In 3 short days, Phish will settle in at Madison Square Garden for their traditional end-of-the-year run. Phish is no stranger to the Garden, having now played the famed venue in the heart of New York City 35 times over the course of their career. From their MSG debut in 1994 to their most recent appearances at the very beginning of 2016, the storied room has played host to some of the most treasured shows in the band’s history. As we inch closer to this year’s New Year’s Run, we will be bringing you our 12 Days Of Phishmas series, highlighting a different milestone MSG Phish show each day until we all head back to the Garden on the 28th. It wasn’t easy narrowing 35 down to 12, but we think you’ll be pleased with these classics from the Phish catalog. Enjoy!
On the 10th day of Phishmas (which just so happens to be both Christmas Day and the first day of Hanukkah), we look back at the gift the boys delivered to fans at MSG on December 30th, 1997–this writer’s all-time favorite Phish show. 12/30/97 epitomizes the “anything can happen” maxim that is the basis of many fans’ obsession with the Phish from Vermont. From the opening tune (a bust-out of epic proportions) to the closing notes (of an impromptu extended encore), this show has no shortage of fantastic moments.
First things first: the setlist (I’ll give you a second to scroll down and check it out). Sometimes a show looks relatively standard on paper, and its greatness only becomes apparent when you dive in and start to listen. 12/30/97 is not one of those shows. Just reading the setlist from this night is enough to get a Phish fan all hot and bothered. Segues? Check. Gamehendge? Check. Beloved covers of legendary artists? Check and check. Story time? Check. Four-song encore?!…Well, you get the picture. But this show is even more special than its beauty of a setlist would indicate.
The band wasted no time asserting their intentions on this night, kicking off the show with Robert Palmer‘s “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley”. A relatively common cover these days, this funky number had not been played in nearly 10 years (920 shows). Fluid, bluesy riffing from Trey Anastasio highlighted this massive bust-out, as the band sounded confident and locked in from the get-go. The strong Type-1 jam eventually faded out into a drum-led section that’s eerily similar to the beat from “Blaze On”, though the Big Boat tune was still almost two decades in the future at that point.
“Sally” flowed seamlessly into “Taste”, which functioned as a lead guitar showcase. After the song’s main structure, the remainder of the 11+ minute rendition saw Page McConnell, Jon Fishman, and Mike Gordon set the musical stage while Trey delivered several minutes of inspired soloing. Many consider this to be the best version of the classic Phish tune. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s undoubtedly a “Taste” you have to try for yourself.
“Water In The Sky” came next, followed in quick succession by an excellent “Punch You In The Eye”. Next up was A Picture Of Nectar composition “Stash”. This version featured a hearty helping of creative improvisation, with Mike and Fish pushing the jam to some great high-tension spaces before fading out in a wash of film-noir jazz textures. A short-but-sweet “Chalkdust Torture” followed, before the band closed the first set with a cover of The Beatles‘ “A Day In The Life”.
After a brief set break, the band got the show back on the road with “AC/DC Bag”, and took the song deep with a heaping helping of highly potent jamming. From thick ’97 cow funk, to full-blast hose, to ambient space, to teases of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Third Stone From The Sun” and Talking Heads‘ “Psycho Killer”, this behemoth of a “Bag” had more than a little bit of everything. By the time it segued into Gamehendge rarity “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters”, the jam had instantly entered the “best ever” conversation.
After the incredible 25-minute “AC/DC Bag” and always-welcome “McGrupp”, this set was already shaping up to be a heater. That notion was quickly confirmed as the first “oom pah pah” rang out through the Garden. Perhaps the Phish-iest of all the tunes in Phish’s extensive repertoire, “Harpua” is more than just a highly sought-after song. Strictly reserved for special occasions and requiring extra planning and preparation by the band, “Harpua” is a number that many thousands of fans chase for hundreds of shows and still don’t manage to catch. In addition to telling the tale of the titular fat, sweaty bulldog and his ill-fated feline counterpart Poster Nutbag, “Harpua” serves as an opportunity for story time with Trey. The characters’ story gets warped and morphed with each telling of the “Harpua” tale, though they all end badly for poor old Poster. While the outcome for Poster Nutbag was no better on 12/30/97–the only “Harpua” ever played at MSG–it did contain a particularly crazy story featuring 10-year-old Trey, classic TV show Lost In Space, an olive loaf, a mystical pentagram burned into the ground, and Tom Marshall singing “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. Of course, I can’t tell this story like Trey can, so you’ll have to listen for yourself.
After “Harpua”, the band opted for Hendrix’s “Izabella” a cover that had seen several impressive outings in the year leading up to this performance. “Harry Hood” was up next, and stretched for almost 20 minutes of skilled improvisation before a bluesy jam segued delicately into “My Soul” in place of the song’s usual ending refrain. A “Sleeping Monkey” sing-along followed, before “Guyute” closed the set.
Wow. What a show, right? However, as it turned out, Phish still had a lot more left to give on 12/30/97. The encore opened with “Carini”, the first U.S. rendition of the song after its premiere during the band’s European tour earlier that year. As the band played, however, the clock struck 12, signaling that they had officially blown through their midnight curfew. Knowing that they would already be paying a fine for breaking curfew, Phish decided to keep on playing. “Carini” segued flawlessly into the heavy funk of “Black-Eyed Katy” (the instrumental that eventually evolved into “The Moma Dance”). From there, the band transitioned back into “Sneakin Sally” reprising the enormous bust-out that had started the show hours earlier. That’s right–Sally disappeared for 920 shows, and then snuck into the setlist twice in one night. Finally, after Phish had already given the MSG crowd way more than any of them could have possibly expected, they closed out the nearly 30-minute encore with a stellar, jammed-out “Frankenstein”.
Every time I revisit this show, it reaffirms how utterly incredible it is. There’s not one second of the 3+ hours of music that I would change. 12/30/97 features enough unforgettable moments, unbelievable playing, cheer-inducing surprises and classic, characteristic Phishiness that I still find something new to blow my mind every time I go through it. I’ve said it about various songs in this show, but I’ll say it again now because it begs repeating: whether you were there on that night, you’ve never heard a live Phish song, or you literally just finished re-spinning it moments ago, do yourself a favor and listen to 12/30/97 as soon as you can. It’s good for your health. Trust me.
You can watch full set videos below, courtesy of YouTube user The Phish Jams:
Setlist: Phish | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 12/30/97
Set One: Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley  -> Taste, Water in the Sky > Punch You In the Eye > Stash, Chalk Dust Torture, A Day in the Life
Set Two: AC/DC Bag > McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters, Harpua > I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) > Harpua > Izabella > Harry Hood -> My Soul > Sleeping Monkey > Guyute
Encore: Carini -> Black-Eyed Katy -> Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley > Frankenstein
Stay tuned over the coming days for more Phishmas! ‘Tis the season!
On the tenth day of Phishmas, a Phish phan played for me…Ten Sally’s Sneakin’ (12/30/97)