It's sometimes said that a Phish New Year's Show does a pretty good job of summing up the year as a whole, and New Year's 1996 would seem to fit this to a tee; highly enjoyable, albeit thoroughly planned in advance with minimal spontaneity and somewhat stagnant improvisation (the band has even admitted as much). In 1996, setlists had reached a level of predictability to the point where my boys and I were able to spend the second setbreak of the New Year's show calling Set III in its entirety"...in order (Bohemian Rhapsody notwithstanding). Like most 1996 shows, you can more or less judge your enjoyment of the show based off of how it looks on paper. This is hardly to imply that New Year's 1996 wasn't an extremely fun show to attend; the impassioned playing, incredible balloon drop and general holiday spirit more than made up for the lack of inventive jamming, or surprises in the setlist.
Though it suffers from "you had to be there" type moments, Set III was easily the highlight of the evening, with the 70,000+ balloon drop during a raging "Disease" making for quite a funhouse-like environment (not to mention the fact that some guy dumped an entire beer on my head). And unlike 1997, the majority of the balloons somehow managed to end up in the audience, not on the stage. The remainder of the set (pre-choir) almost felt like amphetamine fueled Phish, with extra speedy (not to mention lovingly sloppy) versions of "Suzy" and "Antelope" to follow. And yes, the band completely nailed "Bohemian Rhapsody", not surprising considering that this was the same band that nailed the Talking Heads' career masterpiece two months earlier. Unfortunately, the "Julius" set closer suffered from the fact that the gospel choir was extremely difficult to hear.
However, I would be doing this show a great injustice by not giving a considerable shootout to my longtime friend/Phish show buddy Kevin Finkel, who deserves a Phishy purple heart for buying a counterfeit ticket at the last minute, and (not yet being 21) spending the majority of the show in a parking garage. It was not a pleasant evening for young Kevin, compounded by the fact that because our group got split up pre-show, we didn't realize he wasn't in the Fleet Center until after the show was over (this was also before the age of cell phones). Kevin Jonathan Finkel, for your bravery in times of crisis on a cold Boston evening, Phish nation salutes you.