Anticipation grows with each passing night of Phish’s annual new year’s run. Each night also carries with it the weight of past glories. December 30th holds a special place in Phishstory. On 12/30/93 the band played one of the greatest shows of their career to that point and a show that still holds up eighteen years later. A year later, Phish made their Madison Square Garden debut. The highlights of 12/30/97 are almost too numerous to mention: among them a mesmerizing “AC/DC Bag,” an epic “Harpua,” and two bustouts of “Sneaking Sally.” It’s possible the fog still hasn’t cleared from the 12/30/99 Big Cypress “Mike’s Song” and, more recently, 12/30/09 is one of the finest shows of the band’s 3.0 era. So expectations always run high on December 30th. Sometimes those expectations are met, and other times... not so much.
Which brings us to 12/30/11. Last night was not a bad show by any stretch. In fact, had this show occurred in the middle of summer tour, fans would likely be focusing on the outstanding second set “Piper” rather than debating the show’s shortcomings. But this show didn’t take place in the middle of summer tour. It took place on December 30th, in the world’s most famous arena. And, save for the “Piper” and a few other minor highlights, 12/30/11 simply couldn’t stand up to the ghosts of the past. Let’s go to the tape...
A “PYITE” opener always gets the crowd in a good mood even if the rendition is not a letter perfect reading. “Caspian” was somewhat oddly placed, though well enough played before giving way to a short “Number Line.” “Nellie Kane” is a perfectly pleasing selection from Mike’s bluegrass repertoire, but not much more to say about it. The “Divided Sky” that followed was one of the minor highlights of the set, as Trey put a fairly unique spin on the ending jam. An all too brief, but fiery and engaging “Sand” followed. “Vultures” was next and represented the first real setlist surprise of the night, but was unfortunately not well executed and had no real jam to it. The “Rift,” “Joy” sequence might have passed muster in June but, well, those ghosts of the past continued to haunt. Still, a “Quinn the Eskimo” closer can always put a smile on the most jaded fan’s face.
If expectations weren’t high enough already, the lackluster first set somehow built them up even higher. The band had to do something to inspire, didn’t they? Perhaps, but “Wilson” > “Axilla” wasn’t it. However, just when things were looking bleak (well, as bleak as things get at a Phish show), the band stepped up and delivered the finest improvisation of the run thus far with a “Piper” that seemed to move effortlessly from one theme to another before transitioning, fifteen glorious minutes later into a satisfying “Twist.” “Julius,” as it usually tends to live, seemed to contain a little extra something but the ensuing “Golgi” was served with a few clams from Trey. “2001” was probably as good or better than any recent version, with Page especially bringing his “A” game. Alas, the energy was squandered by following up the cathartic finale of “2001” with a poorly placed (and played) “Horse” > “Silent.” “Bowie” was next and certainly lifted everyone’s spirits and the band then opted for the mellow route, closing the set with “Coil” and Page’s outro solo. After Mike did his best to bring the house down during a fantastic “Boogie On,” the band sent us home with an all-too-appropriate “Good Times Bad Times.”
Let’s be clear though: while this show may not have lived up to the incredibly high bar of excellence Phish has set for themselves, it was still a ton of fun and there was absolutely nowhere I’d rather have been last night than at MSG. And I can’t wait for tonight. It’s New Years Eve and expectations are high.
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