Phish rang in 2020 to a sold-out crowd at New York City’s Madison Square Garden like they’ve done a dozen times before. While they have played other New Year’s Eve shows outside of the Big Apple over the years, no place feels quite as much like home as the Garden. The newest decade’s gag did not see the band pull off a midnight-to-sunrise set, a runaway golf cart marathon, a JEMP truck ride, or hot dog flight, but it was the third set that fans new and old will remember forever.
Looking back to previous Garden parties, the 12/31 calendar date does not typically top the other nights of the run in terms of musical exploration, expansive jams, or massive bust-outs, but that doesn’t stop Phish from being unapologetically “Phish” at the transition of each new year.
Following their stellar, jam-filled 12/30 show on Monday night, the band took the stage loose and excited to have fun as the Disney sample from 2014’s Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House Halloween set blared through the arena. The “Martian Monster” opener was followed by “Buried Alive” in its customary early-first set position. Digging further back into their massive repertoire, Trey Anastasio shined as Phish continued to “get this show on the road” with a sing-along “AC/DC Bag”.
The “World Most Famous Arena” in the central part of Manhattan was treated to a lengthier-than-usual “Halley’s Comet” next, complete with an impressive light display by designer Chris Kuroda. Since “Comet” returned to orbit in 2009, it hasn’t been given the improv treatment fans of earlier Phish years enjoyed, but Tuesday night was another story as Mike Gordon and Page McConnell developed a funky synth-bass groove that eventually morphed into “Prince Caspian”.
A standard, high-energy “Sparkle” and a short but potent “Axilla” led to the first banter of the antics-filled night. All four band members continued the “hit in the head with a pan story” tangent from the 12/30/19 show, adding a new layer to the “true” tale. After “Storytime Trey” amusingly placed the “pan story” version of himself in a hallucinated recreation of the classic Steven King movie, Carrie, Trey and Page joked that they were fuzzy on the rest of the details of the strange saga.
It was Gordon who finally chimed in on the saga of the pan with a useful new insight: “You know, I’m starting to figure something out here,” Mike hypothesized. “It’s a different kind of pan! It’s the pan flute. Who was the guy from the TV commercials that played the pan flute?”
“Oh, I think, are you saying Zamfir?” Fishman offered. “I remember that guy!” He continued, “And there was a weird thing about that guy. That, uh, I think the guy died, but if you say his name, you can conjure him. All you gotta do is say his name, he’s got one of those magical names.” Fishman then put that theory to the test, calling out the pan flutist’s name. As he did, haunting pan flute melodies and TV infomercial audio began to play over the sound system. Just like that, “Zamfir” (a.k.a. tour manager Richard Glasgow), ambled onstage with his pan flute. Yes, it was just as strange as it sounds. “Weird sh*t happens when you hit me in the head with that pan,” Fishman confirmed. “This is amazing,” added Trey, doing his best to hold back his laughter.
Phish – Zamfir Story – 12/31/19
To finish the whacky story and introduce “Maze,” McConnell utilized the THX “Deep Note” effect introduced with much hilarity at the 11/30/19 show in Providence, Rhode Island. The “Chairman of the Boards” took the spotlight during the rocking “Maze”, jumping from organ to grand piano before Anastasio kicked off an always-welcome “Fluffhead”. “Rise/Come Together” closed the interesting first set, giving fans a few moments to discuss the Zamfir story and “sit-in” with appropriate confusion.
“Punch You in the Eye” opened the second set for the first time since the standout July 19th, 2017 rendition and immediately got the floor of the arena shaking once again. “Wolfman’s Brother” was funkified by a juicy Clavinet-bass groove that Anastasio used as a launchpad for his intricate riffing. While the experimentation didn’t exceed the 10-minute mark, Tuesday night’s “Wolfman’s” once again contained a dark improv section, as it has throughout 2019.
An excellent “Light” kicked off the strongest portion of the set with a synthy, ethereal section that moved into a heavy peak before Anastasio pulled the plug and dove into “Twist”. Gordon plucked away to create dank bass undertones that paired nicely with Fishman’s choppy drum fills. The guitarist summoned the spirit of Jimi Hendrix and developed a dirty riff reminiscent of “Foxy Lady” as the entire band built upon the sinister “Twist” to combat the tranquil “Light” that came before it, completing a two-song segment that’s surely worth revisiting.
“Soul Planet” reminded New Year’s Eve veterans of the 2017-2018 run inside the same venue, where a massive pirate ship brought the glowing-wristed fans into January 2018. A danceable, funky breakdown in “Soul Planet” was short-lived as the band transitioned into a relatively standard “Mercury” and a faster-than-usual, dynamically varied “Possum” to close out the second of three sets.
As the lights came up for setbreak number two, a swarm of stagehands descended upon the stage, presumably to set up for whatever shenanigans were coming in set three. Except… Wait, are they putting everything away? Sure looks that way. As setbreak wore on, the crew quickly packed up all the gear on stage, leaving only a few nondescript black boxes and a chorus of confused queries of “but what are they going to play on?” echoing throughout the crowd as the clock approached midnight.
As the lights went down to beckon the final act of the night—the stage still conspicuously empty—the voices of the band members began to emit from the PA. “Hello? Hey, Trey? These microphones are not on, are they?” asked Page. “Nope,” Trey’s voice responded. “Our microphones are not on. No one in the Garden can hear a single word we say.”
As the Garden roared with laughter, Page continued, “unaware” that the crowd could hear him, “I am so excited right now, I cannot contain myself. I can’t believe we are about to walk on stage and perform an entire set of jazz ballads, a cappella, for our New Year’s extravaganza.” Added a giddy Trey, “25 years into our career at MSG, we are finally gonna give the people what they want and walk on stage and do an entire set of jazz a cappella ballads for our New Year’s set. It’s gonna be perfect.” The crowd cheered and groaned as they crossed their fingers that this was, indeed, a joke.
Fishman continued, “That is, provided that Zamfir does not show up at the last second and hit us with a pan. Because when that has happened in the past… strange things have occurred.”
“You know what I think,” Mike’s body-less voice added. “I think that’s him right there walking toward us! … So weird.” The requisite sound effects ensued as the Garden heard the pan flute master once again accost The Phish with his pan.
With that, the members of Phish slowly strode onstage in peculiar outfits as the piano intro to “Send In The Clowns” began to play. Fishman donned an inverted version of his ubiquitous muumuu (red dress, blue donuts), while the remainder of the band sported solid-color outfits and headset microphones: Page in blue, Trey in green, and Mike in yellow. True to their word, the four colorful musicians started into a (mostly) a cappella rendition of the classic number from the 1973 Stephen Sondheim musical, A Little Night Music. So… they’re actually doing this, huh?
However, as “Send In The Clowns” continued, fans quickly became aware that something strange was afoot. With excitement, Trey altered the lyrics of the song to “Send In The Clones“. The rest of the lyrics proved to be telling, as well. File away “me here at last on the ground, you in mid-air,” “one who keeps tearing around, one who can’t move,” “making my entrance again with my usual flair” and “well maybe next year” for later…
As the band reached the end of “Send In the Clones”, Trey emphasized the song’s final lines. “Where are the clones? There ought to be clones! Send in the clones! Send in the clones! Send in the clones!”
After a moment of suspense, the band cleared the stage once again, only to reappear shortly after when four free-hanging, colored platforms filled with colored instruments matching the band’s outfits descended from the ceiling. As Phish launched into “First Tube” while suspended in mid-air, dozens of “clones” of each member—with outfits identical to those worn by the band, down to shaggy, red wigs worn by the Trey clones and the bald-spotted wigs for the Page clones—flooded the empty stage underneath the floating musicians.
The Phish clones would remain onstage throughout the set, performing elaborate, synchronized dance numbers and choral flourishes as their originators played overhead, rising and falling in time much like the lights on Kuroda’s rig. Later, they’d pull out a set of long, thin mirrors to reflect the stage lighting—effectively “cloning” Kuroda, as well.
As the final minutes of 2019 ticked away, the platforms were lowered back to normal stage level while the clones constructed appropriately colored risers behind the band out of the mysterious black cases left onstage at setbreak. The colorful Phish clones served as the backing choir the customary New Year’s countdown and ensuing “Auld Lang Syne” and balloon drop before helping the still-floating band usher in 2020 with a “Sand” extravaganza. The clones continued to dance and sing through the theatrical “Sand” as the band’s platforms lifted and dropped—that is, except for Anastasio’s. Strangely, he had stopped moving with the rest of the band…
Phish w/ Clones – “Send in the Clowns”, “First Tube” > “Auld Lang Syne” > “Sand” [Pro-Shot] – 12/31/19
A sense of anxiety soon began to set in for the Garden crowd. Was a clone going to replace Trey for good? Was he actually in danger? Was this all part of the gag? Phish loves to elicit that oh-so-familiar “what the f*ck is going on?” reaction from their fans, but even the band shared this sentiment as the reality of the situation set in. As the rest of the band’s platforms dropped to stage level, Trey remained conspicuously suspended. The green-suited guitarist was, indeed, stuck—”the band here at last on the ground, Trey in mid-air.”
Here’s where things got hairy. A long pause ensued as the MSG crew tried to figure out how to get Trey down while Anastasio no doubt reflected on the “Murphy’s Law” situation going on before his eyes: There he was, just after midnight on New Year’s Eve, at the dawn of a decade, in a green suit, at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the band’s first MSG show with an elaborate, aerial stunt—and his sh*t just broke in mid-air. The situation had moved beyond “gag” status. This was real. Trey was stuck hanging precariously above the Garden crowd with half a set still left to play. What in the world do you do from here?
After several minutes (which felt like an eternity) of waiting nervously, Trey began to cautiously joke about his current predicament. “Well,” he said with sincerity, “I guess, if I’m about to fall to my death, I might as well tell you guys all how much I love you. So much! At least this is gonna be one of the great rock and roll deaths that you’ll all be a part of. … Kind of always wanted to go out with a bang, so…”
Fishman tried to add some levity to the situation, joking that “I think you’d just get maimed from there… it’s not high enough for death. Don’t worry. Death don’t hurt very long…” But the comic relief did little to quell the mounting nervousness that permeated the Garden. Even Trey’s quip about how this would be a good time for him to do “one of those Eddie Vedder crowd dives—you guys will catch me, right?” did little to ease the tension.
As fans will remember, the 12/30 “Pan Story” ended with Trey joking about how he felt like he had walked himself out onto the edge of a cliff with nowhere to go. As the New Year’s gag born from this bizarre tale went further off the rails with each moment Trey remained stuck, that imagery became all too real.
After receiving word from in his earpiece that they were not, in fact, going to be able to get him down, Trey cautiously decided that the show must go on: “Hey Carm, I’m just gonna play it from up here. F*ck it, just leave me up here.”
With that decision, Trey cautiously started into “Drift While You’re Sleeping”, the Phish clones below continuing their choreographed antics. It’s probably worth noting that, despite the admirable, “rock-and-roll” character of choosing to continue, all four band members were notably timid throughout the song. With Phish, you can never really be sure what’s real and what’s a joke, but the truth shined through in the music. Both Trey and the clones below his faulty platform were potentially in actual danger, and it took the band more than a few minutes to shift their focus from that fact back to the music being played.
Despite the understandable timidness, the clone-assisted set continued admirably with “What’s The Use?”. While clearly planned ahead of time (see: elaborately choreographed dancing), this song choice felt cosmically appropriate. What’s the use in worrying about how Trey’s going to get down? We’re here, we’re plugged in, and we’ve got a wild show planned. May as well go for it.
It’s also worth mentioning the clearly apparent difference in Trey’s body language and playing as his best friends and bandmates continued to rise and fall as planned. When he was suspended solo, he was noticeably reserved, but each time Page, Fish, and Mike rose to his level, he seemed to momentarily regain his full confidence. Plenty of strange things have happened at Phish shows over 35+ years. When Trey was alone above the stage, he seemed to feel exposed, even kneeling to play at points to help keep his balance on the edge of this “cliff.” But as soon as his bandmates were at his side, he was ready to conquer any obstacle in his path. If that’s not Phish in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.
The clones cleared the stage as the rest of the band’s platforms rose to meet Trey’s above the stage for “You Enjoy Myself”. While the band members remained necessarily stationary on their platforms, the Phish clones returned to act out their usual “YEM” antics—from Mike and Trey clones bouncing on trampolines to Trey clones dancing to the Mike bass solo section. As the band moved into the “Boy, Man, God, Sh*t” section, the aerial guitarist put a noticeable emphasis on the “Sh*t!”, a tensely amusing nod to his sticky situation.
Phish w/ Clones – “You Enjoy Myself” – 12/31/19
Unusually, the highlight of this “YEM” turned out to be the vocal jam, as the clone choir helped Trey conduct some call-and-response melodies with the crowd before eventually winding up in a “clone theme” of sorts to close things out.
We can assume that, at this point, the band had planned to exit the stage for an encore break. However, with Trey still stuck hanging over the Garden, Phish did what they do best: they improvised.
“Thanks, everybody, thank you,” a sheepishly giggling Trey announced, “Okay, we’re gonna do something very strange here, but that’s cool. It’s fun. We just walked off, we’re back on. This is the encore, and then all four us are gonna watch you guys leave, and then we’re just gonna stay up here in the air…until next year! It’s the encore!”
With that, Phish launched into the “Tweezer Reprise” that had gone missing on 12/30 as the clones once again took the stage for their final number—a climactic ending to a crazy set, to be sure. But for the crowd, the show was not over. No, we weren’t leaving until we were sure that Trey was safely on the ground.
Phish w/ Clones – “Tweezer Reprise” [Pro-Shot] – 12/31/19
As Mike, Page, and Fishman descended to the ground after “Tweeprise” and started to walk backstage, Trey laughed nervously. “You guys are leaving me? What the hell?!”
“Bye, Trey,” Fishman laughed. “See you next year,” added Page as a helpless Trey continued to laugh at his ongoing predicament.
As Trey continued to dangle, he took to his guitar to pass the time for a little (necessary) bonus improv, crafting an off-the-cuff ditty about how it’s time to leave. “It’s a whole new year, and someone’s coming to rescue me… at least I hope so. This is pretty strange, but it’s kind of cool, I kinda like it up here, they’re gonna rescue me, goodbye, goodbye 2019, let’s have a big cheer…for the rescue squad!” he sang.
The crowd continued to cheer—one could argue, louder than they did for any of the planned NYE antics—as the stage crew mounted Fishman’s drum platform and rose to Trey’s assistance. They placed a bridge over to Trey’s platform and guided him over to the working lift to help him down. Once again, with nothing but time and an instrument in front of him, Trey sat down behind Fishman’s kit and beat out an improvised “Rescue Squad” chant as he finally—thankfully—descended to safety.
The Rescue Squad Saves Trey – 12/31/19
The Phish “Clones” New Year’s gag was meant to be all fun, games, and spectacle, but after its precarious malfunction, it took on a more sincere air of significance. As we watched Trey dangle from the ceiling, fans throughout the Garden realized their deep love for this man and this band all over again. You can’t just “clone” Trey Anastasio. Sure, it’s fun to see them do elaborate things like this, but everyone in the hallowed venue seemed to telepathically agree: We’d trade this admittedly amazing spectacle to ensure this man’s safety and longevity any day of the week (or year, or decade). Now that he’s down, however, we’re looking forward to the inevitable tsunami of memes, jokes, and future antics born from this stunt gone awry.
So goes the Phish… Welcome to 2020. Let’s maybe keep the New Year’s stunts on the ground this year.
Check out a gallery from 2019’s Phish New Year’s Eve show below courtesy of photographer Chris Capaci.
[Review by Ben Boivin & Andrew O’Brien]
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My dear friends Carmel Dean and Jon Rua, who I first met while working on the musical Hands on a Hardbody, pulled off an impossible feat of choreography and vocal arrangement last night at the Garden with the help of 40 supremely talented clones. Thank you Jon! Thank you Carmel! And thank you to all of the cast and crew! With deepest love and gratitude from all of us in your Phish Family!
Setlist: Phish | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 12/31/19
Set 1: Martian Monster, Buried Alive, AC/DC Bag, Halley’s Comet > Prince Caspian > Sparkle > Axilla, Maze, Fluffhead > Rise/Come Together
Set 2: Punch You in the Eye, Wolfman’s Brother > Light > Twist > Soul Planet > Mercury > Possum
Set 3: Send in the Clowns, First Tube, Auld Lang Syne, Sand, Drift While You’re Sleeping, What’s the Use?, You Enjoy Myself
Encore: Tweezer Reprise, Rescue Squad
 Phish debut, with lyrics changed to Send in the Clones; a cappella
 Debut; only Trey.