Manhattan hummed. In the unseasonably mild night, scores of revelers preparing to ring in the new year trotted by Madison Square Garden, pleasantly oblivious to what was about to ensue within its storied walls.
Unbeknownst to them, inside, a tradition that began 17 years ago, and so suffused with passion that one could dub it a ritual, was about to be renewed: Phish, the eclectic quartet with legions of zealous followers, would perform at the Garden on New Year's Eve.
Indeed, having etched itself into the building’s vast history, the band deserves to have its best years immortalized on banners, hung alongside those of the Rangers and Knicks.
As the moment approached when both house lights and house music switch off, fans poured in to their respected sections, concession lines grew and water bottle caps collected, perhaps in the thousands.
Phish's devoted arrived in waves, donning everything from shimmering dresses to flashing battery-powered headpieces to ruffled blazers to suits with bow ties.
High above them, affixed to the Garden's circus tent-style roof, were clusters of balloons; some multicolored, shaped traditionally; others white, shaped like sausages. At the stroke of midnight, they would drop down, save for a few stragglers.
Prior to the show, the sometimes-deranged,always-discursive Phish message board on phantasytour.com had been buzzing with decidedly mixed reviews of the previous three shows.
Here, now, is a concise one-sentence summary of the gripes: Because it had probably spent little to no time practicing for the run, Phish was performing shoddily and, much worse, displaying an apparent unwillingness to take musical risks.
Phish scribe Dave Calarco -- otherwise known as Mr. Miner -- who recently penned a sizable Phish tome titled Mr. Miner's Phish Thoughts: An Anthology by a Fan for the Fans, had a vexing question on his mind going into show four.
"Now with only three sets left, one has to wonder what has happened?" he wrote on his popular blog,phishthoughts.com. "Will New Year's Eve follow the steady decline of the week, or will Phish come to the rescue with a show that will give zest to the bland taste left in the mouths of so many fans over the past two nights?"
Well, after three sets, over three hours of music, and a riveting acrobatic spectacle, the most apt response to Calarco's inquiry would be that Phish, at least musically, failed to turn heads, instead putting in a workmanlike effort with few auditory surprises.
Yet even in spite of this, it crafted an exceptional memory -- a night its fans will hold forever and which will doubtless launch thousands of “remember when” stories.
This, in the end, being all its faithful could ever want.
A one-two punch of "AC/DC Bag" and "Wolfman's Brother" only managed to ignite a fleeting fervor. As the first slate drew on, the energy clearly waned. However, after a dreary "Farmhouse," which caused twirling fans to become resting ones, Phish tugged at the crowd’s heartstrings with a beautifully placed "Pebbles and Marbles."
Then came "Ocelot," which, to be frank, has become a bit like an old, smelly, ragged feline one expects to see creeping through a dank alley. The song, from Phish's most recent album "Joy," always brings a dull, structuralized improvisation.
When Phish finishes the tune's composed section, it tends to claw at the same tired notes. Most versions, aside from a few shockers of course, follow this script.
Ending with a soaring peak is never a bad decision, so a searing "Fluffhead," featuring a crowd-pleasing "Auld Lane Syne" tease woven in, proved the perfect close to the dismal opening frame.
"Party Time" led off the second set, and similar to a leadoff hitter in baseball that the manager trusts to reach base, it served its purpose by priming the crowd for a power hitter waiting in the wings.
Unfortunately, such a hitter did not show up until later in the set.
Phish sent "Light" to the plate next and chose to bring this version into the very heart of some psychedelic groundswell. The jam shifted pace from fiery to reserved. Chris Kuroda’s lights mimicked the mood.
Then, somewhere amid the deep groove, anchored largely by bassist Mike Gordon, Trey Anastasio -- in many respects Phish’s unofficial skipper -- teased the opening riff of TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age.”
It was a message to his band mates: time to come back to earth. But they did not immediately oblige, resulting in an awkward transition.
Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman slowly slipped into the song’s structure, though with mixed results. Phish played this “Golden Age” fast -- supersonic time signature fast. It was as if it had to complete the song in order to keep from falling into a pool of sharks.
Two time fillers followed in “Theme from the Bottom” and “Heavy Things” before the set hit its stride. “Ghost” began an end sequence that by its final song, a raucous “Suzy Greenberg,” had spurred thousands of grinning countenances.
In the middle was an epic “46 Days.” A suddenly vivacious Anastasio let loose a fury of sound, building and building and building his solo. He was emotive, bobbing his head up and down -- his shaggy red hair flopping in his face.
It took eight songs for the party to begin. And there was one more set to come.
Midnight approached. “Cavern,” usually a closer, opened set three. After it ended, a pot of boiling water screeched and steamed. Intrepid fans knew immediately what was coming.
Or so they thought.
“Steam” started up as they anticipated. But what they were not prepared for was the floating objects -- a keytar, speaker cabinet, bass and vacuum – heading toward Heaven through the thick smoke released sporadically during the song’s chorus.
Nor were they ready when a dancer took flight, accompanied by part of the security gate. And when members of the crowd wearing glowing backpacks made to resemble jetpacks levitated, too, insanity enveloped the Garden.
With the airborne excitement, it was easy to forget that the clock was still ticking to 2012. A bodiless voice echoed through the arena counting down … 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 … the balloons fell, and Anastasio initiated “Auld Lane Syne.”
The second song of 2012 was “Down with Disease.” It reprised the floating dancers and even had Anastasio and Gordon joining in on the gag. Using wireless instruments, they stood on rising platforms. Amazingly, the height didn’t seem to faze them -- neither missed a note.
The rest of the set, like the year before it, seemed to fly by. A “First Tube” provided fans one more opportunity to boogie (an overjoyed young woman announced that she was going to dance so hard that she would need to remove her pants).
After the encore, “Slave to the Traffic Light,” reached its musical mountaintop, Anastasio thanked everyone, wishing them a Happy New Year.
Fans departed the Garden, but not before letting out one final wind rush of cheers to greet the cool air. The city was wide-awake. Another Phish concert had come and gone.