Featured Column:Theme From the Bottom
I can’t remember when the messages started coming. Lately, though, it seems that every four to six weeks, somebody emails me to ask what I think of the latest Phish reunion rumor, to see if I’ve made plane/hotel/rental car reservations to Miami/Philadelphia/Burlington, what I think the opener might be, and on down the line. These are often definitive rumors, mind you: the venues are booked, the dates are locked, it’s really happening, man. And this for a band that purportedly played their last show a year-and-a-half ago, so you know they’re about due to come back. Right?
In retrospect, I don’t think Phish ever actually broke up.
While — like Douglas Adams’ intergalactic rock star, Hotblack Desiato — they’re perhaps spending (at least) a year or three dead for tax reasons, there’s clearly life in the cryogenically frozen specimen. As was reminded during Trey Anastasio’s fall tour, when all three of his perpetual bandmates made stage appearances, the members of Phish remain four guys who enjoy hanging out, even if it’s not on stage. What’s nice to remember is that, even of the thousands of hours of Phish music available to anybody with an internet connection and some harddrive space, it’s still only possible to hear a fraction of the music Phish created together. Most of it — the days and weeks and years of practice, soundchecks, and farmhouse jams — will never be heard, nor does it need to be.
"The dignity of the movement of an iceberg is due to the fact that only one-eighth is above water," Ernest Hemingway once wrote, explaining what made for good writing: for every bit seen, there are another seven parts sunk in Arctic waters. In Phish’s case, they’ve just submerged.
"And that’s cool," The Dude once spake, because as long as two members of Phish appear onstage together, playing Phish songs, it is — for all intents and purposes — Phish (or at least a small surfacing). The dialogue clearly continues to exist, band members necessarily discussing matters of repertoire (such as Anastasio and Page McConnell preserving the surprisingly complex late period "Waves" as a duet, or Anastasio and Mike Gordon maintaining "Chalkdust Torture" as a standby), and continuing to share music with one another (like Anastasio and Gordon debuting the fairly obscure traditional Tim O’Brien cover, "Wave the Ocean," at their Serialpod shows with Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann in December).
If one admits that as Phish music, then it’s the most surprising Phish music in years, and there’s little to complain about. The introduction of Serialpod is particularly exciting, with a deliciously high improv quotient. With actual practice (or repeated gigs), covers of impeccably jazzy pop like Van Morrison’s "Sweet Thing" could turn into real, dynamic music, the perfect meeting of the Phish boys’ chops and the Elvin Jones-fueled free-dance drumming Kreutzmann did during the Dead’s single-drummer peak.
Yes, it seems like Phish are an introspective period, but as long as they continue to collaborate to fuck with Phishheads — as they did in the weeks of Anastasio’s Countdown to Utica ploy — all is well in that small corner of the world. After all, a new prank is as good as a new song, right? It’s all art or conceptual continuity or something.
In fact, considered that way, it’s an awfully fun time to be a Phishhead. It’s a low maintenance obsession, which is a pleasant enough thing for those who thought Phish had run its course by the time they disbanded in 2004. For starters, it’s a lot cheaper (unless you’re predisposed to heading to places like Utica whenever Trey starts getting cryptic), and maybe even more rewarding. Sure takes less time to keep up (which leaves more time for listening to, y’know, lots and lots and lots and lots of music besides Phish). Finding a file of three fairly terrible Round Room outtakes at two in the morning last weekend was actually fun. Go figure!
So, maybe Phish are playing tomorrow/Halloween/New Year’s at the Spectrum/Garden/Brad’s house, but maybe they’re not. If these are your worries, rejoice, because you actually have none. Now go download some old Brian Eno.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com