12/30 Long Island Newsday Review

Thanks to dharma41@aol.com for posting this to rec.music.phish
From Long Island Newsday
Tuesday, January 2, 1996

Phish Pushes Envelope of Arena Rock
Rock Review: Phish: Amphibious arena-rock conceptualists. Saturday Night,
Madison Square Garden

By Richard Gehr
(Reprinted without permission)

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 conciousness. The Vermont-based improvising-rock
quartet Phish shows no sign of falling off the crest of a decade-long
musical ascent. And with its 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 its fanatic concert following.

Phish's audience - which here included a girl dressed as an angel and
concertgoers in T-shirts bearing such slogans as "Plays well with others"
- keeps the band on its toes. Fan scrutiny inspires the band constantly to
mix up setlists, moods and expectations, leading to at least one
significant musical or conceptual surprise on any given night. Saturday
night's show, the first of a two-night stand that concluded 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 1970's, 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 2.5 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 experementation ("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 its 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 ecstacy
conveyed by the best gospel music.

The only thing separating Phish from mass popularity is the group's
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.

Andrew Gadiel