Good luck getting hard-core Phish fans to agree on the band’s best show, but for many die-hards this 1995 New Year’s Eve celebration at New York’s Madison Square Garden is at the top of the list. Phish’s highly anticipated December 31st gigs were usually the capstones of a year of relentless touring, and 1995 was a breakout year for guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman: Affirming the strength of the jam audience in the face of Jerry Garcia’s death in August, they released their first official live album, unveiled a bunch of new songs on the road and played the Who’s Quadrophenia in full at the Halloween show in Chicago.
This three-CD set documents the band’s first New Year’s Eve show at the Garden. You can hear direction and purpose in every jam: The playful “Reba” (from 1990’s Lawn Boy) morphs from its classical fugue into a soaring free-form exploration. On “You Enjoy Myself,” Anastasio delivers a John Coltrane-like solo, before the group segues into an energetic funk-rock jam, which then dissolves into a spooky a cappella excursion.
It’s the short, fun tunes that capture the spirit of the night, though: “Axilla (Part II)” and “Chalk Dust Torture” are adrenaline-fueled sprints. The covers – the Who’s “Drowned” and “Sea and Sand”; a goofy take on Collective Soul’s torturous hit “Shine”; and a rip-roaring encore of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” — are inflected with such a Phish-y flavor you’d think they wrote them.
This set could benefit from some video footage of Phish’s midnight countdown antics (which included Fishman appearing as a diaper-and-bonnet-clad Baby New Year). But serious fans will be happy just to see this handsome package, and newcomers will get a chance to hear what the fuss was about.