New Year's Eve 1995: Live at Madison Square Garden
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2006, Volume 13, #1
Written by John Metzger
In 1995, Phish was at a critical juncture in its career, and although the outfit gave many outstanding performances in the years that followed, a case easily could be made that this was the beginning of its downfall. Faced with a massive influx of Grateful Dead fans who were forced to seek a new outlet for their nomadic lifestyle after the untimely death of Jerry Garcia, Phish struggled to cope with its newfound popularity. The gimmicks and in-jokes that had worked so well in the intimate confines of small clubs and theaters didn’t translate well into the oversized arenas that the collective now was forced to play. While the group undoubtedly was going to have to face these issues sooner or later anyway, it also is true that it was pushed into a position for which it wasn’t quite prepared.
In an attempt to boost its connection to its fans, Phish covered its tracks by staging mammoth festivals in an array of bucolic locales. At the same time, though, the inspired passages in its music grew increasingly further apart. In a sense, its gimmicks became crutches, and imprisoned by the impersonal atmosphere of an arena tour, its concerts assumed a formulaic tone. Viewed from this perspective, New Year’s Eve 1995: Live at Madison Square Garden provides an insightful glimpse at the group as it stood staring into the abyss that loomed far below its lofty pinnacle. Over the course of the show, which is featured in its entirety on the three-disc endeavor, the band highlighted its full stylistic range by blending its whimsical sense of humor with several illuminating cover songs, while adding a healthy dose of its Gamehendge mythology as well as a number of mind-blowing improvisational jams.
There’s little doubt that some aspects of Phish’s repertoire are an acquired taste, and, given that its concerts were tied theatrically to the moment in which they occurred, its performances frequently didn’t translate fully to a home-listening environment. Indeed, there are portions on New Year’s Eve 1995: Live at Madison Square Garden that quickly grow tiresome and tedious: the audience "chess match," the "time laboratory" skit that was tucked inside Fly Famous Mockingbird, the elongated countdown to midnight, the jokingly delivered rendition of Collective Soul’s Shine, and, to a lesser extent, some of its well-scripted, progressive rock textures, for example. What stands out, then, and makes the set worthwhile is the manner in which the band transformed many of its classic songs — particularly the frolicking Runaway Jim and the phantasmagorical You Enjoy Myself, though the supercharged lysergic sprawl of Mike’s Song, the frenzied spiral of Maze, the melodious drive of Weekapaug Groove, and the seamless fusion of The Who’s Drowned with its own Lizards were equally stellar — into sturdy vehicles for improvisational expression. After all, it’s when the ensemble cut the music free from its moorings and allowed it to stand on its own as an interactive conversation that it created something that was wholly captivating and utterly durable.
New Year's Eve 1995: Live at Madison Square Garden is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box