[Phish.net welcomes and thanks guest writer, Dr. Wook, for this recap. -Ed.]
Giving an ‘official’ recap of a Phish show these days can seem like a fool’s errand. What’s the use when by the time you leave the venue and get someplace, a little rectangle device resting in your hand will already deliver you the setlist with notable statistics, song times, and ability to immediately start relistening for the things you thought you heard hours ago. Dedicated fans, through this and other web sites, some in attendance, some viewing from home, often begin posting knowledgeable, insightful, and varied opinions covering all aspects of the performance before anyone even goes to sleep the night of a show. And as Phish heads through its 39th year, playing the venue they have played the most times across their storied career (68 at MSG), everyone at least agrees there is simply no singular way that people enjoy Phish. Stone cold sober or spun on psychedelics, on the rail or on the concourse, shedding a tear during "Joy" or peeing during Joy, there are such wildly diverse ways people engage with the immense catalogue of music and the ever-evolving live experience, that a common point of view is hard to come by.
I digress. The front man of another hugely popular jam band once noted that they would often play horribly at their “big shows”. The Super Bowl is not always the best game and that has been, with notable and significant exceptions, my general take on NYE shows (seldom the best musical night, always the most fun and entertaining place to be nonetheless). But this make up “NYE” show was night 3 of 4 on a Covid-delayed holiday run now happening in April. With so many strange variables, anything seemed possible. Night 2 was considerably hotter than night 1 and felt like a proper “12/30-level” show. Would night 3 continue this triumphant musical ascent or perhaps be a show more memorable for a stunt and party? Yes, both. From my vantage point (pretty close to the stage on the floor, Page side), 4/22 maintained a steep upward trajectory with deep jams across many sonic landscapes but the entire show will likely be forever colored by the unbelievable visual spectacle that took place during set 3.
A 17-minute patient and focused "Everything’s Right" opener lived up to its name and all, band and audience, were locked in for wherever the show was headed. A smooth and typically funky "Tube" pushed up the dance party vibe with typical great versions of "555" and "Back on the Train" sustaining the groove. "Army of One" permitted a brief cool down and if you failed to catch your breath, you were in trouble when the recently resurfaced "Axilla (Part II)" exploded out. After the usual rocker section, a very nice extended version of the slow outro (“Don’t shine that think in my face, man…”) was played and should put this Axilla on the charts that track such excellence. While considerably shorter than the ER, the "Bathtub Gin" that followed gave a spry and inspired Trey led jam. "S.A.N.T.O.S." closed the set in typical form.
Set 2 highlights include, again, the set opener with a blistering, multi-faceted, locked in "Set Your Soul Free" stretching past the 20-minute mark. The spirit family in my little corner of the show was bringing big energy. Relistening will be required to pull out the top-ranking jams of the night but the "Light" that came next will clearly be in the conversation. "Fuego" had some rust in the composed section but the, yet again, extended jam that followed did not. All 3 of these opening set 2 tracks will carry relisten value for certain. A beautiful "What’s the Use" and "Number Line" with a shout out to Trey’s daughter Bella celebrating her birthday could easily have made this a complete, dynamically jammed out MSG show for the books. But no one forgot that this was NYE in style and set 3 still awaited. While there were no overt clues regarding the expected gag, in hindsight, on night 2, a large inflatable shark made its way to the stage along with the usual balloons and balls that usually get cleared. I chuckled last night when I noticed that somehow the shark remained up by the stage, Page side. Coincidence?
This postponed holiday run now taking place in the month of April fortuitously ended up capturing a different commemorative day on the calendar—ok, 4/20 on night 1, certainly, but even more widely honored—Earth Day was on 4/22. Looking beyond the nature-infused set list, the music of set 3 demands the context of the spectacularly executed ocean and nature themed artistic ‘gag’ that took place across the whole set. (Seek out pictures and video footage as words will be wholly inadequate). Set break between 2 and 3 felt very long while the necessary arrangements were being made. At least down on the floor where things had remained relatively civilized for 2.5 shows, things were getting messy in the way you would expect at a NYE rager. Patience was nevertheless rewarded handsomely. "Free" opened and sounded confident and tight. The actual execution of the song didn’t much matter however, because a visual odyssey had begun to unfold before our eyes. A stripped-down mini stage (no grand piano, Fish with a simple kit, etc.) elevated ~15 feet above the main stage, still connected to the larger stage below by a wide slanted screen on all sides that would serve as a canvas for a top-notch light projection show.
By the time they moved on to rocking "A Wave of Hope" from Trey’s recent Lonely Trip album, there appeared to be a 2D screen of light in front of and behind the stage, yielding multidimensional synchronized cascading light patterns that created the appearance of an illuminated waterfall or falling rain engulfing the band. This would have been a stunning and very well received act if it all ended there. But it didn’t. "Waves" started up and from either side of the stage, emerged multiple giant inflated flying dolphins and a huge realistic looking humpback whale that swam (er, flew, using drone like propellers) in swirling currents bathed in beautiful light throughout the arena. Trey locked in with a nearby dolphin and began sonically communicating with it as it seemingly responded to his tones. The next thing we knew, Trey was jamming out his spacey whale calls and everyone was truly immersed in a psychedelic underwater world, far too distracted to fully grasp much nuance of the music being played (great versions of all songs thus far on recollection). A very necessary "Sand" was next to remind everyone that we were actually still at a Phish concert and the dance party could resume. Refocused and beginning to digest what exactly had just transpired, the audience erupted to the opening drum beat of "Split Open and Melt." These days, on a regular night, SOAM reliably traverses dark spacey dissonance, so it was clear we were headed off to a different world again. Upping the ante, ruffled ‘kelp’ ropes were hung all around the stage and a never-ending sea of bubbles began to fall across the arena. Brilliant lighting was once again on display throughout the space while the bubbles just kept filling the air (perhaps more Earth friendly than the usual thousands of balloons dropped on NYE—and there was already too much balloon litter on the outside anyhow). After they circled back to the close of Melt, loud pre-recorded sounds of cracking ice played over the sound system, the kelp dropped down, and the stage sunk while ice and snow appeared to surround it. The band briefly left the stage, signaling the end of the show, and returned for what was a well foreshadowed and very tight "It’s Ice" encore. Lights went up and hugs, tears, and stunned looks of awe could be seen all over the place as we all slipped back into the night knowing that we just witnessed a show that would not soon be forgotten.
As the band blazes towards a 40th anniversary next year, it’s hard not to be anything but grateful that they are still playing truly exceptional live music and putting on wildly inspired concerts that are always worth more than the price of admission. Phish’s steadfast and seemingly boundless generosity is paired with a community of fans, with all their varied approaches and opinions, that shows up every time and knows how to help the band create and revel. A symbiosis that continues to evolve and, at present, absolutely thrive. Like the vitality of our planet, Phish’s genius mustn’t be taken for granted. Nothing lasts forever and this delayed NYE show suggests the forthcoming Spring/ Summer tours will be worth any and all efforts to see them in 2022.
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