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Phish at Madison Square Garden

Doug Collette By

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Phish
Madison Square Garden
New York, NY
December 31, 2013

Above and beyond the secret language of their community, Phish have long been masters at making statements without coming right out and saying what they mean, largely because of the mutual faith long ago instituted between the band and their fans.

The recognition of their 30th anniversary together offered at the end of their 2013-14 New Year's Run at Madison Square Garden was a gesture of affection in keeping with the euphoria that had filled the New York venue the night before. Electrified as they began this third night of the run, Phish went further in improvisation on December 30 than any other of the four nights, at the end of the second set engaging in massive segues (Ghost > Weekapaug Groove > Simple > Harry Hood > Cavern > First Tube) in which they pushed themselves far past the point where a lesser band would stop. By the time they left the stage, with the appropriately bittersweet languor of "Slave to the Traffic Light," the attendees had to wonder how the quartet would top themselves the next night, if in fact they would try.

New Year's Eve's first set ended up being a decoy, its uniformity otherwise lacking distinction by Phish caliber. Evoking an iconographic image from the band's distant past, guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell brought a cake in the shape of a keyboard to stage center. The offered slices to front row fans delivered by bassist Mike Gordon seemed puzzling and anticlimactic, not to mention minimal, as the event's usual gag (one year a flying hot dog, another a roster of dancers in golf garb in front of which Phish teed off).

The video of drummer Jon Fishman, the band's comic figure and unsung hero, exhuming the band's original equipment truck wasn't much more enlightening. Equally puzzling was the emergence of a similar vehicle heading out to the center of the floor, otherwise populated by general admission ticketholders up to this point. A minimal equipment setup from year's past, including hockey sticks as mike stands like the band used in their early days, made more sense as the band members emerged to walk through the crowed and assume their positions atop the truck and engage in a full set of material, much of which derived from the mythic cult piece "Gamehendge," and all of which dated from 1983. Excellent as it was (and from the regular stage for most of the run), the quality of sound was less impressive than the accuracy and emotionalism of the musicianship, the momentum of which (only momentarily subsumed by Anastasio's rap about the group's intended message) culminated in a blistering traipse through "Split Open and Melt."

Phish displayed no letdown as they mowed their way through familiar material, plus the new "Fuego," in the third set, a torrent of balloons and confetti filling the air and the floor while the foursome played their only cover of the run in the form of "Auld Lang Syne." The mark of Phish in their fourth decade is the delicate balance of confident power and a proportionate idiosyncrasy, the most effective combination of which might be the whimsical but unnerving "You Enjoy Myself," an effective—and, as usual, slightly unsettling by dint of the ending vocal jam—punctuation to the evening and the four nights at Madison Square Garden.

But the band returned to the same stage from which vocal acrobatics arose to harmonize sweetly and laughingly on the a capella "Grind." An appreciation of the passing of time that effectively balanced the likes of the final tune, "Show of Life," emanated a resonance that transcended its precious conceit, a precursor of the image flashed on the scoreboard recalling Anastasio's pledge to keep playing with his mates another three decades: a save-the-date caveat for 2043 followed by an artist's rendition of an aged group of faces, like the band itself as it begins a new year, eyes alight with the prospect of more good things to come: not exactly like NYE 2014 perhaps, but equally unpredictable and more satisfying for it.

Finishing up at the famed New York venue in January 2013, keyboardist Page McConnell made reference to the thirtieth anniversary of the seminal jamband, but precious little happened during the course of the year in recognition of that milestone. Just as well, though, as this band that abhors nostalgia rose above simplistic emotion at the turning of the New Year, 2014.

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