NEW YEAR'S EVE 1995
Live at Madison Square Garden
Phish wants you to party like it’s 1995 and to assist you they have released this three-CD set in celebration of the 10th anniversary of their concert that Rolling Stone dubbed one of the 10 best of the ‘90s and is also considered one of the best Phish shows of all-time in a number of fan polls.
Phish followed the Grateful Dead business model for musicians and had great success with it. They were road warriors who toured extensively and developed a huge following because of it. They were more interested in the live performance rather than creating albums. They aren’t the best singers or the best musicians, but they were sincere and earnest in their commitment to putting on a good show and having a good time. A spirit shared by all in attendance and even those who couldn’t get a miracle ticket.
Phish understood the importance of the fans and interacted with them. They created fun events like the Halloween shows where they created musical costumes by covering entire albums, such as The Beatles and The Talking Heads' Remain in Light and festivals like the Great Went, IT and Big Cypress. They allowed concerts to be taped and traded, drove through the campground at 3 am playing on the back of a flatbed truck during The Clifford Ball and played chess with the audience. As of this night in '95, the band surrendered after losing their Queen; the score at the end of the year was Band 1, Audience 1.
But Phish aren’t Dead clones. Their sound was different, more jazz improv than folk tradition. They had a willingness to dabble in other genres and have a lot more fun with music. One of my favorite tunes is the calypso-tinged “The Lizards”. It’s a perfect song for dancing while holding an umbrella-garnished tropical drink.
When the Dead covered a song, they made it their own. When Phish covered a song, they took the song’s approach as can be heard on the faithfully raucous “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter. It was one the best songs of the concert and made me wish they had rocked a little harder over the course of the night. They also sing a perfect barbershop version of "Hello My Baby."
Songs from their catalog are sprinkled throughout the set with a good portion coming from the legendary The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, also known as Gamehendge. The project was the senior thesis of guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio. It makes sense to deal with time on this night of great temporal change, but I’m surprised the songs are played out of order, but in matters of time who knows what is appropriate. In the middle of “Fly Famous Mockingbird” Anastasio talks about being stuck in time, like the year 1994, and what impact that would have on music. The band then launches into a snippet of Collective Soul’s “Shine” sung by Phish lyricist Tom Marshall.
A couple of songs from The Who’s Quadrophenia make their way into the set list. The band had played the entire album a few months prior on Halloween in Chicago, so they grace the audience with “Drowned”, which closes with an extended instrumental at the end and “Sea and Sand”.
They have some jams and noodling that works and other times they miss the mark, but that’s the understood risk you take when you venture into the unknown. “You Enjoy Myself" is a long, wielding musical suite where the band members venture off separately and together creating quite a musical landscape that ends with a very bizarre, six-minute section that starts with incoherent whispering and ends with a four-way wailing chant.
New Year’s Eve presents a good insight into the musical aspect of the band. You hear the different genres they explore and discover the humor they have. This concert, where they deliver three sets, is already considered a classic by Phish fans, so it is certainly a good peak inside to hear what the fuss was about, but a DVD would do a better job of capturing the essence of the experience because it wasn’t solely regulated to audio.
The visuals played an important part, as did the moment you were sharing with other like-minded folk. Plus, the concert was only a portion of the event, the middle act of the day’s adventure, the before and after activities in the parking lot could be filled with just as many wonderful and memorable activities, much like marveling at The Blue Angels flying overhead before The Dead or the drunken bikini bash before a Jimmy Buffet show.
Still, it is an amazing document by one of the most consistently successful bands throughout the decade. And the sound quality is better than any tape that's been floating around in your buddy's VW bus.