Niagara Falls 1995 – Study Material for Epic Setlist Construction

As many of you know, Phish will be releasing their December 7, 1995 concert on CD to fans this November. Is the show good? Of course it is. However, it’s good for more reasons than just that fantastic playing we all assume goes along with 1995. One of the aspects that stands out about this show is the fantastic setlist structure–it keeps casting you out and reeling you in as you listen to the entire show.

(Tim G.)

Let’s first discuss the new things surrounding this release; it’s another CD released with Phish’s paper-only three-cd sleeve that most of their releases are now released on. It’s flimsy and will wear poorly as it’s tossed around your car over the next few months–CDs can also slide out of it pretty easily. The colors and image design remind me a lot of the Hampton/Winston-Salem release in fact. Obviously these things matter little compared to how great the recording quality is. The remastered audio finally gives us a new glimpse of this fantastic show!

Set 1: The Old Home Place > The Curtain > AC/DC Bag, Demand > Rift, Slave to the Traffic Light, Guyute, Bouncing Around the Room, Possum, Hello My Baby

Set 2: Split Open and Melt, Strange Design > Taste That Surrounds, Reba[1], Julius,Sleeping Monkey > Sparkle > Mike’s Song -> Weekapaug Groove[2] -> Digital Delay Loop Jam, Amazing Grace

Encore: Uncle Pen

[1] No whistling.
[2] Unfinished.

Sneak Peak

The current era has certainly found its voice in the past couple of years with some fantastic playing and exploratory jams–however, one thing that’s missing is the impressive setlist structure. Today, we are so used to a first set being composed mostly of cookie-cutter, type-I songs that never really lift off. Rarely does a song reach much longer than 10-minutes. Songs are often found in places they feel comfortable in: Antelope will be at the end of the se, Gin will be in the middle of a first set, AC/DC Bag will be in the first few songs of a show, and so on. We know that Phish is most likely going to most likely put the bulk of the night’s improvisation into the first two songs of the second set; usually a longer jam song into another jam song that doesn’t quite last as long as the opener. What was last night’s second set? A 20-minute Drowned into a 13-minute Light–perfect example. We often expect the second set to open with a Down with Disease, Rock and Roll, or Tweezer. This wasn’t the case in 1995, especially in the show at hand.

Shows were crafted masterfully to keep your emotions on the edge of the seat the whole night so you were able to climax with the band nearly every time they did musically. Let’s dive in:

After opening with a great Old Home Place, the band dropped a nasty 1-2 punch: The Curtain > AC/DC Bag. I love the Curtain WITH that is played now–but one thing we lose with the WITH is the quick and punctuated musical outro of The Curtain that makes for exciting segues. The end of Curtain can pop into Sample in a Jar or Sloth flawlessly and quickly–in this case it pops right into the beginning of a solid AC/DC Bag. When The Curtain goes into another song, rest assured that it’s no accident what song it flows into. After playing one of the last versions of Demand ever heard, and a quick Rift interlude (of course, perfectly executed), we find ourselves in a mid-set Slave to the Traffic Light.

Slave isn’t a song normally seen in the first set of a show, let alone in the middle of a first set. This Slave has what we call IT. We’re six songs into a concert and already we’re coming across music that makes us forget the rest of the music or how far into the concert we are. This ever-so patient Slave reaches about 13 minutes long–the delicate beginning lays the bed for a glorious explosion of emotions and notes at the end. This is about as perfect of a version of a song as you can get and we’re only halfway through set one!

After a still-new Guyute and Bouncing Around the Room, we reach an absolutely massive Possum. This bad boy clocks in at 14:20 minutes and reaches a blistering peak that could be used as an example of just how hot Trey was able to get in 1995. Non-stop tension and release is the backbone of this rock thowdown in which there’s times that you cannot fathom how Trey’s able to move his fingers so fast–wowza.

The first set closes with an acappella version of Hello My Baby. In just one set, we’ve gone through a great bluegrass opener, a nasty segue between two great songs (Curtain > AC/DC Bag), a fantastic original that isn’t played anymore (Demand), a emotionally moving face-melter (Slave), an extended take on a classic Phish rock song that blows the roof off the joint (Possum), and an acapella closer. Not only did the band master their instruments and improvisational skills in this show, they mastered their setlist building abilities. Let’s move on.

After and audience chess move to open the second set (yes, I agree, it’s awesome they used to do stuff like that) Phish opened with a song that you don’t expect to open a second set (how refreshing!), Split Open and Melt. This jam takes a sinister turn that features some wah-pedal work from Trey and a throbbing rhythm from Fishman and Mike. They even threw in an In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita tease. During this 17+ minute behemoth, you can hear hints of the song’s closing theme about 5.5 minutes from the finish–something the jam around and make more and less prominent going into the end. Every member gets a moment to shine during this jam and when they finally do decide to close the jam, Trey plays the riff so subtly, it’s almost comical. After a Strange Design to slow things down and a Taste (with particularly horrible lyrics from Fishman) to bring spirits back up, we enter into one of my favorite Rebas! This jam features Trey with a mesmerizing flurry of guitar notes–it finally reaches a sort of musical island upon landing on a Pop Goes the Weasel tease before heading back into the warm waters of this jam. It’s not only Trey that makes this jam special though, take note of Fishman’s impressive drum work as they approach the peak–his rolls and his ride/cymbal work are jaw-dropping. Trey’s, Mike’s, and Page’s musical acrobatics would sound far less dynamic if it were not for Fish’s drum pounding home the importance of the music you’re witnessing (in this case, hearing). Again, tension/release at its phinest!

After some lively takes on a few Phish staples, Julius, Sleeping Monkey and Sparkle, We enter into a Mike’s Grove for the ages. Some used to Phish’s current show structure might think that the serious jamming might be over for this show, it’s not. This 17.5 minute Mike’s Song covers some pretty impressive type-II territory. This jam sounds a lot like the late-fall 1996 jam style–it features Trey on a drum kit, dirty keys and a thumping bass. The jam rolls seamlessly into a Weekapaug Groove that, after the necessary key change, takes full flight into yet another impressive jam that lasts about 14 minutes.

The band closes the set with another acappella song, Amazing Grace, and then encores with another bluegrass song, Uncle Pen to perfectly round out the impressive concert. As a bonus track, they added a slower-than-normal Poor Heart along with some banter.

This CD is a must have for any Phish fan. I’m sure most of you already have a recording of it, but it’s worth the pristine audio quality to just preorder it now.