Hell yeah, I’m goin’ to Phish

Hell yeah, Fan-belt editor Adam Lovinus is goin’ to Phish.

Decider editor Steve Hyden asked me to make a case why Phish is a great rock band, as I’m going to the Deer Creek (Ind.) and Alpine Valley shows this weekend. Well, here’s my response:

As a music writer, I catch a lot of flak whenever I say Phish is one of the most important bands of my generation. I will concede that the jam band following has some annoying facets – most notably the drug
scene. Not that I’m a prude about psychedelic experimentation, but I’ve seen parking lot culture get ugly too many times – fights, car break-ins and swindling of every variety. So I understand the gripes.

But I take offense when readers let a “scene” override the musical significance of a band. It’s not fair for someone to trash indie rock bands because of the “hipster” element; likewise, it’s unfair for a band like Phish to get pigeonholed into some noodle-dancing “hippie” phenomenon. So here, I am going to show how Phish transcends jam band stereotypes, and why they’re among the most significant bands of the ‘90s.

But before I get into the musical aspects, I’d like to point out that this “jam band” is the ultimate indie rock success story. Basically, they formed as a Vermont bar band comprised of four music school grads
that built a word-of-mouth following with zero radio support, playing bizarre rock compositions too weird for the airwaves. They built their name with an intense touring schedule, playing unforgettable shows across the country. This happened before blogs, when the Internet was in its nascent form, and fans traded bootlegged live cassettes (something the band openly encouraged) via USENET groups. Using this formula, Phish grew to sell out arenas from Maine to L.A.

Now from a musical standpoint, it’s the prog-in-the-Frank Zappa-sense that draws me in. Grateful Dead comparisons are dead wrong. Their first release, a double disc entitled Junta, involves minimal jamming
– tracks like “Divided Sky,” “You Enjoy Myself” and “David Bowie” employ a compositional attitude more akin to Yes than the Dead, with long sections of elaborate, orchestrated rock and highbrow musical humor. On the Picture of Nectar record, they showcase the musical fluency to write and play any genre – bluegrass on “Poor Heart,” straight-ahead jazz on “Magilla” and pure funk on “Tweezer” — all the while maintaining a sound completely their own. “Stash” is the song that best encapsulates the Phish sound: A mix of endearment and braininess that’s at the base of their appeal.

But Phish always make sure to never take themselves too seriously, despite the complexity of the music, maintaining an air of goofiness that makes prog-rock fun rather than pretentious. In a live setting,
they play while jumping on trampolines, perform improvised sections based on beach balls bouncing in the audience, and incorporate vacuum cleaners into jams. They bust into impromptu barbershop quartet
numbers. Hokey? Sure. But it’s this air of fun and games that separates Phish from other proggers who gaze at their pedal boards for the whole show.

Along with the fun and games, it’s the musical precision that makes them great. They’re loose and tight at the same time, with the potential to play every song differently by incorporating intangibles like “vibe” and “feel.” and treat each song as the fifth member of the band. Yes, they “jam.” Sometimes 20 minutes at a time. But it’s always conversational, dynamic and going somewhere. Here’s a good example – the jam section from “Split Open and Melt” from the Lawn Boy record.

And then there are the Phish festivals. At a time when multi-day day festivals resulted in fan riots (remember the ‘90s Woodstocks?) Phish pulled off blissful camp-out festivals that laid the foundation for today’s Bonnaroos and Rothburys. It seemed like an obvious thing to do, but Phish fests were the first to put the focus on fan enjoyment. Beyond having sufficient access to necessary amenities like bathrooms and water, they added a visual art element that made the experience more than a three-day concert. There were plenty of Burning Man-style mindfucks for the psychedelic set – secret 4 a.m. rave parties and after-hours sets played on the back of a moving flatbed truck to name a couple of their best tricks. As a result. Phish fests felt pure and un-corporate, a vibe that modern music festivals emulate. But unlike today’s festivals, Phish could draw crowds of 80,000 – in remote northern Maine nonetheless – with just one band on the bill.

At the band’s initial demise connected to frontman/guitarist Trey Anastasio’s drug problems, after a rain-soaked, mud-crusted, error-laden Coventry festival in 2004, I was actually happy to hear Phish was done. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t miss them – they left a void on my musical palette that no other band could replace. When I heard the recordings from their March 2009 comeback run in Hampton, Va. they sounded tight and full of that same energy that made them the kings of the jam band scene back in their heyday. This makes me excited for the band’s two-night run at Alpine Valley June 20-21. I am hopeful they can recapture the essence that made them the most important band of my generation.


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