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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2004/06/28
by John Zinkand

Digesting No Phish

In 1991 I walked into the Somerville Theater near Boston, MA to witness my
first live performance by an up and coming young band called Phish. I had
heard tapes of their shows and many rumors that their live performances
were something incredible that one really had to see live to fully
understand. At the time I considered my self a pretty serious Deadhead and
thought the excited chatter was nothing more than hearsay or overrated
hype, at best. The Phish tapes I heard, however, had intrigued me – the
guitar player had an aggressive, technical style and a unique, zany style
of songwriting – but how could that possibly compare to the meaningful,
graceful, powerful, and psychedelic canon of Grateful Dead songs? And
after skipping seeing Phish shows with my already converted Phish fan
girlfriend to catch the Dead instead in the summer of 1991 (a decision I
still kick myself for – missing the horn tour because of my stubbornness),
I finally broke down to see what all the fuss was about in the Fall of my
freshman year in college. That night in Somerville I found out in a big
way. I left that show shaking my head in disbelief at the sheer energy,
power, and youthful creativity of this young band, and became a Phish
fanatic from that moment forward.
Fast forward to the present day and I’m more excited for the Dead show I’m
about to see than the last set of Phish shows. It’s ironic, but that’s the
way I feel. I guess from the last few sentences alone you can tell that I
am over the age of 30. Yes, I’m from the camp that agrees with Trey. As
far as I’m concerned, Phish has become stagnant the last few years. OK,
more than the last few years. I feel they haven’t really had the edge
since about 1997. From 1991 to 1996, they blew my mind each and every time
I saw them live with very few exceptions. Now granted, I didn’t see even
close to the volume of Phish shows from 1997 to the present that I did in
my early years of seeing Phish – and I’m sure that I missed some scorchers
because of this fact – but the shows I did see after 1996 just didn’t meet
my well earned high expectations. Not that they were a bad band after
1996, but they just didn’t consistently blow my mind as they once did, and
I had come to expect a mind blowing experience at Phish shows as a given.
Some may say that’s because I was getting older or couldn’t appreciate
their changing style, and that may be true. Maybe I was too nostalgic for
the old Phish I saw during college in small theaters. This new "Big Phish"
playing only in sheds in front of tens of thousands wasn’t the same
intimate experience I yearned for. Maybe I couldn’t accept the "cow funk"
style that didn’t have Trey in the spotlight drooling on his guitar while
ripping extended guitar solos on almost every tune. Whatever it was, I
lost interest in my once favorite band.
At first this disenchantment was a hard thing for me to accept. I would
go to a handful of summer shows or Vegas shows in the hopes that the old
fire and brimstone Phish of my college days would return. And there were
definite glimpses of that Phish from time to time, but it was rarely
sustained. I finally realized that, for better or for worse, my band Phish
had changed. When they announced the hiatus in 2000 I was very happy for
them. I thought maybe this was the break they needed to get the creative
juices flowing again. And by the time I saw the post-hiatus Las Vegas
shows in 2003, I was ready to accept the new Phish. I finally understood
that Phish was not going to blow my mind anymore, but would put on one hell
of a good show. And with my expectations of only a solid rock and roll
show, I enjoyed those 2003 Las Vegas concerts more than most I had seen in
years (although my favorite post 1996 show had to be Trey’s birthday show
in Vegas in 2000). I decided to grow up and accept the fact that Phish was
older and played a mellower style of show these days. If I wanted to see a
hyper and energetic show by talented, young, hungry musicians I could go
see Umphrey’s McGee, Psychedelic Breakfast (now The Breakfast), or Raq.

Had Phish toured near my current home in the Pacific Northwest this
summer, I would have gladly paid my thirty bucks to see them again. But
for better or for worse, I was not presented with that option. When the
band made the announcement that these would be the final shows, I didn’t
quickly scurry to buy plane tickets to Coventry. Like the band, I have
grown up. I have to stay here to fulfill work commitments. So instead I
will see the Dead at the Gorge over 4th of July weekend. And I am so
stoked for that show. Part of the reason I am so excited for this show,
however, is thanks to Phish. You see, Phish introduced me to Jimmy Herring
who is now one of my favorite guitarists of all time, and I am excited to
see him play with my original favorite jamband. I know it’s not the same
without Jerry, but I don’t expect it to be.

Looking back, I owe Phish quite a bit when it comes to where I am as a
music lover right now. When I started seeing them back in 1991, I had not
even scratched the surface of all the great music that is available in the
world. Phish introduced me to so much music through their sampling of
different styles and performances of different covers. Hearing their
version of "Take the A-Train," for instance, spurred me to truly appreciate
and seek out all sorts of jazz music including Miles Davis, John Coltrane,
John Scofield, Thelonious Monk, Bela Fleck, etc. Trey’s foray into free
jazz with Surrender to the Air influenced me to hear the music of the Sun
Ra Arkestra for the fist time. The 1996 Phish Halloween show led me to new
levels of appreciation for the vast repertoire of David Byrne, and I am
super excited to see Byrne live here in Portland in August. The list goes
on and on and on, really.

So I am not sad that Phish is breaking up. I feel it is a natural
progression in their substantial career. They’ve done so much already,
what more can they possibly do that wouldn’t be just a rehashing? And
rehashing has never been what Phish was about, so why should they start
now? Recent projects like Oysterhead, Vida Blue, Gordon and Kottke, and
the Trey Anastasio Band show that these guys are still bravely moving
forward in their musical careers. It’s been many years since I have seen
Trey as genuinely excited as he looked on stage at the Warfield Theater
last year playing with his band while Carlos Santana sat in for nearly the
entire show. And incredible non-Phish musical moments like that will be
happening for years and years to come from the guys who used to be in this
band called Phish. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind if Phish kept on
playing and became a musical right of passage similar to the Grateful Dead,
but I understand the break up. Phish doesn’t want to follow in some other
band’s footsteps, they want to end their career and be remembered as a
unique entity in and of themselves. As I previously stated, I was coming
to accept the new style of Phish and enjoying their current shows for what
they are. But I do understand the decision they are making. And at the
ripe old age of 31, I completely respect Phish for all they have done – not
only me, but for thousands and thousands of music fans.

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