Despite the fact that Phish‘s two-night stand at Madison Square Garden in 1996 was not a New Year’s run, Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman, and Page McConnell were not content to let an MSG run pass by without the proper pomp and circumstance. That mindset led to the band’s truly memorable performance on 10/22/96, featuring a pair of music legends and some extra theatrics as part of a one-of-a-kind “Weekapaug Groove”.
The band kicked things off with “The Curtain” before opting for “Runaway Jim” instead of a “(With)” jam. After a brief pause, the band quickly ran through “Bouncing Around The Room” before delivering a well-played “It’s Ice”. Next, Phish offered a breather—the fourth-ever performance of Billy Breathes ballad, “Talk”. From there, the band served up an order of “Split Open and Melt” with some extra sauce (clocking in at nearly 12 minutes in length) and a high-energy “Sparkle” > “Free” segment before launching into a rocking “You Enjoy Myself” to cap the first set.
Any time “YEM” ends set one, fans have come to expect the second set to be something special—and the second set on 10/22/16 most definitely fit that description. After a short-but-sweet “2001” opener, the band flowed into “Down With Disease”, which featured dextrous riffing from Trey throughout. Next, the crowd sang along with “Taste”, followed by fan-favorite “The Mango Song”, which reached its typically ripping peak to great effect. After laying down some serious piano mastery on “Mango”, Page stepped out from behind the ‘boards to do his cocktail lounge singer schtick on “Lawn Boy” (with some alternate lyrics that may or may not have been intentional).
If you’re not familiar with this show, you may be thinking, “Hey, this guy said this show was special, but we’re halfway through the second set and it seems pretty straightforward to me so far.” Fret not, astute phan, we’re about to get to the shenanigans…
The show’s “fourth quarter” began to pick up steam with a raucous “Scent of a Mule”, played at a faster-than-usual tempo and with unhinged abandon by all four musicians, particularly McConnell. After about five minutes, the typical “Mule Duel” was preceded by a jazzy, synchronized (read: clearly rehearsed) surprise vocal jam with call-and-response crowd claps, guitar/keys riffs, and more for one of the most interesting “Scent of a Mule”s you’ll hear.
“Mike’s Song” came next, signaling the start of what would go on to become a truly memorable “Mikes Groove”. After a down-and-dirty “Mike’s”, the band bled into a classic “Swept Away” > “Steep” pairing, before Fishman’s driving drums and Mike’s bass slaps lit the fuse for the customary “Weekapaug Groove”.
Roughly two minutes into the “Weekapaug” audio recording, you can hear an audible roar erupt from the crowd, seemingly unprompted. In fact, what elicited the cheer was the appearance of a slew of lavishly costumed circus performers (as well as Fishman’s mother, Mimi) to dance along with the performance. The circus freaks lent an undeniably festive element to the set’s final number, as the added energy from the dancers invigorated both the band and the audience for a truly memorable rendition of the classic song, which Phish fans have taken to calling the “Freekapaug”.
You can enjoy crowd-shot video of the whole Phish “Mikes Song” -> “Swept Away” > “Steep” > “Weekapaug Groove” (Freekapaug) segment below, courtesy of YouTube user FieryBill:
Phish – “Mike’s Song” > “Swept Away” > “Steep”> “Weekapaug Groove” (Freekapaug) – 10/22/96
After taking their bows and clearing the stage, Trey led the band back on stage for the encore with an announcement: “The fun’s not over yet, we’ve got a couple more friends who are gonna come out and play this last tune with us. Very excited about this, everyone give a warm hand for Mr. Buddy Miles and Mr. Merl Saunders!”
The appearance of these two musical heavyweights understandably sent the crowd into a frenzy once again. Both Saunders (Hammond B-3 organ) and Miles (drums) had collaborated with a slew of highly influential musicians over the course of their respective careers (Saunders most notably leading the Saunders/Garcia Band with the Grateful Dead‘s Jerry Garcia, and Miles serving as the drummer for Jimi Hendrix‘s Band of Gypsys).
For their Phish debut, Miles and Saunders joined the band on their second-ever performance of classic rock n’ roll standard “All Along The Watchtower”, written by Bob Dylan, popularized by Hendrix, and covered and interpreted by damn near every musician you listen to. The off-the-walls collab was a smashing success, with the circus freaks returning to add some extra flair to 1996’s last gasp of MSG Phish.
Phish w/ Buddy Miles, Merl Saunders – “All Along The Watchtower” [Bob Dylan cover] – 10/22/96
You can also watch some prime behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage with Miles and Saunders backstage at the Garden below, courtesy of YouTube user Lawrence Blumenstein:
Phish w/ Merl Saunders, Buddy Miles – Backstage at MSG – 10/22/96
[Video: Lawrence Blumenstein]
From fantastic playing to theatrical “Freekapaug” antics to a pair of very special musical guests, 10/22/96 stands among the most exciting performances Phish has ever delivered at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Setlist: Phish | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 10/22/96
Set 1: The Curtain > Runaway Jim, Bouncing Around the Room, It’s Ice, Talk, Split Open and Melt, Sparkle > Free > You Enjoy Myself
Set 2: Also Sprach Zarathustra > Down with Disease > Taste, The Mango Song, Lawn Boy, Scent of a Mule, Mike’s Song -> Swept Away > Steep > Weekapaug Groove
Encore: All Along the Watchtower
 Buddy Miles on drums and lead vocals, Merl Saunders on keys, and Fish on Trey’s percussion rack.
This Weekapaug, often referred to as the “Freakapaug,” included circus dancers and Mimi Fishman dancing around on stage towards the end. Watchtower (first since April 21, 1994, or 227 shows) featured Buddy Miles on drums and lead vocals, Merl Saunders on keys, and Fish on Trey’s percussion rack. The circus dancers also appeared for the encore.
[Originally published 10/22/17]