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Published: 2011/12/31
by Tom Volk

Phish, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY – 12/30

Photo by Rob Chapman

Let’s talk about the “Piper” first, because it was an utterly revelatory version and, in the final analysis, it’s what last night’s show will be remembered for. When you get your recording of the show, skip right past the first set and “Wilson” and “Axilla pt.1”, the openers to the second set, and go straight to “Piper,” cause it was THAT good and because the remainder of the offerings were just straight forward, standard Phish that was well executed (save for a smattering of flubs,) ordinary (albeit fun) and put forth in such a way that the stunning improvisation spewed out of the band after “Piper” demands to be listened to above all else.

It was a mind blowing take on a tune that has, as of late, been condensed. Gone are the days of languid, flowing introductions before its mantra-like verses and, with a handful of exceptions, its exploratory tendencies have been curtailed to the point where it usually feels abrupt. Indeed, Trey Anastasio began the verses after a few choppy, introductory bars, making the following jam that much more out of left field. And oh what a jam!, stabbing chording from Anastasio leading into what is easily the most creative playing we’ve seen from Jon Fishman so far this run. His galloping polyrhythmic energy propelled the band into its most extended improvisation of the first three nights. It had everything, synthesizer washes from Page McConnell melding perfectly with delay laden chords and quiet bird calls from Anastasio, with propulsive lead bass from Mike Gordon piercing through the tonal colors at all the right times. Really no amount of hyperbolic spew from this author can do it justice, go get the tapes and listen to it as soon as you can.

Here is the problem I am having though; to be sure the rest of the night was solid, with well done versions of old war horses like “Divided Sky” and “David Bowie” but those were mixed in with your ordinary Phish fare, which is all well and good in person. To be clear, I had a blast. There is never anything wrong with witnessing even a run of the mill Phish show. In the cold light of the morning though, is ordinary good enough for a new year’s run at Madison Square Garden? It’s a question that each fan has to answer for themselves, but for me its just not. If I sound jaded its because I am, guilty as charged. I didn’t raise that bar though, Phish did. The burden of going back a long ways with the band is that your always cognizant of what they are capable of, and more than a few times in that very building I’ve witnessed them top themselves time and time again(1). I’d love for nothing more than to sit here and tell you that last night was a throwback to the days of MSG past but it wasn’t even a call back to last years excellent run.

Still, as is the case with all Phish shows, there is plenty to note. In addition to the aforementioned “Divided Sky,” which was note perfect, the first set was energetic without anything else standing out. “Sand,” usually a vehicle for the bands more spacey leanings, devolved into a wailing, Anastasio led, rave up that could be attached to any number of stalwarts these days like “Bathtub Gin,” “Wolfmans Brother” etc, all of which used to have a unique improvisational character that’s gotten little lost in this era. “Vultures,” and “Nellie Kane” were dusted off, both somewhat left field inclusions that were well received. The bookends to the set, “Punch You In The Eye,” and “Quinn The Eskimo,” were, it should be noted, excellent ways to begin and end the proceedings.

After the monumental “Piper,” with “Twist” starting up there was an expectation that the improvisational floodgates might have finally opened for good, but instead, a slinky, standard, rocked out version was offered. The rest of the set followed that pattern: rocking, fun and largely without note. “2001” was featured some interesting, rock based interplay, as opposed to being the usual groove machine that it is. The introduction to “David Bowie” was layered with evil sounding “Silent in the Morning” leads from Anastasio, and the ominous jam outro jam was highlighted by ascending and descending dissonance from McConnell and Anastasio that melded well. I’ll never tire of seeing McConnell take the spotlight at the end of “Squirming Coil,” which closed the second set, and judging from the crowd reaction I’m not alone in that sentiment. A double encore of “Boogie on Reggae Woman” and “Good Times, Bad Times” brought the night to a close with some nimble bass pyrotechnics from Gordon during “Boogie On” being the highlight.

This sets up nicely for New Years Eve to take the spotlight, lord knows any of the first three nights can be topped at this point. They still have IT, the “Piper” from another planet that they dropped tonight proves that it is still there, even if it’s fleeting. Now they just have to unleash that spirit for a whole show, and, jaded as I may be, I’m hopeful they will.

(1) In the interest of full disclosure I’ve missed 10-21-96, 12-30-98, 12-31-02, 12-30 and 12-31-10.


There are 8 comments associated with this post

Dave January 1, 2012, 13:06:01

Perfectly articulated review of Phish MSG first three nights 2011. Do I have this correct, you have only MISSED 5 shows? Great article, those guys in the nyt could take a page from you. nice bobbie

Dave January 1, 2012, 13:06:13

Perfectly articulated review of Phish MSG first three nights 2011. Do I have this correct, you have only MISSED 5 shows? Great article, those guys in the nyt could take a page from you. nice jobbie

HL January 2, 2012, 11:42:51

@Dave, I think those are just the MSG shows he’s missed (all the dates are MSG dates). @Mr. Volk, great review of 12/30/11!

Newspaper Editor January 2, 2012, 16:34:17

Who edits the posts on this site? IT’S kind of irritating when YOU’RE reading a review and simple grammatical errors occur frequently. I’m sorry, but Relix should be ashamed.

i don't know if i still heart tom volk January 3, 2012, 10:40:03

This was a real articualte and pleasant review. maybe because you weren’t so jaded you weren’t so pretentiously cinical, or maybe it was all the crap i gave you on your last review. Kudos to another review. i miss the pretentiousness… (one of those love to hate things…)from what i hear the NYE show should leave enough room for plenty of it… to quote Bard Scott “CAN’T WAIT!!!”

Laurville January 3, 2012, 11:13:53

Great write up. I recommend not only listening to the Piper but finding a MKDEVO YouTube video of it as well. The lights were out of this world.

Robert Champion January 4, 2012, 11:22:48

I will be checking it out but I certainly won’t be going to get the tapes. Are there even tapes available in 2011?

Yawner January 5, 2012, 17:38:34

It is so sad how far this band has regressed. No imagination, no passion, and no balls at all. 4 nights of mediocre mail-ins, and just because they take off for one song, people are impressed? The latest archive release makes this NYE run look like dog s**t.

JLips January 11, 2012, 19:23:00

Good review. However, speaks volumes about the show/run when we’re told not to listen to the first set and the first two songs of the second set. How can this be acceptable? And that Piper is inflated by being the only thing semi-listenable from that show. Compared with yore, 12/30 Piper doesn’t really compare. Are we as a fanbase so happy to have Phish back that we can be delusional and accept a show/run that was over flubbed and mediocre (at best). Yes, we’re thrilled to have them back but that doesn’t give them the right to piss in our ears at will. Of course, we’re going to keep buying tickets but some responsibility falls on the shoulders of the professionals, who must review with harsher tones. Glad that I didn’t spend the $$ to go to these shows and after one spin of the tapes, doubt I will ever listen to this run again. Would like to think that this sub-par run was the consequence of Trey devoting his recent time/energy to his new album. Hoping this will result in a killer Spring TAB tour and also serve as a catalyst for the band to get back into the studio and put out another album. It’s clear they are most energized about playing their newer songs. Would love to hear more new and less Loving Cup!

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