[We would like to thank Eric, user @Doktahgonzo, for recapping NYE. -Ed.]
New Year’s Eve has been a time that has become synonymous with renewal, the process of moving forward, and the promise associated with setting a new marker to measure our lives by. It underlies what many of us recognized to be at the heart of the cultural understanding we have developed around New Year’s Eve. It is a time for reflection on both the good moments we have had, as well as the adversities faced, and an attempt to look forward to something better on the near horizon. In the community around Phish I have long felt that we may be more acutely aware of this phenomena. The sense of spectacle, humor, and tradition that the band has infused the date with makes for an optimistic yearning that has felt palpable to me for the entire run of these shows.
I was perhaps more eager than many in looking to leave the past year behind. I had tickets for last year’s shows at MSG that were canceled last minute---a move that devastated me at the moment because I had put so much mental commitment into it, only to have the rug yanked out at the last proverbial moment. Not only had we all been denied the release that we get from going to see Phish, but there was also this sense of ourselves backsliding into this more restrictive space that so many of us had to work hard to get past and was extremely discouraging in the moment. The past several years have been tough on so many of us, which has led to us all having to forgo these rites that take on such personalized and communal importance; it’s something that we should make more allowance for and have understanding around. It has been a period of profound isolation, loneliness, and loss that many of us have had to contend with. I lost a close member of my own family in the past year, who I had to provide care to, and I know many others have had any number of challenges to encounter in the past year that are far more difficult. To make circumstances all that much more harrying though, I had transportation issues just getting to NYC. My flight for 12/28 from Chicago was canceled like so many others with a directional airline which will otherwise remain nameless. However, I was left with enough time for me (after being unable to find anything but $2000 first class tickets to NYC) to find a rental car and drive about 800 uneventful miles to make it for the shows. Then while I was satisfied with this effort while walking around Brooklyn on 12/28, I received a call from an unknown number. “Hello, this is Officer so & so from the Berkeley police department. Do you know where your car is?” “Uh…it’s not at my house?” He proceeded to inform me that my car had been stolen and gave me information and arranged to have it towed to a lot where it would be waiting for me in the New Year. Fortunately I’m not the type to dwell on things, but to put it lightly, the journey to NYC was more arduous than I bargained for.
In such situations, on a night like this it’s probably a good idea for Phish to have opened with a song like “Tweezer.” It was a signal to everyone in the building that they were prepared to throw down a celebration for us all and a consciousness of the task ahead of them. As they reached the jam, Trey shuffled around as Mike and Fishman built the groove around his play, shifting their play ever so slightly around eight minutes in and the music began to swell. Page’s work on the piano began to overlay well with Trey in strengthening the melody and created a small but gradually swelling peak within a few minutes. There were a few hints via Page’s synths at going to a much deeper, stranger place, but that thought was soon extinguished as “Tweezer” was allowed to fade and eventually “Halley’s Comet” started up. The crowd roared its delight upon getting such a pairing of fan favorites to start the night off. The “Halley’s” is pretty rote however, with just a brief (if spirited) jam before an early but well executed segue into “Set Your Soul Free.” Trey gets the chance to welcome us all into a spirit family and it feels like we’re taking off. Fishman’s drum beat propelled things forward, particularly from the seven minute mark. Things aren’t allowed to go particularly deep though before “SYSF” is abandoned for Trey to lock onto the opening guitar lines of “Rift,” which was quite well played, for one of their more difficult tunes.
The drumbeat for “Cavern” rolled off somewhat unexpectedly because of the mid-set placement. The execution was tight and to the point, but before we could think about what might come next they thrust us back into “Tweezer.” Trey began playing some short staccato phrases which Page accentuated with his synths. Fishman eventually began to vary and slow the beat, lending a more contemplative air. The band interplayed well over the next few minutes until the jam wound down and Trey led them into “Shade.” The mood in the room grew warm and swelled with a gratitude that had been present all through the last few days. Ballads have always provided a good moment to just stop a moment to reflect. I could tell how everyone was just so glad that we could all just actually have been there and present in that moment, for that night, however it might turn out. The serenity brought in by the crooning “Shade” lasts but a few minutes though as the ballad ends briefly, and out of the silence the distinctive chords of “Mike’s Song” ring out, and we are treated to a standard classic "Mike’s Groove," with the always pleasant little “I Am Hydrogen” tossed in the middle, before we were sent into setbreak with the joyous energy of “Weekapaug Groove,” concluding what was a festive kind of set. Both sections of the “Tweezer” were definitely the highlights to be had, as well as the well-played “Rift,” as far as what stood out most. Nothing revolutionary, but a palpable excitement had been brewed within the first set. It was a celebratory night, and Phish had laid the foundation for us all to embrace that.
That first setbreak involved me using the kindness of others and ultimately my own resourcefulness to secure a better viewing position in anticipation of the third set, as well as having obtained wholly unusable quotes for this piece (you know who you are). I ended up settling in near what would normally be center court, Page side where I was able to settle in for the rest of the evening (instead of the perch high in the 200’s as I’d been up until now). My journalistic imperative had carried the moment and set me up well for the remainder of the evening and gave me a good view for all the shenanigans when they would come.
The second set continued a trend that I'd noticed quite a bit in the past year, where it feels like there has been a more of an intentional focus on picking and stringing-together songs that can have a thematic commonality, when it comes to the emotional realm of the listener. I came to the view some time ago that Phish sets can act like emotional landscapes that the band fills in for us as they play, with each song contributing its own nuanced part to the grander piece.
As previously mentioned, the first set was high on energy and what felt like a sense of communal gratitude that we were finally here and able to join together in celebration and anticipation for what would come ahead. They began the set with a continuation of the celebratory theme with a combination of a by the book “S.A.N.T.O.S.” and a typically funky “2001,” where Page got the chance to shine a bit, but the band kept to a more reserved place, as though they weren’t going to attempt to leave the launch pad so to speak and go really deep with anything on particular.
“Kill Devil Falls” then began to strike a contemplative tone that results with some very gentle play from all members midway into the jam and functioned as a significant shift in the tone of the set for me. This gentle space that they had created began to become more enveloping until finally the energy picked back up and the “KDF” riff re-emerges and they ended the song. This opened a door though to the next sequence, which I have little doubt was a will be viewed as a more contentious portion of the set. Versions of “Mercury,” “Light,” “Waste,” and “Drift While You’re Sleeping” were strung together in a way that I found particularly emotionally affective, in the way they were able to draw me in and in being able to reflect on these moments within the context of a song, to let go of some of the emotional burden I felt I’d been carrying of late. I think people get caught up too much sometimes in what their own desires are for the band to play instead of just receiving what Phish gives us. Not every song played will be loved, be full of improvisation or otherwise particularly noteworthy in the long view. But in the moment, and when received with an open mind and heart, another intent can be unlocked. Between the themes of these songs, and their sequencing, I felt a strong but positive emotional catharsis that reminded myself of all the adversities that I and others close to me have needed to endure through this difficult time. But before myself, or anyone else might have the opportunity to linger or dwell, the opening chords of “Number Line” ring out and we were able to be reminded that tonight was a celebration and to try to shed our current upsets.
At the second setbreak, as soon as the four of them walked off, I was ready to watch the crew, but remarkably there didn’t seem to be a bunch of activity. In the past with Kasvot Vaxt, Sci Fi Soldier, or Earth Day sets, the crew had frantically worked such that they could transform the stage. Tonight, however, it felt like an unusually lax amount of preparation that they needed to do. They brought out a large structural object beneath a black sheet which was placed to Mike’s side of the stage, and looked like they were just testing marks on the stage and stuff. I had been able to see the risers behind the stage which made me think of dancers primarily, and the front of the stage had been extended further than it had been previous nights. There was definitely a platform up in the light rigging as well (a misdirect?) and there were some sort of gadgets spread around with pressurized air tanks. It didn’t feel as though something big structurally was about to happen with the New Year’s gag, though it did seem a certainty that there would be a lot of performers joining them on stage.
At about 11:45 the house lights dimmed and they came back out onto the stage. I will attempt to describe the events of the next ~25 or so minutes (but you’ll have to bear with me, this has all been a lot to process and I’ll undoubtedly miss some things). Phish got a singing telegram celebrating 40 years in 2023, and were told to make a wish.
Trey wished for a time machine to do it all over, which caused the telegram guys to go over and throw a big switch that had been revealed in front of Mike. An LED cube flashed bright colors and years and images from the past, with corresponding audio clips began to play, until a little squirrel came along and joyously broke the time machine, at which point the band began to play “Ghost.”
We proceeded to see characters from nearly all of the gags they have pulled over the years come out and have their own dances or routines that they go through to jog our collective memories: we saw The Famous Mockingbird, Sci Fi Soldiers, Kasvot Växt, Father Time, hot dogs, the fairy dancers, clones, an aerialist, yodelers, and golfers…but then the music changed and Page began singing the opening lines of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and sure enough, we began to see the red robes of a full gospel choir filing onto the stage. It showed an incredible commitment to the bit, and seeing the joy exhibited from the entire choir when their part was finished and they burst into dance.
My heart was filled with a fondness and a sense of joy that I’m still coming to terms with how to bring words to it. It was all so much to process, and they just proceeded to keep adding to the pile of stimuli. A brass band entered and they all erupted into “Jungle Boogie.” The platform with a long-haired green clone was lowered and he proceeded to wake from his slumber and reveal himself to be Tom Hanks, and “Wilson” began playing. Before long the New Year’s countdown began and giant clouds of green confetti were launched into the air of The Garden. “Auld Lang Syne” began and the band took off their instruments to savor a moment and have some cake in front of the crowd. Oh yeah, a cake appeared(?!) and upon returning to their instruments they broke into “Carini” and then the cake began to open up and naked dudes emerged from the cake, and proceeded to play a cat and mouse game with the police. I was perplexed at why this was still going, what else was there to do? Surely this was all the bits, wasn’t it? The “Carini” routine with the naked guys went on for some time with a lot of choreography as the band actually played a pretty solid micro jam. At the conclusion of “Carini,” Page started into “New York, New York” and the naked dudes started to link arms and do some Rockettes style kicks. Wow! Okay, this was all the bits.
With that, we were finally done with all the extra performers and we could focus on just being at a Phish concert. I loved it all, but it was also so much that overwhelming doesn’t begin to describe it. They pulled out all the stops and I commend them for it, but it all left me feeling a sensory exhaustion just at having tried to follow it all.
“Tweezer” has been returned to, again. Page flexes his synths, but this return just lasted a few minutes before segueing into “Prince Caspian” in what felt like an obvious nod to Magnaball. The jam that emerged was inspired, but like most things in this set, attention was never to be fixed in one place for too long. “Crosseyed and Painless” began to play, because of course it did this late into the show, at least at this absurd show. I also definitely am beginning to feel the first sense of panic at attempting to recap all of this, with just a phone to type on for the next 16 hours. Fishman has to laugh at himself for needing to restart a verse - even the flubs are endearing on a night like tonight. “Piper” emerged and was able to make the most of the short play time all the songs in the 3rd set were getting, “A Life Beyond the Dream” gave us a moment to breathe, and tried to add some aspirational emotional energy to the new year.
The notes of “First Tube” hit and the crowd got its energy up as it felt the finish line was within sight. Trey got his energy up as well, strutting around as he played and the music began to swirl around him. Like much of the set there isn’t a lot of coloring outside the lines here, but that hardly matters and wasn’t the goal within this set. It was a chance to look back with fondness and appreciation for all the amazing things accomplished within this community that had grown around these four weird dudes from Vermont.
When they returned to the stage for the encore, Trey fondly acknowledged as much before starting up a poignant and reflective “Show of Life.” We all were given a few final moments to bask in the emotional warmth of the moment, to think about those we had met along the way, and to reflect on our own place within this special community that we all have become part of.
“Tweezer Reprise” then started up to little surprise, and gave us a final few minutes to feel the togetherness and solidarity that this night had forged between us. It was a night impossible to forget, and for someone like myself, who had heard about and seen pictures of so many of these gags and special performances over the years, to get the chance to see all of this past revisited so fondly, and with such mirth---it was a humbling and appreciated gesture. For Phish, not only were they able to close the year properly (for a change), they signaled that they had a sense of the importance of the coming year for all of us. Happy 2023 everyone!
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