, attached to 2002-12-31

Review by jwelsh8

jwelsh8 (Published in the second edition of The Phish Companion . . . )

Where to start? I guess I can look back to the morning of August 14th, when I became consumed by the rumor storm as the online community was whipped into a frenzy and it all became official: Phish would play again. Or on December 3rd, when I received confirmation that the tickets were being shipped and I was going to get in. Either way, I knew that there was no place other than Madison Square Garden that I wanted to be when the lights went down and those four musicians walked back out onstage.

I didn't sleep as well as I could have the night of the 30th. And Istarted to zone out at breakfast and at Les Halles for desert. And my wife Laura knew I was becoming my old self. I couldn't hold it back any longer. I was going to see Phish in, what, seven hours? By the time I got to the gathering at Mustang Sally's and started to put so many smiling faces to names that I only knew from emails, I had become a bundle of nerves. How many times can you check an envelope to make sure tickets are still inside? And when we made our way through the throng of anxious fans at the Hotel Pennsylvania to meet with friends, I couldn't stop moving. The frequent roars from the street-level crowd made their way into the tenth floor rooms of the hotel and did not do anything to help calm me down. I was in full pre-show mode, and just needed to be inside the Garden, as soon as possible.

It was pretty easy to make our way through the crowd of miracle seekers on the way to the show. I did my best not too look smug as I passed those with fingers in the air, and wished them "Happy New Year" and "Good luck." (I can not imagine that any tickets miraculously appeared as the gates opened, but who knows.) And the line to check bags was pretty easy and non-intrusive; you could have snuck in pretty much what you wanted, it seemed. But after that checkpoint, things got warm and snug for the next twenty or thirty minutes; the rush to get in when the doors opened caused a bit of a bottleneck where ramps sloped up and turned ninety degrees. While we weren't in the pack long, it did get warm and uncomfortable.

But once we made our way through the ticket-checking gates, fans yelped and jumped for joy in the cool air as they wound their way skywards up the escalators. Our tickets were not marked with Gate numbers, and that is what appeared above the doors, so I just kept telling Laura that we should simply keep going up until we couldn't any more. We finally found ourselves on the 400 level and made our way to our seats: four rows back, just a seat or two Page-side of center. Pretty damn sweet, actually. I had never sat behind a stage before, and I had a feeling I was going to enjoy it.

At 8:19 p.m., The Hiatus ended. It is almost pointless to try and describe what is was like when the lights went off. The roar, the energy. Yep, it reached a fever pitch. And as it would be for the rest of the night, I could not see the faces of the band members; I was only imagining the smiles and nods of acknowledgment. Without any delay at all, they went to work. I could tell it wasn't going to be the “YEM” that I was expecting. As I strained to hear over the din, it did not take me long to hear the paced build up of “Piper”. Yes, of course! As my friend Rich later said, it was right under our noses! It was perfect. Just in case the crowd needed to be fired up any more, “Piper” did as it always has.

As I recognized the beginning of “NICU”, I leaned over to Laura and told her I was thinking of Brian. My friend Brian was admitted into the intensive care unit one night just a few weeks after I hugged him goodbye after Big Cypress... and he would never wake up. Building up to this show, I thought back on the stories he and Joel would tell of NYE 1995 at Madison Square Garden. I knew that he was up there smiling down on all of us.

The “Wilson” was interesting. From where we sat, balloons were blocking our view to the scoreboard. As we ducked down, we were able to make out the Castaway clip before they went into the song. Right before the "Black, boom, ba-bitty boom" section, Trey introduced "Tom Hanks." A man came running out, received the applause, and then sang the part. He then ran off. From where we sat, we really thought it was Tom Hanks. The man was too tall to be Tom Marshall. Needless to say, we were completely duped and had people thinking in Pittsburgh and Chicago that Tom Hanks came out.

What a fun first set. It was not at all what I was expecting; no Round Room songs, nothing goofy or funny, no talking to the crowd. Just business.

Throughout the night, it was kind of fun to watch the crowd from where we were perched. We easily identified Rich and his crew with his rainbow wig; I caught some guy, Mike side, in the second or third row with a Pittsburgh Steeler-Your-Face shirt, I saw a guy in the middle of the front dressed as "TAB Cowboy Trey", Laura and I saw the girl playing the flute during “Wading In the Velvet Sea” (which was really odd); we couldn't help but think of Bittersweet Motel and the "chicks in the front row" song. It is true that, by the end of the night, the women had displaced most of the men riding the rail. While we couldn't see the band's faces, we could soak in the smiles of everyone else.

The “Divided Sky” in the second set will forever be remembered by me for The Pause. While the energy in the Garden when the lights first went out was so thick (as to be expected) I think the crowd was actually louder during The Pause in “Divided Sky”. The band stood there for what seemed like minutes, just soaking in the crowd. It was deafening, to the point that Laura covered her ears. Again, while we couldn't see Trey's face, I was just picturing him standing there with his eyes looking upwards, soaking in the fact that they were back. It was pretty incredible. I do remember a bit of a flub somewhere in the middle, only to be overshadowed by the wonderful ending.

“Hood” and “Divided” in the same set! That was a pretty nice treat. As should have been expected, there was a bit of a glow stick war during the quiet section. While I didn't see any actually hit the band, the stage became littered with rings and sticks. From across the arena, it was fun to see those bright orange sticks emerge. They looked like they were on fire. As a note in my book for the rest of “Hood”, all I have written is "Shit!" Although there was no "Feel Good!" part at the end; it always feels kind of unfinished without that part.

As “Seven Below” began, I had a feeling some sort of jam would take us into the new year. This second new one was actually was pretty damn cool. As it began to get drawn out, the jamming led into the first lil' bit of spectacle of the night as snow started to fall on Page first, then the rest of the band. A number of dancers then came out from below us, behind the stage, all dressed in white. Snow then started to fall onto the floor and all but the two "little" dancers made their way onto the floor; the dancers on the floor were joined by stilt walkers (I had noticed ladders at the halfway point on the floor; it was on these ladders that two figures perched themselves with white gowns that reached to the floor.) At Midnight, pyrotechnics went off at the back of the stage and white balloons and confetti fell from the ceiling. I did not see any of the disco ball or any sort of countdown but I could make out the flashlights (a la Wayne and the Flaming Lips as has been mentioned).

Amidst the confusion, I could make out “Auld Lang Syne”. Well wishes and kisses were all around.

How can I sum it up? I think they entered the show feeling as though they had a job to get done. Laura expected them to banter more, and so did I, actually. At least a “Thank You” to the crowd, or "It is so great to be back". But they just came out and played song after song, almost business-like, and it could have been seen as even rushed. Almost every song was really well done. Trey missed a few cues, but he sounded really good. Page really stood out on the piano (“Horn”, “Mound”, “Coil”, “Rift”, “Taste”). Fishman, as always, was really solid. And Mike sounded good too, although a bit removed standing pretty far to the right, just bobbing his head. Was the show mind blowing? No, not really. Did they sound different? No, they sounded like the Phish we all were missing.

The point is they are back. And while it will take more than twenty-four songs to prove how they grew during the Hiatus, I for one am happy to have 'em onstage again. It feels good.


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