December 30, 1997. 25 years ago. I was nineteen and up to no good. I sauntered into MSG for what would be the best Phish show I have ever seen.
I had seen a few incredible shows that summer, but college and a lack of funds kept me from seeing any Fall ‘97 shows. I had also been listening to a lot of house music and was getting into the rave scene, so my attention was slowly turning away from my favorite band. I was expecting that Phish would put on a great set of shows for their first multi-night New Year’s Eve run in New York City, but my interest in other music made me less concerned with what or how they would play. But, the opening 921-show bust out of “Sneakin’ Sally,” the Pentagram “Harpua,” the curfew breaking, the encore with the final “Black Eyed Katy”… it was the perfect capstone to an epic year of dance party, cowfunk Phish.
To say that expectations for the December 30th show run high would be a massive understatement. This is the night I never want to miss. The night before the night. No pressure from the big gag, no constructed setlists, just a chance to tear the roof off the Garden and make the floor bounce. But this year was different, thanks to a powerhouse show the night before. When Phish plays a show as consistent and creative as December 29, 2022, you have no choice but to go in the next night with zero expectations.
We started off the night with an Osiris Media happy hour at Bar Moynihan where vibes were high. Twitter celebrities mingled with old friends, and we all felt as though we’d already won. There was nothing else to prove on this run, so we made useless predictions and raved about the show the night before.
Coming onstage to a hero’s welcome, the band opened with “Down With Disease.” Perhaps in a nod to the requests to “turn Mike up” on Twitter, the bassist sent us into the classic ripper in good fashion. Ten minutes into the song, I was already breathless from dancing. This 14 minute and 14 second version had a galloping jam, showing us that the rhythm section of the band was going to be in the pocket tonight. I was hoping to see “The Moma Dance” (maybe a nod back to the "Black Eyed Katy" on 12/30/97?). The band easily found its way in this jam, which was layered and stunning right off the bat. Somehow a ballad in slot three worked, maybe because it was “Pebbles and Marbles.” Despite debuting almost twenty years ago, this song has only been played 27 times. So it feels special, not to mention the absolutely heart wrenching lyrics that could melt even the Grinch’s cold heart.
Then this “Theme from the Bottom.” Wow. One of the longest versions in history, it clocks in at just under 15 minutes. I will be shocked if the band didn’t spin some 1997 Phish (like the rest of us) before the show yesterday. Mike was totally leading this jam, dropping bombs and pointing us towards funktown. This jam went places, and how fun for a song that makes me feel nostalgic for 1995. The jam was definitely modern Phish with Trey putting his effect pedal to good use and a big, evil-spaceship-landing, synth party to close us out. Damn. A jammed out “Theme.” Didn’t see that coming.
And then “Reba.” There is nothing like being in Madison Square Garden when Trey Anastasio plays “Reba.” It taps into a deep, inside ache and the music feels like it is pulling your soul out from where it is buried (or maybe that is just the mushrooms). A proper ending with whistling closes out a flawless version and the 400th time the band has played this song. From a song that debuted in 1989 to a song that debuted in 2021, “The Howling” has found its place in the Phish repertoire. I think the most successful of the Sci Fi Soldier songs, this funky, disco ditty never fails to light up the dance floor.
An excellent “Foam” was next and highlighted Page’s incredible work on the piano. Just another reminder of how the Chairman of the Boards adds depth and sophistication to Phish’s playing. I thought I heard a bluegrass twang to Trey’s intro on “Run Like an Antelope” and Fishman kept a driving pace for the entire song. The Garden seemed about to explode during this version of pure hose and rock and roll madness. The band was one step in front of the crowd at all times during this set, which is just how we like it.
If they were one step ahead of us during the first set, they were light years beyond in the second. The band came on stage and noodled around. Fishman played his Leave it to Beaver sample and the band launched into “No Men In No Man’s Land.” This song rocks and is one of my favorites to hear for its dancey groove. The band easily slipped into a great jam with Mike leading the way towards our impending doom with a sick bass line. His work gave the jam a dark undercurrent, but ever sunny Trey was heading for the light. The jam was searching and beautiful with Trey building some lovely, tonal peaks with extended notes and an exclamatory ending. The band flowed right into "Golden Age," the first cover of the last three days. You know what they say when Trey nails the lyrics to this song, and this almost 18 minute version did not disappoint. A jazzy jam with an uplifting feeling, the band seemed patient and tuned in. It was delicate, which made it even more perfect when Trey played a bluesy riff to build some grittier peaks.
Thrilled when I heard the opening to "Sand," this song always delivers the goods. During the jam, Trey had his right leg perched up on his pedal board and was leaning into it playing with hunger and focus. This version is also about 18 minutes long and the kind of jam only Phish could create. It was textural and driving, with Page making good use of the organ. Playing with younger musicians this summer and fall, there is no doubt that Trey’s time with Goose and Billy Strings has been influential. He seems truly inspired. His generosity and goodwill in lifting them up has translated into elevated playing with Phish.
Honestly, after “Sand,” we all needed a bit of a breather, and there are only a few ballads I would take over “If I Could.” It's a throwback that Phish can now play with a sophistication and soul that they were only learning to access in the mid-1990’s. This version is stunning and I had a real interpretive dance moment. Don’t sleep on Phish’s ballads.
And to close out this tremendous five song second set, an absolutely blistering version of the Page song, “I Always Wanted It This Way.” Although it’s just under 15 minutes, this version gets places. The last five minutes are just tremendous, thrashing rock and roll peaks. All I could think was, “Whose house is this?” Phish owns MSG and this whole set felt like one big mic drop. There was nothing left to do, except come out for an encore and destroy the room with "Chalk Dust Torture." They left the incredibly engaged crowd in a puddle on the floor.
When Trey sang, “Set the gear shift to the high gear of your soul,” it just all seemed so obvious. I had gone in with zero expectations, just a lot of gratitude and good will. Hot take, but it turns out the universe likes this attitude! All night I kept running into people I had been hoping to see at the perfect moment, exchanging tight hugs and good vibes. I had the best conversations, so many laughs and danced until my feet ached.
Last night was my 60th Phish show and my 12th show this year. Not big numbers in this community, but meaningful. This year I saw the most Phish shows I have seen in a year since 1996. Something that was dear to me when I was young, is still dear to me now. That feels special. And now I get to experience it with the appreciation that it deserves. 25 years ago I saw the best Phish show I might ever see, but I didn’t have the best experience because I was young, took things for granted, and was choosing the wrong people and things to care about. Maybe the music was better (maybe, which is saying something), but the experience was not. Or maybe I am aging well, just like our favorite band.
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