There are some moments during which even the most hardened of atheists can be tempted to think that a superior power may indeed exist. And be inclined to thank that power for being able to experience something. Such a thing could well happen in the midst of a Phish concert. Particularly if that concert is happening at the legendary Madison Square Garden (MSG) and is one of the 30-year-old band’s iconic annual New Year’s Eve run. Such a moment can occur during one of guitarist and singer Trey Anastasio’s magical and endless lead solos; it could happen when keyboardist Page McConnell takes control of your mind and puts it on a flight with his wizardry; or it could simply take place when the four middle-aged guys who are up there on the stage with their music and their multi-million-dollar lighting and SFX system are jamming and you’re so deep into the experience that you sincerely want to thank somebody for just being able to partake of the magic.
As you must have guessed, I’m a Phish fan (or phan, if you’re going to quibble over semantics). Phish are a divisive band. Among those who’ve heard them, there are people who love them and people who hate them, both for the same reason – their music. There is none in between. You either like Phish’s long psychedelic jams or you don’t. So there we were, three of us, on the first of the four-day New Year’s Eve run by the band at New York City’s famous mammoth arena – two Phish-loving adults with one not-yet-13-year-old in tow. Three Indians in the midst of a predominantly white crowd; and possibly the very rare ones in the audience of 26,000 for whom this was their first ever Phish gig. That’s probably why before the band began to play, a preppy guy in the row behind asked amiably why we were there. “Did someone recommend the gig?” “Have you heard the band’s music?” and so on. It’s amazing how quickly camaraderie is struck between Phish phans – white college kids; yuppie-ish careerists; ageing tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadheads who’ve turned followers of Phish; or just the ones such as we were – armchair Phish aficionados who love the music but never got a chance to go to a gig. Preppy guy couldn’t believe this was our first concert and gushingly told us how listening to the band live, especially Trey’s guitar, would be an experience we’ll never forget; and about how it would be something we would want to repeat (both turned out to be true). It was his 17th concert, he told us, and he was readying to follow the band to Mexico when they play there in a few weeks.
Phish have done 1,600 concerts since they began three decades back and after the big daddy of psychedelic jam bands, The Grateful Dead’s demise, they moved into the vacuum created by those pioneering tourers (although there is little in common between the Dead’s music and Phish’s; disclaimer: I’m a fan of both). But there’s much in common between those who follow the Phish and those who followed the Dead. For one, it is the almost familial community vibe that the devotees share. At the Phish gig, shortly after the band launched their first set with an a capella rendition of The Star Spangled Banner and segued into a hard-edged rocker, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan , preppy boy touched me on the shoulder and handed me a vape. The unmistakable aroma of herbal inhalants had already filled the vast theatre and I wasn’t inclined to rebuff a co-fan’s kindness. For the record, such kindness flowed from various parts of our surroundings throughout the nearly three-hour concert giving credence to the belief that few adult Phish concertgoers shun some supplement or the other to enhance their experience.
Phish have the rare distinction of never having repeated a set list at any of their live performances. The repertoire is huge and growing (last October saw the release of Big Boat, a studio album with new songs) and they also cover classics, standards and songs by bands they are inspired by. The third song that Phish did that night was Lonesome Cowboy Bill, a Velvet Underground number that Lou Reed had co-composed and in the Phish version, drummer Jon Fishman who always plays wearing his trademark tie-dyed dress sang it. The first set that night with extravagant light shows, included classics by the band – Free, Stash, Cavern, Halfway to the Moon, an extended version of Roggae – but also Corinna, a Taj Mahal cover, and Funky Bitch , a Son Seals cover.
By the end of the first set, Madison Square Garden’s theatre if gazed upon from the skies would have looked like a huge mass of people, all standing up and dancing – each one on a journey of his/her own, moving to whatever the music meant to them individually. In the row in front of us was a veteran Deadhead turned Phish-head, face ravaged by years of following bands, in sneakers with neon lights, dancing non-stop in a pattern that was as weird as it was mesmerising. Next to us was a long-haired woman who’d seemed mild-mannered and polite before the band began but was now going wild, flailing her arms, twirling crazily and contagiously. The three Indians at the show – us – soon found ourselves swaying and dancing with the rest. And, as the band ended the set with an extra-long version of Stash, like everybody else, we couldn’t wait for more.
Phish’s second sets are usually more spacey and exploratory and that night they didn’t disappoint. The set began with Wolfman’s Brother , a 1994 song from their album, Hoist. There were older songs too such as Possum (1987) and Chalk Dust Torture (1992), and new ones such as Wingsuit from 2014’s Fuego, but also a cover of Martian Monster (from Disneyland’s Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House, a 1970s album). The icing on top was the encore – a six-and-half minute cover of Led Zeppelin’s Good Times, Bad Times.
Phish devotees are among the most informed, networked and Internet savvy. As we filed out of MSG, exhausted but blissful, I could hear the hardcore phans discussing, quarreling about and evaluating versions of what they’d heard that night. And, of course, getting ready for the next day’s gig.