Phish's wacky New Year's Eve antics.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Jan. 3 2003 11:22 AM

Phish Shtick

The jam band's New Year's Eve antics.

On Tuesday night, Phish played its first concert in 27 months, a New Year's Eve blowout at Madison Square Garden. The band performed for three and a half hours; at midnight, as they segued from "Seven Below," a wintry song off their new album, into "Auld Lang Syne," 15 fluorescent mystic elves danced through the audience as snow was blown over the crowd, dozens of huge white balloons and barrels of confetti were launched from the ceiling, lightening bolts exploded from the sky, and fireworks went off behind the band. Truly.

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It was a special moment, even for those non-obsessives who cringed at the thought of spending an evening with patchouli-drenched neo-hippies blissed out on acid and good vibes. But the stroke of midnight wasn't the evening's defining moment; that had come about an hour and a half earlier, in the middle of "The Divided Sky," a song the quartet has been playing since the late 1980s, when they toured bars and clubs in New England. In the middle of a quiet, throbbing interlude, the band's guitarist, Trey Anastasio, stopped short between two notes. The rest of the band froze on stage, playing an exaggerated game of statue, and the 20,000 people in MSG began to scream. Thirty seconds passed; save for Anastasio's gentle rocking, no one on stage moved. A minute went by. Then two. Finally, when the building felt as if it would burst, when the rafters began to shake and the security guards began looking around nervously, the band started up again, leading a gentle, clarion guitar solo into a soaring finale.

It was a uniquely Phishian moment. After all the sold-out tours and marathon jams, after the 200,000-person festivals and three-day concerts, Phish still takes a flippantly postmodern approach to performing. It's as if they're play-acting at being rock stars. No matter how big they've gotten, Phish has continued to delight in sticking out their tongues at the pretensions of the music world. This is a band, after all, whose elfin drummer plays in a dress decorated with giant orange LifeSavers. During "The Divided Sky," they seemed to be saying: Look, we can even stand still and they'll applaud! This absurdist attitude pervades many of the band's best-known onstage pranks: the musical vacuum cleaner solos, the a cappella performances of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird." Lyrically, many of Phish's songs seem ruled by the ethos that it doesn't matter what words are being said—"Boy, man, God, shit" is just as profound as, say, "It's a beautiful day, don't let it slip away." Which is to say, not profound at all. One of New Year's Eve's highlights was "Harry Hood," a song that ponders the fate of the cartoon mascot that lives on milk cartons. The song's joyous climax is the old slogan, "You can feel good, good about Hood," shouted out in glee. Us, rock stars? Phish seems to be asking. We're not nearly that silly.

But, like any runaway train, Phish has gathered a momentum unrelated to the band itself. Ever since the band hit it big, one tension has been whether or not the fans were in on the joke … and whether they'd give the band the space to keep on joking. On New Year's, during "Mound," the guy next to me seemed to melt. Grabbing my arm, he said, "They haven't played this since 11/19/96! I was there then, too!" I don't doubt it. When, back in October 2000, the band announced they were taking an open-ended break, many industry people wondered why the band would let the air out of a hugely popular run. But that was the point: The air needed to be let out. Before their two-year interregnum, Phish's musical creativity was evolving into something that felt more like sadism—concerts were filled with pointless deconstructions of songs, 20-minute variations on a theme that went nowhere. It was as if the band was seeing how tedious they could be without losing their fans. Given more time, Phish could have easily devolved into four misanthropic musicians, angry at the expectation-fueled purgatory their fans kept them in.

On Tuesday, the excitement was back. The before-show music included Peaches & Herb's "Reunited" and Boston's "Long Time," cheeky selections for a band that's always paid attention to the details. Musically, Phish has always delighted in breaking down themes both rhythmically and melodically. While 20 minutes of the new song "Walls of the Cave" might have been a little much, most of the show was focused and electric, even when songs stretched over a dozen minutes. Anastasio frequently soloed around a melody rather than inside of it, and, on songs like "David Bowie," the band came closer to the thematic explorations of great jazz than the verse-chorus-verse formula of rock 'n' roll.

Unfortunately, most of the press doesn't seem interested in trying to parse out any of this. A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a comically ignorant piece describing Phish as some sort of millennial, musical cult. On New Year's Eve, during the middle of "Wilson," Anastasio welcomed Tom Hanks on to the stage for a two-bar vocal jam, the joke being that Tom Hanks is no more likely to be at a Phish show now than he was a dozen years ago. (The guest was actually the brother of keyboardist Page McConnell.) Naturally, both the Times and the AP credulously reported that Hanks made a brief, bizarre appearance onstage. As one member of the band's crew said to me, "I love it when we pull this shit off."

Fittingly, when the band came on for their encore, they chose to play "Wading in the Velvet Sea," a languid song that's a band favorite and an audience disappointment. "Wading" features none of Anastasio's guitar pyrotechnics, none of drummer Jon Fishman's explosive polyrhythms, none of bassist Mike Gordon's and McConnell's intricate back-and-forth. As the band ended, stood formally, and bowed, there were frantic screams for "Golgi Apparatus," a climactic song Anastasio co-wrote in the eighth grade. But the lights came on, set to the gentle tones of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together."

Seth Mnookin is the associate director of MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing. His most recent book is The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. Follow him on Twitter.

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