So Phish is coming back…again. I can’t seem to think about much else these days. Sitting already with fluttering anticipation of the Hampton shows, I can’t help but think back to New Years Eve 2002-2003 at MSG- the first comeback, and subsequent Hampton run. The occasion could not have been bigger- Phish’s comeback in the Garden- the thought of it was almost too intimidating. Yet, while Phish wound up having a wonderfully adventurous 2003, closing in sunny style with four standout shows in Miami, the beginning was not as hot. The band, obviously as anxious as we all were, played a very “safe” comeback show, and proceeded to produce very little in Hampton that held up to our memories. Lasting only a year and a half in their return, maybe the band jumped the gun- who knows? 2009’s return, four and a half years later, has a distinctly different feel to it; the band seems to have faced the personal demons that were eating away at their fun and cohesion, and dealt with them. How long will it last- nobody knows, “the only rule is it begins.”
Yet, let’s hope this third beginning is musically stronger than their second beginning, even if for the sake of hype and impossible tickets. When the band returned to MSG in 2002, with no less hype, and not much easier of a ticket, they seemed tentative, unwilling to take any real musical risks. For a band that made a career on musical risk-taking, this stark difference over the inverted New Year’s Run was palpable. Returning with a Piper that most people heard only half of, due to the extended roar of the maddened crowd, the band opened with one of the few real jams of the evening. The rest of first comeback set stayed very conservative, with a short set ending Bowie being the only other jam vehicle taken off the shelf.
The second set back brought slightly more adventure. Beginning with an enchanting new song, “Waves,” whose composition and structured jam was a beautiful preview of Phish 2.0, the set moved into Divided Sky, juxtaposing the new and the old with a united theme of nature’s spirituality. A Carini kindled memories of the colossal MSG odyssey of 12.28.98, and a late set Hood brought back the uplifting, albeit brief, improvisation of Phish- but it was really the only jam of the set.
The third set of the show brought out the best Phish of the night, as they used the debut of “Seven Below,” complete with a surreal indoor snowstorm to bring us into the new year. On cue, the band busted into Runaway Jim as the post-Auld Lang Syne song, featuring the most interesting jam of the night as the percussive and groovy jam segued smoothly and unexpectedly into the lyrically appropriate Little Feat cover, “Time Loves A Hero.” A solid Taste followed, before the set ended with the poignant debut of “Walls of the Cave,” within close proximity to the song’s allegorical subject of the Twin Towers. Walls also brought some new improvisation into the mix, capping the show with one of its highlights. A Velvet Sea encore thematically fit the end of this emotional evening.
It was great to have Phish back- it was better than great- and Hampton was sure to blow up! The first night was bound to be a bit tentative we convinced ourselves- wait till they get to Hampton with no pressure on them. Well, we all got to Hampton, and the shows were no more adventurous than the one up north. Playing it very safe, it was almost unfathomable that a Phish three-night run at Hampton could produce so few memorable jams. In fact, thinking quickly off the top of my head, I remember the second set of the first night, with the unique 46 Days jam, My Friend, Thunderhead and Antelope, and that’s about it. When I go back and look at the setlists, they played most of their big songs- Tweezer, YEM, Mike’s, Split, Disease, Twist, Free, and more. The Wolfman’s was arena rock fun, and they ended the last show with 2001, but it didn’t feel the same. I distinctly remember listening to these after the shows, as they were the first livePhish soundboard releases. They sounded clean, but they confirmed what I had thought at the shows. There was nothing to write home about- no fire, no adventure, no explosiveness, and very little psychedelia. After a few listens, these discs found a place in a stack of CDs on a random spool in my apartment rather quickly, never to be heard from again – the only time that has ever happened with Phish.
Before the band came out ripping the LA Forum and Thomas & Mack Center to start the Winter ’03 tour, letting us know that things were back to normal- many questioned whether Phish had lost their magic. Others wrote off the shows as obviously indicative of the time off- what were you expecting, right? Everyone seemed to have their own opinions and theories of these comeback shows, and their significance, before the rest of 2003 brought back the Phish we knew and loved.
Hopefully, these three Hampton shows won’t be as anti-climactic as the last three comeback shows at the Coliseum. Hopefully, the band will reunite in the Barn and sharpen their teeth before next March. I have a strong feeling that they will- there is a sense of redemption in the air- and Phish is known for stepping up to the occasion. I predict there will be more jaws hanging on the Coliseum floor then in the initial days of 2003. With the likely announcement of shows in New York, Philly, and Boston over the rest of the weekends in March, I feel that the band will surely be ready to destroy their biggest markets. They wouldn’t play it safe over the course of an entire month; they are back for different reasons this time. They weren’t on “hiatus,” they didn’t have to come back; they were done. Without any pressure, this time, everyone has pure motivations. They don’t need the money- they need the Phish.
As the band prepares for what will likely be the final chapter of their career, a youthful exuberance has engulfed the community again. Like a collective dream come true, we will all go to Phish shows again. I get the sense the band feels that the same exact dream has come true for them- they, as well, will get to go to Phish shows again. Each time the lights go out, it will be a privilege for us all, an unexpected gift from the universe, at a time when the world at large seems to be moving in the opposite direction. But as the darkness gives way to Kuroda’s colorful washes of reverie, nothing else will matter- we will all be right we are supposed to be. Our world will be right again.
The First Comeback: 12.31.02 MSG – photo: Jeremy
A classic tape and a personal favorite of the analog era, this a classic show from the amazing Spring of ’92 highlights Phish’s musical intensity, zany humor, and unique creativity. One of those shows where the first and second sets seem flipped, the band’s opening frame featured great versions of Split, Maze, Fluffhead, and Antelope. With a second set that includes a full “Secret Language” explanation within the Possum intro, this show represents a young Phish playing their hearts out on the long path to success.
I: The Curtain, Split Open and Melt, Poor Heart, Guelah Papyrus, Maze, Dinner and a Movie, The Divided Sky, Mound, Fluffhead*, Run Like an Antelope** > Big Black Furry Creature From Mars > Run Like an Antelope**
II: Wilson > Brother, The Horse > Silent in the Morning, The Landlady, Lizards, My Mind’s Got a Mind of its Own, The Sloth, Rift, Cold as Ice > Love You > Cold as Ice, Possum#
E: Contact, Fire
*Trey teases “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” **With “Simpsons” language. #Trey explains the “Secret Language.”