The Garden’s Greatest: Understanding Phish’s Place in the Legend of MSG

The Baker’s Dozen represents a new frontier for both Madison Square Garden and Phish. While MSG has hosted several artist residencies in the past, never has a band or musical act taken over the venue for the duration of time that Phish will over July & early August. While the band has played there many times since their MSG debut in 1994, never have they performed more than 4 nights in a particular run at either Madison Square Garden or any other venue since their Burlington club days at The Front, Hunt’s & Nectar’s in the 1980s.

Yet the significance of the “residency” goes beyond the numbers. The band has suggested, and fans’ imaginations now believe, that the Baker’s Dozen will be far more than 13 individual concerts.  For all intents and purposes, it is the improvisational masters’ 2017 summer tour. The circus is coming to town, and with it comes the opportunity for Phish to:

  • Explore the depths of its repertoire while reaching a new comfort level within familiar confines;
  • Link together or set apart shows through musical and lyrical themes;
  • Develop new (or revive vintage) inside and/or ongoing jokes with its dedicated & tuned-in/out audience; and
  • Curate a multi-part concert event the likes of which the Garden, site of many a memorable performance and widely regarded as the most culturally important arena in the world, has never hosted before.

((((((((Deep breath)))))))))

Before I get too excited about the future, let’s take a look back into the past. Which performances and performers have contributed most to the legend of Madison Square Garden since it’s opening in 1968? Who shares a place with Phish in Madison Square Garden’s artist pantheon?

See below for the Baker’s Beat’s rendering of The Garden’s Greatest:

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (1973- 2016)

The Boss has headlined MSG 35 times and has appeared at a plethora of other charity events, all-star concerts, and award shows at the venue. Though Springsteen is from neighboring New Jersey and the Meadowlands stadiums have served as his true “home” venue over the years, he has treated the Garden as a second “home” as evidenced by the E Street Band blowing the doors off of the building over the course of 10 shows during their triumphant reunion tour in summer 2000.  

Grateful Dead (1979-1994)

America’s greatest rock & roll band played the Garden 52 times from 1979-1994, a record for most performances by a band (which Phish will match on the last night of the Baker’s dozen). The Dead put on many of their greatest late-period performances at the Garden, including one of my personal favorites: 9/10/1991 featuring Branford Marsalis on saxophone. Watch the whole show on a Saturday night at home – just believe me on this one. 

Elton John (1973-2013)

Sir Elton held the record for number of sell-outs at MSG for years and now is second only to Billy Joel in number of headlining appearances at Madison Square Garden with 64. Highlights from his career at the venue include many multi-night runs in the late 1970s & 1980s, co-headlining dates with Joel in the 1990s and 2000s, and his 60th birthday celebration which coincided with his 60th appearance at the venue in 2007. Sadly, one of Elton’s most well-known MSG moments is his 1974 Thanksgiving day concert featuring John Lennon’s final concert appearance.

Billy Joel (1978-Present)

As much as it pains this writer to admit it, the Piano Man is the undisputed King of the Garden. Quantity, longevity, and Joel’s deep connection the city as a native New Yorker positions him at the top. It’s hard to imagine another musician topping his count of  87 shows (+ 7 more shows scheduled through December 2017). His one-show-a-month arrangement (ongoing since 2014) and their promotion of him as “the next Garden franchise” demonstrates how truly unique his relationship is with the arena.  Phish’s Baker’s Dozen will top his record of 12 shows in a single/continuous series of shows which was set during his initial residency at the Garden back in 2006.

Phish (1994-Present)

Whereas the most characteristic and peak moments in the careers of Billy Joel & many of the other Garden Greats occurred on studio recordings or earlier in their career at smaller venues, Phish’s natural habitat is on stage and they have regularly hit some of their highest peaks as a band on the stage of Madison Square Garden. The Baker’s Dozen will make it 52 shows over the course of 23 years and add another unique dimension to Phish’s legacy at the Garden which, up to now, has been established through the group’s near-annual New Year’s runs. Each of Phish’s 10 New Year’s Eve shows at the venue have featured 3 sets with theatrics, themed sets, and landmark musical moments that have built their legend as the world’s most adventurous live band. Call them MSG’s house band of the last quarter-century.

Honorable Mention

Rolling Stones (1969-2006): 24 shows. First musical act to perform a multiple-night run at MSG. Their 4 Garden shows on the 1972 Exile on Main Street tour featured Stevie Wonder as the opening act. Other classic Stones runs from the 70s were captured on live album (Get Yer Ya-Yas Out) and concert film (Gimme Shelter).

Led Zeppelin (1970-1977): Zeppelin made Madison Square Garden a stop on each of its North American tours in the 1970s, playing 15 shows there including a 6 night run in what would be their final appearance at the venue in 1977. The band recorded the concert film The Song Remains the Same during their 3 night MSG run in 1973.

George Harrison & Friends – the Concert for Bangladesh (August 1st (two shows), 1971): An all-star group featuring George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston & Badfinger, with Ravi Shankar & Ali Akbar Khan as the opener. Amazing music and as Shankar notes, “In one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh. It was a fantastic occasion.” The most talent ever under MSG’s roof at one time?

U2 (1985-2015): 25 appearances, including an 8 show run during the summer 2015.

Madonna (1985-2015): 31 appearances starting with a two-night run during her Virgin Tour in 1985.

Neil Diamond (1986-Present): The Solitary Man has crooned at the Garden 25 times. I’ve never been to a Neil Diamond show, but I’m sure he just turns any room into a sing-along cocktail lounge instantly. I can only imagine how that would feel at the big room on Broadway. So Jewish Elvis has to be honorably mentioned here.

LCD Soundsystem – The Long Goodbye (April 2, 2011): One of the most epic dance concerts in modern American history and it was put on by this generation’s New Yorker hipster group at their city’s own at Madison Square Garden as a farewell, though my wife and many others still seem to strongly dislike James Murphy and hold it against him that he “lied” to his fans by promoting this as their last show only to return five years later. Sound familiar, Phish fans?


(featured image courtesy of