys to a shimmering percussive peak, and then eased smoothly into another of their tour-tested jam vehicles, Piper. With all cylinders firing, the band launched forward like wild horses, as Kuroda spelled Phish in the lights. To complete a dream team of jamtastic songs, Trey muscled the power chords of Light, but it was hard not to think of the masterpiece they had previously dropped at Dick’s. There was no need for comparison as Page soon teased the opening of 2001, which is always a special treat on NYE. The middle jam actually had some funky atypical riffs from Trey and MSG surely blasted off from its momentum, but the days of super-extended, beyond-seven-minute 2001’s are gone for now. A forceful, dynamic version of YEM pleased the NY audience and set the stage for the final act.
The NYE set began with the band members riding up on golf carts and then hitting balls (specially made nerf-like golf balls as not to injure anyone) into the crowd. The whole gag had a loose, carefree vibe to it that added to its appeal; it was like hitting the links with Fishman and a case of beer in the cart. Party Time opened the set appropriately, followed by Kung and the “runaway golf cart marathon” line, with golf carts whizzing up and down the ramp as Trey shredded into the chords of Chalkdust. Of all the songs Phish has played leading into Midnight, the old classic rocker seemed to be the perfect exclamation point for the moment, and the refrain of, “Can’t this wait til I’m old, Can’t I live while I’m young?” right before Midnight was particularly on the money.
After the X’s and O’s during Auld Lang Syne, Tweeprise was the other perfect side to the New Year’s coin: it’s the most intense three minutes in all of Phish so it already has the bedlam of the New Year’s moment intrinsically built into it. With dancers, shooting canons, golf carts and vocalist Carrie Manolakos, this Tweezer Reprise brought the house down. A series of golf-related songs continued the New Year’s theme, with nine-minute upbeat versions of Sand and Wedge. The real surprise of the night that put it over the top was the cover of Steve Miller’s Fly Like An Eagle. Except for the very first “Tick-tock, de doo doo doo doo,” which Trey flubbed, they absolutely nailed this version and took the cover quite seriously. It also seemed especially appropriate for the moment because of the line, “Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin, into the future.” A wicked Wilson and an acapella rearranged version of Lawn Boy rounded out the amusement park ride of a set. Driver and a full metal version of Iron Man (they did a half-assed instrumental attempt at NYE Miami ’03) drove home the fun n’ golf theme to the bitter end, but they missed a huge opportunity to close the show with a perfect golf reference that was right under their nose: Loving Cup.
12/31 has almost always been the weakest show of the run for any number of various reasons. But this year was a rare exception to that rule, as Phish delivered a high-energy three-set throwdown with a light, positive vibe that kept the focus on everybody having fun as we rocked into the new year. Based on the passion with which all four members played, their song selections and the jovial nature of the NYE gag, the overall impression was that Phish is happier than they’ve ever been and that their strategy (light touring centered around the East Coast) is working. All of the complications and negatives that get in the way with a band like this have been removed and now they can just focus on the one thing that drives all of us to do this: the music.
Page mentioned during the encore that 2013 is the band’s 30th year together, and as we head into this epic Anniversary year, it’s hard not to consider that the Grateful Dead were also celebrating (without much fanfare) their 30th year in 1995 when Jerry Garcia passed away. The Dead played over 2,300 shows by touring incessantly, and they always rocked a New Year’s Run in the Oakland area. Phish has played roughly 1600+ shows but with much fewer tours, especially now with their set format of a (2-leg) Summer Tour plus a NYE run. There is no doubt that Phish’s precision and ratio of good shows versus poor shows is much higher than the GD’s. Although the entire format, infrastructure, touring pattern and vibe of the Phish show was designed and implemented first by the Dead, Phish has carried the torch and revised it for the new millennium. To get to 2013, Phish has made it through all of the pitfalls (legal troubles, drug problems, band unity, over-crowded entourage) that brought down the Dead and ultimately led to their demise. It seems that these two incredible American bands have come full circle yet again, but at this point, Phish is finally breaking away from their forefathers and into a new frontier as they explore their 30th year and beyond. Based on the tremendous leaps forward that were witnessed on Summer Tour (SPAC, Dick’s), and now this successful MSG run, it’s safe to say we have officially entered the Golden Age of Phish.
 Phish debut.
 Auld Lang Syne tease
 Birds of a Feather tease
 With Carrie Manolakos on vocals and backup singers.
 A Capella.
 First Phish performance in full.