Featured Column:Eight Ideas To Sustain A Phish Reunion
The reunion is nigh!! Well, not really, but the intrawebs were recently aflutter after Trey Anastasio made some comments in Rolling Stone suggesting he found himself willing to offer up his less important left nut (for you women out there, this is the appendix nut, as opposed to the right nut which is irreplaceable) in order to play YEM. I, like many other internet denizens, had my interest piqued by such a statement, as it was perhaps the clearest indication yet that a Phish reunion was more a possibility than a wish.
But one has to wonder if the band, and more specifically Trey, is ready to undertake a reunion, and if so, what if anything will change to deal with the issues that cause the band to break up the first time. Granted Trey recently graduated from drug counseling and is sober, clean healthy and happy, but I wonder about throwing him back in the Lion’s Den. There was more than one reason for the hiatus the first time around, so dealing with the root causes is a bit more complicated than simply eradicating drugs or touring less heavily. The truth is that the seeds of the hiatus were sown as early as 1998, leading to Trey embarking on his first solo tour with the Trey Anastasio Trio but the real impetus was the Millennium concert at Cypress. The band that walked off that stage was not the band that walked on and at that point, we had no idea but it was only a matter of time until they took a break.
When they finally did take time off from Phish, the band members threw themselves into their musical interests and family commitments, but whatever they decided to do, it was something they could not have done within the confines of a band the size and scope of Phish. In that respect, the hiatus was the best thing for them and for many of us whose lives at the time relied heavily on the band for direction felt the same. At the same time, everyone knew they were coming back so it was just a matter of time, and in that respect, the band members were never able to move on from Phish. In essence, they were just biding their time, sowing their royal oats to borrow a “Coming to America” phrase. That is why there were high hopes for the breakup. One wanted to believe that maybe now, with all ties severed, people could move on and establish their own identities and find themselves outside of the Phish dynamic (let’s not forget that it was only during this time period that Mike and Page went on to front bands, something they hadn’t done prior). In his statement, Trey was really trying with all his heart to cut ties with the band and make a new start. Granted, he gave a rambling series of justifications and reasons for the breakup but whatever the reasons, it was clear his heart wasn’t into the music and the band at all. I never understood why so many people were upset with the decision when any astute observer could see it wasn’t until the final series of shows, when the shackles had been tossed off, that the group regained some of their playfulness and actually seemed to enjoy being on stage rather than merely going through the motions, waiting for that bit of magic to come.
So the question now is if Phish gets back together, what can they do to make this reunion stick? Of course nobody knows their situation, their wants and desires, better than the band members themselves, but in an egregious overstepping of bounds, I offer the following suggestions:
1) Record a new album first – I know I’m not alone, but the first thing the band should do is go right into the studio with Steve Lillywhite or Tchad Blake or someone like Brian Eno and record an album with 12 songs nobody has ever heard. Take your time, get it right, and then head out on the road and play the shit out of these songs. While the band may not be writing another “Stash” any time soon, they are still capable of putting out plenty of interesting music that is more than capable of carrying a set.
2) Retire or reduce the appearance of many “old” songs – The great irony of this suggestion is that the old songs are what made Phish, but the reality is that at the time, the old songs is part of the reason the band felt stale. YEM, for all Trey’s longing, has been played at 39% of Phish shows for a total of 472 times. That’s not surprising but it’s also a reason to remove it a bit from the rotation, even an entire tour. Doing so would free up plenty of room for the aforementioned new album, as well as underplayed songs including those from Undermind which never got a chance to grow in the live setting, if they were even played at all.
3) Begin with a few low key shows in Europe – The brief 1997 and 1998 European tours afforded the band the luxury of playing smaller venues, the likes of which they hadn’t played in years and the result was some inspired shows. Why shouldn’t they go back there (or Japan for that matter), playing to smaller crowds in a more relax environment while warming up? It makes complete sense. While the 2002 comeback show at Madison Square Garden featured some inspired jamming, there were more than a few kinks that could have been worked out beforehand.
4) Shorter Tours – Nobody wants to put anyone’s health in jeopardy and if three lengthy tours a year does that, then cut it out. Done and done. There’s no reason the group cannot jump out on the road for less than a month, play a bunch of shows, and then go home for a few months before heading back out again. The days of 100 shows a year are long, long gone and the band should plan accordingly. There is no reason to believe they can’t work back up to longer tours. Hell, bands with members way, way older go on longer tours and play more dates than Phish. But at the outset, take your time and feel things out. Get comfortable, and if it’s working, hit the road for three or six months.
5) Multi-night runs – I can only imagine what a toll it takes on ones psyche to be constantly on the move. Musician after musician has cited the constant touring and associated lifestyle as being the main culprit for depression, drug use or whatever. Phish has always been better at managing this sort of thing but at the same time, its something that one has to deal with in the post-40, family oriented world in which they currently find themselves. So why not schedule an entire tour comprised almost entire of multi night runs? You could pull into the Gorge for three nights, hit Shoreline right after for four nights, make a quick stopover at Desert Sky and then hit Austin and Dallas for two nights each. That’s twelve shows, probably over three weeks, and you’ve minimized travel to a large degree. Ignoring the obvious environment benefits of this strategy, it would go a long way to reducing the strain on both band and crew.
6) Play a few acoustic shows – People have been knocking Phish for years for their “poor” lyrics and songs but the truth is that at any show you go to, the crowd is singing every word. No one is accusing Tom Marshall of being Bob Dylan, but everyone knows every word to “Sample in a Jar.” Acoustic songs are nothing new to the band mind you (see Rd Rocks 96, the Bridge School Benefit or 12/28/98) but the band should take a page from The Foo Fighters’ book. On their recent tour, the band pulled into many cities for a large venue, typical electric show and then followed it up the next night with a smaller, more intimate acoustic show. Now, The Foos have always been attentive to acoustic music and have embraced it to a much larger degree than Phish, but the idea is interesting and I think a lot of fans would be interested to see the band tackle some of their songs in this setting. If nothing else, it would be interesting and exciting and even if it doesn’t work, it’s something new.
Play one set and have an opening act – Perhaps a controversial idea, at least to those who want the most Phish they can get on any single night, playing one set is still something to consider, at least for a little while. To begin with, the list of bands that would want to open for Phish would obviously be quite long and having a hungry band perform right before you, out to prove to all the Phish fans that they are the real deal, would have to light a fire under Phish. With respect to playing one set, now you send Phish out there with 90 minutes to play, straight through, and you could get a very intense set of music that would cut down on the fat ("Albuquerque" anyone?) and focus in on the songs you really want to hear.
8) Be someone’s backing band for a show – When the band was discussing playing a Van Halen album for Halloween, there were discussions about having David Lee Roth come out and play the entire album with Phish. Needless to say this would have been cool as hell but the question is “Why do we have to wait for Halloween for this to happen?” My esteemed colleague and namesake at Relix, Mike Greenhaus, suggests backing David Byrne for an entire show, or perhaps even a mini tour. This idea would of course rely on said frontman being both willing and interested, but under the assumption that there is interest, this could prove incredibly exciting. Phish has a laundry list of bands they’ve covered and stolen ideas from, so why not reach out to those individuals to participate in a show? Could you imagine Phish playing Quadrophenia with Roger Daltrey singing?
Phish is, of course, going to do whatever they want, as they should. But with respect to my ideas as listed above, the band can take them or leave them. I don’t care. What I do want for the band to not squander the opportunity they have. After everything they’ve been through, coming back in a half-assed fashion, without clearly thinking through what they want to get out of it, would be foolish. At the end of the day, my ideas above may be outlined in a column with my name on it. But they came from listening to the group when they spoke.
I don’t want the band members to listen to me, I want them to listen to themselves.