In Defense Of – Phish

Hi, my name is Pete and I followed Phish in college.

So now that that’s out of the way, I really think Phish deserves an honest shake. As underground music fans, we have a high tolerance for strange forms of music. We love metal bands, and the heavier and denser, the better. We love punk and hardcore because they are generally rejected by the mainstream for their messages and attitude. We love esoteric electronic music because it’s still a new form of musical expression. We like niche groups and scene kids. What about the wooks, guys?

For those of you outside the jam band scene, a wook is a modern age hippy. They generally have white people dreadlocks that we all agree are terrible. They wear skateboard clothes despite not skating and gigantic baggy pants because apparently it’s still 1997 somewhere. And they all smell like nuclear skunks off their meds. And these are the people I go to Phish concerts with.

The band Phish consists of four people: Trey Anastasio on guitar, Mike Gordon on bass, Page McConnell on keyboards, and John Fishman on drums. The four formed Phish at the University of Vermont in 1983, and they have been entertaining hippies ever since.

Personally, I find their music intensely interesting. Many people who might not be familiar with them just assume the group is a Grateful Dead rip off, and nothing could be further from the truth. Phish makes music that most people would describe as prog rock, but they have this interesting blend of rock, jazz, funk, bluegrass, country, folk, and psychedelia. You have to listen pretty closely to hear it all, but it’s definitely there.

This would be a good time to say what Phish isn’t. They are not lyricists. It would be a fool’s errand to derive some kind of deeper hidden wisdom from Phish lyrics. For example, their first real music came in the form of Anastasio’s senior thesis, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday. The project is the story of a Colonel Forbin who steps into another dimension, the Land of Lizards, and is recruited to help the Lizards retrieve the Helping Friendly Book back from the evil King Wilson. And if that wasn’t enough, the band has three songs where they describe giving people paper cuts on their nipples. Any person telling you that Phish changed their lives is not describing the band but rather an acid trip they had while seeing Phish live.

Instead of viewing the lyrics as poetry meant to explain the human experience, Phish use lyrics as a rhythmic device. It is really all about the music for the band, so why should the lyrics take away from that? For example, the song “Cavern” (starting at 2:49) has an interesting outro bridge section with lyrics that just add to the rhythmic march: “Give the director a serpent deflector/A mudrat detector, a ribbon reflector/A cushion convector, a picture of nectar/A virile dissector, a hormone collector”. All of this is said as a chant by the band while they do a Rockettes-style leg kick to the rhythm. It sounds so simple, but it’s hard not to be sucked in when you are experiencing it.

Phish is also not a studio band. While their studio albums do sell pretty well amongst their very loyal following, their success has not been because of their albums. They do have 2 platinum records to their name and several gold records, but that isn’t where their hearts are. They only have one top 40 single in their entire catalog, and most of their songs have never been recorded in the studio. If this is how you would define musical success, put it out of your mind.

Phish is all about the live show. That’s their bread and butter. Any person who’s even remotely familiar with Phish would corroborate that. And it’s not just because they are so entertaining or something. It’s because what they do live cannot be captured on a studio recording. You really have to experience it.

First, the music. The four guys are absolutely incredible musicians. Most would describe them as virtuosos and masters of their instruments. Anastasio, Fishman, and McConnell all have degrees in music, composition for Trey and performance for Fishman and McConnell. The improvisation they perform on a nightly basis is astounding, and the fact that they can all interact musically together and be on the same page while improving is completely bewildering.

Improvisation is the name of the game, too. Many people think that jam bands are just about some guitar player noodling around for 45 minutes, and generally speaking they wouldn’t be wrong. I went to UGA in Athens, GA, and saw Widespread Panic many times. That’s pretty much all they are capable of. But Widespread Panic is not Phish. Phish have mastered a number of different genres and incorporate them deftly into their music. They have even been known to transpose some of their songs into different keys or play songs in different styles. While rare now, this was a common occurrence in their heyday of the 90s.

Given that improvisation is key to Phish’s music, no two setlists are alike. That is exactly why people, including myself, follow Phish to multiple shows. I’ve been to multiple Phish shows in a row where the band happened to play the same song all 3 nights, and it was still different. Every show is different, and it is very common for fans to see them multiple times during a tour. Phish now builds this into their own tour schedules, often booking venues for 2 and 3 nights in a row.

For example, here’s the song “Water in the Sky” from 1997.

Now here’s the same song in 2002. The country-folk feeling is gone and is a faster tempo rock song.

Notice the difference? The first version is the original song prior to its recording on The Story of the Ghost. The second version is much closer to the studio version of the song. Both versions get played live, though the original pre-studio version is much more common. Still, it shows Phish does not shy away from experimentation with their own music.

As long as I’m throwing up YouTube clips, we should talk about how fans find Phish’s music. Accessing Phish live has always been pretty easy…IF you know where to look. Taping has long been associated with the band, and there is a long history of fans proudly bringing in professional-grade recording equipment and trading tapes between fans. Even now, Phish provides venue space for tapers. Phish themselves have tried to capitalize on the magic of their live shows. There are a number of label-released live albums, but the overwhelming majority of their live shows are available for download through their website. Buying a ticket to a Phish show guarantees you a free download of the concert you attended, and all shows are available for download the day afterward.

There is another aspect to the live show that is what brings back fans over and over again. (SPOILER ALERT: This section is going to sound very stereotypical. If you dislike people talking about music who sound like hippies, it would be best if you moved on) Many fans recognize Phish’s lighting designer, Chris Kuroda, as the fifth member of the band. The man is a genius. Everything he does to provide an eye feast for the fans matches the music exactly. He has a lighting rig provides a lighting umbrella for the band. What he has built is actually pretty creative and provides a visual dimension for the band. Any live performance of Harry Hood is testament to this. There is a really great reason why the Phan website has a specific entry for him.

If all of this convinces you to listen to Phish, then you should give Phish Destroys America a listen. Live Phish is really an experience, and there’s no better time in Phish’s career to experience than 1997. This era is known as the “Cow Funk” era, a name derived by Trey Anastasio’s description of the band’s sound. Phish Destroys America, a collection of tracks from the summer of ’97 tour, is easily the best example of this. But by far, Phish’s greatest show was captured on tape for the Madison Square Garden show on New Year’s Eve 1995. When I’m in a musical rut, I put on NYE ’95.

Phish is a band I try to share with everyone. Their music is a great snapshot of not only myself but also an audible party. You can feel the love for music and the atmosphere in any live recording. You can try to listen closely and hear everything the band is doing, or you can sit back and let the groove take you in. Either way, you are not doing it wrong. Now if you’ll excuse me, there were some real crunchy hippies in the lot selling me vegan grilled cheese, lot tees and some interesting glassware that is obviously not for smoking.

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