As Phish jumped back into the deep end for their 4-night New Year’s Run at Madison Square Garden this week in the wake of their historic 13-night Baker’s Dozen residency earlier this year, many who had taken part in the band’s big 2017 in NYC couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. Over New Year’s Run’s first two nights, the band worked through four sets that were great, though distinctly not-as-memorable as the unprecedented 13-night Garden party Phish had thrown this summer. Did Baker’s Dozen ruin Phish for us? Will we never be able to enjoy another show without donuts and themes and bust-outs and #norepeats? Then, Saturday night happened, and Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, and ever-resourceful LD Chris Kuroda fully restored the faith with a fantastic performance that easily stands up against the previous 15 they had staged at the World’s Most Famous Arena this year.
To properly begin Sunday evening’s review, we need to go all the way back to the morning of New Year’s Eve, when the band released a cryptic message about the night’s festivities to all ticket buyers: “You have been selected to ring in the new year as the first travelers to explore the universe by cosmic wristband. You’ll find this wristband when you arrive at your seat (or when you enter the venue for GA ticket holders). Please be considerate of other fans and take only the one wristband given to you. The countdown has begun, and your vessel is about to embark on its voyage of discovery. Because of the incredible power of your wristband, your trip is short. Your wristband will not activate till close to midnight, so don’t worry if it’s not functioning yet when you first put it on…The closer you are standing to your actual seat at midnight, the better your wristband will work.”
Immediately, the widespread social media freakout began–would they blast off into the sky? Would the stage be a spaceship? Why do I need to be close to your seat for the wristbands; is it gonna shock me or something if I move next to my friends? If they’re doing a space ship thing, why did they already do “2001” and “Martian Monster”? Of course, most everyone would turn out to be incorrect in their assumptions (and if you’re surprised by that, you probably haven’t been paying attention over the last 30+ years). But the giddiness of waking up the morning after a truly fantastic Phish show to a mysterious clue about “Cosmic Wristbands” (which, when you think about it, are actually sort of “donuts,” right?), preparing to embark on an uncharted voyage of discovery…It all felt eerily familiar, like a certain 17-day stretch this past summer: It may have been a few months later, a few (or more than a few) degrees colder, but just like that, the feeling we forgot was back. We still might pine for the Dozen now and again, but Phish doesn’t need donuts to excite and captivate a sold-out MSG. Oh, what a beautiful buzz…
Phish opened strong with the ominous cackle of “Carini”, immediately diving into down-and-dirty dance party mode in their first of three sets. The band worked their way through several minutes of patiently-constructed improvisation before dropping into a particularly electrified “Suzy Greenberg”. A foreboding “My Friend, My Friend” followed, and while it didn’t enjoy the same extended treatment it received on Jam-Filled Tuesday at the Dozen, it was played to eerie perfection.
Watch pro-shot footage of the show-opening “Carini” below via LivePhish:
The trajectory of the set continued skyward from there with an almost too-good-to-be-true 30 minutes of first set Phish, as “Fluff” came to New York for the second time this year, followed immediately by another composed classic, “Reba”. Both of the back-to-back fan-favorite pieces were executed impeccably, as the “Fluffhead” build and peak were as wild and rapturous as any we’ve seen all year, and the “Reba” jam pushed into luscious major modes, propelled by the ultra-tight rhythm Gordon-Fishman rhythm section. After a shot of bluegrass with “Poor Heart”, Lee Fordham joined the party for a rip-roaring “46 Days”, vintage Machine Gun Trey in full effect. A compact but white-hot “Maze” followed in quick succession, before “Character Zero” brought the house to the ground (and the set to a close), M.G.T. still blazing. Whether it was intended or not, a theme emerged in the setlist: “Carini”. “Suzy”. “Fluff”. “Reba”. “Leigh Fordham”. A crew of fabulous “Friends”…the “Characters” of Phish. One set down, two to go. Off to the races…
The relatively short but potent second frame began with a “Possum” sing-along, followed by a “Fuego” that sported a brief major key departure from the song’s structure. The improvisational highlight of the middle set came in the form of “Gotta Jibboo”, which dove quickly into the submerged “echolocation” groove established in the “Fuego” jam, evoking memories of the dark, dank, Baker’s Dozen boil. Mike and Fish boldly forged the path forward, before Trey grabbed the baton and began to soar, floating atop Page’s piano pulses to a white-light peak.
After a somewhat clunky start, “Golgi Apparatus” quickly recovered and provided more high-energy belt-along fare for the already elated Garden audience. Out of “Golgi” floated a delicately beautiful reading of the Siket Disc instrumental. Kuroda used the jam to paint a graceful blue donut on half court, expanding and contracting, zeroing in on the center of the room, seemingly pointing to something coming–as it had seemed to do throughout the run. The opening notes of “You Enjoy Myself” sent the crowd into a frenzy once again, delivering its typically spellbinding moments of awe over the set’s final 20 minutes.
The band returned to the stage for their third and final set just after 11:45pm and kicked into the Phish debut of new Trey Anastasio Band original “Soul Planet”. Unlike last year, when the New Year’s gag was apparent as soon as the band hit the stage, it seemed like business as usual as the band began to play. That quickly changed. Before long, workers dressed in red appeared on the light rig above the stage, floating down on a beam as they unfurled a massive, billowing sheet facing behind the stage. As the band sang, Kuroda finally fired up the cosmic wristbands, and the sail swung to face forward for the big reveal of their visually beautiful New Year’s gag, transforming the Garden into an ocean of glowing lights synced with the music.
The sail was on a giant swivel, and the ocean of wristbands became a sea of screams as the sail swung around to face the front, revealing a Pirate Ship stage complete with a Phish “Jolly Roger” flag. The red-suited aerialists hung off the “mast” as it continued to swing around, catching “wind” and blowing into various flowing physical formations. CK5 casted seaworthy projections on the sail as he played maestro for the vast expanse of Cosmic Wristbands while the song’s the lyrics rang out: “We’re screaming through space on a Soul Planet…the wind is the music..and everyone’s together in this one big ocean–and the ocean is love.” As midnight approached, confetti cannons began to fire around the arena, and a countdown clock appeared on the sail, ticking down to the customarily beautiful balloon drop, festively illuminated by the loving ocean of glowing lights.
The rest of the show bobbed on from there, as Phish sailed their big boat into the wild blue yonder with a set of ocean-themed songs. The good ship “Free” came sliding by next, before the band kicked into “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing”, the improvisational centerpiece of the pirate ship voyage, featuring more dark, echoing underwater jamming as Trey’s silhouette was emblazoned on the ship’s sail. The slithy slap of “The Moma Dance” followed, with Fishman ad-libbing some vocals and Page peppering in some “Shipwreck” narration quotes as the Garden felt winds (the wind is the music, after all). “Prince Caspian” floated in next, before the voyage ended with a “Wading In The Velvet Sea” sing-along as the sail was rolled up and lowered along with its red-clad wranglers to the roaring approval of the crowd.
Watch pro-shot footage of Phish’s “Soul Planet” New Year’s gag below via LivePhish:
With the boat gone and Phish back in regular Phish mode, the band offered up one last rocker, and one last chance for Kuroda to play with the ocean of wristbands to thrilling effect: “First Tube”. Finally, after a round of adoring applause–and an encore-break wristband light show interlude, the band returned to the stage for one last song, “Loving Cup”, before taking their final bows.
As it turned out, the early-morning email to fans about the spaceship blasting off into the donut Universe, just like the center-focused lights, had been something of a misdirection. While it wasn’t a rocket, Phish did board a different kind of ship to an uncharted, faraway planet: A New Year’s Eve voyage to the planet of Soul, where we all play a part in Kuroda’s light show, and everyone’s together in this one big ocean, and the wind is the music, and the ocean is love. While the ocean-themed songs may not have made for the most exciting setlist, 12/31/17 featured two fiery sets of “regular” Phish, and one visually mesmerizing set aboard the Big Boat Pirate Ship, floating in a sea of love and light.
So there we have it–17 in ’17. A truly unforgettable year of Phish. Thank you Trey, Mike, Page, Fish, Chris, and the rest of the crew for a year we’ll all cherish the rest of our lives. Here’s to many more.
View a full gallery of beautiful photos from Phish’s New Year’s Eve performance below courtesy of photographer Andrew Blackstein.
SETLIST: Phish | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 12/31/17
SET 1: Carini > Suzy Greenberg > My Friend, My Friend, Fluffhead, Reba, Poor Heart, 46 Days, Maze, Character Zero
SET 2: Possum, Fuego > Gotta Jibboo > Golgi Apparatus > What’s the Use? > You Enjoy Myself
SET 3: Soul Planet > Auld Lang Syne > Free, A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing > The Moma Dance, Prince Caspian, Wading in the Velvet Sea > First Tube
ENCORE: Loving Cup
 Phish debut.
This show was webcast via Live Phish and featured the Phish debut of Soul Planet. During Soul Planet, the stage was transformed into a massive pirate ship with sails blown by fans, cannons blowing confetti, and a Phish ‘Jolly Roger’ flag. Fans were given bracelets that illuminated different colors depending on where seated during pirate ship sequence. All of the songs after Auld Lang Syne centered around a water theme. A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing contained Shipwreck quotes. Moma included an Auld Lang Syne tease.