Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Phish new Draft (abridged for Blogcritics, the impatient)

This review also featured on Cleveland.com

If you're anything like me, you didn't have much to do for New Years Eve. Perhaps there is just something missing... 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 already have it bootlegged a chance to relive or pretend to live the experience in their own home instead of celebrating New Years listening to reggaeton at a bar, a fade that we all hope will pass with the new year.

Of all their spectacle shows, from all the New Years Eve shows to their Halloween shows, NYE 1995 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.
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. 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.

The first set starts and ends with the same adreneline that is coursing through the fans and the band on this celebratory evening. If you can get your entire stadium-sized 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 for an opener. 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.
The "Squirming Coil" that follows is one of the best that I've heard. Page McConnell has an impressive command of the piano making him able to harness all kinds of emotion, 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. An energetic, albeit quick run through "Chalk Dust Torture" closes the set in stellar form because it covers the spectrum of being a display of either their talent at kicking ass or their talent at expansive path-finding jams, and having already outdone themselves with the latter 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 seldomly attempted 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 and assimilate the song writing of someone like Pete Townsend with a truly outstanding jam. "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.

Phish has an unbelievable psychic connection on stage and a knack for taking the audience further than they've ever been before. New Years Eve's "Runaway Jim" and "Mike's Song" stand out as maybe the best two examples of this in the entire show. This "Runaway Jim" is incredible as it focuses its liberating jam 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. It builds to the "2001"-like pace, and plumets 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.

The third set, which begins just before the midnight 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, placing the blame squarely on them. Thanks a lot, Phish. At midnight 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 song 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. Its beginning 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. Live versions of "You Enjoy Myself" are usually followed by one of the more interesting forms of free 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.

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. All tracks were then remixed by Elliot Scheiner from the original 40-track digital recording. For a band that relies on keen interplay between 4 instruments, the sound plays an absolutely key role in the end result of the show. I don't think I have ever heard a live recording this well done before. The result is the most enjoyable and meaningful listening experience possible, which is absolutely necessary for listening to and really hearing a Phish show.

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. 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 is an idea assumed by a normal listener but rejected by Phans because they know from experience that when Phish plays for themselves they play for their fans. The contents of this set are the things that make a Phish set whole and kept them on the cutting edge, or rather making the cutting edge wherever they were at the time.

This fantastic deluxe set captures exactly that and exactly where this legendary live band was in their career at this, one of their most creative and musically prolific years. It provides 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 or unwilling 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. At the very modest list price of $29.95, I highly recommend this set to all adventurous listeners. 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.

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