When Phish opened the 30th with “Punch You in the Eye,” it seemed that the premonitions of so many fans that this night would be the night of the run were about to be realized. With a classic opener in a classic building—immediately referencing the historic New Year’s Eve show of ’95—the band seemed primed and ready to tear the roof of the The Garden. Armed with an artillery of potent jam vehicles waiting in the wings, it felt like the band was on the brink of a phenomenal show, especially after an underwhelming 29th. But as soon as “Punch” ended, the first set quickly disintegrated into Phish-Lite, as every song seemed more innocuous than the next—and more butchered. For the first time of the New Year’s Run, the band legitimately sounded off. Hacking their way through the entire first set, despite a pronounced “Divided Sky,” it felt as though Phish would come back after the break for some serious redemption. But aside from an otherworldly “Piper”—the most impressive jam of the past three days—the second set fell completely flat, almost as though the band was going through the motions. It was quite the bizarre evening with the Phish, and certainly not a show one would expect to hear on the brink of New Year’s Eve. After a promising first show, each performance has fallen off, leaving only a three-setter tomorrow night to salvage a New Year’s Run that once looked like it would blow up like none this era.
Coming out with “Wilson” and “Axilla” to open the second set, the one-two, hard rock punch set the stage for the centerpiece of the show and the most innovative jam we’ve heard this run—“Piper.” Building viciously within the jam’s structure, there came a singular moment when the guys collectively broke form and were locked and loaded for action. Tearing into a creative and multi-tiered excursion, the band pulled it all together for a fifteen-minute roller coaster ride through the cosmos. Starting in upbeat, choppy grooves that one might expect to hear from the song, Mike dominated the landscape with commanding bass leads. Soon, however, Page began to make his mark on this jam. Beginning to layer sounds and washes behind an increasingly intricate conversation, the keyboardist would play a prominent part throughout this trip. The band switched gears into a totally original pattern in which Trey and Mike began to wrap dark lead lines around each others’. Backed by a series of breakbeats, the band began to build the jam from an aggressive, snarling monster into a melodic, divine soundscape. Soon morphing into a looped-out piece of ultra-layered psychedelia, the band continued to flirt with universal vibrations as they were neck deep in an exploratory wonderland. Page continued offering significant contributions to this three part harmonic convergence, while Fish’s beats oozed into a liquid and delicate groove. Phish was feeling IT; flowing profoundly with the improvisational magic that defines our love of the live experience. But once “Piper” ended, we had seen, essentially, all the creativity we’d see from the quartet for the rest of the night.
Pairing “Piper’s” transcendent journey with its common setlist partner, “Twist,” the band felt like they might be on the brink of a serious set of music. But “Twist” remained wholly grounded, and then the set lost all sense of direction with a run of “Julius,” “Golgi,” “2001 > Horse > Silent In the Morning.” The first half of “2001” had some cranked up full-band action, but when they dropped into “Horse” out of the song’s second peak, the set had turned into some sort of farce. We were in MSG on the 30th of the year, not Great Woods on a Wednesday night in June—what was going on? Despite being off for the entire first set, they band had pulled it together only to smash what they had going with a string of poor song selections. Standard renditions of “David Bowie” and “Squirming Coil” hardly did much to salvage the set’s overall excitement. It definitely felt weird.
Encoring with an energetic twin bill of covers in “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and “Good Times, Bad Times,” the band got some cheers from the crowd, but any sense of serious musicianship had begun and ended with “Piper.” Now, on the brink of New Year’s Eve, what are we to think? Did the band not practice enough before the run? Are we seeing the results of no fall tour this year? Because the band we are watching this week is a far cry from the creative juggernauts we left in Denver on Labor Day weekend. These days, the band seems to crush opening nights on the regular, and when Wednesday’s show blew up like it did, one could only imagine what the rest of the week had in store. Now with only three sets left, one has to wonder, what has happened? Will New Year’s Eve follow the steady decline of the week, or will Phish come to the rescue with a show that will give zest to the bland taste left in the mouths of many fans over the past two nights? Lord, let’s hope so.
I: Punch You In the Eye, Prince Caspian > Backwards Down the Number Line, Nellie Kane, Divided Sky, Sand, Vultures, Rift, Joy, Quinn the Eskimo
II: Wilson, Axilla > Piper > Twist, Julius, Golgi Apparatus, Also Sprach Zarathustra > The Horse > Silent in the Morning, David Bowie, The Squirming Coil
E: Boogie On Reggae Woman, Good Times Bad Times