Phish pulled off a variety of magic tricks during a sold-out three-set performance at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve, culminating in an arena-sized disappearing act at midnight to ring in 2016. Appearing at the Garden for 10 December 31st gigs since 1995, the Vermont quartet has used the Manhattan arena for some its most theatrical art-jam gags, building goofy narratives around a “Time Factory” (1995), a Ricky Nelson cover (2012), an old equipment truck (2013) and more. This year, though, at the second show of a four-night MSG run, the band went short on the goof and long on the jam. As always, Phish made sure that the biggest fireworks of the evening came in the music itself, as the band moved easily from loping funk to faux-thrash to AOR pop.
Perhaps the band’s most remarkable magic trick, though, was temporarily restoring Madison Square Garden to its former chaotic glory. Though the Garden’s 2010–2013 renovations stripped the venue of its leg room and beloved hippie-friendly inner concourse, Phishheads did their best to overcome the architectural mojo as well as the venue’s new hyper-vigilant aisle-clearing ushers. Mostly, the fans filled the room with gentle boogie and copious pot smoke, and — at least in some sections — the arena’s staff seemed more concerned with stomping out tobacco puffers. With the venue’s electronic advertising signs switched off for the night, the Garden lived up to its name, becoming a sanctuary to keep the rest of the world at bay and provide a nice big space for all the old-fashioned jamming Phish and their ravenous Phishheads could want, which (and this may come as a surprise) was a lot.
Chatting casually among themselves between songs, the quartet took their time warming up. Skipping through their 30-year catalog during the first two sets, the band checked off the requisite boxes for eclecticism, including blues-rock (“Possum”), delicate fugue-like composition (“Reba”), a half-song written around a Disney sound-effects record (“Martian Monster”), surrealistic barbershop harmony (“I Didn’t Know”), a melodious vacuum solo (also “I Didn’t Know”) and more. And then came the jams, filled with trap doors (“Kill Devil Falls”) and rising major-key bliss (“Twist”). Hewing to their own creative dialogues since their days as isolated Vermont college students in the mid-Eighties, Phish remain an oddity on the Garden (or any arena) stage, despite having headlined regularly for more than two decades.
In light of guitarist Trey Anastasio’s appearances with members of the Grateful Dead June and July, and a Phish summer tour that many fans hailed as the band’s most musically cohesive in years, 2015 marked another year that Phish continued to write their own plot line separate from prevailing music industry narratives. Phish’s four Madison Square Garden New Year’s shows — which, like all the band’s performances, will be sold as downloads for fans to pore over — are merely the latest mini-season for an institution that sometimes seems more like a serialized cable dramedy crossed with a sports team than a group of improvising musicians. The venue’s concourse became downtown Phishville, as old friends crossed paths, a school reunion with a touch of cosplay. The band’s fans hooted and woo’ed at sudden dramatic turns in the jams, tweeted about big key changes, cheered for significant lyrics and applauded when the band’s lightning designer created particularly pleasing tableaus. And while Phishheads still practice countercultural pragmatism (like spreading the word to smuggle in Dasani water bottle caps, because the Garden won’t sell them), they are also gearing up for the band’s first foray into luxury destination jammin’ later this month in Mexico.
To finish the year, the band appeared shortly after 11:30 p.m. on a small circular stage at the rear of the venue’s floor. As the group stretched out on “No Men in No Man’s Land” — a burbling disco-funk bounce introduced on the band’s summer tour — a scrim descended around the quartet, leaving them jamming in silhouette as video projections revealed the smaller stage to be a psychedelic hourglass. While the jam grew into hypnotic slabs of color, a digital desert melted away the last minutes of 2015 on the conical screen, and the lights grew more intense until it became obvious that the band themselves had disappeared, switching over into loops like an LP locking into a groove. A voice counted down, and the band reappeared on the main stage to take a few perfunctory instrumental choruses of “Auld Lang Syne” before jumping into a 15-minute version of “Blaze On,” another song introduced on their most recent tour, accompanied by a massive coordinated balloon drop and confetti launch that turned the Garden into a vivid color fantasy. One can safely expect the effect to be pretty much the same at the next two performances, even without the balloons and the confetti and the part about it being New Year’s Eve. For these seasoned showmen, the magic continues into another year.
“The Moma Dance”
“Birds of a Feather”
“I Didn’t Know”
“Walls of the Cave”
“A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing”
“Kill Devil Falls” >
“No Men in No Man’s Land”
“Auld Land Syne”
“The Horse” >
“Silent in the Morning”
“Backwards Down the Number Line”