It’s tempting to impart all sorts of symbolism to the sight of Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell, and Jon Fishman on stage as they normally would be, except with no one watching or cheering, no wafts of marijuana smoke drifting in the air from the crowd of assembled, self-proclaimed Phish-heads. Phish isn’t exactly easy on the uninitiated, but they are worth the effort to appreciate, even virtually.
In a sad sign of the times, the legendary jam band Phish played their traditional New Year’s Eve show to an empty theater, opting for a livestream on YouTube instead of a packed house at Madison Square Garden after postponing their scheduled concerts, a series of 4 shows they have played most years since 1995, due to the Omicron surge. It’s tempting to impart all sorts of symbolism to the sight of Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell, and Jon Fishman on stage as they normally would be, except with no one watching or cheering, no wafts of marijuana smoke drifting in the air from the crowd of assembled, self-proclaimed Phish-heads. Like a tree falling in the forest if no one hears, is it still a true jam if no one’s there to feel the pulse of the speakers shaking the seats? Can you create a legendary, improvisational performance when no one is watching?
We should give the band credit for trying. If you squinted at the livestream just right, or got lost in a close up of Trey at the guitar or Page behind the massive arrangement of keyboards, it was easy to imagine that everything was normal at points and you were watching a regular concert, recorded for posterity. The show, clocking at close to four hours across three sets with the third crossing into the New Year didn’t skimp on either the length or the eclectic song selection. Casual fans were treated to what constitutes “hits” in Phishworld: “The Moma Dance,” “Free,” “Slave to the Traffic Light,” “Down with Disease,” and “You Enjoy Myself.” The more seasoned, discerning fan was gifted with several rarities including “Time Turns Elastic” in honor of the passing of Betty White, a song not performed since October 24, 2010. “Frankie Says” was featured in the second set, played only twice since 2015. A cover of Syd Barrett’s “Baby Lemonade” completed the rarities in the third set, featuring Trey Anastasio and Jon Fishman switching roles with Fishman taking center stage and Trey tucked behind the drum set. They’d only played the song once before, all the way back in 1992, before the fame as they say.
At the same time, “hits” in Phishworld might well be a complete misnomer, at least if you’re considering the traditional definition of the term. Billy Joel once sang “if you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit,” but that is a lesson Phish has thankfully never taken to heart, defying convention at almost every turn throughout their career. This is fortunate because their combined musical gifts are far too sprawling to be confined to anything resembling the usual verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo format common throughout pop and rock. Rather, their songs seem to grow and evolve as you listen to them, waxing and waning according to their own devices, sometimes over and over again as they regularly reach 20 minutes a piece in concert. Likewise, the lyrics are often there purely for the sound of the words alone, eschewing anything resembling rational meaning. Sometimes, they’ll consist of just one line, “Run like an antelope out of control,” “Oh to be Prince Caspian, and sail upon the waves,” or “Harry, Harry, where do you go when the lights go out?” In “You Enjoy Myself,” there aren’t even lyrics in the traditional sense at all. Here’s the complete song:
Wash uffitze drive me to firenze
No, Phish isn’t exactly easy on the uninitiated. They were definitely an acquired taste for me at least, having grown up on a steady diet of hard rock, hair metal, and Rush prior to diversifying my tastes after college. The first time I heard Phish was actually in college itself, at an apartment in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when the band started to grow in popularity in some circles, and I can’t say I was blown away. The song was “Bouncing Around the Room,” from their 1990 album Lawn Boy. In Phish terms, it’s a classic, combining their knack for harmonization, lilting melodies, and a buoyant feel, as if the music might simply float away from you somehow. It ranks as the fifth most performed song in the band’s history, having been played at about a quarter of their hundreds of shows over the years. In a sense, “Bouncing Around the Room” is a ballad, or at least it starts softly with a light bass and drums before building to a crescendo.
Otherwise, it doesn’t sound like anything that fits into a traditional genre. Trey Anastasio ostensibly sings the lead, but most of the verse and all of the chorus is harmonized, lending the song a slippery feel, as if it were literally bouncing around the room itself. Page McConnell’s piano also comes and goes, adding a sprinkle here and a sprinkle there. There are more lyrics than some of their other efforts, but they don’t make much sense either. The speaker appears to be dreaming, at least in parts. “The woman was a dream I had, Though rather hard to keep, For when my eyes were watching hers, they closed and I was still asleep.” Somehow, the speaker awakes to feel themselves “faintly bouncing around the room, The echo of whomever spoke.” The speaker then finds himself underneath the sea, where sirens sing a song, and there’s a never ending coral maze or crystal haze, still “bouncing around the room.” The finale combines what I think most would consider the key elements of a Phish song on full display. The band sings counterpoint, voices coming and going, the piano picks up steam, and Trey’s guitar, which was almost silent throughout, bursts out of the mix with his signature crystal clear tone, part rhythm and part solo all at once.
Regardless, I didn’t like it at first. It was too offbeat, too different from what I was used to, and dare I say it too Phish. The band has always been hard to describe. The New Rolling Stone Album Guide claims they are “oriented around group improvisation and super-extended groove.” They’ve been described as funk, jazz fusion, progressive rock, bluegrass, and psychedelic rock with a little barbershop quartet mixed in, having been trained a cappella by a former landlord who would judge competitions. Trey Anastasio has described them as “cow funk” himself, typically obtuse when saying “What we’re doing now is really more about groove than funk. Good funk, real funk, is not played by four white guys from Vermont.” They’ve been compared to the Grateful Dead frequently, and there is some truth to that, but the Dead never had a screaming, 80’s style guitar soaring above the music. The music critic Steven Hyden claimed in 2018 that the Grateful Dead and Phish have “significantly different reference points” when it comes to style and influence. As he saw it, the Dead were “informed by the totality of American music from the first sixty years of the twentieth century: Blues, country, folk, jazz, and early rock ‘n’ roll,” but Phish’s contains “hopped-up bluegrass, jazzy disco, porno-movie funk, Broadway theatricality, and shockingly sincere barbershop harmonies. But it all stems from classic rock.” Mr. Hyden concluded, “if the Dead encompasses American music from roughly 1900 to 1967, Phish picks up the story right through the AOR era, from ’68 to around the time Stop Making Sense debuted in theaters in the mid-eighties.”
However you choose to describe them, my official Phish conversion came a couple of years after college at a concert at the Garden State Arts Center (now the PNC Bank Arts Center, of course) in Holmdel, NJ. Phish concerts, especially outdoor summer shows, are something that needs to be seen to be believed. Part festival, part roving Woodstock tribute, the crowd teems with a dizzying combination of wanna-be hippies and would-be prepsters, some of whom follow the band from place to place. They sell food and trinkets. They sing, they do bizarre rhythmic dances to the band’s extended jams, weaving across the lawn or up and down the aisles, and they smoke a lot of marijuana, so much that the authorities don’t even bother to intervene in most cases. Overall, there’s a controlled chaos to it, a throwback feel to the days when concerts were wild parties, completely absent from most modern, corporatized shows.
Controlled chaos might be a good phrase to describe the band’s performance as well, as they improvise and extend songs in new ways, each and every night. The song that struck me most that first show was “Maze,” from their fourth studio album, Rift released in 1993. “Maze” is a heavier, more pounding track than much of their other fare after it gets going. The studio version runs for over 8 minutes, beginning with drums that sound like a ticking clock before the bass beat comes in. There’s an energy to the main riff, a composite of guitar and keyboards, pushing the song forward and backwards at the same time. The lyrics make a bit more sense as well, a man trapped in some figurative maze, feeling the world is watching him and laughing, punctuated by a pounding rhythm section, rising and falling along with the vocal track:
The overhead view is of me in a maze
And you see what I’m hunting a few steps away
And I take a wrong turn and I’m on the wrong path
And the people all watching enjoy a good laugh
Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact date of the concert, likely the summer of 2000. By that point, Phish had been around for 17 years, “graduating” from a college band to a touring juggernaut. They played their first official concert at the University of Vermont on December 2, 1983, a collection of covers including two from the Grateful Dead, the archetypal jam band they would frequently be compared to over the next four decades. They started their first forays into recording several years later, releasing six experimental demo tapes in 1986. In 1987 and 1988, they started working on a more ambitious concept album that sprung from Trey Anastasio’s musical thesis, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday. This 9-song cycle tells the story of Colonel Forbin and his adventures in the land of Lizards with the Helping Friendly Book, facing off against the evil Wilson. Their sense of whimsy was apparent even then, featuring Lizards that went extinct for doing things smart people don’t do and a Famous Mockingbird. The album would never receive an official release, but has attained near mythical status among fans, known as Gamehenge, some of the songs are played to this day.
From the very beginning, Phish’s popularity has always been a grass roots, bottom up enterprise. In the early days, they couldn’t even get successfully booked at venues outside Vermont because no one had ever heard of them. To break through, they had to rent the hall themselves, get the word around the old-fashioned way, and hope people showed up. It wasn’t until 1989 when they officially released their debut album, Junta, selling cassettes at their concerts. They would continue as a regional band and a niche act for the next several years before becoming popular in college circles and then exploding after the death of Jerry Garcia. They were among the first to organize online, encouraging the trading of their live performances. Phish’s first nationwide tour wasn’t until 1992, as part of a line up that included Blues Traveler, The Spin Doctors, and Widespread Panic. They finally broke into the billboard charts in 1993 with Rift, albeit not exactly burning them up at number 51. In March 1994, they debuted on MTV with a video for one of their few songs that can be described as traditional, at least in the recording, “Down with Disease.”
To this day, they still sell out 4-night stands at Madison Square Garden faster than even icons like Elton John, and are big enough to attract some 60,000 plus fans on the beach in Atlantic City last summer. Last Friday, they played their hearts out to an empty theater, and I was grateful for it, watching from my couch along with some 70,000 fellow fans. Is there a better sign of these crazy times?