Unwrapping the Old Testament of Phish: New Year’s Eve 1995, Live from Madison Square Garden

1995 was a year that defined the 1990s. Michael Jordan came out of retirement to return to the game of basketball. OJ Simpson’s verdict was “Not Guilty.” TLC encouraged listeners to stop chasing waterfalls. Pixar changed the future of animated films with the release of Toy Story. And if you were in the jamband music scene, you experienced a seismic shift in the atmosphere.  

Just 49 days after Jerry Garcia passed on August 9, Phish kicked off a massive 1995 Fall Tour in the guitarist’s home state of California. The Vermont foursome played more than 50 shows through December, hitting over 30 states and making a pitstop in Canada. Fans will argue over the best shows (or even best month) during this transformative time period, but most are in agreement that The Who’s Quadrophenia Halloween show in Rosemont, Illinois was a career-defining moment for one of the year’s top-grossing acts just half-way through the megatour. 

Official poster for 10/31/95 by Jim Pollock

As the rising stars ripped through the frigid Northeast in December, they were only getting hotter in their raunchy, rock-forward, improvisational playing and it all culminated on Sunday, December 31, 1995 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The date marked the third time Phish would play “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” but the first time they would sell it out for New Year’s Eve. From the 12/29/95 Worchester show to the 12/30/95 opening night at the Garden, it was hard to imagine how the well-polished act would continue getting better night after night, but Phish is always poised to shock the brain. 

There was and always will be a special energy when you see Phish’s name in big bright letters on the midtown Manhattan marquee. As Jon Fishman’s father so eloquently put it, he realized his son had “made it” after the band played their first performance to a capacity NYC crowd on 12/30/1994. As fans anxiously anticipated the first note of the last show of 1995, they were greeted by their hungry party hosts with the first-ever, one-two punch of “Punch You in the Eye” and “Sloth.” It was a high-energy attempt to sonically bottle the energy of the 1995 Fall Tour and to kick off a show considered by Rolling Stone as “one of the best live performances of the ’90s.” 

Flip to page 824 of the 2nd Edition of The Phish Companion, and you’ll find that five of the songs performed that night are considered some of the “best versions ever.” With a fiery first set “Reba,” the second set’s “Runaway Jim” and closer of “Mike’s Song” to introduce the Gamehendge Time Factor laboratory loop, and the unfinished and unhinged “Weekapaug Groove” from Set III with a “YEM” to top it all off, Phish had made a statement—not only in their community—but in the history of live music. They showed the world what fans had been trying to say for over a decade. They were not just a talented, pot-smoking cover band from Vermont, although they did have the chops to cover and expand upon some of the most highly regarded artists in the rock genre. Any band can cover a popular song to get a reaction from the crowd, but Phish reinvents the music they love, and one example of this is their nod to The Who in Set II’s “Drowned” > “Lizards” opener. Not only did the band double the length of the Quadrophenia studio version, but they interweaved the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” to pay tribute to a band that had sold out six shows at the Garden just 14 months prior. Look past the epic jams, the tribute to legendary rock bands, the New Year’s Eve shenanigans, and the three-set masterpiece performance, and you will find a band on stage that wants fans to get their money’s worth – Phish at their core. 

The 1995 New Year’s Eve performance was a launchpad for great things to come. 1996 was the year Phish released one of their greatest studio albums in Billy Breathes; they created a blueprint for music festivals by welcoming 70,000 fans to North America’s largest concert event of the summer, The Clifford Ball; brought their unique sound across Europe; dressed up as The Talking Heads for Remain in Light on Halloween; and claimed the throne as the most popular jamband of the 1990s. And they were just getting started. 

But the purpose of this piece was never to recap one of the greatest shows in Phishtory, that has been dozens of times before. I’m here to tell you why it sparked a new generation of Phish fans nearly 10 years later.

This is the story of the New Year’s Eve 1995 – Live at Madison Square Garden, the official album release. 

If you were in high school during the early 2000s, you had limited ability to enjoy Phish like your cooler, older family members (or maybe even parents). With the first hiatus in 2002 followed by the official farewell in 2004, it felt like maybe you just weren’t cut out to go on a full summer tour with your future college buddies like you dreamed about sitting in Earth Science, doodling pictures of ugly pigs in your notebook. 

The internet was starting to get better, but looked nothing like what it does today in 2020. We didn’t have smartphones for Spotify, LivePhish, 4K professionally shot footage, or a girthy YouTube catalog of Vermont’s greatest rock band. You could risk destroying your family’s Gateway or Dell PC by downloading Phish shows from Limewire or Napster, but a lot of them were low quality, poorly recorded, or not even actually Phish (see their “Gin & Juice” cover) and took days to transfer. Apple iPods were expensive, and the use of .mp3s was becoming more common for those somewhat technologically-advanced, but didn’t completely take over until later that decade. 

We did have CDs. 

Before 2005, the year I graduated high school, the only officially-released Phish shows you would find in retail record stores were Slip Stitch and Pass, A Live One, Hampton Comes Alive, and drips and drabs of the 20-set LivePhish series. If you were lucky enough to have an older friend or family member serve as a Phish mentor, you could scrounge up hand-me-down, fan-traded tapes and CDs by the dozen, but if you had no path to follow besides seeing the band at SPAC in 2004, you were shit out of luck trying to level up from “noob” status in Upstate NY. 

This all changed during the holiday season of 2005, when the retired jam band released New Year’s Eve 1995: Live from Madison Square Garden. At the time, the global Phish community was still mourning the loss of their fallen heroes much like the Deadheads of December 1995. The band members were still touring, and I was lucky enough to catch Page McConnell sit in with Trey Ananastio Band at Roseland Ballroom as a college freshman in NYC. That was NOT the Phish experience I had been dreaming about throughout high school. 

Official shirt by Jim Pollock

Santa was extra heady that Christmas and next to NBA2K6 and the iconic Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 for PlayStation 2, the best gift was undoubtedly the three-disc, week-old live release. From the opening “PYITE” on disc one, followed by “The Sloth,” I was hooked. I had never even heard “The Sloth” before Christmas morning 2005, likely because it was never officially released until that album. 

It was like in the movie Neverending Story where Sebastian finds the book and runs off to immerse himself in the incredible journey. I had spun through Slip, Stitch and Pass and A Live One until the discs were scratched and raw, but I had never understood the importance of a full show experience until MSG 1995. It was part performance and part theatrics. The show is the blueprint for quintessential Phish. Gamehendge narration, fantastic themes about the creation of time, covers from the recently performed musical costume The Who’s Quadrophenia, and of course, driven improvisation. In the twelve years of Phish music up to that show, December 1995 is widely considered the best. An entire tour of above-average shows was summarized during that hallowed night in the world’s most sacred rock space. 

The live release made a new generation of fans appreciate the show as much as those that were in attendance. It made us extremely jealous we were still in elementary school in December 1995, and if we had just known about Trey Anastasio, maybe he would have been even more important than Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, or Hootie & the Blowfish. 

Big egos can get in the way of sharing in the groove and surrendering to the flow. The most obsessed Phish fans like to think they know more, feel more, and enjoy more than their fellow fan. Although I wasn’t fortunate enough to see Phish 1.0 and barely caught the tail end of Phish 2.0, I was able to listen to the Old Testament of Phish and memorize one of their greatest shows from the front of “PYITE” to the back of the “Johnny Be Good” encore. New Year’s Eve 1995: Live at Madison Square Garden proves that everyone begins their journey in different ways. And if you want to learn how to swim, you’ve got to jump in the water. 

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