12.31.02 Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
Set 1 (1:10): Piper, Guyute, NICU, Horn, Wilson, Mound, Squirming Coil > David Bowie
Set 2 (1:06): Waves > Divided Sky, Lawn Boy, Carini, Rift, Harry Hood, Character Zero
Set 3 (1:03): Sample in a Jar, Seven Below > Auld Lang Syne > Runaway Jim > Time Loves a Hero, Taste, Strange Design, Walls of the Cave
Encore (0:08): Wading in the Velvet Sea
I went into the show with very little expectations. Perhaps it was because I only got a ticket about a week before New Year’s. It was the hottest ticket in town, and the most sought after Phish ticket in the history of Phish-dom. Bids were in the thousands of dollars on e-bay and ticket brokers wouldn’t even talk to you unless you were willing to pay big bucks. Even Dead Guru Bruce Cohen declared, “Every Phish freak from here to fuckin’ Idaho will be looking for a ticket.”
He was right, and I got one thanks to Jessica who originally scored me two tickets for the last Hampton, Virginia show they would be playing right after New Year’s. I was able to find a cool and honest guy named Phil from Reading, PA who took the time to drive all the up to NYC to swap tickets with me at Strawberry Fields in Central Park. A two for one deal. Two Hamptons for one MSG. I was set.
Although to my disappointment, none of my local friends had gotten tickets to the show, and I knew I’d be going solo. But the Phish reunion was not just their chance to play again; it was an opportunity for many people who became friends through Phish over the years to reunite with all of their loved ones. Everyone is scattered geographically, busy with their lives, and it’s tough and expensive to arrange schedules to see everyone you know, but sometimes, big events like Phish shows come around, and it’s the perfect time to gather everyone together and have a balls out fun time. Friends of mine through the years amassed from Atlanta, Texas, California, Seattle, Canada, and even as far away as Hong Kong and Japan just to see Phish play a live show for the first time in over two years.
Security was light, and there was a traffic jam of people trying to get in, which took a while, but as soon as I physically walked through the tunnel into the Garden, I got a huge wave of the “Fuck yeahs!” And walking to my seat I could see the crowd settling in, and you could feel the fluttering energy twinkling, ready to be unleashed. For the first time at a Phish show, I experienced what it felt like to walk into a Grateful Dead show. The Garden was buzzing, like a Jacuzzi filled with two long years on bubbly warmth, soothing waves, and unleashed vigor. I was ready and Phish started the night earlier than I thought. As soon as the lights went down, the Garden got as loud as I ever heard it (and based on the NY Knicks and Rangers records, I’m sure it hadn’t been that loud in the Garden in a long time). When I was a kid watching wrestling on TV, during a crazy point of a match, the announcer Mean Gene Okerlund would yell, “Pandemonium is breaking loose here in the Garden…”
Well that summed up what went on as Phish took the stage. It took a few moments but I recognized that they opened with Piper. Everyone was yelling and going ape shit, and I wondered that this is how insane it must have been like at one of those Beatles concert I saw clips of, where all those chicks were just screaming the entire time. How the hell can you hear the band? But everyone smoked up and settled in, and Phish was back. Only after listening to the show a couple of days later, I realized that Piper began with each of the members taking solo introductions, first Trey, then Page, and Fish, then Mike.
Thanks to the advances in cell phone technology, I was able to keep my friends who weren’t at the show, updated to what was going on. I called Gil during Piper and Guyute, and ended up text messaging him some of the setlist, before I got a little took wasted, and just stopped.
I like hearing NICU because Trey yells, “Play it Leo” before Page’s piano solo. I called Heather because it’s one of her favorite songs and was surprised they were playing it!
After Horn, a random favorite song of mine ended I noticed that Gardenvision, the jumbotron screen/scoreboard was turned on. I didn’t think anything of it, until they showed clips of a beach at nighttime. I thought they were going to play their new song Waves, but I instantly recognized Tom Hanks from his role in Castaway. He was talking to his friend, Wilson the volleyball and threw it in the water. I knew right then they were going to play Wilson, as Tom Hanks started shouting for his volleyball, “Wilson! Wilson… Wilson!”
The crowd joined in, and Trey took off. In the middle of the song, Trey stops and says, “Everybody Tom Hanks!” and he ran out on stage, sang the “Blat, boom…” lyric, shook hands with Page and ran off.
I was fooled. It wasn’t Tom Hanks, but Page’s brother. It’s OK, I even called everyone I knew to tell them the remarkable cameo. I e-mailed it and wrote it up in a mini-review on the Tao of Pauly, but shit, I was shithoused fucked up. I hadn’t been that wasted since I saw Phish in Osaka with Senor, Beano & Zobo. The New York Times, AP, MTV, and several other legitimate news agencies weren’t rolling when they printed and reported the Phishy appearance of former Bossom Buddies star Tom Hanks. What followed was a retraction in the NY Times, and a slew of Phishy Tom Hanks Prank articles in nearly every major U.S. media outlet. Was it staged? Probably not. The boys always fuck around and give everyone nicknames. If Al Gore came out, now THAT would have been funny. But I guess the lesson to be learned is: Don’t take Phish or anything too seriously (especially the NY Times).
The guy sitting next to me was from D.C. and he kept yelling and calling out for “Mound” since the show began. They never played that song for years because they forgot how to play it. Mound is slightly complicated. But here we go, after a two-year break, sixth song into their return they break out Mound, which had not been performed by Phish since November 16, 1996. As soon as they started playing I turned to him and he was pumped!
Everyone knows I’m not a fan of Squirming Coil, so I took the time to smoke a bowl with the guy next to me. We were chatty, both rolling, and my show enhancer was starting to kick in. As I stopped to look up, it was the end of the song, the perfect part, where Page closes with a beautiful piano solo. They went right into David Bowie, and I called Modeski. I didn’t know if I reached him or got his voicemail because I got disconnected, but my phone rang right away and it was Modeski! He was on the other end, digging the Bowie. I promised I would call him if they played that.
The set ended and I bumped into Zobo in the bathroom. His friend from Japan, Emi wanted to hear Mound because it was her favorite song, and they played it! I went back to my seats and talked to the guys in front of me from Philly. They dropped $500 each on their tickets, so they made sure they were going to have a food time. They were fully stocked with an assortment of party enhancers and flavors, and were generous to everyone in our section. Just having a good time, hanging out with no one I know nor met before, yet went to so many of the same shows and sat and talked like we had been friends for a decade.
Set two opened with a new song called Waves. The sound was much more crisp, and then cleared up whatever distortion was going on in set one. This was the first new song they played and it was a good one to pick. Phish could open it up and noodle around into an extended jam, which they did. The entire time I was wondering how this song could be their next huge epic tune, and I was witnessing something rare, like catching the Grateful Dead one night in February 1973, and seeing the first version of Eyes of the World. It felt exactly like one of those moments.
Waves segued into Divided Sky. This was a solid statement. Divided Sky was one of their first recorded songs. They opened with a new tune, and went right into an old one, spanning the nearly twenty-year history of Phish back to back for all of us to see.
I didn’t see Lawn Boy at the show but I know he was there because he was quoted on an article from MTV.com. I kept laughing during his song because I recalled the infamous show in Phoenix in October 2000. I was there with Molly and we saw Lawn Boy and he wanted to run up to the front row during his song. The security guard wouldn’t let him into the reserved seating section without a ticket.
“But this is MY song! I’m Lawn Boy,” the caped-wonder pleaded.
“I don’t care if you're Spiderman. No ticket. No entrance,” the surly security guard quipped back.
Page cheesed out Lawn Boy, and it was good to see Page crooning the audience again. Phish decided that they weren’t fucking around anymore and busted out Carini! The first time I heard a live Carini was at the Garden in 1998, and it kicked my ass. That was the first time I ever used the phrase, “Trey ripped the shit out of that one!” Carini was the highlight of the set for me. I got the one song I wanted to hear, and I could relax and enjoy the rest of the night.
Rift was sloppy and I smoked during most of that song. The set closed with two hardcore Phish songs: Harry Hood and Character Zero. I kind of expected to hear Harry Hood, but hoping to hear it for the encore. I guess the boys did not want to wait. I called Molly during Harry Hood, her favorite Phish tune, and she was excited to hear it! There was a nice glow-ring war during the middle, something I hadn’t seen in some time.
During the second setbreak it was time to get really sloppy. I found a few friends from Texas, who barely recognized me without a beard and ponytail. JoJo and Laila were inebriated for sure, but they weren’t 100% convinced it was me until I showed them my driver’s license. After a few laughs (I was hoping they were just kidding, and not that far spun!) and a few hugs, and a quick puffage of nugs, I went back to my seat, and scribbled a few hyperactive notes.
The third set began about twelve minutes to midnight with Sample in a Jar. With seven minutes to go, the played their second new song of the night, Seven Below. A disco ball was lowered from the scoreboard and it began to snow on stage. Several people in white costumes, dressed up like snow creatures danced around the stage a couple, circling the band, of times before walking into the crowd. A couple of them dressed as snow angels got up on ladders spread throughout the floor of the Garden, and climbed up, unfurling their long dresses which covered the ladders, making them look like ten foot tall snow angels. Snow began to fall on the crowd and the snow angels began to shine flashlights into the crowd. Just before midnight, and as the countdown began, fireworks shot up and off the stage, and a collection of large white balloons, filled with confetti, some the size of small Phishy chicks, were dropped from the ceiling. It was 2003.
The Philly boys broke out a couple of bottles of champagne they snuck in, and passed them around, along with a baggie filled with Molly, while everyone lit up their 2003 joints, as Trey popped all the balloons that came on stage with his guitar. Runaway Jim was next, an old classic favorite of mine, never recorded on a studio album, but still one of the more popular songs to date. The guys in front of me knew the next song, Time Loves a Hero, a random Little Feat cover, which they last played in the summer of 1998. The Philly boys were at that show too.
During Taste, a beautiful song featuring Page’s stellar piano work, a guy came up to me and he was smoking a cigar.
“Bro, it’s my 50th show. Take a puff.”
“Sweet,” I said, taking a drag, “you know it’s my 114th show.”
“Holy shit! Then take two puffs!” he yelled.
When Page started Strange Design, my thoughts flashed to Señor . I wondered where he was? (For the length of this song, I imagined him in Thailand, dropping his pants on a moonlit beach with a semi-circle of his scantly clad Thai girlfriends giggling at his laugh… alas, he was in India, being kissed by drunk Indian guys!) Strange Design is a rare Phish song. They played it a fair amount of times, “But not enough!” Señor would exclaim. It’s one of Senor’s favorite Phish songs. He once put it on a Phish mix for one of his many lady friends.
“Get’s ‘em every time,” he would wink and smile.
The last line of lyrics for Strange Design is, “Can I bring a few companions along this ride?”
For Phish it was almost a twenty-year ride. For me, the last five years have been deeply involved and invested in Phish, the lifestyle, the subculture, the frenzy, the madness, the friendships, the wandering, the show swapping, and the love, the lots, the late nights driving to the next city, and the early mornings joensin’ for pharmies and herbal supplements in Shakedown, burning hundreds of shows for friends, and all the free hugs, and seeing forty plus different towns and cities in three countries, and riding the bullet trains in Japan in between cities while sipping green tea, and writing down setlists in the complete dark on all sorts of different drugs, and all the balloons, and the random dogs walking around, and everyone looking for an extra, and all those polluted kids running around spun out of their minds, chomping on vegan burritos and heady goo balls before the show, and the agony of getting rejected for lottery tickets, the anticipation of tickets arriving in the mail, the endless scorn I spout out at Ticketbastard who make hundreds, it not thousands of dollars on my Phishy habit, the connection with random strangers from down the street and in Japan. The entire roving bubble of the Phish phenomena affected, shaped, and influenced my life, as a person and artist. And none more than the people I met on this nice run. All of whom I thought of at some point in the night, filled with happy thoughts of all those shows I hung out with everyone, and the rides we all shared, and the pre-parties where we all celebrated, and the numerous late night after shows where we’d wind down the night and watch the morning sneak up on us, and all the commentary and after thoughts, and the song wish lists, and it was all back!
Phish closed with Walls of the Cave, a hefty nineteen-minute version. They weren’t going home without closing up shop the right way. Walls of the Cave has several sections where they can go off on, and the jam towards the end sounds just like Rock & Roll (a Velvet Underground cover), which I thought they were going to play. It was nicely done, and I became a quick fan of the three new songs I got to hear.
The encore was beginning just before 1 AM, and I hoped they wouldn’t disappoint me. My harshest criticism of Phish has always been their encores. They usually failed to close a hot show with a solid song. Sometimes when they know the played a not so hot show, they’ll try to make it up and play a three song encore. I dunno what’s really going on. But on New Year’s they cheesed out with Velvet Sea. I enjoy that song, it has sentimental value, but you don’t close the first show you’ve played in two years with that! I was hoping for You Enjoy Myself, or a Halley’s Comet, not a slow sappy wad of cheese. Phish returned all right, and some things haven’t changed.
Despite the encore being the low point of the show, I felt that night went down as one of the Top 10 Phish shows in my Phishy career. They played sloppy, and most of the songs wouldn’t be on my list of songs to hear at a Phish show, but they nailed some of their classic stuff and it was so good to hear them again, playing with a soaring intensity for a frenzied high-energy crowd. It was more the moment than the music, but then again, that’s why you go to a live show, never knowing what you’d hear, or what kind of hijinks will ensue, and that’s why I’ve been to over 114 shows. And before I know it, I’ll be seeing my 200th show.
Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.