It really shouldn’t have come as even the slightest surprise that Phish opened their four-night New Year’s run at Madison Square Garden looking and sounding fresh, full of energy and playing with something to prove. Sure, we know the four-piece needs not do anything to further cement the Vermont band’s legacy, yet coming off maybe the best summer tour in 20 years, Phish came out at the world’s most famous arena and showed they continue to take steps forward heading into their 33rd year.
This show started off as a Trey lover’s wet dream. “Sample In a Jar” kicked the festivities off in fine fashion, with Anastasio showing the renewed vigor in his fingers had carried over from the summer. His short lead was crisp and fluid, and featured bursts of notes that show he has been practicing a lot. “Free” continued the Trey-led theme, as Anastasio was a rapid-fire genius from about 6 minutes on, up until the song’s closing coda. “Simple”>”Back on the Train” displayed a little full-band interplay, but again it was Anastasio who owned the section, before “Waiting All Night” and “555” slowed things down and funked them back up.
A sublime “Roggae” gently gave way to a story of a child being frightened by a big, scary dog. A rollicking version of 2014 Halloween favorite “The Dogs” gave way to a set-closing “46 Days,” where Anastasio and Page McConnell traded haunting, yet tasty licks, sending the crowd completely amped up heading into set break.
Opening up the second set was “Chalk Dust Torture,” and like so many in recent years, this version delivers on all cylinders. About a third of the way in, McConnell begins playing a progression around bassist Mike Gordon’s repetitive but catchy bass line. Anastasio falls to the background, strumming chunky chords laden with effects while drummer Jon Fishman added his special touch by seemingly hitting every piece of his kit. This then gives way to a groove best described as ambient-jazz-funk and then into pure ambient territory before Anastasio starts hitting chords reminiscent of “After Midnight.”
Up next was “Ghost,” and it wouldn’t be a notable version if it didn’t sandwich a brand new song, “Can’t Always listen,” which I honestly thought was “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad” for a handful of seconds. A line from the chorus, “The stars are sitting pretty/and the world’s just spinning fine,” made for an upbeat and happy vibe of the song that simply made me smile and think that everything will be fine. Sit back, forget about everything else, and enjoy these four nights with four guys on stage and 20,000 of my closest friends.
A segue back to a short “Ghost” jam gave way to a “Waves” that proved inspired, but wasn’t anything to get crazy over. Phish decided that during the 15:17 that followed, the duration of “Bathtub Gin,” that they were going to take us on a sonic journey. There are so many times in my years of seeing this band that I am convinced they read each other’s minds, but this “Gin,” which did not contain a moment of down time or any confusing parts, proved my thoughts right. The last five minutes soar to a level that only Phish can climb to. If the Magnaball “Gin” was a surprising treat that brought the song back to its improvisational roots, then the “MSGin” surpasses that in stature and cohesion alone.
“Mike’s Song”>”Bouncing Around the Room”>”Weekapaug Groove”>”What’s the Use?”>”Weekapaug” closed out the set in superb style, because who doesn’t love a “WTU?”? Sandwiched in a “Mike’s Groove” is a pretty way to serve it up. “Character Zero” in the encore slot was raging and saw Anastasio blow the roof off the Garden.
Walking out in the mass of people, I couldn’t help but be crazily animated and excited by what I just saw and heard, and what was about to come.
Setlist via phish.net:
Encore: Character Zero
*first time played