Time For the Meatstick

December 31, 2010
Madison Sq. Garden, NYC

Set I: Punch You In The Eye, AC/DC Bag>Moma Dance, Scent of a Mule, Burn That Bridge, Weigh, Ocelot, Beauty of My Dreams, Gone, Rock and Roll

Set II: Wilson>46 Days, Sand>NICU>Down With Disease->Ghost, You Enjoy Myself->Manteca->You Enjoy Myself

Set III: Meatstick->Auld Lang Syne, After Midnight, Backwards Down The Number Line, Piper->Free, Waste, Slave to the Traffic Light, Grind

E: First Tube

Directions for the dance, courtesy phish.net

Well, that was certainly interesting. Last night’s show was altogether ridiculous: at times it was sublime and masterful jamming and playing, at times it felt slightly vanilla and ho-hum, at times it felt like Phish was directly referencing their own New Year’s and MSG history, and, starting around 11:42 and lasting until midnight, it was just out-of-control over the top-ness. My own experience was affected by the fact that I somehow spent the entire show in a luxury box, after a friend literally grabbed me and dragged me into the club suites elevator, and we realized just how bomb it was going to be to see Phish from there.

This was an entirely new experience. I though that I would shy away from spending the entire show in a luxury box, but the sound was perfect, we were directly across from the stage giving us a perfect view, and even though we were very high up, it didn’t feel like sitting in the 400 section. It felt like we had a special vantage point for the whole show. Add to that the multiple bottles of champagne that we brought in (I can’t really say that we “snuck” them in, since that would imply security was checking us), the private bathroom, the never-ending supply of ice, cups, and water, the waiter service, and the ample dancing space, and it became very difficult to leave this spot.

In what felt like a nod to the show exactly fifteen years earlier, what some consider to be the single greatest Phish show of all-time, the band started things off with the same tune they did that previous night: PYITE. The energy immediately surged, right off the bat the place was rocking. It felt like New Year’s Eve in the Garden, definitely a 180 from the somewhat tepid audience response first night Worcester.

The white elephant in the room last night was the complete absence of any Gamehendge songs from the NYE Run so far. Clearly, everyone was hoping that this actually meant something, and that it would likely come together with a 1/1/11 Gamehendge set, something to make that show special and unique. It almost felt like the 7th inning of a no-hitter bid: don’t actually say it or you’ll jinx it! Any pipe dreams were laid to rest when AC/DC Bag, unaccompanied by Lizards, Tela, Wilson, and then Forbin’s, etc., emerged as the second song. Still, a great jam kept the energy up in the room. Moma Dance was the first indication that things would be getting down and dirty, something of a forecasting for the second set funk party. Unfortunately, this version continued the trend of jamless, “album version” Momas – I’d really like to see something like the 2/26/03 Worcester Moma, or the dark and exploratory 6/17/04 Moma->Free. Still, everyone was smiling, dancing, feeling the flow of high energy in the room.

That energy stayed high with Scent of a Mule, the first in a long time for me. A nice crisp version ensued, with Page doing some great two-handed syncopation for his share of the Mule Duel. Trey, unfortunately, didn’t do anything for his half, just played the klezmer riff while loudly strumming the last note each time, and then stopping. Standard fare, but still a ton of fun. At this point, the set veered away from the more old school 90s tunes and incorporated a bunch of new songs, a rarity, a bluegrass tune that had become a rarity, and a second set opener standing in as a set closer.

Father time from Big Cypress, 12/31/99

Burn That Bridge is a great song, one that has some serious potential for blowing up later. Like all the other songs from Trey and Amanda Green’s musical Hands on a Hard Body, Burn That Bridge has a little country tinge to it, a fast-tempo rock/honky-tonk tune with catchy lyrics. And then, Weigh! Another song to cross off my list of “never heard” tunes!! It’s a weird sensation that Phishheads, and Deadheads for that matter, have when we hear a rarity or a song we’ve never heard before. When you’ve seen a band more than 75 times and they can still play an original song that you’ve never heard before, the quality of the song ceases to matter. All that matters is that they played the song, but it’s a much different kind of elation than when they jam out a crazy Reba or Bowie. I got the same feeling hearing Weigh last night as I did Mound on Monday. Absolutely perfect.

Ocelot lazily loped along next, and featured an exceptional jam, really one of the better crafted peaks out of this song that I’ve heard. Next was another bluegrass tune, but this time it was Beauty of My Dreams, a tune that I feel like I heard a bunch in 2003, but hasn’t been played since! Not quite as monumental a bustout as Weigh, but fun nonetheless. Gone followed, a tune that I feel was slightly out of place in this set that started off so strong and high energy. A faster tune would’ve been better here, but it’s nice to hear the new songs being tried out. Finally, the extremely odd set I CLOSING Rock and Roll. To be honest, I’ve gotten sick of this song as a set II opener. But it was really nice to hear it in a different context, and Phish jammed it like it was a set closer, not a set opener. A completely different feel – high energy all the way through from the first note of the jam, no long build to a peak and then digression into ambient/funk/psychedelia. Nope, just straight ahead ROCK for the whole jam – it’s interesting how the band can jam the same song so differently in different contexts. They brought the jam back to the “it was alright” refrain before finishing it with their typical noisy song-ending flair.

So the first set started out extremely strong, then cooled off with slower tunes (even though one was a huge rarity) and then blasted back off for the closer. Second set, though, was a different story – it was all about the funk and anchored by a monster Ghost.

The Big Cypress time capsule

A Wilson opener quickly led to 46 Days, giving the set a nice dose of dark rock and then swampy, groove-based funk. But this was just the warmup for the real meat of the set, which began with a giant Sand. The band was clearly locked in for this Sand, playing through the verses of the song with a tight groove and a nice brisk tempo. As soon as the jam started, Mike stepped up with some slapping, Page sat back playing percussive riffs on the clav, and Trey began a repetitive riff of muted notes, a four-note descending blues pentatonic riff that he repeated over and over. This minimalist style of playing from Trey takes the focus off him and puts it more onto the whole-band sound, which was clearly locked in at this point. After a few minutes of this, Trey started crafting the jam beyond this opening stage, heading out on a melody that began with the muted string timbre but eventually led to wailing (not whaling) Trey leads, climaxing wonderfully. This fell back down into the Sand riff, ending the song the way it began, keeping it all self-contained: a touch that I really like, since by bringing the jam back to the original song, it feels more like a journey that takes you far from home and then brings you back. A-B-A — it’s a form that’s been popular for centuries, but it works.

Sand led to NICU, a fun version with a couple flubs from Trey on the between-verse riff. Whatever, at least he’s not making mistakes because he’s on drugs. NICU led to Down With Disease, continuing the trend of songs being played in unusual setlist positions in this show. Again, it’s so nice to hear these songs out of their normal (set II opener) contexts, and even though it didn’t change the jam much, it was fun to know that this might be a shorter jam that would lead to something else. Which is exactly what happened. The jam set out in typical raging fashion, and then wound its way down to a minor key area, with darker timbres and a slower beat. As things started to get a little bit “out there,” and ambient sound started to creep in, Trey began a funky strumming pattern that emerged out of the murky soundscape, and the rest of the band followed right into Ghost. It wasn’t the strongest of segues in that the drumbeat had fallen away in the Disease jam, but it still felt like a fluid transition.

This Ghost was the improvisational centerpiece of the show. The band really took their time with this. The tempo of Ghost felt faster, and as the jam began, the band avoided any deep funk and went straight for a more rocking jam, but with the strong, fast drumbeat keeping it locked in dance mode. The jam began with excellent contrapuntal interplay between Mike and Trey, with Mike high up on the neck of his bass. Gradually, Page switched over to piano and the tonality turned more towards the major side. The brightness of Page’s piano timbre, and Trey’s high notes combined to create a triumphant sound. Trey continued to build the energy with swirling, circular riffs over Page’s loud chords, and Fish kept right up with them, adding more cymbals and fills to the extremely steady dance beat. At the end, it was just erupting Trey notes, Page chords, and Mike bombs, with cymbals everywhere, all over that steady-as-hell beat. It reminded me of the very non-funky ending of the 11/17/97 Ghost, where everything gets very bright, joyous and triumphant sounding. Trey kept that circular riff that he had started earlier going for the whole jam, getting more and more emotive as it crept up the register of his guitar. He ended it with a loudly strummed tonic chord, adding the exclamation point to the jam, and then suddenly, Fish reeled in his beat, bringing it back to the original Ghost beat without extra ornamentation, and like Sand, they went back into the beginning of Ghost! Masterful.

I was expecting YEM, but not in the second set! It was a huge moment, even though most people knew it was coming tonight, but I don’t think anyone was expecting it here, at 11:00pm, just before the midnight craziness. YEM was, as usual, a standard version in the composed section, but as the jam started, Trey immediately started playing that percussive, repetitive muted string idea from the Sand jam. It wasn’t the same riff, but a very similar descending idea. And so effortlessly, so easily, they gradually inserted the various parts of Manteca. I disagree with phish.com’s setlist here: they flat-out played Manteca, none of this “contained elements of” bullshit. Manteca is no more than a riff borrowed from Dizzy Gillespie, a funky drum and bass pattern, and stupid lyrics of “crab in my shoe mouth.” Phish did all of that, ergo, they played Manteca. This wasn’t like the Augusta Reba, where Fishman sang the lyrics without the rest of the band picking it up. End of discussion.

Manteca led back into YEM, with Trey creating excitement and building tension by singing “crab in my shoe mouth” at the end of every 4 bars, while the rest of the band dropped out. Like a start/stop jam, which is one of the best devices Phish has for building tension and excitement in the audience (ahhhh 4/3/98 Roses….), except that during the “stop time” Trey would sing the Manteca lyrics. Again, it’s that fun Phishiness that’s back – they’re acting like the goofballs they are, and I love it, it means that all is right in the Phish world. Trey was just dancing his butt off during the drum and bass section of the jam, and he continued singing the Manteca lyrics while the rest of the band sang the closing YEM lyrics. The vocal jam, expectedly, had lots of elements of the Manteca lyrics interwoven.

So now here we are, on the cusp of 2011, and inside MSG at a Phish show. It’s all just so perfect. The lights went down around 11:40 or so, and they emerged and began the opening, reggae-ish riff of Meatstick. Directly referencing their Big Cypress odyssey more than 10 years earlier, Meatstick has somehow turned from a gimmicky, albeit quintessentially Phishy, dance into a signifier of celebration. Phish sang the Japanese lyrics, and I was wondering if this would figure into the midnight gimmick, which I couldn’t really figure out yet. Then, from stage right, out came four men wearing traditional African garb. They started singing Meatstick in another language, with some of them badly attempting the Meatstick dance. Then a Mariachi band came out stage left, and sang a couple verses of Meatstick in Spanish. I then realized that this was our gag: an Epcot Center array of Meatstick singers, costumes, and dancers. Each group of four singers looked like a very stereotypical vision of that culture – kind of like the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Orientalist? Yes. But fun nonetheless, and absurd to have everyone up on stage singing a song and doing a dance about cylindrical processed meat. Next up were Hasidic Jewish dancers across the stage behind the band, arms outstretched in full black garb, then four Scandanavian girls in neon ski gear, Bavarian-style Liederhosen-clad Germans, and eventually a stage full of Canadian mounties, hula dancers, Arabian harem girls, traditional Chinese dancers, Japanese club culture dancers in puffy jackets and oversize sunglasses.

Then the band comes out and starts dancing the Meatstick dance with all of them. I didn’t notice it at the time from my distance, but the band was then escorted offstage, and suddently all the dancers broke into a choreographed, hip-hop style dance routine. It became clear that these people were all professional dancers in costume, and not actual traditional singers/dancers. But this was just so cool – they all had headset mics singing Meatstick, and doing this very long, intricate dance, going through maybe 10 or 11 repetitions of the Meatstick chorus. Here’s the video, recorded from the webcast:

Here’s an amateur version from the front row:

More onstage shenanigans ensued, two hot dog carts with candy-striped umbrellas were set of on either end of the stage, and the dancers eventually just started vamping the same dance steps over and over. And then I looked below me, and saw what looked like a smoke bomb of some kind emitting a heavy cloud of smoke in the aisle. The music moved to the dancers all singing “Time for the Meatstick!” ascending upward, and then they lifted their arms up, and out of the smoke on the opposite end of the venue, the infamous New Year’s Eve hot dog, of 1994 and 1999 fame, was hoisted up above the crowd with the band in it!

The Hot Dog at Big Cypress, 12/31/99...

...and last night, above the crowd at MSG, 12/31/10

The hot dog floated across the venue, with the band throwing down miniature plastic hot dogs on the crowd, as meatstick-shaped red balloons were released all around the flying hot dog. The hot dog landed, the band disembarked, and got back into the Meatstick dance, which had continued throughout the hot dog’s flight to the stage. They got back on their instruments, and after a few more minutes of vamping, the countdown began. Instead of the whole band playing Auld Lang Syne, the onstage singers all sang it together, along with Trey playing the notes on his guitar, some of them with their arms around Mike, Page, and Fish.

Mike doing the Meatstick with a French burlesque dancer and a Swedish ski girl

After all this craziness, Phish again referenced their Big Cypress experience by playing After Midnight, a short and concise version, but still a huge energy surge for a very relevant version of the tune (ironically, this has been the only version Phish has played that was actually played just after midnight!). So then at this point, Phish had the crowd in their hand, ready to own our collective minds for the next hour. And, in my opinion, they completely dropped the ball on the third set. A third set is supposed to be something extra-special, something that only happens on the biggest of Phish holidays (a festival, Halloween, and NYE). At the moment when they could have exploded, they imploded, giving us the first repeat song of the run, and the mid-tempo pop of Backwards Down the Number Line sucked the life out of the room. I’m not sure why Trey thought to do this here, play the first repeat and have it be a song that, while fun, is not really a “huge” Phish song. Although this song has occasionally turned into a jamming monster, last night’s version was relatively tame.

I feel like I’ve heard Piper->Free a couple hundred times by this point. Again, referencing the midnight set at Big Cypress, this hackneyed song combo just didn’t do it for me. There was nothing exceptional about it. And, to be honest, Free is dead. It used to be huge. Now, it’s a first set song that keeps showing up in the second set, at crucial jamming points, and yet it doesn’t jam. I’m longing for the psychedelic realms of 1995 Frees, or the long jammed-out grooves of 1999 Frees. Waste was the slowdown song in a set that needed to speed up, not slow down.

Trey soloing over the Meatstick with dancers in the background

Luckily, Slave saved the set. This Slave took its time, never rushing, building to an old-school, classic “this-is-why-we-love-Phish” jam peak before ending. A gorgeous end to a set that saw most of its magic expire along with 2010. 2011 was off to a slow start. Grind closed things out, an appropriate choice on a holiday that celebrates the passage of time. The 1st Tube encore again seemed to self-reference last December’s monster version from 12/4/09, but this version wasn’t nearly as strong (no version probably ever will be). Still, it was a fun, high-energy send off from the venue, and into 2011.

I think it’s interesting to see what happened when Phish had to save some songs for the next night on a 12/31 show. Usually, Phish can just play whatever they have left in their songbag on the 31st. I’m not at all displeased with the song selection (of the first two sets, at least), but it did seem, especially in the end of the first set and the third set, that they were holding back a bit. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m badmouthing this show, because it was an amazing time, hell, it’s New Year’s Eve Phish at MSG! The first part of the first set was just pulsating with energy, and some great jams (Ocelot, Rock and Roll) and a rarity anchored the second half of that set. Set II was the real winner here, a perfect blend of song selection and long, groove-based funky jamming. This set was the poster child of the Phish dance party experience in the modern era. And while this was a midnight gimmick that will go down in history, I just didn’t feel like the band was owning it during the third set post-After Midnight. Of course, this leaves a lot for tonight, the first ever 1/1/11 show, which won’t feature a Gamehendge, but will probably be an exciting blend of songs (Foam, Coil, Guelah, maybe some Round Room material?, and all the rest of the Gamehendge tunes) mixed with the remaining “big songs” that haven’t yet been played on this five-night run (Jim, Reba, Melt). A great ending to 2010, a questionable start to 2011, but one that I’m sure will be erased by tonight’s 1/1/11 festivities. Happy New Year!


~ by Jake on January 1, 2011.

4 Responses to “Time For the Meatstick”

  1. Well said – perfect summary of the show.

  2. Love it! Love your review! Wish I had a lux seat!

    • there’s one catch about the Luxury suites, though. I didn’t mention this in the blog post, but it has the effect of removing you, in some way, from the show. you’re definitely still AT the show, especially if you’re close to the front. but just like how a festival is a different show going experience from an arena/amphitheater, the box put me in a different mental space for the show. you can feel the energy, and you feel you’re a part of it all, but there’s also a detachment that takes place. Of course, the perks make up for all that!

      in the future, should I be lucky enough to get this opportunity again, I might just go ahead and spend 1 set up there, and the others down on the floor with the rest of the plebs 🙂

  3. We found a luxury box in Miami last year on NYE for the last few songs of the 3rd set. You are very correct.. it definitely removes you from the scene which depending on the person, is a good thing or bad thing. I’d like it for a bit but not for the entire show. GOD DAMN do i wish i would have been at MSG this year. I envy each and every one of you.

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