Niagara Falls showcases Phish twenty-four days before performing what Rolling Stone called “one of the greatest concerts of the 90s” at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve. What is so remarkable about this performance (just released as a three-disc set) on the Canadian border is how willing the band is to take risks.
At the end of 1995 Phish could have decided they had developed their act enough, put it on cruise control, and made millions upon millions for the rest of their career. But instead of that the band continued to experiment. And they continue to experiment in 2013, debuting 12 new songs on Halloween in Atlantic City, a ballsy move that left some fans feeling “tricked.”
Phish has always been an act extempore, which is something that separates them out from virtually every other act hitting the large venues they do. It’s difficult to find an arena act that has even one second that isn’t prescripted. It’s difficult to find an arena band that isn’t playing the exact same songs in the exact same order every night: “Thank you, Cleveland. . .uh, I mean, Baltimore!” Phish is the very rare sort of act that performs without a net, and these two sets from a chilly night in upstate New York illustrate the band’s widening range of risky moves. It’s one thing to experiment with one kind of music per night. It is quite another thing to experiment with several kinds per night.
There is bluegrass and gospel, chess and nursery rhymes, barbershop quartet and longhair guitar shredding. There’s sublime space and psychedelic dissonance, slow ballads and the blues, swing and prog rock. There’s a sleeping monkey, a woman who makes meat in her bathtub, Julius Caesar, a dancing pig, and a possum that meets with an unfortunate end. There’s a weasel that goes pop, and a weasel that you take down to the shore.
The “Mike’s Song” from Niagara Falls is a perfect example of the band’s willingness to gamble, the sort of gamble that has caused me to see them 91 times and counting. Five minutes into the tune Page McConnell introduces an unearthly keyboard sound that prods guitarist Trey Anastasio to finish his solo and introduce the concluding chords, which depending on the time period usually lead to “I Am Hydrogen” and “Weekapaug Groove.” But on this night the improv Gods had other plans. A quick change finds bassist Mike Gordon taking control and introducing a major-key theme. With Gordon at the helm and Anastasio on a small percussion kit, the band isn’t quite ready to bring it to church, so they disfigure and misshape the theme to a point where it is unrecognizable.
When Anastasio moves back to guitar a slightly-new major-key theme develops. Reminiscent of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” the riff drifts in and out of familiarity, slowly coming together in a startling progression of “Is it really? No, it couldn’t be. Wait. Could it be? Should it be? What if it is? I think it just might be!” until it finally lands on “Weekapaug Groove.” Another key change for the vocals completes the transition. As if all that wasn’t enough the glory glory hallelujah jam to end the suite gets down low low low, drifts into outer space, and then finds its home in Metal Machine Music feedback. The over-half-hour jam still isn’t done: Phish closes the set with an a capella rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
They are clearly a band who is not afraid to turn-off a few folks in service of musical experimentation. Some haters employ the classic reverse-bandwagon-fallacy to show all this is mindless noodling for the too-stoned-to-care masses. What they conveniently forget is the number one song of 1995 was Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee.” Niagara Falls couldn’t be more different than that or any of the other popular music of the time, which is further testament to the band’s ability. They’re burgeoning popularity that year, streaming across the country at 56 kilobits per second, was an early warning to the Philistine tastemakers in charge of the music industry. It took them a decade to see their castle was being stormed, and by then it was too late.