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Published: 2013/01/11
by David Steinberg

Phish, Madison Square Garden, NYC – 12/31

Photo by Matthew Lang

There are two kinds of Phish shows. There are the normal concerts, and then there’s New Year’s Eve. The classic four-show run has had rules since the mid 90s. Since no songs will be repeated, every song selection has extra meaning. When “Down With Disease” was played on the 30th, it wasn’t just the start of a good jam and a fun song selection; one song was eliminated for the post-Midnight slot. The entire run takes on the form of a puzzle with fewer remaining pieces as it progresses.

It’s not only the song selection that is different. Walking into the venue on New Year’s, there’s an immediate reminder that this show is not an ordinary night. Some years there are more or less clues about what might be happening at midnight, but if nothing else there’s a giant collection of balloons on the ceiling. Once you attend a few, all it takes is a glance upwards to be reminded of where and when you are. Each night is visually different but there’s enough in common to get the juices going with each skyward glance.

On this night there was another direction to look. The floor of Madison Square Garden was covered with turf. There were people playing lawn games and women (or “women” if you buy the accounts of some of the sharper eyed people on the Internet) in bikinis lying out behind the stage. Songs with flower and summer themes were played before the show and during the set break, e.g. Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers.” The focus was less on the Madison and not at all on the Square, but rested fully on the Garden.

Phish came on stage and threw everyone a curve ball. The show started with a first time cover of Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party.” There was a definite generational gap at play for this number, with the older members of the fan base being amused by the first line and singing along with the appropriate chorus – “You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself,” can sum up the experience of trying to make the disparate elements of the Phish crowd all happy at the same time – but leaving a large portion befuddled. If nothing else, throwing out a first time cover in a year with very few of those (before this night only “The Gambler” was debuted in all of 2012 and that was because they got Kenny Rogers on stage) messed up everyone’s predictions.

The rest of the first set followed in a more standard pattern. Songs from the remaining bucket were played. The other highlight from the initial offering was probably the “Mike’s Song.” It might not have lived up to previous MSG versions in 1997, 98, and – of course – 1995, but it was stronger than the average post-return version. The filling in the Groove sandwich was pretty surprising: “Walk Away” made its initial appearance in that role. Outside of the opener, little of the set would make a must play list, but this is a case where the whole structure was more fun than the parts. It was a classic high energy set on a holiday. It’s what everyone needed to pique their excitement.

To the extent that there was going to be any of the improvisational highlights that usually are what makes a show become heralded, the second set is where they would happen. The centerpiece of the set was the “Ghost”>”Piper”>”Light.” None of these could go too far out because of two other properties of a New Year’s Show; any remaining song they felt like playing in front of an audience for the next six months would have to be played that night and the entire event has to be scheduled carefully in order to make sure that the countdown happens around midnight. While all three songs were shorter than normal, they did manage to take them to a few places. The “Piper” especially plays a lot larger than its sub-10 minute running time. Even if none of these versions would make anyone’s all time favorite list, they all fit the theme of the night by being incredibly fun.

The final set of the run started (well after a brief segment that had the members firing soft golf balls into the crowd. Lessons learned: Page and Trey obviously know their way around the links. Mike sure doesn’t. Whoever created Fishman’s golf variant of his donut frock did a great job.) with the new tradition of “Party Time;” 3 of the 4 12/31 shows since Phish have returned have “Party Time” opening a set. That was fun enough but then things got weird. Twenty years prior to this night in Boston’s Matthews Arena, “Kung” returned to general rotation. It was a goofy thing played twice in 1989 before they referenced it in the 12/31/92 “Harpua.” “Kung” has hung around the peripheries of rotation ever since, getting played a few times every year. It’s doubtful that Phish remembered that historical date when they decided to have their stunt feature a throwaway line in the song, but it gave it a little extra meaning.

“We can stage a runaway golf cart marathon,” states the chant, and then during “Chalk Dust Torture,” that’s just what we got. Golf carts chased each other around the stage. Golf carts came at each other from opposite sides of the platform, stopped when they met, and reversed themselves. Golfers of various sizes started piling out of the carts, running to the front and back of the stage. Then things got weirder. The countdown happened, followed by the surprise call of “Tweezer Reprise” leftover from the unfinished first night for the start of 2013. This is no ordinary “Tweeprise” mind you. Between the golf balls fired from the back of the stage over the band to the grass section, the dancers with glowing golf sticks, and the background singers, the “Reprise” became something larger than life. Apparently even the line “Won’t you step into the freezer” can become fraught with some incredible meaning if the singing and choreography is bombastic enough.

The stage cleared and Phish started up “Sand.” Back to normal it seemed. However, they still had one more trick up their sleeves. Every song for the rest of the show would somehow reference golf. Some songs were obvious once the pattern emerged; as much as I was rooting for “Harputter,” “Driver” was going to be an encore. However, it’s safe to assume that no one saw the first time cover of “Fly Like an Eagle” despite it also having a New Years’ lyrical focus and the a cappella arrangement of “Lawn Boy” definitely was a surprise.

As the show came to a conclusion with Page holding an iron club while singing Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” it became obvious why this year’s show was such a success. Random song selections, an over the top choreography, interesting props, a few song rearrangements all combined to create an unforgettable night. When you can create shows that have an interesting description (“The Golf Show”), it’s that much easier for them to become the stuff of legend. The goal of this Garden party might have just been to please themselves, but just this once they managed to please almost everyone.

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