Phish made Phishtory yet again when the jam band concluded its four year-end concert series at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve. Phish surprised the audience by introducing a lavish theatrical presentation of the complete Gamehendge for the first time in nearly 30 years. Based upon guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio’s 1987 college thesis, “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,” Phish performed the rock opera with a full cast of actors, dancers, singers, aerialists, puppets, and over-the-top props.
The Gamehendge saga is a fantasy that chronicles a battle to save a once-thriving land. The protagonist is Colonel Forbin, a retired colonel from Long Island. He stumbles upon the fictional universe of Gamehendge, a realm inhabited by the Lizards, now under the oppressive rule of the evil King Wilson. The story describes Forbin’s mission to rescue the Helping Friendly Book from the dictator.
Phish performed limited variations of the Gamehendge saga five times between 1988-1994, sometimes with a slightly different mix of songs. Over Phish’s four decade career, the band has rarely played it in its entirety. For this night, Phish developed the complete Gamehendge to epic proportions.
The Phish fans arrived without a clue of what the program for the evening would be, but they came dressed for a resplendent New Year’s Eve party. A growing trend, hundreds of fans wore radiant and sparkly clothing; sequined outfits were plentiful. (Tie dye seemed to be a wardrobe of the past.)
As the house lights dimmed and the stage lights brightened, guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman came on stage smiling in response to the enthusiastic welcome from the audience. Phish opened the first set with a rousing “Everything’s Right.” The band followed with “Tube,” which featured a guitar tease of “Love Is All Around,” the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore Show. “Ether Edge,” which was first performed by the Trey Anastasio Trio in May, was the third jam. The band continued with five other familiar songs.
Phish began the second set with the funk-rock “Down with Disease,” which Phish debuted live 30 years earlier on New Year’s Eve 1993 and went on to become the band’s breakthrough song on American rock radio. Phish then dropped into the narrative epic “Harpua” for the first time since Halloween 2021. This tale prepared the path for Gamehendge.
As the once-in-a-lifetime production began, a giant rhombus rose to frame the musicians. A sub-stage below and before the band’s staging area became the platform for the cast. An actor playing the “Harpua” character Jimmy appeared in a bed onstage holding a puppet cat: Poster Nutbag. Anastasio spoke about some of the Harpuas of the past 40 years, then speculated that Jimmy had lacked a strong female influence. Anastasio then introduced actress Annie Golden as Jimmy’s grandmother to continue the narration, as Phish launched into “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,” the opening music for Gamehendge.
Photos by Everynight Charley
In time, performers acted the roles of Colonel Forbin, Rutherford, the AC/DC Bag, Tela, Errand Wolfe, and the Sloth. Puppets took the roles of Multibeast and McGrupp. Among the highlights, Tela rode on Multibeast through the audience on the arena floor and later performed acrobatics above the stage.
Phish’s third set concluded the story of Gamehendge. Forbin climbed high onto the rhombus during “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent.” A large Famous Mockingbird drone flew over the audience during “Fly Famous Mockingbird,” which featured Golden on additional vocals. Close to midnight, Phish interrupted the presentation to perform “Auld Lang Syne” amid a shower of confetti, then returned to the story line. For “Split Open and Melt,” the Lizards reappeared for an elaborate dance, eventually leaving the stage one by one through an opening in the stage floor. Shortly thereafter, Phish performed a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup,” the only non-Anastasio cover of the evening. The band’s encore consisted of “Cavern” into “First Tube” and “Tweezer Reprise.”
The elaborate tableau and stagecraft provided the concert’s visual stimulation, but the event would not have made sense if the musicianship was not of equal stature. Much of the music performed was among the best ever played by Phish. For a fair part of Gamehendge, the musicians grew increasingly experimental and turned away from jam band structures for more complex progressive rock frameworks. Many of the compositions became multi-layered suites and the talented quartet of musicians met the challenge masterfully well.
This night’s performance was Phish’s 15th New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden, and the band’s 83rd concert overall at the World’s Most Famous Arena. It concluded a busy 2023 for the band, while also forecasting an extraordinary 2024, highlighted be a sold-out run of concerts at the Sphere in Las Vegas in April. The concerts at the new high-tech venue, known for its state-of-the-art sound and visual projections, will feature different setlists and visuals each night.
Tube (with a tease of “Love Is All Around” from the Mary Tyler Moore Show)