So close, but no cigar: The four members of Phish all showed up last night to accept their Lifetime Achievement prize at the 2008 Jammy Awards ceremony, at the WaMu Theater in Madison Square Garden. But bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman just talked; guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell played earlier in the evening but not together. The crowd was on its feet as soon as the band walked up to the podium, then sighed in unison as Phish briskly walked away, leaving members of the Disco Biscuits, String Cheese Incident and Umphrey's McGee — billed as the Headcount All-Stars, in honor of the voter-registration organization — to play a spirited 40 minutes of Phish covers, including "Wilson" and "Run Like an Antelope."
Anastasio's surprise appearance on guitar was the night's peak of ecstasy. He walked out in the middle of the Fab Faux's note-perfect version of the Beatles' "When My Guitar Gently Weeps," soloing with bite and obvious pleasure, and stuck around for a guitar-chaos romp through "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey." Anastasio has been off the road for ages, by his standards, and in the news because of legal and drug problems. It was reassuring to see him play like his old self, even for 10 minutes. In his set, McConnell led a straight-up jazz quintet of monster improvisers including saxophonist James Carter, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes, now eighty-two. Their two long pieces gave everyone room to roam — and demonstrate the difference between mere jamming and blowing up the room.
The Jammys are an alternate-universe Grammys, a mix of industry glitz and pot-head bonhomie. Awards are given, speeches made (Warren Haynes and Grace Potter hosted with the right minimum of formality), and the performances are celebrity gumbo — mixtures of stars from the jam-band scene, well, jamming. But the combinations were strong, often delightful. Singer-guitarist Leslie West of Mountain slammed into "Mississippi Queen" backed by the Colorado power trio Rose Hill Drive. Squeeze singer-guitarist Glenn Tilbrook sang "Tempted" in duet with Haynes. The New Orleans funk band Galactic got off to a hot start, making Memphis thump with organist Booker T. Jones on Booker T. and the MG's "Hip Hug Her." Sharon Jones next took the mike for Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign."
Then human beatbox Doug E. Fresh got it and wouldn't let go, leading the audience in old-school sing-alongs (this is a scene that knows Eighties hip-hop as cold as a '94 Phish setlist) and going one-on-one with Galactic's Stanton Moore in a fantastic drum-and-air-percussion cutting contest. Upstairs, Jay-Z was holding court in the Garden's big room, but there was no denying the party, in all of its roots and branches, going on below.