Phish New Year’s Eve 2019 – 2020: Setlist & Recap

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Looking back over Phish‘s 2019, the band’s 36th year could be categorized by both the members’ myriad individual activities and a handful of marquee sum-is-better-than-the-parts moments. Guitarist Trey Anastasio alone had multiple side projects active in 2019, from releasing and touring with Ghosts Of The Forest, a number of solo acoustic shows as well as TAB. The year also saw the return of Page McConnell‘s Vida Blue, tours from Mike Gordon‘s band and drummer Jon Fishman playing with Ghosts as well as bringing his radio show Errant Path to a large audience through the new Phish Radio channel on SiriusXM. These guys have been busy! But not too busy to still deliver some how-they-do-that!? all-timer jams, from the Alpine Valley “Ruby Waves” to the MSG “Tweezer” and several in between, jams that had the individuals surrendering their egos to the proverbial flow. Perhaps more than any other year, 2019 might have been the one where you could perhaps be convinced that each member of Phish had to have clones to be able to do all that and do it that well, this far into their careers. Perhaps it felt that way to them as well, perhaps that informed their New Year’s Eve gag. Or perhaps there was no message, they just wanted to do something cool and fun and, of course, weird.

After an epic like Monday night’s 12/30-pantheon show, you never know how Phish are going to come out on New Year’s. Was there gas left in the proverbial tank or would they suffer a New Year’s hangover a little too early? I think they fell somewhere in between. The first set kind of started multiple times, three would-be openers in a row, each feeling a little sluggish, but with promises of a journey to come, from “Martian Monsters” telling the crowd they were “about to blast off” to “AC/DC Bag’s” “let’s get this show on the road,” Phish seemed to be laying the groundwork for another journey into the New Year’s unknown. As it got going, the opening set featured both excellent lose-yourself groupmind jamming as well as some noteworthy individual spotlight efforts. “Halley’s Comet” took that “about to blast off” bit seriously, the band clicking hard into an oozy jam, characterized by Page yang’ing Trey’s yin, first with bright, glorious leads on the piano and then later with some seriously evil synth work that guided some truly excellent full-band first set improv. The latter half of the set was a series of hard-hit blasts of energy, each punctuated by one of the musicians: Gordon’s racing basslines in “Sparkle,” Fishman’s crazed cymbal crashes in “Axilla,” haunted organ grind from Page in “Maze,” which opened up some wild mid-1990s “machine gun” Trey soloing that he later matched with some anthemic playing to end the set with “Rise/Come Together.”

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In between all that, the “Axilla” featured the old school outro that opened up into a continuation of Trey’s “Pan Story” from the previous night, the entire band getting involved in the story, in a surrealistic, almost Rashomon-style retelling of the night 25 years ago that Trey got hit in the head with a pan. Turned out the “pan” in question may have actually been a pan flute, played by, of all people, pan flute legend Zamfir and I don’t think I can fully recount the Phish-at-their-strangest tale properly, but rest assured it ended with Zamfir himself being summoned. Or maybe it was his clone?

Zamfir Captured by William Corcoran

The band returned after the break with some renewed purpose, almost as if new versions of themselves had emerged from backstage, the band perhaps cloning their weary selves a la The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to finish out the show. Each song seemed to hit a different must-be-more-than-one-of-em four-man jam peak. The set-opening “Punch You In The Eye” was crisp and potent, but the following “Wolfman’s Brother” is where the set found its legs. You could feel the band eager to roam even during the verses, a prowling lion in a cage, ready to be unleashed. And unleashed it went, the full band gone feral with the funk, finding multiple phases of groove to settle in on and riding each to its natural conclusion, unleashing a decade-ending dance party in the Garden. The jam out of “Light” was filled with individual-feeds-the-whole moments, an inventive little lick from Trey in the middle was chills-inducing, some alien synth darkness from Page turned the stomach over in a good way and the whole band found enough rocket-fuel peaks to get the entire Garden to Mars and back. Much of the to-the-point jamming of the second set had the feel of charted out compositions with what song is this? moments throughout. Was there a “Mountain Jam” riff in there or did it just sound like it? And does it really matter? The “Light” jam settled perfectly into a “Twist” that continued on the theme, opening up into some masterful improvisation, Gordon taking a lead bass that seemed to chart out new territory, the rest of the band layering multiple overlapping themes expertly, four threads knotted together in some complex geometry, becoming one and blowing minds along the way. At times I felt like I was listening to an old school piece from the band Chicago, like “25 Or 6 To 4” without the horns, gloriously proggy, later I almost felt a premature “Tweeprise” coming on. “Soul Planet,” “Mercury” and the set-closing “Possum” each found their moments as well, the band (or their clones) sounding like they could turn any setlist nugget into gold.

Now, it’s a rare thing to find yourself in that setbreak between the second and third acts of a Phish show, something that typically happens only once, maybe twice, a year. There’s a special energy there, especially on New Year’s Eve because the discussion is not just about what they just played or about what they’re about to play, but also a weird anticipation about how they’re going to play it. Will there be aerial dancers or Broadway-style set pieces, will a truck be driven into the center of Madison Square Garden, will light-up bracelets join Chris Kuroda’s light show? I mean, what is going to happen? is the question of the hour, a question that can be pondered all setbreak long without ever coming up with a guess that’s even close to what the band finally decides to do. That’s a pretty cool energy to feel at a show. What’s going to happen?

When fans returned to their seats after roaming the MSG concourse to find out the answer to that question last night, they were perhaps a bit surprised to find that the stage had more or less been stripped bare. Like, completely bare, the stage was empty: no amps, no instruments, no nothing. Was the gag that the band had left, an Irish Goodbye of epic proportions? (that’d be a helluva gag, by the way). Without giving a blow-by-blow of the entire set, and the production was a setlong event, I can safely assure you that yes, the band did come back. After some goofy banter over the PA about doing a set of a capella jazz standards, (I think there might have been another Zamfir mention in there — only Phish could be so delightfully bizarre to work Zamfir into their New Year’s Eve gag) the band appeared dressed in monochrome jumpsuits: Trey in green, Mike in yellow, Page in blue, Fishman in an inverted-tone version of his Zeroman dress. They came to the center of the stage where a microphone waited and sang their version of “Send In The Clowns” with new lyrics (gotta find those lyrics, pretty funny) and changing the song to “Send In The Clones.” And then the clones appeared. Yes, about two dozen each of Treys, Mikes, Pages and Jons came on stage, all wearing the same jumpsuit/dress as their original, even having the same hair, each looking enough like their original to put a smile on at least my face. Four square platforms, one each for the band members, their instruments and monitors sitting atop them, lowered from the lighting rig, the original versions of the band members of Phish (at least, we can assume they were the original members, I’ve seen the Netflix series Living With Yourself, and I know you can’t be entirely sure they weren’t cloned “better” versions of themselves) climbed into their respective spots and were raised into the sky.

Send In The Clowns/First Tube/Auld Lang Syne Captured by William Corcoran

Now the songs they played and the music they made was, of course, important. That’s why the place was sold out to the rafters, that’s why everyone got dressed up in their sparkly best, to dance and get wowed by the music. But sometimes on New Year’s Eve, the music takes a backseat to the production and the entire third set was a choreographed delight. “First Tube” opened things up, but this was more than just your typical blissful electrofunk “First Tube.” That’s because all those clones back down on the stage were dancing and singing along, coordinated movement that was halfway between the crazed chaos of Phish’s improvisation and the complex planned journey of their composed masterpieces. The obligatory “Auld Lang Syne” said adieu to 2019 and let’s dance! to 2020, leading to “Sand,” wherein the chorus of clones uncovered color-coded risers, the lights sticking to the red/blue/green/yellow motif as did the balloons (did I mention the balloons? Of course, there were a lot of them that continued to fall and bounce around and pop themselves silly through much of the set).

One of the great things about live music, perhaps the thing that makes it scary in the same way a Haunted House is scary, that unknown that lurks around the corner waiting to surprise you, is that you never know what’s going to happen. When “Sand” ended and three of the four platforms came back down to the stage while Trey’s green platform stayed aloft, it quickly became clear that something had gone wrong. A short delay ensued while whoever was in charge of the up-and-down of those things assumedly tried to fix it, but, goshdarnit, the show must go on! and Trey finally said, more or less, “let’s just roll!” and played the rest of the set from a slightly askew, stationary platform suspended a good 20 or 30 feet above the stage. I must admit this was a bit disconcerting to me to watch, but you have to assume the professionals knew what they were doing.

With Trey (or his clone?) floating there, an individual isolated quite literally in space, but still a member of the collective, the leader of the band the rest of the choreographed set went on with three different flavors of Phish, joined by a Greek chorus of clones whose movements and additions to the production were just as compelling as to what the band was playing. Two songs that evoke a certain floating weightlessness – “Drift While You’re Sleeping” and “What’s The Use?” were ample sources of inspiration for the movement of the other platforms and the zig-zagging gaggle of the other versions of the band down below. My favorite moment was during “What’s The Use?” when each clone held up a reflective disc and Kuroda beamed lights down onto them, reflecting them into the sky in a dazzling display, almost as if the clones were also cloning Kuroda as well. Quite lovely. With Trey’s platform swaying a little bit more than I was personally comfortable with, the “You Enjoy Myself” was fiery but not too extended, but offered maybe the best bit of clonesmanship, all the daughter Treys doing his (or their?) patented dance to Mike’s deep funk bass solo. Seriously charming.

Seeing as Trey could not get down, they did a no-encore-break encore break before busting into the inevitable “Tweezer Reprise.” And what a “Reprise” it was. That thing about being both individuals and part of a greater whole, that’s true of the band, yes, but it’s also true of the whole Phish community. We all dance our own individual dances, pine for our individual favorite songs, hang out with our personal friends at the shows, we are not just clones of each other, different versions of some master original “Phish fan.” But, on the other side, when we get together, it’s some powerful stuff, it’s going to church, and if going to a Phish show is going to church, then “Tweezer Reprise” is the hallelujah moment of the service. With all those clones joining in, bringing their movement to the arms-in-the-sky jubilance of the song, it felt even more so last night, Trey held aloft like some halfway-fallen (or maybe rising?) angel was maybe a bit too on the nose, but it was a powerful end to the show, I thought. Of course, that wasn’t the end of the show, because, like, Trey still needed to get down and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling like I wasn’t taking one step towards the door until I saw him down safely. Thankfully the “rescue crew” came to bring him down, piggybacking on Fishman’s adjacent platform, which gave Trey (who was such a good sport and pro about the whole thing, it absolutely must be mentioned), a rare opportunity not just to be alone with the MSG audience, but also alone with a drum kit. He did not hesitate to sit down, lay down a beat and ad lib a song thanking the rescue crew, which I guess makes that the debut of “Rescue Squad,” sure, why not? The only question left, I guess is what happens to all the clones now, hopefully not keeping their originals up at night.

Happy New Year!

Rescue Squad via Monica Hampton

The Skinny

The Setlist

The Venue

Madison Square Garden [See upcoming shows]

20789

63 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, 12/31/2017, 12/28/2018, 12/29/2018, 12/30/2018, 12/31/2018, 12/28/2019, 12/29/2019, 12/30/2019

The Music

10 songs / 8:03 pm to 9:15 pm (72 minutes)

7 songs / 9:49 pm to 10:58 pm (69 minutes)

9 songs / 11:47 pm to 12:59 am (72 minutes)

26 songs / 24 originals / 2 covers

1999

9.13 [Gap chart]

Send In The Clowns (Stephen Sondheim), Rescue Squad (Anastasio)

[ALL]

Auld Lang Syne -- 41 Shows (LTP - 12/31/2018)

Sand -- 15:48

Auld Lang Syne -- 1:45

Junta - 2, A Picture of Nectar - 1, Rift - 2, Hoist - 1, Billy Breathes - 1, Farmhouse - 3, Joy - 1, Misc. - 13, Covers - 2

The Rest

38° and Clear at showtime

Koa 2 / Languedoc G2 #4

Phish From The Road Photos

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Posters & Coin