Phish shows are an escape from the real world for many of the band’s devotees. The group went so far as to name their most recent studio album, Big Boat, in what can be construed as a metaphor for the escapism. It was as if Phish was stating, “Come to our concerts, there’s room for everyone, and we’ll go on an adventure together outside the realm of the mainstream.”
Guitarist Trey Anastasio once told NPR the following of performing in front of Phish fans in Mexico, “I loved watching the faces of all the people dancing and splashing in the ocean while we played. I kept thinking, ‘This will all end sooner or later, one way or another. So I’m gonna enjoy every last second of it while we’re still here. I’m not gonna wave away the dessert cart on the Titanic. I want to be like that string quintet that kept playing while it sank.'” On New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Phish turned their stage into a replica of a big boat, a large pirate ship, and gave out wristbands that turned the audience into an even larger part of the production and experience than usual. The result was a sublime end to a marvelous year in the band’s 34-year history.
Sunday’s concert was Phish’s 17th of 2017 at MSG and their comfort level at the venue was on display throughout both the lauded Baker’s Dozen residency and the equally successful New Year’s Run. While the former showed the breadth of the foursome’s catalogue when paired with fun cover debuts, as they went 13 nights without a repeat, the New Year’s Run was a different animal. From December 28 – 31, Phish just picked the best of the best from their repertoire. The four-night stand only featured a few rarities and a shockingly low number of covers, yet the Vermonters did an exceptional job of stringing together one classic after another. Not only was the song selection good, but Phish’s willingness to jam most of those songs out was well-appreciated by the improv-loving portion of the fanbase.
Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon came out of the gates with an inspired run of beloved originals, which aren’t generally played so early in an evening. “Carini” opened, a move Phish has only used one other time in the past 16 years. Gordon powered a frisky jam that stayed within “Carini’s” dark and evil motif. When “Suzy Greenberg” followed, it was clear these moos sure know how to party. “Suzy” gets the crowd amped and as such Phish usually opens or ends a first or second set with it or throws it into the encore or for a burst of energy in the middle of a closing stanza. On NYE ’17 – ’18, the group used it in the #2 slot, a fairly unprecedented move as the last time “Suzy” was played in the middle of a first set (i.e. didn’t open or close) was way back on August 12, 2011. The aural fireworks weren’t over yet as one of the more cohesive versions of Rift rocker “My Friend, My Friend” filled the three slot.
What came next was 30 minutes of sheer euphoria for Phish fans, the pairing of “Fluffhead” and “Reba.” The former is one of the earliest originals, while the second helped introduce a large swath of music fans (including the writer of this article) to Phish. The composed portions of both complex tunes were played fairly cleanly. “Fluff’s Arrival” had a slow and throbbing feel as opposed to the shorter but more energetic usual versions, while the “Reba” jam was typically gorgeous. A quick romp through “Poor Heart” served as a palate cleanser before Phish brought the arena rock to close out the set with high-impact renditions of “46 Days,” “Maze” and Character Zero.” For many acts, 80 minutes is equal to or longer than their live sets. For Phish on NYE at MSG, that was just the first of three sets.
Phish picked up where they left off to start the second set, as “Possum” was used to fire back up the engines. The quartet then strung five career-spanning originals together over the next 60 minutes to end the frame. “Fuego,” the title track of the band’s 2014 release, featured a nice dose of exploration, yet it was the “Gotta Jibboo” that followed which included the best improvisation of the set. McConnell led a move into a different key, as once again bliss rained supreme. Considering, as Rolling Stone noted, “the current blissful era of Phish began in 2009,” it’s only fitting so many of the band’s jams have focused on pretty, beautiful, and yes blissful, major key music since they reunited.
Speaking of bliss, up next was the gorgeous instrumental “What’s The Use?,” which was born out of studio improvisation at Bearsville Studios located 106 miles directly north of The Garden. There was a time Phish used “What’s The Use” sparingly, but in recent years they have been more willing to play that card. “What’s The Use?” has rarely sounded better than it did on December 31, 2017. While the audience was revved up with the start of 2018 just over an hour away, the capacity crowd gave in to the beauty of the moment. One could hear a pin drop as Phish brought the song to absolute silence before concluding “What’s The Use?” Lightning Designer Chris Kuroda is an ace at any venue, but he particularly shines at Madison Square Garden. Kuroda has helped design the lights for sporting events at MSG and has access to parts of the house rig that usually go unused during concerts. Chris perfectly provided stellar visual accompaniment to the music all run long, yet never more than as part of “What’s The Use?” when he proved a true fifth member of the band. Phish ended the set with their signature song, “You Enjoy Myself.” Anastasio lit up The Garden with his filthy licks before Gordon gave about as a strong as a solo as he has in that song in recent memory.
Phish landed on an ideal mix of past and present in 2017. There’s no fear of the group becoming a dreaded nostalgia act with Mike Gordon writing new music at a furious pace with partner Scott Murawski, McConnell contributing an unprecedented three songs to Big Boat and Fish continuing to add such light-hearted gems as “Ass Handed.” As for Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman nailed it when he told Rolling Stone, “The guy shits music. It’s never been anything other than that.” The latest song Trey pushed out is “Soul Planet,” a funky, groovy number debuted by his Trey Anastasio Band ensemble on October 27, 2017. Anastasio’s main band gave the tune a go for the first time to begin the third of final set of the 2017 – 2018 New Year’s Run.
Concertgoers arrived at the venue to find wristbands waiting for them at their seats. Each wristband had a square that would light up based on signals sent wirelessly from a base station. The wristbands first lit up at the start of the third set and the colors and patterns displayed throughout the crowd made for an awe-inspiring visual. Each tune played in the third set had different patterns and colors that were utilized, so for 80 minutes the audience was a huge part of the light show. It all started with “Soul Planet,” the newest Trey song which is now the newest Phish song. While Phish was rocking out “Soul Planet,” a team of crew members in specially-designed red outfits turned the stage into a replica of a pirate ship complete with a flag sporting a Phish skull and crossbones logo. Air was blown at the sails, which were held taught by the crew, to create the visual of a big boat at sea.
“Soul Planet” starts with the lyrics:
Well, everyone’s together on the soul planet There’s one beating on the heart on the soul planet Dancing free now on the soul planet
The song also contains a chorus of, “Everyone’s together in this one big ocean and the ocean is love.” Anastasio’s “Soul Planet” tips its proverbial hat to the spiritual gathering of humans aiming to be happy and kind that is one of the aims of the Phish experience. “Soul Planet” was a fine choice for the last song of 2017, which was played as the pirate ship was assembled. The song’s numerous mentions of the “ocean” also set the tone for a theme which would continue throughout the third set.
Phish’s pirate ship would change course, as the crew members moved the sail from side to side, with the wristbands changing from waves of light to blinking designs. The foursome jammed on the “Soul Planet” debut until a countdown reached “0” marking the start of 2018. A massive array of balloons fell from the sky as audience members exchanged hugs and kisses. Phish then played the traditional “Auld Lang Syne” ahead of “Free,” complete with its lyrics about “splashing in the sea” and “the ship goes sliding by.” The lead Billy Breathes single completed its journey back from “good seven-minute song” to “jam-vehicle” with another blissful excursion that strayed far from typical “Free” territory. “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” was an obvious choice for the pirate ship set as was “The Moma Dance” (“I feel winds,”/”Pushing me further from shore,” “up the rigging, taking sail, mind the skipper, we’ll not fail, he’ll bring out wine, and we’ll be fine, just heed the order, watch sail.”) Considering this was Phish at MSG just after 2017, of course they took “Moma” deep including a jam on “Auld Lang Syne.”
A breather came next with “Prince Caspian” (“afloat upon the waves”) and “Wading In The Velvet Sea.” Oddly, Phish ended the evening the same way they did the previous year’s New Year’s Eve show at MSG: a third set-closing “First Tube” and “Loving Cup” encore. If anyone had complaints, the energy with which the crowd was getting down five hours after the concert started didn’t show as much.
2017 was the 20th anniversary of arguably the best year of Phish’s career: 1997. As Phish returned in 2009, each show had highlights, yet nights where everything came together were few and far between. 2017 was Peak Phish, in a way it was hard to imagine was possible coming into the year. The future is bright as the quartet enters the 35th year of their existence and everyone is welcome aboard the boat to set sail.
Madison Square Garden [See upcoming shows]
55 shows — 12/30/1994, 12/30/1995, 12/31/1995, 10/21/1996, 10/22/1996, 12/29/1997, 12/30/1997, 12/31/1997, 12/28/1998, 12/29/1998, 12/30/1998, 12/31/1998, 12/31/2002, 12/02/2009, 12/03/2009, 12/04/2009, 12/30/2010, 12/31/2010, 01/01/2011, 12/28/2011, 12/29/2011, 12/30/2011, 12/31/2011, 12/28/2012, 12/29/2012, 12/30/2012, 12/31/2012, 12/28/2013, 12/29/2013, 12/30/2013, 12/31/2013, 12/30/2015, 12/31/2015, 01/01/2016, 01/02/2016, 12/28/2016, 12/29/2016, 12/30/2016, 12/31/2016, 07/21/2017, 07/22/2017, 07/23/2017, 07/25/2017, 07/26/2017, 07/28/2017, 07/29/2017, 07/30/2017, 08/01/2017, 08/02/2017, 08/04/2017, 08/05/2017, 08/06/2017, 12/28/2017, 12/29/2017, 12/30/2017
9 songs / 8:13 pm to 9:34 pm (81 minutes)
6 songs / 10:04 pm to 11:14 pm (70 minutes)
9 songs / 11:46 pm to 1:05 am (79 minutes)
24 songs / 22 originals / 2 covers
8.57 [Gap chart]
Soul Planet (Anastasio)
Soul Planet (Anastasio), Auld Lang Syne
Auld Lang Syne - 28 Shows (LTP - 12/31/2016)
You Enjoy Myself - 21:07
Auld Lang Syne - 1:17
Junta - 3, Lawn Boy - 1, A Picture Of Nectar - 1, Rift - 2, Billy Breathes - 3, The Story Of The Ghost - 2, Farmhouse - 2, Round Room - 1, Undermind - 1, Fuego - 1, Misc. - 2, Covers - 2
12 degrees and clear at showtime