This year isn’t just the 25th anniversary of my first Phish concert; it also is a quarter century now of Phish playing shows on New Year’s Eve. Other than the two periods where they were on break, Phish have played a New Year’s concert every year since 1989. Not only have they played, but starting in 1992 with Brad Sands being suspended from the ceiling in a Famous Mockingbird outfit, Phish have done a visual stunt every year except for 1998 where it was deemed to be too distracting. As one of the few people in attendance every time Phish have played on this date, it’s time to bring out a completely subjective list for the top 10 stunts they have performed.
10: Gamehendge Time Lab. Madison Square Garden. 12/31/95
While not the best stunt by any means, Van de Graff Generators are inherently cool. It also gets extra points for being tied into the story told during Colonel Forbin’s Ascent and the surprise factor of having Jon be Baby 1996. Admittedly, when people think about this show, the stunt isn’t what comes to mind, but that’s more because the music was so overwhelming than the stunt was horrible.
9: Flying Fans. Madison Square Garden 12/31/11
Sometimes it’s fun to have a blank slate on which to project your own narrative. The 2011 gag started with a fan rushing the barricades protecting the band only to be thrust up in the sky. There was great eye candy as the band played a massive version of Steam, and then later during Down with Disease as even Mike and Trey were propelled towards the ceiling on giant platforms, but what I will always remember about this is the way that the start of the stunt – lone woman trying to defy security – echoed so well with the Occupy Wall Street Movement of that year. It’s likely an unintentional resonance but it gave extra significance to the prank.
8: Golf. Madison Square Garden 12/31/12
There’s no narrative to this one, only sheer surrealism. Having the band stage an actual runaway golf cart marathon, firing foam golf balls into the crowd, and performing a golf themed set was bizarre. It gets downgraded a bit because Phish and golf aren’t really associated with each other; there is a bit of inverse synergy going on. Still though, you can go wrong with an overwhelming sensation of what just happened there?
7: Meatstick Dancers. Madison Square Garden 12/31/10
This started out a bit worrisome as some ethnic dancers came on stage and started singing the Meatstick chorus in some pidgin version of their language. However by the time the Swedish women started yodeling and the stage became overwhelmed with dancers who then went into some choreographed production. The punchline was to come at the end where the band – who had long left stage but due to a recording that was playing and the sheer number of people blocking the view, it was hard to see – suddenly came out in the giant hotdog. What giant hotdog? See below!
6: The Aquarium Set. Worchester Centrum 12/31/93
This was the first real big production. The third set started with voices over the PA and four people in diving suits – purporting to be the band – slowly lowered from the ceiling. A giant clam on stage slowly, oh-so-slowly, counted down to midnight. The footage from this stunt was later used in the Down With Disease music video, which caused the song to propel up the Billboard Charts in a much more interesting universe.
5: Playing in the Round. Madison Square Garden 12/31/13
This was an interesting idea. As a tribute to their just past 30th anniversary as a band, stagehands moved a mockup of their old JEMP truck into the middle of the floor at Madison Square Garden. They then played on old equipment, performing mostly classic songs. It was definitely a moment of nostalgia but it was quite appropriate for the occasion.
4: Balloons. Fleet Center 12/31/96
After a few years of stunts involving giant props, 1996 returned to the basics. At midnight there was a balloon drop. The one slight difference was that the balloons just kept coming and coming and coming. Tens of thousands of balloons fell into the crowd, making the floor a sea of inflated rubber. It was a simple idea but the excess made the moment.
3: Snow. Madison Square Garden 12/31/02
At Phish’s first show after the hiatus, they debuted the new original Seven Below. During it, fake snow started to fall from the ceiling and fell and fell and fell. Another uncomplicated idea but stunning in its simplicity. All of the joy of that first moment when you look outside and see that it’s snowing, without any of the cold or shoveling to go with it. Rumor has it that this was the original plan for the aborted 1998 stunt. If so, I’m glad it wasn’t completely abandoned.
2: The Giant Hot Dog. Boston Garden 12/31/94
This is it, the prop so major that it is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the one so cool that they brought it back twice in 1999 and 2011. As the lights went out for the third set, Jon complained of being hungry. No problem, he ordered a giant hot dog to be delivered to the stage. A few songs later, a monstrosity appeared, a hot dog so large that the band could fit inside it and fly around the Boston Garden. The aquarium might have been the night that started the stunts, but this one is the event that Phish might always be remembered for.
1: Shooting Fishman Through the Roof. American Airlines Arena 12/31/09
And yet, it’s not in first place. Why did the disco ball stunt win? It gets points for meticulous planning throughout the run. On the first night, Trey – innocently enough – said that Fishman’s vacuum solo would be the final one of the decade. However, they then played another vacuum song on the 30th. That inspired Jon to invite someone on stage to play the solo for him. This set everything up.
On New Year’s there was an elaborate joke where the other band members put Jon into a mirrored disco ball. They made an elaborate misdirection joke about trying to lift him up, while – presumably – it was on a trap door, letting him descend below the stage. Pyrotechnics and lights gave the illusion that the cannonball was fired all the way through the roof. That’s all well and good, but who would then play the drums.
Much like the night before, they asked for volunteers. A woman named Sarah from Pittsburgh was brought onto stage. Right before she got to the drumkit, she ducked down and Fishman – wearing a wig and the same outfit – replaced her. It was confusing enough that people argued for a while if it was Jon or Sarah playing, especially because they switched back for the bow. Most of these stunts were clever, but this is the only one that had large chunks of the audience falling for it. For that reason alone (not to mention the final punchline involving a car parked outside the venue that night in an alleged eco friendly stunt; it had a sign purporting that it used maple syrup to power its trip from Vermont. After the show, the disco ball was crashed into the car, wrecking it), it gets the top spot.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He now tweets and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page
His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and his Create Space store.