What’s With The Controversy? Isn’t It All ‘Hood, ‘Brah?

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IT is often the most highly anticipated event in any given year of Phish. And 2010’s New Year’s Run began 2011 as it had ended 2010, with a sold-out, webcasted performance at Madison Square Garden in New York City — a show that some fans regard as one of Phish’s most consistently great gigs in recent years, up there even with the best shows from October. But why? Did they see or hear the same show that you did?

No, they probably didn’t. This is one of those Phish shows where opinions even among fans who have seen and heard a ton of Phish’s music seem to be all over the map. Even if you were at the show yourself, and were occasionally bumped by (inconsiderate) tripping-aisle-dancing wooks, or burned by cigs, or doused with beer, my guess is that you still managed to enjoy the music overall — because I think it was that good, overall. But the scene could be challenging, to be sure.

While MSG ushers at past shows that I’ve been to were typically quite strict, they seemed in general to have taken a hands-off approach to the shows on this run, and fans were able to move about relatively freely, which naturally caused gross overcrowding in some sections and wide-open rows in others. This is, of course, not atypical of scenes at indoor Phish shows. But the sound at MSG was also very different as one moved throughout the venue, especially the ability to hear Mike’s bass and Page’s keyboards. This was not likely the fault of Phish’s soundman, however, given the complexities of the room, and frankly I can’t recall the sound at MSG ever being that awesome, unless you had a bank of speakers aiming directly at you from under 50 yards away or so. In any event, the sound at MSG did seem a bit lower than it has been in the past, and, as at all shows but especially at these MSG shows (heard live by many fans thanks to the webcasts), dramatically different experiences by fans are contributing to the extremely diverse range of opinions about the MUSIC of the shows. It should go without saying, but if you watched the shows from the comfort of your home with friends and family, your experience of the music was quite different than that of the guy who vomited all over himself during the “Guelah Papyrus” and heard most of the show lying sideways on the floor of the hallway outside section 420. Or the gal who had to rescue her freshly-soiled winter coat — a Christmas gift from her dying grandmother — out from under a couple of rolling wooks mating during “Reba.”

Thus, to put the following two cents on the music of 1/1/11 in context: I had a wonderful seat Page-side in section 211, just off the aisle, near a bank of speakers, and I was surrounded by respectful, dancing, happy fans, even though I exited MSG smelling like a beer-filled ashtray. But such is par for the course upon leaving an indoor Phish show.

Phish’s first show ever to take place on January 1 began in a mellow mood with “My Soul,” remarkable only in how perfunctory it seemed in light of the very tight “Tube” that followed it. Though arguably not quite as strong as the Atlantic City version from October or the Portsmouth version from June, it was nevertheless up there with and similar in its funkiness to the Greek and Jones Beach versions from August. Its jam foretold the strength of the improvisation that would occur in the rest of the show.

The first set then proceeded to go “old school” with a run of good versions of fan-favorites “Runaway Jim,” “Foam,” “Guelah Papyrus” and “Divided Sky.” Although many veterans likely fled to the bathrooms during one or more of these tunes, I repressed any negative or otherwise jaded thoughts, and chilled warmly in the glow of these fantastic songs. The soulful, timeless themes of “Divided Sky” are gorgeous and very moving to hear when one reflects on the year that’s passed and the year that’s to come. This version may have done (or will do) nothing for you, but it nevertheless brought tears to my eyes. Don’t ask me to compare it with the 12/31/94 version, though, another year-ending, year-beginning “Divided Sky” which I heard live. Though it ain’t always perfect, my love for “Divided Sky” is and always has been unconditional. And this is true, even if you catch me using the bathroom during the opening composed section, since there’s plenty of time before Trey’s usually magnificent solo begins, and the song’s set placement often occurs when the bathrooms are least in use. (But don’t tell anyone I said that, as the only thing perhaps more jaded at a show than deliberately using “Divided Sky” as a bathroom-break song is to leave the show during it instead.)

With a whimsical nod to MSG’s shape, “Round Room” was up next. It was an unusual call, as it had only been previously played four times, with all four performances occurring in 2003 (the last one was on 7/13/03 at the Gorge, 140 shows ago). It was a little bit rough, which is forgivable, but regardless, it deflated the energy stirred-up in the room by “Divided,” including the energy of Santa Claus, who raged while rail-riding (front row) for most of the show. That energy dramatically rebounded, however, during the excellent “Walk Away” that came next. All of the versions this year have had a jam segment with a chord progression and intensity similar with (but certainly not identical to) “Tweezer Reprise,” which gives this cover more juice than it ever previously had. This is a tune that has improved tremendously not only in the last two years, but also since the first time Phish covered it in July 1988. In fact, my eyes may have deceived me, but I think this 1/1/11 version (comparable in length to the 6/17/10 Hartford version) may have even fooled Chris Kuroda on the lights a bit, as Trey continued wailing-away in the jam segment for an additional few measures, rather than ending the jam more or less where he’d ended it in the preceding versions in August and October.

Like so many other 2009-2010 versions, “Gotta Jibboo” was punchy and tight, which proved to be a striking contrast with the opening composed section of the “Reba” that followed. “Reba” is an extremely challenging song to play correctly, and no one understands that better than Trey. The jam segment of this “Reba” is very precious and soulful, and it concludes mightily. It is arguably one of the best versions of the last decade. It’s no improvisational monster like the recent Augusta 10/19/10 version. It’s just a straight-up, but excellent, “Reba.” This was one of the songs that made me fall in love with Phish’s music, and it’s one of the songs that keeps me in love with Phish’s music.

Immediately after “Reba,” pretty much everyone who had been paying attention to the setlists over the New Year’s Run began calling “Split Open and Melt” to close the first set, and then, after “Walls of the Cave” was played to close this hour and thirty-five minute first set, some of those same people began calling “Melt” at every possibly opportunity before and during the second set. It is a head-scratcher why Phish opted not to play “Melt” on this run, but whatever. The set-closing “Walls of the Cave” was no improvisational beauty like so many 2003-2004 versions (especially 2/22/03 Cincinnati and 2/25/03 Philadelphia), but it was nevertheless similar to and at least as great as the Manchester version from October. I loved hearing this close the set, as I’ve only caught this song twice.

The second set, believed by some to be one of the best sets of “3.0,” is remarkable for several reasons. First, it lacked ballads or otherwise obvious bathroom-break tunes, and so there were no doubt hundreds of fans who were dancing throughout the set only as hard as their dangerously-full bladders could tolerate. The set was an array of danceable, popular songs, each with the potential to send one’s soul — irrespective of one’s sobriety — soaring in blissful transcendence. Second, song choice means the world to many fans, particularly those who seize the moment and don’t care much (if at all) about whether they’re witnessing a “top” or “best ever” version of a tune. And this six-song second set — a set with almost half as many songs as the first set — exceeded their expectations. At only an hour long, this second set was also noticeably shorter than the vast majority of Phish sets ever performed. When “Bowie” ended the set, some no doubt wondered aloud whether the encore would be another multi-song throw-down like, say, at MSG on 12/30/97 with “Carini -> Black-Eyed Katy -> Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley > Frankenstein.”

But the brevity of the second set was forgiven in light of the consistently strong playing in every song in the set. The set as a whole was so entertaining that I don’t think I ever sat down (even briefly) or otherwise left my space — which probably hadn’t happened to me at MSG since 12/31/95. The musical highlights of the set, in my view, included the unusual, “type II” closing jam of “Simple,” an improvisation that sounded composed, and made people wonder if it was a new instrumental along the lines of “What’s the Use” — which I thought this jam might segue into, a la the 8/14/10 Alpine Valley “Down with Disease -> What’s the Use.” “Simple” was also followed by arguably the best version of “Sneakin’ Sally” in “3.0.” Noticeably faster than the 8/14/10 Alpine Valley version, this version of “SS” is worth a listen even if you’re not a fan of this tune.

The “Makisupa Policeman” in this set is also unusually improvisational, similar to the 12/28/09 Miami version. The jam segment seemed to be steadily and slowly deconstructed, only to be reconstructed anew, and the segue into the set-closing, excellent “David Bowie” that followed is wonderful as well. This version of “Makisupa” is as must-hear for any fans of this song as the 8/29/87 Ranch, 11/19/97 Champaign, and 7/25/99 Deer Creek versions are, to name a few. The encore on 1/1/11 began with “Fee,” with Trey on megaphone, just like all other versions of “Fee” since 8/12/10 Deer Creek, which was the last time that “Fee” had been played in the encore spot. And “Frankenstein,” which closed both the show and the New Year’s Run, featured Page on “keytar,” like all other 2009-2010 versions of this spectacular cover. Everyone seemed to appreciate the encore, and it was an outstanding way to conclude Phish’s first gig of 2011.

Whether you’re a fan who chooses to be happy in your Phish listening at all times, or who is instead pleased only when Phish gives you at least a bit more than the greatness your jaded hide demands from them, the 1/1/11 MSG show is worth a listen. Many bytes have apparently already been sent debating the merits of this show, and especially whether the second set in particular is one of the best of 2010-2011. This is, of course, reason alone for why you should hear it and decide for yourself. Happy New Year, and THANK YOU PHISH!!

Charlie Dirksen practices law and is an officer and Board Member of The Mockingbird Foundation, an all-volunteer 501©(3) nonprofit founded by Phish fans in 1997. He first saw Phish at the Paradise in Boston on 10/6/89. He is a Phish.net Admin and may be reached at [email protected] or via @cdirksen on Twitter.