Popular Vermont improv-rock quartet Phish turned 30 on December 2, ending their strongest year together since, oh, 1998 or so. Is it coincidence that the group’s subsequent bad juju — first a hiatus, then a breakup — occurred during the horrific Bush administration? Or that the group reemerged with Obama in 2008? Affordable care indeed! On Saturday, Phish kicks off yet another multi-night stand at Madison Square Garden, a venue they’ve played more often than any other – excepting their earliest gigs at the Front and Nectar’s during their late-’80s Burlington, Vermont, club days. Here are some things you may notice at the Garden should you choose to partake.
1. History The place simply reeks of it, and Phish and fans have added plenty of their own dank flavors to the mixture. Dig the venue’s famously suspended superstructure sway sinuously under the sold-out crowds. The shows on the 28th through the 31st mark the band’s own 28th through 31st appearances at the venue, so there’s that. The group has played some of its best shows ever — e.g., 12/31/95 and 12/29/97 — in the Thunderdome, and it’s become something of a hometown room. Plus: Thirty damn years together, yo! Who woulda thunk?
2. Ancient Aztec hieroglyphs When my friend Dan and I took mescaline on New Year’s Eve ’98, the crowd on the floor linked their infernal glow sticks together into arena-long ideograms, paragraphs of pain and pleasure that spelled out my future in colorful alien curlicues as the band ruptured the space-time continuum onstage. Your mileage may vary.
3. Old People Thirty years, bro! Early adopters who were in their early twenties when the band kicked off are themselves in their early fifties. Even the backward-baseball-capped contingent has grown up to become doctors, teachers, salespeople, lawyers, programmers, househusbands, financial predators, and recessionary roadkill. One of the world’s most intriguingly self-referential bands, Phish mixes old and new material into an ever-expanding and -evolving totality, and tunes like “Simple” or “Wolfman’s Brother,” which reflect Phish’s commitment to both its audience and their own special project, continue to confirm the pact. Imagine if your favorite team still retained its original lineup.
4. Schematic tattoos Last year, a talented former musicologist named Michael Hamad began sketching detailed, informative, and graphically elegant real-time “song maps” diagramming Phish jams, sets, and even entire shows. Fans have started commissioning Hamad to create these so-called Setlist Schematics of their favorite shows, and some especially devoted lunatics are requesting tattoo-ready art. A married couple received an image for matching tats, while another guy has asked Hamad to transcribe guitar licks from a favorite “Story of the Ghost” jam. Hamad looks forward to the photos.
5. An event Phish NYE runs tend to build up a conceptual head of steam leading to the big night. The flying hotdog the band flew from upper levels to the stage in 1994 (to the strains of Captain Beefheart’s “Tropical Hot Dog Night”) returned in 2010. In 2009, they strapped drummer Jon Fishman into a giant mirrorball that was shot out of a cannon, and last NYE involved jet packs. This summer, an amusing rant from guitarist Trey Anastasio about how not to get your requested song performed (don’t hold up a sign for it during another song) turned out to be the setup for an appearance by Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe. And nonagenarian actor Abe Vigoda popped out of a wombat suit onstage this past Halloween.
6. Promising new material During the aforementioned Halloween, Phish broke with tradition in Atlantic City. Rather than faithfully re-create one of the classic rock albums they’ve donned as their musical “costumes” in the past (which have included benchmarks by the Beatles, Talking Heads, and the Velvet Underground), Phish devoted their second of three sets to a premiere run-through of their then-unrecorded new album,Wingsuit. Turns out that Wingsuit, unlike Phish’s relatively joyless 2009 comeback effort, Joy, fits them like a glove. A group effort more than an Anastasio vehicle, Wingsuit contains bubbly self-reflection (“Devotion to a Dream”), dark jam vehicles, evocative fantasy (“Winterqueen”), gritty funk, and the title track’s idiosyncratic ür-Phish. And in “Wombat,” the band defines its 3.0 iteration to a T in the repeated refrain of “Cuddly, but muscular/ Herbivorous, crepuscular.”
7. “Woo!” Like glow-stick wars and the call-and-response evoked by tunes such as “Wilson,” the spontaneous audience woos that punctuated the climax of Phish’s epic 37-minute “Tweezer” improv-a-rama in Lake Tahoe earlier this year have infiltrated other jams as well. Caveat emptor.
8. Young people I’m feeling optimistic about Phish again for the first time in a long while. I co-wrote The Phish Book with them in 1998, then burned my bridge with the band by shitting on their 2002 post-hiatus album, Round Room. I was a fan, and I felt betrayed; and I guess they felt the same. But who didn’t, those first eight ugly years of the new century? Judging from the band’s most recent shows, however, there’s a new spirit of invention, commitment, and renewal in the air. Anastasio is laying back, the volcanic bassist Mike Gordon and harmonically bracing keyboardist Page McConnell are seizing their own territory. The hint of a new era can be whiffed in the cold winter air. Everything’s the same, only different, so keep your windows wide open.
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