In thinking back on the events surrounding Phish’s return to the stage, one word continues to come to mind: Nostalgic.Throughout the experience, my mind was sent into a historic retrospective, connecting again with old songs, friends, feelings and memories. For much of the event, it didn’t feel so much as I was looking forward, but backwards. “I feel the feeling I forgot.”
As the band took to the stage on New Year’s Eve, old buzzes returned for another round of rejoicing, celebrating and pure jubilation that is the essence of Phish. The energy inside Madison Square Garden was electric. You could feel the intensity and excitement in the air as folks reconnected and everyone shared the joy of being there together. Maybe we were applauding the band and their awesome history, or maybe our own ability to secure tickets, but whatever it was, we were there together and ready for whatever they were going to throw at us!
All eyes turned towards the stage and months of speculation dissolved as the opening chords to “Piper” sailed through the arena. I can’t imagine that anyone in the room, at any point in their collective show-going histories, has ever experienced a crowd as loud and engaged as during the first few minutes of that show. It’s very difficult to try to explain mentally what took place that night, for it was mostly an emotional experience. Pure enjoyment of the old favorites like “N.I.C.U.,” “Mound,” “Squiring Coil” and “David Bowie” filled out the first set. Adding in some classic Phish comedy of the Tom Hanks-like appearance, it really felt good to be back in that space.
The musical highlight of the night for me came during the second set when “Waves,” arguably one of the best songs on Phish’s latest album, Round Room, segued into “Divided Sky,” one of the great songs from their first album, Junta. It put history in perspective as two triumphant rockers showed us what Phish is really all about and connected their huge career. As the band milked the pause in “Divided Sky,” the crowd didn’t attempt to contain itself, blasting the stage with a roar and celebrating the magnitude of the band and its place in their hearts. Later in the set, as our old friend “Harry Hood” appeared, more tears flowed in memory of summer nights under the stars from years past. Ahh, they were really back.Busting out another new tune, “Seven Below,” for the midnight moment was a brave move, and worked well with the dancers and soap snowflakes that fell from the ceiling. The “Runaway Jim” rocker was another stroll down memory lane, and a mellower rest of the set, save the uplifting “Taste” and poignant “Walls of the Cave” closer, filled out the night. I think people were looking for a more solid encore than “Wading in a Velvet Sea,” to conclude this huge event, but did it really matter? Phish was back!
Moving beyond the one-night stand orgasm that was New Year’s Eve, three nights in Hampton would afford the band an opportunity to sink their teeth in and really get to know each other once again. What it proved to me is that these guys are still very capable of taking their music to that “epic” level, if they can only get out of the way long enough to let it happen. The “Chalkdust Torture” and “Bathtub Gin” one-two punch opener the first night contained some of the most powerful musical moments of the run, extended with pure adrenaline and confidence. Night one was a solid show, with the new “46 Days” standing out to open the second set into a wonderful “Simple” and well placed “My Friend, My Friend.” For the record, I love “Mexican Cousin.” “I wanna wanna kiss your oooooooo.”
Night two at Hampton felt like it had the most energy; the band was beginning to take over and really go places musically. From the opening notes of “Tweezer,” you could feel that we were in for a special treat. Transitioning into the awesome “Theme from the Bottom” and then testing their wits on a complicated “Foam,” the band’s tightness really started to return, albeit a bit rusty. “Pebbles and Marbles” was a welcome addition from the new album and soared to some incredible “Disease”-like heights. “You Enjoy Myself” closed the set, and while sloppy at times, it was a wonderful way to rock out this awesome set. The rest of the show was solid, with a huge “Wolfman’s Brother,” but nothing quite matched the intensity of the first set. “Contact > Tweezer Reprise” proved itself a worthy and solid encore.
Night three started a bit rocky, never quite getting off the ground in the first set. You could tell folks were a bit tired from the last few nights of spiritual cappuccinos and the like, so the bit of stumbling was understandable. Set two, however, closed out the run with authority. Opening things up with “Rock & Roll” and blasting into “Mike’s Song,” it really felt like good old times. The set went up and down, but for the most part was a high caliber journey of old school Phish with “Weekapaug,” “Disease,” “Fast Enough” and “2001” to finish. The “Friday” encore might prove some insight into the band’s mental process with its soulful and questioning lyrics. But who really knows what they’re thinking, as I can only imagine the incredible pressure of having tens of thousands of loyal devotees putting their night in your hands and expecting you to deliver. All things considered, I thought they got through it well, and I give them a ton of credit for being able to pull it all off. They were, after all, having to bear the burden of being compared to their former selves.So, Phish is back. What the hell does it all mean?
I must admit, after a little while it didn’t feel like they were really gone for all that long. Sure, it has been more than two years since they had taken the stage, but Phish has grown to be so much more than their live performances. While the feelings of the hiatus announcements resonated well beyond their final show in October 2000, the energies of the reunion were introduced as soon as the announcement hit in August 2002. It actually felt more like a short rest, a bit of a break, some time to explore other projects and be creative, to grow, play and feel what it’s like to not be together for a few tours. And like friends returning to overnight summer camp, they were back.Were they really doing things new musically? Not really. It didn’t feel as though the songs were necessarily moving in different directions as it had during their last tour. They had mostly abandoned their old school funk throw-downs and turned more towards song-oriented structures of the pre-’97 days. The improvisations weren’t always the tightest either, and the lack of perfection in the composed sections wore a bit on the confidence of the band. But the sparks were certainly there, and you could tell they were having a good time, as was everyone else in attendance. As a good friend said to me after the shows, “It was the sickest – for so many more reasons than the music.”
What did I think of Phish? I had a lot of fun, it was great to see and hang with you all again. I think I had a lot more fun too when I stopped trying to think about it all and just enjoyed myself. And that, I believe, is truly what it’s all about.
“Why isn’t it Friday today?”
I grew up on Phish. They literally opened the doors for me and showed me what live music could be. Between 1993, and say 1997, I saw more shows than I can recollect, and in my opinion that’s when it started to grow stale for the band, and then in turn for me. Some would disagree, claiming the funky Phish and boomerang loops that brought up the last few years were epic. To me it’s all relative; of course it was still great music. They are amazing musicians who have more or less mastered the art of live performance. I’m not trying to say there was no merit in the later days; it just wasn’t doing what it once did for me.Enter The Hiatus. In retrospect, this was the best thing they could have ever done! Plain and simple. Phish is back, and I don’t mean just playing music again. The music is heavy and dark, full of life and experimentation. They have the fire, the drive, the joy, the intensity and the insanity. All of the things that were missing from the last few years are back, and I guess I just didn’t think it was possible.
Standing outside of MSG on New Year’s Eve, the tension and energy were palpable. Elated screams echoed for blocks; I had never heard so much noise outside of a venue. And as I stood with my friends, eager as could be, a certain surreal feeling swept over my body and didn’t leave until I awoke Sunday afternoon in Hampton Virginia with a post coitus sensation that still brings tears to my eyes.The first notes in more than two years were “Piper.” But “Piper” wasn’t “Piper” it was a vessel to launch into outer space. It happened so quickly I think I forgot to breath. About halfway through the opener my boy turned to me and said, “What song is this?” And before I had an answer the familiar sound of “Piper” came back and we found ourselves experiencing the first taste of “The Ws.” “The Ws” are what made Phish, Phish for me back in the day. “The Ws” are as follows:
What is going on?
It’s been a long time since Phish made me freak out like this, and within minutes of their playing for the first time in more than two years, I was lost!
After the opener I knew we were in for a good time, but about halfway through the first set, I had the notion that they really were back. Out of nowhere things got really weird, (weird being critical in my Phish). Everyone was looking up at the MSG scoreboard, which I could hardly see because I was directly underneath it. Even Phish was looking at it, as what appeared to be a movie clip was playing. It didn’t take long for me to realize it was Cast Away and Tom Hanks was yelling, “WILSON…WILSON…” No one knew what was going on, everyone was on their toes, it was crazy. IT WAS PHISH. As Trey announced Tom Hanks onto the stage to sing the part that drops it back into “Wilson” I was shaking my head and found myself so utterly pleased that they had found a way to freak everyone out. In even more classic Phish genius we all came to find out that it wasn’t even Tom Hanks, Phish was fucking with us, just like they used to. That’s why I fell in love with them ten years ago: the mind fuck and brain control, the heavy, weird demented, larger-than-life experiences. Ya – The Phish.
As the New Year’s extravaganza continued, there were some clear highlights and some clear mishaps. “Mound” was a treat; the close to three minute pregnant pause in the over seventeen minute “Divided Sky” was impressive, and I don’t think I ever recovered from the insanely dark “Carini.” The areas that proved to need the most work were logically the heavily composed areas, with “Rift” and “Y.E.M.” serving as prime examples. Perhaps that’s why we never saw “Reba” or more of “Gamehenge.” In line with what songs went wrong, many of you may be trying to figure out why they repeated “Character 0” the first night of Hampton. Well they butchered the 12.31 version and blew it up on 01.02.
As time stood still around midnight, Phish rang in 2003 with all the glory, fire, freak surprise and fun imaginable. Seven minutes before midnight, “Seven Below” came creeping in as snow creatures emerged from the dark. Beings on stilts with spotlights grew out of the crowd as snow began to fall in Madison Square Garden. A disco ball dropped down as huge balloons began to take over the world. Foam was falling from the sky as fireworks were erupting, and in the midst of all this mayhem the one noise that I equate with New Year’s came blasting in: Trey’s guitar ripping “Auld Lang Syne.”By the time I could see straight or even comprehend what was going on, I saw a midget snow creature with some kind of horned helmet standing on the stage deflecting balloons away from Trey. Again “The Ws” reigned supreme and the looks I shared with my friends screamed, “Can you fucking believe this?”
“Runaway Jim” bled out of New Year’s and it was a party that made me feel like I never left MSG after that New Year’s in ’95 that seemed to define an era for me. Covering “Time Loves A Hero” was perfect, (read the lyrics) and the close to 20 minute “Walls of the Cave” (WOTC, World Trade Center, NYC) to close the show was incredible. I was far from sold on the album Round Room, crying for a return to the “guitar god mayhem” and boy did I ever get what I asked for. What came as perhaps the biggest musical surprise of all to me was the delivery of the new songs. I still don’t like the ballads, but take “Walls of the Cave” from New Year’s or “Pebbles and Marbles” from 01.03 for example. They were amazing. The band obviously worked intensely on the new songs, both compositionally and improvisationally, as they had a life and edge to them I did not think possible upon hearing the early versions found on the new album. The way Trey and Page weaved in and out of each other on “Walls” was beautiful and the light key work and spacey synth patterns Page conjured up are still resonating in my mind.After the third set prior to the encore I sat down and tried to regain some semblance of composure. At this point my boy TK turns to me and says, “Midgets and foam!? THEY’RE BACK!” I don’t think anyone could have said it better. To me that statement right there sums up New Year’s: “midgets and foam.”
Now if I have one serious gripe with this amazing run, it was the encores. Why the weak encores? They play four sick shows and three out of the four of them end with a complete letdown. Come on! They blow it out for three sets on New Year’s Eve and end with “Velvet Sea?” I couldn’t believe it. The whole time I was thinking that the nastiest, dirtiest, scariest “Antelope” was gonna come out the backend, but it never did. Instead I stood there in shock. But on a brighter note, if you had told me that Phish would end their New Year’s show with “Velvet Sea” and I would still have fun, let alone not kill someone, I would have laughed at you and sold my ticket. But low and behold at the end of all the magic they procured from that special night, the “Velvet Sea” was just an afterthought, one that would push me to Hampton.
As everyone, band and fans alike, settled into three evenings in “The Mothership” it was like falling in love, again. Everything went so smoothly. I saw old friends, made new ones and was bathing in the beauty of a Phish holiday run, not to mention I got to see another one of my favorite bands, Garage A Trois each and every night after Phish. Talk about a party!Hampton was a dream, a light airy fun-filled dream that could never be duplicated. The shows had their ups and downs, with the second night of Hampton, 01.03, serving as the strongest of the group, although “It’s Ice” and “My Friend” were certainly a welcome addition to the first show in Virginia.
The second night of Hampton showed the band stretching out and the crowd following suite. Second set second night of Hampton with “Wolfman’s Brother” falling into “Makisupa” was perhaps the most surreal moment of 2003 thus far. The lights were top-notch and the ethereal atmosphere created by these four men was beyond words. It was at the same time light and dirty, dark and fruitful. At that moment I realized one of the things that makes Phish so much larger than life. There is the notion that they can literally dictate existence for a certain period of time in a certain place for a certain number of people, and no one else can really do it to the extent they can. The manner in which they control a room is unprecedented.
As the final night of this highly anticipated run was winding down with “2001,” Trey took the opportunity to address the captivated crowd. Trey spoke for the band, thanking everyone for an amazing experience and expressing their gratitude. It was clearly from the heart. And just as Phish is grateful, so are we. They are clearly excited again; they have gone off and done other stuff, but are now back together and no longer take it for granted. The time off made them appreciate how amazing, magical and precious this thing we all call Phish is.Phish has been gone for more than two years. We have all grown older, and upon sharing in the groove again, I have come to learn more about them, and myself. I now realize that it will never be like it was in 1995; nothing will be like it was when I was 20 and everything, not just Phish, but life, was so new, fresh and amazing. It still is amazing, just different. Age and pain, disappointment and the weight of the world have stripped me of some idealism. But this experience has rejuvenated me, and allowed me to smile a bit brighter. To be able to exist with minimal sleep, and even less food, to be able to live on Phish, friends, positive energy and a simple love of music, is becoming more and more difficult. At least it had been until this past week. Phish negated my need for the basic physical needs and when the lights went down my tired head and burnt-out body dissipated, and immediately I was lifted to a land I thought was gone forever. For the first time in more than five years Phish made perfect sense to me again.
Brian Getz:A myriad of emotions engulfed the anticipation for weeks. The ticket fiascos, the endless conversations… as the New Year’s run approached, I put it far, far in the back of my mind around Thanksgiving, just so I wouldn’t have a nervous breakdown.
Because the reunion was to be exactly that, a commiserating amongst song and peoples past, present and future, the mere thought of what would transpire would break me into a cold sweat. Around Christmas, the fever began to consume me, and as the boiling anticipation bubbled within, as I raced up the walkways of MSG, the tension within sonics that drives us to congregate had morphed into an internal blaze. Then the lights went down. ‘Twas on!I couldn’t even tell that they were playing “Piper” right away due to the deafening roar from the audience. I think we all knew it would be loud, but this was a different kind of volume. From then on it was a sweet and emotional ride through a bit of the songbook, but a deep and profound evening of music and energy on many levels.
Musical highlights for me were the stunning and confidant “Mound,” “Coil” and “Bowie” to close the first set, the magical “Divided Sky” (especially the crowd ovations as the sky divided) and the fierce and powerful “Zero” in its greatest arena rock regale. The midnight visual spectacle of the winter forest theme and dancers (not to mention PYRO!) and the choice Little Feat cover “Time Loves a Hero.” I for one enjoyed the anti-climactic ending and mellow coasting to end the show. I needed to save some juice for Karl D, and enjoyed a soothing comedown from the innumerable emotions that invigorated me for the preceding four hours.
The Phish show on New Year’s Eve was overwhelming in a plethora of ways – the faces I had not seen in too long, friends swept away through the realities of young adulthood. I felt youthful and exuberant to the soundtrack of my coming-of-age. Just as I showed rust in terms of stamina and overall dancing prowess, the band had some kinks of their own to work out. But the magic of the music, the people and the party was undeniable. I could see that the Hampton run ahead would be a special, more calculated and intimate experience, and took New Year’s for the incredible welcome home slammer that it was.Hampton was perplexing in similar yet unique ways to the NYE experience. Here we could converge on a town for the weekend, invade its hotels and its hostels, lap up its continental breakfasts and huff its bitter wind and cold air, and see three shows within the cozy and intimate “Mothership.” The weekend itself was a blast, for lack of better word; oh how I missed hotel hopping and the breakfasts, as well as the memorable and silly antics at all hours and all around Allen Iverson’s breeding grounds. I cannot stress how energizing and fulfilling the experience of being in Hampton was with the family and crew. It felt good to be alive again.
As for the music, well, it came in doses of grandeur spiced with flubs and forgetfulness. It reminded me of being quizzed about the NFL. As a six year old I could have named every Super Bowl MVP from the first until 1984, or the coach of every Super Bowl loser. Today I could maybe remember a third of them. But then out of the blue I could give you every play verbatim from John Elway’s “The Drive,” when his Broncos stormed back 98 yards to beat Marty Schottenheimer’s Cleveland Browns nearly fifteen years ago. That, in a nutshell, was Hampton. Each evening they straight messed up parts of songs. Noticeably. Obvious instances of ill-preparation and/or lack of musical communication. However, they often achieved the positively inspirational and ecstatic sonic alchemy that has earned them arguably the most ardent and dedicated following in progressive popular music.
I simply cannot come down hard on the band. I will also again refrain from pointing out miscues, to avoid spotlighting the negative. I have yet to listen to the shows since their unveiling. I don’t know if I will, ever. Even though there was not a flawless set of music found in the six, each one had supernatural instances of Phishtronics. The “Rock and Roll” and “Mike’s Song” to open the fifth set of the run was maybe the band at its finest. Ever?! Trey’s new, edgier, grittier, straight guttah guitar tone just tore new rock edges to these classics, and his newfound mastery manipulating with his Leslie speaker has even further diversified his sound. Mr. Page McConnell was in absolute tip top shape, leading “Gin” deep onto the funkadelic booze cruise, washing masterful Hammond B3 and chopping ivories plush throughout the weekend, also getting reacquainted with the Fender Rhodes fresh from the Vida Blue trip. Mike’s acoustics and general tone was warmer, fatter, and he slapped less and played less, finding even bigger holes to fill with rounder, deeper sustained notes and dynamics. Fish was his usually arena rock, jazzy quirky self, albeit with a modified drum kit and cymbal setup, and a party ball in his lap. Other highlights include the squirrelly “Antelope” on 1.2, 1.3’s clean rocking “Birds” set II opener, “Makisupa” and more arena rock bombast in “Free.” But indeed, there is work to be done but I’m cool wit’ it.The future is bright kids, Thank you for a real good time. It’s great to be back!
JamBase | World Wide
[Published on: 1/10/03]
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