This is the first installment of a new recurring column on The Young Folks about the band Phish, their music and cultural impact.
Phish are one of the biggest cult acts in rock history. They’re a band that can hold festivals that attract thousands of fans and sell out multiple consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden, but have never had a mainstream crossover.
Even the Grateful Dead – the band whom they are most often compared (although the focus on similarities between the two bands is overanalyzed) – had a couple FM radio mainstays and a bona fide hit in 1987’s “Touch of Grey”.
Unlike the Grateful Dead, critical opinion on Phish has never exactly come to a point where a place like Pitchfork could publish a multi-page feature on their best concerts. Even in 2018, the band still has its share of detractors who dismiss their music as noodly, aimless or too hippie-ish. While the fact that they’ve gone under the radar commercially was ultimately a somewhat good thing, and helped grow their fandom’s deep attachment to them, it’s a shame they haven’t been given the respect they deserve critically. It’s an oversight that music publications, outside of places like Relix and Paste, do not regularly cover the band they way they do some of their other contemporaries. In fact, this column might be the first recurring feature on Phish ever to run on a music website that does not otherwise cover jam bands.
Phish is one of the best and most consistently fascinating rock bands of the last 35 years, a group of virtuoso musicians who create new, great music almost every time they walk on stage. If you like any kind of guitar music, you’re missing out by not at least having a little Phish in your life.
The band’s discography can be imposing for someone new to the band or who just wants to check them out. Spotify and Apple Music have made recommending music to friends a lot easier and provides serviceable introductory playlists for bands with large discographies, but Phish seems to be the exception. This in part owes to how important listening live concert recordings, usually in their entirety, are to the appeal of this band; There’s a couple dozen Phish live recordings on those services, and those are just the ones that were put out on CD. On their LivePhish+ streaming service, they have hundreds more, including every show they’ve played since 2003. Even aside from the official soundboard recordings, the band also allows their fans to tape their concerts and distribute them freely, as long as they are not sold for profit.
Although the band now releases high-quality soundboard recordings of every show they play, fan recordings still have their place (especially for shows that have never been officially released, and there are thousands of those). Over 1500 shows circulate as fan recordings, and are easily obtainable on a spreadsheet, a link to which can be found on any Phish forum (Phish fans are very particular about sound quality, so these recordings are quite well done).
Freshwater Phish is a new column from the Young Folks that focuses on the music and career of Phish, and doubles as an introduction to the band for new and younger listeners. For at least the first few installments, they will be Phish 101-style articles that go over the basics of this band and will feature popular or introductory song and concert selections, as well as some highlights from the recent concerts.
Who are Phish?
Phish are a rock quartet that formed in 1983 in Burlington, Vermont and consist of lead singer and guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman, for whom the band was named. I’m not going to go over the band’s entire history here, especially when you can look up all that stuff on the band’s Wikipedia page, which does a pretty solid job of overviewing the basics.
The short of it: The band spent the 1980s playing around Burlington while developing their repertoire, concert structure and word-of-mouth.
By the early 1990s, they were touring widely, had been signed to major label Elektra Records and had grown a reputation of being one of the best live acts in the United States. Phish became part of a national movement of so-called “jam bands,” groups with a similar outlook to the Grateful Dead. These bands, like the Dead, made each concert a unique experience with a different combination of songs in their setlists each night, and performed long, improvisational “jams” during songs.
Phish popularity grew throughout the decade, largely in part to the circulation of fan-recorded tape recordings of their concerts. As a result, the band’s best and most important material has been available online for decades, for free and in a relatively easy to acquire form.
By the mid 1990s, Phish had firmly placed themselves the Dead’s heirs, especially once they were able to fill up stadiums like Madison Square Garden. When Jerry Garcia died in 1995 and the Dead broke up, Phish are considered to have supplanted them in the American consciousness as the country’s top hippie band (as much of a generalization as that is). In the mid-1990s the band began holding annual summer festivals beginning with 1996’s Clifford Ball, which featured some of the band’s strongest performances of the year and attracted 70,000 fans to the middle of nowhere in northern New York State. It was the most attended concert event of 1996, and Phish only kept getting bigger after that. In 1997, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream launched their Phish Food flavor, named after their fellow Vermonters. That ice cream is one of the best selling flavors of Ben & Jerry’s and probably better known than any of the band’s actual music, especially internationally.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, Phish had the biggest audience of any concert on the millennium eve, playing for eight hours to 75,000 people at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Florida. “The Show”, as Big Cypress is referred to by fans, is considered to be the band’s crowning achievement.
In 2000, the band went on hiatus at the height of their popularity, and after touring virtually non-stop for the entire 1990s. The band returned in December 2002, but ultimately broke up in the summer of 2004. They reunited in 2009 and have remained together ever since.
What kind of music do they play? It’s just Grateful Dead-type stuff, right?
If you had to pick one or two genres to describe Phish, psychedelic rock and progressive rock both do a pretty good job. Although those two genres are prominent in the band’s sound, they’re also not the entire story. Phish also has significant influences from funk, jazz fusion, 1980s college rock, bluegrass and a cappella barbershop music.
The Grateful Dead is Phish’s most commonly cited influence, to the point where many people have had Phish to described to them as, “Kind of like the Grateful Dead for the ’90s.” In that decade, virtually every news story about Phish mentioned the Dead in some form. It’s not an unfair comparison: All four members of Phish loved the Dead. Trey Anastasio even once told Bob Weir that going to see the Dead for the first time in concert was like “Getting hit in the head with a baseball bat.”
However, Phish and the Grateful Dead don’t sound very much alike, with the exception of a few songs. While the way Phish formats its concerts owes a lot to the Dead’s free-flowing improvisations and unique setlists created on the spot,the two groups had whole different sets of influences. The Dead had a strong country influence, and Phish never veered too far into that genre apart from their excursions into bluegrass specifically. Likewise, the Dead rarely incorporated funk into their music, but that genre was a significant component of Phish’s sound, especially in the late ’90s.
Apart from the Dead, Phish’s other major influences are acts like Frank Zappa, Genesis, Talking Heads, Miles Davis and King Crimson. Zappa is a particularly significant influence on the band; Like him their music is as often quirky as it is technical.
How are Phish shows structured?
Phish typically play two full sets of music at each concert, taking a 15-30 minute break in between them. The band’s setlists are completely improvised and the members decide which songs they want to play on stage, and every show features a different combination of songs. Alongside their dozens of original songs, the band dots their concerts with cover songs from artists in a variety of genres, ZZ Top to Bill Monroe, TV on the Radio to Ween.
There are a few different ways that Phish may perform a song. For instance, they have a few shorter songs that do not jam, but the band finds a way to make each performance of those songs slightly different. For the songs that do jam, Phish.net has identified two different types of jamming a band might do: Type I, based on variations of a song’s original composition or a fixed chord progression and Type II, which usually drop’s the song’s melody and composition altogether and and improvises on “additional variations on structures and keys.” A performance could include both Type I and Type II jamming, with a song going from its composed section to type I and then to Type II. The I and II designation are not signifiers of quality: There are many awesome Type I jams, and there are some Phish classics that never go Type II.
A song like “Stash” or “Down with Disease” might return to its composed section from a Type II to end the performance, but there are times that a Type I or II jam segues into another song without the band stopping. These are called segues or transitions, and are denoted in Phish setlists with a “>” (The band has started up new song just as, or straight after, the last one is ending.) or a “->” (a genuine seamless segue from one song to another). Any other song in a setlist without one of those arrows is a song with a solid beginning and end.
Are their studio albums any good?
The party line on Phish is that their 13 studio albums are ephemeral to their story. Dismissing those albums is unfair, because many of them are very good or great. They may not have as much in terms of improvisations to them, but the band’s best studio albums like A Picture of Nectar, Rift and Billy Breathes show how good this band is at crafting their songs and creating cohesive listening experiences. Additionally, they also show how important shorter songs and songs that do not ordinarily jam are to this band. If you really have your heart set on starting with a studio album, Billy Breathes is probably their best of those, and it’s a good place to start. Hoist is also quite accessible to newcomers looking for something with shorter songs that give a sense of the band’s musicianship.
A Crash Course in Phish in Four (or Five) Songs
“Down with Disease”
The first single from 1994’s Hoist, “Down with Disease” is one of the band’s best-loved and most accessible songs. The quirky alt-funk tune, about Phish lyricist Tom Marshall’s bout with mononucleosis, was the first Phish song to gain radio support and reached the middle of Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart in 1994. It was also the subject of the band’s one and only official music video; Directed by bassist Mike Gordon and featuring footage from their 1993 New Year’s Eve concert, the clip was barely played on MTV. In fact, it probably got its biggest exposure when Beavis and Butthead tore the video apart on their titular animated series.
The album version of “Down with Disease” is a great rock song. However, “DWD” is even better in concert. The band often extended the song past 10 minutes (this awesome version from their Star Lake ’98 DVD clocks in at 11) and was a vehicle for both types of jams. A good live version of “DWD” lends itself to experimentation with its structure while maintaining the energy of the composed section.
For a lot of Phish fans, “Reba” is the quintessential Phish song. It has a little bit of everything the band does best: The beginning has quirky neo-psychedelic lyrics and a goofy, lighthearted chorus, the middle has a prog rock vibe to it, and then there’s a jam that builds into an absolutely gorgeous coda. Basically, “Reba” feels like what would happen if They Might Be Giants collaborated with Robert Fripp.
“Heavy Things” was Phish’s only song to make it to the Top 40 pop radio airwaves, and even then only just barely; It would be featured on “new music” programs on those stations, but never got into rotation on most of them. It was, however, the band’s biggest ever hit on the Adult Alternative chart, going all the way to #2 in 2000.
The studio version of “Heavy Things” that appears on 2000’s Farmhouse is a solid piece of catchy pop rock with Tom Marshall’s offbeat-but-dark lyrics paired with an exuberant performance from Phish. The recording even ends with an excellent little guitar solo from Anastasio. If you’re a fan of the Dead, you could change the names in that paragraph to Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia and basically describe “Touch of Grey” the same way. “Heavy Things” was Phish’s “Touch”; It distilled many of the band’s trademarks and quirks into a Top 40-style pop song. It was far and away the most accessible thing Phish had ever recorded. And even though the band was bigger than ever in 2000, it flopped.
While not especially popular with the band’s fans, “Heavy Things” does have its place in the history of Phish. Shortly after midnight on January 1, 2000, Trey announced to the crowd at Big Cypress that ABC television would be recording a performance of one of their songs to be simulcasted on their ABC 2000 Today millennium coverage hosted by Peter Jennings. The band then played “Heavy Things”, to both the 75,000 people in attendance and to millions watching ABC at home, resulting their biggest ever national television exposure.
“Fee” > “Maze”
Here’s a good example of how Phish might segue from one song to another in concert. The first song they play is “Fee”, a jazzy, absurdist narrative song about a love triangle involving a weasel, a chimpanzee and an elderly gospel singer. “Fee” doesn’t normally jam in concert, but here Phish extends out the song’s outro into one. They then move from what what they’re doing with “Fee” into a new segment that slowly morphs in the beginning of the raucous, proggy “Maze”.
An Introductory Concert: 4/26/1996
We’ll be finishing off this column with a complete concert recording that acts as a good introduction to the band, how they sound live and the variety of different musical styles they perform.
If you ask 20 Phish fans where you should start with Phish, you’re probably going to get 20 different answers. If there’s any consensus, it might be for A Live One, a 1995 2-CD release that was the band’s first live album. It wasn’t a full concert, but instead featured highlights from their 1994 tour, every song from a different show. It’s an excellent release and is a solid primer to what makes the band special, but some new fans can be intimidated by the 30-minute version of “Tweezer” that acts as its centerpiece.
Personally, I like to start people off with a concert that features a lot of major songs and gives an idea of how the band construct their performances, but is also fairly short. The band normally plays two sets a night, but there were a few exceptions to that in the mid-90s. The band played single sets at multi-artist festivals, and played short performances when they were the opening act for Santana on two seperate European tours. These setlists usually had an accessible feel to them, as if the band knew they were playing to a crowd that included people who were unfamiliar with Phish.
Of these one-set shows, the one I like to recommend is the band’s performance at the 1996 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. They played for about two hours, before a headlining set by The Meters. This isn’t an all-time great show, and nothing ever gets really wild, but is a pretty awesome little Phish set with a lot of highlights. A good, concise 16-minute version of band’s signature song “You Enjoy Myself” is the centerpiece here; The song normally ends with a “vocal jam” in which the band does some improvisational scatting. Here? The band launches into a partly a capella “Wolfman’s Brother” where that scatting would be. It’s the highlight of the show.
If you’re looking for a quick (well, “quick”, this is still two hours long) introduction to Phish that showcases a little bit of everything the band can do, this show is a good place to start.
The band issued the official soundboard recording of this show on their LivePhish service in 2005 as a benefit for Hurricane Katrina relief. The recording linked to above, however, is a fan-taped recording.
Setlist from Phish.net: Ya Mar, AC/DC Bag > Sparkle > Stash, Cars Trucks Buses, You Enjoy Myself -> Wolfman’s Brother > Scent of a Mule > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Harry Hood > Sample in a Jar, A Day in the Life > David Bowie
Encore: Hello My Baby, Cavern
In the next installment of Freshwater Phish…
There is no agreed upon “greatest show ever” for Phish (apart from maybe Big Cypress), but there are definitely shows in the running that fans often bring up as some of their best. In the second Freshwater Phish column, we’ll overview some of those shows, where they fall in Phish’s history and what specifically makes them so revered. We’ll also go through a few more introductory tunes. Future installments of the column will cover topics such as the band’s studio albums, the Live Phish series, the Gamehendge song cycle, Halloween concerts, the Island Tour and modern Phish. As of the writing of this first column, the band are on their 2018 fall tour, and we’ll check in with that too, next time.