Photo by Patrick Whealin
By Luis Lucero
Last year, I did my first ever New Year’s Eve concert run. New York City certainly knows how to finish one year and kick off another, and in terms of the city’s vibrant music scene, there’s plenty of options for fans to celebrate the new year. While concerts are always great fun, no matter what time of year, there’s something inherently special about NYE shows. The already electric atmosphere is charged up even further and the show turns into a sort of party where the fans’ connection to the music reaches spiritual new highs. And when it comes to celebrating the end of the year in NYC, one can’t even bring up the subject without at least mentioning Phish, the legendary Vermont jamband.
Could I really consider myself a latecomer to Phish? They have been around since the mid ‘80s, and yet I’ve only first given them any thought in 2017, shortly after their unprecedented thirteen night run at Madison Square Garden that summer. While their studio work was good to a degree, I soon learned that their truth strengths lay in their live shows, as documented in their treasure trove of concert recordings. Though the summer run was done at that point, I didn’t feel bummed for that long. Later that fall, the band announced their annual NYE run at the Garden, bringing the total number of shows there that year to 17. Against all odds, I managed to snag a ticket to the coveted December 31st show and braced myself for my first Phish show. And what a show it was: three sets and six hours worth of music, complete with the stage turning into a pirate ship during the last third. If there’s a better way to experience a first concert for any artist, I’ve yet to find out. When the show ended at 1:30 that morning, I made it my personal mission to see as many Phish concerts as I possibly can in one lifetime.
Shaking things up a bit this year, I decided to check out another band on New Year’s Eve, while still catching Phish during their year closing run at the Garden. Being that I was going half way through their annual run this year, I knew that I would be getting a more basic Phish concert than the special three set shows that the band does on both NYE and Halloween. But in a strange twist, I actually discovered that my first regular Phish concert actually managed to surpass NYE 2017 in terms of both the evening’s setlist and their overall musicianship that night.
Jambands are renowned for delivering a completely different experience each show, that goes without saying. Even with the year long gap between shows, all kinds of possibilities were running in my head as to how Phish was going to shake things up for my second show. Looking back at NYE 2017, the setlist was quite impressive for my first show. As a sign of how far they’ve come along in the past 30 years, the show largely consisted of original Phish material, complete with fan favorite epics like “Fluffhead” and “You Enjoy Myself.” The only deviations that night were “Soul Planet,” a song from guitarist Trey Anastasio’s solo career, and the show’s sole encore “Loving Cup,” a Rolling Stones cover off their classic 1972 album Exile on Main St. This year, the only song that was repeated was “Carini,” a song that is one of several Phish originals that has never been included on any of their studio albums. While originals still made up the bulk of the setlist, they made a bigger emphasis on concert exclusive songs than studio tracks. Two of the songs that night, “Turtle in the Clouds” and “Death Don’t Hurt Very Long” made their debuts this past Halloween, as part of a fake Scandinavian progressive rock album conceived by the band as an elaborate prank. And even though the audience has long since become aware of that fact, the band still treated both songs with the same irreverence and catharsis as they did on Halloween. As to expected, Phish really delivered on the jams. But there was something particularly special about finally hearing “Tweezer” in person after only hearing it on live recordings that I can’t quite put into words. It’s really a jam that needs to be seen to be believed.
The biggest change that I noticed for this show was that there were a lot more covers included in the overall setlist. Sure, the cover choices were primarily from artists that Phish has tackled in the past, but it was still a welcome change all the same. The one moment in this department that really stuck out happened during the second set. Amidst moody blue lights, keyboardist Page McConnell played a few haunting notes on his Rhodes piano. Anticipation gradually starting building up in the arena, since there seemed something awfully familiar about what he was playing. As soon as the rest of the band joined in, it was made clear that they were covering Led Zeppelin’s most successful foray into the world of progressive rock, “No Quarter,” much to The Garden’s ecstatic approval. But as if that wasn’t enough, the song ended with an abrupt shift from pseudo-prog to jazz funk, leading into yet another McConnell led cover. This time, it was of Eumir Deodato’s funky interpretation of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (a.k.a. the theme music from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Even though it’s primarily an electric piano driven song, McConnell still made the most of his menagerie of keyboards all throughout the song and the end result was Phish at their absolute funkiest that night. The encore, strangely enough, brought about a serious case of déjà vu. Not only did they once again cover a song from The Rolling Stones, it was another track that also originated from Exile, this time it was the gospel infused “Shine A Light.” If there’s a Phish cover that’s quicker at getting people on their feet, I haven’t heard it.
Finally, if there is one thing about Phish that absolutely rubs off on the audience is their unabashed enthusiasm on stage. Hiatuses notwithstanding, Phish has been doing their thing for more than thirty years. And yet all four members still treat the songs as though they were performing them for the very first time, while still tinkering with how to make them different with each performance. Their chemistry on stage is also indicative of this enthusiasm. From the humorous dance number between Trey and bassist Mike Gordon in the middle of “Turtle in the Clouds,” to the various nicknames given to all the band members that are announced during jams, the band clearly treats each new show as a fresh slate towards, not so much entertaining the crowd, but rather entertaining themselves.
As soon as the last notes of a reprise of “Tweezer” were played, I was absolutely beaming, alongside 20,000 other loyal Phans (the official nickname for Phish fans). If there is one thing I got from this show, it is that the last New Year’s Eve show was not a fluke and the band can most definitely one up themselves in regards to each new live show. I can only imagine the possibilities for what Phish has in store the next time I check them out.