PHISH New Year’s Eve 2018
Madison Square Garden New York, NY
While enjoying one night of the 2018 Phish New Year’s run at Madison Square Garden, I turned to my friend Howard and asked if he was interested in writing a review of the New Year’s show to accompany the photos I would be taking. Howard is a talented writer, very smart and a long time Phish fan. Howard’s reply was a definitive “No thank you, how could I ever capture this experience on paper.” Since I’m not as smart as Howard, and opinions about Phish are a dime a baker’s dozen, I figured I would take a shot at it myself.
Although I’m a casual Phish fan, the band has been on my radar and a part of my life pretty much since their start in 1983. For most of the 1980’s, I was too preoccupied with my obsession with a band called the Grateful Dead to have any real interest in seeing Phish perform in concert. In hindsight, that was a big mistake and something I’ve come to regret more and more as my appreciation for the band has only increased over the years.
By the mid 1990’s, I was preoccupied with starting a family and was hardly seeing much live music at all. Around that time, my younger sister – 14 years my junior – went to her first Phish shows and was doing everything possible to get me to join her. I can admit now that I was a snob and thought the nonsensical lyrics, faux hippie frat boy scene, and what I considered to be a rip off of Frank Zappa’s s sound, was beneath me.
Over the years as the band evolved and just never seemed to go away, my relationship with Phish became more complicated, and I learned to enjoy not just their music, but the band’s creativity and the joyful spirit surrounding the whole Phish experience. Phish always seemed to be doing something fun and original that was independent and unconventional. The music also became more accessible to me but also retained a certain integrity. As the 90’s turned into the 2000’s, I started going to more shows and even took my kids to see them – their first rock concert at Fenway Park in 2009.
Still, even after all these years and countless shows, I remain a somewhat reluctant fan, never really understanding the depth of fanaticism of many of my friends and the bands large and diverse fan base. But I think I’m finally starting to “get it.” I’m a slow a learner, but in fairness, Phish is not an easy band to get into, especially if you’re an old Dead fan raised on the poetry of Robert Hunter and John Barlow. Phish can be an acquired taste and hard to wrap your head around. Unless the band immediately grabs you for one reason or another, and there are many reasons to love the band, Phish can be hard to fully appreciate.
In addition to being one of the most successful Rock bands of our age, Phish is also one of the most scrutinized and dissected. Fans of the band will be the first to roast the band if they feel they are not living up to expectations, and while some feel the band is playing better than they have in a century, others feel they have been playing it safe, and the improvisational fire that marked their early years has become less and less frequent. Phish fans are anything if not passionate, and they are some of the most honest and knowledgeable.
For the uninitiated, the world of Phish can be a tough to enter. Drugs help, and there is no shortage to be found at a Phish show. But even with chemical enhancements, 20 minute jams, nonsensical lyrics, and their eclectic style and never ending genre bending and blending doesn’t appeal to most casual music fans. Phish has carved out their own realm in the music world that includes their own language and a unique musical style that is uncompromising, and has remained remarkably consistent.
Regardless of their appeal or any criticism of the band, at this point in the band’s long history there is no denying their success and arena rock dominance. Since their peak in the 1990’s, Phish has consistently ranked as one of the highest-grossing concert tours in the world. Phish has generated over $120 million in ticket sales and have sold well over three million albums. This year marked Phish’s 60th appearance at Madison Square Garden. Not only has the band surpassed the Grateful Dead to hold the record for the most performances by a band at the venue, but are in third place overall in number of concerts at MSG behind Billy Joel (100+, with a new concert almost every month since 2015) and the previous record holder, Elton John (64, who has added to that number as he began a four plus year farewell tour in 2018).
Phish has hit the top 10 album charts three times and were nominated for a Grammy in 2000. They have hosted 10 festivals since 1996. Each festival has attracted more than 30,000 fans, and only one festival (Camp Oswego) featured performances by bands other than Phish. In 2014, the band launched their own on-demand streaming service, LivePhish+. Phish’s longevity is an accomplishment on its own, but the fact the band is now in its third creative incarnation (PHISH 3.0) attracting new fans and finding new ways to thrill and surprise fans after some 35 years, is truly extraordinary.
For Phish and its fans, 2018 had its disappointments and wonderful highlights. In July, two Phish fans were assaulted at the idyllic Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington State, a remote sanctuary and favorite venue for many fans. Initial reports were that the attacks were coordinated by Nazis who were in attending at the concert.
In February, Phish announced their eleventh festival, Curveball. The three-day festival was supposed to be held at Watkins Glen Watkins Glen, New York, but was canceled the day before the festival was scheduled to begin due to torrential downpours that caused contamination of drinking water. Many fans were already on site or well on their way to the festival when they learned of the cancellation. To say fans were disappointed would be an understatement. Fans were crushed, but the bands greatest triumph of 2018 happened shortly after the Curveball fiasco on Halloween in Las Vegas.
At the Vegas concert, Phish perpetrated a grand hoax performing all new material which was supposedly the work of an obscure Scandinavian band, Kasvot Växt, circa 1981. The gag fooled even the most diehard fans who couldn’t identify the new songs as Phish creations, and were taken-in by the elaborate backstory the band created to cover their tracks. Although not all fans appreciated the new material, several songs have made their way into the band’s live catalogue, and were featured prominently during the New Year’s run at Madison Square Garden. The upbeat anthem “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” was featured prominently during the heart of the New Year’s eve show countdown and balloon drop.
Which brings us to New Year’s Eve and the final concert of 2018. The show that kicked off at about 8:10pm was the final and fourth night of the annual run at the Garden. Each of the three previous nights had their highlights and included tremendous moments, even if not every show was spectacular. The almost 20 minute Tweezer during the second set of the second show on December 29th was a highlight and a throwback to some of Phish’s most adventurous jamming. There were also special treats throughout like the rarely played “Billy Breathes” and “Glide II,” which hasn’t been played by the band since 1995. Many fans agree that the second night, December 29th, was the best overall show of the run, but that is debatable as are all things Phish related.
Although it certainly may not go down as the best New Year’s show Phish has played, New Year’s 2018 was deeply satisfying and held together nicely as one complete evening delivered in three well played and wonderful parts. The first set was familiar and somewhat standard for a 2018 Phish concert. The 9 plus minute bubbly and often played “Moma Dance” kicked off the evening with fans in good cheer. “Stray Dog” from Kasvot Växt and 555 followed, both upbeat and fun if not the most exciting and adventurous selections.
A jamming and funky 10 minute version of “Sand” came next. Like most of the songs in the first set, “Sand” was nicely played and a fairly straightforward rendition. The fifth song, “Lawn Boy,” changed the pace a little, adding a jazzy mid-tempo classic that featured some nice bass from Mike Gordon. The slow grooving “Steam” lead into the classic “Chalk Dust Torture,” a definite crowd pleaser that shows up once out of about every three shows. The tone shifted with “What’s the Use,” a darker and slower instrumental with lush a soaring quality. Arguably the highlight of the set was short but compelling, “Play by Play,” a song which debuted as part of the Kasvot Växt halloween hoax on October 31, 2018. The soaring and sentimental “Waste” and a rousing “Run like an Antelope,” also a highlight, ended the set with the quirky Jon Fishman composition, “Ass Handed to Me,” sandwiched in-between.
“Down with Disease,” one of the best played songs of the evening, opened the second set. Clocking in at 18:29 minutes, the band took the song deep into multi-layered jams that exemplify what fans love most about Phish and call type 2 jamming. During these extended explorations, the band moves beyond the initial composition and into extended improvisation that becomes completely unmoored from the original song structure. After the bouncy and upbeat opening, the band quickly moves the song into a chugging and fast paced jamming that includes soaring guitar followed by dark sections punctuated by soaring guitar. The song picks up pace and tension until it finally comes to resolution, segueing into the next song.
For newcomers, this kind of extended jamming can be hard to follow and even boring. However, for anyone familiar with Phish and other improvisational bands, these are the most exciting moments. Filled with electricity and momentum, there is a sense that anything can happen, and you are hearing something completely new and original for what is likely to be the first and last time. The song transitioned nicely into “Farmhouse” from the 1997 album of the same name. However, it was a disappointment as it brought the energy and excitement of “Down with Disease” crashing down to earth. You could almost hear the groans of displeasure from the audience as they realized what was happening – the only low moment in an otherwise flawless night of music.
The band rallied on another highlight of the evening, a stellar extended version of “Seven Below” that starts off dreamy and light and turns into something different altogether and includes a section that sounds a lot like the jazz fusion of Weather Report. The crowd participation of the fun and popular “Twist” included some wonderful interplay between all the band members in a perfect balance of tasteful musicianship and nasty guitar licks from Trey.
The band closed out the second set with more brilliant and funky jamming on “Harry Hood,” another Kasvot Växt song, “Passing Through,” and back into “Harry Hood.” The second set included enough peak moments to satisfy most hard core Phish heads and leave the audience with high hopes for more in set 3.
As it turned out, the third set would be typical of many New Year’s third sets, and a return to the safe but solid approach of set one once the evening big David Gallo production, known as the “gag” was complete. David Gallo is an American scenic designer and media/projection designer for Broadway and television. Gallo has been working with Phish since 2009 and the gag, which have become more and more elaborate, can take as much as 9 months to prepare.
At exactly 45 minutes before midnight, dressed in silver space suits, the band opened with “Mercury,” an ambitious—multi-part composition that has a uniquely Phish flavor. As the band was engulfed in red confetti and smoke, acrobats performed while suspended high above the stage. The performers dropped from the sky as the band sang the lyrics to Mercury “the net’s unbreakable so don’t worry about falling.” Fans were captivated, and the band looked to be having a grand time as the countdown began and Trey and Mike were hoisted into the air for the Kasvot Växt song everyone was waiting for and knew was coming, “Say it to Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” Trey and Mike were all smiles as they left the ground at the exact moment they sang the verse “this is what space smells like, you will always remember where you were.”
It was weird, odd, and wonderful to see Trey and Mike awkwardly hanging from the rafters of Madison Square garden singing a song about space like two goofy kids just having fun in a world of their own making. The remainder of the show simply continued the party with Phish classics and standards like “Simple,” “Suzy Greenberg,” and “Character Zero” which ended the show. The band included one cover, Lou Reed’s, “Rock and Roll,” which seemed perfunctory but certainly captured the mood of the evening “Despite all the imputations, You know, you could just go out, And dance to a rock’n’roll station, and it was all right, hey baby, You know, it was all right.”
For more information about Phish New Year’s Eve listen to: Under The Scales New Year’s Countdown with Scott Marks
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN New York, NY
SET 1: The Moma Dance, Stray Dog, 555, Sand, Lawn Boy, Steam > Chalk Dust Torture > What’s the Use? > Play by Play, Waste, Ass Handed, Run Like an Antelope
SET 2: Down with Disease > Farmhouse > Seven Below > Twist > Harry Hood > Passing Through, Harry Hood
SET 3: Mercury > Auld Lang Syne, Say it to Me S.A.N.T.O.S., Simple, Saw It Again > Limb By Limb > Rock and Roll > Suzy Greenberg
ENCORE: The Lizards, Character Zero