What's New Year's Eve Without Phish?

Anastasio is one of the great improvisational guitarists of our time. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

It was seven years ago when I first saw Phish. Wanting to avoid

the annual disappointment of New Year's parties, I ventured out to Boston's

World Trade Center to check out a band I had never heard (or heard of) before,

a band touted as one that attracted a "rabid, cult-like following." The quartet

was in the midst of one of the trademark primarily instrumental compositions as

1990 approached. With ten seconds till blast-off, the band, stopping on a dime,

counted down in unison while rocking back and forth until the burst into an

explosive rendition of "Auld Lang Syne."

A couple of years later at the

Somerville Theater, when I was well into my Phish infatuation, and they were

well on their way to their current status as one of the most popular live bands

in the U. S., a friend and I stood entranced in the middle of "Divided Sky,"

another song consisting of a series of instrumental movements, when guitarist

Trey Anastasio, in what is normally a split-second pause, held the band silent

for several minutes until he launched into the soaring conclusion to the song.

My friend and I speculated on possible band tensions, inter-personnel dynamics,

and mainly how the phenomena called Phish would never work on a

large-scale.

On New Year's eve, Phish proved both that I was right in

thinking they were heading to previously unscaled heights and wrong in thinking

they couldn't pull off their particular form of musical magic when they

performed in the conference hall at the World Trade Center of Boston's Fleet

Center (they've moved their annual New Year show from the Boston Garden), and

while I've outgrown my infatuation, Phish is still attracting a rabid

following, and, on top of everything else, knows how to throw one hell of a

party.

Coming on stage at 11:50 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1996 to start

their...



Coming on stage at 11:50 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1996 to start

their third set of the evening, Phish spent several minutes vamping on the

opening chord of Wagner's "Thus Spake Zarathustra," otherwise known as the

theme from Kubrick's 2001. With Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell

exploring the opening chords and running through the notes that comprise the

composition, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer John Fishman expertly built the

tension, making their progression seem as inevitable as the coming of the new

year. With McConnell jazzing things up on a Fender Rhodes, the band held off

playing the theme all the way through until 11:57.

Then, as the audience

was blinded by strobe lights, and, with less than thirty seconds left in 1996,

Phish sustained the concluding climax of 2001 until the New Year. At

which point tens of thousands of balloons (60,000, if truth were to be known)

and countless pieces of confetti fell from the Fleet Center's ceiling, and the

band launched into "Auld Lang Syne" once again, all but drowned out by the

raucous screaming of over 16,000 rabid fans.

Since that first concert seven

years ago, Phish has evolved from a club-packing word-of-mouth phenomena to one

of the best selling concert attraction in the country, a band that hosted the

largest North American concert in 1996 this past August in upstate New York at

an event christened The Clifford Ball (over 130,000 tickets sold). One thing

that most certainly hasn't changed is Phish's relentless pursuit of musical

exploration and dedication to having a good time.

Riding into "Down with

Disease" (from 1994's Hoist) straight from "Auld Lang Syne," Phish,

obstructed from view by the explosion of balloons being batted around, conveyed

once again (as they have thousands of times over the past decade) their

inspiring and infectious exuberance mixed with musical expertise. Moving with

breakneck speed, the band played as if they were partying rather than

performing, and henceforth lies their inherent appeal: unlike the popular

disdain shown for performing and fans alike by some bands, Phish lets it be

known that they are very much aware that being able to play (in both sense of

the word) and be paid for it is every boy's and girl's fantasy.

By the time

midnight rolled around, Phish had already played for over two hours.

Fasted-paced and poppier than usual, Phish, while not forsaking the 20 minute

rhythmic and melodic experiments that are their hallmark, showed their more

recent tendency to write catchy pop tunes. The first-set was a lesson in

itself: from Frank Zappa's chirpy instrumental "Peaches En Regalia," to "Punch

Him in the Eye" (a singsongy piece that incorporates Wilson, a major player in

the musical adventure "Gamehenge" that, in its entirety, comprised Anastasio's

college thesis in musical composition...but that's a whole other story), to the

delicate "Silent in the Morning" and the sashaying "Stash," Phish made sure the

audience was singing and dancing along, steaming through well-known passages

with a panache that made them both fresh and bubblingly followable.

And

finally, "Divided Sky": where in 1991, I interpreted Anastasio's deliberate

delay as a sign of tension within the band; last night, the tension that

accompanied the delay was on the part of the crowd, and in the form of

expectant delight, as frenetic cheers made it impossible for the band to

continue even if they had wanted to. This went on for over

three-minutes.

The second-set emphasized a series of Phish's

sing-alongs/rounds. "Wilson," "Sparkle," "Harry Hood," and the recently

released "Character Zero" and "Prince Caspian" (both from 1996's Billy

Breathes) were all highlights, featuring moments, and in cases whole

choruses, where the music depends as much on audience reaction as it does to

the band's playing. Anastasio has a trademark elated guitar sound, which at its

best sounds like pure joy mediated through his instrument, and he shone

throughout the set.

After the 2001/ "Auld Lang Syne" New Year's

medley, Phish set all engines on go for the remainder of the evening: whipping

through Hoist's "Down With Disease," the band launched into two

perennial favorites, the mocking teen anthem "Suzy Greenberg" and "Antelope,"

which, with its chorus of "You've got to run like an antelope / Out of

control," sounds at times like a motto for the band. By this time, the balloons

had settled, 1997 was in full effect, and Phish brought out the Boston

Community Choir, a gospel choir, to join them for the end of a tremendously fun

night. (The B.C.C. played a total of four shows on New Year's Eve, and I have a

hunch their stint with Phish will be one of the more memorable ones.)

With

the choir in place, Phish, demonstrating their penchant for strange and

wonderful covers, playing Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (with McConnell on lead

vocals) with all the abandon of Wayne and Co. in the Wayne's World

movie; and then closed the set with the gospel tinged "Julius." For an encore,

Phish highlighted the talents of the B.C.C., letting them sing "Amazing Grace,"

accompanied by the band.

The lights in the Fleet Center flickered on close

to one o'clock, and thousands of dazed, joyous Phish fans stumbled into the

frigid Boston evening. In the end, it was just another concert for Phish, four

guys in search of some kicks and finding them by playing their hearts out to

thousands of adoring admirers. Not a bad way to ring in 1997, and a reminder

that, the more things appear to change year to year, the more their essence

remains the same.