Flashback: Phish Busts Out The Covers at MSG, December 30, 1997

One of the most influential years in the history of Phish couldn’t end without a stop at MSG, The World’s Most Famous Arena, and it was 1997 that would bring the band to new highs, including their first ever three-night headlining bill at The Garden.

Today marks the anniversary of the second night in this run, a show marked by one of the greatest bust outs in terms of show gap, a legendary “Harpua” with assistance from Tom Marshall, and a handful of fan favorite cover songs played alongside some of the traditional heavy hitters. In addition to all the clips seen below, the entire show can be streamed here.

Phish MSG 1997
1997 Holiday Run shirt design by Erin Cadigan via PhanArt

After a quick discussion, Phish casually greets the Garden crowd with one of the greater bust outs of all time. It’s merely the first “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley” in 920 shows, last played at Ian McLean’s party in Hebron, NY in 1989, a likely much more intimate gathering. After shaking off some of the early rust, Phish easily settles into a funk groove so reminiscent of this era, fueled by Trey Anastasio on guitar with Page McConnell eagerly aiding and abetting on the clav.

Instead of ramping up towards a (now) customary vocal jam, the funk jam slowly devolves and Anastasio adds some digital delay loops as the tone shifts towards a much more ambient feel before the opening guitar lick of “Taste” ensues. McConnell throws down some thunderous play on the baby grand piano before yielding the floor to Anastasio for a spellbinding crescendo of electric guitar.

Things cool off a bit with the relatively new “Water In The Sky” that follows, still in its early, slower tempo. But Anastasio puts a stop to that quickly at song’s end, starting up the familiar strumming that initiates “Punch You In The Eye” and a quick stop at Gamehendge.

“Punch” goes off without a hitch and after some brief high-intensity feedback, Anastasio seems to make the audible call for “Stash.” Aside from the opening funk produced in “Sally,” this provides the other real notable jam of the first set, a brooding, mesmerizing sequence that has some distinct touches of “evil” Phish. Drummer Jon Fishman continues to push the pace to an almost alarming rate before the reigns are pulled back in, somewhat quickly, and the song finishes rather meekly.

To rev things back up, Phish resorts to a reliable figure, “Chalkdust Torture.” Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon steer the collective ship more than ably as Anastasio reaches back and delivers one last scorching first set guitar solo that the Garden crowd visibly devours with delight.

The first set that opened with a bust out comes to an end with a cover, this time The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life,” with Page McConnell on lead vocals. Some more extended feedback from Phish ends the song in a flourish as MSG collectively shows their appreciation at the conclusion of a rather short opening set, one that barely lasted an hour.

Anyone who would complain about that fact, would soon be put in their place thanks to the giant second set and extended encore for which this show is best remembered. It all starts off with, arguably, one of the better “AC/DC Bag”s ever played. It starts out innocently enough, but soon shifts back into that sinister tone that was prevalent in the first set. In vintage Phish style, simple melodies are stretched out, reexamined and continually revisited until all four band members are firing in sync like gears in a well-oiled machine. Throw in some classic ’97 funk, more relentless guitar play from Anastasio, a sprinkling of Gordon-supplied bass bombs, “Pyscho Killer” and “Third Stone From The Sun” teases and, 25 minutes later, you’ve got the latest in a (now long) line of Phish gems mined at MSG.

After an opening number that took up almost half of the length of the first set, Phish wastes no time in bringing it back to Gamehendge for a well-received “McGrupp And The Watchful Hosemasters.” The band deftly makes its way through the composed section of this classic song before giving way to a brief but beautiful two-person duel between Trey and Page on their respective instruments before it comes to an end.

Afterwards, the familiar oom-pa-pa intro of the first ever “Harpua” at MSG rings out and the Phish crowd erupts with glee. They would have good reason to as this would be a special one, dubbed the “Pentagram Harpua” based on Trey’s “life changing” narration. The following sequence includes nothing less than a Lost In Space reference, a young Trey crafting a pentagram out of lunch boxed goods, and Tom Marshall joining the fray for a hilarious cover of The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).”

Phish keeps the proverbial pedal down after all of this madness and launches right into some more classic rock, this time it’s Jimi Hendrix’s “Izabella,” a now revered cover selection that debuted only earlier this summer. Anastasio simply annihilates the guitar solo and MSG is nearly combustible at this point.

Seizing this opportunity, Phish then goes all in with a majestic “Harry Hood” to cap a special sequence of music. A mild glowstick war early on gives way to a “Hood” that’s anything but, with Mc Connell producing a bevy of dulcet tones on the electronic keyboard and the customary mesmerizing guitar solo from Anastasio. It’s as well executed a “Hood” as they come and, along with “AC/DC Bag,” serves as a more than willing co-anchor as far as second set exploratory jams go.

In fact, the normally euphoric outro jam eventually develops into a full-on blues one and instead of bringing “Hood” to an end, Phish slides right into another cover tune – “My Soul.” Steady bass play from Gordon provides the floor for another scorching guitar solo as the band romps effortlessly through another recently debuted favorite. This is followed up with a “Sleeping Monkey” that brings a little levity to the ending portion of the set. Trey then thanks the MSG crowd, promising one “last” song that turns out to be “Guyute,” one of the key tracks from the yet-to-be-released Story Of The Ghost.

Phish fan shirt from the 97 Holiday run via PhanArt

Tonight’s encore gets the 1997 New Year’s Eve celebration off to a rollicking start. Trey begins the encore noting the closeness to midnight and that the band may as well “play two New Year’s Eve shows.” Turns out he wasn’t kidding as Phish then proceeds to drop down one of the more legendary encores of their playing career. Things start off with yet another new number to live repertoire, “Carini,” which features a quick stand-in by the man himself, Phish crew member Pete Carini.

After those pleasantries are dispersed, Phish then immediately drops back into a molasses-thick funk jam that soon reveals itself to be “Black Eyed Katy.” Although not known at the time, this instrumental steeped in cow funk would be the last one ever played before lyrics were added and it would go on to live the rest of its days as “The Moma Dance.”

“Katy” then eventually turns back into “Sally” as Phish slyly segues back into it and revisits the bustout opener in the encore for another go ’round. And as if all this weren’t enough, “Frankenstein” replete with feedback galore, strobelight insanity and Jon Fishman on vacuum for good measure. When all is said and done, it’s a near 30-minute encore that wraps up one memorable New Year’s Run gig, or just another ho-hum Phish show at MSG depending on how you look at it.

Phish Madison Square Garden – New York, NY 12/30/97

Set 1: Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley -> Taste, Water In The Sky > Punch You In The Eye > Stash, Chalkdust Torture, A Day In The Life

Set 2: AC/DC Bag > McGrupp And The Watchful Hosemasters, Harpua > I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) > Harpua > Izabella > Harry Hood -> My Soul > Sleeping Monkey > Guyute

E: Carini -> Black Eyed Katy -> Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley > Frankenstein

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