Phish’s 2012 New Year’s Eve Gag, Part 1: Scenic

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With its latest stunt in what has become an annual tradition, Phish played Madison Square Garden in New York City for a sold-out four-day run that included New Year’s Eve. The final show featured a few visual and rigging tricks dreamed up by Tony Award-winning scenic designer David Gallo, working alongside the band members, with lighting by longtime Phish collaborating LD Chris Kuroda (check out the full video below).

“I have a strong relationship with the band, and we never really stop talking over the course of the year,” says Gallo, who started working with the band in 2009 for New Year’s Eve at American Airlines Arena in Miami and followed up in 2010, also at MSG. In his first Phish outing, in 2009, he says, “We lowered a giant mirror ball and strapped the drummer from the band inside, and shot it out of a cannon.” Last year, Gallo made hotdogs part of the show— “Global Meatstick,” as it was termed—borrowing a giant foam-covered steel-framed hotdog that is part of Phish lore from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This year, topping all that was a mission, and that meant flying, a lot of fog, and jet packs. “We usually start talking about the next year the day after the last one, and it evolves over the entire year,” says Gallo, noting that lead singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio wanted to look at options that would feature the new song “Steam,” about the journey of the soul into the afterlife and only played four times live prior to this show. “I got into creative mode about what ‘steam’ means—an industrial accident in venue, a locomotive—finally settling on the idea of steam bursting from the floor.”

During the third and last set of the final show, Anastasio’s onstage tea kettle started to whistle as the band started to perform “Steam.” “Fans,” actually aerialists planted in the audience wearing fog-emitting jetpacks, as well as instruments on stage, appeared to be lifted on columns of steam. “We thought, ‘What would be the ultimate fan experience, untethered by physics,’” says Gallo. “That would be floating on columns in steam, floating in space while listening to that music.” Zenith Pyro built the custom jetpacks with RGB LEDs and Look Solutions Tiny CX foggers, and Square Root Studios provided the wireless DMX controls, fog, and lighting for the packs.

A total of 14 flyers waited in the audience, with one more over-stage, all self-contained. Professional spotters linked them in at the appropriate time, and security was positioned in every location, amounting to a three-person team for every flyer. “It was all done with flash-lighting signals—no radio or headsets,” says Gallo.

When the song slowed, the aerialists were lowered, and the countdown to the New Year began, accompanied by a balloon drop at the stroke of midnight and, naturally, “Auld Lang Syne.” “Down With Disease” followed, during which the aerialists, now free of their jetpacks but now sporting handheld lights, battery packs, and ballasts, were shot 45’ into the air at nearly 20mph in what Gallo refers to as a “programmed dance of winches.” Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordan slowly rose 17’ above stage on pedestal ribbon lifts provided by Tait Towers. Tait also provided the 15 T-winches to accelerate the performers to 18’ per second, as well as four compact SmartMotor winches for the props over stage. The power was controlled by FTSI Navigator and overseen by Tait’s flight director, Paul Sapsis.

“This is the first time Tait was involved with our New Year’s show,” says Gallo. “We started calling around, trying to find someone who could fly this many people in such a controlled manner. A friend recommended Tait. Six months ago, this gag wouldn’t have been possible without the combined resources. They are a force. The other joy of this is working with riggers, stagehands, and roadies, all who do one rock show after another, but they all say they’ll do anything to be on this gig again.” James Irwin from Tait Towers and Scott Fisher from FTSI worked on the rigging and automation.

While Gallo is used to working in theatre environments, his recent work with Phish has provided a welcomed challenge. “The creative narrative and conceptual approach is as developed as anything I do as a designer,” he says. “This band does not let you cheat. It all comes from a very deep place inside, and the concepts are well developed and clear.” While the ideas are clear to the designer, he notes that the audience members’ interpretations are sometimes all over the map. “Most people get the experience as we presented it,” he says. “One fan on an online forum said it was the Mayan apocalypse, which it wasn’t at all, but it was funny because we discussed that idea at some point in the summer.”

The event was conceived in collaboration with Phish and produced by Phish /Red Light Management in association with production manager Hadden Hippsely.

Stay tuned for Part 2, a discussion of the lighting design for the event, with Chris Kuroda.

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