If you don’t like Phish, there is probably no point in trying to convince you of their greatness. Even if you haven’t really listened to their music (I bet you haven’t!) and just conceptualize their shows as one endless, boring riff echoing through a sea of sweaty stoners (they’re not!), you’re likely too set in your ways to listen with open ears. I know this because I’ve tried to make all the arguments and drop all the needles, but even though I don’t lack for friends and don’t fall short when it comes to passionate pleas, I’ve still gone alone to both Phish shows of my lifetime, and I exclusively enjoy their recordings with the isolation of headphones.
But I don’t not need nor want your pity, because this band that I’ve loved since I was 14 years old delivered quite possibly the greatest set of live music I have ever heard in my life on Dec. 30, 2019 at Madison Square Garden.
Okay, yes, I was on a mind-altering substance. But still! It was wonderful. The unforgettable highlight of that four-song Set 2 was its opener, a 35-minute version of Phish’s magnum opus, “Tweezer,” that justly should have been considered for all end-of-year and end-of-decade accomplishments, if anyone actually waited until the end of December to make those decisions.
This is, in my opinion and limited experience, the best way to enjoy a Phish show when you’ve come alone: You arrive sober (controversial, I know), very close to the band’s scheduled arrival, and then bop along to the typically more structured songs of the first set with a grin and a positive attitude. At halftime, make friends with the people around you—this is easier than at any other band’s concert—and chances are they will very kindly offer you a little bit of [REDACTED]. This will prime your brain to explode at the exact right time, which is usually about a half hour into Set 2, while preventing you from feeling burned out or tired at the end of the show.
I’ve gone two-for-two with this method (my other show was 7/30/17, for those curious), but I was terrified that this logistical perfection somehow served as a performance enhancing drug on the 30th, because a literal alien abduction could not have fucked with my perception of time and space more than “Tweezer” did that night. I understand that it would be pointless and impossible to convey how exactly I felt, particularly when the music got super dreamy around 20 minutes in, but I hit that epiphany every Phish fan chases at every show, where the music felt like it was communicating with me, specifically, and nothing else mattered.
“Tweezer” doesn’t sound like anything special—in fact, it’s likely repulsive to many people—during the first few minutes. I love the twisty descending opening riff, but the embarrassing lyrics, which at one point rhyme “freezer” with “Ebenezer,” do newcomers no favors. In this stretched-out version, however, the truly goofy stuff is barely the first 10 percent of the song. Then, the planned-out part gives way to a standard but particularly good section of rock music improvisation, which around 13:30 of the above video builds into the kind of thrilling, happy peak that the veterans of Phish can do in their sleep.
That’s about when the song started to rearrange my soul. There’s a breakdown and several minutes where Phish plays like a late-60s psychedelic guitar band, but then the music evaporates into a gorgeous, almost symphonic segment that I will never forget. Phish, in the simplest terms, is just four dudes who have spent nearly 2,000 shows and god knows how many more practices locked in intense, spontaneous communication with each other, and this haunting segment of music feels like a culmination of all that work. Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman lay down the railroad tracks, so to speak, as the rhythm section; Page McConnell hits on a fascinating 70s-prog synth tone; and Trey plays a poetic lead that puts the crowd in a trance.
The best Phish jams are always make you ask the person next to you, “Is this still (song X)?” But not only was this unrecogniable, it was beautiful. Around 25 minutes, the beginnings of a climax start to peek its head in. The drums get faster, Trey fools around and finds a cheeky pattern to build on, then plays this ecstatic long note at 31:15, and the jam slowly gets louder until it finally becomes uncontainable at exactly 33:00.
Light Guy and honorary fifth member of the band, Chris Kuroda, does something I always appreciate when the band hits their highest peaks, which is illuminate the entire arena so you can see over 10,000 people having the same blissed-out experience that you are. You can catch them around that 33-minute mark, particularly the ones behind the stage, in all their dorky, fist-pumping, torso-swaying glory as they enjoy, with zero inhibitions, a high they’d all been hoping for. They might be easy to laugh at if you don’t really get the music—or even if you do!—but they are having so much fucking fun as these old dudes carry them to uncharted territories, before closing out by leading them in the “Potvin Sucks” chant, of all things.
My worst fear coming out of the show was that everyone else would merely say, “Hm, that was pretty good,” and I’d have to question what the hell just happened to my brain. But my comrades are all on my side. Based on the ratings of over 1000 Phans on phish.net, 12/30/19 is the second-best show in the band’s nearly four-decade history, trailing only the consensus pinnacle of 12/31/99. I was only four years old on that legendary night, so I can’t speak to how the live experience compared to mine. But at least for anyone who was willing to stifle their laughs, let go, and accept the Jam Band Experience, that concert at the Garden was special. Phish swallowed my consciousness and left me awestruck.