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Phish: New York, New York, December 28-31, 2012

Doug Collette By

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Phish
Madison Square Garden
New York, New York
December 28-31, 2012

Phish's four-night, year-end run at Madison Square Garden was the work of a band relishing its shared experience as a group, as well an enduring bond with its audience. It was as if the desultory dissolution of 2004 had never happened, yet the triumph of the 2009 reunion continues to inspire the band.

As befitting the occasion of the turn of the year, not to mention keyboardist Page McConnell's mention of Phish's thirty-year anniversary in 2013, the extremely well thought-out song choices, spanning nine sets over the course of the four shows, demonstrated recognition of the passage of time. Material of recent vintage such as "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan" (the very first number on the very first night), "Crowd Control" and "Twenty Years Later" shed new light on Phish favorites such as "Sample in a Jar" and "Tweezer," reaffirming the durability of its members' four-way relationship.

Meanwhile, the quartet juxtaposed more choice chestnuts of its own such as "Flufhead" and "David Bowie," with dyed-in-the-wool cover favorites including Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times" and The Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll." And off the-wall outside material such as Blues Image's "Ride Captain Ride," The James Gang's "Walk Away" and The Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like An Eagle"—which, despite its ragged arrangement (further marred by audio inequities) carried more significance than just its refrain, added a lightheartedness in keeping with Phish's innate whimsy and the playful spirit of the holiday(s).

Consequently, the emotional themes were as clearly defined as the extended improvisations. The former never came at the expense of the latter, however, as the foursome's musicianship evinced as much direction as purpose in keeping with the song selection as well as its own progression as a unit— even during the laugh-riot of closing night when the pure rock and roll rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" rose above the din of golf carts racing around the stage, illustrating the Caddyshack / golf theme that permeated the third set, having emerged from a direct reference within the foreboding spoken words of "Kung."

If Phish's jams over the MSG run did not reach the peaks of summer 2012, that was to be expected; these were its first and only concerts since that tour, so the foursome could hardly become that same well-oiled machine in such short order. Nevertheless, it's to Phish's credit that it continued to economize its improvisations, the group demonstrating a self-discipline that stood them in good stead on numbers such as "Stash" and "Free."

The quartet nevertheless went a little further out each successive night, December 30 the peak, perhaps, in that respect as the exploratory jam out of the hard-rocking "Carini" meshed seamlessly with the recent vintage of "Backwards Down the Number Line." The poignant sentiment of that tune echoed throughout the bittersweet melody lines of "Slave to the Traffic Light"; as common a closer to Phish sets as the hell-bent-for leather likes of "Run Like An Antelope" (which earlier this same night never really reached full acceleration), this song culminated a roughly 45-minute span of segues that created such a resplendent logic all its own that the encores of "Harry Hood— and especially "Show of Life"—were redundant.

The audiences filling the famous New York venue were increasingly delighted as the respective nights went on, significantly so as their discerning community was less than wholly thrilled with the band's appearance on the cusp of 2011/12. By set break on the second night of December 29—but especially when lighting master Chris Kuroda fanned the capacity crowd with banks of lights on New Year's Eve during "2001"—an unmistakably intimate atmosphere pervaded Madison Square Garden, and then overflowed out to 7th Avenue at the close of the shows.

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