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Published: 2009/07/23
by Charlie Dirksen

PHISH 3.0: Quick and Dirty

YOU haven’t been listening to Phish much in recent years. You figured back in October 2000, or in August 2004, that the band had called it quits and, like them, you moved on. Or, perhaps, you didn’t. You still listened to some Phish now and then, some of your favorite sets and jams, some killer Live Phish releases, or even the occasional studio track or two, perhaps from Junta, Rift, Hoist, or Undermind — assuming you even picked it up in 2004. But you were at best a casual listener, and not the true believer or fan you once were.

And then you heard that Phish had regrouped, and that they were going to play three shows in Hampton in March 2009. You knew it would be impossible to get tickets, so you didn’t give much thought to going. After all, you hadn’t really listened to Phish, or even liked their music all that much, since Coventry, or Fall 2000 – or since the Albany “YEM” in December 1995.

The Phish you fell in love with is back. Are they the same band that you fell in love with? Of course not. They aren’t the same as they were in the past. But they sound remarkably familiar.

First, the songs are back. Your favorite Phish songs? They are still playing all or almost all of them, and they are even playing most of them – even the complex ones like “Divided Sky” and “Fluffhead” — quite well. Your least favorite Phish songs? Yes, they are probably playing these, too. Phish has even played a number of rarities this year, including “Mustang Sally” at Bonnaroo (6/14/09) with Bruce Springsteen, and “Destiny Unbound” and “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” at the Summer tour opener at Fenway Park (5/31/09). They also, thankfully, have not lost their sense of humor, as the “Bike” with Fish on vacuum and the vocal jam of “YEM” at Burgettstown (6/18/09) attest.

Phish is also performing several wonderful new tunes this year, and their new album, Joy, is due out on September 8. It is worth your time and trouble to hear some of the finer live versions of these new tunes, such as the gritty “Stealin’ Time from the Faulty Plan” at Bonnaroo (6/12/09), the rockers “Backwards Down the Number Line” and “Kill Devil Falls” at Asheville (6/9/09), the sultry, slowed-down-46-Days-like “Ocelot” at Jones Beach (6/4/09), and the prog-rock opus “Time Turns Elastic” at Fenway (5/31/09). The Alpine Valley (6/21/09) version of Phish’s fragile new ballad, “Joy,” is worth a listen as well. It was apparently written by Trey for his sister, Kristy Manning, who was fighting neuroendocrine cancer at the time; sadly, Ms. Manning died on April 29. Mike’s excellent new tune, “Sugar Shack,” has appeared only once so far this year, at Camden (6/7/09), but this may be due to its complexity and the need for the band to practice it more. Nevertheless, if you are a fan of Mike’s other songs, you should hear this intriguing new tune.

The tight, percussive, thrilling “Rock-Star-Trey” jams are back, too. For example, during the ten hours of music at Hampton, all of the Phish songs typically performed in a straight-ahead, rock-n-roll manner — songs like “Chalk Dust Torture,” “Character Zero,” “Sample,” “Possum,” “Loving Cup,” etc. – were played well. And this practice continued during the Summer tour, which even featured a few surprisingly good versions of certain tunes, like the “Gotta Jibboo” and set-closing “Prince Caspian” from Great Woods (6/6/09), the “Undermind” from Knoxville (6/10/09), that featured a funked-up bass solo from Mike, and the “First Tube” from Bonnaroo (6/14/09). There have been no versions of Phish standards this year that rank among the elite in Phish history. But I believe this is because Phish has set the bar quite high. The “must hear” versions will come again.

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