In what has been a historic thirtieth year for Phish, the band decided to cap it off with their fourth consecutive New Year's run at Madison Square Garden. After a summer tour chock full of jams, the band has most recently been at work crafting their next album, Wingsuit. Would their time in the studio rein in the jams, or would the new songs breathe even more life into the sets? More importantly, where would they go in the rotation?
The Phab Four emerged at 8:16, greeted by applause and an inflatable sheep that was tossed onto the stage. Trey Anastasio placed the sheep beside his amps, where it would remain for the entire set. As Jon Fishman kicked into "The Wedge," a lot of first song bets were lost. The sound mix left more to be desired, with clipping from Mike Gordon's bass and flat vocals all around. I'll blame the Chase Bridges for disrupting the room's acoustics, though it is interesting to think that over these past four years, Phish have played the Garden during each phase of its transformation. As this was my first Phishing trip of the year, I was also taking in Chris Kuroda's new lighting rig, the band's modified stage positions, and what I assume was a fresh addition: a small podium next to Trey that offered him hand control of his effects. A shining "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan" brought some much needed energy into the building, but a sloppy "Mound" failed to continue the upward climb. "Axilla" segued into "Birds of a Feather," which featured a small jam, a funky hint of what was to come next. "Wolfman's Brother" was my first-set highlight exactly one year ago, when they dropped a perfectly timed "Little Drummer Boy" in its midst. While they didn't delve into any Christmas carols this go-round, the boys took the tune to Funkytown, with Page McConnell as mayor. While the return to the song's theme could've been smoother, the jam was at least proof that the show wasn't going to be a Saturday Night Special. Trey began the chunky first chords of "Wilson," and immediately aborted the idea. Moments later, they started up the Wingsuit number "Monica." Choosing an unreleased song over their one with the most crowd participation unsettled the audience a bit, and Phish didn't fully regain everyone's attention until the arena-tailored "Free." "Julius" ended the uneven set on a dancey high note.
Jam vehicle "Sand" was an even more surprising set opener than "Wedge." Unfortunately, right when the trip was at its tastiest, the purple and blue lights shifted to red, red for "Piper." I've always found "Piper" to be a bit too fast, but the boys handled the breakneck tempo well. Trey hacking at his guitar wasn't necessarily the most seamless transition into "Back on the Train," but the crowd cheered appreciatively. Then Phish barreled into "Tweezer," and the energy in the room exploded in a shower of glowsticks. Last year's 12/28 "Tweezer" was quite the competition, however, especially considering last night's jam dropped off just as it reached its most dark and alien section... into "Backwards Down the Number Line?" Thankfully it was the best rendition I've heard, culminating with some excellent guitar work by Anastasio. "Steam" followed, revived for its first MSG appearance since two years ago's NYE stunt, which saw crowd members floating towards the venue's famous ceiling. While the smoke machines in the rear of the stage couldn't contend with the stunt's aerial theatrics, the band were determined to best it musically, and did. In an already expansive set, "Steam" was the "jampion," Trey huddling with Page to create some far-out layers. A "Horse"-less "Silent in the Morning" was trailed by "Waiting All Night." It's one of my favorite Wingsuit tunes, but it was sadly relegated to that cool-down recovery slot, before an extended "Run Like an Antelope" finished out the set.
"Thank you guys so much. We are so happy to be back here," gushed McConnell. "We're here for a few more minutes," he added, and revved up "Suzy Greenberg." As Page took a ride on the piano, Trey and Mike pretended to swordfight with their guitars. They proceeded to mirror each other's moves and twirl their instruments as if they were in a color guard before turning their headstocks towards the crowd like applause-locating divining sticks. That would've been a fine conclusion, but a "Tweeprise" was due. Confetti cannons in the front row rocketed shiny streamers onto the band, and Trey danced around giddily. It's too bad it took until the encore for the band to visibly have so much fun. Perhaps they were just relaxed after having the first show in the bank, but I hope their enthusiasm picks up right there for tonight's festivities.
PHISH - 12.28.13 - MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
SET ONE -
The Wedge / Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan / Mound / Axilla > Birds of a Feather / Wolfman's Brother / Wilson (tease) / Monica / Seven Below > Tube > Free / Julius
SET TWO -
Sand > Piper > Back on the Train > Tweezer > Backwards Down the Number Line / Steam > Silent in the Morning / Waiting All Night / Run Like an Antelope
Suzy Greenberg / Tweezer Reprise