Photo by Rob Chapman

Not that there has been any doubt, really since the first “reunion” shows in 2009, but the first two shows of the 2011 New Years Run have continued this year’s trend of taking no prisoners. It became apparent first when the boys executed a flawless rendition of “Glide” on Wednesday night but the game hit extra innings when Thursday night slammed us in the gut with an out-of-left-field opener in the form of the sparsely played Gamehendge classic “The Sloth.” A feeling instantly filled the 20,000 seat room, it was something like being forcefully grabbed by the cujones… and loving it.

I am a longtime Phish fan but I am not an MSG veteran, before the first two nights of this run, my only other visit was the reunion New Year’s show in 2002. The band and the fans really seem to love this venue but there is something missing in the overall feel of the experience for me. Not in the show itself, the band responds with nuclear fusion in this room and I LOVE indoor Phish, but the feel outside leaves a lot to be desired. New York City is bigger than we are as a fanbase. And the attitude of the city sweeps away the Phish show feel. Not until I was sitting in my seat, both nights, did I get that feeling… you know the one, kind of butterflies in the stomach, almost nauseous excitement—and for me, being in my 15th year as an obsessed fan—one of the only feelings that I know I can still experience with the same giddiness I felt at the age of 16. If you don’t love that, a check of the pulse might be in order my friend!

As the last echoes of diez (Spanish for ‘ten’) careened off the ceiling of The Garden signaling the end of “Sloth,” the band broke briefly to talk about what song was to fill the second slot. Mike turned toward Fishman and used his hands to spell out three crude “gang-sign-esque” letters Y-E-M. This is by far my favorite slot for “You Enjoy Myself,” it’s one of the few songs that truly defines the band and has for almost three decades. But when YEM lands in the two hole, it always seems to carry serious weight—see the Island Tour monster and the killer version from Worcester 1997 if you need proof. The band wove through the composed sections with nearly flawless execution and by the time they reached the skull splitting climax at “boy” the stage was set for big things.

I’ll say here that I haven’t been blown away by any of the versions I’ve heard since they returned in 2009, no, not even “Yemteca” from last New Year’s. But this version finally brought back the return of the chilled out jam. Something I have really missed—the open space slowly filled in by the whole band as the jam built toward a shreddy guitar climax and then thumped down into the old-school bass solo/vocal jam combo. For the first time in nearly a decade the band handed out a complete “You Enjoy Myself” that has me dancing in my seat even as I type.

After a roaringly successful 1-2 sucker punch opener the band, shifted back into “normal” first set mode, laying down two solid standards in the form of “Get Back on the Train” and “Moma Dance.” Followed by a particularly hot version of Son Seals’s Funky Bitch” that featured a massive organ assault by Page that had guitarist Trey Anastasio dancing with excitement while laying down a thick and funky blues groove—clearly still channeling the porno-funk lingering from “Moma.”

Then things took a terrifying turn (and I mean this in a good way). The white-knuckle romp through “Maze” had the whole crowd grooving intensely in place and transfixed on the stage as the songs intensity ratcheted up incrementally until the the echoed warnings—“you’ll never get out of this maze!”—sent the uninitiated spunions sprinting for the exits. A cover of Ween’s “Roses are Free” served to warm the mood before giving way to an unlikely set-closing duo.

Seeming to make a conscious decision to keep the mood up around cloud 11, Gordon scatted out the a cappella bassline to another fan-fave, “Halley’s Comet.” The band ran through the main sections of the song with conviction, all-the-while dodging volleys of glowsticks and intrusions from a massive balloon and some hollow-head with a laser-pointer and as the jam segment began to climb the giant balloon invaded the stage one last time before Trey, without skipping a note, popped the balloon with the head of his “axe”—the release of air literally blowing Trey’s hair back and earning a massive cheer from the crowd. Then with a collective nod, the band changed lanes in mid race and ran straight into a soaring “Run like an Antelope” to close set one.

Something I noticed both of the first two shows this run is that the band appears to play set one spontaneously and then about 15 minutes before the band returns to the stage for set two, someone comes out and leaves a piece of paper on the stage—setlist? It seemed to me that the band was laying a roadmap for themselves to follow in their famous improv-heavy second sets. And because the segues all seemed to work very well, if my speculations are correct, this roadmap has been a great thing so far.

It’s hard to think of better way to open a set than with the Talking Heads’ power punch “Crosseyed and Painless.” This version of C&P took on a diminishing trend starting in-your-face and decaying into an echoey soundscape, reminiscent of the quietest sections of “Divided Sky” before the band launched into the NYC-appropriate ode to the skyscraper. This rendition of “Simple” followed a similar track to “Crosseyed and Painless” starting big and slowly drifting out to a sing-songy segue into the surprise of the evening in the form of the rarely trotted ballad “Lifeboy.” This emotional piece of “typical Tom” seemed to me to be concrete proof that the band has been logging some hours rehearsing because they crushed this rarity with ease and placed it perfectly. Furthering that point was a nimbly executed version of “Guyute” that had the entire wrap of 100’s seats bouncing with the ugly pig’s meter-changing melodies.

The last bits of truly inspiring setlist bending started with a solid but fairly standard “Mike’s Song” which segued into a short but experimental version of “Chalk Dust Torture.” Definitely an unexpected turn, but if you’re skeptical, believe me when I say it worked. As the “Chalk Dust” solo began to flex its musical core, Trey began weaving the theme to “I Am Hydrogen” into the rocking jam, my brother Jon turned to me and said, “This is a risk!” And it was, the segue came off pretty well though and will probably stand out as one of the most ambitious of the year. When “Hydrogen” fell off chromatically into “Weekapaug Groove” we were treated to one of the best I have heard live in many years. Switching back and forth between “plinko” style and more straightforward jamming, Phish played off of each other like the old pros they are picking up each cue and lifting the song’s feel from a chilled out groove to a rocking and explosive climax.

The set probably should have ended there and the show punctuated with another three song encore, but “Show of Life” and “Character Zero” were bolted onto the end and kind of wore out the elastic on the set a little. I think if you asked everyone in the venue what the encore would be, I’d bet 75% of them would have guessed The Stones’ “Loving Cup.” The show was all about feeling good and it ended with the ultimate feel-good song. I’d rate this show as tight and solid but I’d rate it behind the previous night’s inspired playing. As always, I am already excited for my next experience with The Phish.