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Why Phish's 13-night run at Madison Square Garden was so special

Written by
Sara Furer

When Phish first announced their unprecedented 13-night, 26-set run at Madison Square Garden in January, the general reaction was a mix of excitement, exhilaration, suspense, anxiety and trepidation. Is this really happening? In my city? Can I actually go to 13 shows over the course of 17 nights? Will they repeat any songs? Will I go broke? Is it worth it? Will I die? Will it be worth it if I die?

Over the six months that followed, the anticipation that built within the Phish community was unparalleled. The hunt for face value tickets (unless you were one of the lucky ones to score a 13-pack in Phish’s lottery system, or refresh your Ticketmaster browser exactly 0.6 seconds before the official on-sale); the countless out-of-towners planning vacations to NYC; the incessant discussions in Phish Facebook groups and online forums over whether they would repeat any songs, broken down into mathematical equations; the memes. So many memes.

Luckily for me, my job not only allows for, but encourages that I have a presence at these shows. As the marketing director at Live for Live Music, I was responsible for promoting 15 late-night shows over the course of the run (yes, after a 3.5 hour show folks still wanted more). Our entire staff attended each of the Baker’s Dozen shows as well, and with our small but dedicated editorial team waking up at the crack of dawn to get each night’s review posted, I had little reason to justify skipping any of the shows.

Now that the run has come to a close, here’s why the 13-night Baker’s Dozen run was a special, unprecedented and arguably religious experience.

The doughnuts

Photograph: Rene Huemer

If you didn't hear, each night of the Baker’s Dozen run featured its own special doughnut. Every morning, Phish would post a flavor for the evening on their social media page, and Philadelphia’s Federal Donuts provided 2,500 of the custom-made pastries on a first come, first served basis.

I met the shop’s owner, Felicia D’Ambrosio, and asked her how the connection was made. She explained that a few years back the band came to Philly to play the Mann Center. As a huge phan, she sent over a batch of donuts decorated with the band’s signature red and blue donut pattern. The group recalled the kind and thoughtful gift while planning the Baker's Dozen run and got in contact to request her services. Needless to say, you never know how far a small gesture can go.

The individually themed nights

Each night’s donut theme correlated to the setlist in a completely unique and unexpected way. Night one, Coconut, opened with a fun, upbeat cover of “Shake Your Coconuts” and closed with an a cappella rendition of Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” (you know, “Put the lime in the coconut…”). As rabid fans attempted to guess each night’s tunes based on the doughnut flavor, the band got progressively more clever and out-of-the-box. Even the more predictable songs were performed in unpredictable ways. Night two, Strawberry, opened with the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which they also chose to perform a cappella.

The band didn’t repeat a single track

Over the course of the 13 shows, broken into 26 sets, Phish played a grand total of 237 songs, containing ZERO repeats. There are few other bands capable of pulling off such a feat. But between the band’s massive catalogue, new and recurring covers, and 30-minute jams, they did just that.

About those sweet, sweet jams

Sure, Phish has always been known for their lengthy, intricate improvisations. After playing together for more than 30 years, the quartet has mastered the art of nonverbal communication, intuitively engaging in musical conversation between their respective instruments. But something was in the air during this particular run. As guitarist Trey Anastasio described in the outtakes of an interview with the Times, “Any time you’re in one place like that, it gets very loose and you’re not moving your gear in and out every night, and you’re not readjusting...So, the interplay between the four band members becomes heightened based on the fact that that’s the only place changes are made.”

The lights were on point

Photograph: Rene Huemer

Chris Kuroda, Phish’s lighting director, is often considered the fifth member of the band. A wizard with the lights, Kuroda, or CK5, goes above and beyond to create a completely new light rig for every tour. It adds a whole extra element to the experience, and this particular setup may have been the coolest one yet. (Fun fact: Kuroda has also designed and run lights for Justin Bieber, Arianna Grande and Martin Garrix.)

The camaraderie was palpable

The Phish community is a special thing. People are generally kind and look out for one another. There’s an automatic sense of camaraderie when you meet someone at a Phish show, whether it’s the guy next to you handing you his extra beer (or, ahem, other things) or a girl in the bathroom complimenting your earrings with a warm smile. Sharing a love for this band compels people to travel from all over the country. Throughout this marathon of a run, there was a mutual feeling of, “We’re all in this together, we got this. Just a few more nights!” Coming out on the other end felt like we had all accomplished something together, shared in the groove, getting by with a little help from our friends.

The energy at MSG was insane

In the packed Garden, you could literally feel the seats shaking at times as Anastasio hit the peak of a jam. Glow stick wars are known to break out during fan favorites like “Tweezer” and “Harry Hood,” as 20,000 grown adults playfully toss neon rods throughout the stands and down into the crowd while “wooing” fervently. The acoustics of this particular arena amplified the crowd’s cheers to explosive levels.

Attendees could feel an intimate connection to the band

After seeing the same band several times, Phish fans tend to feel a special connection with the members as if they’re old pals. There are shared experiences, inside jokes and personal memories that only come from watching the band reinvent its songs live and produce an entirely different show each night. These special, intimate moments are one element that keeps fans coming back again and again (and again).

If we feel this connection with these four guys who we’ve (mostly) never met, imagine what they must share. In the same interview mentioned above, Anastasio gives a window into their experience: “I don’t even know how to express the amount of gratitude that I have. All three of them are so good and so smart and so funny. That’s how I feel the whole time I’m up there. How did I get so lucky to meet such great people? And for them to, like, put up with my bullshit over the years? I feel like I don’t deserve this or something.” Us neither, Trey.

Photograph: Rene Huemer

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