I recently sat down for a conversation with Marc Kimelman, the associate-choreographer of Phish’s “Meatstick” dance routine on NYE. Check out the full interview over at Jambands.com or read an excerpt below:
Much like myself, Marc Kimelman grew up a listening to Phish in his hometown of Toronto. After attending university for psychology and business Marc decided to move to New York to pursue his dreams of working in the Theatre. Marc has worked with artists such as Neil Young, Chakka Kahn, Katy Perry and, most recently, he was picked as the associate choreographer for Phish’s NYE“Meatstick” gag. Yesterday, Marc took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about how the idea for the gag started, the planning and rehearsal process, and what it’s like to be given the opportunity to work with the group.
How did you get involved with the band and when did they first approach you about working with them on the NYE gag?
About a month ago I got a call from a choreographer friend of mine who I’d met two years ago at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. I hadn’t heard from her in about a year and a half and randomly I get an e-mail asking if I wanted to work with her on a gig, but I wasn’t allowed to know what it was until I signed a confidentiality agreement because they wanted to keep everything hush-hush. I really wanted to work with her so I said yes to whatever it was. And then the producers called me and had me go to their office and signed all of these confidentiality waivers. Then I flipped to the next page where it said “Phish New Years Eve Madison Square Garden,” which I was trying to get a ticket for anyway. So it was pretty crazy.
Then we started working right away. I didn’t meet the band until a week before the show, we had worked with the dancers and just spoken to the band, but I hadn’t met them personally yet. They came in a week before and checked out what we had done, and we were off to the right start. Then we started seeing Trey every day and collaborating with him on the project.
Were you a fan when you first started working on the project? You mentioned you were already trying to score tickets. Were you familiar with the band’s NYE tradition?
Yeah, I had grown up on Phish and saw a bunch of shows in my high school and university days. I’m from Toronto and all my friends were big into Phish. I’ve probably seen a handful of show. I’m not a huge Phish fan but I definitely appreciate them. I’ve never been to a New Year’s show, and I live in New York now so I was trying to make it happen this year. Obviously I know what they do on New Year’s, and it’s the same production company that worked on their gig last year when they shot Fishman out of a cannonball. So yeah, it was just really exciting to not only being on a Phish show, but a New Year’s show.
What was the timeline like with the rehearsals and preparation? When did you first start working on it and how long did it take to come together?
It was between just me and the choreographer for a couple weeks in the studio just trying to figure out what the movement style should be. Obviously we didn’t want it to be so off the wall that no one was feeling it in the crowd. It had to go with the heavy groove that Phish gives us. It was tricky.
The first stuff that we came up with was just definitely wrong and then slowly but surely we got it right. And once we got it right, which took about a week and a half or two weeks, we cast the dancers. We knew we wanted it to feel like the stage was covered with dancers. We wanted it to look like there were 200 dancers onstage, but we really only had room for about 50. So once we broke it down to how many Rabbis we wanted, and how many mariachis we wanted and all that, then we started casting. And first I reached out to my friends, which was cool to be able to hire them for a Phish gig and be able to pay them. We got the dancers in just a week before the gig. The gig was on Friday and we rehearsed with them on Tuesday and Wednesday. We had our stuff really tight so when they came in on Tuesday we were ready to roll. Then the next day the band came in to see what we had done and they were just blown away. I’ve never seen people laugh so hard for so long. We thought they would come in and just watch it and leave but they hung out for almost two hours. They just wanted to see it time and time again. Then they called their wives to come and see it and they brought all their kids to come see it…they were just so stoked by what we had done. They were really excited.
Where did the idea for the whole dance routine come from and how much creative control were you allowed?
The idea originally came through Trey and the production company I work with called David Gallo Designs. David and Trey have a long history together and the idea came through them brainstorming. They knew they wanted it to be “Meatstick,” they knew they wanted to bring back the hotdog and take it out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was tricky. As soon as they took it out there were Phish fans who had noticed that and had started to rumor stuff on the web. So it was hard to keep things confidential. But I think we definitely pulled it off. So the idea originally came from Trey and David. [David] knows Trey the best so any time we had an idea, we would run it by him and he would either say yes or no to that. So we were definitely able to come up with ideas, but we allowed him the right to shut us down because he knows the band the best.
That’s interesting because Trey is actually working on a musical of his own right now. Is there any connection?
Yeah, I don’t know much about it but yeah I heard he’s doing that with this lyricist Amanda Green and I know our music arranger has some part in it as well. His music definitely lends itself to the stage and just seeing what we were able to do with five-part harmonies and stuff…I think it probably just motivated him more to put his stuff on the stage because it’s so theatrical.
In the long and celebrated history of Phish, perhaps no tradition is more firmly established than the annual New Year’s run. The tradition dates back to 1989 when the band played their first New Year’s show in Boston, and has since grown into something of lore with many great shows surrounding the turn of the new year. This year’s New Year’s run followed in this time-honored tradition in the same venue that has hosted many of these great shows in the past. Once again, The Garden came to life and with Phish as our guide, we were shepherded into the new year.
As is usually the case, this year’s run came with very high expectations, heightened by the disastrous travel conditions that crippled much of the North East. With many stranded, and the road conditions severe, the journey became a story itself in getting to Worcester and back to New York. And for those who made this journey, the music surely tasted that much sweeter.
This year, the band practiced for nearly a week at the barn in Vermont before heading to Worcester to play the first two shows. The increased practice could clearly heard in the tightness the band displayed on the first night, and throughout the run. But in terms of jamming they chose to keep things reasonably safe on the first night, and much of the second in Worcester.
On 12.27, the first set was well-played, and had an engaging setlist and a beautiful version of “Roggae.” Trey has, quite obviously, eliminated the whale from his sound, favoring dissonant modal excursions instead. This allowed songs such as “Roggae,” and others like it, far more tasteful jams. While Trey suffered from a cold in both shows in Worcester, his guitar playing was better than we have heard it in quite some time. Every solo he touched saw him fluttering across the fretboard, showing that he has no need to rely on his “safety mechanisms” any longer.
The second set “Mike’s,” saw lots more of this dissonant soloing and several explosive crescendos, and slipped flawlessly into “Mound” (had to be preplanned). “Seven Below” featured several moments of highly transcendent jamming before drifting into “What’s the Use” from a sea of ambiance. “Bowie” saw lots more of Trey’s new dissonant licks but, at times, the jam’s wave seemed to be moving one step ahead of him and it fell flat.
The second night began, again, with a thoroughly engaging setlist highlighted by the appearance of “She Caught the Katy” (last played 7.21.98, 323 shows) the exploratory version “Stash,” and Trey’s Sarah Palin talkbox antics. The band also debuted a new Anastasio/Marshall original called “Pigtail” along with “Birdwatcher,” the latter of which has been performed before by Trey with TAB. During “Stash,” a jam that will surely receive greater focus in coming weeks, Trey’s dissonant playing began to mesh with the rest of the band, and as these two forces met, the music was launched into the cosmos. Highly recommended. “Stealing Time” is also worth checking out if only for Mike and Trey’s killer interweaving playing. The tightness is scary at this point. The second set kicked off with a safe, yet rockin’ version of “Carini” that saw Trey dancing around the “DEG” pattern. The rest of the set took on a mostly mellow vibe, but was rejuvenated with a version of “Hood” that offered us our first glimpse into a new jamming style that would further develop over the remainder of the run. Some have already begun to dub it the “stacatto jamming” style, but what it really comes from is Trey being pushed further back in the mix to allow for a greater collective sound. Page can now be heard much more clearly, allowing him to be an equal part of these African-inspired jams. The “Hood” jam developed a unique sound as Trey’s palm-muted notes mixed in with Mike’s calypso bassline and Page danced around the two on his rhodes. A song that had very much become standardized—the “Whipping Post” of the Phish catalog—came to life once again in a fully revitalized full form.
The day off allowed the band and fans some much needed rest before the run at MSG, and when we all arrived for the first night on the 30th our Red Headed hero could be seen in fine form, seemingly having beaten the illness that had plagued his vocals on the nights prior. Again, the band assembled a very engaging setlist, start to finish, highlighted by an early-set “Quinn the Eskimo,” a blissful “Gin” and the reappearance of Little Feat’s “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” The second set began with Trey jokingly calling for what is widely considered to be the worst original song ever performed by the band, ”Jennifer Dances.” After several jests at the ill-fated tune, Big Red catapaulted us into a “Tweezer” that seemed to have trouble with its landing gear, and failed to fully take off. Rather, the band seemed to sit in the pocket of the groove for too long, without any type of crescendo or climax. That said, the groove held much potential, and was surely engaging while it was happening. And continuing the modern-era trend of segueing into “Light,” the band did just that, but again the jam failed to take off and fell flat at the hands of Trey’s dissonant phrasing. The rest of the set, while engaging throughout, failed to include any jams worth mention but was rather more about song choice.
It was the following two nights that would transport us to the place we had all hoped to arrive. The first of three sets kicked off with an energetic romp in “PYITE” > “AC/DC Bag” > “Moma Dance.” Also included was a much welcomed “Weigh,” that drifted into a standout version of “Ocelot,” and a late-set “Gone” afterward.
But it was the second set that saw psychedelics explode as though they had brimmed to the bursting point. What is arguably one of, if not the, most engaging set of 3.0 unfolded before our eyes in a swirling mixture of music and colors. The undisputed highlight of the run, as well as the show, was the version of “Ghost,” catapulting the band and its fans into a rapturous jam that shone a light on the next era of Phish jamming. Songwriting on the spot is the best way to describe it. Chord progressions being pulled from thin air that transcend the energy of the cosmos—transcend the magic that is Phish. In many ways, this jam seemed composed. Pitched in minor key to begin, the jam found its way to a rich aural pasture that soon transformed the long-drawn wailing and galloping arpeggios into a segment of enchanting major-key psychedelia. Following this blissful journey, the band appeased countless sign holders in busting out “Manteca” in the midst of the “YEM” jam. Start to finish, this was a truly compelling experience that will not soon be forgotten. The third set was marked by this year’s “gag” as multicultural dancers and singers joined the band for a fitting Broadway-style version of “Meatstick” and an equally fitting “After Midnight” that followed.
On 1.1, the band picked up where they had left us one night prior, and delivered a show that is already being heralded as one of the top start-to-finish performances of 3.0. It would be hard to disagree. The vibe in the venue was noticeably mellow on 1.1, as everyone dragged themselves through exhaustion and sleep deprivation to catch the band’s first ever show on the first day of the new year. Kicking off with “My Soul” Phish then dove into a series of old-school numbers that included one of the most engaging versions of “Divided Sky” in some time. Trey’s solo was masterful, and soared to the furthest corners of the Garden’s walls. “Round Room” nodded to the shape of these very walls, while acting as a fitting number for the band’s staccato-style jamming. Round Room, the album, contained a very stacatto-like sound from Trey that dominated his playing for much of the 2.0 phase. Although, at the time, his tone was far less gracious and prevented the type of group playing that has spawned out of recent jams. The set continued with one of the finest pieces of arena rock throughout the weekend in “Walk Away,” literally bringing The Garden into what Bob Weir calls “earthquake volcano mode.” “Reba” took time to get going, but once it did, it was rewarding and showed the band exhibiting a noticeable patience.
And then there was the second set. Easily one of the finest, and most engaging, sets of 3.0. 1.1.’s second saw the band slip into a fluid groove from note one of “Crosseyed,” one that they never returned from throughout all six songs in the set. Following in the musical path of the night prior, the band infused “Simple” with their new jamming style, again sculpting a seemingly composed piece of improv from thin air. During these jams, no single member takes a lead. Instead, it is a complete group effort, in the same vein as the funk of ’97 or even the music of King Sunny Aide or Manu Dibango. Perhaps these are chord progressions being explored for a new set of songs, or perhaps they were simply ideas that spontaneously appeared. Either way, the music is some of the finest we have heard in 3.0 and it brings us much hope for 2011. The journey during “Simple” rises out of a segment of peaceful ambiance and blossoms into what could have easily become a brand new song. It will be interesting to see if these spontaneous “compositions” germinate any further ideas and wind up becoming songs. “Sally” featured a short, but tasty jam section and “Makisupa” continued with some playful effect-driven improv. The set closing “Bowie” saw more fluttering licks from Trey, and more of his dissonant builds. Many guitarists out there will know that Trey almost never uses his single-coil pick-up setup. But, throughout this run, he actively engaged in several “single coil” solos that gave him more of a Jerry-like tone. Using this cleaner, thinner sound, he traversed the neck with mile-long Coltrane-like phrasing. Fans of Coltrane will surely notice Trey’s nod to the legendary sax player through his recent modal excursions (something that started, and that I noted, toward the end of the summer). Venturing way outside the mold, Trey’s development as a guitar player has continued with this recent phase of jazzy phrasing. For many, this will serve as a welcome departure from the whale, and an early stage in the next era of Phish.