Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

Phish at Madison Square Garden 12/30/95

by Richard Gehr
From Newsday, 31 December 1995

PHISH. Ambitious arena-rock conceptualists. Saturday night, 12/30/95, Madison Square Garden, Manhattan.

Through some deliciously inexplicable irony, the world's most interesting rock band is filling the country's larger venues while making hardly a dent on mainstream rock consciousness. The Vermont-based improvising-rock quartet Phish shows no sign of falling off the crest of a decade-long musical ascent. And with their uncompromising live double-CD album A Live One reaching the high middle of Billboard's album chart, the group's appeal derives almost entirely from their fanatic concert following.

Phish's audience -- which here included a girl dressed as an angel and T-shirts bearing such slogans as "Plays well with others" -- keeps the band on its toes. Fan scrutiny inspires the band to constantly mix up set lists, moods, and expectations, leading to at least one significant musical or conceptual surprise on any given night. Tonight's show, the first of a two-night stand that concludes with the band's annual triple-set New Year's Eve marathon, began with a first set resembling the group's usually more exploratory second sets. It also toyed with the band's "Gamehendge" mythology, a Tolkien-esque song cycle composed by guitarist Trey Anastasio.

After more than a decade together, Phish has evolved from a pretentious hippie bar band into something like conceptual artists who've taken arena rock as their raw material. They've made a career out of investigating the limits of the form, and managed to avoid both cynicism and facile irony in the process. Any band can goof on the "2001" theme; but when Phish covers jazz-fusioneer Deodato's version from the early 1970s, it's more than a joke but less than mere homage. Combined with the imaginative lighting that gives the group its highly theatrical visual impact (not to mention the clearest sound I've ever heard at Madison Square Garden), the song sums up all the corn and magnificence of large, expensive rocksmanship.

A typically generous (at two and a half hours of music) and particularly consistent Phish show, the evening wended its way through power pop ("Suzie Greenberg"), grand arena anthems ("Simple"), Hebrew prayer ("Avenu Malkenu"), bar-band blues ("AC/DC Bag")," free-form experimentation ("David Bowie"), Caribbeanism ("Ya Mar"), bluegrass ("Scent of a Mule"), and outright weirdness (the dark "Kung" chant that provoked the audience to "stage a runaway golf-cart marathon!"). Song forms, however, usually take second place to the interior improvisations they inspire. Much of Phish's mystique derives from their ability to enter improvised sonic zones that play with rising degrees of tension and release. The band will frequently take a song to an apparent musical peak, top it with an unexpected climax, then ascend one more level to something not unlike the religious ecstasy conveyed by the best gospel music.

The only thing separating Phish from mass popularity is their brains. The cheap sentiment informing most pop music has little place in a band whose idea of a good time is to play an actual ongoing chess game with its audience. Phish made its move on a large overhead board before the first set, then an audience member responded after intermission. The audience took one of the band's knights, but everybody wins in the end.

Richard Gehr is a contributing editor for Spin magazine.