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[This is first in a series of reviews from Adam Schon, a long-time fan and aficionado of the live music experience. Walfredo thanks Adam(!) for his contributions to our new review section of Walfredo.]

MSG Revisited

When Phish confirmed their 4-night New Year's Eve run at MSG last Fall, the community was ablaze with excitement and the anticipation (which is one of the most alluring aspects of the Phish show experience) began for an epic stand that would be a culmination and symbolic exclamation point on a fantastic, boundary-breaking Summer Tour. As many bloggers in the community have commented, these shows did not hold up to these lofty, romanticized expectations. One main reason which seems obvious is that Phish chose not to do a Fall Tour, and they came into MSG not having played since the Vermont Benefit show on 9/14/11, almost 4 months without getting the juices flowing. This situation is quite unique in Phish's history as they almost always did an extensive Fall Tour leading into the New Year's run, and sometimes a Fall and Winter run before NYE. 2003 is the only year that comes close as there was no Fall Tour but a 20th Anniversary Thanksgiving 4-show run (aka the Turkey Tour), and then a 4-night, scorching NYE run in Miami (which still holds up as top 3 best NYE runs ever). By all appearances (ie. not a single new song, cover or arrangement played), the band did not really even rehearse for the Garden. With that huge gap between these shows and summer, Phish just couldn't tap into that massive momentum that they had built up over the tour, which was so manifested in supremely inspired playing at UIC and Denver. It was, and felt like, a completely stand-alone run, disconnected from any tour, and the playing, and particularly the jamming suffered from it.

With all that said, there was still some major highlights and good ole rock n roll shredding at MSG that cannot be discounted. At times, it almost sounded like 95 or 96 Phish, just straight-ahead song-based anthem rock. The run should not be criticized solely because there was only one super extended jam (Piper) that made it pass the 15 minute mark. We cannot expect to get a 25 minute mind-melter (like the Clarkston DWD) at every run of shows, this is not 1998 or 2000 when 20+ minute explorations into the stratosphere were the norm. There were some channeled outros to songs that felt energized, but for whatever reason, Trey was not interested in stretching them out at MSG. There is more to Phish 3.0 than just psychedelic superjams, a lot of what they seem more into right now is getting the songs just right and lighting up the audience with tight, shredding versions of their classics and they still clearly get a lot of enjoyment out of the newer material. And the NYE show itself was a blast, even though it had some issues that have been duly catalogued, it still mustered up some great energy and some excellent song selection stretches, and even some very stoney New Year's spectacle.

Free 12-28-2011 (Adam Berger)

I attended 12/29 through 12/31 in excellent lower level (100s) seats, but watched the webcast of the first night due to a ticket snafu. A quick sidebar on Phish's Webcasts: Couch Tour is awesome! With every run, the sound and video quality gets better and better, with fewer technical hiccups. One of the most challenging aspects of seeing Phish shows is getting really good seats close to the stage (good luck with mail order these days). The webcast literally gives you the best seats in the house, from a dozen different steady-cam HD angles. They have recently gotten better at panning back and showing an entire shot of the stage from the soundboard, so you get the entire awe-inspiring feel of the concert and Chris Kuroda's brilliant light display. For MSG, they even added a new birds-eye view angle from the top of the light rig looking down. All of this from the comfort of your living room within reach of snacks and drinks and bathroom breaks, and for less than half the price of a ticket. Plus, no over-served jerk puking on the back of your seat, or clueless people gossiping loudly during Fast Enough For You. Most importantly, you really feel like you are fully experiencing the show that more than likely you could never have gone to, for any number of financial, logistical, marital, or geographic reasons.

12/28 got off to a wicked start with opening the run with Free. This instantly brought to mind the epic MSG 12/29/98 throwdown of a second set that opened with Free. What a power way to start a set, much less a show, with those killer intro chords. Yet this version seemed rushed and was even a bit shorter than the standard pedestrian Free these days, which is a travesty because the Frees that were unleashed back in 98-99 were complete BEASTS. Currently, it seems like they play the song just to play it and there is no investment in deepening or exploring it, not unlike the treatment that 2001 gets on current tour. They proceeded with a string of banal songs, none of which managed to get the show off the ground, least of which Contact, which should stay in its place on the dusty shelf. Sample, Kill Devil > Bathtub finally showed some signs of life, but the Bathtub from 12/30 last year destroys this set-closing version.

While this second set had some holes and flow issues, the opening segment of Birds, Carini > Tweezer was utterly fantastic. It may be the only limited zone of the entire run in which the band felt interested in pushing outward and loosely stretching the songs beyond their typical parameters. The way Tweezer slowly emerged from the dark Carini jam, in perfect sync with the beat tempo, was jaw-dropping. The Tweezer jam was also bubbling over with playful creativity, and the high notes that Trey kept repeating were reminiscent of the iconic signature notes from the 04 Mansfield 2001. Pulling into My Friend brought this killer stretch to a screeching halt and was the first of three songs that had no business holding real estate in a second set (NICU and Bouncin rounding out the trio). They are all intrinsically first set songs that when played in their proper slot, can fully serve their purpose and enhance any opening half of a show. Raging into Rock N Roll was hot but only served to increase the choppy, disconnected feeling of the set. This version was shredded and whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and also led into a nicely channeled jam. The two first set songs then utterly baffled the MSG audience that was chomping at the bit for more of what they saw in the opening segment, and the set never managed to recover from this off-kilter vibe. While Tube was an inspired choice for an encore, it was a horribly quick, bastardized version. As is typical nowadays, Trey completely rocked out the Tweeprise, fully dancing and kicking his happy energy to the adoring crowd.

MSG 12-28-2011 (Adam Berger)

Night Two ironically began with an odd, offbeat choice of Sloth, because the entire show that followed carried the best continuous flow and energy of the run. The real meat of Phish 3.0 is the heavy second sets that they drop, and first sets have been very inconsistent and at worst, boring. But this first set was a prime exception, with superb song selection and placement, and high energy throughout. Most first sets have at least two clunkers that serve as bathroom breaks (or easy edit choices if you are burning an 80 min CD). This set didn't have one weak moment, and even songs that are typically mundane shined like new. The YEM in the second slot surprised everyone and the band really got warmed up by the end of the vocal jam. The Funky Bitch rocked so hard, it almost cracked the Garden in two. Definitely the best version of an over-played song in a long time. The combo of Roses Are Free (with Trey wailing on the guitar riff) and Halleys was a one-two knockout punch of perfection. Even the predictable Antelope closer seemed to fit with the whole onslaught of fun, upbeat tunes. Again, first sets are not normally that smokin.

MSG 12-29-2011 (Adam Berger)

Second Set opener of Cross-Eyed picked up right where they left off, and this was a riled up, beefy version that does launch into a forceful jam, but after a few blissfully charged minutes, Trey seemed to lose interest and veered off into slow ambience that sounded like they might go into No Quarter (just like the UIC 3rd night scorcher). Instead we got the stand-alone Simple, which seems like one of the staples they love to play at MSG ("We've got, Skyscrapers!"). This had a similarly promising jam which Trey seemed to abort again but this led to the gorgeous, rare gem of Lifeboy. It wasn't the best version, but it did have some tender emotional resonance, and the fact that they keep it rare (last one played was Miami 12/30/09) makes it all the more precious. The song is quite similar in tone and rarity to the Grateful Dead's Comes A Time*, and let's hope they keep it that way. Next came the only glaring setlist misstep of the whole show, Guyute. This is another tune that is way more effective in a first set, and it simply cut off the flow and brought a totally different energy. They recovered immediately with a monster Mikes, which curiously was not played at all at last year's MSG run. The show literally exploded as the Mike's jam tunneled toward darkness, and this version, although not the longest, is easily one of the most potent of 3.0. For the first time ever, Chalkdust erupted out of the segue and the crowd had to catch their breath to keep up with the runaway show at this point. Leaving the song unfinished, Trey put a good deal of effort into slowly careening the band into a lovely Hydrogen, followed by a killer Weekapaug that easily could have been the set closer. Show of Life is another song that the band clearly loves to play, with Trey shredding the solo behind the final chorus, and this was an ideal slot for it. A rocking Character closer and note-perfect Lovin Cup felt like huge exclamation points on a barnburner of a show.

12/30 has always had a dramatic, special aura around it, for both Phish and the Grateful Dead. It's the last show (and night) of the year before the New Year's Eve shenanigans, and it always seems to bring out extraordinary playing and rare breakouts. This 12/30 was the exception to this tradition, and for that fact alone, it was a disappointment. It was not at all a poor performance, but it did feel like a kitchen sink show, a bunch of dissonant songs thrown together, the antithesis of the energy and flow of the night before. Punch was a solid opener but the Caspian in the second slot really put off the audience and was way too early for that type of second set ballad. To bury Backwards in the third slot, one of their newer, instant-classic, bread-and-butter compositions, was a travesty and it went off with a whimper due to the awful placement. A well-played Divided Sky was followed by a gnarly, thick Sand, but it still had the feeling it was trying to beef up a very thin set. The closing Quinn finally engaged the anxious MSG crowd, but the underwhelming sentiment was palpable.

MSG 12-30-2011 (Adam Berger)

Second set began with a standard Wilson right into Axilla, a head-banging metal-like rocker that Trey loves to crank through. Yet they somehow got lost and completely butchered a whole segment of the short song. There was very little of these types of major noticeable flubs on Summer Tour, and this can likely be attributed again to the lack of Fall Tour warm-up. The Piper that followed was, by far, the longest and most exploratory jam of the run, and it even included some ground-shaking, airplane jet-engine-like sound effects that literally rattled the Garden and the delighted fans (curiously, it can't really be heard on the download). This led nicely into a solid Twist, but then it jumped the shark with a poorly placed Julius, which has no business tucked into the middle of a second set, it is the definition of a (first or second) set-closing song. The Golgi next was just as random and discomfiting, and it started to become clear that this show was not going to live up to the 12/30 legend. The 2001, however, was not the run-of-the-mill version (as previously mentioned), and included some playful, atypical repeating riffs from both Trey and Mike. Horse > Silent confirmed the throwaway status of the set, but at least the Bowie intro and Squirming Coil both included Silent teases to spruce up an otherwise standard end to the set. The Boogie On > Good Times was a fun, danceable encore, with the latter actually shredding the house down. But walking out of the show, everyone pretty much had the same disappointing feeling, yet mixed with hope and excitement for a monster of a year-closer the following night.

Jibboo 12-31-2011 (Adam Berger)

As we entered MSG for the finale of the run (and hopefully the year), the pre-show music was the Cars' Good Times Roll, which was all we needed to kick in our excitement and anticipation for the big night. (In the setbreak before the 3rd set, they played Prince's 1999, another perfect selection that catalyzed the audience into a full-on dance party.) The band surprised the audience by coming out at 8:25pm, and the AC/DC > Wolfman's was an awesome way to kick the door down, with the AC being particularly charged with extra energy. Scent of a Mule was the only misstep of this terrific first set, as it threw off the killer vibe in the arena. Jiboo, Farmhouse, and Pebbles were all excellent, unexpected choices, and even the Ocelot, which can be a bit of a drawn out drag (a la Tennessee Jed), felt right in the bubbly intoxication of the evening. When Kuroda flooded the Garden with white light during the crescendo of the set-closing Fluffhead ("Fluff came to New York!"), it was definitely one of the highlights of the show. Comparatively, this set crushed last year's first set, which wandered off the reservation with a break-out nobody was looking for (Beauty of My Dreams), a random Trey band song (Gone) that drew crickets, and a tacked-on Rock N Roll closer which was too little too late.

Phish stepped up their game in a big way with a second set that flowed and built in intensity as we headed toward midnight. New Year's Eve is the most appropriate night of the year to play Party Time, and it really set the tone for a rockin, party-down set with a stacked setlist of favorites. Trey urged Page to Play it, Leo! and he responded by ripping it up Brent Mydland-style on the organ. This led right into Trey's power chords of Light, which was actually a fully stretched version of 12 minutes, including a theremin jam by Page. Golden Age was clearly the signature song of 2011, and while it wasn't quite as good as some of the Summer versions, the band displayed how they are the best at completely owning a cover song and bringing it to a whole other level. While the Theme was stellar, the Ghost jam just never got off the launch pad, despite some effort from Trey. Sneakin Sally was a great call but they hit a minor rough patch, a little bit like the issue in Axilla. 46 Days had not been played since Lake Tahoe on 8/9/11 (an unbelievable version), so it felt as if they had saved their raunchy rocker just for this crucial slot, and they absolutely killed it. Trey was literally head-banging and rocking back and forth and Kuroda again hit it with the white light at the apex of the song (goosebumps). It was so utterly shredding that the first part of the Suzy was shakey because the band and the audience were still so destroyed by the 46.

MSG 12-31-2011 (Adam Berger)

Cavern was an unfortunate, awkward choice to open the 3rd set; it was a fine version but it just felt disconnected like many of the songs from the previous nights second set. It's interesting that Steam is actually the only single brand new song that debuted in 2011 and stayed in rotation. (The Waves > Undermind > Steam from UIC is arguably the highlight of the entire year.) Phish put a great deal of thought and effort into this midnight prank, and it was visually and conceptually stunning in every way. First the random musical instruments began to float above the stage within the thickening fog, and then the aerialists began to rise throughout the floor of the Garden wearing fog-emitting jetpacks and handheld lights. All of this as Trey and the band are crushing the bluesy Steam jam. Since the lyrics allude to the soul's journey into the afterlife, this visual manifestation of that idea was literally awesome to behold. They had obviously saved the Down With Disease for post ALS (the most frequently played song in that slot), and MSG was going bananas at that point. But the mischievous band had one more trick for us: as the Down With jam raged, Trey and Mike suddenly began rising 20 feet above the crowd on circular platforms, and the beaming look on their faces said it all. As the NYE excitement settled down, the DWD jam finally ebbed after 11 minutes and the Wedge was a welcome landing pad. They seemed to be unprepared musically for the rest of the set, scraping the proverbial bottom of the setlist barrel, which resulted in a lackluster Alaska,Velvet Sea. The First Tube closer did salvage the set with Trey going nuts and going out in full rock-star mode, knee-bends and all. Slave was the predictable but sweet encore (like Brokedown Palace) that sent us all home with a comforting sense of closure.

MSG 12-31-2011 (Adam Berger)

As has been said ad nauseam, this was not one of the hottest NYE runs at MSG, but there was still some fantastic music from the best band on the planet in the most energetic building in the world. As we look forward to Summer Tour 2012, this MSG run merely reinforces the fact that Phish's best music comes out when they are in the midst of tour, with all the excitement, adrenaline, and momentum that going on the road brings.

-By Walfredo correspondent Adam Schon

* FYI on the Grateful Dead reference: There is a huge number of hard-core Phish fans that were devoted fans of the Grateful Dead way before they got into Phish. (I am a proud member of this group.) While the subtleties and textures of the music are actually quite different in many ways, the Dead and Phish share a great deal of qualities, most notably: their 2-set/encore show format, the mostly unplanned setlist strategy so that no show ever has the same setlist, abundant sharing of soundboard recordings, a deep spiritual and community component to their live show experiences, a free marketplace/party scene in the parking lot of every show, and the desire by their fans to go on tour with the band and follow them from city to city, so as not to miss that one massive concert that you would regret forever. These are some of the reasons why it's relevant and valuable to make comparisons and analogies with these two similar but distinctly unique American bands.
For those not as familiar with the GD, they had a gigantic and ever-expanding song catalog of 300+ tunes (another element shared with Phish) with a main rotation of their bread-and-butter songs, and every once in a while they would break-out a song they hadn't played in 20 years (another amazing facet of the Dead was their longevity and the fact that they even had songs that were more than 20 years old, longer than most band's total age). For example, Comes A Time, a beautifully soft Garcia ballad about faith, was a very rare tune in the late era, played only 5 times from 1987 to 1995 (Garcia's passing). Similarly, Lifeboy is a tender Anastasio tune questioning faith that has only been played 4 times since 1998, including this latest 2-year Break-out at MSG. Revealing similarities like this one can only shed light and provide insight into both bands that are so widely supported by generations of fans.

Other Schoney Reviews:
TAB 10-19-2012 Chicago


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