If you didn’t pay attention in 2017 there was a band that got to play the World’s Most Famous Arena 17 times. Not only did they play it, but they sold it out each time. This band has no radio hits and is now in their 35th year as a band. With the four-night New Year’s Eve run, they have officially played Madison Square Garden 56 times since 1994, and I’m sure there are plenty more shows that will take place before they call it a career. The band is Phish and their fanbase is always ready for more from the quartet.
The night started off with people arriving to their seats with a wristband placed on their seat that was going to be involved in the “gag” for the countdown later in the night. The band had been on fire the whole run, taking their songs well beyond their usual confines, much to the crowds’ delight each night. When Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell, and Jon Fishman took to the stage, the crowd was ready to erupt for the final night of the year, and did so as soon as Trey started the evil guitar riff of “Carini.” While it was a rare slot for the song, it gave the mission statement that the band was primed and ready for a celebration. “Suzy Greenberg” followed, continuing the celebratory feeling.
A romp through “My Friend, My Friend” was followed by a one-two combo that has never been seen before. The band’s epic “Fluffhead” was followed by the crowd favorite and increasingly rare “Reba.” Though neither were played to perfection, the room was buzzing with such excitement it didn’t matter. The set moved at a rapid pace with a run of “Poor Heart” into “46 Days” into “Maze” and finally “Character Zero.” Following the set, many in the audience walked around MSG seeing friends and enjoying the moments between the music.
Set two started off innocently enough with “Possum” and “Fuego,” but it was the 15 minute “Gotta Jibboo” that was the highlight of the set. The band was in perfect sync with one another that easily had the best improvisation of the evening. The jam moved from one key to another on a dime and the crowd absolutely went wild. An always welcomed “Golgi Apparatus” let the crowd sing their hearts out with the band. “What’s the Use?” got the crowd to such a level of silence that one could hear a pin drop anywhere in the venue. As the song ended, Trey let the first chords of “You Enjoy Myself” rip from his guitar and the crowd lost their minds. The joy that is brought on by just a few notes is something that sends goosebumps up and down your arm.
During the second set break, everyone was getting ready for the official new years celebration that was going to take place. Little did everyone know that the yacht rock playlist that was happening over the PA was a clue as to what the gag was going to be. In past years there was a golf themed set including golf carts going around the stage, the band playing in a hour glass that descended from the ceiling, the drummer being blown up into a balloon, and last year with the band making it rain cats and dogs at midnight. Before the set started everyone’s wristband that they had been given went off in different colors.
As the band came on, the arena went dark and the band went into a new song “Soul Planet” that Trey had debuted with his solo band. The next 14 minutes or so until the countdown the band played as a mast came down from the ceiling and sails were put down by riggers climbing all over the stage. As the sails went down and the lyrics “the ocean is love” were sung, everyone’s wristbands came alive and turned blue. It literally looked like there was a boat in the ocean in the middle of Madison Square Garden. To say they band puts a lot of effort into their countdown to the new year would be an understatement.
As the song continued, the mast was turned by the riggers to make it look as if the boat was constantly changing course. A roar went down from the sold-out crowd as the Jolly-Roger Phish design was unfurled behind the sails. Then some of the riggers brought two cannons to the stage and loaded them with a cannonball and “shot” out into the crowd and produced explosions of confetti that came from the crowd and ceiling. As the countdown took place and the balloons were dropped the venue lit up for “Auld Lang Syne.” Following the festivities, the band proceeded to play a set of music that all contained ocean or water references.
“Free” with the lyrics “splashing in the sea” was followed by an almost 20 minute “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing.” “The Moma Dance” pushed us further from shore. Then there was the slow part of the set, which seems to happen each new year, with “Prince Caspian” and “Wading In the Velvet Sea.” The former song had us “afloat upon the waves” while the later obviously had us all in the sea taking our time in it. As Wading was finishing up, the whole garden turned blue again with the wristbands and the mast was put away by the riggers. It was then time for one last party with “First Tube” and the wristbands going wild in every color.
When the band came back on stage they ended the run and weekend with a cover of The Rolling Stones’s “Loving Cup.” There were high fives and hugs amongst the crowd as the show ended and the band left the stage. With one more nod to the gag, Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” played over the PA as everyone exited the venue. Another year and another great job by one of the best touring bands today. With rumors of possibly more MSG shows this coming year and a festival, the band show no signs of slowing down in their 35th year as a band.
Photos: Bryan Lasky
Article: Lauren Byrnes