A Fan’s Take: Forwards Up The Number Line (A Phish Projection)
Some may well interpret Phish’s return to the stage in 2002 as a lame attempt by a confused group of musicians to breathe the proverbial wind into the sails of a ship that was sinking rather quickly. Others may suggest it was a cunning ruse. Was it actually a coincidence that Trey announced Phish’s break-up a mere 22 days after announcing the release of Undermind the last album Phish was contractually obligated to make for Elektra Records?
Looking back, Phish’s return in 2002 was a smudge of “at best,” with a little of “at worst.” With Phish’s return to the stage impending, yet again, we are now faced with the thousand dollar question: Which band are we going to see when the lights go down on March 6, 2009? Are we going to see a highly motivated, well-rehearsed, group of musicians giving it their all? Perhaps we’ll see another half-hearted attempt at greatness. Or maybe it will land somewhere in the middle. The fact of the matter is that none of us really know. What do I think? I’ll tell you. I think we are going to see the untapped potential of a band that, once upon a time, was the greatest live act ever to grace the stage. That’s right; we are in for a real big fucking treat! Here is why:
I would be willing to bet large sums of money that very few of you have considered this point I am about to make. It will probably shock you. And, at first, you will probably be inclined to disagree. Nevertheless, here it is:
Not one single, solitary Phish fan has seen the band when Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon were simultaneously at or near peak mastery of their respective instruments.
I do not think any of you will dispute that Mike Gordon is absolutely at the top of his game. Truth be told, he was probably the strongest member of Phish when the band called it quits in 2004. Thus, the only part of this equation/hypothesis truly up for interpretation is the playing of Trey Anastasio.
Has Trey peaked? Maybe. Is it possible that he hasn’t? Absolutely. As was the case with the first return, Trey truly is the wild card. His sobriety certainly puts a positive spin on the situation. Will he return to Jedi-form a la 1994-1997? At this point, it is hard to say. But what I can say with a strong degree of certainty is that he is going to be worlds better than he was in 2003 and 2004. He might not reach or exceed peak form again, but I am confident that he will push that boundary. To drive my point home I am going to rely on some simple mathematics.
The only other time in Phish history where I believe that Trey and Mike were at or near peak mastery was in 1997. (Some of you are going to croak at this suggestion. Sorry, and I hate to break it to you, but Mike did not really hit his stride until the end of 1996, or the beginning of 1997). While 97 Trey and 97 Mike were certainly a lethal combination, most fans would agree that Mike has improved leaps and bounds from that time period. His skill, his style and his tone have all improved drastically. So, let us say for the sake of argument that ’97 Trey was an eight and a half of ten, while ’97 Mike was an eight out of ten. That would put them at a combined total of 16.5 out of 20.
Most fans would also agree that as 1998, 1999 and 2000 rolled on Trey’s performances declined, while Mike’s did the opposite. By the end of Phish Part One, I would put Trey at six out of ten, and Mike at eight out of ten a combined total of 14 out of 20. At the peak of Phish Part Two, Trey was, at best, still at six out of ten, with Mike moving up to eight and a half out of ten a combined total of 14.5 out of 20. By the time COVENTRY ended, Trey was around four and a half out of ten, with Mike maintaining his solid eight and a half score. Let’s make a chart
Trey and Mike Mastery Scores 1997 through 2004
As already discussed, Mike Gordon is killing it right now – the dude is peaking. Any score lower than nine and a half out of ten would not only be comical, it would be insulting. Looking forward, it is easy to see that Trey must return to, or exceed, six and a half out of ten in order for my hypothesis to take form. Guess what? I’ll guarantee it. I’ll rubber stamp it. Here is my final prediction for early 2009 (i.e., Hampton and Summer Tour), with the chart completed:
Trey and Mike Mastery Scores 1997 through 2004 (including an early 2009 forecast)
As you can plainly see from the charts, the closest Trey and Mike ever came to being at peak mastery, simultaneously that is, was in 1997. The problem is that in 1997 Trey had started to decline a tad (down from nine and a half back in 1994/1995), and Mike was really just starting to take off. Otherwise stated, Trey was certainly at or near peak mastery in 1997, but Mike was still lagging behind a little bit. Fast forward to the projected 2009 statistics and you will see that Mike is assumed to be at nine and half, while Trey is at seven and a half. It does not take a genius to see the potential. If (and I recognize this is a big “if”); but if Trey can return to near peak mastery (i.e., an eight and a half or higher), we will see a combination more lethal than we have ever seen before.
So, while my numbers are certainly up for debate and interpretation, I do believe I have made my point clear: If Trey Anastasio comes close to returning to formlook out! (But, you already knew that, right?)
That brings me to my next point_Trey Anastasio will return to form!_
Those of you who have battled addiction, or supported a friend or family member battling addiction, should be familiar with the most common approach to recovery the twelve step program. I have no idea what Trey’s drug court program entailed, but I am sure it involved some form of the twelve steps. Regardless, one of the key components to almost any recovery program is making amends to people the addict may have harmed throughout his or her addiction.
Typically, I fall into the camp of people who firmly believe that Phish owe nothing to their fans. Despite some clear ups and downs throughout the first 21 years, they still gave us a lifetime of memories. In the end, that is all I was asking for. I am confident, however, that Ernest Guiseppie Anastasio III feels quite differently about this issue. I think that he thinks he owes it to us. He knows that people were emotionally distraught after the disaster that was COVENTRY. If nothing else, he will try to make amends to the fans for that awful weekend, and the troubled times that preceded it.
Aside from us, it is quite possible that Trey believes he owes it to his three brothers. While it remains a mystery to this day as to what addiction problems other members of the band might have been experiencing as the state of Phish declined, if any, Trey’s addiction issues were by far the most open and obvious. It should go without saying that it must have been incredibly difficult for Mike, Page and Fish to watch their friend and leader hit rock bottom. It must have been equally as frustrating, from a musical standpoint. To that extent, Trey may well feel he owes it to them too.
Most importantly, however, Trey owes it to himself. As hard as it may seem to admit, Trey corrupted the purest thing in his life. Returning Phish to glory is his mission. He will succeed. He must succeed.
In addition to what I call the “making amends factor,” there is also the “proof is in the pudding factor.” Mostly everyone who saw Trey at the acoustic shows over the summer, or at his Northern Exposure tour this fall, agree that he is already a changed man. Not only his guitar playing markedly more focused, but his singing is the best any of us have heard in about a decade. Now, I am not a party to the crowd exclaiming that Trey is the best he is ever been (although you do hear those sorts of rumblings on the internet message boards). But, I will defend to the grave that he is the best he’s been since the very beginning of the 21st century. Is there room for improvement? Sure. Was he playing with musicians who have trouble matching his levels of intensity and musicianship? Abso-fucking-lutely. (For what it’s worth, the last observation is not meant to be a knock on Russ, Ray or Tony, I just think it is only fair to judge Trey after seeing what he is capable of again with Phish). When you add the “making amends factor” with the “proof is in the pudding factor,” and mix in the fact that Trey is legitimately sober for the first time in a long time, all signs point to a reinvigorated Trey Anastasio and, as a result, a rejuvenated Phish.
Despite the above, some of you still might need further convincing. If you are one of those people look no further than the fact that Phish is in great hands with Red Light Management and Coran Capshaw, that they are major record label free for the first time in 17 years, and that Trey accepted with open arms an important and generous gift from his fans. All the proof is there. It’s right in front of you.
Like a lot of hardcore Phish fans, I have walked into almost every show for the past decade expecting very little (including NYE ’02). You see, the band had done such a good job of setting the bar so high that if one came to expect 1994/95-like Phish, say in the late 90’s, you were destined for disappointment. That’s not to say that the band didn’t kill it in the late 90’s. At times they most certainly did. However by the time the first set to January 3, 2003 had concluded, I sensed that Phish Part Two was destined for failure.
Notwithstanding the seemingly pessimistic attitude that has shadowed my feelings about Phish for almost a decade; I will be walking into the Hampton Coliseum on March 6, 2009 as confident as I have ever been that Phish is going to deliver. Why? Because in the end I truly believe that they accomplished everything they had hoped to accomplish when they walked off the stage on October 7, 2000 albeit nine years later. They cleaned up and they cleaned house. They’re not “done.” They are just getting started.
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Let’s get this show on the road. I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours. I’m breathing hard open the door.
Keith Forman (aka JimmyTheGoose) is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island, and the University of Baltimore School of Law. He is currently practicing in Baltimore, Maryland where he also lives with his magnificent wife Stacy, and his dog, Lucy. In addition to Phish, he is mildly (read: madly) obsessed with the Orioles, Ravens and Maryland Terrapins.