"Fee" hid from me for forty-six shows. More of a quirky groove than a well-composed jam, "Fee" isn’t the type of Phish song most fans clamor to hear. In fact, a careful flip through The Pharmer’s Almanac reveals that "Fee" is one of the most overplayed, under-changed, cuts in Phish’s canon; a "Bouncing Around the Room"-like bathroom break for many of Phish’s longtime fans. But, for me, "Fee" was always the north star of the Helping Friendly Book, the elusive weasel that guided me through seven-years and hundreds of nights on the road, trying to figure out how Red Bull and rest stops add up to the American Dream.
In fact, the often-forgotten Junta track holds a special place in my jamband beating heart, as the first Phish song I ever heard. Sometime between braces and my first beer, I heard ‘Fee’s’ catchy chorus on some summer camp counselor’s stereo and slowly began my decent into the jungle of jam-nation. Short, breezy, and full of bizarre lyrics, ‘Fee’ was one of the oddest, most beautiful pieces of music I ever heard – even if it’s storyline revolved around a cool studio sound effect and someone getting slit in the nipple. Detached from its Phantasy Tour stigma, the five-minute ‘Fee’ sounded so innocent and sincere, like a nursery rhythm written once upon a time in Phistory.
A few years later, when I finally got around to purchasing my first Phish CD, I began my quest to find ‘Fee,’ accidentally acquiring A Live One in the process. Young, naive, and unaware that ‘head’ can be used as an adjective, I bought Junta specifically to hear ‘Fee,’ discovering ‘You Enjoy Myself,’ ‘David Bowie,’ and ‘Divided Sky’ only upon a second listen. Over time, I grew to appreciate Phish’s jams more than their actual compositions, earning a college degree, several hundred jam-band ticket stubs, and a nasty caffeine addiction along the way. But, no matter where I looked, ‘Fee’ was nowhere to be found.
While I was waiting for ‘Fee,’ I heard any odd number of true-Phish rarities: ‘Destiny Unbound,’ ‘Iculus,’ ‘The Curtain,’ and more than my share of ‘Fluffheads.’ But, for some odd reason, I always kept missing ‘Fee,’ as if Trey Anastasio himself didn’t deem me worthy enough to absorb his oldest pop ditty.
Nearly fifty show later, I found myself in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, still searching for my first Phish song. Seven month’s since the hiatus’ end, and eight weeks after my collegiate emancipation, I’d used Phish as a roadmap for America. Layering in bits of dark trance and bouncy, bass funk into chord-heavy space, Phish clearly favored a carefully knit medley of sounds over the high school theater high jinks that highlighted their youth. With extra tickets easier to come by than tie-dyed shirts, Phish truly flew under the radar on their way to IT. In fact, Phish seemed so status quo, it was too easy to forget why we were using Phish as our cross- country compass.
Without knowing it, somewhere between Phoenix, AZ and Burgettstown, PA I became a jaded Phish fan. By the time I reached Pittsburgh, I had just seen my 17th show on that tour and, for the first time, everything started to sound the same. The group’s set lists became stilted and a lackluster southern run, deflated the crowd’s positive and peaceful energy like a slowly dying balloon. Even the summer’s strongest moments seemed to fade into memories as we trucked away from the West Coast.
Like all summer shows, Burgettstown began in search of a supermarket. Stocking up all the essential supplies for Phishing: candy, soda, beer, cassette tapes, and sleeping pills, we entered Shakedown Street early. Within a second of entering Pittsburgh’s parking lot, I subconsciously slipped from dorky English major to clichtricken tour mouse. My seats went from being ‘awesome’ to ‘phatty,’ my food from ‘tasty’ to ‘dank,’ and suddenly everything from my wool sweater to my friend’s IPOD was ‘heady.’ A few minutes into Phish’s first northeast show since February, I already felt like I was at a high school reunion. The usual cast of characters were there: the dude who wears his hula-hoop around his head, a Vegan who dresses as Guyute the pig, 200 ticket-less fans, and your best friend’s little brother. Once inside the venue, my cynical instincts kicked in early. ‘ Sample’ opener, Character Zero’ encore,’ I half-hardily joked. Even the thought of yet another ‘Divided Sky’ seemed sedate.
Yet, on this sleepy Pennsylvania evening, Phish finally gave me my ‘Fee.’ One by one, the group rolled out rarities; packing them in so densely it was hard to actually soak in each number: ‘Daniel,’ a mistakenly discarded bluegrass cover kept alive only through Live Phish, ‘Camel Walk,’ original guitarist Jeff Holdsworth’s greatest contribution to the band, ‘Cool it Down,’ a fine moment from the group’s cover of Loaded, ‘Scent of a Mule,’ complete with a mini-mule duel, ‘Timber Ho,’ Phish’s darkest, funkiest early cover, ‘Gotta Jiboo’ the forgotten Farmhouse jam, and ‘McGrupp,’ a powerful souvenir from Gamhedge. Even the slow cover of ‘When the Circus Comes to Town’ was a carefully resurrected rarity, complete with apt phrasing ‘Could have had a chance to get out of this mess.’ Not only were each of these songs rare in Phishtory, none of them had been played previously during this tour, proof that Phish paid more attention to their set lists than skeptics like myself had suspected. Among the first set’s ten songs, only ‘Golgi’ had been played previously during the summer months and that number was incorporated to remind fans of the soon to be notorious ‘ticket-stub in their hands.’ Buried somewhere in the madness was ‘Fee,’ short, simple and strong; a purple heart in a long, set list struggle.
Throughout set break, cell-phones buzzed like bankers at the stock exchange. It seemed so exciting, as if anything could happen. As the rarities continued to roll out, I dug deep and deeper into my cell phone. At one point, I think I woke up my non-to pleased parents to tell them about ‘Harpua.’ But, for those two hours, Phish reminded everyone in Burgettstown that, sometimes, with Phish if ‘you snooze, you lose.’
Perhaps, Burgettstown is the closest I’ll ever come to truly hearing Phish. At 22, I am most certainly one of the ‘younger’ fans Trey referenced on Charlie Rose. In truth, Trey is right. Sure, I’ve seen earlier shows, better jams, and more bizarre sets, but, really, July 29th 2003 included an element of surprise that’s gone the way of Phish’s practice sessions. Phantasy Tour has posted countless threads about why Phish chose Burgettstown to break out so many ‘Fees,’ but the simply reason is, unlike every other Phish show since 1998, Phish actually put some time and thought into their set list. Scrolling through his IPOD, Trey made a conscious decision to break out some of his long-stabled war horses, weaving classics like ‘Camel Walk’ and ‘Daniel’ into a story of inner searching which was ultimately explained during a particularly endearing ‘Harpua.’ Played to a relatively young audience, it was almost as if Phish performed that Burgettstown show specifically for the legion of fans who found Phish in the past six years; the kids who never had a chance to hear ‘Camel Walk,’ ‘Daniel,’ and ‘Harpua’ when they were set list staples.
Phish never wanted their songs to speak louder than their music, as gags like the Tower Jam clearly prove. As a teenager tuning into Phish for the first time, I felt a kinsman ship with each band member; idols for any dorky-kid aspiring to be cool. Always the anti-rock stars, the quartet allowed high-profile shows at lauded venues like Radio City to come off as common place, truly coming into their own when popular culture peered the other way. Thinking back, it makes sense that Phish’s breakup directly stems from April’s trio of shows. While not entirely perfect, each show featured tons of adventurous jams, providing a successful soundtrack for three days of gambling, drinking, and well-timed ‘family’ reunions. Draped over the Thomas and Mack Center’s balcony, banners displaying the words ‘Fluffhead’ and ‘The Curtain’ blew in the wind like retired basketball Jerseys, players whose names have become more powerful than their skills. I often describe Phish’s canon as a balloon which only has one chance to burst. If I’d heard ‘Fee’ at my first show, perhaps that songs would no longer be so special. Looking back, it’s best if Phish bursts their bubble after Coventry this summer. Not because Phish isn’t capable of creating Burgettstown shows every night of the year, but because the band, or at least Trey, no longer are interested in trying.
For younger fans like myself, it’s sad to think that classics like ‘Esther,’ ‘Dinner and a Movie,’ and ‘Sanity’ might never surface again. But, then again, some of these songs weren’t that great to begin with. It’s the chase that’s exciting: the set lists, the stats, and the sense that any songs is, really, fair game. In the world of Phish, part of the fun is knowing that no matter what else is going on in your life, for a few minutes hearing ‘Fluffhead’ is the most import thing in the universe.
One can only speculate what will happen after Phish’s break. But it’s easy to see what will never happen: Phish’s new material will never truly come into its own. A well-crafted, catchy pop song ripe for radio play, ‘The Connection,’ would have sounded threatening in another setting, but now the song sits like a country-rock ‘Let it Be.’ Glancing back, there are so many moments that threatened the purity on Phish: Dave and Friends Tour, ‘Heavy Things,’ Billy Breaths, the ‘Down With Disease’ Video, signing with a major label, moving from Nectar’s to the Front. Each change, I suspect, has been greeted with equal appall and applause. Wondering through the parking lots of Las Vegas, I bumped into more than a few ghosts from my past, many of who seemed more ashamed than excited to have followed Phish so far. Over the years, Phish concerts have expanded in scope and windend in appeal. No longer hippie music, Phish is now a celebration of youth culture.
With any luck, by this summer’s end, I’ll close in at seventy shows. Not a record by any means, it’s a respectable number, a double digit that will earn some sort of respect from the retired fans I will no doubt mingle with throughout my lifetangible proof that I enjoyed my youth. One day, Phish will play again. Perhaps it will be an impromptu wedding gig, or at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction. Maybe, six years from now, Phish might even surface as a full-time project. But for me, and most of the group’s current fans, Coventry will be the last time Phish play "Fee."