[Previously in Nedstalgia: Phish shows 1 & 2, #3 #5 ,#6-9, #77 & 78, #79, #80&81); Mule; Widespread Panic #1 (& 'ween 97); The Duo; Robert Randolph HORDE 92 (i.e. Phish #4, WSP #1)]
Tis the season to get nostalgic. In fact, it was NYE season last year when Nedstalgia made its debut on this blog, as I looked back on Panic's '96 Fox Theater run. But let's not get nostalgic for nostalgia. Today it's long, incoherent rambling on the 97 Phish-at-MSG that sets the gold standard for New Year's runs.
The music is out there readily, in fact, the 29th [10 years ago tonight!] is officially available from the band in both audio and video. So no downloads from me today. In fact, these shows have probably been poured over by even the casual Phish fan, so I'll keep it short and will forgo any dep delving into the music itself.
The three nights were all completely different experiences for us: the music and vibe of the room was a lot different for each show and that was characterized for us personally by where we were sitting and who we were hanging out with. It was like all our different Phish worlds not-quite-colliding, but brushing up against each other.
The first night we caught up with a "tour buddy." Of course, there were lots of people I saw regularly at Phish shows, but while I enjoyed their company at shows more or less, it really was nothing more than that. Our friend, Al, though was different and it was always great to see him and spend a show or two hanging out... preferably in the front row, of course. But not on 12/29/97. We were up on the side, decent view, decent sound, but... you know. There was a definite "settling in" vibe to the first set with very little of that whacked out funktronic sound that had bullied its way to the forefront during the fall tour... but a nice appearance of Fluffhead and a hot Antelope closer set the stage.
Set the stage for what? It's my general opinion, stated multiple times here, that the fall 97 tour>spring 98 was the ultimate peak Phish. Not that things weren't brilliant before or after, but as a grand aggregate of what the band was doing, the tippity top of it all was going on exactly ten years ago. We can point to many examples, I detailed the sick-as-shit Hampton run as one but if you're just looking for one set to "say it all," so to speak, the second set of 12/29/1997 probably sums it up as good as any, or better than most, I should say. It's well worth a few bucks for the SBD's, so go ahead and grab those... I'll wait. Long jams are a dime-a-dozen in the Phish portfolio, but these were deep, intense, 4-guys-on-a-rope jams that went places. Went places, came back and then went somewhere else. And damn, was it funky. Not lazy grooves, either, but pure "my body's a-dancin'"/"my mind's a racin'" everyjams. The rare evening when it wasn't about Trey at all -- Mike and Page and Fishman leading the charge, making things happen, laying down one helluva groove.
Madison Square Garden was a Phish room -- one of many out there, for sure -- not just a venue but a home. A place where the band would move in, redecorate and make their own. Abode. Domicile. And the invitation was an open one, because it was always going to be a party when they unpacked their suitcases at 34th and 7th. I don't know if that was ever more true than during the NYE97 shows there and this set was the dinner portion of the party, the delicious feast of sight and sound that would fuel the rest of the weekend... well actually, the shows were Mon, Tue, Wed, but you get the idea....
The 30th found us hanging out with a couple of good college friends. Guys I'd seen many shows with, yeah, but more importantly sat and listened to hundreds of hours of music with. If I took a good chunk of my CD collection I wouldn't be able to remember which ones I recommended to them and which they recommended to me. So we were sitting around pre-show on 12/30/1997 talking about the grand state of the Phish experience at that time, the majesty of the previous night's table-setter and, of course, setting up our expectations for the 30th. It seems like the night-before-the-night is always the night (I know I speak for all of us when I say that 12/30/1993 was a special, special show), so we had no trouble ratcheting up our hopes. My buddy Jon was singing the praises of "Carini" and we all agreed we'd love to hear it. The way I remember the anecdote, in the midst of this I blurted out something like "You know what would be a perfect tune to bust out tonight? Sneakin Sally" Maybe it was someone else, but we all were in total agreement and probably within a minute of that, the lights went down, the chills perked in every hair on my body and the band launched into the long-shelved "Sneakin Sally." Fuck yeah!
The legend of 12/30/1997 is, no doubt, greater than the show itself, which is saying something. Because it was one helluva show. All around, it undoubtedly was the keeper of the 3 nights, although nothing approached the playing of the 2nd set from the night prior. This was the sloppy/silly/nutty show. The playing wasn't anything to behold, but the spectacle, the grandness of what Phish is/was was on display on that night like it rarely is. Every time you bought a ticket and stepped into a Phish show, you always knew there was the potential that the red button would be pressed and the always magical molecules of the band would rend open releasing some sort of mushroom cloud of... of something. The potential was always there, but rarely was it manfiest and rarely was it so fucking out there like it was on the 30th.
The second set was a long blur of tripped out psychotic energy. It started with the frenetic chords of AC/DC Bag and peaked in a Harpua story that was so long and whacked out that it kind of rendered all the music previous irrelevant. I can only imagine what kind of sauce inspired Trey's tale of watching Lost In Space as a kid and the weird through the looking glass interactions he had with the television in his room one day. I do know that olive loaf was involved prominently and that the story was drawn out to an uncomfortable length and featured Tom Marshall singing "500 Miles." It was the kind of lull that rivaled the Ken Kesey episode from the summer previous -- the kind of mid-show diversion that only Phish could pull off.
The story went so long that it seemed like by the time the band got back to finishing up Harpua that the set would end then and there. I remember feeling incredibly disappointed that a set that had started with so much promise would fizzle like that with the crowd dampened from shaking their collective booty to shrugging "WTF!?!" glances at each other. Of course, never underestimate a band in the zone... and circa 12/1997, Phish was in the zone like no band I've ever seen. Not only did they not finish the set then, they didn't finish it with the eminently set-closable Izabella... or the hot, slinky Harry Hood, or the how-could-they-close-with-this-shit? My Soul... or even the climactic Sleeping Monkey that came after all that. Holy mackerel, they just about packed an entire tour's worth of set-closers in a whack-a-mole set closing stretch that didn't end until they melted down in a gunsablazin' Guyute.
At that point, the show was a worthy one. Not just as a good Phish show, but a night befitting a New Year's Run in the midst of the band's triumphant all-powerful state. Quick encore and let's go home for a good rest, right? Well, not exactly. With the curfew pretty much eclipsed by that moment, the band did another one of those zig-replacing zags and, knowing that they'd already be paying late-fines for the tight-ship MSG workers on duty, decided to claim victory in their defeat and announced that they'd be playing until New Year's Eve. What ensued was an absurdly long encore that started with the much-desired Carini to shock the Garden into submission. Man, that was hot. It was a "listen up!" encore, a statement that no matter how great things had been, how crazy they had gotten, how deep the jamming had been, how fucking rocking they had rocked, there was always more. Always. There was always another song that could take it one step further. Another jam which could enlighten you that much further. A deeper funk that would make you dance that much more inhumanely. That was all there in that Carini.
But there was so much more as practically another full set of music unfolded, the Carini not being quite sufficient for the band, they smoothly transitioned into the funk-of-the-times "Black Eyed Katy" and turned the entirety of Madison Square Garden into a dance party. The crowd was liquid. Not water, but liquid mercury, measuring the band's temperature and rising with each degree, pushing the top of the glass. I knew at that point I could go all night if I had to.
Oh to bottle and save what the band was brewing those nights! The Carini giving way to the Katy, the Katy impossibly making it's way into a reprise of Sneaking Sally. Like they had planned it all along. It was so perfect that it was almost too perfect. Had they planned it all along? Did they know Trey was going to babble incoherently in the middle of Harpua and that this would clear the path for the ultra-encore that ensued? Making the entire night one crazy Dagwood sandwich. Phish was a movie director setting up a long tracking shot that seems impossible but that's choreographed completely, not just that night, but maybe the whole Phish thing, from a dorm room in Burlington they had mapped things out to that very moment and beyond, well beyond...
Was that the end? Did they leave us with a funky goodbye? Of course not, they went on. There was no need for anything else at that point, it was absurdity, total engorement, the band and the audience would need to stick fingers down their throats to make room for any more music the following night (let alone three sets), but as it always was for Phish, the slope was a slippery one and once they decided to bite, they had no choice but to bite off as much as they could chew. So, the encore continued with a Frankenstein that felt right. Loud, rollicking, deep -- it was a great choice and one no one in the crowd could have foreseen. And yet it still wasn't enough, because what we got was a whacked out, this-is-your-brain-on-drugs version of Frankenstein, like this was the Peter Boyle version, not the Boris Karloff one. Long, trippy middle section of swirling sound -- samples and feedback loops and then finally, the utter capper of all cappers, a totally misplaced are-you-fucking-kidding-me vacuum solo from Fishman in the middle of the middle of the end of one of the crazier encores I've ever seen.
Of course, it came to an end. It had to at some point. Holy shit!
New Year's Eve proper had no chance after all that. After a top ten all time second set on the 29th and the throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks craziness of the 30th, what could they possibly do on the 31st? We actually had pretty good tickets for the 31st, as we had waited out (w/ Oopy of course) all night at a Ticketmaster outlet way, way, way uptown (in Inwood) which is probably one of the last times I ever waited to buy tickets from an actual outlet in my life. But we were greedy and we inched our way up front. The security guard on the rail in "the spot" was someone we recognized from MSG 10/96 shows and I knew he could be had for a little cash, which is so not my style, but heck, it was New Year's Eve and we wanted to hang out on the rail in front of Trey without sweating it, so I slipped him a little something and we were set for the night. My brother & his buddy ended up joining us and so the trifecta of showmates was complete with a little family. Actually, it was the four of us in the car to my 2nd Phish show and their 1st (remembered here), so good times all around.
The show opened strong with a second-ever appearance by that nasty Emotional Rescue, but it never quite got there. There were moments, of course, I think the playing was superb and probably surpassed the previous night, I enjoyed the crap out of it, but it doesn't live on in the mind like the nights that preceded it. The coolest thing was realizing at midnight that it was all planned out, to some extent -- all the crazy shit that Trey had been talking about in the Harpua narrative, the stuff that sounded like he was pulling it straight out his puckered anus, made an appearance in the form of these crazy ass gigantic balloons that fell from the ceiling at midnight... even the olive loaf. The post-midnight Tweezer that had Trey jamming in a trance while watching this calvacade of balloons pouring into the crowd and making their way on stage was pretty sweet, though. Mid-soloing, Trey would pop the balloons that came his way with the neck of his guitar which was the kind of cool-dorky thing that he pulled off quite well.
Man, those were good times.
Coming soon: 15 year remembrances of my first New Years eve music.