Review Summary: Phish really hit there peak during this performance. Displaying incredible musicianship and putting quite a show, MSG '95 is one of if not the live album in the jam band genre.
This is quite a long review, I'll make it easier if you are looking to find out about a specific aspect/part of this album. If you are wondering about the actual show the band put on, and not so much about the musical aspect, then the first part of this review is for you. If you are looking to see how the band did musically speaking, then scroll down four paragraphs (not including this one). And yes, I did listen to the entirety of this album as I wrote this. Hope you enjoy!
MSG '95 is a three and a half hour performance including 3 full sets, and spans 3 discs. When it was finally released in 2006 it won the Album of the Year award at the 6th Annual Jammy Awards, is considered one of the "Greatest Concerts of the 90's" by Rolling Stone Magazine, and is said by the members of Phish to be one of their top five concerts ever (which is quite a feat keeping in mind the 20 volumes of officially released live Phish shows which are part of the Live Phish series).
The set list was composed of a good variety of songs from all of their studio albums up to this point, as well as a few that have not been released on any studio albums (Punch You In The Eye, and Mike's Song). Over the course of the night, Phish played enough Gamehendge songs to give the fans an overall idea (for those who didn't know) of what Gamehendge was without playing out every song in the story. Gamehendge is the basis for Phish's first album, "The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday" which describes a retired Colonel's travels through the mythical place of Gamehendge. If anyone would like further or more detailed information about Gamehendge or TMWSIY I can post a brief synopsis of it, all you have to do is ask. Almost a fourth of the songs from the night are from or relate to TMWSIY.
Also encased within this album are a few outstanding covers. The barber shop quartet version of "Hello My Baby" is entertaining and a bit funny at the same time. Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" is nothing to special, but still a fun listen. The Who also make an appearance here with the songs "Drowned" and "Sea And Sand" which were both released on their Quadrophenia album.
The night was also full of exciting memories audibly and visually. The infamous "Auld Lang Syne" is played during the transition from '95 to '96. During "You Enjoy Myself" the band brought out trampolines, and during the second half of the song Mike and Trey jumped in synchrony, as well as performing the last minute or so of the a cappella as heard on their first official release "The White Tape". The third set opened with all four band members dressed as scientists playing with synths while lights flashed and generators zapped. Drummer Jon Fishman was lifted up in a bed as Father Time and was reborn as the Baby New Year. Also, throughout 1995 the band had ongoing chess games with audience, in which once every concert the band would make a move followed by a counter audience move, and was then left the same and carried to the next show to continue. Phish had won a game when the audience conceded a little over a month before, making the score 1-0 in there favor. However, as announced in "Audience Chess Move" on this night, that the band was conceding due to a brilliant move during the set break when an audience member took there queen, making the score at the end of 1995 Phish 1, Audience 1.
The vocals for this performance were as good if not better than I could've hoped. There harmonies are spot on. I was especially impressed by Trey's voice, which is more powerful on this album than on any studio I've heard. It's full of emotion and passion. The band's harmonies are also spot on.
Now onto the actual jamming that takes place during the three sets at MSG. Trey's solo are really a huge standout on this album; technically he is sound and yet still is able to experiment with effects and odd time signatures. "Chalkdust Torture" is largely driven by his outstanding guitar solo which astounds me to this day. As mentioned earlier, "Mike's Song" and "You Enjoy Myself" both clear the 20 minute mark. "Mike's Song" contains some dazzling riffs from Trey that lead the band in a completely different direction from where you thought they were going to go. A big downside is that Mike's bass is on the quiet side for the majority of this concert, for someone who hasn't heard a lot of live Phish it would be relatively difficult to tell when he pioneers a new groove and starts to lead the band into a jam himself. Rest assure though, that when the band launches into more bluegrass/sourthern styled jams, Mike is responsible. These parts are hard to pick out during this night. The band doesn't really go into full blown Bluegrass jams, rather there is just a brief whiff of it at times during the show.
Jon Fishman is a part of the rhythm section of the band more than the jamming part. While every fill is different from the previous one, and he at times deviates from the original beat to the song, it's hard to tell if he is a driving force in the free form jamming aspect of Phish, or if he is more about keeping the band together while they are doing that. The other band members seem to latch on to him during parts, but more so to get back into the song they jammed out of or are jamming into, and not so much to look for to lead their jam into realms unknown.
I know I've said this before, but I just can't stress how tight the band played. Of the hundreds of concerts I've listened to they sound the most focused on this album. They seem to have a clear idea of what there next step is, and what they think will turn into a sick jam and what won't. However like I said, as stupendous as the jamming is, it isn't incredibly original. There are times when something completely out of left field comes into the mix, but it appears as if a lot of the jams are more centered around tightness rather than exploration.
In the end MSG '95 is at the top of my list for live albums in any respect, meaning not just by a jam band. The set list is killer, and has a wide variety of songs and music styles. I would recommend to fans looking to either become familiarized with Phish or with the Jam scene in general. This album is a great introduction to both.
Rating: 4.5/5 A must have album for any fan of live or progressive music, and especially for fans of Phish.
Note: I was going to put in an observation I have made recently about the band's live show in general, and not just from this concert I decided against it though. It deals a bit with the use of drugs and is not of great importance with this particular album. So if anyone wants to hear it then I can post it, but if not then I'll hold off seeing as how it is not the most appropriate of observations.