Sunday, December 30, 2018, at Madison Square Garden will be remembered for an epic first set that contained a Billy Breathes debut 23 years in the making, a big-time bust-out, and three tasty jam sandwiches. The second half of the performance certainly had its fair share of memorable moments, but won’t make it on the “Best of 3.0” list like the first set will.
In slow Llama fashion, the Vermonters came out with a silkier-than-usual “Alumni Blues.” Trey Anastasio remembered to call out a New York City deli staple during the National Bacon Day lyrical swap before sandwiching “Letter to Jimmy Page” in between the collegiate Phish classic. The night felt special from the opening chords as “Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues” started the show for the first time since Independence Day, 2012 at Jones Beach.
Mike Gordon removed his colorful scarf to take lead vocals for “Mike’s Song”. Page McConnell initially got clav-tastic before jumping over to the organ during the “Mike’s” breakdown. Anastasio layered heavy effects into the high impact rendition that continued the song thread of very early Phish originals. After a raging “Mike’s”, they gently moved into a mega bust out with “Glide II”. While Anastasio recently dusted off the mellow groove during a solo acoustic show in Boulder, Phish hasn’t allowed the tune to surface since the debut on May 16, 1995. “Glide II” served as the cool piece of lettuce in between a spicy, jalapeno-infused Mike’s Groove sandwich.
During “Weekapaug Groove”, McConnell shined on the Little Phatty Synth to bring the jam to outer space. It is well known throughout the Phish community, that McConnell enjoys a nice sandwich, and this show already contained two of them. A seamless transition out of “Weekapuag” and into “Crosseyed and Painless” stirred the crowd into a frenzy. After the concise first-set Talking Heads‘ cover, Trey pulled out a mic’d acoustic for the Phish debut of “Bliss”. This instrumental interlude is featured on the Billy Breathes album and the vinyl release can currently be picked up at merch stands throughout the Garden. Leave it to Phish to promote songs from an album that was released nearly 23 years ago. Fans chasing the beautiful tune for decades had finally received their Christmas miracle and were delighted to hear even more from the beloved Phish composition. The foursome was nostalgic for 1995 on Sunday night as they moved into “Billy Breathes” to put an exclamation point on the throwback duo of songs.
The “No Man In No Man’s Land” lyrics, “You’re happy that we’re here” got an extra roar from the audience that annually gathers to celebrate their favorite band on West 33rd and 8th Avenue. Anastasio found his path and remained locked in throughout the energetic and brief version of this frequently-played jam vehicle. While you can find “NMINML” on an MSG setlist every year since it’s 2015 debut, Sunday night was the first time the song appeared in the first set at The Garden.
“Tube” has been getting extended love since 2016 and this version was no different. McConnell assisted Anastasio to create a dreamlike retro arcade section complete with poppy plinko effects. Fishman attacked the galactic mission and transformed the stupendous “Tube” into “Weekapaug”. One of Phish’s most played originals of all time randomly squeezed its way into the set just like did on the final night of Baker’s Dozen after already being used earlier in the run. After two minutes of bonus grooving, the band bounced back into “Tube” adding yet another sandwich to the table. The rambunctious sold-out audience greeted intermission with love and light as “More” finished off an instant classic first set.
“Cool Amber and Mercury” opened set two and served as the fifth Kasvot Växt song (cover) of the run. Full of “Faceplant into rock” quotes from McConnell – the soothing bluesy rocker contained catchy guitar riffs, reasonably reminiscent of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” “Everything’s Right” moved into a dank and dark territory and found Chris Kuroda casting bright blue lights throughout the room to accommodate the chilling sound. Gordon dropped chunky bass bombs around Anastasio’s driving guitar and the two met halfway to explore Type II territory.
After 15-minutes of “Everything’s Right”, the band refused to pull the plug, but rather flow eloquently into “Plasma”, one of the four fundamental states of matter. Page hopped on the clav to chip away at the sludgy funk jam. Gordon added the meaty effect to his bass which made it sound like a singing Gremlin from a Stephen Spielberg daydream. While the jam didn’t break the 10-minute mark, its well-executed composition and danceability prove once again that “Plasma” is not just designed for the Trey Anastasio Band, but has been captured by the red head’s other touring act from Vermont.
Fishman used the kit to grease up the well-oiled and boiling hot “Light.” Once known as the annoying new song from the Joy album, this welcomed jam vehicle continues to reach new heights. During the second movement of the vast version, Fishman chopped away at the wood blocks and Page teleported to the synthesizers to create a euphoric, Michael Jordon-approved space jam with brief elements of “We Are Come to Outlive Our Brains.” McConnell continued to utilize all of his tools with one hand on the clav and one playing the organ. The torch was then passed on to Gordon who shook the max-capacity floor of the midtown Manhattan mecca.
This “Light” was a strong example of why event organizers prefer Phish over Billy Joel to ring in the new year. While the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has the potential to deliver hit after hit of original content, he isn’t able to take his music to the depths of the oceans and the outskirts of the galaxy. As the absolute king of MSG, Billy may have more sold out shows, but it is doubtful he will ever challenge his crowd to explore steam dreams, runaway golf cart marathons, flying hotdogs or giant hourglasses. After switching off “Light,” the piano man, Page McConnell, took over lead vocals for an emotional “Wading In The Velvet Sea” before the set-ending sea monster–“Split Open and Melt.”
After some eerie jamming that haunted the arena, Fishman brought “SOAM” to a standstill and telepathically signaled to Page to take over on synthesizer to give the song a trippy Pink Floyd feel. The chilling rendition of the Lawn Boy classic found the crowd spooked out as the massive red circle of light emanated from the arena’s scoreboard. Kuroda created a blinking hue that hovered over the floor like an alien abduction before Trey returned the song to its regularly scheduled programming.
Upon returning to the stage for an obligatory encore, it is as if Trey drew four random song cards from a massive deck of career-spanning covers and originals. The standardly-played variety pack contained “Funky Bitch”, “Wilson”, “Rocky Top”, and a Kasvot Växt-influenced “Cavern.” What is the encore’s message? 1. Every time you see Phish, they got new fancy clothes. 2. They can still have fun after 59 shows at MSG. 3. The Garden will always be home sweet home. 4. Whatever you do, take care of your shoes.
Never miss a Sunday show in late December, especially at the World’s Most Famous Arena. With a well-played mix of old and new served on a platter for 12/30, the dedicated fan base was treated to an all-inclusive show to finish 75% of the 4-night run. What do they have in store for the New Year’s gag this year? Phish has mastered the art of keeping fans on their toes and if you are one of the lucky ones to be at The Garden on the last day of 2018, you can recycle the final hurrah.
Setlist: Phish | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 12/30/18
SET 1: Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues, Mike’s Song > Glide II > Weekapaug Groove -> Crosseyed and Painless > Bliss > Billy Breathes, No Men In No Man’s Land > Tube -> Weekapaug Groove -> Tube > More
SET 2: Cool Amber and Mercury, Everything’s Right > Plasma > Light > Wading in the Velvet Sea, Split Open and Melt
ENCORE: Funky Bitch, Wilson > Rocky Top > Cavern