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The growing world of Phish

By Joel Rosenberg
Staf Reporter

I first heard of Phish years ago when a friend of mine had a colorful sticker on her notebook and raved about the band from Vermont. But I just blew it off. If this band was so great, why hadn't I heard about them?

Fast forward to August 1995. I'm driving home from my summer job, and following a Grateful Dead song, they announce that Jerry Garcia had died of a heart attack. I expected more talk of mass suicides from Deadheads, but instead they filled parks across the country with candle light memorials.

It was that night that Phish started fulfilling their role of heir to the Dead. Their third Elektra release, Rift, had done OK in 1993, as did their 1994 release, Hoist. It was darkly timely release of their double-CD live album in 1995 (appropriately titled A Live One) that got people jumping on the Phish "bandwagon."

It's an amazing bandwagon to be on. Phish formed in 1983 when guitarist/singer/frontman Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman were in school together, and they added pianist Page McConnell in 1986. For years they played small venues along the East Coast, mostly in the Northeast, and worked for the love of the music. Phish has achieved musical nirvana, having worked their way through clubland with a cult following, earning bigger marquis and eventually becoming powerful enough to act as they'd want a favorite band of their's to act.

As the result, they've set a new industry standard, albeit in the tradition of the Dead. The most obvious example of this is Clifford Ball, a two-day, six-set show held last August at a defunct Air Force base in Plattsburgh, N.Y. An orchestra entertained the crowd with classical music, and then Phish did an impromptu set on a flatbed truck at 4 a.m. the second day, waking fans as a moving alarm clock. Clifford Ball II will be this August [see "Concert Dates" sidebar], and other bands will probably adopt this format in coming years.

Phish allows recording at every show, and have special tickets for tapers that allow them to set up microphone stands without distracting other concert-goers. These tapes are traded heavily on the Internet, which is one of the best uses of the World Wide Web I've seen so far. And even though they have a repitoire large enough that they didn't have to repeat any songs at Clifford Ball, or at any of the nine sets played during the Holiday Shows from Dec. 28 to 31 (of which the last two shows were in the Fleet Center), they continue to play covers at every concert, even covering an entire album on Halloween (The Beatles' White Album in 1994, The Who's Quadrophenia in 1995, and most recently the Talking Heads' Remain in Light).

Beyond this, they often try to prevent scalpers from beating the system by limiting the numbers of tickets available, but then allowing people to move around the venue so that groups can get back together. Presumably this is worked out with the arena and event staff beforehand, and probably written into the contract.

So what about the music? It's pretty amazing. They are tremendous musicians with almost 15 years experience playing, and a very diverse collection of songs to draw from, both original and not. None of their music is angry - they were pre-Nirvana grunge (and almost pre-metal, actually) and have generally happy, feel-good music. Some of the songs are darker than others, but they all get your head bopping, and probably other parts of you grooving as well.

Phish's extended jams are part of what make them appealing to concertgoers. Like jazz, it inspires discussions of what the most interesting progressions were, how the different instruments interacted, and where the music went. It also makes people want to tour with the band, as many have taken to doing over the summer, as well as in the fall, and in other countries (tours to Europe, as well as to the Middle East, where Israel has made them popular for their musicianship and Hebrew covers). Phishheads are a lot like Deadheads in that respect (and in others). It's the musical bredth that keeps touring interesting.

Their most recent offering, Billy Breathes, is their most introspective and mellow album to date. Recorded in a barn, away from the public, they've come up with a relaxing collection of tunes that continue to groove. "Free" has gotten the most mainstream attention of any of their songs, and helped put the album at the top of the charts for a while. "Cars Trucks Buses," with its organ and funky bass line, reminds me of one of Medeski Martin & Wood [see "Phish Followers" sidebar], a heavily Phish-inspired band. "Talk" is a song to set your alarm to on Sunday morning, and "Prince Caspain" finishes off the album nicely with an inspiring, uplifiting beat.

If you're looking for a Phish starter album, try Hoist (it's probably the most mainstream and diverse); Rift, the most cereberal (think of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon"); and Junta, their most grassroots (their first release, originally only available at the shows on cassette). But it's tough to go wrong with anything (don't get Surrender to the Air or Dude of Life and Phish if you're looking to check out Phish, however - they're spinoffs).

Everyone has heard of Phish, but many people are surprised when they hear them. "Oh, that's Phish?" If you sit down and really listen to them, you'll see beyond the stereotypes, beyond the "bandwagon," and you'll hear a band that has a lot to offer.