‘I Feel the Feeling I Forgot’—Highlights from Phish’s Return
At 8:18 on Tuesday December 31, 2002, everything was right again. After some very appropriate background music by soundman Paul Languedoc, the lights went down and the sellout crowd in Madison Square Garden cheered as loudly as if they’d just won the lottery. And for all intents and purposes, they did. This was Phish at Madison Square Garden and this was the hardest ticket in the history of rock concerts. At 8:18, Phish took the stage and ended the 800+ days of self-imposed hiatus. ‘That moment when I go onstage,’ Trey was quoted as saying, ‘is going to be everything that I can do to make it a high explosive, incredible show from the second we walk out. A powerful, emotional, real moment. I’m going to give it every ounce of my being.’ And from the opening notes of ‘Piper’, to the closing notes of ‘Velvet Sea’, Trey and the band did just that. Phish used these four shows to return to their roots of the hard rocking jams, circa 1995, to take their fans on that magical journey that made us follow them around the country in the first place, until that fateful day in October. At 8:18 on Tuesday December 31, 2002, everything was right again.Over the course of New Years Eve, and the subsequent three shows in Hampton, Phish proved over and over, to both the fans and themselves, that the hiatus was the right thing to do. Standing in stark contrast to the ending tours, Phish’s four night run was filled with energy and exuberance, boiling at points, overflowing at others, which is remarkably similar to how the band played in 1995, which was the ‘Big Bang Era’. The band essentially felt at that time that every song needed to end in some sort of a peak jam that ‘exploded’. As the years wore on, they shied away from that belief, eventually being replaced by the ‘cow-funk’ of 1997, the meandering ambiance of 1998, and the groove from 2000. The sense that ‘anything can happen’ that was evident during tours in 1995, came to the fore during this tour as well, highlighted by the no-longer-played-but-never-forgotten ‘Mound’. Last played on 11/19/96 in Kansas City, the song was a fan favorite in the early 90s, but was abandoned by the middle of that decade, for no other reason than the band forgot how to play it. Countless requests by fans to bring the song back went unheeded. Unheeded, that is, until New Years Eve 2002. By playing ‘Mound’, in the first set nonetheless, the band proved to all the skeptics in attendance, that not only did they love the old songs as much as we did, but they were committed to them as much as we were. The first set ended with two of the oldest songs, ‘Squirming Coil’ and ‘David Bowie’, completing a new-song-less first set back and in fact, with the exception of the opening song, there wasn’t a song in the first set that debuted later than 1994, and all were played in that era’s style. The mutual energy of the band and crowd was on display during ‘Wilson’, which was, perhaps, the most energetic version of this song ever produced on stage, featuring some of the loudest audience chanting ever, in addition to the Tom Hanks prank, which would’ve made the Phish of yesteryear proud. It was the long lost art of the Phish ‘mindfuck’. As the New Year’s Eve show unfolded and progressed, the band repeatedly passed over new material off of Round Room, in place of older favorites, easing the concerns of many in attendance who were prepared for a _Round Room_ heavy show. While the second set opened with a new song, ‘Waves’, the strongest song off the band’s latest release, the rest of the set featured all songs that had their debut before early 1997. And each of those songs were, essentially, devoid of any of the stylistic jamming that evolved after 1995. Each was a hard rocking jam, notably ‘Carini’, which enthused the crowd as the band bowled them over with twice as much energy as they were giving off. The ‘Divided Sky’, the second song of the set which segued out of the ‘Waves’, was played powerfully by the band, and the ‘pause’ was as lengthy as its ever been, inciting the crowd to yell as loud as they ever have, as they pleaded with Trey to play ‘that note’. This was, yet another 1995-type instance, as in later years the clapping and cheering at this moment was more perfunctory than anything. On New Year’s Eve, it was anything but perfunctory. The set closed with ‘Character Zero’ which, while never being anyone’s favorite set closer, was played with a ferocity not seen since the song’s inception. This is how ‘Zero’ SHOULD be played. But perhaps the best and most memorable moment from a memorable show was the ‘Seven Below—->NYE’. Picking a brand new song to bring in the new year was a ballsy move, but the band pulled it off, aided by some spectacular fireworks, a man-made near blizzard, and countless ‘angels’ prancing around the Garden, all of which combined to make up one of the most indescribable, and amazing, moments in rock history, despite what VH1’s lists would have us believe. I’ve never seen anything like this, and I assume I never will again, because it could never be duplicated. That moment was exactly what the hiatus was all about. Going into the show, it was easy to see how performing this show was not an easy task for the band. The highest expectations for a rock concert, perhaps ever, awaited the band at 8:18. And Phish stepped up to the plate, and hit a looooooong home run. The only question now was, ‘Could they keep it up?’ With the New Years Eve show under their belt, the band rolled into Hampton for a three show, extended weekend, where it was clear they were going to flex their musical muscles. Hampton generally brings out the best in both the band and crowd because of the festival-like atmosphere that encompasses ‘The Strip’, a serious of six hotels within one city block of each other, and the venue. The NYE show, while arguably being the most energetic event to ever take place at the Garden (supplanting Larry Johnson’s infamous ‘Four Point Play’), was devoid of real ‘exploratory’ jamming, the likes of which helped elevate Phish to the status they’ve currently achieved. And from the get-go on night one, it was clear what they intended to do. During the opening song combination of ‘Chalkdust’ and ‘Bathtub Gin’, the band really let loose, with the jamming much better and more concise in the latter song than the former. Continuing the older ‘feel’ of the NYE show, the first two songs made it clear to everyone that the band had made a conscious effort to get back to their roots, proving that the rocking jams from New Years Eve were no fluke. Both jams continued that very 1995 feel, with the noticeable lack of the jamming styles that came after that year. The ‘It’s Ice’ that followed continued the trend, despite being shorter than normal. However the rest of the set was very mixed, and the set as a whole suffered from a lack of energy, with the exception of a mistakenly-played second ‘Character Zero’. The second set, on the other hand, featured some truly inspired jamming in the ’46 Days’ opener, which exhibited the band’s first foray in the 1998 style of jamming, with a long, watery, meandering jam which led into ‘Simple’, the most butchered song of the four shows. While mistakes and flubs (a.k.a: rust) were present throughout the four shows, it was notable in ‘Simple’ as the band skipped an entire verse, which sunk the song, working in conjunction with a sub-par jam. Yet another ‘Rift’ song, ‘My Friend, My Friend’, followed, thrilling the crowd looking for the continued presence of the older material. But surprisingly, it was the ‘Mexican Cousin’ encore that was the unexpected hit of the four nights, with the entire crowd singing the infectious lyric, ‘I wanna, wanna kiss your Oooooooh’. It may seem cheesy, and it is to an extent, but I couldn’t help myself and sung that lyric all the way back to my hotel. On the second night, the lack of energy that seemed to plague the first night was gone, as the band returned to the stage to play a show that simply blew the walls off ‘The Mothership’. Without question the strongest and most even of the three nights, the first set was light years ahead of anything that could’ve been expected from a band that hasn’t played publicly in two and a half years. The peak ‘Big Bang’ show, 1/3 was a rager from start to finish. The ‘Tweezer’ opener set the stage, and while faltering at points, served its purpose by warming the band up for the ‘Theme From the Bottom’ which was played furiously by the band. The energy emanating from the band was indescribable, as they ripped through a song that had become as stale as any in 2000. And once again, it’s here that the validity of the hiatus is again realized. The ensuing three songs, ‘Foam’, ‘Pebbles and Marbles’ and ‘You Enjoy Myself’ completed one of the best, and most powerful, sets of Phish in recent memory. The jam in ‘Pebbles’ was just short of raging, featuring some incredible layering by Page underneath Mike’s grooving bass. The jam settled down into a distinct ‘Down With Disease’ jam, headed by both Mike and Trey, before returning to the lyric completing a very successful debut of the song. And finally, the ‘YEM’ that completed the set was magical. The song had to be restarted because the band wasn’t on the same page, but once they got going, it was as if they’d played it yesterday. The jam was huge, Mike thumping away with his envelope filter in full force, and the ensuing vocal jam was as good as ever, as Chris Kuroda played games with his new lights. The band walked off stage to an ovation as loud as Hampton, and its 13,800 occupants have ever produced. And the second set had yet to be played. As the band emerged for the second set, there was a definite feeling around the venue that, potentially, something special was happening. I repeatedly thought to myself that one of the main differences between 1995 and 2000 was in this particular instance, the Phish of 2000 frequently didn’t, or couldn’t, capitalize on great moments, with other great moments. With a song catalog that far exceeded 1995’s, the band sometimes seemed to be overwhelmed by the pressure of playing without a setlist. For these four shows, Trey was clearly and repeatedly checking songs on a sheet of paper, and it resulted in a strong second set to compliment the first. The ‘Birds of a Feather’ to open the set was an intense version, and could have been played in response to the rubber chicken (yes, rubber chicken. It would make another appearance on the following night as well) that some fans by the stage entrance lowered to Mike using caution tape. However the clear cut highlight of the set, show and tour was the ‘Wolfman’s Brother’. ‘Wolfman’s’, never a quintessential 1995 song, really came into its own during 1997, as evidenced on ‘Slip, Stich and Pass’. However, the Hampton ’03 ‘Wolfmans’ should go down as one of the best versions they’ve ever done. The jam started off in standard fashion, but eventually was brought down by both Mike and Fishman, allowing Trey and Page to layer on top of them. The band, as a foursome, just continuously built layer on top of layer as they brought the jam to a peak and just exploded in a frenzy of musical cacophony that almost blew the roof off of Hampton Coliseum. The peak ‘Big Bang’ moment of the four shows, this jam is not to be missed, and is a must hear. The ‘Makisupa’ that followed was equally incredible in a quieter, mellower way, with a very apropos comment from Trey: ‘Woke up this morning…..at 3:00 in the afternoon…....phatty!!’ However, it was the ‘Possum’ set closer that really sealed the deal on the set, and show, as it featured an ending jam eerily familiar in style ‘David Bowie’, in the way it gets dark and minor, before exploding in a raucous outburst of musical energy, yet another ‘Big Bang’. Perhaps afraid of ‘dropping the ball’, the way some people accused them of on NYE, the band came out and played the unquestionable best ‘Contact’ in history, with Trey conducting the band in Trey Anastasio Band style, giving both Page and Mike solos, while the other three members played repetitive chords underneath. To complete the song, Trey grabbed Mike’s bass while Page faked playing Trey’s guitar with his teeth, all the while with Mike smashing two cymbals together. It was a quintessential moment in many fan’s Phishtory as it was clear the band was having loads of fun on stage, something that cannot be said of most shows in the last years (see: the end of 9/18/2000). Each member was having the time of their lives, especially Trey, who was acting like a little kid with a new toy. It is here, that once again, the validity of the hiatus is realized. ‘Tweprise’ followed and sealed the deal, making this one of the better Phish shows in recent memory. The crowd’s reaction at the end of the song was nothing short of unrestrained jubilation, as everyone in attendance was reminded of exactly what Phish, when they want to be, are capable of. The third show as a whole was very up and down in terms of song selection, with tremendous highs, almost on par with the previous nights, intertwined with some not-quite-as-highs. Quick run throughs of both ‘Llama’, another older song, and ‘Boogie On’ got things started before ‘Maze’ took off. One of the better versions, the song featured ripping leads from both Page and Trey, with the former hammering away on the keys, and the latter giving a clinic on how to use the Wah-Wah pedal. The rest of the set was decent, with rust shining through in both ‘Bouncin’ and ‘Split Open’. In the second set, ‘Rock and Roll’ got things started and it was clear that the band, specifically Trey and Mike were pumped up for the second, and final, set as they yelled the ending ‘ALLRIGHT!!’ repeatedly with unbridled passion. However, after playing ‘Mike’s Song’, the band committed an old mistake. In an attempt to break away from the age-old progression of ‘Mikes—>Hydrogen—>Weekapaugh’, the band routinely inserts different songs in the middle, which stems from the fact that until 3/30/93, the band played played ‘Hydrogen’ after ‘Mike’s’ 99% of the time. However too often, they counter the quintessential dark and evil Phish jam in ‘Mike’s’, with a slower song that brings everyone down. Often, it’s ‘Albuquerque’, but today it was ‘Mountains in the Mist’. And despite the lyrics of the song clearly being aimed at the audience, it definitely brought down the energy. However, the ‘Weekapaugh’, sans Mike bass solo, picked things up again, before settling into the fantastic combination of ‘What’s the Use?—>Down With Disease’. However, it was the ‘Fast Enough For You’, yet another song from ‘Rift’, that highlighted the set, as Trey’s fantastic lead/rhythm style of playing was never better on this somewhat rare song. The band closed their four show holiday run with ‘Friday’, which may or may not have been a nod to the upcoming Winter Tour, which begins on a Friday. Over the course of the four shows, the band as a whole displayed an enjoyment fans have not seen in years. Many people have made similar comments during the hiatus, specifically after attending Trey Band shows, where Trey was hopping around the stage and enjoying himself in a way many younger fans had never seen. However, this time, the comments were made after Phish shows. The four Holiday shows provided fans with what might be a rare glimpse into Phish history. Gone, at least temporarily, were the groove-oriented jams like ‘Sand’ and ‘Gotta Jiboo’. As well, there was virtually no ambiance during the run, a style that sunk many a jam in the latter years. And as well, with sporadic exceptions, 1997’s funk was gone, and all Bluegrass was non-existent. What was left over, was the rock-n-roll style of jamming that was in overabundance during the band’s ‘Rift’ period, the album which seemed to be the centerpiece of this tour. As well, one could not help but notice that absent was the feeling of formality that surrounded shows and the passiveness that hindered the band in its last years. In its place was a new sense of desire, as the band once again played as if they had something to prove. What’s amazing is that Phish took two and a half years off to explore the various musical styles that interested each member, in hopes of adding to each’s sound, to bring Phish as a whole to new musical peaks. Ironically, the end result was Phish’s sound regressing, rather than progressing, which clearly enthused the both the band and fans alike. Trey’s comments during the ‘2001’ set closer underscored this matter as he mentioned to the crowd how happy the band was that, essentially, we’re their fans, and they love us as much as we love them. Its always nice to hear this coming from our heroes, as it would be so easy for them to take their fans for granted. But they don’t. And we no longer take them for granted. Which is why its easy, for me at least, to overlook the sloppiness and rust that plagued the shows at points. ‘Yeah it was sloppy. So what?’, said many fans I spoke with. As much as people would like to think that they’re ‘pissing in our ears, and we’re happily lapping it up’, I cant help but feel like, once again, I’m in on the most private joke in the world. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.....TOM HANKS!!!!!