The level and diversity of improvisation over the four nights at Madison Square Garden to end the year were absolutely mind-bending. I spent my afternoon listening to all the major jams from the run for the first time through, and now I am as jacked as I was walking out of the shows each night! Amidst a celebration of all that was and will be, the thing most deservedly touted is the state of Phish right now. To put a final stamp on their thirtieth year, the guys unfurled jams of all shapes and sizes in a holiday run that lived up to its potential and surpassed it, in one of the finest year-end displays of all-time.
Phish revved up its improvisational gears midway through the first set of the 28th, using some loose and gooey “Wolfman’s” funk to indoctrinate the crowd to the four-night party. Though “Sand > Piper” formed a smoking couplet to kick off the second set, the true gem of the show came via “Steam.” Finally exploding like we all sensed it could, “Steam’s” jam got deep, demonic, and excessively dirty. Harnessing a thick, larger-than-life, mechanical vibe, the guys brought the show to its highest peak through heavy, effected grooves in “Steam’s” most prolific version to date.
The next central, open jam sequence came on the 29th, and it stole my heart the moment it happened—“Down With Disease,” “Carini.” This one-two punch for the ages provided untouchably magical moments to which this entire year has built toward. Each jam was note perfect and both reached the highest planes of creativity, veering down alternate paths of sinister ideation. “Disease” took us on a psychedelic journey of staggering beauty, traveling into the void and back again, in an undeniable musical triumph. “Carini” harnessed the grit and urban glamour that defined Madison Square Garden Phish jams of the mid to late ‘90s, with filthy, monstrous grooves that made time stand still while engulfing and uniting the consciousness of the entire audience. Both jams exploded with fresh sounds and even fresher ideas as they, collectively, covered a ridiculous amount of sacred territory. The smoothness in which the band morphed back into the end of “Disease;” the heights to which Trey rocked the Garden back and forth with his Echoplex in “Carini” like MJ crossed over John Starks and the rest of the Knicks before tomahawk dunking on Patrick Ewing; the fluidity of both jams which were seen to ultimate completion; this was 12.29 the right way. This was a fucking dream.
Many New Year’s Runs over the years have featured one night in which the band took less risks and didn’t go for it quite as hard as the other three, but 2013 was not one of those Holiday Runs. The band just kept on trucking, knocking down the doors of the 30th’s second set with a hugely exploratory and very cohesive “Chalk Dust Torture.” Bursting through the composition, Trey took the helm and brought the jam to an initial peak of catharsis with one of his most emotional solos of the weekend. When the jam reached a mellow juncture where it sounded as though it might move into “Taste,” things were just getting going. Phish went on to weave together a delicately driving adventure that touched on many feels without totally settling into any of them. The band never lost their connection throughout, however, crafting a totally different type of centerpiece than we heard the night before in “Disease” and “Carini.”
Later in the set, after completing a relatively contained “Mike’s Groove,” Phish tore into the usual “Groove” connector “Simple,” and this is where our next highlight jam blossomed. Bleeding out of Trey’s guitar solo, the band entered into a slow, wide-open conversation that evoked the feel of a loose, late night, festival jam. Entrancing the audience with this ethereal passage, the band would soon segue into “Harry Hood,” forming an extremely tender final portion of the set.
The central jam sequence of New Year’s Eve, uncharacteristically, came during the third set in the post “Auld Lang Syne” paring of “Fuego > Light.” If one thing can be told by the dramatic placement of their new song and it’s mini, outro segment, it is that “Fuego” will be the next big jam in this Phish universe. The only Halloween song delivered with any improvisational flair, look for “Fuego” to jump into second sets all over tour this summer. And then they dropped into “Light,” introducing the improvisational main event of New Year’s Eve.
Shortening his guitar solo at the onset of the jam, Trey led the band into the fray more quickly than usual as they formed a light, percussive canvas with a distinctly celebratory vibe. The guys were fully locked together as they navigated this unique musical ground, and the feel of the jam remained this way for some time. And then it turned straight nasty. Lending a hard edge to “Light’s” final segment, they guys fully dug in during this third-set gem, and the final monster Phish jam of the weekend.
It’s quite clear that for a New Year’s Run, Fall Tour makes all the difference. This year, the band’s short fall run propelled them to incredible musical heights over this holiday run as opposed to past years where they have scrambled, after an extensive offseason, to put together four shows. This year at Madison Square Garden, everything came together in a perfect storm. Riding the momentum of fall, the excitement of a new album, and the outpouring of love and devotion of their community on their 30th Anniversary, Phish threw down a run packed with jams for the annals of time, making us fall in love with them all over again thirty years later.