The island of Manhattan can feel like the center of the universe on New Year’s Eve, and Madison Square Garden, its hallowed 33rd street gem, was basking in the attention on Saturday night. The sold-out arena’s long, vertical lights gleamed in vibrant hues all the way around the perimeter, matching its rainbow-lit neighbor, the Empire State Building; refracting into surrounding darkened windows until they glittered like black diamonds. For newcomers who had some idea of what to expect from a Phish show – which is, of course, that you can’t really expect anything – the Garden’s festive glow may have seemed almost intimidating; sort of fun-house scary in all its uncertainty. You could just sense that inside those walls, you wouldn’t find Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, and Page McConnell simply holding instruments and playing psychedelic music. You’d find an experience. Some little piece of you would, more than likely, change. Even more jarringly, you’d quickly leave it all behind and walk out into the night, ready or not, to face a whole new year. Phish were just seconds into their first song when the fear turned to bliss.
It was “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” a stoney Little Feat cover that had been on the shelf since Halloween 2010 – making this the first time they’d played it in 238 shows. The surprise amongst hardcore phans burst out in flurries of screams and smoke as the foursome sang the tune a cappella, clustered at the front of the stage, with all the harmonized gusto of a barbershop quartet. Set 1 continued on in a playful, grassy, hard-rocking mood as Phish whipped out “Your Pet Cat” and “Kill Devil Falls,” jamming their way into “Back on the Train.” Its outro was marked by some complex harmonic riffing from Trey, which bled right into their cool take on Clifton Chenier’s “My Soul.” As they caught their breath for the first time and surveyed the packed venue, Trey commented on the crowd’s distance, comparing it to some trippy stage fright dreams Mike used to have in the 80s. “Just when we were about to start playing the first song, the microphone would float up into the air, and his bass would turn into butter and melt or something,” he laughed. Set 1 culminated with the captivating, Page-fueled “Lawn Boy,” a lovely “Divided Sky,” the elusive “Ya Mar” (its third appearance this tour), “Character Zero” (notably sandwiched between two songs; rare for the customary set-closer) and a jump-up-and-cheer-worthy “Walls of the Cave.”
The familiar suspenseful chords of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (better known as the theme to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) signaled the start of Set 2 while bright lights beamed down in synch on the audience – who were hard at work flinging handfuls of glowsticks and balloons in every direction. When the intro morphed into “Carina,” the phans in the pit were practically somersaulting as they surrendered to Phish’s unpredictable groove. It took shape in a continuous jam from there: a mesmerizing “Twist” (featuring a “Low Rider” tease), “Piper,” “Ass Handed” (including a “Piper” reprise, with Mike on keys and Trey on marimba lumina), “Sand,” “Slave to the Traffic Light,” and the first Big Boat track of the night, “More.” As midnight drew near and fans awaited Set 3, they deliberated in hushed tones over what Phish’s annual New Year’s gag might entail.
Soon, they were witnessing it firsthand, and it was as dreamy and elegant as a broadway production. To the epic tune of “Petrichor,” Phish achieved the illusion of an indoor storm as streams of raindrops and floating umbrellas cascaded around the stage. For this special overnight set, they were joined by an impeccable lineup of masked dancers, Hamilton percussionist Andres Forero, and several musicians from the Trey Anastasio Band, including James Casey on sax, Natalie Cressman on trombone, and Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet. With a rapid countdown to midnight, the Garden exploded into beautiful chaos; “Auld Lang Syne” in full force, the crowd kissing and singing, piles of confetti and literally 64,000 balloons pouring down into the room. A wild, horn-laden version of “Suzy Greenberg” galloped ahead as 2016 slipped behind us, and Phish gave 2017 a taste of “No Men In No Man’s Land,” “Breath and Burning,” “Tide Turns,” “555,” “Ocelot,” “First Tube,” and an encore of “Loving Cup” by the Stones.
The funny thing was, it wasn’t just balloons that came down when the clock struck twelve. There were also inflatable cats and dogs, silly sound effects included, and raindrop-shaped stress balls falling into the hands of fans. The ‘raining cats and dogs’ pun was perfect, but the stress balls seemed particularly fitting given the year we just survived. And in the moment those cats and dogs rained down barking and wailing, one more layer of Phish’s appeal seemed to come into focus. The entire show was just so damn fun – and there’s a certain vulnerability that comes with an experience like that; required of both the band and the crowd. Fun is not always easy. It’s hard to surrender control and get carried away. It’s hard to be open to such a wide spectrum of feelings. But Phish make it rewarding. And, in so many ways, there’s no better outlook to carry into the new year.
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley