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Published: 2005/12/12
by Jesse Jarnow

New Year’s Eve 1995 – Phish

Rhino Records 73275

Yes, please.

While there are several talking points one can make about Phish's performance at Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve 1995 — how it ended the first, dorky era of Vermont quartet's career, how they would soon hit a creative wall and start their second act as arena rockers two years later (with a wondrous acoustic intermission), how this music holds up against that second act, what the jams sound like compared to the music the members of Phish have made since their 2004 break-up — the most effective (at least, if the mission is to convince you to buy this product) might be to simply say that the music’s joy is entirely self-contained and perfect.

The three sets, portioned neatly onto three discs, contain a pristine rendition of Phish at their myth-making best, leader Trey Anastasio at the peak of his I'm-grinning-'cause-I-know-something-you-don't-know period. "Icculus, the prophet, stood before his eyes," Anastasio sings of his Colonel Forbin, just before delivering a fairly straight-faced monologue about how — when not on tour — Phish operate the Gamehendge Time Laboratories. At the mere mention of the character's name, the crowd erupts. Anastasio's voice quavers on the next line, first clearly surprised, then proud, that 35,000 people in New York City are taking his senior college project seriously.

He'd already given them good reason to, dotting the first set with precise, compact performances of high-octane compositions like "Reba" and "The Sloth" — and, even when he'd made his only misstep of the show, during "The Squirming Coil," keyboardist Page McConnell had flawlessly covered for him. The band charges into the cartoon tightrope of "Reba" at top speed, and sound as if they'll surely derail at any moment. But, being myth-making and all, they don't. The band is still at top-speed when they drop into the jam — the first improvisation of the night — and it's a little rushed, but the quartet are at their conversational best. McConnell completes Anastasio's phrases, dancing upwards as the guitarist skitters down. Mike Gordon intersperses the jam's heartbeat bassline with short flights of his own. When he does, the band flutters off into the Frippertronic bliss that made them so potent.

And Anastasio would continue to give the crowd reasons to take him seriously for the rest of the show. Spaced out by theatrical interludes — the first set appearance of lyricist Tom Marshall to ham his way through Collective Soul's "Shine," the second set conclusion of the tour-long band/audience chess match, the third set arrival of the New Year and drummer Jon Fishman in a diaper and bonnet — the show's five big jams were hung from an elaborate dramatic framework. And they're huge: a set-ending "Mike's Song" that fades into delay loop ether, a full-on tumble through The Who's "Drowned" that segues fershizzlebrah into Anastasio's "Lizards," a melodically resourceful "Weekapaug Groove" that falls backwards into more from The 'Oo with "Sea and Sand," a stand-alone "Runaway Jim" that flexes itself for one of the first times, and — saved for the third set — their old showpiece standby, "You Enjoy Myself."

"How awful would it be if time stopped?" Anastasio asks shortly after the crowd's cheer for Icculus. Without digressing for too long about the dangers of time machines and spent youth and gorgeously remixed Phish shows and shitty wars: suffice it to say, Trey: it wouldn't be so bad, man. Wouldn't be so bad at all.

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