Of course, there ARE some truly classic shows in 1996, and some of the fun as a fan is to sort through and find the ones you consider best. To me, then, the best of 1996 is not one of the officially released shows, but this gem from the New Years run, when the band was beginning to edge towards the minimalism that made 1997 such a joy to listen to (thanks to the Halloween show and the lessons learned from adapting Remain in Light), but hadn't quite snapped everything into place yet. The first set of this show is a fine example of what a good first set (as opposed to a classic first set) would look like, with some nice jams, smart flow and song selection, and something to talk about at set break like the beautiful rendition of The Squirming Coil here. The Taste is rock gold, and La Grange is definitely not played enough, so those count as solid highlights as well.
As always, the second set is where it's at, and this second set reminds me of the famed 12/30/97 show, with super-deep jams alternating with big goofy fun stuff to mark the show as a New Year's run event. Bowie gets the party started off right, with a pitch-black, claustrophobic jam that builds up powerful tension with the clanking energy that defined mid-90's Phish before letting it all go in the traditional guitar-virtuoso closing section, every instrument being absolutely bludgeoned into submission. A Day In The Life, while oddly placed (it's such a good closing song, wouldn't you think?), helps cool things down before the band launches into Gin, which is a very nice Type I version with Page blessing us with some shimmering complementary organ work. The Gin jam leads into an always fun Lizards (I always get a kick out of the crowd cheer at "the trick is to surrender to the flow"), and immediately after The Lizards wraps up we get into a truly classic YEM. The jam out of the tramps section is very hot, and the Rotation Jam (I wish I knew for certain who was playing what) is also tremendously energetic and upbeat, to the point that you'd just think it was a great jam without knowing that there had been instrument switching going on (although the lack of prominent guitar probably would've had you suspecting something). As the jam reaches its natural conclusion, Mike begins fooling around on the grand piano, and (of all things) begins playing Sixteen Candles. Mike sings it so over the top that it practically burrows its way back under the top and goes over it again, which makes it even more insanely hilarious. We then get the vocal jam, which is particularly frenzied tonight, culminating in a (probably Sixteen Candles-inspired) doowop parody.
And then comes the icing on the cake - Harpua. I don't LOVE Harpua, but I don't deny how fun it is, and this particular Harpua has a special place in my heart due to the Oasis parody. I like Oasis just fine - I've liked them longer than I've liked Phish - but Champagne Supernova is by no means my favorite Oasis song, and is in fact an example of the bloated excess that ended up sinking Oasis (at least in America), so I can get a chuckle out of this song being called "the horrible sound of hell". Tom Marshall actually does a reasonable Liam Gallagher (and by "reasonable" I mean "terrible, but funny terrible"), and Phish's rendition is a funny way to lead us back into the meat of Harpua, which brings the second set to an end. Rocky Top is as good a way to close out such a night of madness as this one.
So there you are - a NYE show that can stand up to the best, with the antics, wildness, and general hilarity that you'd expect from an NYE show, along with two first-rate jams to boot. 1996 may not be my favorite year, but that doesn't stop 12/29/96 from being one of my favorite shows. Here's hoping enough people agree that one Mr. K. Shapiro takes notice some day.