Photo: Jake Silco and Rene Huemer / Courtesy of Big Hassle

Phish Bring Enchantment Under the Sea to Madison Square Garden for Earth Day

Phish transform Madison Square Garden into an “Enchantment Under the Sea” party that takes the high school dance of Marty McFly’s parents to a whole new sensory level.

It’s Friday, April 22, here in New York City, where Phish are in the middle of a four-night run at the world’s most famous arena. The influential jam-rock quartet rarely plays in the springtime anymore, but these are makeup shows for the band’s annual New Year’s Eve run that was postponed due to the pesky Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus.

The third night of the run was to take place on Friday, December 31, so tonight’s third show here on Earth Day is billed to include a third set, presumably featuring some theatrical spectacle for which Phish New Year’s shows are legendary. Anyone’s guess is whether the band will try to bend time itself back to New Year’s Eve or perform some other metaphysical stunt. But Phish are well known for rising to the occasion of a big game, so optimism abounds. A most triumphant performance followed a solid opening night on night two, and fans are now looking for a sweep in what many view as a playoff series of sorts.

The first night was highlighted by a 22-minute jam on “Down With Disease” that led to “The Howling”, a groovy new song the band debuted on Halloween in Las Vegas as part of their “Sci Fi Soldier” musical costume. It was there in Vegas that the Sci Fi Soldiers came back in time from the year 4680 to alter the timeline to prevent an ecological disaster known as “The Howling” 50 years in the future.  Phish stepped things up with clear intention on night two, where fiery jams on “Wolfman’s Brother” and “Ghost” in the first set led to a sizzling second set with deeply groovy jams on crowd-pleasers like “Chalkdust Torture”, “Tweezer”, and “2001”. 

Phish were on such a roll that the “Character Zero” set closer conjured a rare arena-wide singalong as if the 1996 song had been a #1 hit single: “I was taught a month ago to bide my time and take it slow, but then I learned just yesterday, to rush and never waste a day, Now I’m convinced the whole day long, that all I learned was always wrong, And things are true that I forget, but no one taught that to me yet,” sang some 20,000 fans in solidarity on these more profound concepts that question the mainstream paradigm. It was the type of electrifying moment that inspires faith in humanity, even during dark times such as this foul year 2022.

Many fans are dressing up with a bit of extra flair here on Earth Day as they would for New Year’s Eve, adding a festive vibe for the occasion. When Phish kicks off the show with “Everything’s Right”, there’s a sense of making things whole again as the audience quickly comes together like one nation under a groove. The zeitgeisty anthem that debuted in 2017 aims to put a positive spin on the chaos of “this crazy world” and quickly became a dynamic jam vehicle. It also connects back to this past New Year’s Eve when Phish made a noble effort to fill the void by playing a free three-set webcast with no audience from a rehearsal facility dubbed “The 9th Cube”, where they jammed on the song as the clock turned past midnight into 2022.

Photo: Jake Silco and Rene Huemer / Courtesy of Big Hassle

The New Year’s webcast had its moments (such as inspired jams on “Ghost”, “Down With Disease”, and “You Enjoy Myself”). However, much of the performance fell predictably flat due to the lack of “oxygen” as bassist Mike Gordon had noted when asked early in the broadcast about what it felt like playing without an audience. “It feels like scuba diving with no oxygen,” Gordon remarked matter of factly, alluding to the special connection between the band and their devoted fans that has always been a key part of Phish’s formula for their tone science alchemy. 

Nothing’s falling flat here at MSG, as a 17-minute jam on “Everything’s Right” gives way to the funky “Tube” to get the show off on the good foot. Other first set highlights include a high-energy romp through the bluesy “Get Back on the Train”, a classic “Bathtub Gin” hose jam, and a raucous “Say It to Me S.A.N.T.O.S” closer. A song about arcane metaphysical experiments on a “Subterranean Arctic Neuro Technology Orientation Station” that debuted at the band’s 2018 Halloween show, the anthemic rocker raises the roof to close the set with a blast.

Phish comes back out on a mission in set two by opening big again with an uplifting 22-minute jam on “Set Your Soul Free” to really crank up the vibe. When guitarist Trey Anastasio sings, “We’re all here together In a spirit family, Everybody’s dancing, Everyone can see,” it’s like a clarion call that unites the congregation in this sonic temple where rock ‘n’ roll is the religion of choice.  The quartet’s renowned collective synergy again gels at a higher level. Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman click on a dynamic groove while Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell weave soaring melodies that expand the sonic landscape. 

The energy builds down the stretch as Anastasio drops a brief “Auld Lang Syne” tease, McConnell starts crushing his keys with extra authority, Gordon digs deeper into the low end, and Fishman rocks snappier accents, propelling the jam into an ecstatic peak. That soon gives way to a melodious jam on “Light”, which includes an infectious moment of syncopation that briefly references the renowned 26-minute version of the song performed at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park just outside of Denver on September 1, 2012. 

Phish builds the “Light” jam into another big peak before crescendoing into a rocking rendition of the title track from 2014’s Fuego album. The band is clearly dialed in as the song receives more exploration than usual, with a guitar delay sequence that almost sounds like Anastasio will lead the jam into Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell”.  The jam segues into Phish’s “What’s the Use”, though, a piece of mesmerizing psychedelia that genuinely recalls vintage Floyd. A vibrant jam on the upbeat “Backwards Down the Number Line” brings the set to a rousing conclusion to set the stage for the midnight set. 

Photo: Jake Silco and Rene Huemer / Courtesy of Big Hassle

Curiosity grows during the set break as the band’s gear is broken down and set up again on a smaller stage area. When the band returns near midnight and launches into “Free”, the quartet appears to be riding atop a lighted psychedelic wave as renowned lighting director Chris Kuroda starts dealing some extra tricks into the visual presentation. “In a minute, I’ll be free, and you’ll be splashing in the sea,” Anastasio sings as the band rocks out while appearing as if they’re collectively surfing the wave.

“Free” soon gives way to “A Wave of Hope”, a feel-good rocker from Anastasio’s 2020 solo release Lonely Trip, written and recorded during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The song has clearly been placed for its thematic content as Anastasio sings, “From out of the chaos, a wave appears… We are flying. We are flying. Over the water, We are diving, we are diving, Into the water…This too shall pass, this too shall pass.” 

Kuroda adds some green lasers from high above, enhancing the vibe in a compelling way along with cascading shapes of light that seem to pour down over the stage. The theatrical spectacle then moves to the next level as the band launches into “Waves” from 2003’s Round Room album. The green lasers and other lighting effects increase to create an underwater effect that is dramatically enhanced when several dolphins suddenly float out into the arena as if Madison Square Garden has been transported to a deep-sea environment! 

The band jams on the gorgeous melodious bliss of “Waves” as the drone-controlled dolphins float around the arena, much to the mesmerizing delight of the audience. Are the dolphins actually reacting to the music?! The deep-sea enchantment grows further as a giant humpback whale floats out into the arena as well, with the audience reacting in collective delight. The jam takes on a majestic quality with the whale and the dolphins swimming around, as Madison Square Garden is transformed into an “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance party that takes the high school dance of Marty McFly’s parents to a whole new sensory level.

Photo: Jake Silco and Rene Huemer / Courtesy of Big Hassle

It truly feels like Phish has transported everyone to a magical underwater world. As the jam continues, Anastasio adds some of his classic “whale call” sounds as if he’s communicating with the whale and any potential alien visitors to Earth who might be looking for signs of whale life. This recalls the scenario in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise had to come back in time to bring a whale back to the future where whales had gone extinct to communicate with an alien craft ready to destroy the Earth if there were no whales. The surreal jam moves into an ambient phase with Fishman’s jazzy percussion propelling a gorgeous segment as Anastasio communicates with the whale.

As the jam starts to dissolve, the band turns on a dime into the hard-hitting groove of “Sand”, the 1999 fan favorite that has long stood as one of Phish’s most socially conscious tunes. The whale and the dolphins have departed, but the visual spectacle continues as the band continues to rock out atop the psychedelic wave while the audience gets down to the cathartic groove. “If you can heal the symptoms but not affect the cause, then you can’t heal the symptoms,” Anastasio sings in some of the band’s deepest lyrics.

The intense minor-key groove then shifts into a major key jam as the band spins into a melodious direction that feels like it signals the eventual triumph of good over evil. Kuroda continues to rain down shimmery green walls of light as the dazzling light show enhances the jam in a mesmerizing fashion to make it look like the band is playing in a cosmic rain. 

Phish brings the stunning set to a climactic conclusion with a big jam on “Split Open and Melt”, an old-school classic that benefits immensely from tonight’s special visual enhancements. As Anastasio sings of breathing deep and plunging below the water among the seaweed and slime, it seems as if everyone is still underwater with green kelp rope streamers of light and actual bubbles enveloping the stage as the band jams out. 

The stage seems to turn to ice before the band returns for an “It’s Ice” encore, again enhanced with unique visual effects as a giant donut appears behind the band for what the production team will deem as “a donut sunrise”. This seems to tie in with both the band’s famed 13-show “Baker’s Dozen” residency here at Madison Square Garden in 2017, as well as the 2021 Halloween show in Vegas. It was there in Sin City that Anastasio spoke of a time stream with “donuts touching turtles, the very stuff of the universe”, which the Sci Fi Soldiers navigated via shamanic methods to come back in time to save the Earth by playing music that would alter the audience’s consciousness to work harder to prevent ecological disaster.

“Phish does it again!” proclaims the MSG Twitter feed, as part of a wave of unanimous appreciation as the Internet is widely awed by the images of the band’s enchanting Earth Day performance. But while the band has clinched the series, there’s still one more show to complete the sweep on April 23. The quartet rises to the occasion again, throwing down a flawless first set of fan favorites that segues smoothly from one song to the next as the audience revels in every moment. The classic “Simple” finds everyone singing along again on the chorus of “We’ve got it simple, because we’ve got a band”, before a left-field segue into the eerie metal of Sci Fi Soldier’s “Egg in a Hole”. Only Phish could shift gears so smoothly from melodic lightness to dissonant darkness and then back again without missing a beat.

Photo: Jake Silco and Rene Huemer / Courtesy of Big Hassle

The Vermont troubadours then throw down the most extended jam of the run with a 27-minute version of the ever zeitgeisty “No Men in No Man’s Land” to open the second set, a counterculture anthem that debuted in 2015. The song’s chord progression and groovy vibe seem to nick the Grateful Dead’s late ‘70s arrangement of “Dancing in the Streets”, yet with lyrics that make it more along the lines of Phish’s answer to “Throwing Stones”. It could hardly be a coincidence that Anastasio had spent the first six months of 2015 training to fill Jerry Garcia’s shoes as lead guitarist for the Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” stadium shows that summer.

“And the truth will rise above, And fiction lies beneath, And though the lies may bite, The truth has all the teeth,” Anastasio sings, in a line that continues to inspire hope for the political revolution. While some of Phish’s more jaded and cynical fans continue to resist the notion that the band has anything substantive to say, one need only look at the band’s prolific output of inspiring new material since 2015 to see a clear pattern of songs aimed at manifesting a more harmonious world. 

The triple encore that closes the run confirms this theme by opening with “Wilson”, the hard-rocking call to arms anthem of resistance against a foul dictator in Phish’s “Gamehendge” mythology. Hearing 20,000 people chant “WIL-SON!” as they call out the dictator’s name remains ever electrifying. This leads to a big jam on the classic “David Bowie”, a song Anastasio described at the band’s ill-fated 2004 Coventry festival in Vermont as an attempt at seeing how far they could push it with harmonic dissonance and still keep people dancing. 

The sequence then concludes with “More”, the inspiring Beatle-esque anthem debuted in 2016 that sings out against the chaos of modern society –  “I’m vibrating with love and light, pulsating with love and light. In a world gone mad. There must be something more than this. There’s got to be something more than this…”

It’s a most fitting and cathartic way to conclude the run as Phish sweeps the four-game series at the Garden with one last inspiring slam dunk at the end. In the aftermath, there’s unanimous sentiment that this has been yet another incredible run for the band at the Garden. The fact that Phish can still deliver such a series of extraordinary high-level performances 39 years into their storied career is largely unprecedented in rock history.

There is some unfortunate fallout in the week to come, however, when a large wave of fans are unable to escape from New York without the COVID-19 virus (so many that Variety magazine runs an article speculating as to whether the Garden run was a superspreader event.) But it seems that Phish is looking ahead with a wary eye since every show on their 34-date summer tour will be played at an outdoor venue (whereas they’ve often sprinkled a handful of arena dates into past summer tours.) In a world gone mad that remains in pandemic overdrive, a shift to emphasize outdoor venues would seem logical for arena-level bands to mitigate this unprecedented and ongoing challenge to the music industry.