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Published: 2003/01/01
by Dan Alford

Phish, Madison Square Garden, NYC- 12/31

As the crowds streamed into the Garden, Paul milled around the soundboard
area, treating everyone to a selection of songs including It Feels Like the
First Time, Reunited, the theme to Welcome Back Kotter, Back in the Saddle
Again, The Boys Are Back in Town, and finally Foreplay > Long Time. Fans
seemed only half-aware of the soundman’s humor until the Boston number
started, after which they pumped their fists and sang along. The room was
filled with mixture of anxiety and anticipation, a palpable buzz of
excitement. The lucky thousands came from a wide array of backgrounds- old
heads, college kids and quite a few younger fans that were there for their
first show. Conversations, greetings, uproarious cheers, giggles and screams
all seemed to swirl around; it was just what everyone imagined- a dazed

As soon as Long Time ended the lights dropped and the quartet strode on to the
stage like it was nothing new, but the moment was overwhelming. The space in
the venue was smaller for the all the bodies perched on tip-toes, for all the
arms reaching out, for all the voices raised in a mighty din. Somewhere
beneath it all, Phish opened with Piper. Eventually the crowd and band both
settled just a notch, hitting a groove. Throughout the entire show Mike
sounded fantastic. He was very clear and clean in the mix and took on a new,
more dominant role, directing songs and jams in a tangible way. Here, as Trey
fell into a an aggressive rhythm structure and Page lay on the organ with
explosive results, Mike and Fish maintained the song’s high velocity right up
to the closing choruses.

Most of the first set, and most of the show, was comprised of individual
songs, each one the best version in years. It was a wonderful way to return-
simply getting back to the music, finding grooves along the way, pulling out a
few vintage nuggets here and there. In general, the band was very tight, in
places incredibly tight, although there was a short vocal misstep in Wilson,
and a few moments when energy overwhelmed subtlety. At times the lyrics were
profound, as at the end of a very fine Guyute. "I’m bouncing like a newborn
elf, / who can’t remain inside myself," spoke to everyone, not least of all
those on stage. Again, elation.

A splice transition dropped into NICU, Mike popping and rolling again, Page
getting a big "Play it Leo!" before his short organ solo. An absolutely
enormous, breathtaking Horn followed, and then the screens on the scoreboard
flared on with a scene from Castaway. Voices in the crowd chittered with
"Wilson!" as Hanks tossed his volleyball companion into the surf, calling
after it, "Wilson!" The band began to playand the arena shook as the crowd
called out too. Fishman was playing expertly here, with big rolls and high
powered fills. As the dissonance built towards the end, Trey announced Tom
Hanks, who ran on stage, bowed, and belted out, "Blat, Boom,
Badiddley-boom-diidley-boom!" The room exploded once again. How much more
could the superstructure take?

The biggest surprise of the first set had to be Mound, a fantastically quirky
tune and personal favorite, not played since 1996. There were mellow organ
swells through the verses and a big bass solo, with Page accompanying on piano
to start the center instrumental section. The tune was reworked, but in a
subtle way, like the various changes in Dirt or Farmhouse, when solos changed
to delicate interactions. Mound became distorted and weirdly angled, and Page
closed out on piano, not organ.

To close the first set the band played a gorgeous Squirming Coil, with an
inspirational instrumental interlude. Page’s solo began with an equally
gorgeous jamlet, Trey playing crystalline notes, Mike also contributing with
perfectly placed accents. Coil led right into a very short intro to Bowie.
Through the song itself, the band was amazingly tight, taking every turn and
dip with grace and ease. The jam began with a series of small waves that
swelled and eased, but was eventually swept into an undertow, and Madison
Square Garden was taken for a ride.

As if in reference to the Bowie closer, the second set opened with Waves, one
of only three new tunes. The jam was full and rich, with layers of movement,
guitar flurries and excellent drumming. After the last lyric, the band fell
into a noodly space, a bizarre lunar landscape, a Phish place, but didn’t stay
for very long. Instead, Trey initiated Divided Sky. Again, the composed
section was very well done, heartfelt in its rendering. The mid-song pause,
the divide, was long- 1993 long. The crowd roared, and calmed, and roared
again, the band remaining motionless all the while. When the music began
again, Trey hit wobbly, off kilter peaks again and again, keeping perfection
out of reach. His tottering leads then brought the movement low and began a
dexterous climb upward. The music leapt from ledge to ledge, bounding off
precipices, slipping and sliding and scrambling back, grasping for each new
hold with Herculean effort.

Throughout the night, there were noticeable pauses between songs when Trey
often leaned over to talk with Fish, or Mike moved over to talk with Trey,
conspiracy happening on stage. After one such pause, Page strolled out for
Lawnboy, followed by a loud, thrashy Carini. There was desperation in Trey’s
voice as he screamed, "Carini had a lumpy head!" The music seemed for a
half-second like it would calm, but then burst with distorted guitar, dramatic
organ and driving drums. Eventually the movement ran its course but clung to
the stage, grasping onto the yellow lights. As the colors shifted to green, it
ripped away, plunging back into Carini and then into Rift, where Trey built
his solo slowly, increasing volume and ferocity with every bar.

The first drum roll of Harry Hood threatened to dismantle the venue yet again.
Somehow it seemed extra special, as though everyone was waiting for something
Hood. The intro fills were appropriately squirrelly and odd, and before long a
Glow Stick War had erupted. Kuroda joined in the fray with slowing spinning
multi-colored lights that fanned out across the crowd. The whole end jam was
very snappy, nothing deep or dark, and there was a long passage where Trey’s
sustain and Page’s piano cascades complimented each other perfectly. A
rollicking, boisterous Character Zero followed hard upon, just over flowing
with energy.

A spot on Sample opened set three, and at just about seven minutes below
midnight, the band eased into Seven Below. Snow began to sprinkle on the stage
as they sang, lit in an eerie white/yellow/blue wash. A host of winter deities
and polar denizens then made their way on stage, circling once and adding to
their numbers and diminutive king and queen. Snow was now pouring into the
entire venue and a huge disco ball hung from the scoreboard. The creatures
waded into the crowd, leaving the ruling pair to frame the stage as the band
soared through the song. In the crowd, now lit like an undulating ice field,
the snow beings mounted stilts and tall ladders wrapped in skirts
strategically placed about the floor, dancing and swaying as in a breeze. A
moment later they had lasers in hand, swirling and flashing about the room.
With rockets that raced from the lighting rig to the stage and a back spray of
fireworks, the New Year came to Madison Square Garden, balloons and more snow
lling the room. This was a truly magical moment. I’ve attended every Phish New
Year’s show beginning in 1991 and this was unequivocally the best New Year’s
moment. Sacred space was established, the roots of the season tapped, the
energy given the opportunity to manifest itself in its purest form. Bliss.

The band began Runaway Jim, but the stage was swamped with balloons, Trey took
off his guitar and spent minutes waving it about, trying to free himself and
Mike from the avalanche. Eventually Mike and Page established a groove, but
this was a visual, temporal experience and the music won’t hold up on tape. Be
that as it may, a solo Fishman landed in Time Loves a Hero, with nice piping
organ and rock star lines from Trey.

After another long pause, Fishman began Taste. Another fine rendition, Page’s
energetic piano deluge ended with Mike thundering low, at which point Trey
picked up the lead. He brought the music to a steep desert canyon, out of
which it rode with increasing speed. The movement became more dramatic as Trey
moved from nimble notes to long sustained ones. The end, however, lacked some
of the delicacy required, the band seemingly unsure of just when to stop. It
was fantastic nonetheless.

To close the show, as many predicted, was Walls of the Cave. The sections
flowed a bit better than they do on Round Room, though not much. Trey and Mike
both slid down the neck of their respective instruments leading into the
"Listen to the silent trees," section- a nice touch. As that passage drew to a
close the band went off on a hawkish tangent, but it shortly settled into a
wonderful, lengthy groove, Page turning out some excellent synth lines. The
band now began to punctuate the music, declaring the one over and over, before
drifting off into an ambient subspace, while Kuroda cast dozens of small
searchlights across the crowd. The deep, deep jam came to rest in a droning
buzz with Fishman brushing the surface, and finally awoke back to Walls of the

The single encore, which went right up to one o’clock, was a blissful Velvet
Sea, in which the crowd lingered, slowly digesting the experience, wrapping
itself in the warm musical glow. Bodies relaxed and smiles spread- Phish is

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