Ah, summer Phish at Madison Square Garden. It’s a flavor fans haven’t tasted since the final bite of The Baker’s Dozen six years ago, a rare flip of the script on a familiar tradition for the band: While most of the band’s MSG runs take place over four frigid December days in New York, puffy coats filling the arena’s seats, the sweltering summer heat and the knowledge that this was just the start of an extra-long run lent a more leisurely, let-it-all-hang-out aura to the night one festivities.

As much as it’s known for coaxing stellar performances out of Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman, and Page McConnell, MSG is unique in the Phish canon for its consistent inclusion of “special” thematic elements. New Year’s run always includes some sort of “gag.” The Baker’s Dozen had nightly donut themes (and actual, edible donuts). But the seven-night summer 2023 run? In the lead-up, it seemed the band was doing its best to downplay the role of thematic elements in this nameless Garden Party. We were going to have to wait and see.

Now that the dust has settled after night one, the question lingers: Was there a clear theme on this first night of seven? Maybe so, maybe not…

Look… I’m not a member of the “Most Shows Spell Something” camp. Sometimes a setlist is just a setlist, a great show is just a great show. A little trickery is fun, sure, and these magnificent nerds are the best in the business at messing with their inquisitive fans, but not everything has to be a thing.

Sometimes, though, you have to wonder how much “coincidence” you need to see before you let yourself entertain connections—and if you knew where to look, Phish provided plenty of “well, maybe…” thematic breadcrumbs on Friday. Or, you know, they just played a slamming show.


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Beyond the tepid “the tour includes a seven-night run at New York City’s Madison Square Garden” included in the 2023 summer tour announcement, the first real morsel of info fans received about the run came from the merch booth. Soon after doors opened on Friday, photos of the t-shirts being sold made the rounds online: On the front, a cute little sloth. On the back, the words “real outcasty”—pulled straight from the lyrics to early-days Phish song “Sloth”—and a simple “7 at the Garden.” Was this just a Phish-y design, or was this a sign? There must be something more to this…

One of the more popular guesses among guessers has been a “Seven Deadly Sins” theme for the seven-night run, and the new MSG gear only fueled that fire. “Sloth,” after all, is one of those sins. Are we doing the sins? Was this Sloth Night? Could it be that easy?

real outcasty, phish real outcasty, phish madison square garden 2023, phish outcasty shirts

[Phish merchandise booth at Madison Square Garden, 7/28/23]

Friday’s first set was immaculate. Top-notch playing, free-flowing creative interplay, roaring jams, chill-inducing peaks, perfect flow—it was everything you could want in a Phish set, and the explosive crowd energy inside the arena amplified all of those factors exponentially. The entire set is worth revisiting—particularly the jaw-dropping, tone-setting, 37-minute combo of “A Wave of Hope” and “Cities” (“Find the best city to live in,” proud local resident Trey Anastasio ad-libbed) in the second and third song slots, the Trey/Mike face-off jam in “Free”, and the unusually outstanding set-closing “My Soul”.

Set two was more of the same. A shimmering “More” opener set up a mystifying trio of extended improv journeys on “Ruby Waves”, “Plasma”, and “Simple”, each one topping 14 minutes in length and each one packing multiple distinct sections, ethereal tones, searing leads, soaring peaks. Even a “Mountains In The Mist” breather took on an unusually regal shimmer, and the standout set-closing “Split Open and Melt” was a the best sort of nightmare, a thrilling and ominous free-fall into the depths of Evil Phish illuminated by a perpetually mobile, better-than-ever light display. Hats off to Chris Kuroda and Andrew Giffin on this one. Hot damn.

Phish – “Split Open And Melt” [Pro-Shot] – 7/28/23

This was easily one of the summer’s best shows, and we could totally leave it at that, but with theme sleuthing on many fans’ minds… I don’t know, man. There sure were a lot of lyrics on Friday that could be connected to a “sloth” motif.

Most sloths are nocturnal; that could tie in “Evening Song” (“Approach the night with caution”) and “Cities” (“People sleep, sleep in the daytime”). And when they’re snoozing, you can bet they’re “asleep in the trees,” as referenced in “Stash”.

The “Old Home Place” seems like a good place to practice the sin of sloth, or laziness. The “floating” in “Free” sounds pretty lethargic, too, now that you mention it, as does the “staring at the walls” in “Brian and Robert”, the “always ending up where you start” in “Plasma”, and much of the imagery in “Split Open and Melt” (“I wake up on my stomach with my face between my hands, and crawl along the floor toward the doorway”). It’s a stretch, but you can even catch “Simple” in that net: a life of sloth is surely a life of simplicity.

If you want to expand the scope to the general nature of sins, to the politics of Heaven and Hell, you could conceivably connect the thread to “My Soul” (you know, ‘cus “souls”), “More” (“I guess it’s never really over even when it’s over”), “Ruby Waves” (“When I die, I’ll turn into a tiny ball of energy”), “Mountains In The Mist” (“Awakened beast”).

But really, it’s the t-shirts for me. They literally made sloth merch.

Alas, a ripping “Good Times, Bad Times” encore, though not devoid of its own Heaven/Hell thematics, came and went without a lynchpin rendition of “Sloth”, punching a notable hole in the theme theory.

So, was there a sloth theme on night one? Is this a seven deadly sins run? Was this all a red herring, a conscious helping of meaningless breadcrumbs for people like me who are silly enough to go looking for them? That’s a distinct possibility.

And yet… I wonder. As much as I may be grasping at straws here, there’s too much here to toss the idea out entirely. Not yet, anyway. With just one night down, even if there is a unifying thread, we don’t yet have enough connective dots to follow. Saturday night should start filling in some blanks, though. What are the odds that the “real outcasty” sloth shirts will be replaced by a new concept on night two? Maybe so, maybe not…

Six more nights of Phish at the Garden on deck. I’ll see you out there. Click below to check out a selection of crowd-shot videos from night one of seven at the Garden and scroll down for the full setlist from the performance.

For a full list of upcoming Phish tour dates, head here. Subscribe to LivePhish+ to listen to every show on the tour and browse an archive of live Phish recordings. To order your LivePhish webcasts for any of the band’s upcoming summer shows, head here.

Revisit Live For Live Music‘s nightly coverage of Phish’s seven-night run at Madison Square Garden below:

  1. Friday, 7/28/23 (You’re already there.)
  2. Saturday, 7/29/23
  3. Sunday, 7/30/23
  4. Tuesday, 8/1/23
  5. Wednesday, 8/2/23
  6. Friday, 8/4/23
  7. Saturday, 8/5/23

Phish – “Cities” (Partial) – 7/28/23

[Video: Alan Gofberg]

Phish – “Stash” (Partial) – 7/28/23

[Video: Alan Gofberg]

Phish – “More” – 7/28/23

[Video: Alan Gofberg]

Phish – “Ruby Waves” (Partial) – 7/28/23

[Video: Gregory Marcus]

View Videos

Setlist [via Phish.net]: Phish | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 7/28/23

Set One: Evening Song > A Wave of Hope, Cities, The Old Home Place > Free, Brian and Robert, Stash, My Soul

Set Two: More > Ruby Waves -> Plasma > Simple > Mountains in the Mist, Split Open and Melt

Encore: Good Times Bad Times

Notes: Cities featured the ad-libbed lyric “Find the best city to live in.”