Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Phish 12/31 Review: Garden Party

Last night at Madison Square Garden, Phish completed their 2012 New Year's run, ringing in 2013 with a show low on sonic exploration, but high on joy.  Upon my arrival, the stage was now blanketed with AstroTurf, accented by small trees and shrubs like the sidewalks of the Flower District a few blocks south.  While it was a sight to behold from section 116, I can imagine phans who had to look through fucking tree branches for the entire show were peeved.

The lights dimmed a little after 8:30, and Phish took their places amongst the foliage.  They started things off with Rick Nelson's "Garden Party," a first for the band, and a fun little welcome to the fans.  "You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself," went the lyrics, and this was the mentality that Phish applied to the three-set show.  Nelson actually wrote the song about being booed offstage at MSG for playing country music instead of his bread-and-butter '50s rock, but no one would be booing Phish offstage this night.  Using the nature scene around them as inspiration, they kept the organic sound going with "Possum" and "Roses Are Free," when fans hurled loads of rose petals onto the stage.  "Rift," "Sample in a Jar," and "Alaska" followed.  While one might normally accuse them of playing it too safe with this setlist, the precision and energy was excellent.  At this point, I wasn't thinking of Phish as the purveyors of hallucinatory jams, but as Phish, the terrific rock band.  You could've taken your parents to the first set and they'd have been into it.  It was as if you'd hired them to play your "garden party" and all the guests would say, "These guys are really good."  "Mike's Song" busted open that trunk of funk they packed for their trip to New York, segueing directly into the James Gang's "Walk Away" instead of the standard "Hydrogen."  One nastily funky "Weekapaug" came next.  I couldn't help but dance, even if the legroom between the seats was inexplicably less than I had the past two nights in 106.  Glowsticks rocketed through the air, and the band carried that swell of adrenaline into a cheer-inducing "Character Zero" to close the fun first set.
A golf cart rolled up the ramp in front of the stage, and a caddy and group of golfers stepped out.  They teed up some soft golf balls and hit some into the crowd.  Eventually they made their way to the platform behind the stage, dumped out a bucketful, and took to it driving range-style.  I was glad to have some set-break entertainment because I've been jealous hearing that people watching the stream get little video vignettes.
Phish returned to a crowd anxious to hear more of the mind-expanding improvisation demonstrated in 12/30's "Down with Disease" and "Carini."  "Birds of a Feather" started things off okay, but really served as a séance for "Ghost."  Wait!  Now?  A lot of people thought Phish would be saving this one for the NYE stunt, spelling out "MSG" over the course of three years.  Balloons with skulls and vampires had been floating around the Garden already, and I assumed they had escaped from the gigantic bags of inflatables above.  Oh, well.  "Ghost" gave way to "Piper," but the tempo seemed rushed.  "Light" could've been its savior, but Trey found some bad notes.  It seemed like there was no way out, but it was New Year's, so he teased "Auld Lang Syne," and the crowd roared.  Smart move, Trey.  As the song finished, Mike and Trey nodded to each other, and in unison, stepped to their pedal boards.  With "Light" swirling around underneath, they transitioned into "2001," and what a funkfest it was.  As Mike's bass rumbled below, Trey sent whale-like squelches into the stratosphere, and the gyrating crowd accepted loudly.  "The Horse" and "Silent in the Morning" finished out the continuous song flow that began with "Ghost," but what would be next?  YEMSG.  I'm a fairly casual Phish fan, so don't bust my balls if you've seen seven better versions, but last night's felt pretty sensational, with on-point trampoline choreography, Trey dancing during Mike's stanky solo, and a pitch-perfect vocal jam with the crowd clapping in time.  "2001" and "You Enjoy Myself" saved the second set in my opinion.
Two guys dressed as landscapers pruned a few of the bushes onstage as the techs made sure everything was tuned for set three.  What would the stunt be with "Ghost" now off the table?  "Gumbo?"  "Guyute?"  Certainly not "Gone."
The lights went down and another golf cart went up the ramp.  Trey, Mike, and Page got out, each carrying clubs.  But where was Fishman?  A second golf cart arrived, and Fish got out, wearing a donut-patterned golfer's outfit.  They sliced some balls into the crowd, and retreated to their instruments.  "Party Time" befittingly opened the set, and served as the theme for the remainder of the show.  At its end, two golf carts went up the ramps and paused, facing each other.  As smoke billowed from their undercarriages, Phish began the "Kung" chant.  "We can stage a runaway golf cart marathon!"  And then it literally happened.  As the band revved up "Chalk Dust," the one golf cart pushed the other down the hill.  They rolled back around from behind the stage, and it became apparent there weren't just two.  As several golf carts zoomed past, golfers exited and commenced a choreographed dance.  A tiny golf cart driven by a little person appeared by Page's setup.  The dancers hit golf balls into the crowd, and another little person made her way to the front of the stage.  (With so much going on, it was hard to pay attention to the music, but I didn't hear any messiness despite the craziness.)  Although my phone said it was only 11:58, the little woman began the countdown, and the balloons unloaded from the ceiling.  Phish had played another joke on us: The "G" was for golf.  The token "Auld Lang Syne" switched gears into "Tweezer Reprise" and things got insane.  Balls showered out of cannons, the golf clubs glowed red, and a group of backup singers underneath umbrellas sang along.  Then one woman took the forefront and pierced ears with some high-octave screams that I'm sure led to an incredible number of buzzkills among the audience.  The stunt now complete, the dancers dissipated as the band got groovy with "Sand."  I've never heard a bad "Sand," so I don't know how this one compares, but it was super-danceable and a relief after that bitch destroyed my eardrums.  They segued into "The Wedge," but the big surprise was a bust-out of Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like an Eagle," which featured some tasty licks.  At the song's end, the jumbo screens on the center scoreboard activated, showing an image of grass.  Flying towards the camera, a golf ball, emblazoned, "Wilson."  The screens switched to a Phish ticket stub and the words, "Stay tuned," suggesting that more would be shown on the screens later, but that was also a joke.  "Wilson" was a little clunky, but it's always fun.  The bright stage lights came on again, and Phish made their way stage-right to the a cappella mic rig.  I guessed they'd be doing "Lawn Boy" for the encore.  But they did it then.  A cappella.  Page squeaked a few sour notes, but the novelty of it excused them.
What would they do for an encore?  "Punch You in the Eye" had yet to be played in the run.  Maybe that?  With so many surprises, it was best to stop guessing and just let them have fun.  And that was the best part.  It wasn't about melting our minds.  It was about them having fun.  Mike Gordon keeps time by nodding his head, so when you see him looking around during songs and smiling, it's pretty special.

When they came back, they started "Driver" and Trey flubbed it in the first few bars.  "Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.  We wrote that song," he said with a laugh.  Fumbling a second time, he chuckled, and admitted, "Got it."  After "Driver," a roadie brought Page a wardrobe change of a cap and jacket.  McConnell walked out from behind his piano and said, "Happy New Year, everybody.  Whoa, how about that, huh?  We hope everybody has a wonderful 2013.  Is that where we're at?  We are about to begin the 30th year of Phish."  Thunderous applause.  He added, genuinely, "My 50th year's about to start too."  Looking back at his bandmate, he remarked, "How about a hand for Fish?  He's been killing it tonight, huh?"  More applause.  And then... a cover of "Iron Man" with Page on vocals.  It was weird.  It was New Year's.  It was Phish.

Previous nights' reviews:


SET ONE (1 hour, 10 minutes) - 
Garden Party / Possum / Roses Are Free / Rift / Sample in a Jar / Alaska / Mike's Song > Walk Away / Weekapaug Groove / Character Zero

SET TWO (1 hour, 8 minutes) -
Birds of a Feather / Ghost > Piper > Light > Auld Lang Syne (tease) > Light > Also Sprach Zarathustra > The Horse > Silent in the Morning / You Enjoy Myself > Birds of a Feather (tease) > You Enjoy Myself

SET THREE (55 minutes) -
Party Time / Kung > Chalk Dust Torture > Auld Lang Syne > Tweezer Reprise > Sand > The Wedge > Fly Like an Eagle / Wilson / Lawn Boy

ENCORE (14 minutes) -
Driver / Iron Man


  1. YOU ROCK! Thank you for being the first to post a review/recap of Phish's NYE!

  2. Carrie Manolakos: http://gawker.com/eargasm