To end 2011, Phish returned to New York City’s Madison Square Garden for a four-night stand that marked their second New Year’s Eve year in a row (and their sixth overall) at the venue. With memories of a very impressive run to end 2010 at MSG, as well as to start 2011, with the first-ever show on New Year’s Day, things seemed to really be clicking for the band. Throughout 2011, they made huge strides in playing and jamming as the year stretched onward, which all led up to this standalone New Year’s Run following no fall tour this year. What were the results? Anti-climatic at best musically, but still a lot of fun overall.
[Photo by Michael Stein]
Now, let me say something and be very clear: there is absolutely no place in the universe I’d rather be than at a Phish show. The vibe, the ENERGY, the people, the ritual are all things I live for and have toured the country to experience for many years. But, sometimes expectations exceed the performance, which seemingly happened this past week for many in attendance (and some watching at home, as the shows were broadcast live via pay-per-view streams). Were there standout moments? Absolutely! The problem was, they were far less frequent than we have come to expect from Phish, on New Year’s runs, and especially at Madison Square Garden. But, on the flip side, did I enjoy these shows as much as many other barnburners of 2011 and years past? Definitely. Just for different reasons than the music alone.
One’s experience at a show depends on several factors including who you are with, the location of your seats, what you possibly ingested and so on. All of those factors play into the overall experience. But it is the music that is ultimately the catalyst which allows for us to enter the portal of the divine. The single biggest reason, besides seeing friends of old this run, that I thoroughly enjoyed myself is easy to explain. It seemed that everywhere I turned, even during a weird song placement or sloppy version of a song I had seen live 100 times, I watched the newer groups of fans soaking it all in and enjoying it tenfold. That – made me smile. To be able to hear the song you came to see – whether it be Farmhouse or Ghost – and rock out in your own world for the first time is a priceless experience. But, that still doesn’t hide the fact that the band members’ hearts didn’t fully seem into it this year.
The 28th saw the first-ever Free opener in Phish History and a with a well-played version of Glide right behind it, the band set the tone for a very high energy night. An early first set Cities was the first true highlight, with bassist Mike Gordon leading the way out of the typical space. But, it was simple things like the mid-first set placement of Contact (which is usually reserved for late second set and more typically encore slot), that summed up a majority of the entire stand: weird. Whether it was placement, execution or reeling in the potential for greatness, the band was playing things safe and hardly pushing the envelope.
A scorching Birds of a Feather, Carini > Tweezer onslaught began set two of the first show, while a fiery Rock-n-Roll and majestic Harry Hood rounded out the meat of the set. To further set the “weird” mood for the remainder, the band offered up a triple encore of a short Tube, Rocky Top and Tweezer Reprise. Overall, a pretty solid opening frame on a night that often served as a warm up show for the band. The problem was, they did little from here to build on it, and by the time the run was over, many fans were calling the 28th the best overall show of the four.
The 29th opened with a great first frame – more high energy and in my eyes, a great setlist. A second song You Enjoy Myself again seemed out of place, but was a welcome treat by fans and garnered “Ooh’s” and “Ahh’s” from the fans when it started. An absolutely scorching Funky Bitch was a set highlight, with Page McConnell absolutely wreaking havoc on the upper parts of his keys. Roses are Free was another welcome treat, as Halley’s Comet and Run Like an Antelope closed out one of the better sets of the week, and carried over some of the higher energy from the previous night.
[Photo by Michael Stein]
The second set was notable for the Crosseyed & Painless opener before a slightly out of left-field Simple, which melted sublimely into the first Lifeboy in two years, also last played during the 2009 New Year’s run in Miami. A ferocious Mike’s Song, one of my favorite in recent memory, awkwardly landed in Chalkdust Torture, before transitioning into a faster-paced, more upbeat version of the normal soft-as-a-down-pillow-landing-pad of I am Hydrogen. A truly unique segue that will stand out in the memory of those who saw it live led the way to a funky, driving Weekapaug Groove, Character Zero and Loving Cup encore to close us out in arena rocking style. All in all, at this point of the run I still had some high hopes for the final two performances, having found ENERGY and some interesting ideas and efforts, if not execution, from the band through the first two nights.
PAGE TWO = 12/30 and 12/31