NEW YORK -- The streets of Manhattan were unseasonably warm for New Year's Eve, but it was snowing inside a sold-out Madison Square Garden. Granted, they were fake flakes that gently fell on Phish as the group played its Eno-like new song "Seven Below" for a midnight countdown. Snow fairies invaded the crowd, climbing step-ladders for a stilt-like effect under flowing white costumes, and a blizzard of giant white balloons filled the arena when the clock struck 2003.
And then there were the cheers, which rained down on Phish when America's biggest jam band simply returned to the stage Tuesday after a two-year break.
Not that one could tell that this was a somewhat momentous occasion from the Vermont quartet's reaction. Many fans had speculated that Phish would open with a hard-rocking favorite or an apt cover like Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town" or Boston's "Long Time," which were both played on the PA before Phish took the stage.
Instead, the members of Phish walked out without a wave or a hello, picked up their instruments, and defused the crowd's roar with the slow build-up of "Piper" as if the much-hyped hiatus had never happened. Instead of rockers or songs from the band's new LP, Round Room, the night was decidedly old school, favoring the art rock side of Phish's repertoire.
In turn, the group had its mechanics honed for the tricky turns of songs like the Celtic-tinged "Guyute," a bouncy "Mound" (performed for the first time since 1996) and "The Squirming Coil," which graced the first of three hour-plus sets.
A film clip from "Cast Away" where Tom Hanks screams for his lost volleyball "Wilson" made a clever intro for fans to chant for the Phish tune of that name, and for a man who appeared to be Hanks himself to run onstage (a spokesperson for the actor later said Hanks wasn't even on the East Coast at the time) and blurt one of the key lyrics at mid-song. But apart from that, and the midnight bedlam, the night was much like any Phish show.
The second set continued to challenge with extended pieces, opening with Round Room's jam finale "Waves," which segued into "The Divided Sky," a highly arranged oldie which drew loud ovations when guitarist Trey Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon pogoed in unison. The bandmembers then froze in place for a long pause broken by Anastasio's melodic sustains.
While the group cranked up the Led Zeppelin-styled "Carini" and the catchy shout-along "Character Zero," the winding Phish warhorses "David Bowie" and "Harry Hood" respectively brought each of the first two sets to their peak. Both gave pianist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman additional room to stretch out, and the jazzy coda of the latter tune prompted a traditional tossing of glowsticks by the crowd.
Phish didn't even pull out a cover tune until the midnight hour. After a round of "Auld Lang Syne" and "Runaway Jim" featuring the Cirque du Soleil-like snow fairies, brief fireworks and the balloons (which Anastasio started to pop with the head of his guitar when they inundated the stage), Phish slipped into Little Feat's "Time Loves a Hero." The band covered that song in its late '80s college days, but it took on fresh meaning with the tag line, "Only time will tell."
However, rather than cap the show with another big gun like "Mike's Song" or "Y.E.M.," Phish closed the last set with "Walls of the Cave," the night's third song from Round Room. It's one of the album's most ambitious pieces, leaving the disc's ballads and Rolling Stones-like rockers ripe for their concert debut at one of Phish's three shows at Virginia's Hampton Coliseum Thursday (January 2) through Saturday.
As an alternative to sanctioned audience tapes, soundboard downloads of all four concerts will also be made available through MP3 and Shorten digital-music files for a $9.95 to $18.95 fee at livephish.com within 48 hours of each show.
Doug Loeb, a longtime fan who wore the superhero-style "Lawn Boy" costume he created in 1994 for the Phish song of that name, was walking around the Garden still hoping for friends to come through with a ticket for the last night of Hampton.
"I wasn't expecting it to be like an old show, but I was pleasantly surprised," Loeb, 37, of Gainesville, Florida, said at his 10th New Year's Eve concert and 124th Phish show overall. "Someone said they expected the band to be sloppy, but I didn't find that to be the case at all. It was very tight."
David Heiblin, 25, of Salt Lake City, who paid $150 for a $50 ticket (cheap versus the $1,000 prices online) to attend his 72nd show, agreed: "It was a little rushed, but all in all, really solid."
On the other hand, LeAnne Fowlkes, 19, of Sylva, North Carolina, was thrilled just to be seeing Phish for the first time. "I've been waiting a long time -- two-and-a-half years," Fowlkes said. "The energy of this show will never be topped."
New Year's Eve set list:
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