Phish’s Madison Square Garden Lawn Party
Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish 2012, via the band’s official Facebook page
Phish turned New York’s Madison Square Garden into an arena-size lawn party last night. A series of elaborate stage decorations, special covers and teases built up to a New Year’s gag that was based around the dark, rare song “Kung.”
Before the show, Phish’s crew decorated their stage with trees and astroturf. The Garden’s general admission floor section was also covered with fake grass and, before the show, actors could be found sunbathing and playing lawn games like mini-golf and croquet in the crowd. As if to foreshadow the craziness that would ensue, fake lightning was pumped into the venue shortly before show time. The band’s stage was also visibly enlarged to include ramps and expanded side sections.
The Vermont Quartet carefully constructed their setlist for the special occasion, beginning with their debut cover of Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party.” Sung by Mike Gordon, the cover choice served as a double welcome reference to Madison Square Garden and the evening’s lawn/garden party theme. The group’s first set was loaded with high-energy rockers, including a segue from “Rift” to “Sample in a Jar” and an interesting Mike’s Groove segment that included “Mike’s Song,” “Walk Away” and “Weekapaug Groove.”
Phish’s second set contained the evening’s improvisational highlights. After opening up with “Birds of a Feather,” Phish offered a 12-minute take on “Ghost,” a 10-minute version of “Piper” and a 8:30-rendition of “Light” that teased the traditional New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne” and moved into “2001.” After pausing for “The Horse” and “Silent in the Morning,” Phish closed their second set with a mammoth “You Enjoy Myself” that briefly returned to the “Birds of a Feather” theme.
Phish’s third set was based around their traditional, increasingly theatrical New Year’s gag. Keeping with the evening’s garden party theme, Gordon, Page McConnell and Trey Anastasio took the stage in golf carts and started to hit fake golf balls—actually ping-pong balls—into the audience. Then, Jon Fishman arrived in a second golf cart wearing an argyle vest, a red hat and jacket with his trademark muumuu dress’ pattern on it. They opened their set with “Party Time”—a nod to “tee time”—and most of Phish’s third set contained songs with loose golf references or metaphors. During the dark, dissonant “Kung,” which contains lyrics about a runaway golfcart marathon, the golf carts returned and started looping around MSG’s expanded stage. The actual staged runaway golfcart marathon included at least seven golf carts, one of which was a mini-cart that received a large burst of applause. Golf carts continued to zip around the stage as Phish moved into “Chalk Dust Torture” and, at midnight, “Auld Lang Syne.” As expected, the song arrived with a huge balloon drop and onstage dancers. In a more unexpected move, backup singers sang with Phish on “Tweezer Reprise,” giving the song a feel that recalled The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
From there, Phish offered a seamless third set that moved into an extended “Sand,” a classic “The Wedge” and Phish’s debut cover of Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” (though Phish chose the song as a golf reference, Miller actually played the area on December 30.) As the song moved into “Wilson,” the Garden’s jumbo screens displayed images of a golf ball with the brand name “Wilson” on it. (A decade ago Phish used the same screens to show a clip of Tom Hanks screaming at his Wilson volleyball in the film Castaway as they busted into the song.) A new, barbershop quartet arrangement of “Lawn Boy” closed Phish’s third set and, once again, highlighted the evening’s theme.
Phish chose two more songs that could be turned into golf references during their encore. First, they played the soft ballad “Driver.” Then, they offered their first full cover of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” Phish riffed on the song on December 31, 2003 but has not touched the cover in almost a decade. McConnell stepped to the lip of the stage dressed as Bob Hope in a black jacket and USS Nimitz ball cap to front the band during the number. Before jumping into the metal classic, he offered a rare speech, during which he mentioned Phish’s 30th anniversary next December, his own upcoming 50th birthday and a 2002 New Year’s gag where his brother stepped onstage with Phish dressed as Tom Hanks. The show’s walkout music was culled from the film Caddyshack.
Here’s a look at last night’s setlist via Phish.net
Monday, December 31, 2012, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
Set II: Garden Party , Possum, Roses Are Free, Rift > Sample in a Jar, Alaska, Mike’s Song > Walk Away, Weekapaug Groove, Character Zero
E: Driver, Iron Man6
 Phish debut.
 Auld Lang Syne tease
 Birds of a Feather tease
 With backup singers.
 A Capella.
 First Phish performance in full.
Notes: The venue’s floor and the riser on the stage were covered by green fake grass for this show. Prior to the show, people played garden sports including croquet and mini-golf, while a few women “sunbathed” on the riser. During the first setbreak, golfers came on stage and hit soft golf balls into the crowd. Light contained an Auld Lang Syne tease. You Enjoy Myself contained a Birds of a Feather tease. Trey, Page and Mike came out for the third set in golf carts and began hitting golf balls into the crowd. Fish then arrived on a golf cart wearing donut pants and shirt, an argyle vest, and a golf hat. Golf carts were brought back on stage during Kung, then began racing past the stage periodically More and more golf carts joined the marathon. During the Chalkdust jam, golfers began getting out of the carts, hitting balls into the crowd and dancing on stage. One of the golfers did the New Year’s countdown from on top of a cart. Ping pong balls were fired from cannons during Auld Lang Syne. Tweezer Reprise featured a number of backup singers. Iron Man was preceded by Page coming to the front of the stage in a jacket, USS Nimitz ball cap and holding a golf club to wish the crowd Happy New Year and reference the start of the 30th year of Phish. This show featured the Phish debuts of Garden Party and Fly Like an Eagle as well as the first full Phish performance of Iron Man.