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Published: 2003/01/02
by Jesse Jarnow

Phish, Madison Square Garden, NYC- 12/31

NYC ROLL-TOP: Big Is Beautiful
The roar that overwhelmed Madison Square Garden when Phish took the stage
was predictably deafening — so much so that it was hard to immediately tell
what they were playing ("Piper"). A fountain of glowsticks erupted from one
side of the arena, but they fell to unwilling hands. Nobody had the energy
for a full-on battle, at least that early in the show. Seeing the four men
playing music was enough of a welcoming and surprising sight.
So, as it turns out, Phish wasn’t that good to begin with, anyway. I mean,
they were, but not for the reasons I thought they were. I thought
they were good because they wrote amazingly complex music filled with
delightful (even whimsical) themes that were devastatingly intelligent. As I
discovered, it wasn’t the tunes themselves, but how the tunes
existed. It wasn’t the greatness of a specific fugue that Trey Anastasio
composed – after all, what the fuck do I know about fugues? – but the
greatness of the fact that it was a fugue at all — which, at first, might
seem like an accusation (or admission) of shallowness, but it’s really not.
Phish is great because they have personality. They’re almost all eyebrows,
to borrow from Frank Zappa’s terminology. If one looks at a photograph of
The Beatles – any photograph of The Beatles – the individual
personalities of all four band members (at least as far as their accepted
roles as members of The Beatles goes) shine through. The same might be said
for Phish’s music. Trey Anastasio is not a great guitarist because he’s
technically brilliant (though he is, sometimes) but because of the way he
fits in with Phish: a natural leader. He’s quite good at that role.
But it’s not just the personalities of the band members, it’s the
personality of the music, and everything that surrounds it. Nearly every
single song they played came with a history, which most of the audience was
probably familiar with, to some degree. Phish created a mythology, not just
in terms of Colonel Forbin and the story of Gamehendge, but in terms of
their body of work. Things like the pauses in "Divided Sky" and "Rift" are
like physical landmarks in the terrain — sights to see, essentially. Every
song has them. That became apparent on New Year’s Eve. What also became
apparent is just how good Phish are at playing these moments. And it wasn’t
just the songs that had those things built in. It was watching the
glowsticks finally fly during "Harry Hood", observing that they were
predominantly of the thin, bendable variety, as opposed to the hard rods,
and remembering the band’s requests for the softer type.
The moments became obvious because of their absence over the past two years
— the moments, that is, not necessarily the band. When the band reached the
vocal section of "Divided Sky" in the second set, the crowd joined in, and
it sounded like a ragged (though heavenly and overwhelming) church choir.
When they reached the pause, Anastasio extended it for a longer period than
normal, waiting for the crowd to inevitably get louder and louder and
louder. They did. Later in the set, the band played "Rift" — perhaps the
only song of the night that came close to train-wrecking. When they got to
the song’s pause – which comes after the line "and silence contagious at
moments like these" – the band didn’t wait around to milk it. They’d fucked
up the song, and it was time to quickly continue.
It’s a clichbut it was a total experience, available to those willing to
surrender to it. Whether or not one regards these moments of mythology as
self-perpetuating hooey or an honestly developed tribe is a bit irrelevant.
The fact is that thousands of fans invest meaning in them, and sheer force
of mass is enough to assure its existence and validity. Phish became a myth
because myths are things that are just barely believable, holding a
connection to a way of life that’s just out of reach.
All of this is small beans, though. What Phish was able to do at the Garden
was to really play a big room. Perhaps they were capable of doing
that before, but the mechanics of how they (and the audience) actually
pulled off became apparent in their absence. There is something beautiful,
for example, about fans writing messages – song requests, usually – on
balloons and bearing them aloft on the arena breeze in the hopes that
they’ll find their way to the stage, to the deities who perform on it, like
messages in bottles.
And, hey, Phish played a great show. It was wonderful. It really was. Sure,
maybe there wasn’t enough improvisation in some places, and they sounded a
bit tentative on one or two numbers, but it was still great. The first thing
that was amazing was what occurred at midnight. The second thing that was
amazing was the transformation of the three songs they played from their
still new Round Room.
To deal with the latter first: Phish recently put out a half-finished record
called Round Room. Several of the songs – "Pebbles and Marbles",
"Waves", "Walls of the Cave" – have long, rambling structures. Verses and
choruses and bridges intermingle in a uniquely Phish-like way — which is to
say, loveable mostly to people who have the time to love it. The band
debuted the latter two of these songs at the Garden. Each was already light
years better than what the band issued on the record.
Phish’s songwriting is generally lumped into two periods: the early
material, filled with tacked together and schizophrenic compositions (such
as "Reba" and "Fluffhead"); and the later, more song-driven pieces (such as
"Dirt" and "Sleep"). There are, of course, varying shades between the two
(the groove-oriented tunes, the middle period of well composed pop).
Nonetheless, that’s the primary opposition: composition versus conciseness.
The composed songs embraced comic complexity, albeit in an immature way. The
concise songs attempted to access fragmentary beauty and emotion. The best
of the new songs combine these approaches — letting the band tag together a
bunch of individual moments that build to something grander. It’s a new kind
of raw material. It’s not a reinvention, exactly, but it is a
The real triumph of the show, however, occurred at midnight. About 10
minutes before the hour, with the scoreboard clock counting down, the band
started into "Seven Below", perhaps the best song on Round Room. The
song itself shimmered, much as the album version does. A troupe of dancers,
clad in abstract white costumes, slinked across the stage and out into the
audience. As they did, confetti snow began to fall on the areas of the arena
floor that they had already passed. A disco ball lowered from the
scoreboard. The dancers climbed onto stilts. With a minute left, the dancers
threw on high-beam flashlights (ala the Flaming Lips’ plushy friends), which
reflected off the disco ball and shot spots of light around the arena.
At midnight, all hell broke loose. Electricity shot up and down wires strung
between the stage and the scoreboard. A waterfall of sparks showered behind
the band. Hundreds of gigantic white balloons dropped on the audience, along
with another burst of confetti. Industrial fans high in the rafters were
turned on and the inside of Madison Square Garden was transformed from a
mild snowstorm into a beautiful, raging white blizzard. It was truly and
completely a stunning site, worthy of a jamband or a bunch art rockers. It
was transformational, transportational, and cool. Yes, big is
Jesse Jarnow thought it better not
to fight.

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