From a band whose storied career spans three full decades, Niagara Falls captures Phish in their prime, at a point where the band was gaining traction… selling out large arenas, expanding and refining a diverse repertoire, and building a strong relationship with their consistently-growing fan base. The concert, recorded at the Niagara Falls Convention Center on December 7, 1995, is an expedition in early Phish, at the height of their popularity.
Phish began jamming in 1983, growing from a small arts college setting to a well-respected local band in Burlington, VT. After a cross-country road trip led to some success (see Colorado ’88), the band released soon their first album on a major record label (Lawn Boy, Elektra). At the time, the Phish live experience was unparalleled, with outlandish narrative story-telling and intriguing classical composition influences. By the time Phish played Niagara Falls in 1995, the band found themselves with an incredibly structured network of Phish fanatics.
People simply couldn’t get enough, and for good reason, too!
The Niagara Falls concert starts out with the twangy guitar tones of “Old Home Place,” an upbeat bluegrass number that gets the audience in the dancing mood. I defy you to listen to this song without so much as a foot-tap or head-bob… it is a seriously infectious tune. This segues into “The Curtain” > “AC/DC Bag,” two staples of any high-Phish diet. This “Bag” is a particularly jammy one, stretching out to nine-plus minutes. It’s nice to hear them let loose on “AC/DC Bag,” especially considering that Phish has yet to play a thoroughly-extended “AC/DC Bag” in the 3.0 era.
This song transitions into another 3.0 rarity, “Demand,” a peculiar song with eerie harmonies and prominent bass-line grooves. The song is brief, providing a haunting introduction for the fast-paced opening of “Rift,” one of my personal favorite Phish songs. “Slave to the Traffic Light” comes next, with an interesting mid-set placement (the song is more commonly used to end a set), but never fails to deliver an excellently flowing jam. From here, we get “Guyute,” “Bouncing Around the Room,” an excellent “Possum,” and an set-closing a cappella performance of “Hello My Baby.”
That Phish would perform an entire set of original music, bookended by adaptations of traditional covers (“Old Home Place” and “Hello My Baby”), speaks to their awareness as artists. “Hello My Baby” was first written in 1889 (a full 124 years old), and is the first well-known song about the telephone. By choosing this tune, and by performing it a cappella, Phish both aligned themselves with a long musical tradition, and coyly expressed their sense of humor. It works, it’s great, and it’s a real treat to hear, some eighteen years later.
The second set begins with an Audience Chess Move. During the 1995 tour, Phish started a chess match against their audience, in which a single member of the audience would be chosen to make a chess move at each concert. It’s an interesting example of the Phish-audience concert dynamic, and very symbolic of our adulation for the band. This leads them into a particularly “out-there” performance of “Split Open and Melt,” which splits open and melts for seventeen rip-roaring minutes, delving into foreign keys and unknown waters before subtly closing with the song’s original melody. Melt… split open and melt…
After a standard “Strange Design,” the band tackles the then-new composition, “Taste.” This has a slightly different arrangement as the modern version, and it’s interesting to compare the old with the new. A faster-than-usual “Reba” (without whistling), funky-as-usual “Julius,” comical-as-usual “Sleeping Monkey,” and deviously-upbeat-as-usual “Sparkle” round out the majority of the second set. The band follows up with a “Mike’s Song” that directly transitions into “Weekapaug Groove,” without so much as a notion of Hydrogen. This “Weekapaug” grooves its way into a “Digital Delay Loop Jam” (credited as a separate track on phish.net but not on the album itself), an ethereal whirlwind of psychedelic experimentation. It almost sounds like they’re experimenting for the sake of experimentation, though this somewhat aimless jam does finish with a powerful crescendo. Of course, after an extended journey through the realms of musical psychedelia, Phish closes the second set with an a cappella rendition “Amazing Grace.” Amazing!
Wrap it all up with an “Uncle Pen” encore, and toss in a slowed-down “Old Home Place” soundcheck jam, and you have yourself an exceptional live release. Niagara Falls captures the musical essence of 1995, 1.0-era Phish. From the experimental space jams, the double a cappella set closers, and the pure bliss of the band’s original music, this is one joyous slice of fabled Phish-tory.
-David Melamed (@DMelamz)