This Friday, the jam band Phish—which formed in Vermont, in 1983, and remains uniquely regarded for its improvisational prowess and zealous, wayfaring fans—will arrive in New York City for thirteen shows at Madison Square Garden, a run the group has dubbed the Baker’s Dozen. Phish knows the quirks of the room, the particular way it shivers: the band has played it thirty-one times already. In 2010, Phish captained a fifteen-foot frankfurter around the arena (the vessel débuted in 1994, and is now housed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland), tossing miniature foam hot dogs at the crowd while hundreds of sausage-shaped balloons wafted from the ceiling. This routine is usually enacted as either prelude or dénouement to the band’s song “Meatstick,” which may or may not be about hiding the salami (“Time for the meatstick / Take out the meatstick / Bury the meatstick time!”), and has never been exclusive to the Garden, though it still scans, somehow, as an affectionate tribute to the city’s most erstwhile street food.
At first glance, New York is not an obvious venue for a Phish extravaganza. The band has staged elaborate, multi-night live events in the summer before, but typically in rural or semi-rural communities: Plattsburgh, New York; Limestone, Maine; Coventry, Vermont; Big Cypress National Preserve, in the Everglades. These settings allow for a more organic continuation of the consciousness-erasing bliss that Phish incites in its fans—a dreamy, post-set constitutional in the moonlight—than emerging from the Garden and stumbling toward the over-lit souvenir emporiums of Thirty-first Street while cab drivers eagerly elbow their car horns. New York also doesn’t allow for the parking-lot bazaar that many consider a cornerstone of the Phish experience: roaming a field or stretch of asphalt adjacent to the venue, bartering for psychedelic drugs, or a veggie burrito, or a pan flute, or whatever it is that suits your needs.
I was in college, in Virginia, at the very end of the nineteen-nineties, a particular time, place, and circumstance in which jam culture—trading Maxell ninety-minute cassette tapes of live shows, darning your own corduroy-patch pants, braiding strands of hemp into hideous bracelets—was pervasive. Do I venture this context as a kind of apology? Maybe. I was there, in 1998, for two consecutive nights at Hampton Coliseum, a pointy roadside goliath that, when lit, vaguely resembles a spaceship that has recently docked on Earth. These shows were later commemorated as “Hampton Comes Alive,” a six-CD boxed set fashioned after “Formerly the Warlocks,” a similar collection commemorating the Grateful Dead’s two-night run at the Coliseum in 1988. I stood near the front and ate an ice-cream sandwich. (I continue to recall this as the single most ecstatic culinary experience of my lifetime.) I woke up in a hotel room with approximately forty-five other people. I bought a giant, baby-blue cotton T-shirt that I still sleep in when I visit my parents. To attend a Phish show is to be subsumed by a community and to carry that experience forth, indefinitely.
In concert, Phish plays elaborate, jazz-inspired rock songs that unfurl in strange and sometimes captivating ways, like a drop of food coloring squeezed into a bowl of water. Its improvised jams, which occasionally stretch on for upward of thirty minutes—in 1997, in Worcester, Phish played a nearly fifty-nine minute version of “Runaway Jim,” a song about a dog that steals a car—are difficult to map, directed, as they are, by some internal logic conjured and heeded, communally, by the band’s four longtime members (the guitarist and singer Trey Anastasio, the bassist Mike Gordon, the drummer Jon Fishman, and the keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Page McConnell). Beholding this is not unlike the day, twice a year, when the setting sun aligns perfectly with the east-west streets of Manhattan, and the entire city is briefly gripped by feelings of whimsy and serendipity, as if every last thing on Earth has finally been slotted into its proper place, if just for an evening.
The band’s endurance as a cultural institution—since 1983, it has taken just two furloughs from the road—likely has something to do with the singularity of its offerings (and, in a more practical sense, its early and wildly prescient decision to rely not on studio releases but touring for income). Unlike with the Dead, its most obvious cultural analogue, I rarely have an acutely cerebral response to Phish. Its emotional evocations are vague and unfixed. Tom Marshall, a biologist and a childhood friend of Anastasio’s, writes most of the band’s lyrics; his work tends to be more goofy than overtly poetical (“You Enjoy Myself,” an early and popular song, is made up, lyrically, only of the words “boy,” “man,” “God,” “shit,” and the inscrutable phrase “Wash Uffizi drive me to Firenze”). Musically, the band holds steady in the middle distance: its jams, especially, eschew dramatic angles. They rarely feel desperate, or dissatisfied, or even searching; they merely unfold in an uninterrupted, sanguine flow. Listeners invoke their own narratives, or disappear entirely into the band’s riffs. So what happens, then, when tens of thousands of fans gather to behold its work? I recall it only as a taut rope slackening—the sudden eradication of pressure.
Of course, in 2017, to experience that kind of loosening en masse is both uncommon and valuable, particularly in a place like New York, where other people—sweaty other people—are frequently thought of as a hindrance, the last thing standing between you and a good time. I’m not saying Phish’s primary utility is the elimination and reversal of that idea, but here’s hoping that its magnanimousness radiates forth from the Garden next week—that it helps mellow out a resolutely unmellow town.