Phish has been known to dabble in time travel over the course of four decades as a band, from close encounters with Father Time on New Year’s Eve to forays into the future on Halloween. On December 31st, 2022, as the band entered its 40th anniversary year at Madison Square Garden with yet another three-set celebration, Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell, and Jon Fishman were feeling nostalgic. What is a milestone birthday for, after all, if not to conjure clips of fond memories and view them through rose-colored shades?
The lack of balloons in the rafters sent a puzzled ripple through the Phish crowd as it filed into MSG for the fourth straight night. The band had skipped the customary balloon drop at fake New Year’s in April—and, admittedly, made up for it with underwater magic—but many fans had speculated about a return to the traditional pageantry for the first Phish New Year’s run since 2019. Was this a New Year’s Eve show unconcerned with tradition, with history? Fortunately for those in the sold-out New York arena and the hordes of streamers tuning in from couches far and wide, that concern would prove to be comically unfounded.
Continuing a recent string of statement opening songs, Phish began the evening with “Tweezer”, marking the signature jam vehicle’s first time starting a show since 7/15/16 at The Gorge. The band settled in quickly here, riding the wave of a major key motif before crashing to shore in a pool of dark, dissonant delay.
This “Tweezer” felt like it had plenty of gas left in the tank as it cruised toward the 14-minute mark, but a quick exit instead lead to a welcome “Halley’s Comet”. The song itself was well-played, if not particularly noteworthy, but its smooth-as-strawberry-goo segue into “Set Your Soul Free” is a must-hear. The Anastasio rocker has proven a reliable launchpad since its Phish debut in 2018, and this “Set Your Soul Free” coaxed out a jam that rattled with brooding potential energy as Chris Kuroda, Andrew Giffin, and the rest of the lighting team added to the allure with thematic light rig motion patterns from above.
“Rift” and “Cavern” provided a couple of quick-hit sing-alongs before the band dropped back into “Tweezer” (ah, one of those shows?) for another few minutes of thick Gordon bass grooves, staccato Trey, funky Page piano, and superhuman Fish feel.
A charming “Shade” was up next, and while its slow tempo may have felt like an imperfect match for the set’s established pace, there’s surely always room for a love song on New Year’s Eve. A classic “Mike’s Groove” hit all the classic sweet spots—a patient, moody “Mike’s Song” build; a delicate, enchanting “I Am Hydrogen” interlude, a soaring “Weekapaug Groove” peak—to bring an energetic first set to a close.
The second of three sets on New Year’s Eve was perhaps the least remarkable of the four-night stretch—a solid string of songs with plenty to like but not much to latch onto in the unseasonably mild light of New Year’s Day in New York City. Seek out the unusually melodic “2001”, the anthemic tension-and-release arc of “Kill Devil Falls”, and the few fantastic minutes of exploration on “Light”.
Set two, it turned out, would prove more notable for its thematic allusions to the New Year’s spectacle to come than for any particular rendition of a song: Each of the selections played in the second frame contained references to time and the mysteries of its passage, from the frozen thoughts and everlasting memories of “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” to the futuristic odyssey of “2001”, the day-turned-week of “Kill Devil Falls” to the day-turned-year of “Mercury”, the vanishing past and future of “Light” to the lovingly lazy day plans of “Waste”. “Drift While You’re Sleeping” and “Backwards Down The Number Line” only served to confirm the time-focused trend when they clocked in to close the set.
As anticipation built for the countdown to 2023 ahead of the third and final set, stagehands adjusted equipment to prepare the added length of stage in front of the band—which had gone unused in the first two frames—and reveal a set of risers behind them. Despite the shifts in the stage plot and the approaching 12:00 a.m. countdown deadline, Anastasio, Fishman, Gordon, and McConnell took their places once again at 11:43 a.m. without any notable fanfare. That didn’t last for long.
The sound of a doorbell dinging through the P.A. brought a dapper barbershop quartet to the stage to deliver a “singing telegram” to the band (a.k.a. “P-Hish): “Your story started in 1983, so at the stroke of midnight, it’s gonna be…” they sang, building to the matter at hand in four-part harmony, “40 years of Phish!”
“Happy birthday… make a wish!” they crooned, presenting Trey with a celebratory pink cupcake. Anastasio smiled knowingly, offering a simple response before blowing out the candle, “I wish I had a time machine so we could do it all again.”
Heeding his wish, the black cube that had been hanging motionless in the rafters all week sprang to life, glowing with light and color from LED panels and shooting steam jets as it lowered into view. A similar box on stage level glowed, too, and the barbershop quartet scrambled over to fold out a lever hidden inside and give it a pull.
As lightning crashed in the background, the time machine Trey so desired flashed a “’22” on its face and proceeded to count backward to “’83”. The Garden was met in 1983 by early band photos and a recording of the band covering The Hollies‘ “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress” at its first show, a University of Vermont cafeteria gig.
Another pull of the lever cranked the clock to ’95, bringing footage of Fish as Baby New Year to the time cube and drawing New Year’s 1995’s Gamehendge Time Factory scientists back to the stage in the flesh, glowing test tubes in hand. The next pull brought us to New Year’s 2009‘s Fishman-as-cannonball antics, and the one after that moved the dial to Halloween 2013 and its Abe Vigoda-led “Wombat” dancers as the wombat mascot himself strutted on stage (R.I.P., Abe).
The time machine was running like a dream, but that pesky wombat was as muscular as he was cuddly (or was he actually a Little Squirrel and not a wombat at all?), and once he got his hands (paws?) on the lever, it wasn’t long before he had torn it off the machine entirely. Alarms sounded. The clock face on the time cube short-circuited. Uh, oh… Technical issues on New Year’s Eve at MSG? Where have I heard this one before?
As the band kicked into the set’s first song, “Ghost”, the smoking control panel of the malfunctioning time machine began to summon the ghosts of virtually every notable Phish gag for a theatrical spectacle worthy of New York, New York.
The Famous Mockingbird/chicken from NYE ’92 took flight on wires behind the stage. Kasvot Växt from Halloween 2019/1981 Scandinavia made an appearance. Across the way, KV’s future disciples, New Miami’s Sci-Fi Soldier (Halloween 2021), could be seen getting more down. Father Time (New Year’s 1999) pedaled his way in on a hot dog cart, followed by a troupe of dancing weiners. NYE 2016‘s “Petrichor” umbrellas floated toward the ceiling, 12/31/02‘s “7 Below” snow angel dancers drifted past. A Soul Planet pirate (NYE 2017) waved his swashbuckler’s flag.
The NYE 2019 Phish clones (notably sans clone Trey) wandered aimlessly looking for their missing friend as a NYE 2018 “Mercury” aerialist rose and fell behind the band. Then, there was good old Zamfir, the pan-wielding, pan flute-playing, pandemic-causing antagonist of NYE 2019 at The Garden—played once again by tour manager Richard Glasgow—who got in a good swing at Page’s head for good measure.
A brief detour from “Ghost” into a fast-paced “Meatstick” interlude brought out the around-the-world dancers from New Year’s Eve 2010 for a reprise and some multi-lingual choreography, but they were gone as quickly as the band swerved back into “Ghost”. After a suck-to-blow New Year’s 2014 Fishman floated by with his inflated double, a gaggle of golfers filed in to recall the festivities from New Year’s 2012.
On a dime, Page diverted into the middle section of Queen‘s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a piece that has gone unheard at Phish shows since the band performed it with the Boston Community Choir on New Year’s ’96, with lyrical ad-libs referencing the ongoing “Ghost” motif. On cue, the NYE 2022 version got a chorus of its own as a full gospel backing choir took the stage on risers behind the band.
Phish wasn’t done communing with its “Ghosts”, shifting back from the “Bohemian” detour with the choir still in tow. Another dip outside the “Ghost” lane followed as a marching band and pink bunny dancers filed up to the stage from the back of the floor for a reprise of New Year’s 2003‘s “Jungle Boogie” get-down.
As the stage grew crowded for the amply assisted “Jungle Boogie”, Anastasio’s infamous “unfortunate platform” from NYE 2019 lowered from the ceiling—where fans had spotted it lurking throughout the run—with a Beacon Jams “43 Weeks Later”-style Trey clone asleep on top. But wait… it’s not Trey! As Anastasio picked out the opening notes to “Wilson”, he introduced the man on the platform, who had now stripped down to Castaway garb in a nod to NYE 2002: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Tom Hanks!”
The horns blared. The choir howled. The bunny dancers batted Castaway Wilson volleyballs into the crowd. The Rescue Squad saved Tom Hanks from the platform. A massive 40th birthday cake made its way to center stage.
With one more pull of the lever by the wombat, sparks shot from the stage and Father Time finally counted us down to midnight, a haze of green confetti filling the air. As the choir sang the customary “Auld Lang Syne”, Trey, Mike, Page, and Fish walked to the front of the stage to have some cake and take a bow. The lack of balloons hardly seemed to matter here. We already had all the makings we needed for a birthday party of historic proportions—the cake, in particular…
You see, this was no ordinary cake. As Trey tore into the opening notes of “Carini”, the pastry popped open to reveal a “naked dude” bent on wreaking havoc. Then came another, and another, and another. Before long, the majestic chorus of voices and horns had been replaced on the stage by an angry mob of naked dudes—too slippery for a sad handful of security guards to wrangle (they ended up naked eventually, too), and unbothered by the bouncing Meatsticks hanging in the background. [Note: Some might say this naked dude is modeled after the Dick’s thunderstorm 2022 version—”at least he had some boots”—but I like to see it as an homage to all the naked dudes through the years].
The unclothed horde eventually coalesced in front of the band for a beautifully choreographed fracas ahead of the final surprise, a brief rendition of “New York, New York”—the band’s first since New Year’s 1997—complete with chorus line accompaniment by the nude Rockettes (“If I can be naked there…”).
All the while, the ominous time cube flashed photos and numerals and more across its faces. Considering the inter-dimensional properties of the Nine Cubes as introduced in Sci-Fi Soldier lore (Halloween 2021), you could totally see that as a nod to a Phish mythology multi-verse that spans all the way from revolution-era Gamehendge to the year 4680. Or, you know, I could be thinking too much into it.
But here’s the thing: On this night, maybe more so than any other night, Phish was inviting us to indulge the “nerd” within us all. Phish’s relationship with its fans has always been built on self-awareness and inside jokes—the kind of minutia you pretend not to know in front of your regular friends so they don’t think you’re weird but you do totally know, whatever, don’t judge me…
If last night was your first Phish show, I’m guessing you missed… some stuff. There’s never a bad time to see your first—and your first was a great one!—but you got dropped into high-concept Season 40 plot and you haven’t even caught the pilot yet. Thanks for being a good sport. Next time will be less weird. Maybe.
But the 40th birthday “previously on” clip show episode of Phish New Year’s at the Garden wasn’t for them. It was for the fanatics. The historians. The statisticians. The ones who keep coming back again, and again, and again, who probably saw many of these gags in their original forms over the past few decades. Watch a full, pro-shot video of the spectacle below.
Phish – New Year’s Eve 2022 Gag & Countdown – 12/31/22 – Full Video
Aside from a brief Wombat appearance during the show’s “Tweezer Reprise” encore, the 40-year retrospective hi-jinx ended there, leaving time for the band to dig in unimpeded for the set’s home stretch. It was 2023 now, after all, and after a night of celebrating the past, Phish was already looking to get a head start on creating the memorable moments of the future. Yet another return to “Tweezer” gave way to a glorious “Prince Caspian”, then a deep, murky “Crosseyed and Painless”, then a towering “Piper”, a genuine “A Life Beyond The Dream”, and an emphatic “First Tube”.
“We love you so much,” a grinning Trey said as the band took the stage one last time for a “Show of Life” encore. “This seems like an appropriate song.”
Click below to watch a selection of videos from the Phish 40-year retrospective New Year’s show. Scroll down to check out the full setlist and a gallery of photos from the night below via Andrew Blackstein.
Phish – “Tweezer” [Pro-Shot] – 12/31/22
Phish – “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” [Pro-Shot] – 12/31/22
Phish – “Bohemian Rhapsody” > “Ghost” > “Jungle Boogie” – 12/31/22
[Video: Rock Wrestling]
Setlist [via phish.net]: Phish | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 12/31/22
Set One: Tweezer, Halley’s Comet -> Set Your Soul Free > Rift, Cavern > Tweezer > Shade, Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove
Set Two: Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S. > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Kill Devil Falls, Mercury > Light -> Waste, Drift While You’re Sleeping, Backwards Down the Number Line
Set Three: Ghost > Bohemian Rhapsody > Ghost -> Jungle Boogie > Wilson > Auld Lang Syne > Carini > Theme from New York, New York > Tweezer > Prince Caspian > Crosseyed and Painless > Piper, A Life Beyond The Dream, First Tube
Encore: Show of Life > Tweezer Reprise