Phish Returns With Marathon Concert – Review

By | January 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Phish put its long-suffering fans out of their misery in style.

Returning from a two-year hiatus, the Vermont jam band with the obsessive fan base played a long, high-energy show at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve before a raucous crowd, with some fans paying more than $1,000 to get into the sold-out concert.

A band known for its New Year’s Eve showmanship didn’t disappoint: Tom Hanks made a surprise stage appearance, and as the clock struck midnight costumed dancers on stilts spread through the audience and fake snow and white balloons tumbled from the rafters.

But the crowd hardly needed encouragement.

Beginning hours before the concert, thousands of fans milling around the damp, dirty streets outside Madison Square Garden began roaring at regular intervals. Hundreds more wandered about with a hand in the air, index finger up, in the universal Phish symbol for ticket-hunting.

In one nearby bar, two men were offering $3,000 for a ticket – and showing off the cash to prove they were serious. Others flooded Internet message boards, hoping for a last-minute miracle. Wrote one fan, hopefully tongue-in-cheek: “My sister for a ticket.”

All the chaos was set in motion last summer, when Phish’s four shaggy-haired, thirtysomething members announced they were ending their hiatus and returning to the stage with a run of winter shows, to be kicked off on New Year’s Eve.

The announcement was greeted with jubilation by the band’s fans. A two-year break between concert tours may not be extraordinarily long for most bands, but for Phish it was unprecedented.

The foursome started in Vermont in the early 1980s and slowly built a fan base with constant touring and frenetic live shows that combined influences from bluegrass to electronica to Pink Floyd-style arena rock. They became a top-grossing concert act by the mid-1990s, compensating for a persistent lack of radio play by selling out concerts from coast to coast.

With its amalgam of musical styles and legions of fans who traveled from show to show, selling everything from burritos to drugs to support themselves, Phish became known in the media as a neo-Grateful Dead.

But then the band, exhausted from 17 years on the road, decided to call it quits for a while – just how long a while, they refused to say. As it turned out, the wait would be more than two years as each member dabbled in various side projects.

With so long a break, rustiness seemed likely from a quartet that relies heavily on timing to pull off its often complex, fast-moving songs. So perhaps the biggest surprise Tuesday night was the tightness of the playing: The band threw several of its longest, most epic tunes into the mix – The Divided Sky, David Bowie, Mound, Harry Hood – and nailed them, keeping the groove tight and the mistakes few.

Phish stuck largely to old favorites, doing its fans a favor by ignoring the material from its generally mediocre new studio album, “Round Room,” until the third set. They also shied away from the long, funky dance grooves they had relied on heavily in late-’90s concerts. The order of the night was rock and roll: Guitarist-singer Trey Anastasio whipped up the crowd’s frenzy with heavy, distorted riffs and high, wailing notes to cap off long jams.

Phish was to follow up the New Year’s Eve show with a three-night stand in Hampton, Va., starting Thursday. A national tour is scheduled for February.

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