This week, in the midst of Phish’s NYE Run, featured columnist Brian Bavosa looks at the Phishtory of Madison Square Garden in NYC…
The Mecca. As long as the epicenter of the universe, New York City, has been bustling, there has seemingly been “The Garden.” Originally established in 1879 at 26th and Madison (MSG I), the original venue hosted events much like its predecessors, including boxing and track cycling – very popular during that period. The second incarnation of The Garden (MSG II) was built and held such events as the Democratic National Convention. However, MSG II did not become profitable until around 1920, when the esteemed promoter, Tex Rickard took the reigns and focused on prizefights, bike races as well as the circus – which still take place in the current MSG today.
This led to MSG III on 8th Avenue between 49th St. and 50th St., which was dubbed ‘The House That Tex Built,” after Rickard, who continued to promote like no other. Unfortunately, after World War II and throughout the Fifties, economic and social situations caused a decline in certain events, eventually leading to the building of the current Garden (MSG IV) in 1968, which is the one that stands today atop Penn Station between 7th and 8th Avenues, smack dab in the heart of NYC.
As much as the current MSG is home to Patrick Ewing, Mark Messier’s Stanley Cup Miracle in ’94, Ali/Frazier’s legendary prizefight in ’71 and Larry Johnson’s 4-point play, it has also become quite the home for Phish, since first playing there in 1994. (Much like this venue was for The Grateful Dead). I figured that on today’s off-day of their five-night, New Year’s Run, including their first-ever show on New Year’s Day, that this would be a great opportunity to not only glance at MSG’s history as a whole, but specifically focus on the Phishtory The Garden has witnessed throughout the years.
The band’s first-ever venture was a 12.30 show in ’94. It saw a pretty straightforward, rocking first set, with a blown-open second frame that boasted a half-hour Tweezer and acoustic Blue and Lonesome. A solid show stuck between the madness of 12.29 and the flying Hot Dog of 12.31 in Boston, this show simply taught the band what it was like to grace the stage at “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
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’95 saw Phish return for a two-night stand, culminating on their first New Year’s Eve at MSG. While NYE garners most of the praise from this run, and is often talked about as the “best show ever,” 12.30 had some huge moments as well. In fact, 12.30 is my personal favorite show I have ever seen the band play out of well over 200. The clear highlight of this evening is the soaring, majestic Harry Hood, which is also my favorite version of all time. The show’s first set also saw The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, a smoking 2001 > Suzy Greenberg, and a scorching David Bowie, a song that would become a staple at MSG over the coming years.
But, undeniably, the New Year’s show was indeed the goods. A rare Col. Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird,complete with a guest spot by lyricist Tom Marshall, showed the band’s tongue-in-cheek humor that defines their NYE pranks. A huge second set that saw a revival of Halloween’s Drowned, a spectacular Lizards, and a second-set ending Mike’s Song and Digital Delay Loop Jam that set the stage for in my opinion, Phish’s greatest post-midnight moment for Set Three: Auld Lang Syne > Weekapaug Groove.
This Weekapaug is simply incredible. It goes in many different directions and sees Page McConnell take the lead at certain times before landing into another Halloween nod, The Who’s Sea and Sand, showcasing McConnell’s skills. Toss in a a gigantic You Enjoy Myself and an ultra-rare encore of a break-neck paced Johnny B. Goode and MSG, New Year’s run and 1995 solidified Phish’s footing in the Big Apple for years to come as the “not-to-miss” shows.
’96 was a bit more subdued, as the band’s stop was a two-night stand during October of their Fall Tour. A first night semi-bust out of the first Ginseng Sullivan in over 100 shows and again culminating with a Weekapuag Groove on the second night that saw the band joined onstage by “Day-Glo” dancers and Mimi Fishman, this memorable version has been referred to as the Freekapaug Groove. An encore of All Along the Watchtower that featured Merl Saunders and Buddy Miles was a real treat to cap off a great stand.
The band’s second New Year’s Eve run saw arguably, the best back-to-back shows I have ever seen the band play on 12.29 and 12.30. 12.29 was the quintessential two-set, straight ahead, standard rock show. An early Crossroads allowed Trey to shred early and a crushing Fluffhead was delivered with conviction and to perfection (listen to this version if you wonder why they didn’t play it during 2.0) capped off the first set. The second set though, was one of “those” sets. From start to finish, the 29th’s 2nd frame was on fire, plain and simple. Down with Disease > David Bowie > Possum, complete with a Blues Brothers’ Can’t Turn You Loose Jam, was an absolute onslaught. Toss in a funkalicious Tube and a set-closing YEM, and you had the standard fare for ’97: a five-song set that was relentless. This show is a big go-to for me. Everything is on point.
The 30th, while being one of my top shows as well, was the complete opposite of the 29th. It focused on the band’s humor, with a long narration in a second set Harpua that set up the band’s New Year’s prank the following night. However, the clear highlight of this show in my mind was my favorite version ever (yes, another top version!) of the 2nd set opening AC/DC Bag, which featured amazing clav work by McConnell. This version is a MUST hear…
December 30th’s show opened with the uber-bustout of Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, a tune not played in nearly a decade. The band also played an extended, 4-song encore, complete with the first Carini in the U.S., and a Sneakin’ Sally reprise to cap off a huge, huge night. Dare I say, epic.
The 30th was also of note because of the length of the show. The second set ended so late, that when the band emerged for the encore, Trey said they had broken curfew and would “keep playing until New Year’s Eve,” making this one of the longest two set shows in the band’s career.
NYE was a standard show and featured some highlights, like the 2001 > Auld Lang Syne and encore of New York, New York, but this run will always be solidified in my mind by the 29th and 30th. Two prime examples of how this band can deliver their best efforts – in completely different ways – on back to back nights.
The tradition continued in ’98 with a New Year’s run that saw all four traditional shows at a single venue: The Garden. The band obviously felt at home here by this point in their career and made the most of this stand. The 28th saw the stage decorated with flowers and sculptures, and saw the band deliver stellar versions of Carini > Wolfman’s Brother, along with the treat of Quinn the Eskimo.
12.29 was again one of the band’s best efforts at MSG, from start to finish, especially Set 2. A show opening Rock and Roll, again the first version since Halloween ’98 and the Velevt Underground’s Loaded cover album, the band set the mood for this one. A bombastic Free, huge and spacey combo of Limb by Limb and 2001 led the charge. The first Divided Sky encore in forever gave one of the loudest cheers in MSG for Phish that I can ever remember.
The 30th and 31st also had their fair share of great moments. NYE opened up with Prince’s 1999 with the same dancers who graced the stage for the ’96 Freekapaug Groove. The band nailed this cover and the Garden was rocking like none other knowing that their favorite band was telling them that “tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999!” A huge Tweezer > Cities was also another moment that sticks out for me, before the band’s epic New Year’s stand (3rd in 4 years) came to a close on yet another stellar year for the band.
Between their last gig here in ’98, Phish had broken up and when they announced their return, where else could they choose besides MSG? On New Year’s Eve? Nowhere. Exactly. As the notes from Phish.net recall: “The pre-show music alluded to the end of the hiatus with such songs as the theme from Welcome Back Kotter, Feels Like the First Time, Back in the Saddle Again, Reunited, and The Boys are Back in Town. The final selection was Foreplay/Long Time, during which time the band took the stage.”
This show will always be remembered for the opening Piper, whose build up provided a build up that matched and surpassed any cheer I have ever heard at MSG- ever, for any event. It was the energy of every past New Year’s show combined and exploding during the “return.” Truly a magical moment in Phishtory.
After yet another break up, nearly five year break, and another triumphant return earlier in the year, it was a welcome return to MSG for Phish in ’09 – seven long years since they last graced the stage. 12.2 witnessed the mega-bustout of Frank Zappa’s Peaches En Regalia, which was the first since 1999. But, this run — and the magic of Madison (Magical!) Square Garden as whole — came to life during the end of set 1 on 12.4 during First Tube. MSG and Phish has always been unmatched by any other venue I have ever been in for one reason: THE ENERGY. Like NYE’s of past, like the return show and Piper, this First Tube rocketed high into the stratosphere, with the crowd responding with beyond deafening screams, while Trey jumped around like a mad-man. A poignant encore of ’09 Halloween’s cover album (see a theme here?), Shine a Light was a perfectly fitting exit for Phish’s return to glory at their old stomping grounds of MSG in the month of December.
So, this sets the stage for Phish to ring in their sixth New Year’s Eve at MSG, play their first ever New Year’s Day show and surely craft some more “magical” moments that will live on in Phishtory for years to come.
Happy New Year, everyone!