New Year’s Day is known more for restraint than indulgence, but I’d like to indulge in a little departure from the norm. Usually I tackle these recaps in a pretty linear fashion, as that’s the way shows tend to unfold for me, and I feel that descriptions of what the band played and how they played it are typically the best way to synthesize a performance.
But last night’s show was different. You felt it whether you were there or whether you were streaming it in your living room. I don’t believe most Phish shows spell something, or have a point to make apart from communion (which is point enough). I don’t listen between the notes for life guidance, nor do I imagine that the band wants me to. But last night was that rare bird: a statement show.
In part, as others have noted, it was the culmination of a cheeky, 4-night rejoinder to those fans who held their breath until they turned blue, browned their pants, and went floppy in the cereal aisle when Phish decided to debut new originals on Halloween instead of donning a musical costume as per tradition. The wisdom of answering a tantrum instead of ignoring it can be questioned, and I would question it here were the statement not something grander.
The grander statement was not one of defiance, but one of surrender. To mark the end of its triumphant 30th year, the band elected not to punch the warp drive on Spaceship Phish, but to power it down, step off, and feed itself whole to its fans. They set up a tiny stage dead smack in the middle of the room with nothing to hide behind - no road cases, no cabinets, no stacks, no racks, no pedals - and stripped themselves naked but for the gnarly armor of their songs.
Very few arena bands would ever intentionally put themselves in such a vulnerable condition, but then again very few arena bands have even a pitiful fraction of Phish’s repertoire. Their business model, their showmanship, their musicianship, and their improvisational talents are all wonders to behold, but Phish’s crowning achievement is its canon. Period. And this Madison Square Garden stand put it all on display - nine sets and (let’s say) thirteen hours to trot out three decades of ambitious compositions that command a vast array of genres and styles while remaining unmistakably Phish.
It was their songs that endeared us to these performers. It is their songs that birthed this proud nation of nerds, wooks and weirdos. When we think of what we’re grateful for, at or near the top of the list is the fact that we are among those beings whose seratonin centers are activated by Phish songs. We know that many are not so lucky.
That’s why I don’t want to sit here and write a play by play. It just feels wrong. I don’t want to talk about vintage gear, I don’t want to talk about the flubs in “Fly Famous Mockingbird,” and I don’t want to talk about how “Fuego” got ripcorded. Mostly because I’d sound like an asshole, and my New Year’s resolution this year is to sound less like an asshole.
What I’d rather write is a mash note.
My wife and I brought our daughter to her first Phish show on the 29th. She is 12, and it was her first proper rock show, and we were both a little apprehensive that she would be overwhelmed, or bored. She has been listening to Phish since she was a wee blastocyst, and she loves it all, but you never really know what can happen when you introduce someone to this experience - the energy, the chaos, the yin of it all. What if it was just too much? What if it didn’t click?
It clicked. Hard. The kid danced her face off from the first measure of “Moma Dance.” Later, when Mike vibrated the room with that monstrous bass note during “Down With Disease,” she grabbed my shoulder and spun me around to face her. Her eyes were as wide as saucers behind her glasses, and I could see through them into her epiphany. It was the same epiphany I’d had 25 years earlier in Hampton Coliseum at my first Grateful Dead show, during Jerry’s final plaintive verse of “I Know You, Rider.” That moment changed my life forever, and in so many important ways; I quite literally would not be who I am today, or have the family that I have today, were it not for that moment. It was the night before my 20th birthday, but in a way, it was the night of my birth. To witness a similar awakening in the person I love most was a gift beyond price. I’m spilling tears down my shirt just writing about it.
And so, since we know now that the band is listening to the internets, I’d like to say just two things for their benefit.
First, we’re gonna need that second jam in “Mike’s” back. No, really.
Secondly, and more importantly: thank you. Thank you for working so hard to become so consistently and inspiringly great at what you do. Thank you for writing songs that speak so eloquently to the somewhat maladjusted, and that invite us to get so blissfully lost. Thank you for picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again. Thank you for this most extraordinary year, and for the 29 that came before it. Thank you for being the Phish in the world. Thank you for all of it.
A glad, safe, healthy, and prosperous 2014 to all!