There is no better feeling than waking up in Manhattan when The Phish from Vermont are in town. As fans take over midtown, the focus moves from the holidays to closing out the year with a bang. Expectations were predictably high on Saturday as Phish settled in for their sold-out, four-night run at MSG—their 61st time at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
The night began with the cautious debut of the soulful new “Evening Song” to an eager audience. “No Men In No Man’s Land” picked up the tempo and set an exploratory tone for the night, officially ending the band’s “no repeats” trend set throughout Fall Tour. True to form, the band wasted little time getting down to business. A funky jam abruptly concluded with a relatively rare first-set “Down With Disease”. While they initially struggled to find a leader, Trey Anastasio eventually took the torch and lead the band through a series of peaks before haphazardly finishing the song with its signature riff (strangely, a 3.0 phenomenon).
Phish – “Evening Song” – 12/28/19
[Video: William Corcoran]
Trey couldn’t hide a smile as “20-20 Vision” made its thematic debut. People unfamiliar with traditional bluegrass cover (myself included) checked their phones to identify the waltz popularized by Gene Autry. Mike Gordon’s voice solidified the short but sweet offering before the band turned a corner and launched into “Ghost”.
Phish – “20-20 Vision” – 12/28/19
[Video: kembra allen]
Initially timid and predictable, they gained steam as the rhythm section created a color palette for Trey to experiment over. Jon Fishman aggressively pushed the band through a series of kaleidoscopic corridors until Trey pulled the obligatory ripcord. “Gumbo” gave the crowd a much-needed breather. Page McConnell preceded a fairly forgettable solo by Trey with a greasy foundation of clavinet, but this performance was otherwise business as usual. “Rift” was sprightly, confident, and executed with precision. After a 42-show gap, the mini-bustout “Weigh” shook things up a bit. Gordo’s deadpan approach to the vocals seemed to contrast well with Trey’s humourous crooning.
📸 Jake Silco pic.twitter.com/4BnyxisGrp
— Phish: From The Road (@Phish_FTR) December 29, 2019
“Dog Faced Boy” came next for the first time since 10/24/16 in Texas, closing a 114-show gap to much fanfare from the audience. The venue was eerily silent for the ballad about lost love and regret. ‘Twenty Years Later” followed, perhaps the second thematic nod of the night as this weekend marks twenty years since Big Cypress. After a guitar-heavy conclusion, Phish turned a corner into “Tube”, which featured a brief jam. However, according to @TubeJamUpdate, it did not meet the criteria for a resounding “Yes”. In the last verse, Trey notably started laughing at the absurdity of the song’s Fishman-penned lyrics—something we have been seeing more frequently in recent tours.
— DidTheyJamOutTube? (@TubeJamUpdate) December 29, 2019
Trey held nothing back as they ended set one with Kasvot Växt’s biggest banger, “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.”, which is quickly becoming a classic based on the wave of excitement it consistently evokes that’s typically reserved for older songs.
Set two began with a bit of confusion as the boys stumbled to find their footing on “Everything’s Right”. A brief expansion led to some Type II improvisation before gently dissolving into “Beneath A Sea Of Stars”—perhaps less puzzling in this slot than it was in the encore slot of Charleston’s disjointed fall tour conclusion earlier this month. This version had “Dark Star” vibes for days. The band moved as a single unit, lightly bouncing through the consciously formless jam with no real sense of urgency.
A seemingly mandatory “Set Your Soul Free” lead to the third thematic homage of the evening, an extended “On Broadway” jam. What started as a tease by Trey turned into a full band tribute to the NYC classic by The Drifters. Distorted Gordo bombs carried the jam before launching into “Gotta Jiboo” at Trey’s behest. A “Set Your Soul Free” tease materialized before ending the otherwise jovial Farmhouse staple.
“Free” took on a truly different form on Saturday night and served as a standout moment in set two. In addition to being slightly faster than usual, the entire band seemed to play the Billy Breathes favorite with a different brand of enthusiasm. Fishman’s new variations on the groove notably gave new life to this version before Trey ushered in transition into “Piper”. The jam that followed seemed to fit the mold of prior patient explorations, reaching a soaring crest in a sea of white lights and high fives.
Phish – “Free” [Pro-Shot] – 12/28/19
📸 Rene Huemer pic.twitter.com/vT4XOqmDNA
— Phish: From The Road (@Phish_FTR) December 29, 2019
The high fives didn’t stop there. The Who‘s “Drowned” was arguably the most celebratory moment of set two, satisfying many fans (like me) who have been dying to see this song return from its 61-show hiatus. While it initially debuted at the iconic 10/31/95 Chicago Quadrophenia show, the 12/31/95 performance at MSG offered an unforgettable version that cemented the song firmly among Phish’s most coveted covers. Page’s slippery synths gave Chris Kuroda an opportunity to join in on the psychedelic fun as MSG temporarily became the familiar spaceship we all know and love. After flirting with more Type II space and peppering in some unexpected “Guy Forget” vocal quotes, Fishman hilariously muscled the band into “Ass Handed”.
Phish – “Drowned” w/ “Guy Forget” Quotes – 12/28/19
Smiling from ear to ear, Trey launched into an “Ass Handed”/“Chalk Dust Reprise” mashup, labeled (hastily) by @Phish_FTR as “Ass Handed Reprise”. Anastasio confirmed that moniker as the song reached its “Chalk Dust Reprise”-style band introductions. “Ass Handed Reprise! Thank you, we don’t know how to thank you for that. I don’t know,” Trey laughed as the song wrapped up. “Did we just invent a song?” Fishman added with appropriate sarcasm.
You may recall the original “Ass Handed Reprise” in 2016 at Chula Vista’s epic summer tour closer, though that version was a mashup with “Tweezer Reprise”, rather than the recently-revived “Chalk Dust Reprise”. It’s fair to assume that Phish statisticians will be scratching their heads trying to figure out how to categorize this one. “Character Zero” made an inevitable and uneventful set-closing appearance, despite being energetic.
Phish – “Ass Handed” > “Ass Handed Reprise” – 12/28/19
[Video: kembra allen]
“A Life Beyond The Dream” landed in the first encore slot with a thud, followed by a triumphant “Rocky Top”, played for the first time since last year at MSG. After long, impressive fall tour void of repeats, the floor is now open and anything is on the table for the next three nights.
Check out a gallery of photos from the first of four year-ending Phish shows at MSG below via photographer Andrew Blackstein.
Setlist: Phish | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 12/28/19
Set One: Evening Song, No Men In No Man’s Land, Down with Disease, 20-20 Vision, Ghost, Gumbo > Rift, Weigh, Dog Faced Boy, Twenty Years Later > Tube > Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.
Set Two: Everything’s Right > Beneath a Sea of Stars Part 1 > Set Your Soul Free -> Gotta Jibboo > Free > Piper, Drowned, Ass Handed > Chalk Dust Torture Reprise > Character Zero
Encore: A Life Beyond The Dream, Rocky Top
 Phish debut.
 With lyrics changed to Ass Handed.
This show was webcast via Live Phish and featured the debut of Evening Song and the Phish debut of 20-20 Vision. Dog Faced Boy was performed for the first time since October 24, 2016 (114 shows). Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S. contained Martian Monster quotes. Set Your Soul Free included an On Broadway jam. Trey teased and quoted Set Your Soul Free in Gotta Jibboo. Trey and Fish quoted Guy Forget at the end of Drowned. Chalk Dust Torture Reprise was played with Ass Handed lyrics and contained Guy Forget quotes.