, attached to 1998-12-30

Review by Anonymous

(Published in the second edition of The Phish Companion...)

Madison Square "Grind"
Tom Marshall tends to celebrate New Years Eve a night early. So it wasn't a surprise that Phish's primary scribe decided to deliver his traditional Holiday Prank twenty-four hours before most of the world uttered the hymn "Auld Lang Syne." But, instead of offering a zany cover or odd-pop culture parody, as had become the December 30th custom, Marshall gave fans another sort of treat at the tail end of 1998: a quick, rough Billy Breathes outtake called "Grind."
At the time it seemed a bit strange for Phish to poke fun at its own canon. For much of their career the group's archives were somewhat shut, relying more on intangible theatrics than personal baggage to build Phish's on-stage persona. Yet sometime around New Years 1995, things started to change. Three years since their ascent to area-rock comfort, a musical event that coincidentally culminated at Madison Square Garden New Years 1995, Phish successfully weeded out their high-school high jinks. Sure, occasional vacuum solos and cover-craziness proved Phish still didn't take themselves too seriously, but the quartet also began to take stock of their living legacy. Mail-order albums like The White Tape¬ and Trey Anastasio's One Man's Trash provided fans their first legal glimpse into Phish's creative process. Similarly, the recently released Phish Book and film Bittersweet Motel, which was in post-production during New Years 1998, allowed the band to address their audience and ponder their feelings in a concrete and uncharacteristically professional manner.
Looking back, it's fitting that Phish would poke-fun at their own musical blunders. In fact, Phish's New Years 1998 run is somewhat of a turning point for the group. When placed next to earlier New Years Gags (Flying Hot-Dogs, Oasis covers), "Grind" seems somewhat sedate and self-depreciative. Yet, as the band moved farther away from zaniness and closer to the personal ponderings that gave way to the hiatus, it seems like Phish couldn't have picked a more appropriate song to spoof.
Musically, December 30th ranks among the latter half of year's best performances. A night before New Years, the show also looked back at the group's 1998 odyssey, mixing in songs from the recently released The Story of the Ghost and old-road horses like "Down with Disease" and "Squirming Coil." Playing amongst a sea of flowers and glow-worm dancers, Phish played with a festive, youthful spark, turning Madison Square Garden into the World's Most Famous Club. The group's first four-night, single-venue, stand in two years, and their second since Nectars, Phish spent a few sets of their run getting comfortable in their temporary living quarters and used this night to truly stretch out their tunes.
Opening with "Chalkdust Torture," Phish set the stage for a "rock" focused first set. Playing four nights at the same venue also allowed the group to dig a bit deeper into their repertoire, unearthing a arena-ready version of "Big Black Furry Creatures from Mars" and a fun, always quirky, "The Old Home Place." "Frankie Says" and "Roggae" allowed Phish to play around with their vocal harmonies, an iconic trend, that symbolized the group's most communal year yet. Similarly, Phish nodded to their famed November 1998 "Wipeout show" by teasing the riff during the encore of "Possum," complete with a CK5-approved light solo.
Stylistically, 1998 is somewhat of a bridge between the previous year's "cow-funk" and the following two-year's ambient experiments. Though Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman's tight-knit rhythm still led jams like "The Moma Dance," Anasasio's axe had already became more pronounced and angular by New Years 1998. Taking a cue from his own solo-album musings, Anastasio also begun to experiment with his instrument's effects pedals and delay loops; stylistic spices that colored the group's sound until its hiatus. An unorthodox ending to "Squirming Coil," without Page McConnell's solo, and a segue into "Slave to the Traffic Light," particularly showcased this style, favoring for the first time trance over groove. Given the show's arena-rock setting, it also made sense for the group to embrace their own inner rock-star status. Ripping through "Sample in a Jar" and "Loving Cup," and allowing "Wilson's" tag to echo for a few extra minutes.
Perhaps 12/30/98 will be best known, however, for its experimental second-set. Opening with an extended, bass-heavy "Down with Disease," the quartet played around with tempo before losing the Hoist song in an altogether independent jam. Switching from that song's high-energy bridge and smooth textures to its funky underbelly, Phish bridged two eras of their career. Similarly, "Piper," still a relatively new addition to the group's regular repertoire, crashed and burned with a disheveled brilliance, complete with a glow-stick war that foreshowed the song's Camp Oswego peak.
Phish always seems to preview their newest stylistic experiments during their "surprise festival set." So it makes sense that Fall 1998 showed elements of Lemmonwheel's Brian Eno-esque minimalism creeping into their sound. Having completely abandoned composition during the recording on The Story of the Ghost, Phish began to use their songs as handles to dip into carefully layered trance.
Offering a five-song, seventy-minute set, Phish embraced their free-form freedom. Even "Prince Caspian," the set's one lullaby, featured an extended workout that emphasized the song's lush, understated guitar. As the group danced through segues, the concert's glow-worm dancers mimicked Phish's sound, making for an utterly strange, but fitting, metaphor for the show: huddling together, slowly dispersing into a sea of glow sticks, and returning together for a carefully choreographed jam.
As encore time approached, Marshall ascended to the stage to offer his New Years cover. Singing lead on the tender, yet tongue-in-cheek, "Grind," Marshall also used the opportunity to try out his own role as front man. An unintentional preview of the coming year, 1999 would see more Marshall on-stage appearances than ever, both with his Amphibian project and as Phish's on-stage jester (he would dawn a number of celebrity personas, such as Roger Daltry and Bruce Springsteen). But along with his Phish companions, Marshall used "Grind" as another sort of parody. Perhaps as a nod to set lists happy fans, Anastasio noted that this was "Grind's" world debut, and Marshall joked that it was a "big mistake" that the song never made it onto an album. Lasting just over a minute, the song seemed to symbolize Phish's place in pop culture: trying to understand their developing legacy.
Phish always tends to peak when nobody is looking. So it makes sense that the group's most reflective and musically adventurous show of this New Year's run took place a night before the holiday. Since then, the group has shifted styles and on-stage personas several times offering many more rarities and musical reflections following their post-hiatus return to form. But those fans at the Madison Square Garden will always have "Grind" as their first glimpse into Phishtory.


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