Phish returned to the stage on Monday night at Madison Square Garden for a career-spanning, cover-happy outing celebrating rock and roll from start to finish. There is no debate in the Phish community that 12/30 holds a special place in the hearts of fans new and old. Not only is it the last two-set show of the year, but it tends to be more focused on the music compared to the gag-centric New Year’s Eve spectacle the following night.
“Wilson” opened the show for the first time since their 2016 LOCKN’ headlining slot and reminded the groggier night-three fans in attendance that they can still have fun. Fast-forwarding a few decades deeper into their repertoire, Phish put on their Kasvot Växt masks for a sample-filled “The Final Hurrah” and landed somewhere in between for “46 Days” from 2002’s Round Room. Trey Anastasio showed off his guitar chops early with a hard-hitting, fluttering solo backed by Jon Fishman’s solid kit work to get the Big Apple arena hyped for night three.
Phish – “Wilson” [Pro-Shot] – 12/30/19
After showing off his fine picking chops, Anastasio let out the classic southern rock opening lick to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” for the first time since 10/16/2016. Page McConnell’s soulful vocals did the cover justice before Anastasio encouraged him to “Play it” during the standout “Blaze On” that followed. The extended, 17-minute version began with a Clavinet-bass funk groove accented with high notes from the guitarist. Anastasio found a blissful riff that shifted the jam’s direction as he played cat-and-mouse with Gordon’s nimble bass line. Fishman utilized his cymbals to patiently drive the jam and keep his bandmates locked in. The synthy outro and soft “Blaze On” vocals from Anastasio would have fit perfectly in any second set, yet they were only on song number five.
Phish – “The Ballad of Curtis Lowe” [Lynyrd Skynyrd cover] – 12/30/19
[Video: kembra allen]
There is something about MSG that brings out the Taj Mahal in Phish. For its third appearance in a row, the rare, wholesome “Corrina” was passionately covered for the Garden crowd during the New Year’s Run. A fun but relatively uneventful “Mike’s Groove” followed, marking the fourth time ever (and only the second time since 1995) that “Contact” had served as the meat between the customary “Mike’s Song” and “Weekapaug Groove” bookends. The trio of old tunes opened the Nectar’s time capsule and reminded the crowd of a decade when the Vermonters were building a following in bars in midtown Burlington, not selling out the World’s Most Famous arena in midtown Manhattan.
Scathing Ghosts of the Forest heater “About To Run” was a quality reminder that even after 36 years, the band is still making new and interesting strides into new terrain. The bluesy, lyrically symbolic tune is one example of a band still writing inventive music, ignoring the urge to become a nostalgia act like so many of their late-’80s and early-’90s contemporaries. In fact, for those keeping score, Phish has played more unique tunes in 2019 than any other year in Phistory. The set-closing “More” off 2016’s Big Boat furthered that sentiment as the energetic rendition continued to secure its footing as a go-to set closer for modern-day Phish.
Dating back to “Mercury” on 8/30/19 at Dick’s Sporting Good Park, the band has dangled numerous sub-20 minute jams in front of the hungry fans, but has been hesitant to go “there” in nearly a dozen shows. However, Phish returned to the MSG stage for their second set on Monday night ready and eager to explore, and their nearly 36-minute, set-opening “Tweezer” offered fans that constantly-chased glimpse of improv greatness the likes of which we haven’t seen since that one memorable night in Tahoe back in 2013.
The rowdy crowd could feel the post-Uncle Ebenezer magic immediately as Anastasio chose a driven, focused path for his guitar on top of Fishman’s foundational drum work. The jam moved into a dark and murky space with fuzzy wah-wah guitar effects over “Liz Reed”-reminiscent riffs and deep bass notes from Gordon, keeping the momentum moving forward with intent.
McConnell relocated to the organ at the 11-minute mark, helping the jam transition into airy major key territory with spacey synth tones and choppy plinko effects. As lighting designer Chris Kuroda circled white beams of light around the walls of the Garden, it became clear to everyone watching from both the crowd and the couch: the band had achieved lift-off. On a dime, Fishman switched up the tempo around the 15-minute mark to inspire dank and dirty bass notes to surround Anastasio’s high energy riffing.
About halfway through the marathon jam, the laser-focused band opened an ambient, placid path that made hinted at a transition into a new song. Instead, they strategically teamed up to create an otherworldly Type II lullaby. Fishman pulled them out of the quieter space with jazzy drumming, setting up a return to a light and blissful palette as the timer on the jam hit 30 minutes. Reminiscent of the standout “Harry Hood” from the previous night, Anastasio sustained a single, glorious note that pierced through the accompaniment, adding to the emotional heft of this “Tweezer” voyage.
Finally, Trey worked with Fishman and Page to give a shout-out to the New York Rangers in the form of a tease of marching band classic “Let’s Go Band”, which Rangers fans co-opted long ago in this hallowed building as the cue for a “Potvin Sucks” chant. The audience obliged with excitement, prompting visible amusement from the band as they finally brought this mammoth “Tweezer” to a close (for now).
Phish – “Tweezer” [Pro-Shot] – 12/30/19
Phish – “Let’s Go Band” Tease/”Potvin Sucks” Chant – 12/30/19
[Video: kembra allen]
As the band basked in the roars of applause for “Tweezer”, Trey began to wax nostalgic about the fact that this night marked the 25th anniversary of Phish’s first show at MSG. He started to tell what seemed like an amusing anecdote from the band’s first MSG performance, but shenanigans quickly ensued. The bizarre tangent turned out to be more of a slapstick, Jerky Boys-style tale about being hit in the head with a pan (and screaming) repeatedly, complete with appropriate sound effects from Fishman and Page. Whether this apparent “yes, and” exercise was rehearsed or just some spur-of-the-moment silliness between lifelong friends was unclear, but the goofy interlude only added to the loose, creative vibe that permeated the set.
The comic relief portion of the show came to a sudden halt as Phish continued to highlight their growing arsenal of 3.0-era jam vehicles with “Ruby Waves”. While there wasn’t enough time left in the set for “Ruby Waves” to venture as deep as the “Tweezer” that preceded it, the 13-minute rendition shined with tight and condensed pockets of its own. More distorted guitar funk vamps and chunky bass grooves beckoned a segue into an ominous “Steam”.
After a comparatively brief six minutes of “Steam”, the band bled back into “Tweezer” to log a few bonus minutes in the freezer. The “Tweezer” callback, in turn, segued back into “Ruby Waves” for a few more minutes of percolating before Trey introduced a soaring “Slave to the Traffic Light” to appropriately cap this wild second set in the Big Apple.
For the encore, the band eschewed the customary “Tweezer Reprise” and instead tackled one more classic cover with The Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll”. With all the “Reprise” shenanigans of late (from the “Plasma Reprise“-filled fall tour to the recent revival of “Chalk Dust Torture Reprise” in Charleston to the 12/28 “invention” of a “CDT Reprise”-style “Ass Handed Reprise“), you can expect the missing “Tweeprise” to figure into the band’s New Year’s Eve celebration tonight.
Much like night three of Alpine Valley this past summer, Phish proved to Monday night’s crowd that they are fully capable of developing top-shelf jams whenever they want, but it wouldn’t be Phish if everyone showed up with expectations and guarantees. The beauty of this band is their ability to change identities from year to year, show to show. There only appears to be one constant over the past 25 years: Madison Square Garden, where they will return Tuesday night to close out a fantastic decade of Phish.
Tickets to the three-set New Year’s Eve show are beyond sold out, but you can watch live on LivePhish.com.
Setlist: Phish | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 12/30/19
Set 1: Wilson, The Final Hurrah, 46 Days, The Ballad of Curtis Loew, Blaze On, Corinna, Mike’s Song > Contact > Weekapaug Groove, About to Run, More
Set 2: Tweezer, Ruby Waves > Steam > Tweezer > Ruby Waves > Slave to the Traffic Light
Encore: Rock and Roll
This show was webcast via LivePhish. The Ballad of Curtis Loew was played for the first time since October 16, 2016 (121 shows). The first Tweezer ended with a Let’s Go Blue jam and was followed by banter in which Trey talked about being repeatedly hit in the head with a pan and screaming on December 30, 1994 (the night of Phish’s first show at Madison Square Garden. This story was accompanied by sound effects by Fish and Page.