Freshwater Phish is a recurring column on The Young Folks about the band Phish, their music and cultural impact.
2019 has been an interesting year to be a Phish fan, even though they’ve only played three shows so far this year.
The Vermont jam band has been in the news regularly since they stepped off the stage at Madison Square Garden in the early morning hours of January 1. Frontman Trey Anastasio toured and released a new album with his Ghosts of the Forest project (which also included Phish drummer and namesake John Fishman), and a documentary on his life and creative process, Between Me and My Mind, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Phish performed three shows at the Barcelo Maya resort in Mexico in February, and soundboards of two excellent archival shows (from 1991 and 1998) were made available for sale on their LivePhish website (The 1998 show, at the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, MI, is highly recommended and there may be a column about it later on down the road).
The band has even been unavoidable for those who aren’t jam band fans; They were announced as a headliner at this year’s Bonnaroo Festival and are scheduled to play three sets there next month.
One of the more curious developments from the past five months, however, is that their name has regularly been cited as an influence on Vampire Weekend’s excellent new album Father of the Bride.
11 years after the release of their jubilant debut album, Vampire Weekend are now critically adored veterans on the indie rock scene and one of the few guitar bands who can do anything commercially without turning into whatever Imagine Dragons have become. As such, it’s been interesting to see Phish referenced as a comparison point for the sound of Father of the Bride.
Frontman Ezra Koenig has mentioned Phish on occasion in relation to the album, or has been asked about their influence on their album. The connection between the two bands is not new, either, as drummer Chris Tomson has spoken about his love and admiration for Phish on a few occasions.
Does Father of the Bride sound like Phish, though? I was not convinced the first few times I played the album and I still don’t think it sounds all that much like any era of Vermont’s most famous musical act.
There are a few spots that do betray a Phish influence or similarity, though. I think the two Steve Lacy songs have a jam band vibe — particularly “Sunflower“, and particularly in its chorus. “Harmony Hall” reminds me more of the Grateful Dead than Phish, particularly their 1987 hit “Touch of Grey”.
Both of these songs are five minute pop tunes that also do a good job at emphasizing both band’s strengths. Jerry Garcia snuck an awesome guitar solo into “Touch” – the Dead’s one and only top 40 hit – and VW does the same with a very Garcia-y solo near the end. The only thing that really reminds me of Phish on “Harmony Hall” is the piano, which has a bit of Page McConnell vibe to it (see “The Wedge” or the “Clod” section of “Fluffhead”)
There are some moments on Father of the Bride that remind me of Phish’s poppier side, which is an aspect of Phish that fans are sometimes not especially charitable about. Despite gaining fame for long jams and offbeat prog-psychedelia, Phish has recorded several poppy songs; They’re mainstays on adult alternative radio for a reason. If I had to pick a Phish song or two that most resembles what Vampire Weekend are doing on Father of the Bride, I’d choose something like the lilting “Bug” or the pastoral “Train Song” than any of their jam vehicles.
However, I think that’s more of a coincidence than a direct influence. Father of the Bride songs like “How Long?” and “Bambina” carry some of that jam-pop DNA, but they largely sound uniquely Vampire Weekend than influenced by any one artist, let alone Phish.
Overall, I think Father of the Bride certainly has an influence from the jam band aesthetic, but I don’t think it’s heavily influenced by Phish per say. The mix of the serious and goofy in the lyrics and the music reminds me more of Phish than any specific sound. Phish regularly turns a song about stepping into a freezer into monster half-hour jams that features some of their most impressive improvisational playing, after all. Musically, I still think this is closer to VW’s regular musical standbys – Paul Simon, Fela Kuti, The Walkmen et. al – instead of Phish.
In an interview with Pitchfork, Ezra Koenig name-checked defunct NYC jam haven Wetlands Preserve as an influence for the album. Although famous as a homebase for bands like Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors in the early 90s, the Wetlands booked all kinds of musical acts, from hardcore punk to hip-hop to world music, all with an environmental hippie aspect. Phish only played at the Wetlands eight times between 1989 and 1990, around the time they were recording Lawn Boy.
Phish were only slightly associated with the Wetlands and its jam scene, despite its members being friendly with most of the regular Wetlands bands. For instance, Phish only played a few dates on the H.O.R.D.E tour, the jam band equivalent to Lollapalooza launched by Blues Traveler in the early 90s. However, Phish will always be remembered as being associated with the general post-Dead jam scene that included the HORDE/Wetlands acts, even if they usually did their own thing.
Instead of being directly influenced by Phish, I feel like Father of the Bride was influenced by a nostalgia for aesthetics from the ’90s – including art and music – of which the jam band scene is only one aspect. One of the more striking things about that scene is how different all the bands sounded from one another while keeping improvisation, unpredictability and an admiration of the Grateful Dead as core components of their sound; Blues Traveler, Phish, The String Cheese Incident and Widespread Panic don’t sound much like each other, after all.
Vampire Weekend seems to be going this route too. I’m very intrigued in how they will be touring Father of the Bride this year and whether they’ll be following the jam band template. The band played a monster three set show at Webster Hall a few weeks ago, but that was the only time they’ve done a multi-set show so far this year and they didn’t jam any of those songs out. The quality of the performances and quantity of songs in that show – which featured most of the numbers from their four albums – was very impressive and point to a future where they could do something like that again.
While Father of the Bride carries only a little Phish influence, it seems like the Vermont quartet and other jam bands are very much on Vampire Weekend’s mind this album cycle. As they go deeper into their tour, we could see whatever influence Phish has had on VW come to the forefront.