A Triumphant Return: Phish at Madison Square Garden, December 28

Four long months after the final notes of the Baker’s Dozen’s “Tweezer Reprise,” Phish retook the Jell-O stage at Madison Square Garden for their “Triumphant Return” to the world’s most famous arena. If there were any doubts as to whether they could play with the intensity and passion of the Baker’s Dozen, they were abandoned almost immediately as New York was treated to a show that carried a similar magic to those of the previous run at the Garden. The only noticeable difference was the bitter cold and lack of gourmet donut wrappers on the floor.

The band took no time getting the show on the road with a spacey ‘AC/DC Bag’ which saw Trey sitting back on the solo and letting the rest of the band organically develop a patient groove, which would foreshadow the jamming style of the night. ‘Wolfman’s Brother’ emerged out of the white lights and provided the first (of many) jam highlight of the evening. The band quickly transitioned from the classic Wolfman’s funk to a dark, murky jam that gave the feeling that you took the wrong turn down a shrunken alley on the lower east side, but there was no going back because you already devoted to making it past the sketchy brown walls and back to a world of streetlights and pretzel vendors. An early first set ‘Roggae’ broke out of the darkness and saw masterful interplay between all four band members as they reached a glorious peak that shook the garden.

Another first set highlight came next in the funky ‘Tube’ which saw an extended jam reminiscent of the Dick’s 16 ‘No Men in No Man’s Land.’ Trey played around with his effects to create an echoed funnel over the fast-building Mike led jam. It was brought so far into space they had to take a couple of seconds to catch themselves before fumbling back into the final verse of the song. There was so much packed into this short ‘Tube’ that I still almost don’t believe it only clocked in at just over eight minutes. A standard ‘Bouncing Around the Room’ came next and gave everyone a chance to catch their breaths before the band went right back at it with an exceptionally rocking ‘Back on the Train.’ For a while in recent years, this song played the role of keeping the energy in a setlist up without doing anything too special, but the last few we have seen has broken that mold and become must listen to first set highlights.

A funky ‘Your Pet Cat’ followed and kept up the energy in the room before a dark ‘Waking up Dead’ showcased Mike’s songwriting ability and Trey’s prog-rock roots in the solo. An oddly placed, but much appreciated, set closing ‘Theme From the Bottom’ followed, and quickly broke the mold from a traditional ‘Theme’ jam as the band built a peak similar to a summer 2014 ‘Bathtub Gin.’ The only other time ‘Theme’ closed out a first set was 12/13/1999. While the first set may look standard on paper, it was anything but. Nearly every song saw the band taking a risk and going off the deep end, as they have been doing all year.

After a smile-fueled set break, the band to the stage with a rocking ‘Wilson’ which got everyone in the crowed fired up and ready to boogie. As soon as the opening notes of ‘Wilson’ began, there was a feeling in the air that the second set was going to be special, as second sets that open with Wilson are historically very strong (the last two prior to this shows were 9/6/15 and 7/27/14). ‘No Men in No Man’s Land’ came hot off the high energy ‘Wilson’ produced and catapulted the show from “Wow” to “Did that just happen?!?” The multi-part behemoth saw an array of the band’s play styles from funk to rock to space, and created soundscapes that swirled through the air from Page’s new synth, which defined the sound of 2017 Phish. Clocking in at just over 24 minutes, this NMINML is a jam that will be listened to for a long time. Out of the madness came a familiar riff as Trey transitioned into another anticipated jam vehicle, ‘Twist.’  The band took no time getting things going as they built the versatile song into a fervent funk jam which shot laser beams from one end of the garden to the other. Out of the funk peak saw a push back into darkness from Mike and Fish, which lasted for a few minutes leading many to believe they were going into ‘Steam,’ though Trey had different ideas.

The transition to ‘Everything’s Right’ wasn’t the cleanest, but once the vocals started it did not matter one bit. The new song has been a consistently strong jam vehicle since it’s debut, and this version was no exception, as it dissolved into a misty canal then slingshot the band back into space as they effortlessly transitioned into ‘2001.’ While this ‘2001’ didn’t really break the mold of the song’s structure, it was played exceptionally well with a little extra mustard and no (blatant) missed notes. The band was not about taking a break during this set, so what better song to cap it off with than ‘Harry Hood?’ This Hood saw a patient build with all four members contributing to the jam leading to the peak. While it wasn’t the most over the top peak they’ve played, there was on old school feel to the way Trey approached the ending solo which filled the garden with uncontrollable joy and plentiful high-fives.

A standard ‘The Wedge’ was placed in the encore role for only the second time in the song’s history (the first being the infamous 11/14/1995 show), and just when everyone thought they were done Trey played the opening notes to “Slave to the Traffic Light” and ripped us back in. Slave is another song that will always keep you satisfied while not quite living up to the glory of it’s younger days, but this version seemed to have a little extra something in it. The jam leading to the peak showcased a band that did not want to stop as Mike, Page and Fish pushed the structure of the song to its limits while Trey held a note for what felt like an eternity and drove the crowd wild. When he finally let go and exploded into the peak it was as if 20,000 people who had just been holding their breath underwater for two minutes came up for air at once and completely let go of any control they had of their bodies. It was a phenomenal way to end an amazing show, and this was only the first night.

Setlist via Phish.net

Set 1: AC/DC Bag, Wolfman’s Brother, Roggae, Tube > Bouncing Around the Room, Back on the Train, Your Pet Cat, Waking Up Dead > Theme From the Bottom

Set 2: Wilson > No Men In No Man’s Land > Twist > Everything’s Right > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Harry Hood

Encore: The Wedge, Slave to the Traffic Light