The Art of New York Phish

New York City is a living art museum. Around every corner is another example of human expression, design, collaboration and evolution. It might seem unnatural at times for this many people to occupy such a small space, but it works.

“This is out of sight, really man. Nothing’s weirder than coming to New York” -Jerry Garcia 2/14/70

There are amazingly creative people putting out positive energy into these streets each and every day. They thrive off the constant kinetics, the beautiful parks and the flow which surrounds.

Like balance in the force, there is also a dark side which leeches off the creative juices and trolls them for their own interests.

These two entities work hand in hand to create one of the most unique cities in the known universe. One where you can literally get anything you want delivered to you at any hour of the day plus a great slice of pizza, black & white cookie and cannoli without stumbling too far. They just don’t make ’em like that out west.

It was with great joy and anticipation that my wife and I headed back to New York City for Phish’s New Year’s Eve festivities at Madison Square Garden. I last saw Phish at MSG, their home away from home court, the night they returned from the first hiatus in ‘02. I’ve witnessed most east coast shows since then from the friendly confines of a comfortable couch, which we all know just isn’t the same as being there.

The music business can be a cruel and challenging place for artists contending with capitalism. For years it was recorded music that sustained the livelihood of bands, touring to promote the album. Now the tables have turned and live music, the original context from the cave days, is what sustains all of us.

Live music is all about the experience, the journey is the prize, the travel to get there, meeting up with old friends, telling tall tales of past adventures around the country and making fabled predictions of what may come next only to be half right and amazed by the other half.

On our first full day in the City we headed over to the MoMA to expose ourselves to art. Classics like Monet and Van Gough were on display alongside tributes to the evolution of computer technology and a history of fashion, complete with moon boots and a hoodie. Art, it seems, was everywhere we looked.

Back to the Garden. As Phish can often be an inside joke, you really have to be inside to get it. Musically, the band is firing on all cylinders these days. Having just dominated the venue for a 13 show residency, they know how to “go there” and rev the engines just right to give us what we want at the right moments again and again. At the same time, they’re not just retreading old ground, as there are new sonic experiments, pedals, gizmos and improvisations night after night.

Phish did what they do best in the place they do it the best. They weaved together a run of shows which spanned their epic catalogue developed over 30 years of playing together and debuted their newest song, Soul Planet, at the most critiqued and pressured moment of all — midnight on New Year’s Eve.

“Ocean is Love; Wind is the Music.” -Phish: Soul Planet

This year’s “gag” was a visual exhibit for all the senses. When the band took the stage before midnight lighting director Chris Kuroda (CK5) lit up the entire audience wearing RFID bracelets keyed to each seat location in the arena. We were all immediately transformed into a literal sea of fans while a pirate ship was constructed on stage in real time, complete with billowing sails powered by electrical fans and confetti cannons, of course. Watch for yourself.

As midnight peaked and we felt the feelings we forgot while making new memories, the moment of the weekend for me came as they launched into the funky riffing Moma Dance.

Maybe it was a tribute to the legendary 12/30/97 Black Eyed Katy jam from 20 years ago which brought the house down into New Year’s Eve day, or perhaps the art museum just across town by the same name we visited a few days earlier.

Whatever it was, it was a beautiful mirror to the moment, reminding the audience of the power of artistic expression to reconnect with ourselves, each other and what we love. The wind is the music.

Phish at MSG is live art performed in its native habitat. It wasn’t built for them, but they have made it their own. Phish on New Year’s Eve, with its internet-connected audience and LED-bracelets controlled by RFID and, of course, their from-the-future-but-strongly-influenced-by-their-past music, is the most modern of arts and, perhaps that makes MSG, curved like the Guggenheim, historic like the Met, the real “museum of modern living art,” at least in 2017. (HT Neddyo)

As Bill Graham famously said about the Grateful Dead, “They aren’t the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.” Jerry Garcia said “We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”

Phish fans really love Phish, and Phish really loves their fans. Did they hit every note perfectly? Of course not. Did we all have a great time? I sure did! Where else can you take in a New Year’s Eve show for under $100 with three sets and a stage which turns into a flying pirate ship through a lit up ocean of 20k+ adoring fans? This was pure living art.

Heading home, I am reminded of the incredible challenges of the past year. It has been a dark time for many, as we have struggled not just with our own regular day to day evolutions and learnings, but a new set of morale questions about our values, truth and belief systems. Who do we want to be, and what kind of world do we want to leave for our children and their children?

I would like to live in a world where everyone has the freedom to express themselves and their art in their own way, without hurting others or enduring undue repression. As humans it is our right to be critical of art, to question its relative value and push each other to be better and stronger artists. We must also embrace and try to appreciate art in all its forms for the positivity it brings in pulling people together, making us think and consider how we can express our own art forms in new and creative ways to bring new light into the world.

“I had a lot of good ideas tonight” -Heather ‘Heater’, 12/31/17 1:02am

Whether it was Phish at the Garden, or The Disco Biscuits playing video games at the PlayStation Theatre in Times Square, or The Everyone Orchestra at the Gramercy, or Holly Bowling delivering a solo piano sermon at the Cutting Room, or a fun corny take on Grateful Dead classics in the off-broadway Red Roses and Green Gold, or the best Matzo Ball Kreplach I’ve ever had at 2nd Ave Deli (conveniently located on East 33rd St), or strolling through the indoor Chelsea Market (Artists and Fleas) or briefly walking The High Line in sub-freezing cold, or the girl wearing beautiful wings behind us at the show, or just being in the city on a snowy day — New York embraces art and expression in just the right context at the right time to create the perfect blend of Heady Haunts.

There’s enough to take in over one weekend to create memories to last a lifetime and thankfully enough open space and mountains just over an hour away to clear your head and decompress for a bit. Whatever it is about New York, it is so nice they decided to name it twice, and it looks like if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.

Happy New Year!

Oh yeah, and they played Reba.


Andy Gadiel is VP, Business Analysis at Gracenote, a Nielsen company. He is the Co-Founder and Board Member of JamBase and Board Member at The Rex Foundation and HeadCount. He still updates his Phish fan site.

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