Following a strong opening night and a jam-heavy second show, Phish rolled into Madison Square Garden ready to deliver on the penultimate night of the band’s annual New Year’s run. It was apparent as soon as Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman, and Page McConnell took the stage that the crowd was ready and eager to go along for the ride.

Cheers of anticipation welcomed the band until Mike eased the tension in the room with the opening bassline of “Down With Disease”. Trey’s voice projected less than usual as he came in on lead vocals, perhaps because he seems to be experimenting with in-ear monitors (IEMs) rather than relying on speakers on the stage as the band typically does, and he’s not the only one. Mike could be seen fiddling with his ear pieces during the set opener, and Page and Fish wore them too. The shift to in-ear monitors ought to have an overall positive effect on the band’s vocals, which have never been Phish’s strong suit, but it could take some time to adjust. Just what motivated the switch is anyone’s guess. It seems unideal to experiment at one of the band’s biggest runs of the year—that is, unless it was somehow required to pull off the upcoming New Year’s Eve gag…

As the band settled into a mellow jam, lighting designer Chris Kuroda announced his presence by striking the stage with bolts of orange lightning before running through some calmer palettes to complement the band. His moving LED bars began to twinkle as Trey took the lead atop a foundation laid by Page on the organ. Immediately the band members locked in and interacted with each other, moving like a unit with Trey at its helm. It was obvious that they were each listening closely, which is a huge part of any exercise in group improvisation—of which they are masters—but they seemed extra keyed into each other as they navigated spontaneous key changes throughout the 14-minute jam, perhaps the result of being able to hear better with their new IEMs. After the monster “Fluffhead” opener the previous night, this “Down With Disease” jam sent a signal that Phish was ready to get right down to business.

Phish – “Down With Disease” – 12/30/22

After testing the improvisational waters in the first tune, Phish went straight for the funkular with “Moma Dance”. Fishman left ample space in the sparse but dirty funk groove, channeling one of his major influences, Zigaboo Modeliste from The Meters. Even before making it one time through the form, the band was improvising on a level usually reserved for the exploratory section of the tune. An entire jam seemed to unfold in the brief time it took to arrive at the first words of the song.

Then when the jam portion of the tune finally did arrive, the band dropped the funk in favor of a lighter, more airy jam, with Page playing harmonically off of Trey on his grand piano. The interaction between the two continued as Page shifted to the more electric sound of the Fender Rhodes. What started as a nasty funk jam ended up a soaring arena rock improvisation, before the band nonchalantly returned to the funk for a few bars to play the outro.

A few awkward glances and sour notes marked the intro to “Pebbles and Marbles”. After two jam-heavy opening tunes, the composed intro of the Round Room track was a welcome reminder of what first sets used to be known for—the songs. Phish’s strength lies not in the band’s ability to improvise together, but in their unique combination of talents, of which that is just one. Another is Trey’s skill as a songwriter and composer, two things that sound like the same thing, yet most people are either one or the other, and Trey is definitely both. That is brought out in a song like “Pebbles and Marbles”, which, thanks to the lyrics of Tom Marshall, is both a deep meditation and a well-crafted composition.

The opening piano notes of “Theme From the Bottom” drew cheers from the crowd. Fish’s steady hihat bubbled as Trey and Mike waded into the tune with their off-kilter melodies, submerged in a flood of green light. Kuroda swapped the green for warmer tones as the band slid into another improvisation, but the cooler greens and blues returned when things turned funky. First a non-funk jam in “Moma Dance” and now a funk jam in “Theme”—Phish clearly doesn’t mind mixing it up. Fluttering lights created an underwater effect while the band smoothly transitioned from major to minor as the jam opened up (or went type 2 as the kids say). The jam then faded to a cacophony of horror-esque sound design before Trey played the opening riff of “Reba”.

Phish kept “Reba” pretty straightforward. Fishman stumbled over the composed parts more than usual, but his ability to quickly recover made it unnoticeable to the undiscerning ear. Nonetheless, it it was so surprising to see, which is a testament to his professionalism. The jam hit all the familiar notes, blissful and triumphant, and—good news—the IEMs did not adversely affect the whistling part at the end of the tune.

After hitting the final note of “Reba”, the band immediately shifted into high gear for the big opening note of “The Howling”, a song from Phish’s 2021 Halloween Sci-fi Soldier set, which was unexpectedly released on Spotify earlier this year. Last played at Dick’s, the song had a straightforward jam that steered clear of type 2 territory.

The crowd cheered as Fish’s latin-inspired cowbell groove signaled the start of “Foam”. The track from Phish’s 1989 debut album, Junta, gave Mike his first chance of the night to fill the room with his bassy tenor—”If it waaasn’t fooor the foooaaam.”

After “Foam”, Fish took a melodic woodblock solo before transitioning to the toms during the intro to “Run Like an Antelope”. The crowd got loud as the band laid back into a groove at the start of the jam. CK5’s moving light rig rose and fell as things intensified immediately before the reggae/ska portion of the song.

After set break, Phish returned with “No Men In No Man’s Land”. The crowd cheered when Trey sang the line, “You’re happy that we’re here.” The set two opener relaxed into a sprawling 20+ minute jam that shifted from major to minor and back again with ample color play from CK5.

Trey could be seen using his microphone as a talkback mic during the jam, possibly to communicate with the band, something Phish could never do without using IEMs. This is a technique used by many jambands to cooridinate live improvisation and by other kinds of bands to communicate onstage. Typically a separate mic would be used—usually behind the musician facing away from the audience—but Trey’s regular mic seemed to shift roles during the jam, sending his voice directly to the band or possibly the sound engineer’s monitors, but not over the venue’s sound system, so the audience couldn’t hear what he was saying.

The jam gained some steam at the end, and the crowd was along for the ride. Illumination from CK5 revealed a layer of dancing bodies and pumping fists coating the Garden just before the band returned to the song’s chorus for the final time.

Phish – “No Men In No Man’s Land” – 12/30/22

TV On the Radio‘s “Golden age” came next. The crowd responded with a cheer to the line, “Clap your hands if you think you’re in the right place,” signaling to the band that they were right there with them. Fish settled into an ambidextrous drum groove as the jam developed, with each band member leaving space for one another. Trey began adding layers of effects as the jam relaxed into a subdued groove before turning blissful and ramping up again. After the peak of the jam, the band briefly returned to the “Golden Age” groove to conclude the tune before shifting to yet another huge jam vehicle, “Sand”.

Page seemed to have no trouble singing with his IEMs as he belted out the background harmonies during the Trey Anastasio Band song. The band took its time with the jam, settling into a nearly static funk groove that gradually developed, guided by Trey’s leads, at first melodic, then atonal but rhythmic, and then melodic again. A rainbow pattern swiped across the light rig as the groove disintegrated into rhythmic chaos and then returned back to a regular meter. The band turned to rocking as the extended improvisation stretched in a new direction. Trey signaled a return to the main riff after 18 minutes, though by then the tempo had increased dramatically (perhaps the result of dropping the meter entirely for a moment). With only three songs down, Phish was almost an hour into the set.

Trey then slowed things down with the opening chord of “If I Could”. After the hard-rocking “Sand”, the mellow Hoist track gave the audience a chance to catch its collective breath. Whistles from the crowd could be clearly heard as the band dipped in volume, with what looked like stars speckling the light rig above them.

The crowd roared with anticipation as Trey wet his whistle between songs, seemingly shouting to the band that they were ready to keep going. Page then took the lead on “I Always Wanted It This Way”. The song from 2016’s Big Boat took an experimental turn as Trey used layers of effects with long decays that overwhelmed the sonic space at the start of the jam. The ending of the jam seemed to come out of nowhere, and all too soon as it brought the set to a close.

Phish ended the night on a high with a “Chalk Dust Torture” encore.

Check out a gallery of photos from Phish at Madison Square Garden courtesy of photographer Nick Codina below.

Phish returns to Madison Square Garden tonight for a three-set New Year’s Eve spectacle. Tune in to a live webcast via LivePhish.

Setlist [via Phish.net]: Phish | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 12/30/22

Set 1: Down with Disease > The Moma Dance, Pebbles and Marbles, Theme From the Bottom > Reba, The Howling > Foam > Run Like an Antelope

Set 2: No Men In No Man’s Land, Golden Age, Sand > If I Could, I Always Wanted It This Way

Encore: Chalk Dust Torture