As a rhombus rose from the hallowed stage at Madison Square Garden, in one of the most surreal moments in Phish history, an ineffable energy engulfed the room. Whispering from the stage, the fairy tale melody of “The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday” tickled the synapses of all in attendance, and, collectively, the audience realized what they were witnessing. Simultaneously, a long-dormant part of each individual awakened; a visceral energy infused with awe, disbelief and joy was birthed from the hearts of all. Yet these words are inadequate; it was something deeper.
Each of us was brought back to our earliest days of falling in love with a band that we could hardly believe existed. A palpable enchantment arose as a concert transformed into an improbable lifetime event for which so many had longed through their decades of unconditional devotion. As the band shepherded us through the door into Gamehendge, an energy more unique and compelling than any I have ever felt filled the air—the dreams of 20,000 people, together in one place, simultaneously came true.
This transcendent feeling provided the backdrop of a musical fantasy that had existed only as a figment of the collective imagination. So far removed from the current reality of a band whose modus operandi is evolution, this journey through Phish’s mythology was akin to discovering it for the first time. Unfolding piece by piece, it felt as though we were hearing each song anew. Every piece took on a greater prominence in context of the story, and their musical structures echoed with congruency in relation to those around them. The songs we knew so well made so much more sense hearing them in place, as they were intended, as part of Gamehendge.
Transfixed, I was a blank slate—thoughtless—with no conception of what would come next, surprised by each and every turn. It was as if my memory had been erased, and the set, itself, was rewriting my understanding of the story I had once known so well; a captivating experience of unbridled joy and child-like enthusiasm. Steeped in the astral energy of the collective, the music took on a deep-rooted vitality, which accompanied with the narration and theatrics, created a spectacle beyond anyone’s wildest dream.
We had arrived.
Perhaps it was Crest Theatre 3.22.93; maybe Great Woods 7.8.94 or the GameHoist show from two weeks earlier on 6.26; possibly the old-school 3.12.88 performance from Nectar’s, but everyone had a tape that ushered them into Gamehendge when they first got into Phish. Devouring the saga, learning the characters, and internalizing the plot was a rite of passage for new fans. You had to know the details to really feel a part of it all, for the intricacies of Gamehendge were woven into the fabric of the Phish community. The music, the humor, the shirts and stickers sold on lot, the ethos of the tribe—the story informed so much of the experience. Especially when the band’s catalog was not so vast.
But as Phish pushed forward, transforming from the quirky, Vermont prog-rockers of their youth into the millennial groove machine of the late-90s and beyond, Gamehendge became less prominent in their live shows and less ingrained in their surrounding culture. With each passing album and evolutionary phase of the band’s career, Gamehendge faded further and further from the forefront of the community’s collective consciousness. When one of the songs did appear on stage, it was a reminder of days gone by, a relic of a simpler time. Any suggestion of a modern performance of the entire story was quickly written off as a pipe dream, wishful thinking, a pie in the sky. Thus, as the reality of New Year’s Eve unfolded, it sent a bolt of lightning through legions of fans near and far.
There are few things in this ever more complex world that truly make us feel like kids again—innocent and carefree with life spread out before us. But as the initial notes of “Lizards” emanated from the stage, something special happened. We were transformed into versions of ourselves that we didn’t even realize we no longer were. A spirit awakened from the depth of our beings, a youthful spirit so familiar but that had lived at arm’s length as we grew. We were in Gamehendge; against all odds, we were in Gamehendge.
If for only a night, the train that has been moving full steam ahead for four decades, paused to honor it’s starting point, to celebrate the genesis of a life-changing journey. A year in the works, no detail was spared in presenting a musically complete telling of the tale. It was a night for all-time; a night that will never be forgotten; a night that reminded us of who we are and all we hope to be.
We stepped out of the Garden and into a new year, inhabiting our newest selves, the ones who had been to the land of lizards and had a story to tell for the rest of time. We bid farewell to our companions, we shared embraces and we parted ways, crossing back through the door to walk our own paths with the ancient secrets of eternal joy and never-ending splendor.