Saturday, December 31, 2005
Phish - New Years Eve 1995 @ MSG NYC
If you're anything like me, you didn't have much to do for New Years Eve. Perhaps there is just something missing... an event that you used to attend with exuberant joy and anticipation... a concert event unlike any other with a band unlike any other, maybe? Perhaps that missing something is the New Years Eve show put on by Phish? Yea, it is. But don't worry, just in time for the very eve in question, Phish finally released their famed 1995 show at Madison Square Garden in deluxe 3-CD package form to give all their devoted fans who don't have it bootlegged a chance to relive or pretend to live the experience in their own home instead of celebrating New Years listening to club tunes at a bar.
There are two types of Phish listeners: the casual listener who appreciates their sound and owns "A Picture Of Nectar" and "Farmhouse", and then there are Phish Phans who take pride in their extensive live collections and went to every show they possibly could. I happen to fall into the latter, so I'll admit right off the bat that Phish's absence has left a gapping hole in my life, or at least my summer concert life. Luckily for real Phans, there has been no lacking in Phish's live album out put since their break up, from their ever-growing Live Phish series both online and in packaged CD form which includes a 4 show "Island Tour" run from 1998 and now a stellar package of their New Years Eve show from 1995. This set will provide an extra special account of a brilliant night of Phish history, and though I doubt its substitution of short-form Phish album song writing for covers, rarities and jams will turn the uninitiated into fans, it has the potential to turn the casual listener into a die hard Phan, even if it is a over a year too late.
Of all their spectacle shows, from all the New Years Eve shows to their Halloween shows, this has been hailed as one of, if not the best Phish show of all time, and praised by Rolling Stone as one of the best concerts of the 90's. What is left to be said about it? It has a near perfect blend of Phish classics, great cover songs, composition and improvisation as well as a heavy dose of Gamehendge songs, a set of songs from Trey Anastasio's musical opus and a constant favorite of fans. Their playing and performance is as good as it gets, crisp and disciplined while being loose and free flowing at the same time, as much concerned with celebration of music as of new years eve. This is not my all time favorite Phish show due to it's exclusion of certain more essential classics ("Divided Sky", "David Bowie") and, due to it's Gamehendge-heavy set, a lack of diversity in the songs. That being said, it is all around one of the finest live Phish performances ever captured.
There is so much to love about this set it would be difficult to narrow it down. Every single song performed in this show became the best version of that song up to that point, and many have remained their best versions to this day. There is an overwhelming and absorbing feeling of divine inspiration, expertly-honed skill and pure wild fun within every note played, especially in the extended improvising and jamming.
If you can get your crowd chanting "Hey" by the first minute then you're setting yourself up for a good set, and the funky "Punch You in the Eye" works like a charm. The "Reba" played on this set is one of the most transcendent experiences in Phish listening where Trey follows his heart and takes the already heavenly song to new levels of grace and beauty. Trey glides on the higher notes of his guitar, sustaining a level of quick-paced note changes and free-flow soaring to building the inspired jam to it's eventual blistering climax as the paced drumming of Fishman compliments the full piano that accompanies Trey's guitar. This vibe is continued with an incredible piano/guitar duet into layered jam on one of the best "Squirming Coil"'s that I've heard. Page McConnell has an impressive command of the piano making him able to harness all kinds of emotion through the wide variety of notes his fingers grace. His lyrical solo tugs at the heart strings and, unlike most Phish songs, brings his undeniable talent to the forefront. Matched with Trey's master guitar playing, the Keith Jarrett-esque solo in the middle really makes this "Squirming Coil" something to celebrate. This is immediately followed by a perfect version of another long-form live classic, "Maze", one of the best songs to hear live because it’s a blast of fun where the jam retains the spirit of the original composition and returns to it at the end. All of this just in the first half of the first set.
The whole show, and especially the first set contain a very large amount of Gamehendge material, with the always fun "Colonel Forbin's Ascent" and "Fly Famous Mockingbird" interrupted, as always, by Trey's Gamehendge-mythology speech and a thankfully short cover of the then chart topping hit by Collective Soul, "Shine", sung by Phish lyricist Tom Marshall. On this particular telling of the Gamehendge story, Trey includes the little known truth about Phish that, aside from being the hardest working band in show business, they are also responsible for the passing of time. They act this out at in full costume. The set closes with a flawless version of the fast and fun ditty "Sparkle" and an energetic, albeit quick run through "Chalk Dust Torture", yet another concert favorite for it's rootsy rock quality, easily one of the only plausible radio singles in the Phish collection. "Chalk Dust" covers the spectrum of being a display of either their talent at kicking ass or their talent at expansive path-finding jams, and they went with the former for this night which was a fabulous way to end a set that began in the same vein.
For the preceding tour Phish had engaged the audience in a massive game of chess using an oversized board and announcing each piece move to the crowd. Phish left the game tied at the second set, culminating a wonderful experiment in theatrics and audience/band interaction that Phish became known for around this time in their career. In addition to this now unique large-scale staged spectacle, set two packs in everything that makes their shows great. It starts with a stunning cover of The Who's "Drowned", played for the first time since their ambitious performance of the entire Quadrophenia album at their previous Halloween show. Phish loves to cover great songs, and the audience loves it too, but what makes it so special is when the band really makes the material their own. Any fan knows Phish has the expertise to give justice to any great song of their choice, but to make it a live Phish standard and assimilate the song writing of someone like Pete Townsend with a truly outstanding jam is something that makes a Phish show what it is. Continuing in the Gamehendge tradition of the first set, "Lizards", with it's humorous story of a Lizard knight and delicate guitar piece at the end establishes a confident and amusing middle ground to the set. "Axilla (Part II)" gets things jumping as one of the hardest rocking Phish songs in their catalog and pumps out a huge amount of energy before the extended jams that are to follow.
"Runaway Jim" and "Mike's Song" stand out as maybe the best two of the entire show. This "Runaway Jim" is incredible and turns into a funky keyboard outing for Page McConnell until the whole band joins him in an experimental display of their improvising talent. "Mike's Song", which is traditionally broken up by the beautiful centerpiece called "I Am Hydrogen" and merged with "Weekagpaug Groove" was given different treatment for the new year as the band followed through with an 18 minute gloriously epic jam that goes from lush to avant and stays absolutely mind-bending and all-consuming until the spacey end. The "Mike's Song" jam has long been a favorite of mine in all its forms, and this has become my immediate new favorite. It reaches a level of beauty and invention that defines the band at it's best. Above the multitude of other achievements in live performing within this set, "Mike's Song" stands out as musical journey all it's own. Beginning with it's fun-loving but underdeveloped first section where Mike Gordon sings in an almost comically falsetto style, to the building "2001"-like pace, and deep into a full band free-form which never meanders or fizzles but instead gathers momentum and blows out from a great galloping guitar jam, which shows Trey in top form, to a highly experimental, spacey echoing mellowness that is a perfect way to fade into the new year.
These two songs complete the balance in this set where the rest of it might have been quite favorable in all its own separate qualities but would not have displayed Phish's now unbelievable psychic connection on stage or their knack for taking the audience further than they've ever been before. Up until this point in the show there wasn't as much of an element of the unexpected, despite the sheer greatness of it all. In between these cornerstones are two rare gems: "Strange Design", the beautiful “it’s all ok” kind of ballad with fantastic lyrics penned by
The third set, which begins just before the hour, brings the listener in on Phish's classic stage antics as they are dressed in mad scientist costumes in the "Gamehendge Time Phactory" where they mix potions and make it possible for another year to go by. At Trey hits a tender spot with an absolutely delightful and nostalgic instrumental guitar version of "Auld Lang Syne" and then kicks right into the thumping, though oddly placed "Weekapaug Groove", which would floor any first time listener as well as any die hard fan. The 17+ minutes of this live staple seamlessly turn from the funky bass signature of Mike Gordon to the prickly twisting bounce of Trey's guitar lines and finally segues right into the somber piano of yet another Who cover, "Sea and Sand".
If an intense "Weekapaug" doesn't complete your passing from one your to the next, the last "You Enjoy Myself" of 1995 will certainly do it for you. This has been a resounding favorite of every single Phan in the world because, like this show itself, it is made up of all the parts that make Phish an incredibly enlightening experience. The opening is complex and challenging while retaining a dancability, the goal of most Phish music, and it's middle solo section is dazzling and out of this world. For anyone who has read this far and is not already a major fan of this song, live versions of "You Enjoy Myself" are traditionally followed by one of the more interesting forms of free-form improvising - vocal a Capella jams. This night's vocal jam was particularly spellbinding, blending haunting howls, muffled sentences or conversation and various humming sounds to be the spookiest, if not most intense ends to one of the best "YEM"'s ever.
Inventing playful new tunes through the expansion of groove, Phish turns each song into a brand new and endlessly rewarding experience with every jam. The tedious narcissism implied in an 18 minute live version of a 4 minute song that is usually assumed by a normal listener is an idea that hasn't even been given birth to in the mind of a Phish Phan. It is not because they are trained to, as a critic once said, let the band piss in their mouths and act like it's wine, it is because they know from experience that when Phish plays for themselves they play for their fans. This is the balance natural to a Phish show, and it is only through releases like this CD set that the rest of the world can get a peak at the magic.
This show is exemplary not just in its content but in its sound design as well. It was recorded by long-time Phish sound engineer Paul Languedoc, who is also responsible for the impeccable sound on the first classic Phish live album from the same time period, A Live One. For a band that relies on keen interplay between 4 instruments, some times delicate and some times blisteringly bombastic and roaring, the sound plays an absolutely key role in the end result of the show. All tracks were then remixed by Elliot Scheiner, who is also responsible for the sound on the IT DVD, from the original 40-track digital recording. I don't think I have ever heard a live recording this well done before, it serves its source completely resulting in the most enjoyable and meaningful listening experience possible, which is absolutely necessary for listening to and really hearing a Phish show.
One of the great things about this set missing from the normal bulging catalog of Live Phish is the booklet inside containing some great pictures that let the listener see the necessary visuals they had missed. For instance, without the booklet you would have no idea that in-between sets they performed the ritual shaving of drummer Jon Fishman so he could become the New Years Baby, and you see just how far Phish will go to impress their audience and have fun with their Time Phactory set complete with large clear pipes which... well, I'm sure they do something. Who knows how time manufacturing works, anyway? It also includes an informative essay by music journalist Parke Puterbaugh who attended both holiday shows and gives an interesting personal perspective on this famous night in Phish history.
Phish has built a career on phenomenal live performing in which they perfect their talent for improvising while writing new rules for the standards of what a "live performance" really means. Since my first Phish show I have never judged live bands the same way and never will again. Phish knew what it meant to celebrate because their music was based on the celebration of life, so when they actually set out to celebrate a holiday you know right away that you're in for something remarkable. You will never see a room filled with more smiles than you will at a Phish show because the energy produced by the fans is matched by that of the performers, and anyone there, including the band, wouldn't want to be anywhere else. This fantastic set captures exactly that and exactly where this legendary live band was in their performance. This was a special night during a year of Phish that will go down in history as their undisputed best. If we have to live in a world without Phish, at least there can be releases like this that remind us of how good live music can really be.