[Phish.net would like to thank Jeremy Willinger for recapping last night's show -ed]
I bought a brand new mini-notebook yesterday afternoon to record my impressions while jamming at MSG. At around 11:30PM last night I crammed a wrinkled, bent, stained, stack of paper that resembled a notebook back into my pocket. On the pages were various scribbles, time stamps, and ruminations that started off very legible and devolved into an alphabet soup of observances and compliments around the beginning of the second set, for some cold, cold, cold reason...
Let’s just get the overall review out of the way: This show was absolutely epic! It is a must listen - especially the second set - but the first set has gems, pleasers, and stunning musicianship all its own. Truly, 12/30/19 will be talked about in the pantheon of shows for the ages and reinforces why Phans will do whatever we can, and endure or inure any and all unforeseen circumstances to see this foursome again and again. Now, onto the show.
I settled into section 227 with a best friend, a smile, and an open mind. Lights are dropped, much like 12/29 at quarter after 8, and they launch immediately into “Wilson.” This was a quick, frenzied “Wilson”- and its only first set appearance this year- that was gone 4 minutes later. Another trip to Scandinavia courtesy of Kasvot Vaxt came next, where the boys got to indulge their sillier side for “The Final Hurrah,” that features the fun "Faceplant Into Rock!" sound effect. It’s remarkable to remember that this material, if it were human, is barely 25 pounds and can only recite between 10 and 20 words. In other words, despite Kasvot Vaxt being a toddler chronologically, their songs have been incorporated and welcomed like a decades-old friend. This version, its ninth time played, featured Trey riffing lightly in a mid-range tone with Page taking the lead near the end and bringing the mini-jam back around for Trey to give us some nicely soaring tones.
With the crowd primed from the zesty “Wilson” and pleasant “Hurrah,” they drop right into Lee Fordham territory with the enjoyable “46 Days.” This song traditionally garners a first set appearance at YEMSG (see 12/28/15, 12/29/16, 12/31/17, 12/29/18), but this version sounded more low-range and guttural. My notes say this jam was soupy, with lots of deep tones and a murky vibe that conjured up visions of quicksand (I pray for water?) and glop. Trey took the lead here and added a flurry of notes at the conclusion of the jam which brought it out from the swamp and into the air. This “46 Days” was basically flawless and can easily serve as a torchbearer for its set 1 slot.
A breather was needed by all, and a “Roggae” or “WTTCTT” might fit nicely here. But this is Phish in 2019 and as much as anything can be expected, plans should be made to have no plans. After a 121 show gap, the Lynyrd Skynyrd penned “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” shines again, with stellar singing by Page and a classic rock vibe that would become a through-line this show. Mr. Loew, the finest picker to ever play the blues, makes his appearance at MSG for the first time since 2011.
A fun “Blaze On” is on deck with Trey planted in mid-range tones and Mike gingerly driving a bass bus. But this “Blaze On” is worth a listen for the ambient space the jam inhabits around 2/3 of the way through as Trey pushes into a floral, floating section that had a delightful 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2 sequence. Trey even did a momentary jig as he hit the high note.
The classic rock vibe returns for the Taj Mahal cover “Corinna,” a song that if you were not at MSG in 2016, 2018, or this evening, you have not had a chance to recently hear live. This was so perfectly placed as both a continuation of the tight playing featured thus far and as a follow up to the ease of “Blaze On.” Page really shines with some lovely work on keys that had hearts swelling. Fun fact: “Corinna,” has been played every 10 years on this date (see 12/30/99 and 12/30/09).
It is expected that we would get a “Mike’s Song” at some point this run, and as a return to Phish’s catalog it is most welcomed here, especially juxtaposed to the more plodding tempo of the previous selections. This “Mike’s” doesn’t break any new ground (in six minutes there wasn’t much opportunity anyway) and this set is more about being concise than exploratory. Now sure, Phish could have just gone straight into “I am Hydrogen,” but that might have sucked some of the oxygen out of the room. Another excellent call as the Phoursome puts the rubber to the road and transitions into “Contact” which offers an opportunity for a twangy jam with Fishman driving a beat that let Trey create a plucky sound over it. The crowd also did a back-and-forth arm wave that kept the entire arena in sync. A five minute “Weekapaug” with only one or two peaks closed out this "Mike’s Groove" with a period.
And now for the exclamation mark (way more to come, for obvious reasons). I did not recognize the Ghosts of the Forest tune “About to Run” immediately when they launched into it but this version smokes. Trey is all power chords in a style reminiscent of the Allmans Brothers here with just raw shredding and a classic rock energy that made this song feel special. A blistering version that felt longer than its seven-minute runtime, it is absolutely worth a listen.
As if the crowd needed any additional love, they got it. “More,” a song that has grown into a staple Phish anthem of togetherness, while also emblematic of Trey’s warm, post-trouble headspace, this version vibrated on a high level featuring multiple peaks and a jam that scampered like a scared rabbit. Another fun fact: “More” closed out the first set on 12/30/18 and 12/30/17 but this year, Phish uses it to wrap up the best first set of the holiday run so far with tight musicianship and an energy that will propel this show into Phistory once concluded.
During setbreak, I was just outside on the concourse when the lights dropped. I galloped back to my seat like a New Yorker running late trying to catch a subway, i.e. full throttle and with breathless anticipation. Trey, smiling like the cat that swallowed three canaries, hits the opening chords to “Tweezer” and it is on! My pen stabbed through two sheets of paper as I recorded the title in all caps. It is not the first time this will happen during this odyssey.
Folks, I would like to briefly pull up a rocking chair and spin you a yarn. In the tape trading days, when there was a huge improved section you might see it indicated as, "Tweezer" > "Jam" > other song. This is to signify that there was a whole area of this song distinct from its source material, that it took on a life of its own. If I were to break out a stack of vintage Maxells, this is how I would classify the MSG "Tweezer."
Has the infamous 2013 “Tahoe Tweezer” been dethroned? I say, "YES." At 34 minutes, this is a monster; a Tweezer Godzilla stomping the cities we are found living in.
It starts out “normally” and the first big cheer is actually for the huge cascade of balloons floating down behind the stage from one of the suites. An up-tempo start with Fishman putting in WORK on the kit, transitions into Trey moving the band into dark territory around 10 minutes in. A guttural guitar sound pushes into Mike’s bass taking over the low end while Trey and Page start layering in higher tones several minutes later. 15 minutes in, the feedback loops are in full effect as the band prepares for outer space. What was once dank has become an uplifting and peaky 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5 lick that created a high point at 17:16 into the official video. Right at about 18 minutes in, the jam shifts to a jazzy new animal entirely. Mike bombs are in full effect with Trey shredding over it with raw power chords and envious complexity. And yet, another shift at around 22 minutes in as they slow down and settle into the Milky Way with a beautiful Page-led section that sounds almost orchestral at points. This middle section is goosebumps all the way around. I could live in the portion from :22-:27 for the rest of eternity.
At 27 minutes in, Page pivots the band into a more boppy bridge that allows the boys to musically banter back and forth with a really nice interplay between Page and Trey. A half hour in, there is yet another turn into a new section for which my notes reveal “this is a jam that makes you feel so good about everything in life.” I should also make mention that CK5 was doing some blue/white and then red/white sparking lantern light effect that marvesouly contributed to the buoyancy. Trey hits a high note that plants a flag on the peak of Mt. Dopamine at 34:48 and if you haven’t ever seen an entire arena smile at once, you have now. My pen stabs through another three sheets of paper as I furiously try to capture the moment.
This is just elation. Pure happiness. But oh no, we aren’t done yet pholks. This jam devolves around 36 minutes into a stripped-down rawness that congeals into a 1-2-3 call and response between the band and crowd that ends (after 37:55) with some of the loudest, sustained cheers of the year after a momentary pause as we all scoop up the brains now leaking out of our ears. Trey puts his hand to his head like, “WHOA did you hear what we just did?!” This band…
While relistening this morning on YouTube, I noticed one guy comment right at the beginning “45min tweezer would be sweet for a set 2 opener stream LOL” Little did he know (the official release clocks in at 43:32! Thanks NUGS!). As far as this reviewer is concerned, it was the best jam at YEMSG since the Baker’s Dozen.
Trey then apologizes for pausing the show (no worries Big Red) but he has to tell a story. You see, this is the 25thanniversary of Phish’s first show at YEMSG. Their history in the World’s Most Famous Arena is long documented so no need to delve in here but suffice to say it was a hilarious (and purely wacky) Phish tale that involves Trey being repeatedly hit in the head with a pan- with appropriate cymbal clang from Fishman- as he tries to leave the arena and make his way through Penn Station, later winding up at a disco. Again, this band…
Not contented to let the energy flag, or to leave a jam vehicle on the table, Phish launches into “Ruby waves,” the second Ghosts of the Forest track of the evening. Is this “Ruby Waves” the equivalent of the 7/14/19 Alpine Valley “Waves”? No, but that is of no concern here. This “Waves” left us frolicking in a textured jam that had a metallic, powerful interplay between Trey and Page to wrap up this version. After testing the steam effects last night during “2001” (?), Phish puts them to work for their original purpose with a short and crisp “Steam” that gave way to a montage of “Tweezer” and “Ruby Waves” echoes for two and three minutes respectively. While this was a second set “Steam,” (and the first placement in the second set since 10/28/18) it didn’t stretch its legs meaning I still hold out hope for a deeply jammed version.
How do you wrap up what is essentially a three song set thus far? With one of Phish’s most beautiful closers, “Slave to the Traffic Light” which incidentally was the second of three references to cars at the show (comprising “Contact,” “Slave,” and “Rock and Roll”). This was a standard Slave, but it felt special because of all that came before it. At 11:21PM, the band takes an early bow (not like they don’t have big plans for the following evening or anything) and the audience realizes that, yes, we just saw a four-song second set which is essentially unlike anything in modern Phish memory. This band…
A very brief pause and Phish returns to encore The Velvet Underground’s seminal hit “Rock and Roll.” No “Twee-prise,” which I actually think would have taken away from the big prior jam, and I like that they have it in their pocket for New Year’s Eve.
Anyone watching last night knows it was a monumental show and 12/30/19 will forever be referenced as an answer to the question “Why do you love Phish and see them so much?” This is the type of show phans chase and creates legions of new aficionados. It was a moment in time to remember and reference for years to come. And, truly, it was an honor to write this recap.
May 2020 bring us all the happiness and music we can handle, especially during a year shaping up to be politically ugly and more socially polarizing than in the past. Use these jams and this show as inspiration, as self-care, and as a constant reminder that no matter what happens, we have the capacity and the mandate to continue “vibrating with love and light.”
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