The man from whom I bought my ticket had seen Phish over 150 times. Encouragingly enough, he was in excellent physical shape and had a business and a wife and multiple kids who were spending the rainy closing hours of 2018 a safe and conspicuous distance from Madison Square Garden.
It is possible to thrive even with a Phish addiction, and in some cases impossible to thrive without it—We should all hope for obsessions and enablers as healthy as my scalper’s, although “scalper” cheapens the relationship somewhat. In the Phish world, I had just experienced what’s known as a “miracle.” Of course on any major holiday one man’s miracle is another’s night at the office and I soon found myself schmoozing a few of the Garden’s production men, who seemed amused at my long-burning curiosity about what the arena’s attic is like (apparently it’s a cluttered labyrinth of submarine-like industrial passageways and during the Phish run it gets incredibly loud because of its proximity to the amplifiers that the band hangs from the room’s gently sloping ceiling and also becomes pretty stuffy because of the smoke rising from the crowd not far below). “It used to be like it was raining,” one of the productions guys said of the torrents of glow sticks that cascade from the upper decks during Phish shows. “Now, we barely have anything to pick up afterwards.” You all are getting old.
Is there any conceivable logic to seeing a single band 150 times? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself having seen Phish on a measly 17 occasions. How many “Simples” does one need before happiness and fulfillment are achieved? Will my existence really be incomplete until I’ve seen “Magrupp and the Watchful Horsemasters” played live? (Obviously, yes). Does the band even give as much of a shit as we do? That last one was something of an open question among fans up until their Baker’s Dozen stunt in the summer of 2017—a run of 13 shows at the Garden in which they were jammier and weirder and freer than they’d been in a long time. For the next year’s worth of decent to sometimes well-north-of-decent live performances, the more honest fans would bitterly reflect that it took a high-stakes gimmick for Phish to really become their best and truest selves, after which they reverted back to late-period predictability. And then, another coup: The surprise live debut of an album’s worth of some of the weirdest and funkiest and sneakily darkest (and absolute best) songwriting of their career, introduced via the magisterial Kasvot Växt Halloween prank of 2018. The quartet that played four nights at the Garden last week was one that really did seem to grasp the existential significance of having the “Simple” that’s been rattling around in your head for years or decades dazzlingly manifested in sound and vision. For my money, they played just such a “Simple” during the opening hour of 2019.
Obsessions are indulged for—or, more cynically, sustained by —that handful of moments in which they make absolute, perfect sense. So it was when Phish embarked on a hazy, grungy “Steam” in the first set on New Year’s Eve, with the choruses punctuated with decidedly un-Phish like eruptions reminiscent of the end of “Day in the Life” (come to think it, the “No Quarter” they played Saturday night sometimes reminded me more of like, Ride than it did of Led Zeppelin or Phish). A Bob Dylan lyric occurred to me during the glorious windup for “Run Like an Antelope:” “It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be.” And then almost immediately I remembered the doggerel that closes Gravity’s Rainbow, which is written in a notably similar meter to “Auld Lang Syne:” “There is a hand to turn the time/Though thy glass today be run.”
Phish has only a small number of songs that really stand on their own and the band’s power comes from the four musicians’ ability to both embrace and transcend the inherent absurdity of their material. But on New Year’s their songs took on an unexpectedly profound quality. On “Down With Disease” Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell were yelling “stop!” at the galloping hour hand. “The day is longer than your year,” they insisted as the outset of “Mercury,” just around 11:50 PM. The jam that preceded midnight felt intense and sludgy and pleasantly unmelodic, liminal in a way that channeled the psychic and temporal moment. Then thousands of silver balloons dropped from the ceiling, and the crowd batted them around like giant pachinko balls. Dressed in space suits and screened by a forest of glistening streamers, Trey and Mike Gordon hovered a hundred feet above the crowd, absolutely nailing “Say it to me S.A.N.T.OS” (one of funkiest, weirdest, and darkest of the Kasvot Växt numbers) while harnessed far, far away from their pedals and monitors. Dancers dressed as pepperoni pizza slices and flying saucers traipsed across the stage, and a few of the inflatable giant green aliens crowd-surfed down 7th avenue after the show finally let out around 1 AM. These were the hands to turn the time, though thy glass today be run.
During one of the set breaks, a Phish newbie in my section said he was once under the mistaken impression they were a Christian band, with their name being a possible reference to the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Matthew, chapter 15). Now we all know that Phish is a Jewish band as anyone who went to Jewish sleepaway camp in the past quarter-century or listened to the YEM > Yerushalayim Shel Zahav > YEM they played on July 16th, 1993 can attest. But this is a beautiful connection nonetheless, this idea of a small thing becoming a cosmically big one, or at least of the existence of some higher alchemy that human witnesses can verify. Were Phish, in fact, a Christian band, the name might refer to the idea that live music and religion share some core experiential similarity (in fact it’s derived from the last name of drummer John Fishman).
A Phish show is its own strange sort of spiritual community that exists for a few hours at a time and then dissolves with fearful instancy. They’re not exactly a popular band or one with particularly broad appeal; their success has come from mining the same somewhat large group of enthusiasts over the course of several decades and effectively preventing that audience from wandering off. The people at a Phish show really do want to be there—every square inch of the floor and seating bowl are filled at the Garden and only the truly inebriated manage to stand perfectly still. No one watches indifferently. Five hours pass in a moment, and the lacuna in real life jolts to an unwelcome end. “This is so sad,” someone in my section remarked, watching the balloons and ribbons being swept away. “The universe is no longer here.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.