Seeing Phish play Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve was an opportunity for me to dive head first into an ocean of counterculture I knew essentially nothing about. Unless you're a long time fan, the odds are you know very little about Phish, especially when you take into consideration how hardcore their fan base can be. I had streamed their 2014 album Fuego when it came out and enjoyed it, but I wasn't setting out to follow the band on tour or anything like that. I had also heard the recordings from the Fare Thee Well shows Trey Anastasio played fronting the Grateful Dead, filling in for the deceased Jerry Garcia and couldn't help but be impressed. He jammed with the band excellently while bringing a great deal of his own personal flavor to the stage, doing more than just his best Jerry impersonation.
Other than that, my opinion of Phish was primarily based on stereotypes... cause let's face it; Phish fans have invited themselves to a certain degree of mockery over the years. They were the spiritual successors to The Dead, whom the kids that were too young to have seen Jerry play flocked to in order to experience what their parents had in the decades prior. I pictured Phans (NOT Phisheads) as privileged, skinny, smelly, white, acid eating, pot smoking twenty or thirty somethings who compensated for their late date of birth by putting up with a nonsense jam band and idolizing Trey in Jerry's place; either that or as aging Deadheads who refused to let go of the nomadic jam band lifestyle after Jerry's passing. They recorded and passed on shows in the same communal fashion as Deadheads, however it's significantly less impressive now that we've entered the internet age. As far as I was concerned, they were wannabe Deadheads.
Of course, one should never make assumptions because I was in no way prepared for the night that laid ahead of me. My initial impression of Phans was more or less on point. The crowd looked and acted almost exactly how I imagined them to. It was a reunion for many, with people running into folks they had met the night before and old friends from the past thirty years of attending Phish shows. I knew a few people who were going, but had nobody to meet to actually watch the show with. I felt somewhat out of place, being there entirely by myself; and based on the utter shock the guy in front of me expressed when I had told him it was my first show, I'm also fairly certain that I was one of the few people who had never been to a Phish show before. The GA pit was where a heavy concentration of young wannabe hippies presided, complete with bandanas, tie-dyed blankets and finely rolled joints. The seated areas tended to have older attendees, who no longer had the endurance to stand through the entire show and were armed with Lettuce t-shirts and herbal vaporizers. In all fairness, in my attempt to envelop myself in the culture, I only contributed to the stereotypes, appearing a messy, long haired, wide pupiled young person, reeking of herb and falafel (take that however will).
Now comes the part where I admit everything I was wrong about... the biggest part being the band itself. They weren't a Grateful Dead cover band (like Dark Star Orchestra) or a sleep inducing mountain jam band (String Cheese Incident); they were their own thing entirely. They were a four-piece with the colossal sound of a band twice their size. They were more than just Trey Anasatasio. They were four individuals, each masters of their respective instruments, coming together to go on an exploration of sound and emotion, much like the jazz quartets of yesteryear. Watching them blend genres and navigate their way through extended jams by varying time signatures and tempos was impressive to say the least. To me, they gave a whole new definition to what it means to jam, with clear buildups and dramatic releases which spiraled into new adventures of sonic discovery, simultaneously managing to 'jam' a great deal of sound into a single bar; to the point where I could physically feel the tension building up in my spine and being released through my right arm by the end of each phrase. Their thirty years of experience was made evident by their hive mind like communication. Whether it was the barbershop quartet like harmonies on "I Didn't Know" or a roller coaster of genres ("Reba") they somehow managed to remain on the same page, and somehow, a whole step ahead of themselves. Their knack for humor and tongue-in-cheek lyricism made them all the more lovable and unique.
The crowd, in spite of my critical first impression, was one of the best I've seen at the Garden since its renovation a few years back. Considering that Phish is known for their eclectic setlists, (with almost 300 songs in their vocabulary) it was amazing that regardless of what they played, the crowd knew it and was ready to sing along. There was dancing in the aisles as friends and families congregated, forming schools of Phish (that's the one corny joke I get for this piece). The energy exerted from the stage was nothing shy of electric, radiating into the stands like an unstoppable force which sent concert-goers into a frenzy. An extremely well designed light show conducted the entire crowd's movements to coincide with the band's ever-changing sound, creating that allusive sense of communal 'oneness' very few groups can achieve. The lack of distracting set pieces or screens made the whole thing feel strangely intimate, it was just four guys on the stage making awesome music, with no bells and whistles. However, when midnight came around, a dramatic hourglass set piece was lowered, encapsulating the band. 18,000 people began to count down the new year, as the band emerged from their psychedelic prismatic prison to sing "Auld Lang Syne." When the countdown reached one, the arena filled with balloons and streamers. And as Phans from all over cheered and kissed, it became apparent that somehow, four wacky boys from Vermont managed to restore the Garden to its former glory.