The First Show Ever / In The Spaceship (aka Four Nights With Phish)
The First Show Ever
‘Are you gonna pull a rabbit out of that hat? Heh? Heh? Gonna pull a rabbit out of that?’ the portly Madison Square Garden security guard asked me curtly, in his overtime-fueled New York accent.
‘If this night is not worthy of a top hat, than none is,’ I rejoined swiftly, barely noticing the confused glaze in the man’s eyes as I passed back onto the floor of the venue, tuxedo and all.
Yes, it was a top hat kind of night, and I didn’t loosen my black bow tie until mid-third set.
We were all wearing top hats of one kind of another for the grand return of Phish—it was a time for designer tour. Even the wookies were affluent enough to forgo spare changing this time; instead, their fundraisers consisted of selling bunk acid in the Hampton lots.
How else to do this thing, if not top shelf? For not the first time—-by my count, at least the third—a Phish concert was clearly the Most Important Rock Event in North America. (See: Clifford Ball, Big Cypress) Thus, the New Year’s show and its ensuing Run required a bottle from a shelf somewhere above the Black Label, locked in some special cabinet requiring a silver key…call it Hampton Label.
Terminology aside, we cracked a bottle in time for the ‘Piper’, and it lasted until the hiatus — an awkward time of indecision for one of the world’s best rock bands— was finally, irrevocably shelved.
Blue Ribbon Roll
Months after settling such matters as tickets, airfare, and hotel rooms— plus cars, trucks, and busses of hyperbole— someone pointed to his watch and noted that it was 12:01 A.M., December 31.
I gulped from my box of sake and felt a noticeable shift as we entered the final twenty-four hour period of the year; amazingly, it was only about sixteen hours before the first Phish performance since the ‘last show ever’ in Shoreline.
In order to honor that unique night in Mountain View, which very well could have turned out to be the last Phish performance ever (seeing as bands often break up because it just happens, not out of some grand plan), I took to calling the upcoming performance the First Show Ever.
A visit to Blue Ribbon Sushi in Manhattan served as a fitting transition to New Year’s Eve Day. They were out of the lobster sashimi, so we settled for a ‘very special platter’ and the signature roll of the house, featuring ample chunks of lobster and a dollop of caviar.
Kind veggie burritos? Save’em for February tour and the Brendan Byrne Arena— it’s time to toast the new year with fine things, and anticipation of the unknown.
Top hats recommended.
‘Some say the world will end in fire, others hold with ice…’
So the band took the stage, smiling broadly, and casually glided up into ‘Piper’. Though I recall no one predicting this as the long-anticipated opener, the choice seemed perfect: a Phish original, starting quietly and building in intensity, with room for a bit of controlled chaos.
Check out the audience tapes for full evidence of the goosebump-raising roar that accompanied the first few minutes of Phish Version 2. The return version was wonderful; it was not strictly the standard build of intensity, but instead featured textural interplay, and at one point, a brief but soaring theme.
After the sky-writing of ‘Piper’, it quickly became clear that the New Year’s Eve show was not going to be a brain-massaging jam exploration, or a pencil-scratching breakout fest. Instead, it was, well, a pretty regular Phish show. The sets were stacked with originals: mainly high energy, low caliber first set favorites (see: Guyute, NICU, Taste, Wilson, etc).
Page made his first serious entrance during the outro to ‘The Squirming Coil’, wherein it became quickly clear that he had come to play again, finally…though Trey quickly strode over to stage right and stared at the Chairman, waiting for him to abort his solo in favor of the first potentially tear-jerking song choice: ‘David Bowie’.
This version was short of revelatory, but about twenty thousand people had the simultaneous feeling of intense privilege, for standing in Madison Square Garden watching Phish play this song on New Year’s Eve. Bill Walton at least, grooving near the stage, seemed to enjoy.
During the first setbreak, a theory quickly circulated that the band would play Round Room in its entirety during the second set. Though I like the album quite a bit, I found this prediction to be unnecessarily pessimistic. In the weeks before the Run, I sent a memo to the band’s management, entitled ‘Regarding the use of new material on New Year’s Eve’. Among my notes was a recommendation to use ‘Walls of the Cave’ as a set closer, feature ‘Seven Below’ prominently, and that the band ‘shouldn’t hesitate to open a set with Waves’‘.
As it turned about, Phish employed their new material to maximum effect—and with much class— on New Year’s. ‘Waves’, the masterpiece of Round Room, opened the second set and hopped into one of the legendary old showpieces of the oeuvre, ‘Divided Sky’. What cynical Round Room basher could complain at this pairing?
Otherwise, the second set was largely uneventful, except for another emotional twinge at the opening drum roll of ‘Harry Hood’.
Though more understated than a flying hot dog or a giant Udder Ball, the New Year’s spectacle was unique in that it was geared around a specific song. A new song, in fact: ’7 Below’, the most obvious new candidate to become a serious improvisational monster since the debut of ‘Ghost’.
As the tune received the most auspicious debut of a Phish song since the ‘Down With Disease’ jam ushered in 1994, a foamy, faux-snow storm fell upon the crowd and electric ice queens positioned throughout the venue (white clad dancers strung with neon) made for a personification of the Frostian dichotomy between fire and ice—also underscored by the shine of pyrotechnics through the ‘snow’ at midnight.
‘Walls of the Cave’ closed the set with a few minutes of some of the only high-tech electronic jamming of the run. This, ‘Thunderhead’, and ’46 Days’ are the only Round Room songs that clearly came off better live than in their original recorded form.
The encore, ‘Wading in the Velvet Sea’, began a trend of head-scratchingly anticlimactic encores. With the exception of the ‘Contact’/‘Tweezer Reprise’ pairing on 1/3 (which looks staid on paper, but features a wholly atypical ‘Contact’ jam), each show was capped by a disappointing single song encore. Some onlookers jabbed that Phish was finally becoming like the Grateful Dead…in terms of terrible encores.
Ending the First Show Ever with ‘Wading’ was just one of a series of tone deaf decisions by the band in terms of song choice. What an odd, off note…to be struck again throughout the run, most notoriously in the January 4 second set, when a raging ‘Mike’s Song’ dropped into the pretty but inappropriate ‘Mist’, and an energy-sapping ‘Fast Enough for You’ somehow got sandwiched between ‘Down with Disease’ and ‘2001’. At times the band seemed to have forfeited any grasp of crowd mood; at other, more fortunate moments it felt like all the kids under the carpet were back in the bath again, loving it.
Though a fully satisfying event, the New Year’s show featured the least improvisation in a three set show since 12/31/96. Not coincidentally, the setlist seemed as written in stone as the one that night at the Fleet Center, a show that Trey described as ‘intensely planned’ in The Phish Book.
However, the third set is a joy, and the show was composed almost entirely of Phish originals— slanted heavily towards older material. Indeed, in terms of the pure sound of the band, this could have just as easily been New Year’s ’93.
With their almost plebian song selection and early 90’s jam agenda (no flashy fare like a ‘Sneakin’ Sally Reprise’ or a ‘Harpua’, no hiply housey electronic grooves), the band seemed to be daring us to like them as they are, without artifice. Indeed, if you can’t enjoy Phish playing ‘Horn’, ‘Rift’, and ‘Wilson’—or if you require fun but artistically stagnant heaps of cow funk— then perhaps you should huddle with your Summer 98 tapes and forgo the new era. Meet the new Phish: pretty similar, actually, to the old Phish. In the Spaceship
One of the most disappointing features of pre-hiatus Phish was the apparent artistic resignation of Page McConnell from the band. Trey’s move across stage seemed to visually confirm what we had already been hearing in the music by ’98: the keyboard player’s importance in the group dynamic was rapidly diminishing, suggesting that it was no longer necessary for the other melodic voice to stay in close visual contact.
Happily, one of the stories of the New Year’s Run is Page’s re-emergence. His marital heartbreak apparently led to a preponderance of ballads (even ‘Strange Design’ was touching, though, under the circumstance), but more importantly, the man looks—and sounds— totally re-energized.
Although the obvious giddiness of the band at playing together was obvious, particularly in Hampton, the interplay between Trey and Page in particular was notable. Trey repeatedly called Page out in one way or another, through a glance, a gesture, or (during the Possum on 1/3) literally handing him his guitar. Notice also Trey’s brief crack-up during ‘My Friend’ (on the ‘he’s got a wife’ line).
The Chairman responded. His work is particularly exciting on ‘Walls of the Cave’ (12/31/02) and ‘Wolfman’s Brother’ (1/3/02), but he made a strong statement each night. The setlist also provided him a couple special showcases, such as the ‘Wading’ encore at MSG and the ‘Rock and Roll’ second set opener on the final night, during which he clearly relished his Reedian vocal duties.
Page’s re-subscription is perhaps the most exciting feature of the first four shows back. We will monitor his progress closely…
‘...the coal ran out’
The first night of Hampton was disingenuous. For one stretch, the 1/2/03 show revisited the ineffable magic of the fabled ’97 Hampton shows, or any other period when it felt like the paradigm has shifted and a new groundwork for the live Phish experience had emerged. However, this visit to the Holy Land of IT lasted only one night, and the second half of the Run failed to recapture any such feeling of limitless potential.
The band surged out of the gate in Hampton with a cathartic opening of ‘Chalkdust Torture’ (in unusually improvisational form) and ‘Bathtub Gin’, and it felt like a more relaxed New Year’s Eve show. With the anticipation and planning for the big return show finally over with, it seemed like the band was able to just go out there and have fun this time.
Almost the entire first set of 1/2/03 is engaging. There’s a well-played ‘It’s Ice’, a jammy ‘Get Back on the Train’ that surpasses the 6/14/00 and 6/30/00 versions, and ‘Stash’. Only ‘Horse’ and ‘Silent’ spoiled the first hour of the set, which finally petered out into ‘Water in the Sky’ and an apparently accidental ‘Character Zero’ repeat.
The highlight of the entire run came in the second set. They opened with the new song ’46 Days’, and used it as a showcase for the only fully exploratory jamming of the Holiday Tour. During this jam, an exciting sound emerged: part raging rock, and partly the spacey ‘trolls on mescaline’ sound that accompanied the more prominent cow funk from the 1997 era. The band goes through wave after wave of ideas, led on by Trey’s indefatigable soloing. The only complaint is that it ends rather than continuing forever, clicking into ‘Simple’ after 21 minutes.
It was wonderful to hear even a standard descending ‘Simple’ jam, before a transition to ‘My Friend, My Friend’. It’s possible that the crowd was more into this one song than any other during the Hampton shows; a jubilant crowd jumped up and down to the ‘My Friend’ climax, a la ‘Maze’.
Unfortunately, the next two nights were to see no real moments like the 1/2/03 second set. Although the band opened with ‘Tweezer’, and thereby signaled that they planned to take little break from the previous night’s show, the event never really goes anywhere. The first set is great on paper, including the live debut of ‘Pebbles and Marbles’, but there’s no single piece to sink one’s teeth into fully. The ‘Wolfman’s Brother’ in the second set was high energy and enjoyable, but in retrospect it’s easy to see that the ‘faster, louder’ rock jam was Phish’s default mode all weekend. Indeed, it’s hard to tell the ‘Tweezer’ jam apart from the ‘Wolfman’s’, or the ‘Gin’.
There was little other meat offered in the second set, which makes many attendees’ initial impression—that the 1/3/02 show was the best of the Run— thoroughly puzzling. There was good showmanship, though, with the bizarre instrument switch (in which Trey adopted Mike’s bass, in addition to handing Page a new axe, and Mike clanged the marching band symbols once reserved for ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’) and the Page showcase in ‘Contact’. Plus, Trey jokingly introduced Al Gore during the intro of this song, referring to the recent Saturday Night Live appearance in which the band played a piece of ‘Contact’ in a skit.
By the end of the final set, it seemed clear that risk-taking improvisation was not on the band’s agenda for these shows. In fact, the band perversely avoids it throughout a set that looks amazing on paper. The second set of 1/4/02 was a bizarre thing to experience. The surging momentum of the ‘Rock and Roll’, ‘Mike’s Song’ opening sequence was rudely derailed by ‘Mist’; my only guess is that Trey thought it would be worthwhile for the line ‘I’m on the road again’, which was dully applauded. (File that under: ‘Water in the Sky, Big Cypress opener’.)
Although this ‘Mist’ is particularly well-played, you can almost feel the crowd groan on the tapes; my highlight in person was the amusing sight of about fifteen or twenty friends simultaneously appearing in the bathroom.
Then an awkward beginning to ‘Weekapaug Groove’ and an awkward first chorus, followed by some unexpected improvisation. The song really begins to take off, and clearly seems headed for some exploratory jamming, before Fishman begins a dogged attempt to bring the song around to its closing chorus. The turf war between Trey and Fishman is quite obvious, before Trey finally consents to conclude the song, but by leaking into ‘What’s the Use?’ rather than playing the end section that Fishman tried several times to instigate.
The celebratory energy accompanying the opening of ‘Down With Disease’ was inspiring, but the song featured only a perfunctory jam, capped by a briefly breathtaking mind-meld acceleration sequence, before wrapping up at around nine minutes. Nevertheless, the good cheer at hearing the band Phish play the final chorus of this song was undeterred. Then, the air escaped from the balloon once more at the opening to ‘Fast Enough For You’.
The herky jerky momentum swung up again for ‘2001’. While it briefly seemed possible that we were about to discover the true reason that Hampton Coliseum is called ‘The Spaceship’, the song was short-circuited after just one chorus, although the set was barely over an hour long. Finally, the absolutely bizarre choice of ‘Friday’ as the final encore was almost appropriate by that point.
One of the great pleasures of the Hampton experience was seeing three shows with such a great crowd. It was possibly the best crowd I can specifically remember seeing a show with, at least discounting festivals. The lack of security inside the venue, and the decidedly mellow atmosphere that ensued (right down to the surprising ease in getting through the aisles during the music), indicated that things run smoothly when the audience is treated like a group of human beings, and not branded with stubs and herded through the venue as if it has caused some offense.
The energy inside the room those three nights would be hard to surpass, especially during obvious moments like the beginning of ‘Gin’ or the time warp of ‘Run Like An Antelope’. It seemed that folks were acutely grateful to be inside the room at all, and only too happy to add everyone else’s general comfort and ease.
(These observations do not apply, by the way, to any situation in which 750 copies of a Pollack show poster are on sale. Additional poster note: one concession stand at Madison Square Garden was selling empty poster tubes before the mistake was noted, and the attendees finally announced that no posters would be sold from that location.)
For many, the New Year’s Run experience was as much about meeting up with old friends as anything else. It was a jubilant reunion, and the chance to meet up with folks from around the country was well appreciated. (When I told one friend, whom I originally met at Hampton in 1997, that the band’s use of new material on New Year’s Eve was accomplished as if I had sent them a memo on how to do it, he noted that the story would be better if I said that I actually had sent such a memo.)
In the end, most of us left the shows without dropping any notes in the complaint box. It was exhilarating just to have the band back, and I for one issued an artistic free pass to each cringe-inducing flub, or the band’s current inability to segue between songs. Though the band rehearsed throughout December, the members apparently didn’t think it was necessary to practice the old catalog. Indeed, if you can’t remember the words to ‘Simple’, you surely must not have played it for about two years.
The Hampton thing has almost become a fetish for some people at this point. For instance, I think the experience really is incomplete if you don’t stay at the very epicenter of things, the cluster of hotels now known as ‘the strip’. The Red Roof Inn sign becomes a beacon after the show, leading you safely out of the parking lot, and the five minute walk to your hotel can result in more ‘hospitality’ than anything offered by a picture of Horshack.
This time in town, we coined a new greeting, along the lines of ‘top o’ the morning’: ‘Good Hampton to ya’‘. It’s got a nice ring.
Jeremy D. Goodwin (firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a journalist north of Boston, covering politics, exciting zoning battles, and trash fees. He co-edited several chapters of The Phish Companion: A Guide to the Band and Its Music, and serves on the Board of Directors of The Mockingbird Foundation (www.mockingbirdfoundation.org). He is currently working on his first novel, Sunburn and Frostbite: An Adventure Tale About Chasing the Elephant. His essay on this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival appeared in the 7/24/02 edition of jambands.com.