When Phish set up shop in New York last week for New Year's, there was a lot of talk about city Stop and Frisk program, warnings to fans to be mindful when hanging out outside Madison Square Garden. And while those admonitions proved to be prescient, the most pressing thing on everybody's mind was what stunt the band would be attempting to pull off this year for its 30th Anniversary. There was talk of Gamehendge, perhaps another cover set or maybe even Fishman flying through the arena in a wingsuit, but when the truck started to drive out into the crowd, we all knew we were in for something very special. Here are the best moments leading up to and including the Phish New Year's Eve celebration for its 2013 winter run.
10. "Wolfman's Brother" - MSG, 12/28/13 Page McConnell took the lead with the intro, causing Trey and Mike to quickly jump back to their mic stands and almost miss their cues, and they were off to a fun and playful start. The fuzzy, funky jam kicked off with Trey and Page trading licks back and forth, when suddenly this dirty screaming echo came from Trey as he leaned over to play with the Echoplex, a tape delay effect within arm's reach. The audience roared approvingly along with the tone until Anastasio went back to a clearer sustain and a shredding rock solo. Pure, unadulterated rock poured out onto the crowd as the song went back into the final refrain with the guys building to a thrilling crescendo.
9. "Down with Disease" - MSG, 12/29/13 The band came back on stage for set two, tinkering with their instruments until a pretty little ambient jam came out, after which Trey told the crowd "Thank you. We wrote that." The familiar swirl of "Down with Disease" then began, causing the usual crowd explosion, as the guys went into the jam in full, upbeat rock and roll style, with Fishman just never letting up on the cymbals. Trey made things a little darker, quickly strumming the same chord before dropping down into space and echo land. Despite it all being improvisational, it sounded compositional and intentional, as if they were playing something that was cut from the Siket disc. Gordon let loose a couple bass bombs that shook the building before the band moved into a happier, major-key jam that built up and built up. This version was noted for them actually ending the song with Trey transposing the melody to the right key just when the final refrain began.
8. "Chalkdust Torture" - MSG, 12/30/13 While the blissful "Camden Chalkdust" played during the 30th Anniversary video montage was the best version of this song for the run, this version was still a beautiful, swelling rager that had the audience punching fists in the sky. Gorgeous sustain came from Trey as he reached higher and higher in melodic ecstasy. The band stuck to the fast-paced groove, with twinkly piano notes interplaying with Fishman's cymbals while each measure building before dropping into atonal madness that sounded as if it was going to sizzle out, but then it swooped back up into total bliss.
7. "Simple>Harry Hood" - MSG, 12/30/13 "Simple" at Madison Square Garden is always awesome, just because of everyone screams their heads off at the word "skyscrapers," but this version really stood out for its extra high energy and sick psychedelic segue into "Harry Hood." The band took things all the way down to a lull, swooping notes swirl around like whale calls as delicate guitar notes created a blissful, sweet atmosphere that "Harry Hood" suddenly came seeping out of without missing a beat.
6. "Light" - MSG, 12/31/13 This song started off with some cringe-worthy flubbing from Trey, but he pulled it together and once they got past the lyrics, the band locked in. On a night where the focus was old-school tones, instruments and compositions, "Light" stood out as the big jam of the night. Things got funky with Page on the clavinet, while Fishman and Trey had some great bouncy interplay that went in a really upbeat, tropical direction. When Gordon took center stage with a bubbly bass line and things began to grow a level higher, the band had liftoff.
5. "It's Ice" - MSG, 12/29/13 When McConnell stood up to play the clavinet, you knew it was on. This short, sweet jam was an awesome little surprise. It was funky as hell with a beat that forced you to get down so hard you risked injuring yourself. A wave of funk poured out as Gordon threw his own fuzzy funk bombs down, while Trey employed the Echoplex again and sprayed sonic laser blasts at the audience.
4. "Carini" MSG, 12/29/13 The Year of Carini continued as the final version of 2013 proved to be a phenomenal, dark and wild ride that could stand strong against comparisons of last year's dark and tribal episode. The Echoplex was employed again from the get-go, sending hypnotic pulses out while fans screamed their fool heads off, hinting at the craziness to come. As the guys dropped into the jam, Gordon's bass plopped raindrop bass notes while the others kept things fairly light. McConnell brought things up a notch with a slithery melody on the synthesizer before moving over to the organ while Trey vamped some mean sounding chords which suddenly made the jam funky and wild. A crashing organ solo sent the whole thing to the moon, until a sudden extra loud pounding of the beat from Fishman brought things down, leading right into a wooing situation, before fading out.
3. "Walls of the Cave" - MSG, 12/29/13 This version of "Walls of the Cave" was a barnburner that was note perfect, with vocal harmonies that were on point and poignant. The "Listen to the Silent Trees" portion of the song exploded in a cacophony of crashes, snares and descending piano lines, causing everyone to dance in a feverish frenzy. Trey absolutely shredded on the guitar solo, when he wasn't popping a balloon with his guitar at just the right moment. The people who think Phish sounds like boring elevator music need to hear this; its straight fire.
2. "Steam" - MSG, 12/28/13 "Steam" is arguably the best newer song that Phish has written in the past few years, and this version was a serious psychedelic situation. Fishman drummed his little hands off back there, as Trey took a more staccato approach on guitar before the band veered off into a gorgeous, otherworldly direction. A little mini "Tweezer" sounding chord progression ascended before Fishman dominated the beat, with screaming sounds from the Echoplex causing things to take on a very Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii/Echoes atmosphere. The band just soared higher and higher, making hauntingly gorgeous music.
1. Second Set, MSG NYE, 12/31/13 Speculation over what the NYE gag would be abounded before this year's 30th anniversary New Year's Eve show, with many thinking Phish would play Gamehendge, as that's what people think every year. Others thought the band might play a cover album, since it had played its own music on Halloween rather than paying tribute to somebody else's tunes. Back in October, set designer David Gallo, who designed past NYE gags, posted a circle with various markings and a caption asking for help building a time machine.
As songs from 1983 were played, the first set break started with a video shown on the center scoreboard of thespian extraordinaire John Fishman fixing up the old JEMP equipment truck (well, a replica). Once he got it running, he passed out while driving, and went under an overpass, ripping the top of the truck off, and this all happened to the sounds of "2001."
Just then, an actual truck came out on Fishman side of the stage on the floor, and the top ripped off revealing what appears to be instruments inside. The truck drove through the center space in general admission until it was right smack dab in the center of the crowd. The band walked out on the floor, climbed up the truck bed and through an escape hatch in the top into a makeshift version of what it looked like when they played back in 1983. Awesome!
Hockey sticks were rigged as mic stands, and all the instruments and amplifiers the band used were actual vintage stuff, complete with cheap lighting that only half worked. The guys kicked things off with "Glide," and the crowd roared with approval. Tom Marshall had tweeted earlier that they would play four nights with no covers, and right he was. "Llama" came next and set the crowd into a frenzy that went straight into explosion when the familiar guitar chords of "Colonel Forbin's Ascent" began, causing everyone to absolutely lose it.
Trey had obviously been practicing hard for this, and his old guitar tone sounded amazing in the round. After finishing off with "Fly Famous Mockingbird," the sexy cool sound of "Fuck Your Face" took off, followed by a "Reba" that was highlighted by Chris Kuroda filling the whole arena with a wash of rainbow colors, while a single light shone from the truck to the sky.
The familiar notes of "Icculus" began, once again sending audience decibel levels to all time highs. The narration was particularly poignant at this time; it could almost be read as a message to the people who complained about "Wingsuit" -- or it could just be "Icculus" as usual. Hard to say. When it comes to Phish, the joke is usually on you.
Crowd favorite "Lizards" had everyone dancing and singing along, and the set ended with a dark and charging "Split Open and Melt." The band ended with a picture of a "Save the Date 2043" card, showing that they have no plans of stopping.
Personal Bias: I wasn't even supposed to be at NYE. After watching them play the first two nights, though, I frantically booked flights and found tickets. For some reason, going to NYE was easier to plan at the last second than if I had decided to go months ago. Go figure. Random Note: They dropped the price of the awesome/hideous Lightness shirt by ten bucks. I've got all three now. By The Way: It sounded like there were two drummers in parts of the arena behind and on the sides of the stage. As a friend stated, "Madison Square Garden did not surrender to the flow."
Continue on for the best non-musical moment from Phish's NYE MSG run
Green Glowstick Suit Guy Glowstick suit guys are always a fun visual at shows, and this year, one fan really outdid himself, constantly dancing in his cool fluid motion in the front row of the seats behind the stage. In real life, his glow stick man pattern on the suit created an optical illusion that made him look like he was standing on an extra close platform just over Trey's shoulder.
The person in charge of the webcast really used him to full effect, crossfading slowly between shots of him and closeups of the band in that hilarious psychedelic way that is popular in Grateful Dead videos. Green glow stick suit guys, keep doing you.
BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS - The twelve best moments from Phish's fall tour - The twenty best versions of Phish classics - Phish's twenty most interesting covers - Phish's ten most overlooked jams - From Phish to Floyd, the ten best light shows - The ten biggest jam-band scene stereotypes
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