Featured Column: Thirty Years of Phish
If we set our DeLorean back to 1983 and drove at 88 miles an hour, we could see a world where the Orioles defeated the Phillies in the World Series in games held in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium and Veterans Stadium in Philly. Popular movies were Return of the Jedi, WarGames, Flashdance, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. Apple was about to introduce a computer called the Macintosh. Affordable modems were in the 300-baud range; at that speed text took some time to appear on the screen. Thriller dominates the charts. The reference to Back to the Future that this paragraph started with would be lost on everyone as it would be two more years until that movie came out. In this strange era where you’d have to perform a task called “writing a check” to get money out of your bank account, where you could still buy leaded gas at service stations but you couldn’t pay at the pump, where a year of tuition at Yale was under ten grand, something amazing was about to begin under a rather inauspicious start.
Colleges in the ’80s frequently had fun little cover bands. They’d play some Grateful Dead songs, some classic rock, maybe a Dylan track or two and people would dance and have fun. A new band called Blackwood Convention tried to take that role in Burlington, Vermont. Their first show was on December 2 and it didn’t go too well. Legend has it that their second set was interrupted by the soundman turning up Thriller to drown them out and that one of the guitarists – a man with the unlikely name of Ernest Giuseppie Anastasio III—danced around gloating that they were already paid. It’s not likely that anyone in attendance suspected that they were witnessing the launch of what would be one of the greatest grassroots phenomena in music history, that this band would be able to draw tens of thousands to remote corners of the country without the benefit of radio play or hit singles, that they would redefine what a festival could be and how to sell music.
There first was a period of experimentation. The lineup changed slightly. Jeff Holdsworth was out. Page McConnell was in. The name changed to a pun on the drummer’s last name. Songs were created, broken apart, rearranged, broken apart again, and then reassembled. There was a decision made in fall of 1991 to increase the tempo of many songs; for an example, grab Junta and listen to “Foam” and boggle at how slow it is. It really took until 1992 and the debuts of the Rift songs for Phish to really resemble what they are today.
The early 1990s saw something that we’re likely to never see again. The question that we always wonder when it comes to Phish is what happened then. How did a band go from playing half full theatres to filling Madison Square Garden in six months? Yes they had great songs and they were playing well, but quite a few bands since then could argue the same and they didn’t have that rise. Some like to claim that Phish’s popularity surge was largely (and real cynics claim completely) due to Jerry Garcia’s death, but that first New Year’s run at sold out Madison Square and Boston Gardens was the year prior. More than anything, it’s that Phish were the perfect band at the perfect time.
If you were an improvisational musician and could choose any period to have your peak years, you’d have a difficult time finding a better choice the late 1990s. The Internet was big enough to launch a band that couldn’t get traditional attention, but slow enough that you still had to buy CDs if you wanted to listen to them. Still though, there were plenty of musicians around then, you still needed the talent. What marked Phish in this era was the energy they brought to the shows, the newfound improvisational prowess, and a sense of fun that few other bands were exploring.
Sometimes an artist is so effective at changing the culture that it’s hard to remember when their ideas weren’t commonplace. There always were bands that improvised, but as the Grateful Dead’s sets got more calcified, there weren’t many playing twenty minute songs. As Phish grew, their ideas expanded. Musically their jams stretched out in both length and distance from the structure of the song. Their creativity didn’t end there. Now it’s commonplace for bands to cover others as a Halloween costume, but that’s largely based on the success Phish had with their cover set idea. First covering The Beatles, then The Who, Talking Heads, and The Velvet Underground, these sets did more than entertain the crowd and introduce some to amazing albums. The latter two changed Phish’s sound.
It wasn’t just musical ideas that were added to the mix. New Years’ Eve concerts began to have extra skits. It started in 1992 when (then road manager) Brad Sands was flown around the venue on wires in a famous mockingbird outfit. The following year had a gigantic aquarium on stage that Phish – or stuntmen pretending to be them – slowly dove into to launch the third set. Over the years, they used Van de Graaff Generators, took balloon drops to ridiculous extremes, projected a movie in which the egg evolved into the light bulb, pretended to shoot the drummer through the roof of the venue ceiling, and – most legendarily – flew around Boston Garden in a giant hot dog.
These events were fun, but it was in their festivals that Phish had their most lasting effect. At the height of their popularity, they could inspire 75,000 people to drive to the northernmost point in Maine; to get to Limestone, you got off I-95 a mile before the Canadian border and then drove another 50 miles north on US 1. While it obviously was the music that made people take the trip, part of what inspired the crowd was the attitude of the festival. Between the locally sourced food, the on site radio station that played eclectic music, and the art installations (complete with roving performers who would fire juggle or perform skits), the entire idea of what a festival could be changed. There were big festivals before, but they always had the sense that the goal was to maximize the money flowing from your wallet to theirs. Both through their own festivals, and by inspiring Bonnaroo to have a similar ethos, Phish showed a new path these events could take.
That, more than anything, is the lasting lesson of Phish. It takes a lot for a band to survive for thirty years and even more to survive an event as disastrous as their “final” show in Coventry in 2004. The northern Vermont location had just been ravaged by two massive storms leading up to the event, causing the parking lots to become giant swamps. It became obvious that they’d have to cap the arrival of cars onto the scene, but that announcement only came after people had been sitting along I-91 for 36 hours. The resulting scenario led to people parking their cars on the shoulder and walking upwards of 20 miles to arrive at the show, a scene that would have been touching and amazing had not the music been one of the worst performances the band had ever produced. And yet even after both that and Trey’s bust for drugs, when a return run was announced in 2009, it was an incredibly difficult concert ticket. What made us come back so willingly? It’s the one thing that Phish have always done right.
There have been miscues over the years. Some shows (and tours) are better than others. Some will prefer one of the cover albums to another or think that a song or two (say “Time Turns Elastic” or “Friday” for the more unpopular examples) was a misstep, but what there never has been has been a sense that Phish aren’t acting sincerely. Respect artistic choices or not, but there’s never been a sellout moment; perhaps the closest thing was the appearance on Hangin’ With MTV in 1992, but that was more funny than anything. If there’s a lesson on how to be a band and survive for three decades, it’s simply that.
Fans will argue over what the band should do, critics will mock or rave, commercial success will come and go, but all of that has to be ignored. If what you’re looking for is a hit or two to make a quick buck and then be forgotten, focusing on the consultants is the best way. Over time though that gets depressing. I spent a night in a club in Baltimore in the 1980s watching The Band sans Robbie Robertson stumble their way through their greatest hits set… again. That’s the path Phish have never taken.
If they tire of a song, they put it aside until they feel like playing it again. When they feel like jamming, they jammed. When they just returned and were thrilled to be playing all of these songs again, they ran through 23 different tunes a night. Phish’s success might have been a function of the era in which they emerged, but their rules for making it through three decades could apply to any band.
Be true to your personalities. Play the songs that you’re feeling in the moment to the best of your abilities. Challenge yourself in your songwriting; it’s better to strive and flub than to play easy pieces well and be bored. Listen to other bands and feel free to cover the songs you love. And above all else, treat your fans with respect. That doesn’t mean giving into them or doing whatever they ask, but to give your best effort and to strive to play the best show every night.
What’s Phish’s legacy at 30 years? It’s that they did just that. Their song catalog is interesting and their stunt arrangement fascinating but what they really brought to the table was the idea of being in the moment. “The trick was to surrender to the flow,” might be a line of from Trey’s faux religious text, but it also did define a path to surviving for decades. From their very first show, Phish confounded audience expectations and played what they wanted. It might have not worked that night, but it laid the groundwork for decades of success.
Here’s to thirty years of Phish, thirty years of arguing over their direction, debating which shows (and tours and years) were the best, and finding yet another tease buried in a song somewhere. Phish sometimes feels like less of a band and more of a discussion among fans. Let’s hope the conversation continues for decades to come.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page