Each day, wherever you went, there were Phisheads; in the subway, at the deli, at Rockefeller Center, at the bar in the village. By the 30th, we had really infiltrated and I was getting daily New York City Google alerts reminding commuters to steer clear of Penn Station because there were so many of us flooding the streets. I, and many others around me, was in blissful Phish heaven. And even though I didn’t have a ticket for the upcoming show, I was phaithful and started playing the finger game around 4. Waiting on line was not an option, though for the handful of kids who got tickets on the rerelease (the last of which they let in around 8:30), it was worth the full day wait. For the rest of us, we tried to enjoy ticket hunting. Finger fives, which I was corrected, was technically a finger one, coming up with cute things to say, wishing each other luck. It was hugely slim pickings out there, and I only got lucky late in the set because a poor guy got hurt and couldn’t go in to the show. If you’re out there, I hope you’re okay. But thanks for your ticket.
Though I was initially bummed about missing a “Punch You In The Eye” opener, which typically implies good thing for the show to come, the following (fairly disappointing) selections of “Prince Caspian” and “Backwards down the Number Line” made me less antsy. I ran in during “Divided Sky” and the raucous cheering for that long pause felt like it was for me, like I had made it and here’s the rest of the set, lovingly played for me. “Sand,” which was my favorite song of the summer, slipped in there and the boys played it delicately for a crowd that appreciated the depth of the song, which ran slightly less than 10 minutes. “Vultures” was another special moment, except when Trey flubbed the lyrics, which got a laugh from the crowd but also indicated just how little they had practiced for this run. Otherwise, though it was obvious that not many people were familiar with the song, the band played it well for the phans who were into it. Set killer song “Joy” snuck in there at the last moment, who knows why, and unfortunately couldn’t be saved by a standard rendition of “Quinn the Eskimo,” though the energy at the end was surprising considering the flatness of the set.
“Wilson” is one of those great Phish songs that bring the phans together in the unified, unwritten chant. Hearing older versions of the song is great because phans hadn’t yet decided that that space was perfect for a “Wilson” call. Though second set opener was as wonderful as first, they did repeat themselves with a totally messed up “Axilla” that really broke my heart. If it wasn’t for the “Piper” heard ‘round the world, the whole show might have been a bust, but this “Piper” might have been the musical highlight of the run, nevermind the night. And maybe it was because we were so thirsty for some jams, everywhere you looked people were talking about this interesting lack, but this song finally blew us out of the water. It was 15 intense minutes where the band finally locked into each other on a serious level and was playing creatively and richly. Everyone responded enthusiastically to the music floating from those massive speakers, including Koruda, who’s lighting was perhaps most ethereal during this moment.
Unfortunately, the rest of the set was kind of a bust, featuring a weak “2001” and “David Bowie” that didn’t nearly stand up to the others played this historic venue. “Julius” was very high energy and exciting, but didn’t do much for the set overall. Typical crowd pleasers worked on the masses, but looking around during averagely played selections like “Golgi” and “The Horse> Silent in the Morning,” there were handfuls of disappointed faces, especially for a night that was supposed to the heat. All throughout Phishstory, they’ve really brought it the night before a holiday, and most phans speculated this would be no different. Alas, the awkwardly placed but beautifully played “Squirming Coil” that ended the second set left a fairly sour taste in our mouths, that even the most rocking “Boogie On” couldn’t absolve. To double encore with two covers is rarely okay, this one barely makes the cut, and while “Good Times, Bad Times” was a fun way to close the night, it left people a little concerned about the quality of playing to be expected at New Years Eve.
Still, it was New Years Eve, and this was Phish, and we were in New York City, so something good was definitely brewing. There was excitement in the air, even from the hopefuls outside Madison Square Garden, and everyone was in a truly joyful mood, which got some people very lucky with tickets; one friend ended up in a box with free food and booze, while another got miracle-d by a group of girls who intended all along to give their extra to the last person on line when they cut off ticket resales. The vibe inside MSG was magical; people were happy, decorated, high-fiving, hugging, and the band came out to the loudest welcoming of the run. It was purely joyful and the predictable “AC/DC Bag” didn’t do anything to bring it down. The “Wolfman’s” was tight and funky, but already you could tell the set was going to be fairly reserved, and were possibly hoping it was for an over-the-top second set. “Gotta Jibboo” became the funktastic highlight of the set, while “Pebbles and Marbles” picked it back up after a sit-down “Farmhouse” and foreshadowed the superb “Fluffhead” that ended first set. Trey got us yet again with a well placed and played Auld Lang Syne tease that really started the night going and took it into a phenomenal ending that highlighted all of the boys in their New Years Eve best. Side note: best dressed, as usual goes to Mike for his Sgt. Peppers jacket that complimented the occasion so well.
“Party Time” opener was fairly typical, didn’t stir much hype for the set, but the feeling in the air was still so excellent, and the song was obviously appropriate for the moment. “Light > Golden Age” was the real beginning, and was an excellent jamming/transition moment for the boys, finally something the jam hungry fans could munch on. I personally thought the “Theme from the Bottom” was a good choice after this dance heavy 20 minutes, but the crowd seemed split, and “Heavy Things” didn’t do much to help the cause. It may be because the midget set in a 3 set night always feels a little strange, but it’s rare that a “46 Days” trumps the “Ghost” followed by “Sneaking Sally” that precedes it; on this NYE, it did, the crowd went simply nuts for the tiny jam. “Suzy” was a total crowd pleaser as well, and didn’t have much of that “Suzy” umph that the song has needed in 2011. It was clear the band was saving up for something huge.
In an interesting move, “Cavern” opened the last set of 2011 and though it’s fiery passion was getting the whole venue jumping, they went into “Steam,” a very new song that has gotten a good response so far, but was definitely not slated for the New Years ringer. They were playing it pretty normally when instruments started to rise up off the stage; the keytar behind Page, an amp with a steaming kettle on it next to Trey, a bass near Gordo, and the vacuum from out of Fishman’s kit, which many people saw being placed there the night before. People came flying up in the air, regular looking crowd members from off the floor suspended from the ceiling of MSG and a girl in front of the stage on a rising barrier who was being fake coaxed down by a security guard. The music in the background was excellent, but the people soaring above and dropping dramatically were a totally stunning sight.
The leader in front counted down to midnight as the other dancers floated down and the band busted into “Auld Lang Syne” as couples kissed, friends high-fived and hugged, people cheered and wowed in amazement of the thousands of balloons showering the crowd. The multi-colored and clear balloons fell all around well into the 2012 opener “Down with Disease” that wasn’t tremendous by any means, but also jammed adventurously well into the 10-minute mark. The sky dancers rose back up for the song with bright lights and had a coordinated dance that was a perfect compliment to Koruda’s dramatic first light show of the year. Friends were still rejoicing in the light of the New Year when the band went into “The Wedge” and the crowd really lost it. Infrequently played, and well done this night, the song was the feel-good icing on an excellent NYE stunt.
They really pulled the breaks on the momentum, however, by dropping into “Alaska,” which is as much of a set killer as “Joy” or “Farmhouse,” and to which the crowd indicated their disappointment with a group sigh. “Wading in the Velvet Sea” kind of made it worse and left us all wondering what they with thinking with this selection. If “First Tube” hadn’t come next, their might have been a riot, but at least we got that much out of the last bit of Phish before March at the earliest (rumors, don’t hold me to that). It didn’t nearly blow up MSG like the memorable version from 2009, but it was pretty nasty anyway, and certainly a good song to close the set on. The “Slave to the Traffic Light” encore was fairly predictable and would have been a little better if it had led into something else epic, but as it was, we got a healthy dose of jam and noodles before they ended the night completely.
Overall, I would call the run a success, as I’m sure the band would, though it was not the best, and could possibly be the worst, New Years run in many years. The large majority of phans walked out of the venue with smiles on their faces every night, and though I myself look back with a critical eye, I wouldn’t have rather been anywhere else. I choose to spend all my free time and money on Phish and I wouldn’t have it any other way; very rarely do they play so poorly that I regret doing so and this run, all the flubs and slip-ups and weird song choices included, was absolutely spectacular. Thanks Phish, we’re all counting down to the next one!