Phish: New Year's Eve 1995--Live at Madison Square Garden

Doug Collette By

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New Year's Eve 1995 illustrates how Phish truly found their own voice that year and, in so doing, became the defining rock band of their time.
Live at Madison Square Garden: New Year's Eve 1995

Here's some perspective: Phish were together roughly three times as long as the Beatles!?

The plundering (if you want to call it that) of the Phish archives actually began during the group's self-imposed hiatus from 2000 to 2002, but the shows released during that time were chosen largely by bandmembers for their distinction. Less than a year after the final (sic) show in Coventry Vermont, Phish put out its own high-water mark Island Tour discs this spring, but this three-CD set is the first release outside the groups own Dry Goods aegis, in an affiliation with the vaunted archive label Rhino (under the tongue in cheek umbrella of the JEMP label named after the quartet's early tour vehicle).

Hype aside, Live at Madison Square Garden: New Year's Eve 1995 it notable for a number of reasons musical and otherwise. It wasn't the first Phish NYE occasion(that occurred in 1994 at Boston Garden), but it began a run of high profile events that reached its apex with Big Cypress at the dawn of the new millennium, while its performance art interludes, such as the audience participation chess game, actually spawned a tradition of similar intervals at the holidays, which in turn transferred to Phish festivals summertimes to come, including Lemon Wheel and IT, where multi-media self-contained villages grew around the stage and the music.

Available as download or purchase on conventional cd package—a nod to the mainstreambelies the imminent availability of video downloads from Phish.com—this triple cd set may actually represent the best possible introduction to the Vermont-based band. It contains any number of their most famous tunes such as "Chalk Dust Torture" and "You Enjoy Myself "as well as a clutch of selections from the mythic Gamehendge epic piece authored by guitarist Trey Anastasio.

It's tempting to sequence an edited version of New Year's Eve 1995 to cull such segments as the "Time Phactory" preface to "Auld Lang Syne" and reduce the sequence down to nothing but music... until you realize the bulk of these three sets wassuch a potent combination of material and musicianship. The expert recording, mixing and mastering proffers just the show you'd want in a "you-are-there" ambience:

The acclamation the audience gives Phish at each set entry and at various points during theconcert in hindsight stands as a recognition of this crucial point in the quartet's career: 1995 wasn't so much the year Phish assumed the mantel of the Grateful Dead with the passing of Jerry Garcia that summer, it was this juncture, at approximately the mid-point of their career, that they truly found their own voice. During the course of the year, as they toured consistently and their audience grew, that the quartet from Vermont became the defining rock band of their time, remaining in that position until they called it quits ten years later.

The understated but well-designed packaging includes embossed artwork and photos aplenty, many of which capture the highlights of this event, such as Fishman's descent from the rafters as Baby New Year and Anastasio's stint on percussion. Parke Puterbaugh's liner notes contains no objectivity whatsoever-he admits to being a huge Phish fan—so you're left wondering what a little healthy detached perspective would accomplish in describing this event and, by extension, the Phish phenomenon itself.

Because there's no mistaking the cleverness and irony, as befits the times of that decade, pervading so much of this performance and the group's attitude in general. Excerpts from The Who's Quadrophenia (performed in its entirety by the band earlier on the fall tour that culminated in this two-night run) provide virtually the only emotional directness to be heard, in the form of "Sea & Sand" and "Drowned;" the prominence there of Phish's most emotionally direct member, keyboardist Page McConnell, only underscores the passion quotient, especially in light of the fact both songs taken from this work of Pete Townshend's are in the voice of a fictional character—talk about distance!

But Trey Anastasio sounds every bit as excited as he'd hope the audience would be in announcing the first set break, his voice almost but quite quite quivering with anticipation, perhaps as much for the music he would play a bit later as the special attractions. That's not to include the inside-joke theatre of "Shine," but more to the point of twenty-minutes plus of "Mike's Song" and the blistering version of "Weekapaug Groove" appearing just after midnight. "Runaway Jim" is likewise a marvelous example of four-way improvisation, its proximity to a barbershop quarter rendition of "Hello My Baby" a matter of taste or devotion to this band determining whether you like it.

The presence of the old standard is significant however, for it represents least a hint of the practice required for Phish to master the complexities of much of their material and, byextension, Phish's telepathic style of jamming. It also marks a distinction between this unexpurgated recording of Live at Madison Square Garden, markedly unlike the hallmark live releases of a previous epoch, The Allman Brothers' Live at Fillmore East, GratefulDead's Live/Dead and Cream's Wheels of Fire, all of which were to some degree overdubbed and abridged.

That said, Phish's intellectual irreverence threatens to turn "Frankenstein" into a homage to kitsch. And you have to ask if the juxtaposition of Edgar Winter's song with "Johnny B.Goode" carries any implicit message other than undercutting a paean to roots by playing Chuck Berry. This interlude follows a protracted exercise in vocal abstraction that leads into "Sanity," not exactly the resounding climax you might expect for a show clocking in at over three hours of music. But if Phish attained majesty-and there are fleeting moments they do on "Reba" early in set one—it was by accident. This is one group who never wanted to come across more (self-)important than their listeners.

At least until now... call it revisionism if you want or crass commercialism if you're really cynical. The mind boggles at the possibilities for future releases like New Year's Eve 1995 because this is one group that archived themselves comprehensively virtually from their inception. So we may look forward to multiple box set audio and video configurations from the weekend festival shows, more unabridged concert packages. Perhaps, in more conventional terms, expanded remastered editions of the studio albums. Call it what you will, but any band, including Phish, has right to tell its story the way it sees fit, just as they have the right to stop telling it altogether.

Visit Phish on the web


Disc 1 (Set I)
Punch You In The Eye; The Sloth; Reba; The Squirming Coil; Maze; Colonel Forbin's Ascent; Fly Famous Mockingbird; Shine; Fly Famous Mockingbird; Sparkle; Chalk Dust Torture.

Disc 2 (Set II)
Audience Chess Move; Drowned; The Lizards; Axilla (Part II); Runaway Jim; Strange Design; Hello My Baby; Mike's Song.

Disc 3 (Set III)
Gamehendge Time Phactory; Auld Lang Syne; Weekapaug Groove; Sea And Sand; You Enjoy Myself; Sanity; Frankenstein; Johnny B. Goode.

Personnel: Trey Anastasio: guitar, vocals, percussion; Jon Fishman: drums, vocals; Mike Gordon: bass, vocals; Page McConnell: keyboards, vocals.

Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Rhino/Warner Strategic Marketing | Style: Jam Band


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